The boardwalk is eerie at night without all the tourists. Most of the businesses are shuttered and dark. A fog is drifting off the ocean and I can hear the unseen waves crash onto the beach. Ahead I see my beacon, a brightly lit marquee and I rush towards it away from the darkness. The usual doorman is gone. I pull the heavy handle and admit myself to the warmth. A host stands at his podium folding linen napkins. His expression is tired and bored. He glances up at me.
“He’s expecting you upstairs in the office. I trust you can find your own way,” he says. His tone isn’t friendly, but indifferent which I guess is better than angry. I hurry past him through the empty dining room towards the stairs. I let my wool coat slip off my shoulders and I free myself from it, hastily tossing it over my arm.
Upstairs a bartender wipes glasses. He nods at me, but doesn’t say a word. The silence of the place is oppressing. It’s strange to see it so solemn when it’s usually packed with boisterous revelers. I pause with my hand on the doorknob. I’m already breaking out in a nervous sweat.
I take a deep breath and slowly exhale as I count 1…2…3…4…5. I decide it would be better to knock and I rap with just the knuckle of my pointer finger, softly. I’m not sure if it can be heard inside. The latch clicks and a woman swings the door open. A cigarette dangles carelessly from her hand.
“Well, you certainly kept us waiting,” she commented. Her voice was low, more like a purr than speech.
“Caroline,” I nodded in greeting as I timidly squeezed past her into the office. Two men sat facing each other across a desk. The boss stood up and pulled the cigar out of his mouth. The other man sulked in his chair.
“Thank you for seeing me, Mr. Sicero. I thought it might be better to explain in person,” I said. I had rehearsed my opening line the whole way there. I cautiously hung my coat on the rack next to his fedora.
“It’s nice to know you’re still among the living, Loll. We were getting worried,” Sicero motioned to the other vacant chair across from him. “Micky, get Loll a drink. Don’t be rude.”
Micky O. scowled and pushed himself to his feet as Sicero seated himself. Caroline perched herself on the corner of Frank’s desk. Micky walked to the back of the room.
“Whaddya want?” he asked brusquely. I had barely seated myself and sort of bounced awkwardly to face him. He wasn’t smiling.
“Oh, um, bourbon if you have it…on the rocks,” I replied nervously. I waited in the silence as Micky poured my drink. Sicero was staring at me. I think he only blinked once, but I can’t be sure. I’m too nervous to hold eye contact. The next thing I knew Micky’s hand was at my eye level, holding out a low ball glass. I took it, the ice clinking with the slight shake of my hand and I took a sip. At least he still gave me the good shit, I thought. I can’t be that bad off.
“So? What the fuck is going on here, Loll?” Frank asked bluntly. His words cut through the heavy, smoky air. “I’m trying to run a fucking business!”
“I know, F-Frank, I mean, M-mr. Sicero, I-I r-really .” Damn it, I’m stuttering again. I cover my mouth for a moment and try to think about what I want to say first. Micky O. still hasn’t resumed his seat next to me. He stands slightly behind me on the edge of my periphery. It makes me really uncomfortable. I don’t look at Frank when I speak.
“I’m here to apologize for my absence. Th-there has been some personal shit that I had to deal with,” I enunciated carefully.
“Four months, Loll, four months. That’s how much business you’ve cost me with your personal problems. I got no customers, Micky O’s out at the Farm twiddling his thumbs…What about Caroline? I thought you were friends. Hell, I thought we were friends,” Frank growled, “What the hell was so important that you just fell out of touch so suddenly?”
“I’m getting a divorce,” I blurted. The three of them stared at me. I took another swig of bourbon and shrugged. “I had to stay rooted in reality for awhile and get things in order. I know it’s completely unrelated to what we have going on here and it really shouldn’t have impeded my work, but it’s not like I didn’t think about you. It’s not that I didn’t miss you, but the words…they just weren’t there.”
“So you missed us, huh,” Micky sneered. I turned to see he had his arms folded across his chest.
“Yes, I did, Micky,” I replied. I knew he was trying to incite me. I took another drink and waited for him to continue as I knew he was dying to.
“Who the fuck is this Gilles?” he snapped.
“Nobody to concern yourself with,” I sighed as I set down my glass. “He’s in a different time, and a different place and serves a different purpose. You know that…there are others.” I got up from my seat and went to stand in front of him. I put a hand on his crossed arms and whispered, “You know, you’re the one I missed most of all, right?”
