Sherry Stills sat alone at her table, poking the ice in her glass, ignoring the vibration of her phone, and scanning the bar for someone she could follow to a hotel bedroom. It was a Tuesday night at the Rusted Nail and the last call was soon approaching. The usual handful of patrons wandered the place like moths around a lampshade. They ordered their final rounds, stumbled over the knotted floors, and balanced themselves with the help of flimsy billiard tables. A middle-aged man stood on a crooked karaoke stage, belting the off-key lyrics to “Feliz Navidad,” even though Christmas was still two months away. Sherry waited for her turn on the stage, her tanned cheek cupped within her palm, her elbow resting on the table. She waited as the same old people did the same old things.
The streets outside were getting darker and the cold, Colorado air was fogging up the windows. The clock would soon shut the place down and send her home. Sherry looked at the phone next to her drink. A pile of messages and missed calls were stacking up all over the screen. She turned the phone over, sat back in her chair, and breathed. The smell of alcohol and damp wood filled her nose. Sherry exhaled, making her blonde bangs twitch. The bar doors opened for a few seconds, allowing a cool breeze to flirt with the room. Footsteps moved past her table.
“How you doing, sir?” Carl, the bartender, said. “Cold night out there.”
“Yeah,” the stranger replied. “Heater’s gone out in my car, just need to warm up a bit.”
Sherry turned her head in the direction of the voices. She saw a thin man wearing a black canvas jacket and a grey t-shirt that was tucked halfway into his jeans. The stranger carried a guitar case in his shivering right hand. He placed the case on a barstool and took a seat next to it.
“Can I smoke in here?” the stranger asked.
The bartender nodded.
Sherry returned a hand to her glass and pretended to be interested in it. She gazed at the stranger’s back, observing how his sharp shoulder blades stretched the fabric of his coat.
“It’s weird,” the stranger said, taking a pack of Marlboros and a lighter from his pocket. “Not a lot of places have smoking sections anymore. Not even bars let you smoke.” He placed a cigarette between his lips and lit it.
The stranger’s voice was calm and deep. Even with the awful music on the stage, Sherry could hear every word he said. She twisted in her chair to get a better view of him. A long mirror with a rustic, copper frame ran the length of the wall behind the bar. Sherry could see the face of the stranger reflected in the glass. His cheekbones were strong and defined, his chin was pointed. Stubble outlined his mouth and jaw, and his hair was dark and curling over the tips of his ears.
Sherry slid her hand away from her drink,over the edge of the table and onto her crossed thighs. She watched him, tracing her fingers along the edge of her skirt, feeling the gritty surface of her leggings. She pinched the gold band around her finger and slid the diamond off. She put the ring in her pocket and did her best to forget about it.
“I’m closing up in about an hour,” Carl said.
“No problem,” the stranger replied.
The bartender put a glass down in front of the man.
“Don’t want to just loiter around, right?” he said in a flat tone.
The stranger paused for a moment. He nodded his head.
“I get it,” he said. “I’ll have whatever.”
Carl pulled a bottle from the collection of liquor that lined the bottom of the mirror. He tipped it up and filled the glass with an inch of bronze-colored liquid. The middle-aged man screamed from the stage. The stranger turned his head toward the noise and scowled in confusion.
“What’s with jolly old Saint Nick over there?” he asked.
The bartender sighed.
“Open mic night,” he said. “Gives the regulars something to do besides tell me the same stories.”
“Those must be some shitty stories.”
Carl shrugged his shoulders. He put a finger on the dented surface of the counter.
“Cash or card?” he said.
The stranger tapped out his ash, pinched the cigarette in his mouth, and reached into his pocket. At that same moment, the music came to an end.
“Hold up a second,” Carl said.
He moved from behind the bar, stepped onto the stage, and stopped the singer before he could start another song. The barman grabbed the microphone and asked for a round of applause. No one clapped.
“Alright, next up we’ve got ‘The Rusted Nail’s’ favorite voice, and she’ll be performing the song,” he squinted at a card in his hand. “‘I Need Some Sleep,’ by The Eels. Let’s give it up for Sherry.”
