Because She Walked Down the Dark Alley

July 4, 2011
When he took the seat across from her, pulling a pack of cigarettes from his suit jacket, she could tell by his shifting eyes and straight smile that he had been expecting someone younger. His eyes - they were small and gray and glinting like two dimes that took themselves for quarters. She shook his hand.

"I'm Lisa," she said, watching him draw the lighter to the tightly coiled paper, thinking there was something rough about it, a sleight of hand to smoking in company that he hadn't quite learned. Even here, on the Terracotta patio - very out of place.

His eyes flicked upward to meet hers, snakelike, and refocused on the embers. "John Marx," he exhaled, and she coughed, disgusted at how old-fashioned he was making her, at how much he reminded her of her ex. At the cloud hanging two breaths from her face, only to disperse in molecules of oxygen and carbon dioxide and memories that belonged in a safe, not here, polluting an ordinary sunny day.

"I apologize," he said, "I am usually punctual for business appointments. And you flew to me! How are you finding Italy?' She could smell alcohol on his words, softly strangled by the tobacco, but not dead enough. It was, after all, a business meeting - she had flown out to meet him, she knew about his money and his zeal for American products - he didn't seem drunk, but then, how could she tell? They had only just met.

"Much better than Maryland," she replied, and he laughed, deep and tumbling. Tumbling - tumblers - he was definitely over the legal limit, whatever that was here. Even outside, the air was fermented with black coffee and buttery sun-dried tomatoes.

"Do you have children?" he asked, taking a drag on the cigarette as the waiter set two glowing bottles of Pelegrino before them. "My daughter has sixteen, almost seventeen years. I was taking her to a counsellor, she is fine now, but she was beaten a couple of days ago."

Lisa looked up. "I'm sorry to hear that, what happened?" She remembered, vaguely, the therapist she had seen after her divorce; after finding out that her husband, the judge, was corrupt. After all the deals he made, the criminals he had kept free - how her life became a cast-iron net of shadows and hiding, the bars cold steel that she eventually used to climb upward, becoming a foreign market analyst based out of Maryland. His eyes, that clear, lake blue - how quickly, it seemed, she had learned it was possible to drown in shallow waters. Thank god she had taken swimming lessons as a child.

John squinted toward the hills. "Her friend stopped them. She was beaten by drunks," he said, "Because she walked down the dark alley. If she had been more cautious, she would not have found herself in that trouble."

Lisa remembered how difficult it had been for her to quit smoking; it became an instinct until she beat it into the earth with the heel of her stiletto. His words floated around her, twisting themselves over her fingers, smoothing her hair, hitting her like the scent of an idea she was once addicted to. They were filth on the tablecloth, they poisoned her water, they stung her eyes; but she did not let them into her lungs.

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