The day she walked into the bar, I was hurting. And I had been, for a very long time...
It was a sunny Saturday afternoon in Pasadena. The bar was only half full because Terry was working the barbecue, drawing people to the tiny concrete patio out back. The men wore straw trilbies to shade their eyes, and light shirts to ward off the heat.
The women? They stayed in the bar, in the cooler shadows, sun dresses fanned around their pretty dark legs.
The front and back doors were both open to the late afternoon summer sun, casting wedges of golden light on the scarred wood floors, shimmering across pristine bottles on the shelves at the back of the wood bar. There was no mirror there, but I swear Johnson had eyes on the back of his head if trouble walked through the door.
I’d been outside earlier, sipping on a beer, waiting for my late lunch to be done cooking. A few of the usuals were in the house, the ones I hung out with, playing cards, catching the occasional show. Bill. Jones. Carmine. Louis. Were they friends? I think so. Did I really know them? Not so much.
Didn’t really know anybody much these days.
The men’s voices rumbled and rose as the cards snapped onto the round wood table where a game was in progress. They were likely warming up with a friendly round of gin rummy.
Everyone else must have taken the Big Red Cars to the beach. Or they were working, like I should be. Instead, I was sitting at on the burgundy leatherette bar stool permanently dented by my muscled posterior, down near the end of the long sweep of mahogany bar.
My brown fedora took up the bar stool next to me.
The low murmur of voices from couples at some of the two tops was punctuated by the sharp laughter and muffled swearing from my four friends.
Usually I would be with the game. Not today though. My heart just wasn’t in it. I’d declined the invitation, once I’d gotten my barbecue, and taken some teasing about my dark moods.
Today, my mind was full, and my belly? I was stuffing it, too. Stuffing away regret along with barbecued pork. If I wasn’t careful, my six two frame was going to fill out around the middle in ways that would just slow me down.
I didn’t need to slow down any more than I was these days.
The brand new Filben Maestro clicked and whirred, long arm grabbing another black disc from its stack of 78s. Dinah Washington started crooning. Johnson was so proud the day the delivery men hauled that jukebox into place, he’d bought everyone in the house a beer.
My fingers sticky with tangy sauce, I made short work of the pile of pork ribs that were always cooking on sunny weekends outside this tidy joint in the old part of Pasadena.
The thin paper napkins weren’t quite up to the job, but I wasn’t willing to leave my bourbon in order to go wash my hands.
Johnson was filling a pint glass from the tap. He occasionally glanced at me, like he was worried about something. I hoped it wasn’t me. Bartenders shouldn’t worry about their customers, even regulars. But Johnson and I had been friends ever since I walked through the front door of his bar six years ago, asking if he’d ordered two kegs or just one.
These days, I was a paperhound, writing columns and news for the Pasadena Voice, the local black rag that kept up on community gossip, music, police reports, and sometimes, actual news. The kind of news the L.A. Times didn’t care to report.
There was a concert I was planning to take in later. Our Arts reporter was out of town and all the odd jobs still fell to me. I didn’t much mind. A concert would keep me away from my bed. Away from the nightmares dogging my brain with images I couldn’t quite decipher, but could feel to the marrow of my bones.
I was trying a third round with the crappy napkins, shredding them over my fingers as they caught on Terry’s special sauce, when a shadow cut through the oblongs of sunlight coming through the door. All I could see at first was her shape: substantial thighs wrapped in a slim skirt, long legs, sharp padded shoulders, and a hat perched on waves of hair.
I could also tell that she was radiating power. The kind of power most people only notice as a sort of charisma. They know they’re drawn in or repelled, but they can’t quite tell you why. It has nothing to do with looks, or how much cash and flash a man has, and everything to do with magic.
As she entered, I could see she wore a navy suit that skimmed her impressive figure, cupping those thick thighs, and a little mound of belly, before nipping in at the waist and tapering out again to skim her breasts. Gold-plated brooch on one lapel. Red pillbox at an angle on those dark, dark, waves of hair. It matched the red of her t-strap shoes.
Her skin was deep, with rich undertones picked up by that hat, and by the red stain that traced her round lips.
She glanced around the bar, not like she was looking for anybody, just assessing. Then she walked right toward me.