There was silence as he leapt off the stage and walked back to his position behind the counter.
Sherry’s heels clicked against the hardwood floor, navigating through the puddles of spilled beer and crushed peanut shells. She brushed the wrinkles out of her button-up blouse and red flannel skirt. Her dark leggings rubbed against each other, making a whispering sound she hoped the stranger would hear. She stepped confidently to the stage, hit play on an old stereo, and waited in front of the microphone. The left section of her curly bangs fell across her eye. The grooves in her lipstick parted in a smile.
“Alright guys, bear with me,” she said, looking at the disinterested faces.
Melancholy chimes drifted from the stereo, playing a slow and simple tune. Sherry closed her eyes for a moment. She imagined the bar’s cheap wood panels dissolving one plank at a time, revealing the clean marble walls of a concert hall. She imagined the ragged clothes of the inebriated patrons burning to ash and freshly pressed suits forming in their place. Everything that was old became new, different, and exciting. She opened her eyes, the lipstick on her lips parted, and she sang.
Sherry’s voice was clean and smooth, weightlessly flowing into the microphone and around the room. The lyrics flicked off her tongue and over her teeth, covering the place in a message of desire, insomnia, and discontent. Her eyebrows tilted up above her blue eyes. Her irises seemed to beg at the handful of people too drunk to listen.
Ash fell from the stranger’s cigarette. Carl pointed to the same dented spot on the counter. From the stage, Sherry could see as the stranger reached inside his pocket, retrieved his wallet, and placed a debit card on the bar. A photograph fell from his wallet before he could close it back up. It tumbled to the countertop like an autumn leaf. A young woman, motionless and pretty, smiled from the wrinkled picture. He stared at her, his hands reaching to touch her image of fair skin and black, pixie cut hair. His fingers stopped before they met her.
Sherry held the microphone and sang slowly. The stranger looked away from the photo, allowing the singer to catch his eyes. They were the same sad eyes as hers. A faint gleam of light flickered in the stranger’s deep pupils, like a firefly quivering in an empty hallway. It was the look of someone lost in their mid-thirties, still waiting for life to start at some distant point in the future. Sherry sang and he listened, if only for a short time.
Her voice was like a wet blanket falling over a crowd of freezing men. There was a desire to provide warmth, to somehow make life better. But whatever comfort existed in the song only concealed secret layers of heartache. Deep down, even Sherry knew her voice was a beautiful dream that would never come true.
The stranger turned away from Sherry. He grabbed the photograph, buried it in his wallet, and slapped the thing shut. He spent the rest of the song staring in the mirror, finishing his cigarette, and analyzing his reflection between brown, green, and clear bottles.
Sherry sang the last lyric. She pinched her lips, gave a short bow, and smiled. The bartender clapped while everyone else remained silent. Sherry blew a kiss to the audience and stepped off the stage. The stranger waited for Carl to charge his card.
The singer’s heels clicked their way over to the bar. Sherry hopped onto a stool one seat away from the stranger. She brushed her hair out of her face before drumming on the counter to get the bartender’s attention.
“Can I have my usual, Carl?” Sherry asked.
“Alright, but you’re going to have to eat it fast,” the barman said.
She gazed at the stranger in short glances, waiting for him to make some kind of move. Sherry rested an elbow on the bar and crossed her legs. She turned in her stool and pointed her skirt in the man’s direction. He sat still.
“So how was it?” Sherry quickly asked.
The stranger stamped out what was left of his cigarette and reached for his pack.
Carl yelled in his flat tone from the other end of the bar, “Phenomenal as always, Sherry. Really great.”
She ignored the voice and leaned close to the stranger.
“What’d you think?” she asked.
The man looked at her.
“It was good,” the stranger replied, pinching out a fresh cigarette and lighting it.
Sherry sighed. “Just good, huh. That’s all you thought.”
The man killed the flame of his lighter and put it away. “Yeah, it was good. But I’m no critic, so you probably shouldn’t care about my opinion.”
“That’s funny, cause yours is the only one I do care about.”
“Why’s that?” said the man before blowing smoke at the ceiling.
“I don’t know you,” Sherry said. “Never seen you in here before. This isn’t really the kind of place people come to.”
