is an online magazine of the literary arts.

6 March 2010 | Vol. 10, No. 1

Pleased to Meet You at the Nebuchadnezzar

Sunken in the bulbous tower of the Belvedere, a waiter experiments with a gesture, swaying on his rotund and cushioned palm the wasted quiddity of a wine glass. Not overly long-stemmed, the glass seems to cling to the deeply inset dimples of his well-fleshed, roomy hand. The puttering small bubbles of the alcohol vanish slowly one by one, as he dithers with gravity.

Over in the Nebuchadnezzar Bar, a white-trash claque awaits, claiming things in a drawl. You can overhear, or the waiter can, references to Atlanta, Corpus Christi, and Knoxville—not any of them places where he would have chosen to ply Rusty Nails, Virgin Marys, or Starlight Specials. (Those places are just spills for thugs and bawds.) But by and by, the belligerents burst their own fray: nocturnal girls slump into their plates of jumbo scallop bits, once speckly with grease, and they mumble about their cats and mothers. The boys bungle thrusts at a ghoulishly glowing video game, or mess with a jukebox, or lip-synch a refrain: I'm needing you, needing you, needing you.

At 1:20 the waiter flings three dozen ice cubes into their last home. All night he has been observing a solitary reader propped up against one of the miniature blue glass tables, avoiding her peanuts with a pacific contempt. For the life of him the waiter cannot glean the words on the spine of her book, rather petite, and formed by a brutal small clarity of intent. She reads as if dedicated to apocrypha. She reads as though possessed of a clear view into the inside room of her. Unwilling to duck low enough into her orbit to be caught staring, he fumbles gladly on the outskirts, not needing it, nor reading it.

Yet by 2 a.m., the boy whom Lorenzo the waiter has come this evening to call The Clunker waddles up from his earthen repose upon a distant barstool to sniff at The Reader. Lorenzo sees The Clunker's mouth open and then wait for certain intimacies to stream out; the girl blinks in acknowledgment, laying a single pale finger in the middle of the book to keep her place for as long as she may. She nods, as if considering a reasonable proposal.

"I saw you sitting all by yourself over here, such a pretty lady, and her nose is in a book. A book! In this place! Said to myself, such a pretty lady shouldn't be by herself, not tonight, she shouldn't be pouring all her pretty self into a book, anyways. So, pretty lady, what are you reading in your big book, and where has your man gone to?"

The girl fans her pages, unbuds her lips, and a few chosen words are released, delighting The Clunker. He lowers himself, and begins to whisper.

The waiter considers how the night might yet turn out. The Reader could go off with The Clunker, her slim volume tucked under her Elysian arm. (Bound, God knows, for The Clunker's dune buggy, purple and badly parked.) Otherwise she may exit sans book, forgetting it in her gleeful haste to skate; her ring-finger would quiver, wrapped up in his. Or, by chance, The Clunker may carry the book for her as the evening unloosens, urging them onward toward an unsure peace.

Possibly there is yet another way to close. Perhaps she will instead choose to finish reading her chapter alone, whatever it is. No other sort of company would suit her indrawn needs so well. When inevitably asked, before saying her goodbyes, she will pause to offer The Clunker a saucy pseudonym for herself, such as Shoshanna Carter or Yvonne Devereaux.

And as she confides her new name to him, The Reader will give The Clunker, now known as Tim from Lafayette, Louisiana, something nice to keep with him forever. She will pause to shake his big, juicy mitt with her own palm and fingers. Inside of it will she linger, if for no longer than she wishes she could.

And The Clunker will be appeased, will feel neither foolish nor bereaved by her farewell. Indeed, he will totter out the thick black double-doors no less himself than he ever was.

About the author:

Molly McQuade has published fiction previously in TriQuarterly and elsewhere. Her story, "Whiffle Ball," was chosen for inclusion in the PEN Syndicated Fiction Project.



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