Her heels struck the wood floors like castanets. I wished I had clean hands. “Mr. McGee?” Her voice was like honey pouring over gravel.
Swiping at my mouth and hands with yet another napkin, I shoved the stool back and stood. She was smaller than I’d thought at first, but she still loomed large. The magic crackled around her, and once again I wondered how the hell nobody saw it.
And I wondered where she came from.
She held out her hand.
I gestured toward the basket of pork bones with my sticky hands, fingers splayed in explanation. Her red mouth quirked up to the left. “I’ll wait.”
Okay. An order to go wash my hands. I didn’t usually take orders from anyone, but my momma taught me not to be rude, either. Besides, I wasn’t sure yet that this woman couldn’t fry me where I stood.
In the tiny men’s room, I washed my hands then splashed some water on my face. Advancing the towel on the big wall roller, I patted everything dry. My mind was even more full, now. Who was she, what did she want, and how had she found me today of all days?
I glanced at myself in the mirror above the porcelain sink. A nice face, but nothing to write home about. A man who had tried to blend in for years –whether as a delivery man or the reporter leaning against the back wall, half obscured by a potted palm– had just been noticed by a creature who would always stand out, even if she was trying not to.
And she knew something. That was clear.
By the time I returned, she was sitting at a two top, with a gin and tonic at her elbow. Her eyes followed me, and she inclined her head toward the other chair at the little wooden table.
Still calling the shots. Okay. I grabbed my finger of bourbon from the bar and joined her.
She smelled of lilac soap and bonfires at the beach. Strange combination, but it suited her, somehow.
“Your name is?”
“Rose Clemmons.” Her lips left a faint half moon of red on the clear glass.
I took a sip of my bourbon and leaned forward in my chair.
“What do you want?”
Her power shifted at the question, adjusting itself around her body. She leaned in toward me, scent of lilac soap caressing my face. I wanted to fall into her, let her surround me, comfort me, take my pain away.
“That’s right,” she said. “I’m here to ask what it is you want. You’ve been telegraphing all over town today, Mr. McGee.”
She leaned back in her chair again, taking away some of the comfort on offer.
Somehow, that made me mad. How dare she? My hands clenched on the tabletop, and I threw back the rest of my bourbon. It burned all the way down to my belly.
“Who are you?” I asked.
She smiled again, with that same left-tilted quirk of the lips. “I thought I told you already. My name is Rose.”
“Well, Rose who smells like lilacs, I think you know I wasn’t asking after your name.”
Her beautiful face set into harsh planes at that. The magic grew very still around her, and her eyes went flat.
I squeezed up to keep from pissing my slacks.
“You have no cause to question me, Ron McGee.”
“I do if you come to my place and start threatening me. And how do you know my name? Who’s been talking?”
She laughed at that, her eyes growing warm again, face cracking open with delight. How could anyone be that changeable? That in touch with her emotions? I could tell the laugh was real, because of her eyes and because the magic was in motion once again.
“You’ve been telling me yourself, Mr. McGee. You are a remarkably easy man to track down.”
Her laughter relaxed me, even though her words didn’t ease my mind. No longer terrified, I still needed to pee, and excused myself to do so. And to buy myself some time.
There hadn’t been a magic worker in Pasadena in ten years. Not that I knew of. And there hadn’t been a woman I’d found this attractive in seven. I’d grown used to being alone. Used to hanging out with my buddies here, playing cards. Used to eating supper at the bar. Used to chasing down stories that weren’t that interesting, in the hopes that I’d stumble across something real again.
Just like I used to. Back then. Back when I had power like the stuff rolling around Rose Clemmons like so much perfume. She made it look easy, to carry that kind of power.
I knew it wasn’t. At least it never was for me. That’s why I gave it up. Until I missed it. But then I was too afraid to get it back. And the dreams weren’t helping. Matter of fact, I needed help with those dreams. They were going to eat me alive. Or worse, they were going to come true.
When I returned, she was sitting calmly at the table, a fresh bourbon glowing golden orange at my place. She’d gotten us cups of water, too. I should probably drink some.
“I apologize, Rose Clemmons. I haven’t been myself for a long time. You coming into my place like this,” I lowered my voice, “all tingling with magic, knowing things about me...makes me a little nervous.”