“Then why do you come here?”
Sherry gestured back at the stage. “You just saw why,” she said.
“You could go somewhere else,” the stranger said.
Sherry felt a tinge of excitement from his words. “Really?” she playfully said. “You have any suggestions?”
The stranger paused. He sucked on his cigarette, exhaled a morphing, white mist, and shook his head.
“No,” he said.
Sherry felt stonewalled by the man’s response. She folded her arms and tried to keep the conversation going.
“Every time I sing,” she said. “I get the same reaction from the same people, which is pretty much no reaction. I need to get a fresh perspective, a new opinion. So, really, what’d you think?”
The man pulled the cigarette away from his lips. “You want to know what I think?” he said.
The woman nodded.
“I think you stood up there trying to be all sad and serious,” the stranger said. “But the truth is, the first time you heard that song it was on Shrek 2.”
Sherry laughed. She put her hands up as if she were surrendering. “Guilty as charged,” she said. “Please don’t tell anybody. It ruins my brooding stage persona.”
The stranger smiled. “Secret’s safe with me. I’ve got no one to tell anyway.”
Sherry lifted a hand toward him. Her fingernails were shiny and painted red to match her lips. A pale line of untanned skin marked the finger where the ring was missing. She hoped he wouldn’t notice, and if he did, that he wouldn’t care.
“I’m Sherry,” she said.
The man took her hand and shook it. “I know,” he said.
“And you are?”
He paused for a second. “I’m Ian.”
“Pleasure, Ian,” Sherry said. “So, what brings you to a crappy place like this?”
A ceramic bowl dropped down on the counter before the man could answer. The bartender placed a small carton of 1% milk, a spoon, and a box of cereal next to the woman.
Ian squinted at the box. “Fruity Pebbles, at twelve-thirty?” he asked.
The colorful flakes fell like a landslide into the bowl. Sherry grinned as the white milk flooded over the jagged edges of tie-dye grain. “Carl keeps it here just for me. Call me crazy,” she said, grabbing the spoon. “But for some reason cereal tastes better at night.” She dabbed her spoon into the bowl, creating sinkholes in the pebbles. “It’s like you’re doing something you’re not supposed to. Like you’re breaking the rules.” She lifted the spoon to her lips and took a bite.
“I was never a Fruity Pebbles fan,” Ian said.
“Really?” Sherry replied between crunches. “You’re depriving yourself.”
Ian shook his head. He looked back at the mirror. “Maybe,” he said. “They always reminded me of my mom.”
“Ahh, that’s precious,” Sherry said. “She always make you cereal in the mornings?”
Ian stared. “Not exactly,” he said, as if in some kind of trance. He shook his head and looked down at the glass of whiskey he hadn’t touched.
Sherry leaned forward and scooped up another spoonful of flakes. She turned to him and chewed slower. Her lips puckered and smacked at the man.
“You’re having too much fun,” Ian said.
She laughed and dropped the spoon in the bowl. “They’re just so good.”
“They better be,” the stranger responded.
The bartender passed by, dropping Ian’s debit card and a receipt next to his glass. Ian crumpled up the piece of paper, retrieved his wallet, and opened it to return his card. The picture of the woman peeked out at Sherry.
“She’s pretty,” Sherry said, pointing her spoon at the wallet.
Ian shut the billfold.
“She someone special?” Sherry asked.
The man’s shoulders rose high behind his neck, and he leaned forward against the bar. He looked in the mirror and shook his head.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “It’s complicated.”
Sherry glanced at the untanned circle on her finger. “Yeah,” she said. “Relationships are never simple, are they?”
Ian took a deep breath and rubbed the back of his neck. He looked tired all of a sudden, worn down by the direction the conversation was headed.
Sherry looked into her bowl and stirred the rainbow of colors. “Sorry,” she said. “Didn’t mean to stick my nose in. None of my business.”
“No, it’s okay,” the man said. “It’s just, you ever get the feeling all you are is what someone wants you to be? Like they’ve got a treasure map drawn out for your life, and they expect you to follow it all the way to the X at the end.”
“What did she want you to be?” Sherry asked.
