Black and Tan
A Short Story by Melissa F. Kaelin
Version 6 | Updated Nov. 21, 2019
Not all eyes open windows to the soul. Some, just like the ‘black and tan’ on the counter in front of her, close the blinds to the outside world – made worse by a thick film that forms just beyond the surface.
Jessica leaned against the back of a padded barstool, taking in the ambience of the cherry wood paneling and appreciating the contrast of the liquor lined against the wall. Dimly lit, the bottles winked with reflections on the glass. She took another sip of the foamy beverage and pushed the Guinness mix away from her, the glass still more than half full.
Usually more upbeat, Jessica frowned. For fuck’s sake. The man who just walked in was a complete stranger, and it didn’t make any difference. Jessica couldn’t even look at him. Least of all, make eye contact.
Until she caught a glimpse of his dark features, Jessica had intended to strike up a conversation. She was new in town, and opportunities like this were few and far between. She constantly found herself caught navigating between the urge to hide in corners and the desire to truly know someone, to befriend an unfamiliar human on a deep and meaningful level. She’d gone out of her way to find an empty bar, the rustic place on the street corner, hoping it would serve as an urban escape.
When she arrived, the bartender had read her expression swiftly and effortlessly, taking the hint. He carried a white cloth to the clean glasses on the far end of the bar. Maybe he’d recognized a paranoia in her, a drastically exaggerated tendency to assume that people would always see the worst. Maybe he was just obliging her, because she was acting so damn shy. However he had it sorted, the two of them had been basking in a sweet, relative silence for more than an hour.
But now, they weren’t alone.
The stranger pulled up a stool at the bar, just two seats down from her. He exchanged a handshake with the bartender, in an unusual way. Clean shaven, he wore a leather jacket with more fasteners and straps then she’d ever seen on one garment, and his hair was slicked into curls that covered his forehead. The man held his head high. Higher, she suspected, than he should. Staring ahead at the top-shelf liquors, he hunched forward a tad, and pulled a thick, black wallet out of his back jeans pocket – where it had protruded conspicuously, leaving a faded square crease on the denim panel.
Jessica saw the square as he turned his ass in the stool. The square was so pronounced, it looked absolutely juvenile. In spite of herself, she let out a tiny laugh.
Tipping his face downward, the stranger glanced over at her. She turned her head slightly, a grin forming on her lips. Then he flashed his two beady eyes. They were the type that reflected no light. The type that hid any hint of emotion. Were they black or grey? Or a deeply dismissive brown? She couldn’t know, because just as soon as he glanced her direction, he looked away.
Reluctantly, Jessica reached out and wrapped her slender fingers around the formerly rejected glass of stout and pale ale. She’d wanted to order something to match her mood, but she’d also craved the chance to savor the taste of something new. So, she settled on a drink outside of the norm. It was disgusting. Utterly bitter and dark. She took a huge swig, drowning her discomfort, and set the glass down on the counter with a declarative tap.
The stranger pushed his thick arms on top of the counter, his elbows jutting out wide. Wrinkles in his leather coat absorbed the dim light from the bar, but a few metal buttons on the coat kicked back a narrow shine from the wrists and a strap near the elbow. His presence was trying to make a statement, though Jessica couldn’t be sure what that statement was, exactly.
Finally, the stranger spoke. “What are you in for?”
“In for?” Jessica turned to face him dead-on, bending the corner of her lips. “What kind of question is that?”
“You’re doing time, aren’t ya? No one drinks alone for the sheer thrill of it.” He wasn’t looking at her, instead staring straight ahead.
“One gin and tonic.” The bartender slid a short glass smoothly across the bar, and it came to rest in the man’s tan, callused hands. “Anything else I can get for you?”
“Just keep ‘em coming,” he said. Then he spoke to Jessica, though he could have just as easily been speaking to the barkeep, the bar itself, or even the shadows on the wall. “You’ve been here what? Two hours now? Three?”
“A guessing game, huh?” Jessica laughed freely, hoping to break the tension.
She held onto the edge of the ‘black and tan,’ wishing she could will the beverage to satisfy her tastes. Whether she liked it or not, it was her go-to drink now. She’d need something strong to withstand the stark vibes this guy was putting off. At this rate, she’d be drinking Guinness all night.
