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Deceptive Innocence

By:Kyra Davis

t the point is, I know what kind of man Lander is. He’s different. Edgy in that upscale kind of way, and he’s rebellious enough to drink in this dive when he could easily afford to knock back cocktails at The Carlyle.

When I return to him I refill his drink without his having to ask. “So I was thinking about this, and before I resort to coaxing I think I’d like to take a stab at guessing.”

“I don’t have the kind of name that’s easy to guess,” he says.

“So it’s not Rumpelstiltskin?”

He laughs and shakes his head. His laugh is deeper than I anticipated, appealingly unrestrained. “I’ll give you a hint,” he finally says. “It’s English and it means ‘lion.’ ”

“Leo.”

“Close. It also means ‘landowner.’ ”

Another well-weathered drinker several feet off has started muttering to himself, adding an odd soundtrack to the scene. He’s minutes away from falling off his stool.

“Landlord,” I say. “Wait, is that a name? How about Leolord, or Lionlord, or maybe Landlion.”

“My name is Lander,” he supplies.

“Lander, the landowning lion.”

He nods in confirmation. “And what’s your name?”

“Bell.”

“You were named for your beauty.”

I shake my head, a little harder than necessary. “It’s a nickname. B. E. L. L. No ‘e’ at the end. Like Taco Bell.”

“Like Taco Bell?” he repeats. “Did you just say that?”

“What should I have said? A church bell?”

“No.” He takes his drink and downs more than half of it in a gulp. “But maybe like an alarm bell.”

I giggle at that and shake my head in protest, though I’m secretly flattered.

“Care to tell me your real name?” he asks.

“Guess,” I call over my shoulder as I leave to serve another customer.

I can feel him watching me and I work to make sure my movements are graceful, too graceful for this place. That’s what he should think. I want him to be curious about me.

I need him to want me.

“Keep ’em on their toes,” my mother used to say. “If they don’t know what’s coming next, they’ll keep coming back in hopes of figuring it out.”

I remember that conversation so well, although at the time I pretended not to listen. I had found it distasteful to be advised on men and dating through bulletproof glass.

Looking back on it, I really hope she knew I was listening.

More customers come in: a chick dressed like a prostitute clinging to a guy dressed like a deadbeat, then a dark-skinned man with a scar, and, a few minutes later, a light-skinned guy with a grizzled beard and a bald head. They all glance in Lander’s direction but none of them bother him. It’s like he’s mingling when he shows up here. He doesn’t belong. He’s no better than those tourists on the double-decker buses, gaping at the sights of the city without ever understanding the first thing about the lives of the people who live in it. Does he know that?

The unspoken question helps me. It sharpens my focus and fortifies me for the next step. When I go back I look him in the eye and silently invite him to restart the conversation.

“Bella,” he says, his eyes moving from my hair, to my eyes, to the antique garnet ring I wear on my right hand.

“That would be too easy,” I say.

“Belinda.”

“Nope.”

“Blair.”

“Now you’re just pulling names out of your ass.”

He almost spits out his drink as he holds back an ill-timed laugh. When he composes himself, he opens his mouth again to continue but I gently press my finger against his lips. The move is startlingly intimate and he immediately falls silent.

“That’s three strikes,” I say as I pull my hand back. “Looks like you’re not getting to first base tonight.”

He cocks his head. “There’s always tomorrow.”

“That depends on how you perform next time you’re up to bat.”

And again I walk away. I serve the other drinkers, and occasionally I throw him a smile or two, but I don’t go back to talk. Not yet. I have to tease this out.

It’s only when he prepares to leave that I grab his hand. “Do come back another time,” I say, my eyes locked on his. Then, slowly, I remove my hand and bite my lower lip teasingly before adding, “For our prices.”

He answers me with a smile, puts down a ridiculously large tip, and leaves.

He’s back the very next night.

He arrives earlier this time, takes the same seat, and waits for me to approach. I hold up the whiskey and raise my eyebrows questioningly, waiting for his nod before pouring him a glass.

He throws out a pile of names: Beliva, Bellanca, Benita. The names are foreign to me, unfamiliar, irritating. But I keep my tone teasing and light as I reject them one by one.

The traffic in the bar is also light tonight, but a few distractions manage to pop up. The drunk from the night before is here, the one who almost fell off his stool. This time he’s sitting at a table, with a troubled expression that indicates he’s watching “his” bartender flirt with “the stranger.”

It takes effort, but he manages to get out of his chair and make his way back to the bar. When he puts his empty glass in front of me, he hits the wood of the bar a little too hard so that the placement reads more like a demand than a casual movement. “Empty,” he says, staring at the bottom. On the screen behind me “The Most Interesting Man in the World” opens a Dos Equis as this man before me fishes out six crumpled dollar bills and puts them next to the glass.

I shake my head. “I can’t serve you; you’ve had too much.”

The man shakes his head in return. “I had too much twenty years ago, but the Lord keeps piling shit on.”

“I meant I can’t give you more to drink,” I clarify. “Go home.”

The drunk’s head snaps up at the word home, as if I’ve spoken of some kind of coveted prize, as if I’ve spoken the real name of God. In that moment I know his whole story; the perfunctory telling of it is almost unnecessary. Newly evicted, no family, nothing. The man has no center. I shake my head, whisper useless words of comfort. I recognize his pain, I’ve lived with it before, but I can’t

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