#4 in the story serial Don’t Kill Me I’m in Love
“Say, you look like a girl who could use a drink.”
She looks at me with dark soulful eyes. Her frizzy hair is piled on her head in a messy bun, her bangs stuck to her forehead. And it’s not even that hot sitting here in the Verbena Bar, though she’s wearing a leather jacket. A touch of the Latina, I’m thinking.
“No,” she says. “I have a drink. And I’m not a girl.”
I push my lips out into a pout, and cock my head to the right.
“But thank you,” she adds.
She turns back to the newspaper laying open in front of her on the bar. It’s the New York Express, today’s six-page spread on The Lightning Killer. She picks up her glass from the bar and as she reads, slowly brings it to her mouth. And sips.
I stand there, hand on the hip of my blue jeans, still pouting.
This Ronnie Stanski chick knows I’m watching her. She’s looking at the newspaper so hard, eyes down, zoning me out, just her and the highball and the New York Express and the six-page spread on her half-brother.
I look around the room. This used to be a happening bar. Now among the worn wordwork and the pale rectangles on the wall where posters used to hang, there’s just us gals: me, and the bartender in pigtails and overalls wiping glasses at the far end of the bar. There’s an older woman wearing a lowcut top sitting on a stool at the back beneath a sign that says Kissing Booth – raising money for the MILF Fund. But her expression is bored and blank and not there and her shoulders so slumped she’s the perfect poster girl for scoliosis.
And then there’s Ronnie, sitting at the bar, cool girl in her leather jacket.
“Hey,” I say, “have they found that girl, I mean that woman yet, the one you’re reading about?”
Ronnie shakes her head but doesn’t lift her eyes from the page. She sips again from her glass and flips the page over and continues pretending to read.
If she were really that smart, she’d know I’ve been following her for the last three days. Seeing her on TV, recognising the building where she lives, trying to remember which bar I used to go to where she used to go to too. Remembering it was the one with posters of Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova and Bessie Smith and Eleanor Roosevelt and Janis Joplin and Nancy Sinatra and (I think, but I could be wrong here) Nikita Khrushchev, because the Verbena Bar is on Duane Street in Manhattan’s old shoe district.
“Whoa!” I say, “the chill in here is icy!”
“You always start each sentence with an exclamation?” she asks.
“No!” I say. “I mean … jeez! Give a girl – I mean a woman – a break, will ya?” I pout again but it didn’t work last time so I guess it’s a bad move.
Ronnie flips the newspaper closed and swivels on her barstool to face me. “I tried being polite!” she snaps. “I thanked you for offering to buy me a drink, but now I’m the bitch because I want to read my newspaper!”
I stick out my hand to shake. “Torchy Thomas,” I say, and I’m about to add “cub reporter” but I stop after the “cu-” and say “cu-carpenter” instead. And then “carpenter” again, I say, followed by “yeah, I’m a carpenter” and “Yes, I’m Torchy Thomas and I’m a carpenter. Nice to meet ya.” And I stick my hand out further, inches from her face. Even in the half-light, I can see the sweat shiny on my palm.
“Good to know you’re happy with your career choice,” Ronnie says.
She breathes out but her bangs are still stuck to her forehead.
“You can buy me that drink now,” she says, looking at my hand. “I wait tables and I can’t afford another one.”
Hunches pay off. Some of them pay off big time. You know to trust your hunches in the newspaper game.
“Where’d you get a name like Torchy?” Ronnie says. We’re sitting in a booth and she’s looking at me now, direct, over the Dark ‘n’ Stormy highball the bartender in pigtails and overalls gave her after she ordered it and I paid for it.
I sip from my beer. The kissing scoliosis bandit is nodding off on her stool and I can’t see the bartender, so I like to think we’re the only ones here.
“Oh, it’s just a nickname,” I say. “As a kid I was always very” – and I’m picking my words here – “inquisitive and wanting to know stuff has always been a big part of my personality.” I nod, and sip my beer again.
Ronnie runs a finger around the rim of her Dark ‘n’ Stormy. “Is that why you became a reporter?”
I cough. The half swallow of beer in my mouth sprays across the table.
“Yeah, but I’m a carp –”
“I just had a hunch,” she states.
Ronnie watches as I pull a napkin from the dispenser and pat down the beer pools on the table.
“The name Torchy and you look like a newspaper reporter and the fact you’ve been following me for three whole fucking days.”
Ronnie watches as I pull another napkin from the dispenser and pat down the beer smears left over from my attempt at patting down the beer pools.
I’m thinking, thinking, thinking while I swirl the napkin around.
“Wipe up any more and there won’t be any pattern on the table left,” Ronnie says.
“But there’s no pattern on the table anyway –”
“I know,” Ronnie says, grabbing my hand, squashing it down. “Stop it.”
I look into her eyes. I can’t stop looking into them. And she knows it.
Then she bites her bottom lip and her grip on my hand loosens a little.
“What are you thinking?” I ask.
Ronnie pulls her hand into her lap and sits back against the backrest.
“Did you see me on TV?” she says. “Did you recognise me from some old bar you used to go to? Did we fuck sometime and you’re looking to relive some moment I don’t remember? Is that it? Fucking the Lightning Killer’s half-sister?”
Gee, those eyes, like dark flashing pools, you can’t see the bottom.
“Because I don’t know any more than you do,” she says. “The Lightning Killer is not shedding any light on anything.”
She’s bolting up Duane Street towards West Broadway, frizzy hair bobbing on top of her head, leather jacket puffing out behind her. Great! We’ve just met, my new shoes are rubbing against my ankles and already I’m chasing after her.
“Wait!” I call out. “I can’t run after you, I’m wearing new shoes!”
Cars whizz past so she pulls up short at the curb.
I catch up to her. I’m inches from her side. My hand grabs my waist, I’m squinting like I’m in a lot of pain, huffing. I even purse my lips a little.
“You’re wearing canvas Keds,” Ronnie says, looking down at my feet. “You’re not supposed to run anywhere wearing those, they’re strictly ornamental.”
“Look,” I say, “I feel like we got off on the wrong –”
“Who sent you?” she asks. “Who sent you, Torchy?”
I sigh, and look at my feet. I look at them for way too long because I can’t look her in the eye right now.
Then I look at her feet. She’s wearing big leather boots but I imagine inside them, her feet are slender and fine and possibly lightly golden tan.
“Okay, I work for the New York Trumpeter, but no one sent me.”
“I knew it!”
Ronnie spins away from me and steps off the curb. I grab the cuff of her jacket, just as a cab screams past, horn blaring.
Ronnie wrenches her arm from my grasp. “Quit stalking me! I have to go work!”
Her head swivels from shoulder to shoulder, from street corner to street corner but stranger things happen in the neighborhoods of New York every second: everyone is looking in other directions.
“I don’t know anything about where she is,” Ronnie says. “I don’t and I wish I did.”
A breeze blows up from the Hudson River and her bangs flutter, just a little. I want to reach out and smooth her bangs across her forehead again and put my arm around her and look into her eyes and tell her something that will make me look good and make her feel like she wants to be with me.
But I stand still instead, on the corner of Duane and West Broadway. And looking right into her eyes, I say, “I think I can help you find her.”
This story follows on from Half-Sister - #3
This story continues with Reply Hazy, Try Again - #5
published 28 March 2015