The Flamingo Room
By Alexis Leno
Dead leaves crunched beneath heavy boots as two young men laughed on the silent street. Their voices echoed, traveling on the autumn wind, swirling through the street as the last remnants faded away. Fall had arrived and all of the trees had lost their lush green leaves to the subtle change of season. The air had a crisp feel to it and smelled fresh. The street was slicked from a midday rain, moist leaves plastered to its glistening surface.
The two men shoved at each other, each dressed casually in jeans and button down shirts. The moon hovered in the sky, illuminating a path for the two friends, almost guiding them towards the bar across the street. The pink neon sign flickered, buzzing slightly as the light readjusted and filled the words: The Flamingo Room.
From behind, the men looked almost exactly the same. They were the same height and had the same stocky build. They both walked with their shoulders back and their heads forward, despite their joking manner. The differences between them relied on their features above the neck: one blue-eyed and blonde, and the other brown-eyed and brunette.
The blonde shoved his counterpart toward the open door to the bar. He could smell the dense fog of smoke wafting out through the opening along with the smooth jazz of a local piano player. He closed his eyes and let the music engulf him, eager to forget the real reasons behind their night of drinking.
“Ben, come on!” the brunette slurred, his eyes nearly losing their focus. Ben was not as far gone as his friend; he had never been able to let himself fall into the trap that alcohol placed. Everything for Ben was about protecting himself. Alcohol was just another predator.
Ben followed his friend, taking care to step over the threshold carefully. His companion nearly leapt through the doorway, moving his feet as quickly as possible to the bar. He collapsed in a bar stool, raising his voice loudly above the soul searching music.
“I need a drink! A beer!” he yelled.
Ben slid into the empty seat on his right. The bar was dusty and the table before him felt slick with grime. He resisted the urge to make a face at the unkempt place. The bartender, a tall muscled man, leaned forward and snarled, “Got some identification?”
“I don’t need identification. I’m a soldier. Lieutenant Jason Liam Harrison, at your service!” He laughed loudly, turning towards Ben and pointed his finger hard into the man’s shoulder. Ben had felt worst in his life, but his friend had a lot of strength of his own.
“This here,” Jason continued, “is my best friend.” He gave the bartender a toothy grin as the man looked toward Ben. “He’s Captain Benjamin…” Jason blinked a few times and looked at Ben’s face. He brought a hand up and touched his nose, causing Ben to raise his eyebrow cautiously. Jason dropped his hand and laughed.
“My best friend. I’m the only reason he joined up. And he’s my superior.”
Ben cleared his throat calmly, “Jace, we’re on leave.”
Jason’s head lolled on his neck, but Ben made no move to interject. He felt content to let the man suffer. He had drunk quite a lot and there hadn’t been much Ben could do about it. For the past two hours, he had let Jason verbally abuse him about his promotion. He had felt bad enough as it was about the whole thing. They hadn’t been back from the Middle East for even a week before Ben had been called in for commendation. He and Jason had served together for three years and now, well, it was hard for Jason to take.
Jason turned distractedly towards the sound of the music as Ben turned to speak with the bartender. “Just water for him. But, I’ll take that beer.”
The tan man gave him a sullen nod and set a cold bottle down in front of him. Ben wrapped his fingers around it, feeling the condensation roll down over his fingertips. He could almost taste the liquid across his tongue; a liquid he had been denied for so long. He took a careful sip, the cold fluid refreshing. He turned on the stool and looked after Jason, who was quickly making his way towards the piano. Ben knew it was best not to disturb him; he could be an angry drunk.
Instead, Ben did what he did best: observed. He watched as Jason clumsily made his way through several round tables, tipping over the cheap chairs as he went. The bar was relatively empty, besides the mysterious piano player and a few odd patrons sitting in dark, unnoticing corners. There was an odd blue glow coming from the ceiling, another neon sign. Ben didn’t even bother to read what it said, but rather, watched as the blue reflected on the slick surfaces of the tables his friend passed by.
“Do you play the Macarena?” Jason asked loudly as he approached the piano. The gentle music stopped and Ben felt the room go still and silent. There had been something soothing about the music that he hadn’t realized he was enjoying until it had stopped so abruptly. Taking another swig, he got up, and weaved his way through to the huge black piano on the stage. He was much more graceful than his friend.
He could hear Jason getting into even more trouble. “You’re pretty, what’s your name?”
Ben only hoped that Jason was speaking to a woman. He had seen Jason have too much to drink before and compliment the nearest tree. As he approached, he breathed a sigh of relief to realize that it was true. A young woman sat on the bench of the piano, her long, pale blonde hair covering both of her bare shoulders. She wore a pastel blue dress that had only a hint of glimmer. He watched her pallid cheeks turn a dark shade of red as Jason leaned on top of the piano, grinning broadly at her.
“I’m Abigail,” she replied, holding out her hand to Jason. He leaned forward and kissed it and she chuckled. “You can call me Abby.”
