Fiction: Rialto’s Women
The music playing-what is it called? It’s called chill, not cold not warm but chill, soft beats and harmless melodies. Lounge music. God, it’s loud.
“I’m going to get my hair cut tomorrow,” Bree said.
“My hair cut.”
Bree had brown eyes.
Standing there in your blue blazer and khakis, white shirt, red tie, holding the longneck of Bass in your left hand, half-finished cigarette in your right. All around there are people smoking and drinking, and talking and laughing and drinking, and shouting and giggling and screaming and drinking, and hugging and kissing and petting and smiling and drinking. All in the dark.
“Where?” Bree asked.
“Over there. Next to the guy in the striped shirt.”
“The lime green one.”
“I said, no, Johnny, that’s not her.”
“I said I’m sorry.”
“For not hearing you.”
Bree took a sip of her vodka soda.
“Thank you,” she said.
Bree had brown eyes and short hair. A nice face. People divided faces into three categories: hot, nice, and busted. Hot was self-explanatory. Nice was passable but not quite hot. Busted was hideous beyond all human recognition. There was a fourth category: the two face. The two faces looked nice from one angle and busted from another. The good face on a two face was always nice, never hot. The bad face was always busted.
“How about her?”
“The one over there.”
“By the bar. Smoking.”
“Nope,” Bree said. “Sorry, Johnny.”
“She’s got to be somewhere.”
“Did she tell you she was coming?”
Gulp of beer.
“Why do you think she’ll be here?”
“I’ve seen her here before.”
“So you’re stalking her.”
Bree held her hand up and took the cigarette and put it to her mouth and inhaled. She swallowed the smoke, kept it in for a few seconds too long, then exhaled and passed the cigarette back. “I used to feel dizzy after one drag,” she said. She was wearing dark blue jeans and a black top-Gap clothes, and here they play the same music they play in the Gap, uppity and pulsing, the soundtrack to a suburban teen’s dream of night in the city-and every so often, when she leaned back to laugh, there was a bright flash of white skin around her hips.
“You’re stalking her,” she said.
“I wouldn’t call it stalking, exactly …”
“Well, what would you …”
“… more like planned serendipity …”
God, the music here is loud.
Bree smiled and looked at the floor. She tapped her foot to the music. She had flowers on her shoes. The shoes were open-toe and her toes were long and the toenails painted bright red.
“You have pretty long toes.”
“I know. I think they’re ugly.”
“They’re not ugly.”
“But they’re long.”
“I have long toes too.”
“But you’re a guy.”
“You know what they say about long toes.” Another gulp of beer. The bottle was running low and pretty soon it would be all backwash. Pretty soon it would be time for another.
“They say that people with long toes are closer to the monkeys, because you can use your toes to grasp things like the monkeys grasp branches. For example,”-another gulp-“for example, I can pick up a book with my toes.”
“This is something you do a lot?”
“Enough to know I can do it.”
This was the happy hour crowd. There were guys who came to the bar straight from work and there were guys who left work early to go home and change into dress shirts-untucked, with long colored vertical stripes-before coming to the bar. The guys from work wore loafers and the guys who went home to change wore sandals. The girls wore work clothes, but with the girls it was harder and harder to tell what work clothes meant. For some it meant sundresses and tan shoulders and for others it meant tube tops and bare midriffs. This was the twenty-first century; there was a variety of options. The girls sipped vodka drinks or gin drinks. Now and then, a girl sipped a glass of wine. The girls who drank mixed drinks would use the little black plastic straws to twirl the ice around in their glasses, like Bree was doing now.
The guys and girls traveled in packs. They worked in the same office or went to the same school or lived in the same building or went to the same church or played in the same kickball league. Packs were made up of no fewer than three people and no more than six people. Two was a couple. A group of seven or over would inevitably split into separate packs. Everyone seemed to know everyone else in a particular pack, but each pack was walled off from all the others.
