Varsha (Monsoon) 2021 Stories - S.F. Wright


At the Red Lantern
By S.F. Wright


Drew had just finished a twelve-to-eight shift at the Barnes andNoble where he’d worked for the past six years, and since he had the following day off and didn’t feel like going home (Drew still lived with his parents at twenty-six), he decided to go to the Red Lantern, a bar on the other side of the highway. Drew didn’t go to bars much, not only as he couldn’t afford them, but because—as he saw it—the only reason to go to a bar alone at his age was to pick up women and, making Barnes and Noble wages and still living at home, he didn’t think he had much of a chance ofmeeting any women, let alone picking one up.

But he hadn’t been out in a while, and he was depressed at the notion of just going home and getting drunk in his room again. So, he drove his ten-year-old Grand Am to the Red Lantern, parked, and went inside.

The place was about one-fifth full. Drew sat downin a corner stool (the bar was square-shaped andsituated in the middle of the room). He ordered a Jack and Coke, his favorite drink, albeit he rarely had the money to buya bottle of Jack Daniel’s himself. The bartender, a blonde-haired woman who was fairly attractive albeit past her prime and somewhat overweight, tiredly yet cordially made his drink and rang him up. She then returned to the other side of the bar and resumed talking to a middle-aged couple.

Drew sipped his drink through the thin red straw. He felt lonely and conspicuous, but after getting a third of the whiskey and Coca-Cola down, he becames omewhat sanguine. He looked around, wishing there were someone to talk to. There was no one, though, except for the bartender and middle-aged couple, and a few scattered clusters of men and women, groups of friends drinking together.

By the time Drew was almost done with his drink, he had a decent buzz, and he debated about getting another: he didn’t want to spend the money;he had half a bottle of Old Crow at home;he didn’t want to risk getting a DWI. But as he lifted his glass to his mouth for a final sip, all but settled on going home, a woman sat down two stools away. She was heavy; her dyed blonde hair was too bright; and her coated-on makeup most likely covered an abundance of wrinkles andbad skin. But she had nice breasts, which were accentuated by a somewhat low-cut top. Above her right breast was a fading, blurry tattoo of a rose.

Precipitately, Drew signaled for another drink. The bartender saw him, butc ontinued talking to the couple for another moment, which vaguely irritated Drew; but then she came over, gesturedtoDrew’s empty glass—to which he nodded—and made him another Jack and Coke. After bringing Drew his drink, the bartenderasked the woman with the rose tattoo what she would like.


The woman, as though making a big decision, sighed heavily and said, you mind fixing me a scotch and soda? Her voice was somewhat strident. Dewar’s, you got it? The bartender nodded, her expression vaguely suggesting that she thought it a bit obtuse of the woman to think they might not have Dewar’s, but then, wordlessly yet mostlyamiably, made the drink and rang the woman up.

Drew sipped his Jack and Coke; the bartender returned to the couple. He was acutely aware of the woman two stools down;he felt his heartbeat increase and was even afraid he’d start sweating; and this was crazy, he knew, since, for all he knew—he hadn’t turned his head again—she wasn’teven paying attention to him. He took another sip, his drink a quarter finished now, his buzz getting stronger; and then, somewhat emboldened by the alcohol, he glanced to his right.

The woman was looking at him; as soon as they made eye contact, she smiled; she was missing a tooth, the rest of her teeth gleamed, as did her wet-looking gums. Hey there, she said, and Drew felt simultaneously excited and repulsed.

Hi, he said, self-consciously; hethen turned and took another sip of his drink.

Despite being somewhat disgusted by the woman, Drew chastised himself for being so diffident, nervous, even afraid. But then, to his excitement and terror, the woman said, just get off work?

Drew glanced at the woman and said, Yeah. Frozen by anxiety again, he turned back to his drink.But then, propelled by boldness born as much from self-loathing as from cruelty and repulsion, hes aid, I work at the Barnes and Noble. He was fairly confident—yet also apprehensive—that this would drive the woman away.

But the woman said brightly, Oh yeah? as though Drew had said he were a doctor or lawyer. You like it?

And Drew again felt the urge and need to be savagely honest. Not really.He looked at his drink as he spoke.

No? the woman said archly. Why not?

Drew shrugged with almost mawkish sullenness; then, feeling absurd, he again glanced at the woman. Her breasts were nice, but the rest of her. . . He thought of those wet lips. . . Once more he wasar oused and repelled. They pay us crap, he said, laconically, almost curtly, and looked across the bar.
But the woman affected not to hear and said, Why don’t you move on down here? I hate to shout like this.

Just leave, Drew told himself. But he took a quick yet deep drink; the alcohol shot to his head; temporarily buoyed, though still nervous, he took another sip; he then got up and moved one stool down. But then, seeing the woman grinning at him somewhat teasingly and a bit lasciviously, causing Drew’s dick slightly to stiffen and his heart to palpitate, he got into the stool next to her.

