he sees the girl through the crowd. Even in the dim lights of the club, she can pick her out. It’s that stupid winged Viking helmet that gives her away. Funny how the past can cut through the haze like a razor.
They finish off the set with The Thrill is Gone. She purrs the last words, letting her lips wet the mic, as Al plays out the song. There’s some clapping, not as much as there used to be, and one annoying asshole whistling at the bar. She puts the mic back in its cradle, running one hand down the stand like a lover’s spine. It should be her moment. It is when you really win them over, but the club’s already refilling with noise. She looks back at the guys. Al just shrugs. He used to say “Nobody leaves this place without singing the blues.” Now he was the first one packing up. She’s not sure if they’ll play another set.
She looks for the girl as she makes her way off the stage. She moves through people like water and puts one foot up on the rail. Pruitt slides a fat ounce of bourbon in front of her, one rock. He’s got a bar towel over one shoulder, bone white and ironed crisp. It takes the attention away from his claw hand. “That’s the last of your rider, Chris.”
“This is my first one.”
He jabs his chin at the room. She knows it, too. It’s a one drink crowd. Even for an old friend.
She scoops up her bourbon and minnows back through the crowd. Nobody high fives. She searches through faces as she moves. They’re all familiar faces but no one she knows. She puts a dart in her mouth but doesn’t light it. All this clear air is just killing the blues.
The steel door bangs open as she steps out into the alley. A deep dish Chicago rain rattling down through fire escapes. She lights the cigarette and leans back against the brick.
And there she is. Long strawberry hair, matchstick legs. All grown up but still a little girl to her.
“You still wearing that thing around?”
Sara snatches the silver helmet off her head and laughs. “I pulled it out of storage. I was at a costume party.”
"What’re you doin here?”
“I came to see you play.”
Nobody she knew came to see her play anymore. Babies and marriage and mortgages and old friendships die in that slow sagging way, so you don’t even notice. But she lets the lie sit.
“How’s your brother?”
“Oh, good.” Sara tucks her hair behind her ears and stares down at the rain splashing off the pavement. “He just got divorced.”
“I thought he was already divorced.”
"Yeah, and now he is again.” Sara giggles. “You should give him a call.”
She tries to laugh with her, so they can share the moment. But the sounds rub up against each other like sandpaper. Then Sara’s laughter puckers up quick and she can feel a shift.
“I was wondering, Chris.” But Sara doesn’t finish the question. It hangs. She’s holding the helmet with both hands, turning it slow. It reminds her of those old cowboy movies her dad used to watch. Men holding their hats at a funeral for the sheriff. When the good passes on.
“And what’s that, kiddo?”
Sara breathes in and her mouth sets into that stubborn line, a posture so familiar that all of a sudden she can see her as that little girl. Her and her brother in their little desert island suburb and all those late nights babysitting.
“I was wondering if I could score some E off you.”
It’s like a punch in the stomach. No. Like a skewer straight through her guts, the guts of all her years, pinning her and every past version of herself against that brick wall.
She leaves the girl there, behind her, and pushes back through the doors into the heat and noise of the bar. Somewhere in there she’ll find the boys and she’ll drag them back on stage. Forget the covers, she’ll sing something that means something. She’ll sing the blues. Maybe they’ll listen this time. Maybe she’ll never leave.
Remember when you were a minipop, and you saw that film, you know, the one you loved that never had a sequel? Well, let's say it did. And it was just like you imagined it, only a little bit worse.