A Bird in the Hand by Mike Marano

“Alright, I’ll see you later,” I say, leaning in to kiss him. It feels strange. It has for the past few weeks.

“Yeah, bye.” That’s a great way to treat the mother of your child, Peter. I readjust my bag as I head for the door. I feel him watching me as I step out into the cool air.

Albany in the springtime.

My Cherokee is waiting for me in the driveway, winter’s salt stains still splashed over the sides, and cancerous rust bubbling the paint on the hood. I toss my bag and my stilettos on the passenger seat as I wake my car from its sweet, peaceful hibernation. It doesn’t sound pleased.

Maybe I should do something crazy tonight. Stop at the gas station, get what I need, and just drive. Just go.

God knows that won’t work. Peter and Byron would last all of two days without me.

Maybe I should go get a tattoo. I’ll get it of something dumb. Something real poorly thought out. Stupid. Inappropriate. Like Oscar the Grouch right on my fucking throat. See what Peter has to say to me then. I’ll call mom, let her know the job prospects are out the window because I just had to get some sweet ink. Have my teenage rebellion and my midlife crisis at the age of twenty-eight.

That’d be nice. Live recklessly, no regrets.

I think about smoking a whole carton of cigarettes in record time. I think about abandoning the car and everything in it. I think about Brucie back in Arizona and what he might be doing right about now. I think about Chris, dead at seventeen and me being the only one who gave a damn.

Before I know it, I’m at the club, parking out back. My plans will just have to wait for another night. This girl’s got a job to do.

I walk in, feeling the bass through the floorboards before I hear it. The smell of expensive booze and fluid morality invades my nostrils.

Jimmy’s working the bar tonight. He grins at me as I walk in. I don’t know how many times I’ll have to tell him I’m seeing someone before he gives up. I pass the stage as two of the girls show the wide-eyed gentlemen in the front row exactly why there’s a twenty-dollar cover charge.

The dressing room is empty when I step inside.

That’s not exactly true.

It’s littered with something like six hundred discarded pairs of lingerie, and what appears to be the evidence of the armed robbery of a Macy’s make-up counter. The girls I dance with are all very nice. Just kind of sloppy.

Within five minutes, the final touches have been applied and I’ve crammed my feet into the stilettos. I wish I were back in the car.

I head over to Tom in the DJ booth. Tommy’s a nice guy.

“How we doing, sweetie?”

“We’re good, Tommy, how about you?”

“It’s a Tuesday and I’m here. Who could ask for more?”

“You’re an optimist, Tommy, that’s why I love you.”

“If only. What you want me to put on for you?”

“Something fast. And happy.”

“Done. Now go make em sweat.”

The next three hours pass by without anything all too exciting happening. For me, at least. My audience, on the other hand, seems enthralled. Standing ovations, all around. Tommy keeps me going, throwing me some hip-hop shit before giving me the Bee Gees. The transitions are abrupt and sometimes jarring. Now, for Juliet Reed, mother to a nicotine addicted toddler and devoted live-in girlfriend, this might be a problem.

But tonight, I’m Nikki, with hearts above the I’s and the body of a twenty year old.

It’s nearly three in the morning and only the regulars are left. I take that back. There’s one guy, fifty-something, sitting a couple tables away, in a gray suit, drinking something over ice. Wrinkled brow, graying temples. Most of his face is shadowy. He’s the mysterious stranger, like some character Mickey Spillane couldn’t find any use for.

My song ends and I make my way over to him. He lifts his dark brown eyes to meet mine. They’re kind. Reserved.


“You want a dance, friend?” I ask.

He looks like a good tipper.

He doesn’t say anything, just raises an eyebrow as a grin tugs at the corner of his mouth like a fishhook. After a few seconds, he speaks.

“Sure. Why not?”

Very good. I take him by the hand and lead him to one of the private booths in back with the dim lights and little stage.

“What kinda music you like?” I ask, leafing through the binder of CDs.

“Not much. You choose.”

“Well, I like country.”

“Well, in that case, I like Willie Nelson.” Is this guy serious?

“Sorry to tell you, I don’t think we’re gonna have any of that here.”

“That’s fine. We don’t need music.”

Lovely. One of these guys. He sits there staring and I show it all and silence crushes both of us.

He damn well better be a good tipper.

“Well, alright then,” I tell him as I start to work.

I nearly fall over when he opens his mouth: “You ever want to do something reckless?”

What the hell does this guy want? I’m giving him two minutes before I hit the panic button.

“Don’t we all, baby?” I offer. I don’t know.

“Hey, don’t be feeding me stripper lines, here. Just answer.”

