Stephen Dorneman is a longtime Boston resident who workshops his writing at Boston's Grub Street and with the Bay State Scribblers. His stories have appeared in Bartleby Snopes, Prime Number, Weave Magazine, Juked, The Drum, and other publications.
Alex and Maria led the way down the dimly lit alley, with Charlie following behind. A late afternoon thunderstorm had cleared most of the heat and humidity from Prague’s medieval streets, but in return left a treacherous field of slick cobblestones and opalescent pools of unknown depth.
“Oh ye of little faith, look at that. I knew the Blue Note would still be here.” Alex gestured towards a flickering neon arrow pointing down an uneven set of limestone stairs, then signed to his deaf wife. A rusting metal eighth note hung above the failing neon.
Charlie looked down at his feet, where the arrow’s reflection danced across the surface of an oil-slicked puddle to the beat of a bass line that he sensed more than heard. He wished he knew American Sign Language so he could ask Maria what she felt. Alex and Charlie had worked together for more than a year, Alex in sales and Charlie in software solutions, but this was the first time Charlie had met Alex’s wife. In her late twenties, Maria was ten years younger than Alex and Charlie. Her parents still lived in Hungary, and now that the project was finished Alex and Maria were off to Budapest tomorrow while Charlie was flying back to Charlotte alone. Maria was the most beautiful woman Charlie had ever seen, taller than either Charlie or Alex, with almond-shaped eyes and long black hair, red lips that matched her high-heeled shoes. She had smiled and laughed at every new twist and false turn their journey had taken in the ancient streets.
Charlie didn’t get out often. After school he’d gone on a couple of dates with women that his mother had found for him, or the occasional friendly co-worker with nothing better to do, but they hadn’t led anywhere. By the start of Junior High Charlie had stopped growing, although recently he’d been putting some weight on his slight frame. Every pound showed when you were only five foot three.
Most of the women he’d been set up with had been too big for his taste, chunky and comfortable like Charlie’s mother and grandmother, but he still tried to have fun, tried to show them a good time. Then, after his mother died and he moved back into his childhood home, he stopped trying altogether.
“Doesn’t sound like any blues I’m familiar with,” Charlie said.
“It’s the Czech Republic, Charlie, for Christ’s sake. Who knows what kind of Euro-pop, Russian punk, Afro-Carib jazz fusion opening act they’ve got here on a Tuesday night? Come on Technical Support, let’s get your mojo working. Show us how the geeks roll.”
Maria signed something short and barked her odd laugh that Charlie had already gotten used to, then rolled her eyes grandly at her husband for Charlie’s benefit before Alex led them down the stairs. She could only read lips a little, Alex had said, although she seemed to read her husband more than well enough. The steps led under a low stone arch and on to a passageway lit by a single bare bulb. The corridor ended in a massive wooden door blocked by an equally massive bald-headed man wearing a too-small white tuxedo jacket over a black t-shirt and grey sweat pants. The doorman glanced at Alex and Charlie, then stared at Maria for a lingering moment before holding out a stubby hand. He wore heavy silver rings on his thumb and little finger.
“Pět sto koruna,” the doorman asked.
The doorman brushed an invisible speck of lint off one satin lapel, ignoring the question.
“German? I mean, sprechen Sie Deutsch?” Alex tried again.
Charlie did the math in his head, something he was good at. “Five hundred crowns? That’s more than thirty bucks. Kind of steep for a cover charge.”
“Capitalism,” Alex said. “The Czechs might have come late to the table, but they’re making up for it. Not to mention what the dollar’s been doing lately. Pay the man, I’ll find a way to expense it.”
Charlie shrugged and stepped up to the door, pulling a selection of brightly colored banknotes out of his overstuffed wallet and handing them one at a time to the man. When the pile totaled five hundred, the doorman held up one thick finger on his other hand. Charlie looked back at Alex.
“Five hundred each?”
“Of course. And don’t forget to tip. I’m serious.”
The iron-bound wooden door opened and the three Americans pushed through the vibrating wall of backbeat and cigarette smoke that swirled just inside the entrance and stumbled down one more block of dark stone into the club.
