My heels crunched on the loose asphalt. Puddles left from rain earlier in the day reflected the streetlights and October full moon. The sounds of classic guitar and a steady beat from the live band playing old-school country music got louder as I approached. I felt my lips curl into a half smile as my hand grabbed the old iron handle on the wooden front door.
The lights were dim and the air smoky. Wide plank wooden floors bore scuffs and scrapes from bar stools and boots. Two men played pool at one of the two tables in the corner. On the opposite side of the room three guys sat on stools on a small corner stage, all with guitars harmonizing a George Straight song. Neon beer signs tossed colored light across their faces and instruments.
The bar wasn’t crowded, but not empty either. It was comfortably full. A long chest-high wooden counter jutted out of the center of the room in a u-shape. Empty seats were sprinkled intermittently along its length. I chose one closer to where the band was playing, leaving an empty seat on either side of me.
The perky bartender in short cut-off jeans had to be under twenty-two. You don’t pull long nights and still have nice skin without the benefit of youth. She perched her elbows on the bar and asked, “What can I get ya?” with a Crest White Stripped grin.
“Vodka soda, tall with lime,” I said.
She turned and reached for a clear glass tumbler and began mixing my drink. The beauty of a vodka soda is, not only is it low in calories, refreshing and impossible to mess up, but it only takes a few seconds to make.
I took a sip. Then another. Then one more, longer sip. I leaned against the back of the bar stool and sighed. I could see my reflection in the flaking mirrors behind the bartender. I still looked wound up, the remnants from my workday clinging like barnacles. I finished my drink and ordered another.
Someone, I’m guessing the young bartender, had attempted to decorate the bar for Halloween. A few oversized tarantulas hung with colorful bras from the ceiling. Along the counter, small plastic cauldrons glowed with orange light. Gray velvet skulls accompanied the cauldrons and completed the attempt.
Half way through my second vodka soda I looked to my left. I was starting to feel the alcohol take the edge off. One seat over sat a guy in a brown jacket, jeans and camouflage baseball cap. Next to him was a nondescript brunette and next to her another guy. Their body language said that the girl and guy further down were together, leaving the camo-hatted stranger available.
One of the gray velvet skulls rested on the counter between us. Without thinking, I reached to touch it, enjoying the texture under my fingertips. He glanced down at my hand, stroking the skull and looked at me.
“Don’t be rubbin’ on my skull,” he said in a soft Southern drawl.
“Oh? And when did you call dibs on all the good-feeling decorations?” I said.
He laughed, not loud, just a quiet chuckle, and twisted in his seat toward me. The cap was pulled low over his eyes, but I could still see them twinkling. He had a full beard, cut close and neat that looked brown in the dim lights. It was hard to judge his height with him sitting, but I guessed him to be about six feet tall. He had broad shoulders and nice large hands.
“What brings you out tonight?” he asked.
I looked around and noticed a baseball game on the flatscreens flanking the bar counter.
“I didn’t want to watch the game at home alone,” I said, internally pleased with my improtu excuse. Though I was new to walking into a bar alone, I knew you didn’t tell the good-looking stranger that you’re out because you were in an indefinable mood.
“Well, I’m glad you came out. My name’s Stephen,” he said, holding out his hand.
I turned more towards him in my seat and shook his hand. The guy and girl declared themselves to be Mandy and Ricky. The four of us briefly chatted about the game. Would they pull through? Would the first baseman do his dance in the dugout?
I’m not sure when Mandy and Ricky left the conversation and began talking to each other, leaving Stephen and I chatting with an empty seat between us because, by that time, I was on my third drink. I reached again for the velvet skull when Stephen flicked the diamond solitaire on my fourth finger.