City Paper's 14th Annual Fiction Contest

He is late-and after finding his way up the wooden steps, the upstairs bar unfolds like those 2 A.M. roses handed out by Middle Eastern men for $1-roses that promise so much, then wilt and fall open with the slightest touch.

Still, he must admit, they do manage to bring smiles to pretty women at last call. He's bought a few here and there-although it hasn't brought him any closer to a girlfriend. No one seems interested in a paralegal who likes sonnets, much less someone who everyone (since first grade and the moment those thick glasses graced his small nose and magnified his already-big green eyes) calls "Owl".

No one except for maybe Molly, but tonight is her goodbye party. He curses himself for being late. Of all nights! He planned to work just a few overtime hours and make a grand entrance, but now, with the shame that clings to those not quite invited, he slides meekly to the bar.

Looking around, he sees low-slung tiki lights, high-flying neon Corona bottles, thick wooden running rafters, and a touch of winter neglect. There are beer-pong players, crowd minglers, shot-takers, business suits, and shameless flirts. There is one man in particular smoking on the deck and pretending not to watch Molly.

Next to Owl are some fielders from the company softball game. While tall and lanky, he is not on the team, lacking any measure of athletic ability. Yet sports fascinate him and his head is filled with statistics and players he will never relate to. He's won over many sports bars because of it, and even guys at the firm show him some grudging respect.

"Seven tequilas," booms a beefy intern as Molly saunters over. She has straight blond hair just above her shoulders that swings and swooshes as she walks. Tilting her head to the side, she bends her cocktail straw and sips slowly out of one side of a glossy, pursed mouth.

Oh, Molly. He smiles despondently, all air leaving his lungs. You are my Daisy, my muse, and now you're moving to Key Largo. God, why Key Largo!

He watches her command the group; she draws the crowd when it pleases her. Her slight frame slips easily between the tall legs and arms of the group. She makes everyone feel special. Cheering the beer-pong players across the room, she is back before shots are poured. Everyone is purring, "We are going to miss you so."

She presses his shoulder for a second, leaning in to grab a shot. "Hi-ya, Owl," and a jolt shakes his bones.

He tips his tequila to the crowd (but means it for Molly)-chases it with a cough. The bartender tosses Owl a lime and shakes his head in that annoyance reserved for scrawny men who can't take their liquor. Molly buzzes between close-talking pairs and more drinks are ordered. No one notices him. This is his whole life-shadow movements, a life behind large glasses.

The music picks up with a crescendo of conversation and then there is dancing that combusts out of air. Molly started it; but then she walks abruptly to the long table. They offer her a beer and say to cut the cake. A knife appears; cake is cut. Molly licks blue icing off manicured fingertips, hips swaying. Owl moves tentatively for a piece but is too late to catch her.

The man outside smoking has come in and now gives Molly a long, insistent look. She absorbs the gaze and returns it with such force he feels ashamed for watching. The smoking man is married.

It doesn't matter. A partner in the firm flies to the dancefloor with a crash.

Owl watches him clutch and gasp like Jagger from the floor, dirty. With a phantom microphone, he gyrates. He sings; he weaves. He has everyone clapping. All of the sudden, Jagger jumps on the long table and reaches for the rafters. One strong arm, a big swing, and his legs are holding him upside down as he yells, "Can't get no!"

Beneath Jagger waits Coco (he hears her name while eavesdropping), dark-brown skin in a leopard-print shirt, wedding ring gleaming. Then, another, more conservatively dressed but much younger. Neither is with the group, but both wait for Jagger to flip down. They dance-so primitive and private but for obstinate clothes. All watch, mouths open.

It's just another illusion, Owl ruefully thinks.

He takes a long, deep drink. Owl is alone while giddy women from accounting make eyes at the bartender and several softball players recount the fifth inning. It doesn't matter. Molly has taken to a dark corner outside and whispers to the smoking man, giggling. Long fingers playfully straighten his collar. Long fingers gently paint the curve of his jaw. Her blond hair swings freely in their surreptitious world. Owl strains his neck to watch until they take two swift steps into obscurity.

What is it about her slender frame that arrests him? God, and why Key Largo? He sets his drink down and softly smooths his clothes; pants too short, shirt wrinkled with cat hair. It's no wonder he can slip through unnoticed. But yet, sometimes, he would swear Molly sees him. Yes, that's it. When she comes by his desk, asking so directly about his day, he swears she really sees him.

It doesn't matter; a strange man in a black cowboy hat stands suddenly exposed.

Maybe this is Coco's husband? She seems to know him. There is a slight shake to his dark-brown hands. Curious, Owl inches closer. He is in his 70s maybe. It is hard to tell with the hat. The man seems to have found his own rhythm, and while it looks like he is watching, his eyes are fixed a little too high. Before Owl can creep closer, a small crowd springs up around him.

He hears the name-John Mackey-Hall of Fame football player for the old Baltimore Colts! He glimpses the large jewel-studded ring on the man's gnarled finger.

Two beer-pong players push past him for an autograph. Owl tears a flyer off the wall and hands it over.

Nervously, he waits. He drinks until his beer is empty, feet shuffling beneath him: "Remember in Super Bowl V that pass from Johnny U?" "Remember how you ran untouched for a 75-yard touchdown?" He sighs inwardly, and for a moment, lost on the field, he forgets Molly.

John Mackey signs two napkins, then the flyer. He hands it to Owl with a shake. He reads: "You will score big in life. I am blocking for you."

Unlikely, Owl thinks, carefully folding the moment into his back pocket. "Thank you," he says to the great shell of a man.

"Cool, right? Although he doesn't seem all with it anymore, does he?" a fan barks as he nudges Owl, not waiting for a response. It seems the gloss has already tarnished.

Owl drops back and orders another. Molly is back-crying goodbyes to empty beer bottles, tipped wine glasses, and half-eaten cake, some smeared on her jeans. He wishes to console her but can't seem to move. He wishes her long fingers would find the dimple on his cheek but can't erase that man in smoke.

She grabs the floor, blond hair soaring. Over the hip-hop, she sings "Thank you, oh, I love you" to those still hot on the dancefloor.

Owl knows she isn't thinking about the move-only the flashing moment, the blood bursting in the arteries of her heart from the heat of it. He understands the poetics of it, even if she will never hear his words.

Jagger, his hands pacing through thinning hair, cheeks flushed, gobbles compliments from all coming close.

Speech finished, Molly slips back outside to smoke in rings with that taken man, so thoroughly entranced.

"Touchdown!" John Mackey suddenly yells, the field so much closer and far more brilliant.


Fiction and Poetry Contest Winners

Fiction First Place: "CHAOS" by C.C. Vail
Fiction Second Place: "The Plagiarist" by F.P. Gamber
Fiction Third Place: "So Much Closer and Far More Brilliant" by Jody Costa

Poetry First Place: "Marie's Dance" by Angie Cochrun
Poetry Second Place: "So Far Child"by Lydia Rich
Poetry Third Place: "Sunday" by Kyle Eichmann

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