This is a short story by Bertram Allan Mullin.
Miles never would’ve imagined that tonight his life would be on the line. He was ordinary. Grab the box. Pack products. Repeat. Get paid. Sleep. Get a day off in between. Life was cut and dry. “Work until you die,” he’d say.
“Impressive, boy” said Parker. “So, what you gonna do tonight—get you shuteye?”
“You know it.” Miles reached his hand in the air to give Parker a high-five.
There was no reciprocation. “You twenty-eight, right?”
“I don’t gets it. Yous handsome, have a decent paying job and whatnot. So—”
“When you gonna find a girl? Get you some.”
“Long story. See, after my—”
“I ain’t got time for no long story. An excuse all it is. Two days off per month, your only opportunity. I got me a misses. Kids. What you gots?”
“A have a beta, they’re—”
“I don’t care about your strange fetishes. Go out tonight. Talk to a girl. Ask her questions about herself. It makes ’em feel all-important and whatnot. Buy her a drink. Insist. Light her cigarette if she smokes.” Parker handed Miles a zippo with an emblem of a saxophone and trumpet on opposite sides. “You’ll need my lucky zippo. Don’t go losing it now. You hear?”
“I don’t even—”
“I’m not done talking. Learn to be patient. Count to three in your head if you have to when someone takes a breath between sentences. You interrupt a woman and you fail right away.” Parker watched Miles. “Good. Now, after you two chitchat, don’t matter how long, just as long as it takes for you to feel comfortable askin’, you ask her if she wants to go to her place. Then you say there’s a movie playing on cable you’ve been dying to see. Say you’d like to watch it with her.”
“What if she doesn’t have cable?”
“Count to three.”
Miles put a box on a crate and waited for Parker to continue. “The movie don’t matter none. The channel don’t matter none. All that matter is you two is gonna be in a room alone. She’ll know what ‘movie’ means.”
“Good. I don’t have a clue.”
“Seriously?” Parker hesitated. “You work too hard. Just wait for her to respond with, ‘I’d like that.’ What they mean is, ‘Let’s get it on.’ You hear me?”
“You’re right. I work too much. I just—”
“I understand. I was like you once. But my woman saw me at the grocery store some twenty odd years ago. An employee was right next to us in the paper towel aisle, and the misses asked me to reach something for her even though the clerk was my height. I’m grateful that boy knew she was hitting on me and didn’t reach for the towels himself. Gave me the opportunity I needed to see what was right in front of me.”
Miles messed with his unkempt scruff.
Parker handed him a piece of paper with an address. “This a new jazz club. All the kids go there. Get changed, go there, and remember to smile, boy.” Miles received a pat on the back as he left work.
Being in his mid-twenties, Miles was skeptical people his age listened to jazz. He believed only older guys like Parker enjoyed it. But when he got there the place was booming jazz music and crowds of people his age sat around listening to a singer. Miles had shaved his face, put gel in his hair, and wore his favorite button up. He kept scratching at his scalp. His nerves were so shot he thought his curly hair was sharp enough to cut him.
The woman singing stole his attention. The song was magic. Couples zinged around the multicolored tiles. Miles could have sworn the singer looked right at him to show a grin.
When the song ended, the woman headed to the bar.
Miles couldn’t take his eyes off her. She had a big sparkling smile and a yellow flower dress with heels the same color.
The bartender had a glass of water ready for her.
Miles was tired when he first came to the club, but her beauty woke him up. He began to approach her to ask her to dance. Her eyes and his met. Those were the friendliest crystal blues he’d ever seen.
A guy twice his size stepped in their way. Miles faced the man’s muscle-filled back.
Miles turned, defeated. Women liked dark, handsome, and tall men after all. His head came up to the man’s shoulder blades. He shrugged his shoulders and rushed toward the patio to get some fresh air. A falling star passed over a bed of clouds. His mom used to tell him they granted wishes. He wished the singer would walk outside, approach him. Like the magic from the song . . .
“Could I get a light?” she asked.
“You smoke? But you’re a singer.”
Miles palmed his cheeks. “I’m not that old.”
“I meant the lecture. Still, I was crass. Thanks for caring. I only smoke one cigarette after I sing. Habit. My sensei often tells me to quit.”
“Do you have a light?” Her luscious lips held the cigarette. Miles pulled out the zippo. She lit up and inhaled. “Thank you. I hope the smoke doesn’t bug ya. I hate the smell myself.”
“Doesn’t. My mother smoked.”
“Just visited her graveyard today.”
“I watched her when it got bad. I should change the subject.”
The woman sat close to him and smoked on. “No, go on. How’d it happen?”
“Cancer. Ma said ‘If it was going to kill me, I’ll enjoy myself,’ so she smoked and drank.”
“Her illness was why I dropped out of college, started working fifteen day shifts, fifteen freaking hour a day.”
“Fifteen freaking hours you say? I can relate.”
“Oh, does music take a lot of your time?”
She rubbed her neckline. Her smile made his heart skip beats. “I don’t work here. I sing here every Saturday night. One song. A lot of people come here to do it. Have you not been to this club before?”
