Parlor Tricks

by Dennis Lawson

 

1

Christine cooked a tray of lasagna for herself that Friday. I told her it smelled great.

—Help yourself to leftovers, she said. 

—Don’t wait up, I said as I went out the door.

—Hold on, she called out. If you need a ride later...

—We’ll be okay, but thanks.

I pulled my mask on.

Roger drove up to my condo building in a blue Ford Mustang convertible from the 1990s. I didn’t know it was him at first. He had the top up and the windows down.

—Get in, he said.

I could barely hear his muffled voice through his mask and over the loud engine.

—Where’d you get this? I asked.

—I’ve had it forever, he said. I wrecked it around ten years ago, and Amber wouldn’t let me spend the money to fix it up. It cost me a lot at the time to avoid the DUI.

—Why the change of heart? I asked.

—She’s visiting her parents in Florida. She took the kids. It might be permanent.

—I’m sorry, I said.

—Don’t be, he said.

2

We went to Klondike Kate’s near the university and sat outside. The crowd was a mix of townies in our age group, college kids, and a handful of older folks. Our waitress was a pretty, bouncy brunette who seemed to be either a senior or a graduate student. She wore a mask while we took ours off. It was nice to be out in the sun, among crowds, and facing a beer. Roger and I clinked glasses. We went through three rounds and a burger apiece, with the waitress quick to refill our drinks. If she were a few years older, it might have been appropriate to flirt with her. Roger said something provocative anyway. We decided to move on. It was for the best. Separate checks, large tips.

3

I asked Roger how he’d feel about seeing live music inside a bar. He asked where, and I said Bar XIII up in Claymont. He was into it.

The parking lot at the bar was full of picnic tables and scattered people milling around, so we parked next door at the little Greek restaurant. We paid the cover charge, got our hands stamped, and went up to the bar. You could have your mask off if you were seated at the bar or if you were in the socially distanced chairs in front of the stage. The bartenders were dressed like bikers but not exactly in an alluring way. A heavy metal band was playing. The bandmembers all looked so young that I started to worry about seeing former students. We sat down by the stage, took off our masks, and drank quickly. I was having a Jack and Coke. Roger was drinking something purple.

The music was loud, too loud to really talk. The place was only half full since it was still early in the night. I didn’t care, I was loving it. But Roger seemed bored. He bought us another round and then started walking around, no mask on. A bouncer warned him and Roger just stood there drinking. So then the bouncer threw him out. I finished my whiskey. I didn’t rush, but I didn’t exactly take my time either.

4

Roger was drunker than I realized. He gave up the keys willingly. I drove down Route 13 to the McDonald’s drive thru. I got myself fries and a cola. Roger wanted a meal. I parked in the lot and got out. Roger stayed in the passenger seat. He was reading something on his phone, and then he seemed to be texting someone.

—So what was that purple drink? I asked.

—I don’t know. It had a funny name but I already forgot it. Hey, would you know how to get over to Foulk Road from here?

—Yeah, but I mean, our phones know, too.

—Ha. That’s true. But I mean quickly. That lady I mentioned to you could see us at ten o’clock. That doesn’t leave us much time. I’d like to introduce you.

—So who is she?
—You’re curious, huh?

He leaned his arm on the door and smiled.

—Well, you’re being so goddamned mysterious about it, I said.

—Her name’s Tabby. She lost her job when the virus hit. Now she works out of her home. You have to know someone to be introduced to her. My pal Schmitty introduced me. Now I’m doing you a favor.

He pointed at me while he said that.

—Thanks. I don’t know if this is really my thing.

—She does these parlor tricks. You’ll get a kick out of it. She’s giving us twenty minutes. I had to Venmo her a hundred dollars, but I figure this makes up for getting us thrown out of the bar.

Roger was a realtor, and as things turned out, he was having a great year. He could toss money around if he wanted to. I looked at my watch.

—All right, I said. Yes, I’m curious. 

—Great! he said. If we pass a liquor store on the way, let’s stop.

5

We came to a ranch house that was simple and nondescript except for the well in front. Instead of knocking or ringing the doorbell, Roger took out his phone and texted. We both had bottles in our pockets. He had bought himself a flask of some cheap gin, and he brought me a similarly sized bottle of Canadian Club while I waited with the car running.

—Oh, I should’ve gotten Tabby a bottle of something, he said. Oh well. 

