The guard palmed him something as he stepped down to the melting  asphalt. Apart from the firm handshake, all he’d said was ‘Go to The Owl. You look like a goddam bum’, before stepping back up in to the bus. Any passers by would have seen a very tall, sun-marked man in a suit three sizes too large for his wiry frame. His polished shoes had a high shine, at odds with the greying stubble and mop of hair that sprouted from his head at all angles. Awash with panic, he allowed himself to acknowledge that he was on his own for the first time in five years. It felt eerie. Like dreaming. Opening his palm he found five dollars, dampened with his own sweat. His heart was thumping as he drew a carton of cigarettes from his pocket, shucking one out.

‘You coming in stretch, cuz  I could really  do with one of those right about now.’ A smoky voice drew his gaze across the street, and they settled on a pair of onyx eyes set in high cheekbones. ‘C’mon- let’s see what’s under all that hair, boss’. She had the look of a Flamenco dancer he’d seen on a magazine cover, all sass and fire. Her eyes lingered on his face a moment too long for comfort before she turned on her heel and disappeared. He followed immediately, instinctively tugging his cuffs over freshly-chafed wrists. Ducking under the lintel, he glanced up at a black owl logo, its eyes boring in to his. It was deliciously cool in the shop after the morning’s heat, and he honed in to the tinny radio wafting through from the back.

‘Bring back memories boss’? He lashed around, startled by her voice. She was shockingly close, and he saw  delicate lines framing her lopsided grin. ‘Say what’?, he stammered, alarmed by this nearness. ‘Folsom prison’, she said in her smoky voice, the words delivered slowly with southern drawl. ‘Take a seat, Mr Cash’. He was glad of the seat, as his first smoke in 5 years made him instantly dizzy and nauseous; nicotine coursing hot through his body. He’d been smoking the same pack when they busted him.  In the mirror she shimmered in front of him like a mirage, her scarlet house dress clinging to her in the humidity.

With no warning, she pressed her face to his scalp and inhaled sharply, resting her hands on his coathanger shoulders. ‘Well now, looks like we’ve got ourselves a Lincoln Heights boy’. It was the most intimate exchange he’d experienced in a long time and made him feel shy. ‘Howdya guess’ was all he could muster. She grinned again, her black eyes lighting up. ‘I’d know that carbolic soap smell anywhere stretch, and your body and skin reek of bucking barley in a chain gang. Plus, I got me a damn smart nose. I’m a perfumier’. His own senses were on fire. Just to be touched, even  for the briefest moments, was overwhelming. Her own perfume intoxicated him; a sharp tang of lime, with something like cinnamon that made the hairs on his neck tingle. He felt he could feel her body’s warmth as she stood next to him. He felt beyond aroused.

Yet he was powerless to express any of what he felt. Five years in the slammer had left him semi-mute and bereft of almost all confidence. Clearing his throat he stammered ‘I’m sorry I offended that smart nose of yours. I must smell awful. Prison ain’t exactly fragrant’. She grinned again, sending his head spinning. He had to look away. Her voice when it came was softer. ‘How bout that smoke then?’ He fumbled for the pack, handing her one. He was passing her the lighter  when her fingers enfolded his, a scarlet-nailed thumb clicking it open and striking the flint. Looking him directly in the eye she leant forward slowly, resting her bosom on his shoulder, her chin pressed to his neck. He could barely breathe with her scent flowing around him.

They remained like that for a long time, eyes locked. Suddenly her eyes flicked to the right and turned glassy. They still shone, but with the glint of an Aztec mask that he’d seen in a museum as a boy.  Still holding his gaze she whispered ‘you are safe with me, so listen. I know a hired gun when I see one, and there’s two of em across the street’. ‘How do you know’? he mouthed back, trying to keep the fear out of his voice.  ‘Cuz there’s nobody wears a trenchcoat on a day like today unless they’re hiding a mighty shooter or two in them folds.’ Her eyes flicked to the left, indicating a back door leading to the street. ‘Well it seems today is our lucky day, cuz a fortune teller lady said that I’d help a hunted man and he’d make me rich. Now might that man be you’? He saw that beads of sweat had broken out on her upper lip, and that lip was full and sensual.  He saw his face break in to a wrinkled grin, his eyes almost hidden by crowsfeet. ‘If you have wheels then I’m your guy.

He saw her eyes take on a new hue. It was a shade of fear and uncertainty. He gritted his teeth and smiled again. ‘You’re safe with me too, Aztec lady’. The room grew dark again as another bus pulled to the stop opposite, and by the time it left the shop was empty.

© Tom Tide 2016



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