Fiction: Excerpt from “Bit Player” by Jim Shaffer.

Setting: A bar, somewhere in the fifties, a cold New York City night.

Action: An actor, a bit player, sits at the bar.

I pulled a copy of Back Stage from my pocket and laid it flat on the bar to catch the spill from the dome light overhead. I flipped the pages to the open auditions, the cattle call section. I was an actor looking for work. If you asked me, I’d say I was an up-and-coming actor. But honestly, I hoped you didn’t ask. I wouldn’t have to lie.

Off-off Broadway had offered me a small part in a play that closed after ten days. I think ten people saw it. None of them wrote reviews. In my line of work, if a door cracked open, you squeezed through, no matter how small the crack.

 

My claim to fame was a bit part I got in a De Niro film. I’m not a tough guy like Bob is, so I played the victim. I learned I was good at playing victims. I knew just how to act stupid enough. I rode that stupid-victim horse for as long as I could after that, dropping Bob’s name every chance I got. I wasn’t proud. I was like the bum in the park throwing bread crumbs to the pigeons, hoping somehow the deed would redeem me, and the pigeons would shit on somebody else. Meanwhile, I sat sipping my drink, circling job prospects on the magazine’s pristine pages with my stubby pencil, drawing little circles of hope around each stellar offer.

 

Hunched over the bar, fingers cramped, I’d lost track of time. I sat back in my bar chair, stretching my arms straight up above my head. The clock over the back of the bar said it was close to the tail end of the evening.

I turned around. There were only two other patrons in the bar. They sat on the same bench in a booth in the back, oblivious to the rest of us suffering souls, concentrating instead on their shared wit and charm and smiles, highlighted by the occasional caress and kiss. They were the lucky ones, still warm and living in oblivion.

 

I turned around and faced the bar. “Carl, can I get another?” I lifted my glass in Carl’s direction.

“I’ll pay this time.” I laid some bills on the bar.

Carl brought the bottle over and filled the glass.

“Slow night,” I said.

“Yankees are playing.” He set the bottle on the bar. He didn’t touch my money.

I reached for my drink as the door opened. We both turned to look. I left my drink on the bar and watched. Carl retreated further down the bar.

 

A couple walked in. The woman took the lead and headed straight toward the far end of the bar. She was blonde, fortyish, tall in high heels, maybe five-ten or a little more. I preferred tall women, even older tall women. Her hair was done up in a French twist, a little foreign and exotic, the Inger Stevens look in her day. When she glided past me, her solid breasts swayed against the silky fabric of her royal blue cocktail dress cut mid-thigh. I figured she wore no bra. I imagined, just a camisole. I imagined lots of things. Could be she liked the way it felt, or maybe she just liked the edge it gave her over us mere mortals. Either way, I didn’t mind. I watched her pull a pack of cigarettes and a lighter from her coat pocket and slap them on the top of the bar. Then she slipped out of her black top coat. It looked like cashmere. On her, it had to be. She flung it over the back of an empty bar chair before taking a seat next to it. She lit a cigarette, tilted her head back and blew a stream of blue smoke at the ceiling. At the row of lights over the bar, I watched it billow, then disappear into the darkness overhead. I peered into the darkness. I thought I saw storm clouds and a flash of lightning. Maybe I imagined it. Maybe it was just the smoke and the lighting. Maybe I saw nothing.

 

The man had stopped at the end of the bar near the door. He hadn’t followed the woman. He’d removed his coat. While I’d been distracted, he’d hung it over the back of a chair to my left. He rapped an impatient knuckle on the bar top. Carl finished drying and stacking some shot glasses then came to the end of the bar.

“Two vodka martinis. Onions in one, olives in the other. And hurry it up.”

Carl said nothing as he walked behind the bar in an even pace down to a shelf holding a row of bottles. The man dragged his coat off the back of the chair and passed behind me. He bumped the back of my chair harder than he needed to. I jerked around to face him. He stumbled to a stop. He swayed. A slight smile played on his lips as he turned toward me. He gave me a slow blink with watery eyes. He looked a little high. He’d already had a few. He said nothing. Instead, he raised his hand like a traffic cop. Then he turned away and sauntered past the row of bar chairs towards the woman seated around the end of the bar.

“Do you have a choice of vodka, sir?” Carl barely contained his sarcasm.

“Anything Russian. If you have Russian vodka here.” He was less subtle than Carl.

The man slouched out of his coat, lifted it up by the collar so it hung straight then folded it slowly over the back of a bar chair. He moved with the deliberate care of a drunk. He patted the coat like it was the head of his favorite pet before falling into a seat next to the woman, jostling the chair that held his coat. Unnoticed, the coat slithered to the floor. He teased a cigarette from her pack and after a few failed attempts, lit it with her lighter. They didn’t speak. They didn’t look at one another. I figured they were the typical happily married couple.

Read the rest of BIT PLAYER at RETREATS FROM OBLIVION.

Bio: Jim Shaffer grew up in rural Pennsylvania, spending his early years on his grandparent’s farm. Since, he’s lived almost half his life abroad. Recently, he’s appeared in Wrong Turn, a mystery/thriller anthology by Blunder Woman Productions, and will soon feature in the Hardboiled anthology series from Dead Guns Press. More of his short stories and a novella can be found on line at Close to the BoneFlash Fiction Offensive, and Bewildering Stories.

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