She laughed again, more softly this time. “More than a little nervous, I’d say. Further proof of what you are. Ordinary people just take what I offer and thank me. Only folks like you fight back.”
It was my turn to grow completely still. I didn’t want this. I so did not want this. I’d given it up for a reason, several reasons, several very dangerous, humiliating reasons, that all came crashing back.
There was a reason I hung out here, among ordinary people, trying to do ordinary things, even while looking for proof that the extra ordinary was still out there. I wanted to find it. I didn’t want to find it. Both of those were true.
But mostly, I didn’t want it to find me.
She just looked at me. A being whose magic was rooted in the strength of compassion. How was that even possible? I didn’t know beings like her even existed.
I looked away, tears pricking at the back of my eyes.
It isn’t easy being seen.
“I don’t understand,” I said, staring at my drink.
She reached a hand across the table, palm up, an offering. I didn’t take it. Took a sip of bourbon instead.
“I’m a Suffering Woman,” she finally said.
You don’t exist, was what I had barely stopped myself from blurting out. The Suffering Men only existed in stories, like the ones my auntie told. Their magic eased the pain of those who needed it.
“Why don’t they help everyone?” I used to ask.
“Because there aren’t enough of them to go around,” my auntie said. “And some people clutch their suffering like diamonds, not willing to let go.”
That last part never made sense to me as a child. It sure made good sense now. My suffering was all that was left of the disaster I’d wrought. And without suffering, it was too easy to just slide into this life of mine like the nightmares wouldn’t happen. Like the omens just weren’t real.
Her coming here proved it all.
“I can help you,” she said.
Pitching my voice low, I leaned in again, staring at her eyes.
“Help me do what? Help me figure out that I can fuck this thing up, too? That I can’t save a bunch of people living on the edge of danger? That I can fail again?” Damn her compassionate eyes. Damn her lipsticked mouth, ready to speak more words of comfort.
I held up my hand to stop her. Drank some more. She sipped her G and T.
The reason Johnson’s was my home away from home was its normalcy. Same reason I’d settled in Pasadena after it all went down. It was still familiar, still Los Angeles, but it was its own little protected enclave, nestled against the hills of Eagle Rock. The black population here was small, but that suited me just fine. The main thing that suited me though? The lack of magic.
There were night clubs in Beverly Hills that reeked with sorcery. And the occasional Crenshaw tavern where you’d find spell casters, witches and the like. I wanted away from it all. I wanted to just live my life, and had been doing fine until the nightmares started six months ago.
I looked up at her. She just waited. Calm. Sipping her gin and tonic like she had nowhere else to be, and no one more interesting or handsome to keep her company.
“You from Andre’s?” I asked. A posh club in Century City, Andre’s hosted big bands, and top crooners. Money ran in and out of that place on a river of champagne. And sorcery was the currency everyone traded in. Or wanted to. Those who didn’t have magic had connections, or looks, or very deep pockets.
“What if I am,” she asked, a bit more gravel than honey this time.
“Then I have nothing to say to you.”
Andre’s was the place it had all gone wrong. The place I’d almost died. I could
still taste the terror of it in my mouth. I could smell the sorcery whirling around my head, and wrapping up my body until I could barely move.
I had torn that sorcery to shreds, killing her in the process. My wife. My lover. My friend.
None of it had needed to happen, except that he wanted to show me that he had control. Lawrence Barlow. Dapper, debonair, and rich. Strongest magical bastard in the whole Los Angeles basin. But that wasn’t enough for him. He wanted my wife, too.
But she hadn’t wanted him.
That wasn’t all of it, of course. Barlow was running cocaine out of back rooms, and likely running guns and women, too. All things that sorcerers like me had taken vows not to do. We weren’t supposed to use offensive magic either. Well, that night, I broke that vow.
That night, I let out everything I had and tore the place apart. Heard it took Andre six months to rebuild. I felt only mildly badly about that. Andre’s a pretty good man, and he runs a swank club. Helps a lot of people. But he also let people like Barlow take over a few too many things. Some lessons we learn the hard way.
Like I learned the night Betty died.
We’d been fighting off his sorcery, back to back, her high notes weaving up above my low, my dark velvet mixing with her satin.
But Barlow and his people were too strong. Too fierce. Too underhanded. Strong as Betty and I were, we couldn’t combat that much dirty fighting. So I lost it. My rage ripped it all to shreds.
