Up Late, Listening

People who wander in and order shots at last call on a Wednesday tend to be the kind of people who a) don’t tip or b) puke all over the hardwood, so when the messy-haired guy in the denim jacket slides onto a stool and orders a Jameson, Georgia can’t hold back her grimace.  She’s on her own tonight – Connor knocked off early to meet the hipster girl he’s dating way the hell out in Far Rockaway – and it wouldn’t be the first time she’s had to dodge a drunken game of grab-ass courtesy of the clientele. “We’re closing up, cowboy,” she says in what Mal used to call her don’t screw with me voice, sliding the heavy-bottomed glass down the end of the bar. “So you gotta drink fast.”

“Will do,” he says, and smiles – fast and fleeting and gone. The Christmas lights strung up above the bar flicker pink and green across his pretty face. Georgia’s surprised – first because last-call whiskey-drinkers are not, as a general rule, big smilers, and second because she’s sure as shit seen this particular expression before.

Georgia blinks. For a second she thinks she might know him from home in New Jersey, or the year and a half she spent at college upstate: she slept with a lot of faceless boys right after the accident, all Abercrombie and unwashed sheets. It’s even possible – oh, God – that he’s some old friend of Mallory’s, and she’s wondering how in the hell she’s going to break the news after all this time, when he shifts his weight on the barstool, heartbreaking and familiar, and Georgia realizes she recognizes him from the posters that used to plaster the walls of her bedroom.

“Holy crap,” she blurts, then barks out an idiotic-sounding laugh and claps a hand over her mouth. Somewhere in the universe, her thirteen-year-old self is having a fit. Georgia gapes. He’s got his curly dark head cocked to the side, patient, like he’s waiting to see what she’s going to do next. “Uh,” Georgia says finally. Her heart does a weird thing inside her chest, like something is alive and burrowing in there. “Sorry.”

“It’s okay,” he says, smiling again which is what started it to begin with, her ridiculous middle-school love affair with Micah St. John’s smile: his smile and his pop songs and the way he pronounced the letter L. This was before his band broke up and she dropped out of college, before Georgia found herself behind the taps at a dive on First Avenue and Micah, according to an article she came across in People last year while she waited on line at Gristedes, landed in jail.

“Um. Yeah.” She nods and attempts a recovery, going about her late-night routine: settling up with the couple making moon eyes at each other over cheap red wine, nudging a regular who’s fallen asleep in the corner. She puts the caps on the bottles and counts the money in her till and when she looks up he’s just watching her, like he’s curious. He still looks sort of like a girl. “What?” Georgia asks, and it comes out a lot shriller than she means.

“Nothing,” he says, all innocence. “You’re very efficient.”

“I’m closing,” she tells him, but she can feel a grin spreading across her face. Micah St. John, Jesus Christ. There is no one in the world she wants to tell this to more than Mal.

“I see that.”

“Do you?”

“Should I leave?”

“No.” The door wheezes shut behind the others. Micah St. John stays right where he is. There’s frost on the big plate-glass windows, crystals tiny and intricate and sharp. “God,” Georgia says, and it spills right out of her like an overturned glass. “My sister would be apoplectic right now.”

“You want me to sign something for her?” he asks; then, seeing her face: “What, is that lame?” He laughs a little. “Look at you. You think that’s so lame.”

“No, no, it’s just,” and here Georgia freezes: the first moment after a car wreck, silence after the skid. She squeezes her eyes shut and opens them again, and there he is. “She’s dead. My sister.”

It hangs there, a physical thing, suspended like a shot of Bailey’s in a pint of Guinness. She shouldn’t have said it. She doesn’t know why she did. Even Connor, who’s the closest thing she has to a friend here, doesn’t know. She wills him not to say he’s sorry.

“I’m sorry,” Micah says.

Well. Georgia shrugs. “She liked the drummer best, anyway.”

“Girls usually did.”

“Do you still hear from him? Paul?” Paul came from Haverhill, Massachusetts, and ten years ago his favorite soda was Tab. Georgia wonders what kinds of things she could have learned ten years ago if she hadn’t been crammed into a single bed with Mal’s enormous feet freezing cold against her calves, their heads bent over a dog-eared, waterlogged copy of Bop. Georgia’s memory is a scattershot affair and her whole life she repeated the important things out loud so her sister could be sure and remember them; twenty-three years old and all she’s left with is trivia from decade-old teen magazines.

“Nah.” Micah shakes his head with a finality that makes her wonder what happened there. His voice sounds different than it did. “What was her name?” he asks.

“Her name?”

“Your sister.”

Georgia looks him over: a certifiable has-been, but still the room seems to orbit around him, like he’s got a perpetual spotlight on him everywhere he goes. He’s never stood on a ticket line or in the audience or next to a casket in a borrowed black dress and Georgia feels, bizarrely, like she’s given him too many things already. It’s been a long time since she said Mal’s name out loud. “So,” she says, a little meanly. “I read about the jail thing.”

His eyebrows arc up, a guarded amusement. “Did you.”

“Sorry,” she says immediately. “That was awful.”

Micah laughs. “Kind of.”

“I’m nervous. I’m blurting.”

“You don’t have to be nervous.”

“I’m not, usually.”

“It wasn’t jail,” he tells her. “It was mandatory drug abuse rehabilitation.”

“Aren’t you not supposed to drink once you get out of mandatory drug abuse rehabilitation?”

Micah shrugs. “I’m not an alcoholic.”

“So then what are you?”

“That,” he says eventually, “is a really good question.”

“No kidding.”

He sits there. She breathes. On the bar a white votive candle sputters; some half-forgotten lyric surfaces and sinks at the back of her head. She’s always been useless at learning the words, so it’s practicality as much as anything else that makes her tell him. “Mallory,” she says, so he’ll know and remember. “My sister’s name was Mallory.”

“Mallory,” he repeats, thoughtful. “That’s nice.”

“Yeah.” Georgia swallows, then:  “So do you want another drink, or what?”

“I thought you were closed.”

“I am.”

“Are you gonna have one with me?”

“A drink?”

“A drink.”

Georgia hedges, or pretends to. There’s an ache behind her ribs. “I…could be persuaded.”

“Well.” He smiles again, the slightest quirk at the edges of his mouth. “Good.”

She turns around and reaches for the bottle. She hums a song under her breath.

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