“Our ship will come in soon,” Sadie says as she sips her Bloody Mary through a plastic straw. “Mark my words — I can see it on the horizon.”
We are sitting at the sad bar down the street, at a high top table in the back against the rail. Sadie calls it the sad bar because she thinks everyone who comes in here looks sad, at least everyone who comes in here on a late Sunday afternoon. I think Sadie looks sad despite her bright eyes and blushing pink cheeks and talkativeness more so than usual all of which I blame on the booze.
It’s Christmastime, and even with the evergreen wreaths and garlands of holly and shiny aluminum tree crammed into the corner beneath the TV with the rolling picture that shows some indeterminable sporting event that nobody’s especially interested in, the sad bar seems as sad as ever, maybe sadder. Sadie and I dashed in to take refuge from the rush of shoppers and the crush of traffic, drivers jostling for position, the parking lot a concrete and steel slide puzzle.
Sadie comes to the sad bar on most late Sunday afternoons to calibrate for the week ahead, her way to ease her brain from relax mode to work mode. But she claims a change is near. Sadie vows that after the holidays she’s finally going to march into her boss’s office and quit her career, proclaim “Happy New Year” and “I resign” in the same breath, and move on to do the things she needs to do before time runs out for her, and not what everyone expects her to do. “We’re all gonna die anyway,” she recites her mantra, “and so then I might as well do what I want for once.” I hope she does for her sake, and ours too, but I’ll believe it when it happens. Sadie’s been vowing that for a while.
“How many people in here you think are dreading the thought of the alarm clock going off tomorrow?” Sadie asks me, or she could be asking herself aloud, or neither of us in particular, the way she just lobs it into the air, as she scans the room. Without waiting for a response, if she were even expecting one, Sadie perks up, and muffles a shriek. “Ooh, look at that couple over there,” she declares, pointing with her straw, tinged crimson from tomato juice, “high rollers!”
Sadie is focused on a man and a woman, sixtyish, the man in a green velour track suit and the woman in a bedazzled denim jacket, oversized sunglasses perched atop her bouffant though the sun has been absent for days, who have set up camp in a booth beside the cigarette machine, seated on the same side, mesmerized by the glimmering glow of their opened laptop and whatever they’re staring at on the screen, each speaking intently into their cell phones. There is a pitcher of purplish sangria placed strategically between them and a platter of chicken wings they routinely reach for, no napkins.
“What do you think?” Sadie turns to me. “Fantasy football? No, big stakes gambling? Yeah, that’s it. Gotta be. They’re scouring the betting lines, barking out instructions to their bookies — with secret offshore accounts, no doubt. Yep, yep, high rollers, for sure.”
Having ostensibly solved this mystery, and so easily, Sadie triumphantly cleans any lingering Bloody Mary from the straw with a smack of her perfect lips then spikes it into the glass and begins stabbing at the garnish — olives, onions, pickles and hot peppers — that sunk to the bottom before using the straw to suck up what’s left of the contents with a protracted slurp.
When I suggest to Sadie that maybe that couple is merely completing their Christmas shopping online, she exhales a laugh with a snort and coughs on what Bloody Mary she has in her throat.
“No way,” Sadie scolds as if what I said was the most ridiculous thing ever. “No fucking way! Are you kidding? Just look at their faces, such fervor, such passion. They’re not Christmas shopping. Searching for bargains on pressure cookers and weighted blankets? No way. Gimme a break. It’s gotta be something shady. It’s always something shady. I’m gonna find out.”
Sadie goes to get up from the high top table but stumbles backwards, back into her chair, with a thud against the rail, and exclaims “Whooh!” and questions “How many have I had?” and rubs her head at the temples with both index fingers. Her nails are painted alternating shades of red and black. Sadie has had three Bloody Marys in barely over an hour but I don’t say anything because whenever I say something about how much Sadie has had to drink, and suggest she take it easy, she snaps at me, uncharacteristically yet more characteristic of her of late, and it makes me feel as if I’m the one who’s doing something wrong — and maybe I am. I just tell Sadie that I’m not sure how many Bloody Marys she’s had.
The waitress stops by to check on us and I order a basket of chips and queso, and hope that helps to sober Sadie for our walk home. Sadie orders another Bloody Mary by winking at the waitress and making a clicking noise with her tongue against the roof of her mouth that I’ve never known her to do before.