The man wasn’t cold and calculating. Not exactly. Somehow, he was more aloof. Dry and disparaging. Resigned.
Jessica pulled in a deep breath, her mouth just barely open, and she held the air in her lungs, before allowing herself a slow and steady release. She turned to look at the man again, this time keeping an aura about her – a more confident presence that called for a response.
This time, the stranger returned her gaze.
She stared into his face, and he stared back, unflinching but guarded. His expression – his nose, his mouth, the creases in his skin – didn’t move. Neither did his eyes. Jessica held the stare, trying not to convey any emotion. This was fool’s poker, and there was nothing on the table. Neither of them even had any chips.
After a time, the stranger blinked. To anyone else, he might have lost a staring contest, but this man’s momentarily lapse was something else entirely. Jessica watched as he lowered his lids purposefully and lifted them again, only to reveal lightless eyes. She’d seen them before. Not his eyes, of course. But the eyes to a lightless soul.
Before she’d moved to Williamston, Jessica had everything she could’ve hoped for. She’d sealed the love for her best friend within the vows of marriage, and she’d gone on to land a rewarding career and find a ritzy condo, where they could both thrive in a hip neighborhood of Madison. From the rustic bar, Wisconsin was several states away, and so, too, was the colorless ash of Michael’s eyes.
Once genuine pools of warm amber, Michael’s eyes had grown less reflective over time. The hue had always aligned with his ability, or lack of it, to harbor the good things in life. His eyes would shine with the glow of a sun-kissed wave when he created a new acrylic painting. And they would obstruct the light like a well-placed rock when he failed to make a deadline for his dissertation. Light would dance through his pupils the second she handed him a bouquet of tulips, and it would vanish the minute she disagreed with his view on a political issue. In love at first sight, the two had floated the challenges that confronted them over the years, their beaming faces taking a hit when her father left, when his sister died, and when the beloved tree in the front yard collapsed on the condo one spring. Each year, Jessica walked with her shoulders high, and each year, she watched apprehensively as Michael’s disposition darkened, a little at a time.
The light began to fade from their lives, and, as it did, the light gradually disappeared from Michael’s eyes. She thought it would be okay, if only she turned on the warm fixture that illuminated the dinner table in the evening, or used the cozy lamp in the den – where they would sit together quietly on Sunday evenings. If nothing else, her husband’s eyes still lit up when she pressed her lips to his. Or told him she loved him. Or again whispered that pseudo-secret phrase – one mantra that perfectly captured how much Michael meant to her.
The stranger clapped his empty gin and tonic down on the wooden counter, indicating he was ready for another round, and Jessica blinked rapidly, trying to remember where she was. She could still see Michael’s expression, the last time she kissed him, when the muscles in his face didn’t move, and her lips landed on unresponsive skin. A clap had sounded then too. The clap of the screen door, as Michael swung it closed behind him, leaving her side for the last time.
At odds with any poise she’d portrayed, Jessica lifted her hand slowly to her cheek. Her fingers quivered. When she touched the soft spot beneath her eyes, the bulge of a half dozen tears soaked her fingertips, the tears streaming unchecked down the ridge of her nose.
Worst of all, neither of them had budged. She was still starting at a devastating stranger. And, he, beholding her with lightless eyes, hadn’t dropped her absent-minded gaze.
“I… uh,” Jessica reached deep inside herself to find words of some sort. But she didn’t know whether she should search her intuition, her memories or her heart for something to say. “This is…”
The stranger held his hand loftily in the air, and, when he neared, whispered something to the barkeep, before passing her a fresh, no-frills draft. “Let me guess,” he said. “You’re not together anymore.”
“No,” Jessica whispered. Grateful for the cold liquid on her lips, she took a sip of the draft. “This isn’t as dark.”
The man smirked. “You come here a lot?”
“This is the first time.” She tilted her head a smidgeon, wondering if a different angle would reveal the color of the stranger’s eyes. There was no way they could be black. Was that even possible? But the more she studied him, the more he began to look like a ghost from her past, and she recoiled.