There were no tables or seats, not even stools along the brushed aluminum bar that snaked the length of one wall. What lighting there was came from blue neon tubes running under the liquor shelves, plus strings of oversized red, white, and blue Christmas lights taped across the low stone ceiling. A dread-locked pale-skinned DJ sat behind an impressive array of electronics on a low stage opposite the bar, controlling the pounding dance music and the dancers who thrashed at the sounds along with him. The floor was full but not packed, a few couples but mostly young women dancing by themselves or in small groups, wearing low-cut blouses or lacy, see-thru dresses with chunky plastic bracelets in pastel colors. The majority of the men clustered around the two bartenders, forming a smoking, gesticulating, hard-drinking mass.
Charlie pulled Alex next to him and shouted in his ear.
“Doesn’t look like a blues crowd to me.”
“Well, we already paid, might as well stay and get some drinks. Maria will like this music better, anyway. Lots of boom-boom. Why don’t you dance with her?” Alex shouted back, signing to Maria. Without waiting for a reply he headed towards the bar. Charlie shrugged at Maria, who smiled, momentarily wrinkling her nose, then shrugged back, and they pushed into the gyrating mob of slender bodies and glowing polyester.
Charlie remembered the last time he’d been dancing, at a cousin’s wedding reception almost twelve years ago, not long after his father’s accident. He’d escorted his mother to the wedding of two people he barely knew, and then to the reception in a nearby Knights of Columbus hall. It took them more than three hours to drive to Raleigh from home.
For most of the party Charlie sat with his mother while she received condolences from the same stream of people they’d seen at the funeral. Every once in a while Charlie would get up for another bottle of beer, and the occasional Tom Collins for his mother. Later, when the afternoon had worn down into the evening, one of the bridesmaids asked Charlie to dance with her. He remembered joking with her about her outlandish dress, a whirlwind of shiny pink ribbons and white gauze, and they shared a laugh while writhing to an old Isley Brothers hit. Later in the car, his mother let slip that she had asked the bridesmaid if she would dance with Charlie.
“Promise me you’ll find someone you can have fun with,” his mother said on the ride back to Charlotte. “That’s the only thing I want from you.” That was the closest they ever came to talking about what they both knew, about how unhappy his parents had been with each other since well before Charlie, an unexpected and unwanted only child, was born. He always wondered what motivated his parents to stay together until that morning when his father drove into a bridge abutment on a clear September day, on the same route he’d driven to work every day for the past fifteen years. Probably it was for him.
Back at the Blue Note, Charlie ran through what few dance motions he remembered before settling into a semblance of the local crowd’s jerky arm and leg movements that let him spend most of his attention watching Maria. He wondered if she heard any of the music with her ears, or only felt the beat as vibrations through her feet, or the fluttering of air on her skin.
He wondered if she liked him, and he twisted down to his knees in an Elvis-inspired spin move, hoping to make her laugh. The twist got a broad smile from Maria, and loud giggles from a Czech girl dancing next to Maria, apparently by herself.
“American?” The girl shouted to Charlie in heavily accented but intelligible English. She wore a transparent sleeveless blouse over a black bra, and a short red skirt with a wide gold belt and matching heels. The girl had slashes of blue makeup across her cheekbones and over her eyes that, together with her outfit, made her look like a comic book character moving at super-speed.
“I am Zelenka, hello. Are you lovers?” Zelenka pointed with her thumb from Charlie to Maria and back again. Charlie started to shout a negative, then stopped and looked over at Maria. Maria smiled politely, and continued dancing. Charlie wondered what he, they, must look like to prompt such a question. Happy, he guessed. Like happy people that should be together. Something different for him. He knew it was only an illusion, but appearances meant something, and maybe he wasn’t ready for reality.
Charlie glanced over toward the bar. Alex was nowhere to be seen.
“Yes, yes we are. We are lovers. We are happy lovers!” He shouted at Zelenka, beaming and gesturing first at himself and then at Maria.
Zelenka clapped and laughed, then moved closer and rubbed up against him, her pelvis against his hip, and ran long red fingernails down both the front and the back of his shirt, all the way down to below the belt of his black dress chinos.
“Too bad. Need extra girl more sex? Maybe sex both of you? Good price.”
Charlie could feel his smile falling away, as something that he had only pretended he had found was already lost. Maria stopped dancing, threw back her head, and laughed.
“No. No, thank you.” Charlie shouted.
Zelenka moved away without another word and vanished into the crowd of swirling arms and legs.
The DJ cut smoothly into a new song at about the same time Alex returned with three bottles of beer. Charlie ignored Maria’s rapid signing to Alex, took a beer, and shuffled over towards the other men at the bar, muttering an apology to no one living, an apology that no one could hear, to no one other than himself.