*note - this story was the first appearance of a certain character in many years. it led to a transformation of my fictional world and i present it without further commentary
A pretty young lady wearing tight fitting pink shorts and a white blouse with a small backpack over her thin shoulders descended the escalator towards the lobby of the casino, running a hand through wavy blonde hair as she looked about her, eyeing the shops and lights. She gripped her phone and stepped into the flow of humanity pushing its way along the walkway, shiny insistent machines lining either side of the yellow floor. Pausing at a display, she looked at designer handbags, and there, eyeing the new dresses of summer, while she kept checking her phone for messages.
The people pushed her as she looked in the windows, at the goods, the tattoo parlors, the blaring bars with girls dancing on the stage. The push of energy led her outside the casino, onto the street, where the vendors hawked stolen goods and cheap tee shirts of the city. The heat and light of the early afternoon assaulted her eyes, making her wish for a hat. She pulled sunglasses out of her pocket and put them on before continuing her walk. The sounds attacked her ears, a blend of music and voices as the smells of food and perfume invaded her senses. She stood for a moment, near a booth offering tacos and two-dollar margaritas when she heard the voice.
“Hey you,” the voice intoned.
She spun round to face a man seated at a table. She gasped as she saw his scraggy beard that sprouted crazy from his face, long and wild. His long, shiny brown hair set off his fierce brown eyes, which seemed to bore into her pale blue, delicate eyes. She took a step towards him, to escape the traffic. She noticed the sign above his head.
STORY FOR A DOLLAR
The sign had no other adornment and was hand painted on rough cardboard. She did not understand and looked back at the man trying to take in his crazed appearance. She saw a scar below his left eye run down into his beard and disappear into the untrimmed hair.
“I will tell you a story for a dollar,” the man said. His voice rang deep and penetrated the noise of the street. Turning to each side to see if people watched she saw nobody paid them any attention. She took another step and looked at the table in front of her. The man held a tablet computer and watched her. Removing a crumpled dollar from her pocket, she placed it on the table. The man put the tablet down and grasped the dollar, shoving it in his pocket in one motion.
“What story do you wish to hear?” he asked. Shifting her weight from one foot to the other, rolling the arch of her foot upon the sidewalk, she considered his question.
“Tell me how you came to be here.” she asked.
The man frowned and tapped the screen of his computer for a few moments. He sighed and continued tapping on his tablet, but glanced up at her, his brown eyes once again on hers.
“I do not wish to tell that story. I can tell you many others, stories of war, love, adventure, but not about myself; that story wouldn’t interest you. Perhaps I can tell you a story about dragons?”
“No!” she exclaimed. “I’ve had enough with dragons. I want to hear your story. I paid my dollar and I want to hear!”
The man stared at her, incredulous, a hand stroking his beard.
“Let me see,” he said, tapping again at the screen.
“The story is on your IPAD?” she asked.
“No, no,” he laughed, turning off the tablet. “Checking the stock market. Sorry to keep you waiting. I will give you a story.”
He pointed to a plastic folding chair at the end of the booth and indicated she take a seat. The plastic felt hot against her skin as she sat, keeping her eyes trained the man. After she crossed her legs, she nodded for him to begin.
“There was a dragon in love with a princess,” he began. She stamped her foot in indignation and glared at him in anger. “I’m just kidding.”
'I spent my youth amid the splendor of wealth, but safe to say, I did not please my father with the choices I made from such an early time in my life that by my 18th birthday he made it clear that in order to take possession of the money set out for me, I had to marry and stayed married. Those are the basic facts. I told my father that I wanted to marry for love, not for his money. I vowed to spurn his money and his judgments of me and moved from the luxury of home to picturesque Warwick.'
“Excuse me,” the girl cut in quickly. “You’re from Warwick?”
“Why, have you been there?”
She looked at him, as if trapped in thought, but otherwise didn’t respond to him. The man shrugged and continued.
