“Firsts” by Michael Farris Smith

The man sat at the bar with the glass of wine in front of him, full, untouched. He watched it closely. It was late but his tie was pulled tight and he wore his suit jacket.

“Hurry up, please. It’s time,” Mdm. Louise said and lifted his glass and wiped the bar under it.

“Is he crazy or stupid?” said M. Johann, her husband who sat at the end of the bar. He knew the man was American and knew by the way he had ordered that he didn’t speak enough of the language to understand them. The man had been sitting with the wine for over an hour. In that time, the eight tables in the café had been deserted, the tables wiped, the music stopped.

“Whatever he is, he’s late,” Mdm. Louise answered and she began to count the money in the register.

The man pulled the glass closer, bent his neck, and sniffed the wine. M. Johann stood and took a broom from the behind the bar. Outside, the street was growing dark as the lights from the cafes and restaurants disappeared. The sky was clear and the air warm and Mdm. Louise and M. Johann were eager to go upstairs to their apartment, open the windows, and lay on top of the covers of their bed with nothing but the street to listen to.

“Maybe it’s his first,” said M. Johann as he swept. “His first glass of real wine.”

Mdm. Louise closed the register and said again, “Monsieur, you must finish. It is late.”

“Say it louder,” M. Johann said. The man was unshaven and looked like he might have kids somewhere. He wore a shiny watch but no rings. He said to Mdm. Louise, “It has been a long time.”

“Yes. That is why I ask you to hurry.”

He shook his head. “Not like that.”

She ignored him and turned off the lights behind the bar. M. Johann talked to himself and swept in rhythm with his rambling. The man reached into his pocket and pulled out money for the wine, then said, “Can I take the glass with me? I’ll pay for it.”

Mdm. Louise was tired and ready and said, “It is yours. It is free and so is the wine. Please.” The man stood and took the full glass with him. The door of the café closed behind him and M. Johann hurried over and locked the door as if the man might turn on him with a gun.

“Finally,” he said. “Let’s go to bed and finish in the morning.”

Mdm. Louise nodded and they went upstairs. They put on their sleeping clothes and opened the windows. A breeze blew into and across the room and they held hands as they lay in bed. The evening had been busy with a larger than normal dinner crowd, their legs were heavy and they slept quickly. But even deep sleep can be shattered by nightmares and Mdm. Louise woke, felt her heart, then stood from the bed and went to the window. She looked down into the street and was surprised by the man sitting on the curb, his tie now loosened, his jacket folded on the concrete beside him. The glass rested between his feet and he watched as if tiny sharks swam circles in the red wine. He was so still she thought he might be asleep but as she turned back to bed, she saw him lift the glass and drink the wine in gulps, red streams trickling down his chin and dotting his white shirt. He stood and broke the glass in the brick street and screamed a word she didn’t understand. He picked up his jacket in a jerk and then walked away in strong, robotic steps.

The night breeze brought a strand of hair across her face. She watched him, the strand dancing on her cheek, and then she pushed her hair away and pulled the window closed. She lay back down on top of the bed covers and stared at the ceiling. She imagined his troubled eyes, imagined the places that this night might take him, wishing that she would have said, You can stay.

Michael Farris Smith’s debut novel Rivers will be released in September 2013 from Simon & Schuster. Rivers is set on the hurricane-ravaged Mississippi Gulf Coast and follows his acclaimed Paris novella, The Hands of Strangers. Smith has been awarded the Mississippi Arts Commission Literary Arts Fellowship, Transatlantic Review Award for Fiction, and twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He lives in Columbus, Mississippi, with his wife and daughters. Visit him at michaelfarrissmith.com.