All of them were jockeying for position. In most cases, the position was sexual. In other cases, the position was professional. In still others, it was both. Old people-and anyone over 35 was old-were suspect. They had little to offer in the way of sex and while at a club filled with drunk twenty-somethings, what they had to offer professionally tended to be self-interested. They were not part of any pack. The old guys were rovers, hunting for the stray cub. The old girls were lionesses, watching over broods of stool-sitting alcoholics.
“What did she say to you again?” Bree asked.
“She said she wanted to be friends.”
“… but that she really liked me.”
Bree scrunched her face.
Shrug. “And nothing.”
Putting out the cigarette. “I’m going to get another beer.”
Bree looked around. “Wait,” she said, “I’ll come with you.”
The bartender looked bored. He leaned against the shelf with the green and brown and clear bottles and looked at his customers through glassy eyes. If you wanted to order a drink, your position along the bar was crucial. You had to be at the corner or, failing that, leaning against a part of the bar free of other potential customers. Once the position was secure, it was time to signal for the drink. You had to pull the bills from your pocket and hold them between your thumb and index finger, then keep them in the air so that they would be visible to the bartender but not obnoxiously so. It was tricky.
The bartender saw the bills and nodded.
“And a Stoli and soda,” Bree said.
“You’re not done with that one.”
“I will be in a second.”
To the bartender, who was looking at Bree: “And a Stoli and soda.”
He made the drinks.
“Bree,” someone said. He was a straight-from-work guy-short hair, sharp features, brown suit-and he was drinking Bud Light in a bottle.
Bree turned. “Lance,” she said. “How are you?”
“I’m fine.” Smiling widely. “It’s great to see you.”
Also smiling. “You too.”
They looked at each other in silence. The music switched from chill beats to blaring saxes. Jazz; maybe Mingus, maybe Parker. Lots of cymbals chattering like cold teeth.
“I’m Johnny Rialto.”
“Lance,” Lance said, shaking hands.
“Johnny always introduces himself by his full name so that people can recognize him,” Bree said.
“I recognized him already,” Lance said.
“Johnny is very busy and important,” Bree said.
“I bet,” Lance said. “But so are you.”
“Thanks,” Bree said. She looked away.
Standing in silence, the cacophony around them.
“Lance clerks for Justice Souter,” Bree said.
“That must be a lot of fun.”
“It’s work,” Lance said. He paused. “What are you up to tonight, Johnny?”
“Meeting up with a friend.”
Bree finished her drink and in a single motion put the empty glass on the bar and took her new one. “His friend Cora,” she said, all her emphasis on the last two syllables.
“Cora Flanigan?” Lance asked.
“We’re in the same running club,” Lance said.
“Yeah, Cora’s great. Great runner. Smart, too. How do you know her?”
“Tell him your problem, Johnny,” Bree said.
“I said tell him your problem.”
Lance raised an eyebrow.
“Johnny can’t tell who Cora is,” Bree said. “Because he won’t wear his glasses.”
“I can’t wear my glasses.”
“Did you lose them?” Lance asked.
“Are they broken?” Lance asked.
“Tell him where they are,” Bree said.
Growling. “They’re in my bag.”
“Where’s your bag?” Lance asked.
“In the other room.”
Bree turned to Lance and said, “Johnny thinks girls don’t like guys who wear glasses.”
Lance turned to Bree and said, “Maybe there’s something to that.”
Lance did not wear glasses.
Bree laughed and when she laughed she put her hand to her chest but only for a moment.
“Lance and I met organizing a charity run for guys who fought in Iraq,” Bree said.
“He can run 5K in 15 minutes, isn’t that right, Lance?”
“How fast can you run 5K, Johnny?” Bree asked.
“Half an hour.” A pause. “I’m getting my bag.”
Swigging the beer and walking into the other room. The room where Bree and Lance were still talking was empty except for the bar. People stood in that room. This other room was filled with tables and chairs. People sat in here. On the far wall there was a window that opened onto the night. Outside there were people on the sidewalks and many cars on the street. Inside it was dark enough that the edges of things drowned in the shadows.