Ian killed another cigarette in an ashtray. Thin lines of smoke curled between his fingers.
“Just,” he said, “something I wasn’t ready for.”
Sherry smiled at Ian. “I think I know what you mean,” she said.
She opened her mouth to say more, but a loud buzz interrupted her. Ian turned his head away from the mirror. Sherry sat back, pulled her phone from her pocket, and looked at it. The brow beneath her blonde hair became wrinkled. She covered the screen with one hand as if she were concealing a flame from the harsh wind. Sherry could feel Ian watching her as she typed. The confidence that was once on her face melted against the florescent light of the phone. She sent her message, returned the device to her pocket, and tried to look as if nothing had happened.
“Everything okay?” Ian asked.
“Yeah, it’s fine,” Sherry said, returning to her cereal.
“Should you be somewhere?”
She chewed on her pebbles.
Ian waited. “Should you be with someone?”
The woman stopped eating. She looked at him with one eyebrow pointed high.
She laughed, loud and hard. “No,” she quickly said. “It’s nothing, just some stuff for work.”
“You usually get work calls this late?”
“Yeah, I do,” she said. “All the damn time actually. It’s annoying.”
Sherry took another bite. Her teeth quickly crushed flakes into a sweet powder that stained her tongue. She scrambled for something to say: a way to avoid the messages on her phone.
Ian watched the spoon move through the sea of colors. “That was my problem with Pebbles. They always turned soggy too fast,” he said. “When I was a kid, I used to get up early on Saturdays before Mom. I’d set out two bowls and dump cereal into them. I’d wait for Mom to come into the kitchen, wouldn’t take a bite until I saw her.”
The man looked at his whiskey. His fingers moved the glass, causing the bronze liquid to tremble.
“But she’d never come,” he said. “She would be in her room all day. I thought she was sleeping but,” he frowned at the alcohol like it was some kind of enemy. “It wasn’t that. And the cereal just sat there. Sat there turning soggy. Waiting.”
He looked at her. Sherry didn’t know what the meaning of the story was, why he decided to share it. Something about it troubled her, but she was done with all these complicated thoughts. She just wanted to have a good time.
“Hey, what’s with the guitar case?” Sherry said.
Ian kept staring at her, the same way he stared at the mirror. “What about it?” he asked.
“Well, you brought it in, it’s open mic night, so, do you play?”
Ian sat back and exhaled. “I didn’t want someone on the street breaking my window to jack my guitar. That’s it.”
“So, was it your dream to be a rockstar?” Sherry asked.
“Don’t know what you mean.”
Sherry raised her hands and tilted her head to one side. “Come on,” she said. “Look around you. We’re all grown men and women hanging around an empty bar past midnight. This place is full of dying dreams.”
Ian opened his pack and saw there was one cigarette left. He closed it. “Alright, so what’s yours?” Ian said. “Let me guess, was it Ariel or Jasmine? Or do girls even want to be princesses anymore?”
“Ha, no,” she responded. “I think they want to be superheroes now. I wanted to be a singer. Stand in front of people, help them forget their troubles.” Sherry pointed around the room. “But this is the closest I got. I guess that’s what growing up is. Learning what you’ll never be.”
Ian returned his gaze to the mirror. His fingers toyed with the Marlboro pack.
“So, what’d you want to be?” Sherry asked.
“Nothing,” Ian said.
“Yeah, right. The guy with the guitar wanted to be a nobody.”
“Always wanted to be nothing. But the older I get, I find it’s hard to be even that.” He looked away from the mirror and over at his case. “Music helps, I guess. Makes me disappear. Makes everything melt. Makes me a nobody. Nobody.”
“So, play something,” Sherry said.
Ian looked at her and frowned.
The bartender walked by. He pointed at Sherry’s bowl, but she quickly poured another round of Pebbles. Carl sighed. “Okay, but you’ve got fifteen minutes,” the barman said. He turned to the stranger, “You good?”
The barman turned to leave but Sherry’s voice stopped him. “We’ve got one more act, Carl,” she said. “He wants to do the last song.”
Carl looked at the stranger. “Really?” he said.
