He’s perched unnaturally high on the hard, tall stool nursing a Beam and coke in a lowball.
‘Drink,’ I ask, though the glass is full, still frothing gently around its rim from the agitation of the mix.
‘Nah. She’s right.’ He lifts it with a flourish and a dip of his head until the melting cubes clink.
I take a shot of grenadine to open my eyes to the muffled dark and begin to rag the sticky bar, pushing pearlescent beads of the oily forearm sweat of departed drunks around and around in circles.
We use the imitation pomegranate syrup to gently pinken the ladies’ drinks. It lends a hint of sweetness and colour to take the edge off otherwise hard liquor.
His eyes leave an afterimage as viscous as the syrup in the darkness as they track me.
I rub hard against the oil and my mouth fills with deep red spit, glands recoiling against the contrast of the sweet and the tart.
‘Know why I call you smiley?’
I shoot at the greasy residue of bodies left behind. The nozzle is locked and my finger strains against the trigger.
I turn the plastic square to unlock it and shoot again. A strong jet of noxious chemical that burns my eyes shoots out, glancing off the pocked laminate and plunging into the murk behind it.
He laughs again.
‘Oi, know why I call you smiley?’
I twist the pink square once more.
‘It’s cos you never smile, mate.’
‘You’d be real good lookin’ if you smiled once in a while.’
He slurps sweet froth around the clinking cubes and swallows with a loud gulp, wiping his lips clean of bourbon with his sleeve like a kid with a milk moustache.
My finger shakes slightly as the Red 40 of the grenadine hits.
‘Would you prefer a fake smile or a genuine scowl,’ I ask the blackness beyond the bar.
His teeth crunch down into a weakening cube, splinters of ice melting in his hot mouth.
I shoot and the spray fans out in gentle droplets over the slick. I shoot again and watch as the chemicals fall soundlessly and attach themselves to the oily globules, churning against them until they dissolve. I wipe and they’re gone.
Metal legs shriek limply against the floor and he descends into the gloom. The glass is upended and joins the others waiting in the washer to be stripped clean overnight.
I shoot at the ring of condensation it has left behind and rub hard until I smile.
Miriam Fisher has been published in Australia, as well as India and Nepal where she wrote her first book on climbing in the Himalayas. She recently returned to fiction after a lengthy hiatus immersed in non-fiction work.