In the aftermath, they told me Barlow himself had taken her down, trying to get to me before my fire blasted him one final time. But my heart knows the truth of the matter. I killed her. My magic killed her.
Or maybe it had just broken her heart, seeing me like that. I couldn’t know. Blind rage is blind rage. There’s no making any sense of things after an episode like that.
That’s when I shut myself down and walked away. Walked away from the Association. Walked away from sorcery. I didn’t want their psychologists, or healing. I didn’t want their pity or support.
I sure as hell didn’t want that kind of power anymore.
Crawling into a pit of a room for a year or so, I licked my wounds. Then I bounced around, taking jobs as they came by, before settling here, in this nice, normal place, with normal people tending their gardens, tinkering with their cars, and going to church on Sunday mornings.
A nice normal place where I could gather with normal friends who wanted to play a hand or two of cards and drink a beer. Maybe share a bottle of wine and hear a band. Take in the occasional ball game.
It worked for awhile. Until the nightmares started up, my magic tapping at the base of my skull, where the spirits used to whisper until I cut the cord. They were talking again in the only way they could get through, in my sleep. In my dreams.
And what they were saying wasn’t good at all. It was filled with pain and darkness. Filled with light and fires that consumed. Something bad was going to happen and I couldn’t stop it. Couldn’t make it go away. Because they weren’t showing me exactly what it was, or how to prepare.
The jukebox whirred and hissed, and Count Basie’s piano hit the opening notes of “Lil Darlin’”. Brass came in, smooth as anything. Basie always made me think of Betty.
I couldn’t read the omens because I’d forsaken my magic. But I also wasn’t willing to take it back. To rebuild my mind and heart the way Andre had rebuilt his nightclub. It wasn’t that I didn’t know how. I was just too damn afraid.
“Introduce us to your friend?” Carmine’s voice brought me out of my reverie. I looked up. He and Bill were standing over our table, expectant looks on their faces. Of course they were. Rose Clemmons was a gorgeous woman, and one they hadn’t seen around before.
“Rose, this smooth talker is Carmine, and the quiet one is Bill.”
Rose held out her right hand, fingertips down, like she was royalty. Carmine cupped her fingers in his mechanic’s paw. “It’s a pleasure to meet you Miss Clemmons.”
“Likewise,” Rose said. Then she flashed Bill a smile so bright he dipped his head.
“Ma’am,” he said.
“You missed a good game today, Ronny. Bill here beat the pants off Louis and Jones.”
I glanced over at the big table in back. Louis was gathering up the cards, laughing at something Jones had said. Good men, those two. Good men, all of them.
This whole joint was good. It didn’t deserve whatever Rose was going to insinuate into the place, with her lilac bonfire scent.
“Rose thought she might have a story lead for me. We’re just conversing here, to see if I’m interested.”
In other words, back off.
Carmine looked like he was about to pull up a chair next to Rose, but Bill put a hand on his shoulder.
“Let’s get going, Carmine. I want you to look at that carburetor.”
“Right. Nice to meet you, Rose,” he said again. “Maybe catch you at the show tonight, Ronny?”
Turning back toward Rose, I realized I was sweating.
“You don’t need to be so scared, Mr. McGee. I’m here to help you.”
“You mind telling me why?”
For the first time, I caught a flash of nerves crossing her face. She took another sip of her drink, now mostly melted ice.
“Two reasons, I suppose. Maybe three.” Rose looked straight at me then. “I
know you’ve been having the dreams, Mr. McGee. I can feel them creeping under my skin. You tug at me.”
You tug at me. That was a stab at my heart and my groin. A woman hadn’t said that to me in a very long time.
“I tracked your suffering all the way here.” Looking up at the bar, she signaled Johnson for a replacement G and T. “It’s been a beacon for me for three months. Truth be told, I’ve been trying to avoid you, mister. But the pulling got too strong.”
And my dreams had been getting worse. A lot worse. Malibu sliding into the ocean. New York City in flames. And those were just the things that made sense. There was a lot more that didn’t. Fever dreams of strange armies marching across deserts, clad in white. The implosion of stars. I couldn’t tell what was coming. And I couldn’t tell what was just me.
“So what was reason two?” I asked.
