The little oil light was guttering, and her glass held a sliver of ice and a maraschino cherry stem. She'd been sitting there so long I'd heard the man at the piano play "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" three times; he didn't really have that big a repertoire. The waiter had been waved off so many times that he had given up coming by at all.
I don't know what she was looking at, but when he sat down it startled her. I felt her jerk in the chair.
"Been here long?" he asked. It could have sounded mean, but he didn't sound mean.
"A while." She smiled at him, out of habit. The next word was almost forced out of her mouth. "Billy?"
"You know you shouldn't expect a man with a boy's name to be responsible," he said. "There was a man in from out of town, and something about a poker game."
I felt her shoulders sag, slightly. It wasn't enough to see, just to feel.
"I'd say he sent his apologies, but you'd know I was lying." He made a little half-grimace, half-shrug.
She squared her glass on the bar napkin. "Thanks for coming by," she said. She reached for her black satin clutch from the seat next to her.
"Hey," he said, a little too quickly. "It's still early." He looked around the nearly empty lounge. There was one couple dancing. The piano player looked bored.
She didn't say anything.
"One dance," he said.
"I should really …" Something in his face stopped her, I think. He looked like a man it would be difficult to be rude to. "Sure. One dance."
I didn't know the song, but this late, it didn't really matter. They moved out to the floor, where the other couple had given up the pretense of steps and were just in a shuffling embrace.
They danced well together. Not in a showy, cruise-ship way, but a comfortable way. They fit. His arm tightened around her waist.
"Neal," she said. She stiffened.
"One of these dances," he said. "Or maybe on one of those picnics you have with you and two plates and the ants. Or on New Year's Eve, when you're standing alone when the ball drops. Right? Someday?"
"I can't say someday." She exhaled. It was almost a sigh.
"I can say someday. I can say today. I can say always."
For a minute there, I thought that she would relax, move closer to him. I thought I could feel her considering it, holding her breath, her arm across his shoulder and her hand against the nape of his neck, just laying there; it felt like there was something electric, like the hum of an engine.
"Who's this making time with my girl?" There was a too-loud voice, and too much aftershave, and then she was spun around. Neal was standing by himself, and she was held tight by other arms.
"Just keeping her entertained." His voice was almost light.
"Next time, little brother, try card tricks," Billy said. "Howzabout a drink?" His breath smelled as if he'd had a few already.
"I think I'll call it a night," Neal said, but he didn't move away from the dance floor right away, but stood looking as Billy steered her back to her chair. Two drinks were waiting on the table.
She let Billy pull out her chair, and she sat down in it, but she didn't look at his face. I think she was watching Neal walk out the door.