Miles shook his head. He noticed the big guy from the bar glare at them. “Is that your boyfriend?”
“Gorelick? God no. But every time he asks me if I want to have a drink with him. I think he comes here to see me. At first I thought it was flattering. To be honest, I almost asked him out once. Then . . . he played the sax.”
Miles cackled. “It couldn’t have been that bad.”
The guy glared at them, punched a wall—denting it, and stormed off. Miles felt his arm hairs stand at attention. Fear consumed him. Then the smell of the cigarette took him back to the moment. This interesting woman talking to him, not the other guy whom minutes ago he’d envied. Parker once told him “Envy’s stupid.” He saw why now.
“People like Gorelick shouldn’t touch instruments. They make jazz—all music—look bad.”
“Wow. You love jazz. Huh?”
Then he got nervous. “I do. I mean. I’m just not obsessed. At any rate, I won’t play the sax around you. Wouldn’t want to turn you off.” He held a hand to his mouth.
“I didn’t mean to sound conceited. Gorelick plays the instrument like it’s a plumbing pipe. Someone learning tries. That’s different. He’s one of those guy’s who picks up an instrument so he looks good. There’s no passion behind his melody.”
Miles moved sweat from his forehead. “I can’t play anything. I can spin and pack a box of chips faster than anyone else at the factory.”
“To save time they have us spin them and fold simultaneously so we can place them on the pallet at the same time. We save two seconds per box, which comes to about two hours per workday. Time is money.”
“Wow. You sound like you love your job.”
“Not really. It’s more of a thing I do out of habit.”
She put out her cigarette. “You want to grab a drink?”
“I would, but I don’t know your name.”
“Kelly.” She shook his hand and her eyes seemed to smile.
Her glance sang.
“Charmed,” he said.
“A master box spinner and a gentleman. Lucky me.” She presented her elbow. “Shall we?”
Miles hooked his arm around hers. At the bar, ordered drinks. He pulled out his wallet to pay. Her hand met his.
“No, no. Let me,” said Kelly. “You work all those hours. I insist on doing something nice for you.”
Miles shook his head and handed the bartender a twenty-dollar bill. “Keep the change.” He grinned at Kelly. “I insist.”
She grimaced. “I’m not thirsty anymore. It was nice to meet you.” Kelly left Miles with the martinis. He slumped out of the bar soon after with his hands in his blazer pockets thinking about what could have been had he listened like Parker had told him.
As Miles sulked, he heard Kelly yell, “Look, Gorelick, I’m not interested. I’ve told you a hundred times. Back off.”
Gorelick cornered Kelly against a brick wall. “Just one date. You was talkin’ to that other guy. Why don cha ever give me no chances?”
“I said, no.” She shoved at his chest. “Stop blocking my way or else.” She balled her fists.
“Tell me why!”
“Hey!” Miles charged. “She said, ‘no.’ Women deserve our respect as equals. They aren’t property. They’re people.”
“Aw.” Kelly sank into his words.
Gorelick walked over to Miles. “A brave little lion, are ya?” he said and punched him right in the eye. “That’s how I deal with your kind.” Miles went down, hard. He couldn’t get up for the life of him. His vision went blurry.
“Don’t touch my lion,” he heard before Kelly ran, jumped, and landed her knee into Gorelick’s sternum. Miles rubbed his eyes to make sure this really happened.
The big guy stumbled back. Yep, that’s what he saw.
Confusion stained each face.
Kelly trusted her palms in a defensive motion and bent her knees.
Miles shook his head in disbelief, and saw the sweet young lady in a yellow sunflower dress sweep Gorelick from behind and to the ground. She stepped back lifted one of her knees into the air.
Gorelick jumped up, surprised, and approached her. “What the—” he received a punch to the gut. “You hit like a girl.”
“But I kick like a woman.” Her foot swung between his legs. As Gorelick bent down, Kelly extended her knee into his chin. Gorelick turned one-hundred-and-eighty degrees into the brick wall and slid to the ground. “And stay down.”
Kelly helped Miles to his feet. “Are you okay?”
“Muay Thai. I have a third degree black belt.”
“So, what do you do when you’re not singing?”
“I fight in underground death matches. They call me, ‘Contra Divine’ because anyone who fights me opposes their mortality. I’ve killed three opponents, once a man in an exhibition match a few months back. Don’t worry. He was a chauvinist ass hat and had it coming. Spectators put up more money when they think someone’s going to die, so I like to keep them guessing and take out an opponent here and there. What can I say? People love blood.”
Miles counted the longest three seconds of his life.
Kelly giggled, nervously. “Kidding. Oh my, God. You looked terrified. I’m an accountant. I take Muay Thai and have dabbled in other forms of martial arts, but only for self-defense.”
“Ah. I have black belts, too. Holds up my pants.”
She laughed louder than the joke was funny.
Miles smiled, but he held his pain-ridden face.
“I have some frozen peas at my house with your name on them. The least I can do for my brave lion.”
“By the way,” added Kelly, “while we’re there, would you like to watch a movie?”
He took her hand. “I’d like that.”