Sherry was smiling, twirling her spoon. Ian’s eyes went to her, then to the barman, then to his case. “You got an amp?” he asked.
Ian’s thin body looked taller than it actually was on the stage. He took a clear pick from his pocket and pinched it between his teeth. He opened the black case on the floor and pulled out a shiny, mint-green Telecaster. The brown strap pressed against his chest as he plugged the amp in and grabbed the fretboard. His voice echoed as he spoke into the microphone.
“So,” he said, hitting a few cords and twisting the tuning knobs. “This is probably the very definition of cliché, but whatever, I can’t help it. This is ‘Closing Time’ by Semisonic.”
The pick slapped against the strings and a heavy, coarse sound blasted through the bar. The drunkards lifted their heads and looked at the stage. Ian’s fingers flexed and pushed notes through the air. He swayed with the sounds.
Sherry sat at her barstool looking up at the stranger. He moved different from behind the guitar, as if a heavy weight had been freed from his body. She watched him. All of the problems and complications that had been brought up seemed to evaporate in the music. Sherry’s hand patted the cloth of her skirt, her heels tapped along with the rhythm, and her lips mimed the lyrics.
Carl walked through the room, grabbing chairs and stacking them upside down on the tabletops. The doors opened up to the cold night air, and patrons stumbled into the streets. The clock chirped the seconds of everyone’s life away.
The phone in Sherry’s pocket buzzed. She took the device out, hit the power button, and killed the screen before she could see the message. She dropped the phone on the counter and stared up at the stranger. His head was bent down, hair hanging over his eyes. His pick moved quickly and smoothly. Sherry sang with the music, her eager voice harmonizing with the notes.
Ian slowed his strum. He picked the last few chords calmly and slowly, as if he were savoring each reverberation from the strings. Sherry mouthed the final lyrics. She closed her eyes, and the walls of the place fell. The crowd cheered. Him and her, they could be the stars of this broken-down stage. It didn’t matter where they came from, what pasts they hid from each other. Sherry opened her eyes. All that mattered was tonight.
“Take me home,” she sang.
It was 1:00 am and Sherry still had a bowl of Fruity Pebbles to finish. Carl said she could stay if she wanted to. She told him she would walk Ian to his car then come right back. In her heart, she hoped that wouldn’t be the case. There was no coming back. She took the stranger through the side exit and out into an alley. The walkway was dark and cold with only a single street lamp lighting the path.
Ian walked with one hand holding his guitar, the other in his jacket pocket. Sherry was next to him in her burgundy coat. She moved so that her hip would playfully brush against his side.
“You going to find a place to stay tonight?” she asked.
“Don’t know. Haven’t decided yet,” Ian said.
“You doing anything tomorrow?”
“Maybe we could meet up and do a song together?”
“Maybe,” the stranger said.
Sherry slowed her steps. Her heels kicked through the trash blowing in the breeze.
“Or, we could go someplace now,” she said, smiling. “Practice a few songs? There’s a hotel I know a few blocks from here.”
Ian stopped walking. He scowled at the dirty pavement and exhaled.
Sherry bit her lips. She considered her words while at the same time trying to decipher his body language. He stood still, no hint of how he really felt.
“You want to?” she asked.
Ian looked at her. Wind kicked leaves past their frozen feet. An early fall snow drifted lazily from the sky, like stars broken free from their perch.
“I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” Ian said.
“Is it because of that picture in your wallet?” Sherry said, fearing she might be pushing her luck. “You can just tell me. Is it because of her?”
He looked back at the ground, his brow creasing over the tops of his intense eyes.
“Her name was Neon,” he said. “Weird damn name, I know. But it fit her.”
Ian exhaled air into the cold. It looked like steam.
“A couple of weeks ago she told me she was pregnant. I didn’t know what to say. She said she wanted to keep it. I wanted to tell her something different. I was so damn scared.”
Sherry noticed his body was slightly shaking. It could have been from the cold, but she didn’t think so.
“I mean, I’m not even sure it’s mine,” Ian said. “Yeah, we were together, but it wasn’t a sure thing. She’d been with other guys, she knew it. So, I took off. I just left and that’s it. Kept driving to avoid the whole damn thing. I just, I can’t be a dad. I can’t. I don’t know.”
