The Bad Penny Blues played on the anceint jukebox and tremored as it blared out boogie woogie to an unappreciative crowd. The place smelled of old wood, stale beer and the sweat of lonely men. A baseball game flicked on the television screen over the bar but nobody bothered the score. The rain pounded on the roof and added to the percussion wailing through the room – music, mumbles and shots of cheap whiskey made a nice mixed drink.
Brian slouched on a bar stool as the leak from the roof kerplunked fetid water next to his beer, joining the ring of condensation and forming a little pool of germs. He had a stack of napkins upon which he made furious notes – oblivious to the atmosphere and forced laughter. Stopping occasionally to look up to the corner of his mind for a word that raced to elude his grasp and pleased when he closed his fist around it. Drunks jostled past, knocking Brian in the back and arm, causing his beautiful silver fountain pen to fly more than once out of his hand. Unruffled he would only fish it out from wherever it landed, never letting it phase him or swat away his train of thought. He wrote every night in a place like this, among strangers and chaos. About her. Avoiding the dark quiet of his own four rooms as long as possible – well after last call.
But the night was young and Brian had some words that needed to be free and he lit a cigarette, paying no mind to no smoking signs and admonitions. He raised his empty mug and waved it at the bartender. And drank down half again when a new one appeared.
“What are you writing?” a small but clear voice asked to his left.
Brian didn’t care to stop but the voice puzzled him because it was out of place here – it possessed no edge, no wheeze or whiskied breath. A sidelong glance revealed a petite, old woman peering over his arm, lips moving as she read the scratch marks jotted on the napkin. “Poetry,” Brian grunted.
“What kind of poetry?” the woman asked with curious clear green eyes meeting his.
“The private kind,” Brian snapped yet could not look away from those unblinking eyes.
The woman nodded, “All right then.” She waved to the bartender which made a delicate gold charm bracelet twinkle a little dance. Shortly, a glass of green concoction was delivered to her. With dainty hand she brought the drink to her lips and sipped. A smile tugged at the corners of her mouth and with her free hand, she smoothed the skirt of her green knit dress.
Brian lost interest in his poetry and studied the woman content to sit in a raucous bar and quietly drink. She looked straight ahead and focused on no particular thing – her gaze flitted in a lazy comfortable way that Brian couldn’t imitate. “Are you here alone?” he asked.
“Yes, quite alone,” the woman nodded.
“Wouldn’t you be more comfortable in your home? This is not a safe place for a woman alone.”
“Alice,” she said and smiled, “my name is Alice. And you are?”
“Brian,” he answered without thinking.
“Nice to meet you, Brian. Now you see I am not alone.” She winked and continued to sip at her frothy green brew.
Brian shook his head. “Oh no, I cannot be responsible for you. I have come here to write and be left alone,” he insisted. Why was the woman dressed from head to toe in green? Ghastly green at that?
“Yes, I know,”Alice nodded. “You come here quite a lot. You like to write on the napkins and stuff them in your pockets and mutter to yourself, don’t you? I wonder though why a young man who can afford such a pen can’t afford a pad of paper. Those napkins cost money you know.”
Brian smiled but Alice was impervious to the standard charm. “Oh, it’s just a few napkins. I buy plenty of beer around here. I think I’m entitled to a few napkins.” But he felt himself flush and wanted Alice to be somewhere else especially because her eyes bothered him, clear, unblinking, challenging in a way he couldn’t discern. “I have to get back to what I’m doing, Alice.” He picked up his pen again but the mood was gone and with it the words.
“Writer’s block?” Alice asked a little sarcastically and Brian felt those eyes on him again. A flash of recognition bolted through his mind and was gone. “I say, writer’s block?” Alice repeated.
Brian capped his pen and stuffed the napkins, all of them, in his pocket. He drained the last of his beer and threw some cash on the bar. “Sorry Alice, I do require the absence of company.”
Alice nodded. “I suppose I should be going too. Walk me to the bus stop?”
Brian’s gut told him to get away from the strange woman but his manners dictated that he oblige her. “All right then, let’s go.”
They stepped out into the night and the rain had slowed to a misty air that fogged gently over the slick streets. They walked slowly toward the bus stop which was only a block away but seemed so far to Brian because of Alice’s chattering. She went on about her daughter, recently deceased and how sad she was to have lost the one dear thing in her life.
“Yes, yes,” Brian muttered in mock consolation, wishing the bus stop were closer.
“She killed herself you know,” Alice said. “But of course you know, don’t you?”
There was a two second delay of the words impinging on Brian’s brain. “Suicide,” he said involuntarily.
“Yes, that’s right,” Alice’s voice sounded different and Brian looked over at her. She stood stock still, aiming a large gun at him.
“What?” Brian chuckled for a minute, the vision of the tiny woman weilding a weapon seemed so ludicrous – but there was a glint in those eyes, even in the dark and misty night, that made him suddenly cold. “Now Alice, why are you pointing a gun at me?”
“Because I want you to feel what she felt. Hopeless and seeing her life at an end. Unloved. Beaten to her knees. Are you feeling a litte bit nervous now, Brian?” Alice had transformed into a predator in a wink.
“You must have me confused with someone else…”
Alice smirked. “The pen dear, I helped her pick it out. There is not another like it. It is special, just like you.” And Alice pulled the trigger, relishing the shock in Brian’s eyes. And again and again until there were no more bullets left to discharge. Alice looked down at the lifeless body for a long while. No one came, no sirens, no shouts – just her, the gun, the body and the wet, dark night. She bent and emptied his pockets of the napkins, the pen and just for good measure his wallet and watch and stuffed it all in her green purse. “Didn’t you know, Brian, a bad penny always has a way of turning up? But if you’re smart you toss them in the gutter.” Alice smiled and shuffled to the bus stop.
CHRISTINE’S BAD PENNY IS THATTA WAY