There was a storm door and a white front door. The white door opened onto dim light, and there was Tabby getting a look at us. She was a short woman in her forties with reddish brown hair and a black mask, and she wore a loose black dress with sleeves. What skin I could see was stark white, especially her bare feet. She unlocked the storm door and pointed to her left with her chin. I followed Roger into a living room that was only unusual because the light bulbs in the lamps were pink, and because there was a card table with a black tablecloth and a set of Tarot cards laid out. I sat next to Roger on the couch. Tabby sat at the card table and started shuffling her cards.

—Our guest can join me here, she said, pointing to the other chair.

The whole thing seemed so hokey that I wanted to laugh. But at the same time, there was a heaviness to the atmosphere that kept me quiet. In fact, I was nervous. I didn’t want to embarrass Roger, or me. I saw out of the corner of my eye that he was sipping his gin while staring at Tabby.

—Roger, she said. Put your mask back on. You can drink when you leave.

He complied.

—This is a time of great suffering, Tabby said. 

She turned over the Hangman, and then Death.

—Are you suffering? she asked.

—I wouldn’t say so, no, I said, after a long pause.

—You can lie to me, but the cards don’t lie.

The next three cards were the Lovers, Folly, and Dissension.

—You seek solace, she said.

—I mean, who doesn’t?

She turned over the Empress and Fortune. This was a deck that I hadn’t seen before, and I realized that Tabby was dressed to mirror the Empress.

—Contact me when you’re ready, she said.

She stood up and left the room. I heard a door close and a lock click.

Roger took a sip of his gin.

—She’s wild, isn’t she? he asked. And she’s right here in Wilmington, Delaware.

6

I returned to the driver’s seat. Roger asked me if I wanted Tabby’s phone number and her Venmo info. I tried to play it cool, but the answer was yes. I wanted to at least have the option. She had been putting on a show, but she got into my head. I took a pull on my bottle.

—We’re right near Stanley’s, I said. Should we see if they’ve got outdoor seating?

—Yeah, I think I’m getting my second wind. There’s something about Tabby, right? She’s electric.

Stanley’s Tavern was a disappointment. Just a big sign that said CLOSED FOR RENOVATIONS.

Roger tossed his empty bottle out into the parking lot and it shattered everywhere. I hit the gas and squealed out of there.

—I know a place, Roger said. Keep going this way.

I had no idea where he was directing me. And then, under cover of the moonless night, Roger leaned out his passenger window and threw up. He at least had sense enough to pull his mask off. But then it was gone. I sure as hell kept mine on.

Maybe the pandemic had put us out of practice. Maybe we were lightweights now? Taking care of him kept me oddly straight. I felt almost sober.

7

After I dropped Roger back at his house and took his spare car key, I drove the Mustang to my condo. It was pretty early, before midnight. The bottle of whiskey was in my pocket, and I had beer in the fridge. I’d be okay. At least Christine didn’t have to worry.

I got off the elevator. My place was at the end of the hall, and before I was even halfway there, my door opened up. A man who I didn’t recognize stepped out. He was younger than me, more fit. I stopped comparing myself to him at that point. At least he had a mask on. The mask had a camouflage design, though. I mean, come on. I held up my phone like I was reading something and took a picture of him. As he came up to me, probably wise to what I was doing, I said:

—This is a time of great suffering. Wouldn’t you agree?

He avoided the hell out of me. I let myself in.

Christine was in the kitchen, in her pajamas, finishing a glass of wine. She jumped when I walked in, startled by my sudden appearance.

—Glad you’re alive, she said.

—Who’s this? I asked, holding my phone up.

She looked at me evenly, but didn’t answer.

—I want you out, I said.

—Now just hold on a second.

—Nah. I don’t care. I don’t care if I’m the villain. It’s time for us to be apart.

—You’re overreacting.

—Maybe. It’s my place. Actually, you know what? It’s not like I want to be here tonight without a mask, breathing that guy’s air. I’m going to go stay in a hotel. You can leave tomorrow. Just leave your key on the kitchen table.

She tried to talk to me, but I didn’t listen. I packed a duffle bag and threw in a six-pack of Rolling Rock.

8

In my hotel room, on my bed, I dialed Tabby’s number. No answer. Then a text came through.

—If you want to talk at this hour, you need to pay first.

I was in a less coherent state at that point. I followed Roger’s lead and Venmo’d a hundred dollars. Then my phone rang.

—What do you want to talk about? she said through layers of sleep.

—Can I tell you about a dream I had?

—Sure, it’s your money. I don’t put much stock in dreams, just so you know.

—That surprises me.

—I’m full of surprises.

—Will you tell me about yourself?

—No. What do you really want?

—I don’t know. To forget.

—Can you afford that?

—Well, I’m one of the lucky ones. I kept my job.

END