Nights at Sassafras
Nights at Sassafras11 mins 153 11 mins 153
I could not help but stare at the guy with the black masquerade eye mask. He was walking with a limp, not a permanent limp, but one like he had just stubbed his toe or sprained his leg. His face that was visible below the mask portrayed an awkward expression a forced smile that was mixed with a hint of physical pain that showed when he pulled out the lit cigarette that clung to the end of his lip to take a puff. I saw him go up to the piano and linger on for a couple of minutes and then make a move as if to speak with the pianist but then hesitate slightly and then turn and walk back to his booth. This was going on for quite some time now and I had lost the thrill of it concluding that this guy might never be able to bring himself to request the pianist for a song ever.
I had a lot of free time to kill and a corner booth with a view of almost all of the action happening in the club. I had money to order as much booze as I wanted and I had already lined up five glasses in a row. I had never had a drink in my life ever and did not plan to do so. But the only way I could sit here in this dark and smoky corner of the club was if I kept ordering drinks at regular intervals. And so there I was with my back resting on the side wall, my legs outstretched on the couch, an elbow resting on the table, a glass of scotch in my hand, and a sordid determination on my mind.
The limping guy was losing my interest now. His actions however no longer appeared to me as coy and pitiful but seemed rather distastefully alarming and sodden with mischief. And it was as if he was following my train of thoughts, because at the precise moment when my opinion about him was turning, I saw him looking in my direction and it did seem to me like I had piqued his interest. But with the eye mask I could not really tell as our eyes never met and I made myself believe that he was giving someone else a stare. And I turned my head and my gaze slowly in search of my next target.
There was no dearth of weirdos at this club and that was one of the reasons I liked to come here often. The very dim lights and the whole melodramatically mysterious and melancholic vibe that the place emanated added this drab of a club to my checklist of the places I love the most. I frequented this place and was on a first name basis with the waiters and all of them knew that I never drank the booze but just filled it up in my flask and took it home - but they never did mind because I was the most well-behaved and usually left them a handsome tip each time. And so they let me sit at my corner booth each time and let me go about my business too.
I remember how heavily depressed I felt when I had first visited the club more than a couple of years ago. It was often bad-mouthed about, but I had not known the seriousness of it’s shady business until that day when the club was all over the papers. “Sassafras absolved of drug heist charges” said the glaring newspaper headlines. But the talk among the town-folk was that they’d been acquitted just because the hotelier had pushed a boat-load of money to the officials higher up the totem pole. With this news they had earned at least one visit from me.
The moment I entered, the whole place stood in front of me like a vision from hell. They did not make it comforting by introducing a foyer or a facade or some sort of passage to prepare you when going from the outside world into that godforsaken menace of a place. You just fell into the clutches of this soul wrenching monster of a place. It was just a large open floor, very dimly lit with lifeless yellow lights and which boasted wall decor that consisted of animal heads, large ones, all along the walls. The paint was a dark red and was visible only at the spots where there were light fixtures on the walls. The columns and pillars had a very Gothic look with intricate floral patterns that looked carved but must have been wall-paper I’d guessed. The heavy and overtly colonial furniture oddly seemed to have been transported from the Elizabethan era. The drapes on the tables were a combination of dull gray and a dark red matching that of the walls. The silverware which was neatly placed on every table also seemed lifeless as if by oxidation. Smoke was seen in small patches all over the place but I somehow couldn’t see the origin of it like it was just appearing and disappearing on its own as if the different patches were playing hide and go seek. At that moment my desire to leave was so strong that I felt it was originating somewhere in my stomach. But I had decided that day against my gut feeling to hang on a little while longer.
Only then had I become conscious of the grand piano playing a tune that sounded familiar but one on which I could not put a finger on at that time. Later on the train back home that day I had recalled that the song was “Follow your arrow wherever it points.” I sat at this same booth that day too although that day I didn’t have the same comfort and camaraderie that I have with this place now. By the end of my almost three hours on that very first day I had felt the place had grown on me inch by inch with each passing minute as if that booth had performed some magical trick. I just could not get my eyes off of all the action. And would you believe it if I told you that I was actually kicked out that day about early morning when the guys wanted to close down for cleaning up and so on. That was probably the first time since I had been married that I went home that late. I was well prepared though for the barrage of questions that would be thrown at me the moment I entered. I reckon that it had been a rough day for her as it was for me.
