“I wanted him to come back,” she said, the sleeve of her striped pink blouse sagging to expose the protruding, wing-like bone of her shoulder blade. Sloshing the water around in her glass, she whispered, “I need to get this water out of my veins.”
“Excuse me, miss,” said the bartender.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t realize anyone was listening.”
“Are you all right?”
That was how I met Miss Virginia Redd. It was Mardi Gras when she appeared in my bar on the corner of Linden and 26th. I remember that when she emerged from the night she looked cold. It was 60 degrees outside, the warmest Fat Tuesday I had ever seen. The snow left over from the Sunday before had melted, and the sidewalks were marked with wet spots like boils on a leper.
She sat down at the far corner of the bar on the last torn, plush stool, and she let her black jacket fall off her shoulders and down around her hips. Sure enough, her uncovered arms were lined up and down with goose bumps. “Something to warm you up, miss?” I asked.
“Yes, please. I’ll have a whiskey. And a glass of water, too.”
“Be right back,” I said to her.
I poured her the tallest glass of water I could find, hoping she would use it to dilute the shot of whiskey to make it last longer. There wasn’t any way that she could tolerate more than one drink.
“Here you are,” I said as I gave her the drinks.
“Thanks,” she managed.
“Say, what’s a pretty little thing like you doing in a joint like this on Mardi Gras? Shouldn’t you be out somewhere dancing or having a good time?”
Her eyes met mine as I said this. “I wanted him to come back.”
“You wouldn’t care. It’s no big deal. Besides, you’ve got other customers that need a little something for their thirst.”
“Try me. What’s your name?”
“All right. My name’s Virginia.”
As she started to tell me about herself, I studied her carefully. She looked to be my daughter’s age—20, if that. Her legs went all the way up to her behind and were wrapped in beige pantyhose. Pacific blue eyes dotted her round face. Above the marbles of blue, puffy lids sagged, trying to close down upon her portals to the world. Below, crusty mascara littered the wells of her eyes. Deep, dark circles ran rings over her cheekbones. I couldn’t imagine her any other way, although I tried many times after to remold her face. I suppose you could call her striking, but there was something morbid about her at that instant, a unique, desperate kind of beauty that made me think of wilting roses.
“We said goodbye yesterday, like always. He said he’d see me today. I waited and waited. I waited all day. I wanted him to come back. He didn’t come back. I always had this feeling deep in the bowels of my stomach that he’d leave me, the same as how they all did.”
But I wasn’t listening anymore. All I could think about was her stifling that feeling of desperation every time it tried to gasp for air, wringing the breath out of it with her bare hands when it attempted to surface. Every attractive aspect of her appearance disappeared with the emergence of that vision in my head.
Throwing her head back, she finished her whiskey. Returning to an upright position, Virginia put down the glass and picked up her water, gulping rapidly until the glass was half empty, mirroring her inward condition.
“Do you have somewhere to stay tonight?” I asked her, concerned.
“Yeah. Yeah, don’t worry about me. I’m sure you see a lot of people like me. How much do I owe you?”
“Two fifty.” She reached in her handbag and pulled out a five and tossed it at me, not maliciously. “Keep it. I have no use for it.”
Returning to her handbag, she took out a silver compact with the initials V.R. scrawled on it and started applying blush to her pallid cheeks. “What’s the ‘R’ for?” I asked.
“My last name’s Redd.”
That was the evening Miss Virginia Redd disrupted my bland existence and injected her urgency into my life. I haven’t seen her since that night, but I check the billboards when I walk by them and the obituaries in the papers that the drunks leave at the bar.
Any time I see a wing-backed woman walk into my bar I do a double take, hoping to see Virginia again. I’m not sure why I want to see her. Perhaps she reminds me of my daughter, or of the woman who left me 25 years ago.
Or maybe I just want to save her.