This other room was an obstacle course for the drunk. Bags on the floor, people in chairs, candles and ashtrays on the table tops. You had to maneuver through the packs, careful not to crash into a martini glass or plow into a burning cigarette or step on a girl’s foot or spill beer on a guy’s new pink silk tie. Making things more difficult, of course, was the inability to see. For the near-sighted, the world was a television set with extremely bad reception. Faces without character, signs without meaning. Everyone a stranger, everyone a form.
“Johnny,” someone said. “Johnny Rialto.”
Turning. “Hi, how are you?”
Shaking hands: “Mark from Wesleyan. We met at the Colgate Foundation dinner.”
“Right, nice to see you again, Mark.”
Who is Mark from Wesleyan?
“I’m here in town talking to some people about next year,” Mark said. He was another straight-from-work guy: tall, with a wide mouth and big eyes. A blank and friendly face. He was holding a scotch.
“What happens next year?”
“What’s that?” Mark asked.
“What happens next year?”
“I graduate. Planning on moving down.”
“I was talking to someone at Heritage the other day-do you know Brad Michaels?-I was talking to him the other day and he was saying that you may be moving back to New York.”
“He was saying you might be leaving.”
“Not planning on it.”
Who is Brad Michaels at Heritage?
“Oh. Well. In any case, I’d love to get your email and maybe talk a little bit about the opportunities here for Wesleyan grads.”
Now people were pouring into the room where Bree and Lance were talking.
That Lance had a smirk that stained his face.
“Sure. Actually, Mark, there’s something I’ve been trying to figure out.”
“Where is Wesleyan? Is it in Connecticut or Massachusetts?”
“Connecticut. Middletown, Connecticut.”
“Ah. I must be confusing it with the other one.”
“The other one?”
“The other one.” Lost in thought. “Actually, I forget.”
“There’s Wesley. That’s in Delaware.”
“Don’t you usually wear glasses?” Mark asked.
“I said, don’t you usually wear glasses? On TV, you wear glasses.”
Squinting past Mark at the room where he had left Bree and the smirk with a face around it.
“Oh, those. Those are just props.”
” … to make you look smarter?”
Mark seemed confused.
“Now if you’d excuse me, Mark, I have to find my bag.”
“Sure. No problem.”
“Sorry, but I can’t see a thing.”
Turning from Mark and looking through the pile of jackets and purses and briefcases and umbrellas on the chair in the back corner of the room where people sat. On top of each of the small wooden tables was a candle. The candles were small and the light they shone on the tables was dim and flickering. The scene would have been easier to appreciate wearing glasses. The glasses were in a pouch in the front of the backpack that Bree had helped pick out a while back.
Bree, who was in the other room.
Loud, excited, feigning surprise: “Cora!” Practically screaming above the din.
She was small, and dark haired-with high cheekbones, small white teeth-and she was practically screaming, too. “What’s up?” she asked. “Good to see you.”
Holding the glasses, twirling them needlessly: “Nice to see you.” A beat, then: “I’m here with a friend.”
The hint of a smile traced her face. “Me too. Bunch of us come here every Wednesday.”
“The running club?”
“Absolutely.” Then, looking at the glasses: “I didn’t know you knew I ran.”
Cora was one of those people who always ended their sentences as though they were asking a question.
“Really? You mentioned it to me once, I think.”
“So where’s your friend?” Cora asked.
“Over there. Where’re yours?”
“Over there.” Staring intently at the glasses. “Are you going to put those on?”
Holding the glasses up for inspection. “These? Sure. Definitely. Was just about to.”
“I didn’t know you wore glasses.”
“Really? I thought I mentioned it to you once.”
The glasses came on and when they came on the world came into focus. Suddenly, the lightning bugs flying close to the tabletops transmogrified into candles. Suddenly, people’s bodies had form; people’s faces, details. Suddenly, everyone was a whole lot uglier.