That’s better.The woman smelled of cigarettes and cheap perfume. My name’s Helen.She offered a pudgy hand.

Drew nervously and meekly shook the woman’s hand—it was sweaty and soft—and then heard himself say, I’m Chris

The woman nodded, as though pleased. So, Chris, why don’t you like working at the Barnes and Noble?

Drew took another sip, desperately wanting more alcohol, yet not wanting to finish his drink either. They don’t pay us anything. His voice, despite himself, croaked, and he sounded so vehement that once more h efelt ridiculous.

But the woman regarded him patiently and curiously, while vaguely smirking; and Drew went on, once more feelingludicrous, even puerile, for griping so ardently, but sensing—perhaps illogically—that he would appear even more foolish if he didn’t elaborate; additionally, he was consumed by a perverse, somewhat cathartic, yet also self-flagellating pleasure in telling this woman so much of what he was ashamed.

I live with my parents, he said, gazing at the bar’s counter, becauseI make so little and can’t afford to get a place of my own. He chanced a look at the woman; she was observing him with vague yet knowing amusement, as though she suspected he was just saying these things to dissuade her.

Well, she said, after a moment, expansively, that ain’t the worst thing in the world. Her expression was benignyetalso flirtatious. Lots of people do that nowadays.

Drew shrugged—again so sullenly it was almost dramatic—and took another sip, his drink almost finished. Suddenly, and to his shock, the woman put her hand on his knee. Drew, despite feeling repulsion, got hard.

I don’t like this place much. The woman’s voice was low and conspiratorial. You wanna head to this other bar I know? It’s up in Pearl River and—she moved her hand up to Drew’s thigh, causing his dick to stiffen even more—my apartment’s just down the block.

Drew swallowed, he took a tiny sip from his drink, he swallowed again. Then, his face feeling numb, his ears roaring, he nodded.

The woman squeezed his thigh. You parked in the lot?

Yeah. Drew’s voice trembled, his erectionbulged uncomfortably against his pants.

The woman let go of his thigh, though Drew could still feel the impress of her fingers. Me, too. Come on. You can follow me there. The bar’s nice, or if you like—she lowered her voiceto a whisper—we can just head on to my place. How’s that sound?

Be numbed yet flushed, Drewheard himself say, Sounds good.

The woman winked and took a long sip from her drink, finishing it. All right, honey.

Drew tremulously gulped the rest of his drink, too—it was mostly melted ice cubes—and followed the woman to the door.

It had gotten breezy. The woman nodded to an old gray Chrysler, which was parked two spots from Drew’s car. That’s me. She dangled her keys from her fingers. You parked nearby?

Drew, his knees wobbly, pointed to his Grand Am.

The woman nodded. All right, honey. Just follow me up the highway. Won’t take us ten, fifteen minutes. She winked again and walked to her car.

Drew got into his Grand Am. He sat for a second. Then, he turned on the ignition.

The Chrysler slowly pulled away. His headlights on, Drew crept behind it. He followed the car onto the exit andthen onto Route 17. The Chrysler picked up speed, Drew did, too. Then, as the exit for Saddle River appeared, he slowed down and turned off.

He drove fast, even though he knew this was senseless and stupid; it wasn’t as if she were going to turn around and come look for him; moreover, he could get a DWI. After just making a green light, Drew slowed down and drove more cautiously. He lit acigarette. His hands trembled.

What’s the matter with me? he thought,as he drove on familiar streets, taking the back way home.

But the idea of his house was comforting; and soon he was pulling into his driveway. Inside, his mother asked him where he’d been; Drew said that he’d gone to Applebee’s with friends from work.

Upstairs, he went into the bathroom. He observed himself in the mirror. Then he shut and locked the door. Five minutes later, in his room, Drew tookthe half-full bottle of Old Crow out of the closet. He found a disposable plastic cup, into which he poured two shots worth of the bourbon. He then got a warm can of Coca-Cola from a twelve-pack he kept under his bed, opened it, and filled the rest of the cup with soda. Hetooka long sip;his buzz returned almost immediately.

Again, he considered whether something was the matter with him, but after taking another sip, he told himself there wasn’t. And after getting half the drink down, he felt almost whole again.

Still, though, he asked himself, what am I doing?

But by the time he took the final sip and was about to make a new drink, he was seized by the desperate notion that he did know, and that one day he would look back on this night—and this period of his life—with jocularity; that it was—or he just drunkenly hoped—part of what would make him in to who he wanted to be.


S.F. Wright lives and teaches in New Jersey. His work has appeared in Hobart, Linden Avenue Literary Journal, and Elm Leaves Journal, among other places. His short story collection, The English Teacher, is forthcoming from Cerasus Poetry.


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