It’s funny about wars –
(No, you’re right. Nothing’s ever funny about wars. But you remember what my sense of humour’s like, remember how it got me into trouble even at the best of times?)
But all I mean to say is it’s funny how wars get so familiar, like family. You don’t notice it at first but, after you get up close to a few, real close, you can’t help but see how much they all resemble each other. You see the same heartache etched on every face, and betrayal. That family likeness is unnerving. Most families share blood but this one shares bloodshed. It’s rising up all around you, day-by-day. It’s like a biblical flood with no Noah in sight who’s sailing to rescue his chosen few. Well, maybe Noah does still turn up to rescue the chosen few. What would I know about that? None of my crowd was ever lucky enough, or smart enough, or just low-down cunning enough, to get counted among the chosen few.
Anyway, I guess I never had much time for the chosen few any time I met them. And they had even less time for me.
(Good judges of character, those chosen few. Am I right?)
Let’s raise another glass to the chosen few! No, I can’t remember who the other glasses were raised to, either. I gave up keeping count a long, long time ago. I guess when you own half-a-dozen bars for half your life then alcohol’s the easiest way to go. At least you know you’re getting trade rates on the disease that’ll carry you off. That’s some consolation.
(I used to wonder if I would’ve made a decent consolation prize for you. I don’t bother with that anymore. You had the war and no-one could compete with all that history and glory you went chasing after. Where did it get you in the end? No, don’t tell me. I don’t want to hear.)
Pause. Rick drinks, rubs his eyes.
When I get to looking back what I mostly see is you. I won’t lie. Then I see regrets. I get tired of all the regrets. They sit around like they own the place, putting their feet up on the furniture. No-one ever puts their feet on the furniture in my establishments, it’s not allowed; not in the States, not in Europe, Casablanca, Singapore. But those regrets of mine are impolite. They talk too loud and they point and stare like they’re a goddam bunch of VIPs invited along to see some circus act they’re sure is beneath them. So they spend half the time looking down their noses and half the time staring up where the tightrope walker goes wobbling along his bit of string. They’re waiting to see him fall, getting impatient and checking the time because there’s someplace else they’ve got to be, someplace more stylish.
I’ve been a tightrope walker all my life, but you already knew that. It’s not a career I’d wish on anyone. All that endless balancing tires you out. As for me, well, in my time I’ve balanced every competing demand you’d care to mention: smugglers, cops, pimps and heroes; liberty, equality and Nazis. Then, once you get too tired to keep on balancing anymore, you crash.
(I was crashing when I first met you. You wore blue, remember?)
The impact makes dents in you. It dents the better parts of you, leaves them faulty and hanging loose, exposed. They start to get callous then: your spirit, generosity, your hopes and trust. You can’t help it, no-one can. You get beaten out of shape as time goes by.
As Time Goes By…
He played it for you and sometimes, after you left, he still played it for me. And he always played it note-perfect. Tender. The patrons sighed, held hands across the tables. You’d have smiled to see them. I smiled at how little they understood. I smiled at how little you understood, too. It was an ugly smile; it got stuck in my teeth. Because no-one ever wins a war, Ilsa, not really; not even you and your heroes.
I never told anyone this but I used to picture that blue dress you wore, all red with bullet holes. And each time I pictured you like that I told him to play that goddam song. He never refused and he never once mentioned that anything was wrong, never let on that he knew. But Sam was never the same again.
This story was written in response to the speakeasy writing prompt #167 – You must include the following sentence as the LAST line in your submission: “But Sam was never the same again.”