A gaunt, middle-aged man sat at the bar table, alone. Beside him rested a lantern. It cast an eerie glow on his pint glass. The amber liquid twinkled in the faint light.
A young, well-dressed woman slid into the chair in front of him. “Hi. I’m Kathleen. What do you do for a living?”
The man opened his mouth, but nothing came out. He seemed to be searching for an answer in a well that existed somewhere in the pit of his stomach. It would take a while to drag his words to the surface.
Kathleen sighed. The two of them had only four minutes to connect, and this fellow couldn’t even answer a simple question about employment. Maybe he was a bum. He certainly looked like one, with his unkempt hair and grimy cloak. What kind of guy wore such garb to a speed-dating event?
She peered more closely at his face. Her companion stared back without expression. His wide-set eyes were dark, unfathomable. Despite his ragged appearance, the man possessed an air of nobility, even wisdom. He didn’t need to address her query. It was banal, even stupid.
Suddenly, Kathleen felt ashamed. She should have asked a better question, something she really wanted to know. Like, “Do you find you become more cynical as you age?” Or perhaps, “Where would you go right now if you could be anywhere else?”, or “How much time does it take to forget everything you know?”
Two minutes were already gone. Kathleen gathered her purse from the floor and clutched it to her chest. The next two minutes would be excruciating, but she’d get through them. She had been on worse dates. So many lost hours pretending to be interested in men who didn’t move her at all. One fellow spent the entire evening complaining about his divorce. Another spoke interminably about his antique fork collection.
“One more minute!” the perky moderator yelled. “Start wrapping up your discussions!”
The man stirred in his chair. “I hold the light.” His voice sounded so faint that Kathleen had to lean forward to hear him. “So others can look within.” He reached across the table and lifted the lantern into the air. “Like this.”
Kathleen stared at the lantern, transfixed. The man slowly lowered it to the table and smiled. “Been doing it since I was born. You might say it’s my life’s work.”
“Time’s up!” the moderator shrieked. “Move on to the next person. Better hurry, you only have four minutes.”
The crowd scrambled like crazed ants across the floor, trying to wring every second they could from their next brief encounter. Kathleen found herself sitting across from a man in a crisp, expensive suit. His handsome jawline looked chiseled but cruel. He scrutinized her body with shark-like eyes, like he was sizing her up for the kill.
“I buy and sell junk bonds.” The man folded his hands across his chest and leaned back in his chair. “Made more than a million dollars last year. And you?"
Kathleen stood up fast, almost toppling her chair. She felt a strong sense of vertigo. Her head spun, and she grabbed the edge of the table. “I have to go now,” she stammered. “Please forgive me, I’m not feeling well.”
The man looked angry, like she had deliberately wasted a minute of his time. Then he composed himself and shrugged. “Suit yourself. Others are waiting. You’re not my type anyway. I prefer brunette women with hourglass figures.”
“Well, I hope you find one.” Kathleen gazed down at her flat chest, then backed away from the table. She stole a furtive glance towards the chair where she’d rested, minutes earlier, staring at a mysterious lantern.
The other man had vanished. His half-drunk pint glass looked dark and abandoned. A five-dollar bill protruded from underneath the coaster.
Kathleen scrambled towards the door. She yanked it open and peered outside. Maybe she could still catch him. She had so many questions that only he could answer.
In the distance, the man’s figure beat a hasty but dignified retreat. He looked taller than she remembered. His long, determined strides stretched towards the far horizon. In one hand, he held his lantern. It cast a radiant gleam that illuminated the entire street.
“Wait!” Kathleen yelled. “I want to ask you something. Don’t leave.”
The man was now so far away that her voice couldn’t reach him. Still, the street remained bright, as if he’d placed the lantern on the sidewalk and left it there. The trees and cars basked in a supernatural glow.
Kathleen usually felt afraid to walk by herself at night, but the light had achieved daylight intensity. The buildings’ outlines appeared crisp, like the sun had just risen.
Despite her disappointment, Kathleen felt strong, even jubilant. The man’s lantern would guide the way home. She’d be happier on her own couch than in the presence of people who couldn’t care less about her existence. In fact, she could hardly wait to be alone.
Kathleen felt certain she’d catch up with the man another day. The two of them had so much in common. Meanwhile, she saw no reason to hurry. Everything would happen at the right moment.
Leah Mueller's most recent books, "Misguided Behavior, Tales of Poor Life Choices", "Death and Heartbreak:, and "Cocktails at Denny's" were published in 2019. Her work appears in Midway Journal, Citron Review, The Spectacle, Miracle Monocle, Outlook Springs, Atticus Review, Your Impossible Voice, and elsewhere. Website: www.leahmueller.org. Twitter: @LeahSnapDragon