There was something about her voice that made Ben stand as still as a statue. It was low and soft, almost as melodic as the music she played. Ben briefly wondered if she would sing and found that he didn’t mind staying all night to find out.
“Abby, can you play the Maca-“ Ben interceded, nudging his friend hard in the side. Abby frowned as she stared at the two. “Abby, this is Corporal Ben.”
“Alright, Captain. You don’t have to rub it in.”
Ben gave the girl a small, helpless shrug. Her green eyes twinkled as she looked up at him. He was momentarily lost in her gaze as she gave him only the slightest inclination of her head. “Well, nice to meet you as well, Captain Ben.”
Ben opened his mouth to speak, but found that he was speechless. He didn’t quite know what to say to her; anything that came to mind seemed incredibly inadequate. It was the first time that Ben had been silent before a woman. He took another long drink from the bottle, seeing if the alcohol had some magic power that would clear his throat. It did not.
“Captain Ben doesn’t talk much,” Jason explained. He reached out his hand to touch her golden hair as his words began to slur together. “I think I’m a little inebriated.”
Ben shook his head in dismay. There was no way he was going to repeat to Jason in the morning what had happened. He knew that his friend would find it entirely humiliating. “I think it’s time to get him back.”
“Is he a soldier too?” Abby asked curiously, resting her delicate hands in her lap. Ben couldn’t help but stare at them. Compared to his, they were angelic. His were filled with calluses and rough as an old fractured branch. At night, he often thought that there was sand still caught in their cracked crevices.
“Lieutenant Jason Liam Harrison!” Jason piped in, smiling again. Ben thought he looked like a grinning chimpanzee. He certainly felt like he was in some kind of circus. Jason staggered on his feet and Ben held out an arm for his friend to grasp. The swaying man stumbled into a chair, his eyes on the woman seated behind the piano. Ben followed his gaze, his skin prickling at the sight of her.
Normally, when Ben was questioned about his time spent in the military, his mood turned gruff and uninterested. He spent so much time abroad that it was the last thing he wanted to think about when he was home. The two had returned for only a short time and during his vacation there was never any military talk allowed.
Usually. As he stared at the girl, so pale and young, he realized that he didn’t mind talking about it. There was something about her that was oddly comforting, especially in the way she smiled at him and seemed remotely interested in his life. It was hard for him to find girls that saw past the uniform and as he stared into her light green eyes, he realized that she was seeing into his soul. He wished he had eyes like hers; he wished that he could do the same.
“Captain Ben, Captain Ben, moving to another unit, Captain Ben!”
Reluctantly, Ben wrenched his gaze away from the young woman. As he did, he could hear the soft music begin to play again. Jason had his head propped up in his hand, his eyes drooping as his attempt at singing failed. His voice sounded like long nails on a chalkboard, squeaking to the highest octave. The responsible thing would be to bring Jason back to base and deposit him in the bottom of a hard, rusty bunk. Ben wasn’t sure he wanted to return to base so soon. Instead, he let his friend doze in the chair.
Jason would be fine.
Ben leaned against the side of the piano as he watched Abby’s fingers glide over the keys. She pressed them lightly, letting the soft sound reverberate off the walls and fill the bar, rather than consume it with the hard pounding of keys. Her fingers seemed to stretch as they played, both hands moving quickly up and down the length of the piano. She closed her eyes a couple of times, as if she was letting the music flow through her entire body and out of her fingertips. Ben felt privileged just to be allowed to hear the music that she graced the world with.
When her next song came to an end, Ben resisted the urge to clap enthusiastically. It didn’t seem appropriate. Instead, he took another long sip of the beer, realizing it was nearly half gone. He set it down on the table Jason was now snoring on and gave her a small smile.
“You play…beautifully,” he said.
She gave him a sheepish smile. “Why, thank you. I’m sure I’m not the best, but it pays the bills.”
“You’re too modest.” He laughed. He ran a hand nervously through his blonde hair before stuffing his hands in his pockets. “How long have you been playing?”
“All my life,” she replied. He wondered if he was supposed to laugh, if she was trying to be funny. He couldn’t really tell. He had a flash of an infant seated before a baby grand piano, her fingers playing beautifully, despite not even being able to reach the keys. He saw her grinning and gave in to a little chuckle. He was so nervous. “My mother taught me to play. I was about three when we started.”
Ben nodded his head, pretending to understand. Neither of his parents had taught him anything; his mother had left when he was little and his father had dropped him off at his grandparents at the first chance he had gotten. When Ben was seventeen, his grandfather had passed away. At eighteen, his grandmother died of a broken heart. Ben had been alone ever since, besides his best friend: Jason.
Instinctively, he looked over to him. His hair was a disheveled mess and his face was pressed up against the greasy table. Ben could see the shine of the grease reflected in the dim lighting. He shuddered to think of the grease entering his pristine car. Jason’s mouth was also partly open and Ben was positive he was starting to snore.
“He seems like he had a good time tonight, Captain Ben.”
Ben turned his head back to the woman and smiled. “Just Ben, please,” he begged her. He nearly winced each time that Jason added the Captain part onto the beginning of his name. He hadn’t asked to be promoted, it had just happened. It was something Ben didn’t like thinking about let alone talking about.