“I, uh…well, sure. Sometimes I mean.” Keep dancing, Jules, just keep dancing.

“Yeah. What’s your reason?”

Jesus Christ. “Well, I guess I just get a little bored sometimes.”

“I suppose that’s true,” he says. A few seconds pass before he tells me I can stop dancing. “I’m just kinda drunk and looking for someone to talk to.”

Goddamn it. I yank off my stilettos and climb off the stage when his hand shoots up off his lap. He’s holding a hundred-dollar bill.

“What do you want?” I ask.

“It’s like I said, I just want to talk to someone.”

We take a minute just staring at each other. His eyes never leave mine. I yank the money out of his hand.

“Well, then. Talk,” I direct him, throwing a t-shirt over myself.

Another pause.

“I just tried to kill myself. Third time this year. Still can’t get it right.”

What is this? What the hell does this guy want from me? What do you say to something like that?


“Yeah,” he says, laughing a little, “me too.”

“What made you want to do that?”

“It’s like you said, I just got a little bored.”

I want to leave now, but I can’t bring myself to. This guy is dark. And pathetic.

And fascinating.

“What’s bothering me now is that it hasn’t worked. The first time, the rope snapped. Four months ago, the gun jammed. And just now, the asshole swerved out of the way at the last second.”

Stand up, Jules, you stupid bitch. Stand up and get away from this guy. He’s crazy. He’s gonna rape you or skin you or ask you to punish him. Get out.

“So now, Nikki… That’s your name, right? Nikki?”

I only realize I’m nodding when I feel my earrings brush against collarbone.

“So, Nikki, now I’m starting to think I can’t kill myself. Why?

“Because maybe we’re already dead.”



“What do you mean?” Why am I asking?

“Think about it, Nikki. Look around. Look at our world. Disease, violence, starvation. I remember when I was a kid, when I was in Catholic school, one of the nuns was telling us what Hell was like. She said it was reliving your sins, again and again and again, for all eternity. So, Nikki, my question to you is: how is it that we’re not already dead?”

Because I still have a goddamn pulse. Because I’ve got a boyfriend and a fucking kid that I’m willing to do this for.

“Nikki, when was the last time you did something reckless?”

“I… I’m not sure.”

“Well, Nikki, I’ll tell you what. I’m gonna leave here in a minute. I’m gonna wait in the parking lot until 3:58. Then, I’m gonna get on the thruway, and I’m gonna go real, real fast. And I’m just gonna see what happens.

“And I’d love some company, Nikki. So, if you feel like coming, you know where to find me.”

With that, he stands up and walks out of the booth. I turn around and look in the mirror. I’m sweating. My heart’s beating out of my fucking chest. I have tears in my eyes.

What the fuck?

After a few minutes, I’ve stopped shaking. Soon, I find myself leaving my dressing room, my leather jacket on and the stilettos slung back over my shoulder. I say goodnight to Tom and Jimmy, and I head to the back door. My hand is on the metal bar of the exit. I take a breath.

In through the nose, out through the mouth.

I open the door and step out into the hazy light of the parking lot.

The first thing I notice is him, sitting behind the wheel of his car. Black. Two doors. Sporty.

It’s the only thing between me and my Cherokee, my family, my life.

He’s watching me.

Keep walking, Jules. Keep going. Forty feet.

His eyes are only reflections of the green glow of his dash.

Thirty feet.

He twirls his cigarette between the fingers on his left hand.

Twenty feet.

The pulse in my neck is ready to tear through my skin.

Ten feet.

I’m right in front of him now. He turns on his headlights. It’s soothing and suffocating.

Keep moving, goddamn it. Move.

But what if I don’t? What if I hop in and go for a ride? What if I try it, just once?

What might happen?

I clutch the steering wheel as I sit down in the Cherokee and start it up. Muscle Memory. Reflex.

I can still feel him staring at me through my passenger window.

Don’t look, Jules.

I do. His lips bunch up and he nods. His car jumps a little as he pushes it into gear. And he’s gone.

As I walk in the door, I hear Peter stirring in the bed. I get out of my jeans, and leave my earrings on the night table.

“How’d it go?” he grumbles, barely awake.

Nikki, with hearts above the I’s and the body of a twenty year old wanted to get into that car and drive real, real fast just to see what would happen.

But tonight, I’m Jules.

“It was fine,” I tell him.

I just graduated from Binghamton University with an English degree, which is sure to give me a real competitive edge in today's economy. I'm looking to get into writing for television and I want to move out to LA soon, where I'll no doubt blend right into the hopeful masses.