Johnson picked up her old glass, setting the fresh drink on the coaster. He set down some little napkins and a bowl of peanuts. “You good, Ronny?”
I forced myself to smile at his worried face. “I’m good, my friend. Thank you.”
A group of men and women entered, calling to Johnson, smelling of ocean and sand. He directed them out back, toward the barbecue. The place quieted down again.
“Reason two?” I asked again.
“The Association wanted me to come. They’ve been picking up some static, and a few other folks are having visions. We’d like to triangulate the images and see what patterns exist.”
My mouth set itself in a line. “You’re from the Association.”
She nodded. “I have been, for a very long time. Does that bother you?”
I just shrugged. Yeah. It did bother me, but I couldn’t really tell you exactly
why. Maybe I just wanted this beautiful woman to have come on her own. Maybe I was ready for someone to care about me again.
She leaned in close again, talking low. “Mostly, though, I came because of you, Mr. McGee. I came because I want to eat your suffering. To take it inside myself and make it my own. I want to turn your nightmares. To change them into the visions of a man of power. A man who can help.” That last word was like the crack of a pistol.
I hadn’t been a man who could help for quite a while. “What do you mean, eat my suffering?”
“That’s what I do, Mr. McGee. I’m a Suffering Woman. I eat your suffering. It’s just fuel for me, and it dulls your pain. For some, that helps them heal. For a man like you?” Her face grew harsh, her mouth stern. “You have enough suffering in you to fuel me for quite some time. And I’m hoping that taking it on will shake you out of your self pity long enough for your to get off your ass and do the job the Powers made you for.”
I just stared at her, wishing my head was clear. Wishing I hadn’t had a beer and two bourbons. Wishing she hadn’t just all but slapped my face, but ready for some more.
“I killed my wife.”
Her eyes filled with compassion again, and she reached both hands across the table. This time, I took them.
“We both know that isn’t true. Betty died fighting, because that was her job to do.”
There was a tingling in my fingertips, and my palms started to burn. She was drawing the suffering out from me, memory by memory, inch by inch, as Cab Calloway shouted and stomped from the jukebox and the scent of barbecue came in from the back door.
The bourbon left my bloodstream. The memories of that night sliced through like knives and disappeared. The dog I had slapped across its chops when I was twelve. My father and his fists. All the betrayal. All the hope. All of my fears. She was draining them away. And Betty? God, the heartbreak and the beauty of her. All of it flowed out from me. The bastard Barlow. The seething hatred I’d kept simmering all these years.
And finally, the deep, deep, quivering shame of it all. That I had failed her. That I had lost it. That my magic didn’t work. Couldn’t work. Maybe had never worked.
All of that flowed from my hands and into Rose Clemmons, who grew sleek and plump and gorgeous with it all.
Finally, I drew a shuddering breath and the pricking in my palms grew calm again. It was just skin against skin, hands holding hands, companionably, across a wooden table in a Pasadena bar. I wanted to kiss Rose Clemmons’ red, red lips.
I probed my head and heart. There she was, Betty, the way she looked when I first saw her. Smiling and strong, standing on a Los Angeles sidewalk in the pouring winter rain. Something in me sighed and relaxed. My shoulders dropped, and I sat back in my chair, sliding my hands from Rose’s.
Rose’s face looked like a woman just after sex. Bright, soft eyes, relaxed mouth. She looked happy. Full. That should have bothered me, but it didn’t somehow. I saw her for what she was. And she was just doing her job.
Maybe she was right. Maybe it was time for me to do mine. Or at least figure out what it was.
“Okay.” I said.
“I’ll meet with the Association on Monday. You can tell them that. I want to figure out what all this means.”
I shoved the bourbon across the table, and stood up, then drank down the untouched glass of water she had brought me.
“I’ve got to cover that concert tonight. I still have that job to do. And I’m not making any promises, except to show up Monday, and talk about the dreams.”
Rose looked up at me, expectantly. “I will phone that in, Mr. McGee. But I have to put my bid in for you to come back to us. I hope you do.”
“We’ll see. Meanwhile, Miss Clemmons, might I buy you dinner before I have to get to the club?”
“Thank you for the invitation, Mr. McGee. But I’m not hungry anymore.” She smiled with those red lips of hers.
“Some other time, perhaps.”
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