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Midnight at the Coloquon

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They ducked past the guard at the little frosted window and went in through the unbolted door and down the cellar steps, past women who watched them walk by with dark, narrowed eyes and whose mouths closed in flat lines. In that suspicious silence, Silver's boots sounded out the hard slap of leather on stone and Vivien's Cuban heels gave a hollow tap on each step.

Cay said, "Hey, Candy," to the guard at the window, and tucked one hand into the small of Silver's back, four reassuring fingertips and one confident thumb. The way Silver had done for Cay, years ago, the first time Cay had taken the long walk from the cashier's office to the casino floor, all dark give 'em hell eyes and squared shoulders under the weight of the change apron.

"Jan. Merle," Cay said, nodded.

"Cay." Merle nodded back, unsmiling.

Cay's pal Merle, she was as built as a linebacker and as handsome as a Marlboro cowboy. Behind Cay's back, Silver touched the brim of her hat and winked, and Vivien caught her eye and Silver grinned back at her, all faux innocence and tinsel. Cay said, fondly, "Don't flirt with my friends," and, "Viv," and, "Well, here we are."

Then they went down the last few uneven steps, ducked under the archway, and caught the first swinging whisper of the jukebox, jazzy as a Hawaiian cocktail. The ceiling lifted into the lazy embrace of cheap cigarette smoke, and the whole room was full of women.

It was three o'clock in the afternoon. The trolley cars rattled overhead and the subway hummed beneath them, and outside the sidewalk was crowded with movie stars and media moguls and little pug dogs with diamanté leads, shopping bags, cigars, messenger boys and newspaper stands and the smell of hot asphalt and river, boiled sausages and newspaper print. New York, New York: no city like it, all tawdry, bawdy glamour, all smiling dark-eyed Italian boys and Jewish burlesque girls with glass earrings and blistered feet, matinées with popcorn and soda and a couple of slugs from a hipflask with Cay's initials engraved on the stopper.

And bars full of women.

"Well, hell," Silver drawled, poised on the bottom step.

Half the girls crowding the bar looked at her with open disbelief. Silver's Stetson was the only hat in sight. Her denim jeans were pressed and her boots tooled red leather, and among the slacks and belted dresses of the Lower East Side after-lunch crowd, their crew cuts and permanent waves, she was as exotic as an academic in Reno.

Silver tipped her hat to the back of her head, and grinned right back at the length of the bar.

"Don't make me look like a goddamn tourist," Cay muttered.

"Girl, I am a tourist, and I'm gonna enjoy the hell out of it," Silver muttered, loudly. "I even got me some new duds just for the occasion. Chin up. And good afternoon ladies!"

She waved, a jaunty salute, as Cay found them a table. The bar regulars were still staring, the butches heavy-shouldered and tired eyed, their girlfriends sweetly and deceptively flighty, all sideways glances and whispered comments, and the odd little line of men perched by the bar stirred out of apathy. Even their waitress was staring as she hustled across the floor. She was a small, slight girl, their waitress, with eyebrows that slashed across her thin face, a duck-tail cut combed into pristine severity, and a dazed smile as she struggled to keep her eyes on Silver's face and not her generous curves.

"Billie, Silver," said Cay, introducing them. "Visiting from out of town."

"You don't say," breathed Billie.

"Sure am," said Silver. She leaned forward, elbows on the table, shirt falling open. "Honey," she said, "Honey, I'm here to see the lesbians."

Vivian looked away, and closed her fingers around the smooth cold silver of her cigarette case.

"Well," said Billie, drawing the word out, enjoying the free show. "You sure came to the right place, honey."

"I guess Cay always did know how to show a girl a good time," said Silver. Her raised eyebrows, plucked and wickedly thin, were an innuendo in themselves.

Cay's hand crept onto Vivien's knee, under the table, in the warm dark of the bar. Vivien raised an eyebrow.

"You're Cay's..."

Billie was not looking at Vivien, who had known the address but not the woman on the door. Cay had.

"Cay's friend," said Silver firmly.

"You're one of us," Billie said to Silver.

"You know there's only one girl for me," Cay whispered to Vivien, very quiet. Her hair, shorter now than it was in Reno, brushed Vivien's, a miniature frisson.

"Darlin'," Silver drawled.

Vivien's fingernail tapped on her cigarette case said, 'Me and all the others.' She was smiling.

"I'm a married woman." Silver's smile was as flashy as her ring.

Billie snorted. "I hear that a lot," she said.

"I just bet you do," said Silver. Her smile had not dimmed. Expansive, it took in the whole room, the low lighting and the comfortable fug of cigarette smoke, the archway through to the cellar where the butches played pool, the little round tables, the girls in their checked shirts and tailored dresses, the barmen behind the bar, the jukebox in the corner just striking up another popular song.

They'd done a show, gone for oysters in a basement restaurant, and wandered through the village, where Silver exclaimed at the dinky little shops and the bars and the sailors, and Cay and Vivian did their best not to look like tourists. Vivien, coming straight from work, was uncomfortably formal in her suit and high heels. Cay had run a comb through her hair, polished her boots, and put on a clean shirt, which she wore knotted as if they were still in the desert and not wandering through New York on an October day that was already shading into the chill of a fall fog. The light from the street lamps misted over the damp pavements, Vivien tried to give Cay her coat and they burned their fingers on chestnuts eaten ember-hot out of waxed paper, and then Silver said, "Well, ladies, where can we get a drink around here?"