'In Warwick, I took a job waiting tables and rented an apartment. I settled in for an ordinary life, far enough from my father so that he might not interfere, but yet close enough to rub my peasant lifestyle in his face. I stayed to myself, working on my stories and otherwise going about the business of living said ordinary life. I dated a few times, but each time the relationship got serious, the truth of my birth and circumstances conspired to bring the connection to a fast end.
Indeed, how do you tell someone you are dating that you chose poverty? How do you tell them they can win the lottery by marrying you? Ten years passed in this fashion. Relations with my father grew worse until such time he refused to talk to me until I married.
I did not see my father some years before I took a trip to NYC to give a reading of my newest short story. I debated not going at all, seeing as I didn’t have the money. How can one justify a trip that costs more than the publisher gave me for the story in the first place? The night before the reading I crashed at my childhood friend’s apartment after getting ripping drunk in Providence. He told me I had to read for my fans.
‘Fuck my fans.’ I muttered in my drunken turpitude. ‘They don’t pay my rent.’
My friend slapped me and told me I had to go and promised to drive me to NYC personally in the morning. It happened that way too, which disturbs me more than any other thing I’ll tell you in this story. I knew him for 25 years.
We made the trip to the city in good time; somehow both avoiding traffic and the need for bathroom breaks even though I drank a good deal of water to help my hangover. I’ll spare you the ordeal of hearing the details of that afternoon and skip to the good part, the reading.
I was not the featured performer that night; I won’t have you think more of me than I am. I climbed the three stairs to the mini-stage, eased myself behind the worn podium and opened my notebook to begin.
I felt nerves, nervous, sweat beginning to form under my arms as I stared and got lost in the crowd. Indeed, it was a crowd. The bar was packed to the rafters and I seemed to recognize most of the faces in the room. They are here for me, I remember thinking. I stood mute for some moments, panic beginning its stealthy run up my legs and spine, its tiny fingers gripping at my throat. I heard voices yelling at me, encouraging me, trying to lead me into voice.
I forgot the story I was there to read and when I looked down at my notebook, the words failed to resolve into sentences.
‘Help me.’ I said quietly into the microphone. Dead silence met me, stares and stone-cold dead silence.
I felt a pain in my mind as the eyes bore down, waiting, the impatience dripping from their eyes.
I opened my mouth, not having the slightest clue of what I was about to say.
The man stopped and looked at the girl, a visible pain in his eyes. He rubbed his temples and reached under the table, pulling out a bottle of scotch.
“I can't give you more story than that for a dollar," the man said so quietly it nearly evaporated in the heat of afternoon.
The girl grabbed his hand as he attempted to pour from the bottle in front of him.
“Tell me what happened that night,” she said in a voice that felt like a whisper upon his ears.
'At the very moment I began to speak I saw her. I saw her in a blinded rush, blonde curls showering over the pale skin of her face, her thin neck adorned with a small diamond necklace. The simple fabric of her plain black dress rustled in the air of the bar. Yet, she stood angry, her arms crossed violently across her chest, with one of her small pretty feet slightly in front of the other in an aggressive posture. Her blue eyes yelled at me to continue. I gathered my strength, a bit of liquid courage and spoke.
I can’t remember a single word of the story I created that night. Yes, I say created, for the words I spoke were newborn and fresh to this world. I spoke in a blinded rush and hurried to find inspiration, which, to thank the gods, came swift and sure to my aid. Words followed upon words and I created on that summer night in NYC. When I finished the crowd met me with a dizzying applause. I walked off the stage in a daze and sat on a bar stool, ready to drink myself into oblivion. After the barkeep set a drink in front of me I could feel a presence next to me and I did not have to look to know it was her. She smelled like apricots and I felt her lean in close to me, placing her lips against my ear.
‘I want you to read stories to me all the days of my life.’
The room spun around me and my skull threatened to split open at her words.
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