Funny as in Ha-Ha
The Inglenook isn’t exactly a nightclub, more like a lounge in a scruffy hotel. If you bring your own bottle, they have mixers and ice, and they still charge you by the glass, but nothing like a bar. I come here from time to time because it’s low-key and in the neighborhood. Okay, I come here a lot.
They hang art on the walls, original paintings, photos, collages. The artist changes every month or so. Nobody pays much attention in the smoke and dim light. Good exposure? Abstract art doesn’t do much for me. Supposedly it’s self-expression. Based on this assortment of blobs and streaks, I’d say the self was having a bad year.
Sometimes the Inglenook runs an open mike for stand-up comics, singers, and avant-garde performers. No stage, just a wall, a curtain, a stool, and a spotlight. You never know what’s coming – smart satire, an ignorant rant, a gentle soul on acoustic guitar, or a gross-out stunt. It’s local talent, except this being the big city, the locals come from any place in the world you’ve heard of and some you haven’t.
The night I’m talking about was quiet, with no performance, nothing to disturb the peace. Some light background music with a complicated beat from Brazil or North Africa. A weeknight, with a thin crowd of people like me who live within walking distance and want to relax after a day of work, which might mean something in a studio or at home on a hopped-up computer with an oversized monitor. Creative people, if your definition of creative includes commercial art, sound engineering, video graphics, and interior design. Some make serious dollars, and some dabble. It’s hard to tell.
I saw a few people I knew, said Howdy, and flopped onto a banquette. With a glass perched on my knee, I stared into space. Next thing I knew, this woman wearing a loose top and sunglasses, with a bag slung over her shoulder, long dark hair, and a slim figure, passed a hand across my field of vision, like a test to determine if I was responsive. I was.
“Is it okay if I sit here?” she said. She dropped the bag on the banquette and sat on the far side, like a barrier in case things didn’t work out.
“Help yourself,” I said.
“Megan,” she said. “And you are?”
“I’ll spare you the small talk and get to the point.”
“There’s a point?”
“Of course, there is. This place is half-empty, it’s too early to pair off for sex, and I don’t even have a drink in my hand.”
“Would you like one?”
“Yes, bourbon on the rocks.”
“Lucky for you, that’s what I brought with me.” I signaled to Kofi, the bartender—raised my glass, and pointed at it.
“No luck required,” Megan said, “just a nose and a pair of eyes.” She took off her shades, smiled, and I smiled back. Kofi brought the lady a glass, murmured something thick with consonants, and vanished.
“Amazing service,” she said.
“Kofi is from the Caucasus, or the Carpathians, or someplace with mountains.”
We drank to nothing special, or maybe to the point, whatever it was.
Megan said she was an international journalist chasing stories all over the planet. Born in the US, but grew up abroad, diplomatic missions, military bases, probably some of each. Lots of different schools, ending up in the DC area for college and graduate school. She talked fast and avoided details as if they might bog her down. When I tried to insert a question, like what magazines she wrote for, she just kept going. Not exactly rude, but she had no interest in being polite. I would guess she was around thirty years old, with all that moving around and higher education, but I could be wrong.
I was older, but to be clear, I didn’t have much experience with women. At the time, I was bouncing from gig to gig in the design world. I designed a museum installation, a theater set for an off-off-Broadway play, a co-op apartment for a person of substantial net worth, a shop for folk art made by folks in the city. Payments were sporadic, so I saved for a rainy day, cooked my own meals, and partook sparingly of cultural attractions. Half-price tickets and public recreation. Frugal. Dating was for beautiful people, or at least ones with a regular income.
Megan extracted this information efficiently, so maybe she really was a journalist. Or a secret agent? I knew nothing about spies or government intelligence. What you read in thriller novels is ridiculous, but I never did learn a permanent address, the name of a relative, or any more personal history than the above. Unlike everyone else in the big city, Megan had no backstory. She wasn’t trying to be glamorous or mysterious. What struck me at the time was a fascinating face, a rare vitality that bubbled to the surface. But the purpose behind it all was a blank. Like the sunglasses which went on and off, her eyes were a one-way mirror.
After an hour or two, with the bag slung over her shoulder and the sunglasses back on, she arrived at my apartment. Nobody dropped a hint or extended an invitation; it just happened like it was inevitable. It was also a lot of fun.
Megan knew exactly what she wanted and how to get it. This was true in bed as in life. I don’t think I have ever met a person so in touch with reality, inner and outer.
“Most people operate at some level of confusion,” she said. “Mixed motives, conflicting desires, acting out.” She tossed her hair as if to shake off the confused rabble.
“Not you,” I said. I wanted to know if this was a moment of confession.
“You know, Philip, with your unassuming manner, like a hermit in a cave with all modern comforts, you’re a lot like me.”
“Think about it,” she said.
