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.