The bartender came to check on their drinks. “Would you like another? This one’s on him.” He winked at Jessica and waited for her reply, until she shook her head lightly. “What do you say, my friend?”
“You got it.” The bartender turned to fetch a clean glass and new bottle of gin off the wall.
“You must live nearby then,” he said, his face devoid of emotion.
Deja vu sent a chill down her neck.
“Sort of. Now, I do.”
“I guess the same thing that happens to other people,” she said. “We grew apart.”
“That’s code, isn’t it?” The stranger watched her at an angle, showing interest, just not enough to sincerely engage. “Cheated. Am I right? That’s where it ends.”
“Not this ending.” Jessica found his questions off-putting, but she really needed to talk. She couldn’t think of anyone else to talk to at this hour. “The ending fell on him. He’s the one who held our marriage under a microscope, and decided it was shit.”
“That’s a game that takes two to play.” He eyed her with suspicion, acting weary of what she might say next. “Do you take any responsibility?”
“Take responsibility?” She folded her arms across her chest for a second. Who the hell did this guy think he was? Like he had the right to ask. Still, it wasn’t the first time the past had spilled pain onto the present, even in conversation. She knew what he meant, and she yielded to him. “We both made mistakes. I’ll be the first to admit that.”
“Right.” He sounded skeptical.
“You don’t understand,” Jessica said. “It wasn’t like that. This man, the man who I called my husband, devised his own ending. Life was unfair. Sure. Neither of us asked for the hand we were dealt. But you don’t just fold. I don’t care if you’re getting taken for everything you’re worth. You don’t fold.”
Allen’s posture was rigid, and he watched her from the careful distance he’d created in the space of two barstools. If anything, he appeared to be stunned by her words.
She emptied her glass, and all but dropped it on the bar. “He didn’t,” she said, nearly losing her cool, “cheat on me.”
Jessica glared at Allen, with her breathing elevated and anger filling her eyes. He watched her, but his beady eyes darted around, their dark core avoiding any hint of vulnerability. She didn’t even want to know what he was thinking.
“That’s lucky,” he said, ignoring the strain in her face. He took a heavy sip of his gin, and set it down on the counter, staring straight ahead.
Jessica gazed in his direction, pleading for a single, human connection. The blackness of his eyes offended her senses. She felt like she might be sick, and she moved to get up and leave.
Before she could go, the stranger spoke again. His voice lost the hard edges and dropped to a near whisper. “Well…” he said, “she cheated on me.”
On the verge of raising her voice, Jessica fell silent. Her shoulders slumped, and she remembered the worst days of her marriage. The days when she didn’t know why Michael was slipping. The days when his unresponsive resign seemed like just a skim off the surface. The days when she was sure their discontent harbored a corner cupboard packed with shameful secrets. She had entered her marriage thinking no mistake could ever be too severe, nothing too painful to overcome. Now, the mere thought of him taking another woman knocked her to her knees. Jessica shook off the pain.
“Cheated,” he said. “Can you believe that?”
She swore she saw a tear, as it welled up on the lower portion of his eyelid.
“I sacrificed everything for her.” He signaled the barkeep for another round. “I gave up the very core of who I was.”
“I…” Jessica said, her voice deflated. “I know what you mean.” She loosened her grip on the glass, and set her hand on the back frame of the stool next to her. Then she reached out to touch his hand, which leaned slack against the bar.
Gently, the stranger touched her hand in return. He surrendered the veil that blinded her, dropping the shield between them, and his eyes rapidly softened into a warm pool of brown. He enclosed her hand in his and held it for a moment, the charged energy around them changing as their skin warmed to one another’s touch.
Relief moved through her, and she could feel the color coming back to her face. Not as hesitant as before, Jessica responded with a smile. She was thankful for the validation. Another voice had given words to the emotions she could not. An liberating breath moved easily through her chest.
Two strangers, briefly open, they shared the honesty of the moment. Their eyes locked, a ledge no longer standing between their souls. In the dim light of the bar, she could see his eyes were unmistakably brown. On the inner circles, they even flashed a tender pattern of tan.
. . .
© Copyright 2019 by Melissa F. Kaelin