Micky looked away and shook his head.
“You were always on my mind,” I gave his arm a light squeeze.
“I could’ve taken care of him for ya, then you wouldn’t have to worry about putting things in order,” mumbled Micky. I can’t help but chuckle.
“Oh Micky, you’re crazy. That’s what I like about you!” I was starting to feel like my old self around them, “Murdering your spouse is not always the answer, Micky. I couldn’t do what you did.” I turned back and saw the furrowed brows of Caroline and Frank. I laughed and went to resume my seat. The bourbon must be kicking in.
“Sorry, I- you guys don’t know…Micky strangled his wife, but you know being Catholic with two kids…he couldn’t very well get it annulled, could he?” I was laughing again. “Sit down, Micky, you’re making me nervous!” He sheepishly obeyed, as well as picked up my drink and placed it back in my hand.
“Sláinte,” I raised the glass to him and took another sip.
“Loll, stop fucking around!” Sicero snarled. The tone of his voice immediately sobered me.
“Give her a break, Frank,” Caroline cut in. “She had man troubles, but things are going to get back to normal now, aren’t they?” She gave me a very steady look and I slowly nodded as I picked up her lead.
“Yes, they will. I mean we almost have part one wrapped up. We need to start filling the gaping holes in part two. My problem is that I keep thinking of things way down the line and I don’t want to share those quite yet. It might spoil it for the reader,” I said. I tried to gauge Sicero’s expression. He sighed.
“As long as we start seeing some progress,” he grumbled. “I hate to admit you have my hands tied.”
“Well, I know you and I know what you want to do to me right now…and you could…” I should not have said that, I thought as a vision of a black bag being snapped over my head, my hands and feet tied, and being uncomfortably carried to a spot where I could hear the ocean lapping the pier below me. I’m sure they’d tie me to something heavy before finally pushing me over the side. “But you know what? We’re partners and no one gets ahead without the other,” I concluded.
“Next time you have personal issues…do it on your own time, not mine,” Frank was stern as he jabbed his cigar at me. I knew he was serious. I gulped the remainder of my glass.
“Well, it’s been nice, but I have a lot of work to do.” I rose from my seat. Micky reached the coat rack first and tossed my coat over his arm. He held the door open for me and closed it behind us.
“You don’t mind if I escort you home, do you?” Micky asked.
“Oh, you know it doesn’t work like that, Mick,” I said. He knowingly nodded and still offered his arm.
“Just to the door then.” I put my hand in the crook of his elbow and we started for the stairs. The bartender had left his post.
“So I have to ask…” Micky began quietly. I braced myself for the usual request for insight into future plot turns. “About this Gilles…” I rolled my eyes.
“Micky, I have a lot of other stories. Some are short, some are long…” I gave his arm a reassuring squeeze. “But the thing is none of them have any effect on the others. You are all my children, my friends and lovers.” We started down the stairs with an awkward jostle until we found our stride.
“I thought you forgot about me,” he murmured.
“Psht! How could I do that?” We weaved through the empty dining room tables towards the door. I looked at him. “I’m still allowed to have favorites, you know.” To my surprise, he blushed. “Don’t get cocky though,” I warned him as we neared the door, “That doesn’t mean you’re immortal.” Micky frowned. We stopped in the foyer and I turned to face him.
“Cheer up, Mick.” I brushed a hand along his cheek. I turned around and he helped me with my coat. I fussed with the buttons longer than necessary and when I finally looked up he was still quietly staring at me.
“I have to go, Micky,” I said and pointed at the door behind him. He didn’t move right away.
“I know,” he said as he continued to stare at me. It was the same expression my Dieter used to give me when I went to work. I bit my lip.
“I need to go,” I whispered. I left out the ‘it’s almost 6AM and I’m about to get off the night shift.’ He finally took a few steps backward, releasing me from his custody. I hurried to the door and stopped. I could see his reflection in the glass watching me. I turned to look over my shoulder at him.
“It’s fine, Loll,” he said with a weak, insincere smirk, “Till we meet again.”
I didn’t respond. I couldn’t. I pushed on the door and ran. I ran all the way back to reality. Hit Command+S and shut my laptop. I forced a smile and said, “Good morning!” to the guys from the day shift, who are none the wiser to this confusing silent ache I have inside me.