Megan was no taller than average, but her slim figure and her habit of stretching made her seem long and elastic. Even uncanny. She sensed things that escaped the senses of ordinary people. She was capable of seeing through walls, of slipping through cracks, of leaping over black pools, of suddenly disappearing in plain sight.
This happened on the street. One minute she was beside me, her lovely arm in mine, and the next minute she was nowhere to be found. Then she would emerge from a recess, where she paused to look in a shop window. Or she would stand up straight in a little front yard, where she crouched to examine some curious plant.
After the first rendezvous, Megan came and went as she pleased and stayed for one night or a few weeks. She gave only a vague notion of where she was headed, like “to the airport” or “the far east.” She brought back exotic treats, not trinkets and souvenirs that would gather dust, but things to eat, flowers to admire for a day and toss, and anecdotes. The anecdotes were pruned of identifying tags and, for that reason, hard to remember, but she had a gift for the sensual and the sensational. An orange and fuchsia sunset, moonlight glittering silver on water, the heady perfume of flowering shrubs, an old woman who sold melons in the market, smoked a pipe, and wore a bowler hat.
“I would have brought back a melon,” she said, “but you know, customs.”
“You always bring presents,” I said some months into the affair. “And you’re slinky and adorable, like a cat.”
“Oh, Philip, please. Do you think you’re the first man to make that comparison?”
That brought me up short. Megan had never once alluded to affairs with other men, and I never imagined them. I did now, and it showed.
“Don’t crumple, darling, or you’ll break my heart. I didn’t mean to be unkind.”
“Maybe, but I wonder.”
“You leave nothing in the apartment, no clothes, toiletries, scraps of paper, this or that. No sign you were ever here.”
“Neatness is a virtue. You’re no slob.”
“Thanks, but the topic is . . .”
“Are you dissatisfied? Should I leave for good?”
“No, that’s not it. There’s plenty of uncertainty in my life. I’m used to it. I love it when you’re here, and I don’t mind your absence. But a reliable friend or lover would be nice.”
“Am I a candidate?” Megan sighed. “I knew this moment would come sooner or later.”
“You did too. That’s not what bothers you.”
“No, you’re right.”
“So, what is?”
“While you were away, something funny went on.”
“Funny as in odd, or funny as in ha-ha?”
“Megan . . .”
“Okay, enough with the chatter.”
“Things slightly out of place, a feeling that someone had been in here, opening doors and rifling through drawers. Searching for who knows what. Like a ghost.”
“Or a spook.” For the first time in our acquaintance, Megan looked seriously concerned.
“Are you mad at me?” I asked.
“No, darling, at myself.”
She paused, deciding how much to say or how to say it. In a flash, I guessed the affair was over, that she would move on, that everything was determined from the start.
“We’re doomed,” I said.
“Please believe me, Philip. I do care about you. I tried to protect you.”
“Never mind. The less you know, the better.”
“You, of course. That’s why I kept you in the dark about where I went, created this absurd impression of a woman of intrigue.”
“I’m not complaining.”
“Now listen. A pair of wholesome, upright individuals, conservatively dressed like Mormon missionaries, but older and better groomed, may flash an ID and want to talk.”
“Good point. Could be women.”
“Serious dudes, any gender.”
“Tell them nothing. Don’t let them in, don’t go downtown in a cab, don’t say boo.”
“Who are these guys?”
“Wrong question. Who do they think they are? Guardians of law and order. On the right side of power. In the end, it doesn’t matter; they all behave the same way. You cannot imagine how devious they are.”
“I grew up with them. Answer one question, however innocent, and they ask another. Before you know it, you fall into their trap.”
I must have looked doubtful.
“You look doubtful, darling. If they try to strong-arm you, call for backup, preferably an attorney.”
“I don’t have a phone number for you.”
“That’s right, and that’s the way it has to be.”
I shook my head. Megan let the matter drop, but for the rest of the day, she was detached and cool. She already told me she was off the next day, flying to another undisclosed destination. As usual, she packed her bag before going to bed. And, as usual, she was provocative and insistent. She got what she wanted, and I dropped off to sleep.
Early in the morning, before daybreak, through a groggy haze, I felt two arms embrace me and two lips on mine. It was the sweetest kiss I’ve ever had, and the bitterest. I struggled to wake up the way you did in a dream, and failed.
Later, when I opened my eyes to the new day, Megan was gone. All trace of her, too. I knew that without looking. I also knew she would never return.
The spook has not returned, either. By that, I guess she meant an intelligence operative, someone skilled at picking locks and searching for evidence, tiny bits of debris.
A pair of scrubbed, well-fed, middle-aged boys wandered into the Inglenook, though. They are here as I write, poking around, staring at some enlarged photos of marine creatures and strands of kelp, like nightmares dredged from the harbor. It crossed my mind to slip out the door. Or I could step up, shake hands, and introduce myself.
About the Author
Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. His short stories and essays appear in Alabama Literary Review, Bellingham Review, Fiction International, Literary Heist, The Saturday Evening Post, and Superpresent.