Written Words – Blues Dancing in the Booth

“This the place, sweetheart?” the cabdriver asked, pointing out the window at a flickering neon sign across the street that declared the establishment to be Mulligan’s. I didn’t need to look at the card in my clutch to know; I’d worn the edges of the plain business card – just the name and a street address – down to a soft roll in the months since it had shown up in my post box. Sam always let me know where he was in his own way.

I overpaid the cabbie with a crisp five-dollar note and told him to keep the change. He smiled greasily.

“Anything else, darling?”

“Forget I came,” I said, and slammed the door behind me. He saluted from behind the wheel and pulled out in a spray of water.

Under a flickering streetlight, I paused to turn up the collar of my trench coat against the cold wind then set off across the deserted street. A wave of cigarette smoke and liquor fumes rolled over me as I opened the door and raucous laughter blended unharmoniously with the sound of a jazz pianist. Definitely Sam’s kind of place.

A hulking bouncer loomed by the door, his square face oddly squashed, as if he’d been in too many fights and his nose had never recovered.

“Looking for someone?” he asked, stepping quickly to block my entrance. There were few women in the place and those that were, weren’t exactly ladies. He looked me up and down, taking in my dark trench coat and fedora with a curl of his lip. I stared him back in the eyes without a smile.

“I’m on the list. Kate Donaghue.”

It was a bit of gamble. I’d never been here before; I had no idea if I was on any list, or if they even kept one here. But me and Sam went way back. Just like the cards in my box, he’d never stopped throwing my name on the list when he was in town. I never came by.

The bouncer glared back at me skeptically, but called quickly over his shoulder. A nervous rat-faced man who hardly came up to my shoulders scurried into view. The bouncer muttered something and out came a much worse-for-the-wear sheet of paper over which both men hunched.

I busied myself scouting out the lay of place. To my left, an oak bar shone with years of spilled beer and buffing cloths; the bartender, a tall lanky young man dressed snappily in a vest lounged against the back wall, cigarette and shot of Jack in one hand and cloth in the other. Curious patrons had looked up at the sound of my voice despite my efforts to keep it low. I tugged the brim of my hat lower over my eyes and glared at them until they dropped their eyes. Further back, the lights dimmed even more and I could barely make out a piano and lone microphone through the haze. He’d be somewhere back there, then.

The bouncer grunted in surprise and, frowning, nodded for me to go on in. I smiled brightly and swept past, back straight. As soon as he’d turned away, I made a rude gesture at his back.

My eyes adjusted to the gloom as they always did and I scanned the clumps of patrons looking for one silhouette. I found him in a dark corner, an old diner booth converted into a booth for the sound equipment he so loved with barely room for two. His clothes were simple, underdressed even for this dive, and his blonde hair had grown since I’d last seen him, down almost into his eyes. Pausing a few feet behind him, I watched as a voluptuous woman sauntered to the microphone and perched on a lone stool sitting behind it. The pianist rolled into an old song, a blues tune I thought I recognized. Sam’s eyes were fixed on the performers, his fingers adjusting the dials on what looked like a converted radio as he mouthed the words along with the woman. Every man in the place had turned as soon as the sultry notes left the singer’s lips, though whether that was due to her talent or to her prodigious…other attributes was anyone’s guess. I took my chance.

“Sam,” I called softly, pulling my hat off and shaking my hair loose so it fell to my shoulders.

He turned instantly, a slow smile spreading across his face. “Kate,” he said, shaking his head. “I never thought to see you again.”

“I can’t stay long,” I replied, stepping up to the edge of the booth. “Is there somewhere we can talk?”

His eyebrows lifted. “I can’t leave my booth.” He gestured at the swinging half-door in the booth wall. “But you could join me.”

I eyed the small space dubiously, but what choice did I have? I wouldn’t be here if I weren’t in a tight spot. I stepped into the booth, letting the door swing shut behind me, and found myself inevitably face-to-face with Sam. The smile fell from his face and he regarded me seriously. For a moment my breath caught in my throat. Three years had passed since I’d walked away without looking back. Tired lines played out from his eyes, but the half-smile, the curl of his hair, the glint in his eyes were all the same.

“It’s good to see you, Sam,” I said finally.

“Why are you here, Kate?” he asked, his forehead creasing in the middle. I never could fool him or lie. He’d always known.

“I’m in a bit of trouble, and I could use someone good at laying low. I need to get out of town for a bit.”

“Finally take a picture someone doesn’t want seen?”

I laughed bleakly. “You have no idea. I’ll get it out there. I’d just like to be there to see the headline.”

“And you need me to, what? Help you disappear?”

“Can you do it?” I asked softly, staring up at his familiar face.

“For you?” he paused, his gaze holding my own. “Anything.”

If the woman was still singing, I couldn’t hear it. The conversations and laughter had faded to a low hum around us.

Suddenly, he pulled me close, his hand pressed into the small of my back and his head ducked low to my ear. I could feel his breath hot against my skin.

“Were you followed here?”

“I don’t think so,” I replied.

He began to sway gently, dancing as we always used to, guiding me by the pressure on my waist. “Don’t look now, but I think you’ve brought company.”

Stepping neatly around my feet to pivot us a half turn, he gave me a clear view of the front door where a pair of unfriendly-looking me in dark suits were talking to my pal the bouncer. My heart began to pound. I cursed under my breath, and he laughed, a low, throaty chuckle.

“Always a lady. That’s what I like about you, Kate.”

We kept dancing, rotating around so all they could see would be the back of my head.

“Any chance I can disappear sooner rather than later?” I muttered into his ear, my cheek brushing his.

“If you ask nicely. But there’s another option.”

I could hear the music again with my fear-heightened senses, and with the return of sound came the realization that we were actually dancing to the music. It swelled; Sam leaned me back into a half-dip and held it, brushing my ears with his lips and speaking so quietly I could barely hear him.

“You could come with me. I’ve been here a few months. I can move on.”

We straightened from the dip and I leaned into his chest, breathing in the familiar scent of cedar and smoke. For a long instant I could see it the way he did: living on the road, moving anytime we felt our feet stirring, tearing up our roots and laying them down again in a new town, a new city.

The vision disappeared in a haze of cigarette smoke and I let out a long breath. “It would never work, Sam. You know that.”

“I don’t,” he said, pulling back to look at my face as we continued to dance. “Why shouldn’t it?”

“Because this is us. We never work.”

He regarded me silently. “Can’t blame a man for trying,” he murmured at last with a wry smile. “Shall we start, then?”

The music ended in a long, last roll of keys and the place broke out with hollering and applause as Sam took my hand and led me out of the booth to a door back behind the bar, grabbing my hat and handing it to me as we went. Somewhere nearby, a pair of men had a bullet with my name on it, and I didn’t plan on making their acquaintance any time soon. I paused before the door to settle my hat on my head and turn up my collar.

“Lead the way,” I said with a bright smile, and we ducked out into the night.

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