There was a vulnerability in the way he spoke, the way he stood alone between the brick walls and the dark. Sherry stepped close to him, moving into the steam of his breath. He was an open wound she hoped to bandage with her skin.
Her fingers rubbed across the pointed tips of his stubble. She explored the edge of his jaw and chin. Ian frowned at her.
“I just left her,” he said. “Doesn’t that bother you?”
Sherry smiled, moving even closer.
“No,” she said. “Should it?”
She kissed him. Her body pushed against his motionless form, her hands moved down his neck and into the warm confines of his coat. Breath swayed back and forth over the curves of their lips. Sherry closed her eyes and moved against him. The walls of the alley fell apart one brick at a time, the city vanished within the night. Everything was gone. She was gone, lost in someone else, another life. Finally.
His firm hand gripped her around the chin. His thumb and fingers pinched into the soft flesh upon her face. It wasn’t a harsh or violent grasp, but a concentrated hold. He pulled her away from his mouth, held her at a distance.
“You want me to take you someplace and fuck you?” Ian said.
Sherry gazed into the hallways of his eyes. Small bumps tickled over her skin. She nodded within his hand.
“So, you can forget about your life for a night?” he said. “Forget about whoever’s waiting for you on that phone? Be someone else?”
Sherry pinched her lips and swallowed. The meaning of his words caused the sensation in her body to retreat. She reached down at the buckle of his belt in an attempt to keep things going.
“So what?” she said. “We’re all trying to forget who we are a little.”
Ian stopped her hand. He stepped back, allowing the wind to build the cold between their bodies. He let go of her, dug into his pockets, and pulled out his pack of cigarettes.
“Yeah, I guess so,” he said. “But not tonight. Not with me.”
Ian thumbed his lighter and burned the tip of his last cigarette. He sucked in and exhaled white smoke into the cold. He stood alone against the brick wall.
Sherry wiped the corners of her lips with her fingers. She straightened her blouse and skirt and tried to compose her thoughts. The feeling was gone now, falling away like a glow stick down a never-ending well.
“Look, I’m sorry, that was stupid. Let’s just go then,” Sherry said. “Forget all that, let’s go find a place. You can play some songs for me and we can talk more.”
“It’s a bad idea,” he said through the smoke.
“No, it’s not. Come on. Let’s just go. Go anywhere.”
He took the cigarette from his lips and gave a short laugh, but it wasn’t an expression of amusement. It was more like a realization.
“You might as well have a frame around you and be made of glass,” Ian said. “That’s the thing, I stopped fucking myself a long time ago.”
He took his last puff, dropped the cigarette on the hard floor, and crushed the embers beneath his sole. Ian turned from her and proceeded to walk down the alley.
“Wait, wait,” she yelled, catching his arm. “We could be something. You could play and I could sing. We could go places together, perform, maybe make a little money. Please.”
Ian delicately removed her hand from his coat.
“I’m sorry,” he said, before continuing to walk.
“But why?” she said. “What is it? What do you want?”
He stopped at the end of the alley, his silhouette balanced between the dark walls and the yellow streetlight. The specs of snow were twirling around him, melting as they touched the ground.
“I already told you,” Ian said. “I want nothing. No plans. Nobody.”
His steps faded away from her, back to his car where the engine would rumble, and he would disappear back into the shadows of the road he came from.
Sherry listened to his engine fade. She pressed her back against the rough bricks and slid down into a ball. She waited within the discarded magazine pages and the fast food wrappers, expecting her phone to remind her who she really was. But she had turned it off. She had buried her diamond ring with the hope she could avoid it one more night. Her elbows rested on her knees, and her hands dug hopelessly through her hair. Tears froze across her face.
Sherry sat alone in the cold alleyway. She waited there, hoping some kind hand might come along, pick her up, and escort her to a different life. Someone, in some distant future ahead, to take her to the dreams she knew she deserved. But the walls of the alley were not fading away, and no crowds were standing to cheer. The bowl of cereal was still waiting for her at the bar, getting warmer with each passing second: a little less edible, a little less wanted.