Cay had said, "Lookin' for a good time, sweetheart?" Vivien had said, "The Coloquon? Really?" and Silver had stopped dead and put her hands on her hips and let her voice ring out. She'd told Bleckers Street, "Take me to one of those lesbian bars."

In the warm, welcome dusk of the Coloquon, Silver said, "The ring's for real, but it ain't no chain on my finger."

Billie had straightened. "Taking a walk on the wild side?"

"Hey," Cay said, sharper.

"Any friend of yours," Billie said. "What can I get you?" She had her notebook out, all straight lines and stiff fingers.

"Aw, Bill, don't be like that," Cay said.

"You know, there's a word for-"

Vivian snapped her cigarette case closed. "Haven't we all heard enough words telling us who we're meant to be?" She was holding Billie's eyes. "I'll take a whiskey and soda," she said, "And my friends will have the same."

"Ma'am," Billie said.

Silver watched her walk back to the bar. "So," she said.

Cay shrugged. "There's bars around here they let the tourists in, just to keep the bar open. Then there's places like this, just for women."

"Well, hell, last time I looked..." Silver said.

"Women with other women," Vivien said. "Exclusively."

Silver blinked. "There's enough women in New York to go round?"

Cay was already laughing.

"I mean, hell, there ain't a woman in Reno I'd have done loving if I'd drawn the line at men," Silver said. "I got one of my own, goddamnit!"

"It's a close community," Vivien said. "Defensive. With reason."

"Worth it?" Silver said.

Cay's fading smile evaporated.

"Worth it, Vivian?"

"I always thought being a woman meant being married," Vivien said. "But I never learnt the language. I tried. I can hold a class of students in the palm of my hand, I can work with a faculty whose internal politics make visiting professors weep, I'm the pre- eminent researcher in my field...and yet I didn't understand a thing about myself until I met Cay. She's the person who matters to me."

They were still holding hands.

"I'm glad Cay is finding space to be what she wants to be," Vivien said. "But I'm happy with my books."

"And me," Cay said.

Vivien smiled. "And you."

"Well, ain't that just dandy," Silver said, smiling.

"But you two," said Vivien, "You..." she shook her head.

"Cay was never going to fall for me," Silver said, adding, "Thank you, honey," to Billie, as the waitress set down their drinks. "She was looking for something else - but we had one hell of a good time." Her smile was wide and widening.

"That bar in Lamarie," Cay said.

"Those three truckers at Donnie's," Silver said, laughing.

"That red dress!"

"That hotel in Tijuana."

"The night you met Joe," Cay said. Her grin was wicked, her eyes laughing over the glass. The long line of her eyelashes and her eyebrows was extraordinary, a dark winged beauty.

"You didn't," said Vivien.

"Oh, we sure did," drawled Silver.

Cay smiled at Vivien, and tightened her hold. "You were lucky to find Joe," she said to Silver.

"Honey, Joe was lucky to find me," Silver said. "But I ain't denying that he's one of the good 'uns."

"And that - that was how you and Joe met?" Vivien asked.

"Yup," Silver said.

"With Cay."

Silver slid her a sidelong glance, eyes gleaming. "There's a lot to be said for a guy with a dick that don't quit. Or a gal. But then Joe..." She shook her head and glanced down at her wedding ring, smiling. "But that's love for you," Silver said. "Gets you right in the gut, don't it?"

Vivien reached for her cigarette case. The desert tan had faded, but there was still an indent on her ring finger. Twelve years of failed marriage marked a woman.

"Now this one," Silver said, nodding at Cay. "This one I had to chase down to some godforsaken lake out in Indian Country."

"I beg your pardon?" said Vivien.

"On account of her being a love 'em and leave 'em kind of a lay," Silver said. "But sure as hell I ain't gonna loose a friend over a little bit of loving. There's more than enough to go round. Took me a while to knock some sense into that thick head of hers, though."

"Well, you did it," Cay said.

"I sure did," Silver acknowledged. "And I always figured some day there'd be someone who come along to build on my hard work. I can't say I'm sorry it was you," she said to Vivien.

"Well, I can hardly say..."

"She would have walked away," Cay said. "I was scared to death of never seeing her again."

"I didn't think you'd leave the desert," Vivien said.

"I didn't think you wanted me," said Cay.

"I asked her for another forty minutes," Vivien said. "She said yes."

Silver helped herself to a cigarette from Vivien's case, lit it, and breathed in. Gave them time to stop making eyes at each other. Breathed out, a long plume of smoke. "It's been one hell of a long forty minutes, girls," she said.

Cay raised her glass. "Best ride of my life," she said.

"To trains," Silver said, and knocked her glass against Cay's, "And the girls who ride 'em."

"To Cadillacs," Vivien said, raising her own whiskey, "And the girls who drive them."

"To us," Cay said, and kissed them both.