“Okay, Ben,” she replied.
“That’s better,” he said gruffly. He resisted the urge to pick up the bottle again for another swig. He knew it would only get him in trouble later. “And, he did have fun. The fun part was verbally berating me for hours.”
Abby giggled. “He does seem bitter.”
“A little,” he said. He heard the screech of a chair push backward against the hard floor and turned to see if it was Jason again. His friend was still snoozing peacefully and instead, Ben turned his head towards two men that were getting up from their dark corner table. Both wore leather jackets over their burly frames. One was balding and the other had a full head of dark gray hair. The balding man stared at him, his dark brown eyes almost maddening.
“Who are those guys?” Ben asked, his voice nearly a whisper. He leaned closer to Abby and tried to tear his eyes away from the men as they started to walk towards the bar’s only apparent exit. They walked out the door and disappeared into the night before Abby could respond.
“Regulars. I think their names are John and Buck. I don’t usually talk to people much, I just play.”
Ben didn’t know how men avoided her. Once he had seen her, it had been impossible to look away. He didn’t even want to leave the disgusting place. He wondered again why someone like her would want to spend her time working in such a dismal place. He and Jason were the only patrons that remained. Ben could feel the eyes of the man at the bar on him, burning into his back.
“Am I keeping you then?” Ben asked reproachfully. He knew that interference on any job was never good, even if the bar was empty now.
Abby shook her head and smiled. “No, but it is late.”
Ben wrinkled his nose distastefully. He turned to look at Jason, who was now slumping out of his chair. The man at the bar was polishing another glass feverishly, his eyes penetrating and completely focused on the three by the stage. Ben turned back to Abby, unwilling to leave. There was something about her that made him want to stay riveted to the spot. He wanted to ask her for her phone number, or some way to get in touch with her. As he opened his mouth to ask, she stood up abruptly, slamming the cover to the keys down with a quick bang. The noise echoed in the silent bar and made Jason jump awake.
“Are we home yet?” he asked, yawning tiredly. He leaned back in his chair, letting his head roll and nodded off again. Ben looked at Abby with a startled expression on his face.
She began to walk towards the man at the bar. She was walking so quickly that it was hard for Ben to keep up with her thin frame, mostly due to the few drinks he had circulating through his system. She stopped at a door and turned, putting on her best smile. Ben knew there was something off about it and that some of the innocence he had seen before was lost.
“I really should be getting home now.”
He held up a hand to ask her to wait, but she turned abruptly and disappeared behind the door. The muscled barman stepped in front of it, crossing his big arms and staring at Ben with his burning eyes. The man was only a slight bit taller than Ben, but he stood on his tiptoes only to see the door swinging on its hinges, with not enough intensity to allow him a peek inside.
The man made a grunting noise, a low noise that rumbled up from his toes and made the ground at Ben’s feet shake. He took a gentle step backward, nearly tumbling over the thin plastic chair behind him. Jason was standing now and walked over to put a strong arm on Ben’s shoulder.
“Ben…what’s going on?” His words were still slightly slurred, but his mind seemed to be a little calmer. He wasn’t calling Ben Captain, at least.
“Nothing, let’s get out of here.”
Ben and the man stared at each other for another long moment before Jason tugged on his arm. The two walked out, both utterly bewildered.
“What happened in there?” Jason asked. Once out in the cold, night air, both of their heads seemed to be on the path to clearance. Ben hadn’t realized how much the smoky bar had affected him. He almost felt as if he were dipping his head into a vat of cold water on an early morning. Ben gave Jason a feeble shrug as his boot hit the hard, black pavement. The sound of his boot clapping against the ground made him want to walk even more quickly away.
“I’m not sure I ever want to go back.” Ben shivered. He wasn’t sure if it was from thinking about the hazy bar, or from the cold surrounding him. He glanced back, unsure if he never wanted to return. Abigail would be there and it would be almost worth it to go back and do everything all over again. But, there was something strange there, something Ben couldn’t put his finger on.
“I don’t remember much,” Jason admitted. He stuffed his hands into his pockets and continued walking, hoping that Ben would follow him. The two turned the corner, idly chatting as they disappeared from view.
In the darkness, at the side of the bar, Abby leaned against the red bricks and watched the two go. She felt a slight disturbance in the air around her and without even looking she smiled somewhat sadly. “Hello, Huck.”
“You know, he could have been the one.” A deep voice replied solemnly. Abby turned to face the barman, her eyes filled with the same sadness in her voice.
“I know,” she replied. She turned and looked after them again, but she knew that they were gone. She hoped that they would not return. “It’s really better this way, Huck. It really is.” She wasn’t sure if she was trying to convince herself, or him, of the reality. She disappeared back into the building and Huck watched her go. He knew that the men would return, at least one of them, and he wouldn’t be surprised when they did. As Abigail disappeared, Huck hoped she would change her mind. Their future depended on it.
© Alexis Leno 2008