“But I’m tellin’ ya’,” Sadie returns full circle to where she began, “things are gonna change for us, buddy — I can feel it. Everything is cyclical … cyclical.”
Sadie says “cyclical” twice because she mispronounces it the first time, adding an “n” in there for some reason, and she doesn’t pronounce it any better the second time. Then she mispronounces it a third time, undaunted.
“Everything’s cyclical. And our ship’s gonna come in soon. I just have a hunch.”
I tell Sadie that I know, although I don’t, but I can see it’s what Sadie wants to hear and anyway why make a big deal of it here. And it could be that I want to hear it too.
Sadie and I sit there, at that high top table in the back against the rail, in stilted silence, Sadie fidgeting with her crimson-tinged straw in her empty glass, me squinting to try and discern what sporting event is being shown on the TV with the rolling picture in the corner, until the waitress brings the basket of chips and queso and Sadie’s fourth Bloody Mary. Sadie ignores the drink and attacks the chips and queso, flinging tiny daggers of fried tortillas and dollops of warm melted cheese before catching herself and redirecting her attention to that couple.
“Who knows,” Sadie sighs, and sort of shrugs, subdued, apparently finished attributing any nefarious intent to the two, “maybe they’re just planning their vacation — checking weather forecasts and booking reservations.” Sadie waits a beat, possibly to think, then concedes, “Not a bad idea actually.”
Sadie turns to me, suddenly excited the way she gets when she’s convinced she’s on to something and it’s everyone else who doesn’t have a goddamn clue.
“That’s what we need to do! We need to get away, that will solve everything.”
I’m not aware of the “everything” that Sadie seems to believe needs solving — or maybe I just choose to ignore it. But I wouldn’t mind a vacation. This has been a difficult stretch for us both.
“Somewhere warm, and sunny,” Sadie elaborates, and when she says “sunny” she coats it with contempt for the somber gray sky and sepia-toned bare trees like wilting skeletons she gazes at through the smudged side window. “I want to get a suntan — no, I want to get a sunburn. That’s what I need!”
All at once, a terrifying shriek erupts from that part of the sad bar where that couple is seated, and we look — everyone looks — to find the man slumped forward, his face bloated and becoming alarmingly scarlet, and the woman feverishly slapping his back.
“He’s choking!” she cries out, “somebody please help because he’s choking, he’s choking!”
There is an instant where no one does anything, too stunned to react to this incident that no one ever expects, frozen in a snapshot, except for Sadie who shouts “Heimlich maneuver!” albeit completing butchering it with how she has begun to slur her words. Even so, I know what she means. But before I can stop her, in her condition, she leaps off the stool and immediately crashes in a heap to the floor.
This creates only a minor diversion as all eyes are now focused on the burly, bearded bartender with the mien of someone who might’ve played football in high school but hasn’t exercised since. He bolts from his station, surprisingly nimble, and yanks the man from the booth and proceeds to bear hug him from behind about the waist like a rag doll until a clump of presumably unchewed chicken gets launched from his gullet, a meat projectile that lands solidly against the wall and then slides harmlessly down. Everyone applauds, including me as I help Sadie to her feet — and she claps too.
When the excitement subsides, with that couple locked in a tender embrace and we all turn away to allow them that moment, I motion for the waitress so Sadie and I can pay our tab, which is mostly Sadie’s tab that I pay but still. Then I escort Sadie out of the sad bar, out into the elements with a sloppy wet snow dropping in chunks and the wind picking up with a bitter bite and the traffic still in full force, tailpipes belching exhaust in rippling ashen clouds and honking car horns of varying tones. Shoppers crowd every inch of the sidewalk with their decorative boxes and bags, decked out in down and fleece, some walking three- or four-abreast without yielding, while Sadie and I make our way home.
“Our ship will come in soon,” Sadie says softer, slower, dreamily, as if she could fall asleep, having succumbed to the unexpected exhilaration of this late Sunday afternoon, and the booze, but nonetheless retaining her focus, clutching at my arm with both mittened hands, her head leaned against my shoulder. I can smell the rosemary mint shampoo beneath her wool beanie. She exhales, content. “Mark my words — it will.”
This short story is a companion piece to my collection, The Sadie Stories, which will be available next year.