Past Cora, in the other room, were Bree and Lance, talking excitedly. Lance must have been telling a story, because he was gesticulating, arms flailing. The look on Bree’s face was a mystery. She must have been laughing, though, punctuating Lance’s story with chirpy giggles, because every so often she would throw her head back and her hair would move in waves across her shoulders. Bree had brown hair. It was short but on some nights she would pull it up and twist it into a ponytail and you could see the back of her neck, which looked clean and new.
“I saw that movie, Johnny,” Cora said. “The one you mentioned? Breathless? I watched it with a friend.”
“Did you like it?”
“I did. There’s something about the way that guy smoked a cigarette.”
“Jean Paul Belmondo?”
“The main guy? Him. He could walk and talk and still smoke and the cigarette would never fall out of his mouth. I don’t know how he did it.”
“A lot of practice.”
Bree was laughing. Yes, it was definitely laughter. You could see it across the way: Her head would fall backward ever so slightly and her hair would collect in pools in between her shoulders. Her hair merged with her shirt-it was dark here, and the brown merged with the black-but there was nonetheless the unmistakable suggestion of movement.
Now Lance was putting his hand on Bree’s shoulder.
“Are you all right?” Cora asked.
“Hmm? No-I mean, yes. Must be dinner.”
“Where’d you go? I went to Chef Geoff’s. Have you tried their hamburgers?”
“Yep. Absolutely. They’re pretty good. Did you know he was married to Campbell Brown?”
The hand was still there.
“The news lady? I thought she was getting married to somebody else.”
“Must be the other one, then.”
“You mean Norah O’Donnell.”
“Yeah-that’s right. I get the two of them confused.”
“I had fun last week,” Cora said.
“So did I.”
“I was about to get a drink. You want one?”
Looking at Cora, then looking at the hand, still on Bree’s shoulder. Then back to Cora. Cora had blue eyes.
“Can’t. Sorry. Was just about to leave, actually.” Picking up the backpack and leather jacket and Bree’s jacket. “It was good seeing you, though.”
“It was good to see you,” Cora said, confused.
Walking past Cora, into the room where people were standing, up to Lance and Bree. Lance slid his hand off Bree’s shoulder.
“Lance was just telling me about the time he got arrested,” Bree said.
“Is that why he wants to be a lawyer?”
“My dad’s a lawyer,” Lance said.
“It wasn’t much,” Bree said. “He was just drunk outside a bar.”
“I usually get drunk inside the bar. Easier that way.”
Lance’s mouth curled into a tight smile and he said, “You can’t take this guy anywhere, Bree.”
“I can’t get rid of him, either,” Bree said, through clenched teeth.
To Bree: “You ready to leave?”
“We were just going to get another drink.”
“Oh. Because I am.”
Bree and Lance exchanged glances. Then Lance took his cell phone out of his pocket and pretended he was checking a message.
“I was going to get another drink, Johnny,” Bree said.
Looking at her, frowning. “I thought you said you were going to give me a ride home.”
She started to say something, then paused, looking at something across the way.
“Isn’t that Cora?”
“I said, isn’t that Cora?”
“Yeah, she’s in the other room.”
“Did you say hi?”
“What’d you talk about?”
“We talked about movies.”
“Any movie in particular?”
Lance lit a cigarette, his eyes always on Bree.
“We watched that movie,” Bree said.
Looking at each other.
“My stomach hurts.”
“Your stomach always hurts,” Bree said.
“Can’t help it. I have the digestive tract of a septuagenarian.”
Bree laughed and took her jacket.
Lance exhaled his cigarette.
Bree said to Lance, “Looks like I gotta go.”
“I’ll see you soon,” Lance said.
“Sure,” Bree said.
“Good to see you, Johnny,” Lance said.
“Nice to meet you.”
Lance went into the other room.
Walking toward the stairs: “That guy’s a putz.”
“I think he’s nice,” Bree said.
“No,”-brushing up against her, hands briefly touching, just for a moment-“he’s a putz.”
Matthew Continetti is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard. His book, The K Street Gang: The Rise and Fall of the Republican Machine (Doubleday), will be published in April.