Now, as I continued to look for my next target after the limping guy, I saw Rita. She was a dancer at the club. She looked pretty today as always and wore a shimmery white gown with a frilly off-white scarf that looked like it was made of bird feathers loosely thrown around her neck. She usually wore white pearls and I really thought it complimented her alabaster skin so well. Over the years I had heard of rumors within the bar that she had been an informer you know or some undercover cop or something. But it was really hard to believe that because she was rather clumsy and seemed much like a dimwit to me. Were it not for her beauty I think she would not be allowed to set foot in the club. There she was always flirtatious with anyone and everyone and making the biggest fool of herself at times. But on the days when I lacked interesting options she was my go-to target. As my eyes caught hold of her I saw her from a distance walking hurriedly towards my direction.
We had spoken a few times before you know just the usual what do you do and whose in your family and all that stuff and she seemed like a normal family person that is if she had told me the truth. But she seemed harmless. That was important here. You better not get in contact with the wrong kind of people. Stay out of trouble as much as possible. And that’s what I did. Always. Just walked out when there was any hint of the slightest trouble whatsoever. Didn’t think of the worth of the booze left on the table - just left it there and left my tip as well - just for the relations - and just slid out.
Many a times in the event that the Police Department got involved, the head of staff called me up secretly to ask me if I saw anything suspicious so that they could anonymously inform the police. I was almost like an informer myself I thought to myself on such days - a tall almost unattractive girl in her thirties wearing a heavy coat and long boots and head covered with a beanie or a beret with a glass in her hand and sitting at a corner booth could never arouse any suspicion ever or that is at least what I thought. But these calls from the head staff were always difficult to attend especially if I was at home at the time. It was hard work to convince my mother-in-law that it was just some prank call or something. We didn’t get along that well or anything but you know we just had each other so it was on me to protect her from all the harm in the world. Being an orphan just makes you like that. You care deeply for whoever comes close to you later on in life. Sure, it was a tightrope walk to alternate between this life and the other life that I had slowly and steadily spiraled into after the death of my husband, but it was a struggle that I gladly endured and strangely enjoyed as well. The thrill of this alternate life was the closest that I felt to overcoming grief. I think he would have wanted this for me.
So anyway when I saw Rita rushing toward me I had almost gathered my things pretending as if I were ready to leave when she signaled me from far off to wait. And so I just sat there with all my things in my hand still prepared you know to take off. She seemed a little flustered but not too worried or anything. All the time that she sat at my booth she kept trying to make some small talk and said some things in between that I really did not understand that well but some weird feeling made me hit the audio recording button on my phone and our conversation no matter how dumb sounding was recorded on my phone. And then she just left off in the same hurry in which she came.
As I watched her walk away my mouth wide open with confused amazement I saw her go close to the limping guys booth. She gave me another look which really startled me as I did not want her to know I was still looking at her and so I pretended to look away. She took the seat opposite to the limping guy. I could not see her now but I saw the limping guy take another puff from his cigarette as he spoke. See now I had no business waiting there any longer but I just didn’t like the way Rita sounded and moreover she was with the limping guy now so I decided to just hang on a little while longer but my things were still clasped in my hands - my satchel and phone in my right hand and my beret and flask in the other - the check was settled and the tip was already on the table.
Just a few minutes had passed when I saw the limping guy getting up from his seat and moving towards the pianist. This time though he had managed to speak with the pianist possibly to request a new song. As the pianist shifted gears I realized the limping guy was looking at me and this time I was sure because there was no mask. His eyes fixated on mine for just a split second and then he hurried towards the exit. And by the time I managed to register the words of the new tune being played I heard screams. I shifted my gaze to the booth where he had been sitting and as my eyes moved there I saw a hand collapse on the seat as if it were a mannequin’s and then the head. It was Rita. She was probably dead or fainted. I don’t know because I was already half-way out the door when I saw it.
And the words to the tune that the limping guy had requested only came to me when I was on the train still shivering with fear from what I had witnessed. My fear churned my stomach further when my mind muttered the lyrics - “I know you’re dying to meet me, but I can tell you this, baby, as soon as you meet me, you’ll wish you never did.”