Kent O’Connor stacked the last box of costumes in the theater’s storeroom. He checked his watch. Quarter to five. In another fifteen minutes, he’d get to clock off and have the whole evening free to do as he wished. Would it be another Spam sandwich and radio night? Or would it be Marvel comics in bed after he grabbed a Philly Cheese Steak sub from the diner near his apartment? Come to think of it, he hadn’t eaten a Polish sausage in ages. The hot dog cart just across the street from the theater sold some juicy, spicy ones.
He salivated at the thought. Yeah, sausage and comics. Ice cream for dessert?
“What’s buzzin’, cousin?”
His friend, Robert McKenna, nearly startled him to death as he leaned against the wall smoking a cigarette.
“I didn’t see you there,” Kent said, a little annoyed at having smoke blown in his face. “Do you have to do that here? There’s a smoker’s patio outside, you know.”
Robert grinned and crushed the butt under the heel of his boot. “Bah. What are they going to do? Fire me? I volunteer my time, remember?”
“Not sure why you would even bother,” Kent commented. “With that fancy real estate gig you have and all. Don’t you have any hoity-toity dinner parties to attend?”
“The dame. Simply put.” Robert smirked and tapped a new pack of cigarettes against his palm. “Given her kid—I mean—our daughter now since we’re getting married, is attending acting lessons here. She thinks it’s a good idea to give back to the community and such. Can’t say it’s anything less than a waste of time but I like keeping my doll happy and this is a small way of doing it.”
Kent shook his head and removed his work gloves. “That seems like a lot to do for one dame.”
Robert laughed. “Wait until you find the right gal though. You won’t be able to fight off what hits you no matter how hard you try.”
“You know I’ve had it hit me with a two by four and that it went to hell in a handbasket.”
“Really now?” Robert’s interest piqued with the raising of an eyebrow. “And what’s this heartbreak story Quiet Kent’s been keeping to himself?”
Quiet Kent. His nickname at the theater because he didn’t like to talk much while he worked. It merely had to do with the fact his father had taught him the value of hard work and he found it difficult to focus while chatting at the same time. Just the strange way his brain worked.
“There’s not much to tell,” Kent said with a light shrug. “She was a high maintenance knockout who was hard to please.”
Robert whistled. “Boy, I’ve had one of those. Can’t seem to get rid of her either no matter what I do or how much I wish it.”
Kent understood he was referring to no one other than Lila. He’d heard all about her attempts at trying to win Robert’s heart back after breaking it. Secretly, however, he found her story somewhat intriguing if not humorous at the least. And he couldn’t look away when she came into the room.
“She’s an actress,” Kent said, trying to sound uninterested. “You know how flighty they are.”
“Trust me when I say that dame is one you want to stay far away from.” Robert’s warning came in a disapproving tone with a pointed finger. “Lila’s nothing but trouble. Hear me out, friend. You keep your distance from that pretty face because it comes attached to lying lips. There isn’t a well-behaved bone in that body of hers. She’ll chew you up, spit you out, then ask if you want seconds.”
“I’m no sucker,” Kent retorted. “Not saying you are. Good grief, no. The last thing I need though is a troublesome babe.”
Although a girl like Lila would help break up the monotony of his ordinary life. But safe was good, right? Nights shut-in might be boring and lonely but at least he didn’t have to deal with the stress of pleasing a woman. He’d never figured out the key to that either.
“Yeah, well there’s plenty of fish in the sea so don’t ever fall for the lies of one when you can easily get another who’ll be honest.” Robert struck a match and lit a cigarette, sucking in a deep drag and blowing it out a breath later. “Anyway, want to grab a pint down at the Irish pub on fifth?”
Kent glanced down at his watch again. Right at five. Damn it. So he’d wasted fifteen minutes chatting. This is why he avoided—
The clacking of heels echoing down the stairs caught his attention. Long legs wrapped in a navy blue pencil skirt. A cream blouse tucked into a narrow waist. Soft, feminine curves swaying in rhythm to a series of graceful steps. Red lips. Black eyeliner like an Egyptian. Blonde hair down to her shoulders, curled under and parted to the side. Pearls decorating her slender neck. Features similar to Lauren Bacall.
“I better go,” Robert said and flicked the tip of his cigarette. “Before she sees me and I’m done for. I’ll be at the pub if you decide to join me.”
He slipped down the hallway before Lila could catch up to him but it wasn’t as if she hadn’t already seen him.
She narrowed her eyes and came to a stop next to Kent, an unlit cigarette in her fingers. “Must he always run away from me like that? It makes him look childish. By the way, do you have a light?”
Kent didn’t smoke but he dug in his pockets anyway. “Nope. Fresh out it seems.”
Lila sighed. “Figures. I was going to ask Robbie for one but he’d sooner light himself on fire.”
“There’s the mart across the street. They’re sure to have matches there. I was about to visit their hot dog cart. Maybe I could get you a book?”
It was innocent enough. The dame needed a light. And helping her out might just get her mind off poor Rob long enough to let him drink his beer in peace.
“You’d do that?” Her smile could brighten a room. “Here.” She dug a nickel out of her purse. “Keep the change if there is any. I’ll wait for you on the patio.”
And so it was that Kent crossed the street, bought Lila a matchbook, got himself a Polish dog loaded with onions at the hot dog cart, then sat beside her munching on his supper while listening to her go on about how she hadn’t scored the lead role in the play and instead had to sing backup vocals.
“But you got some part at least,” he said encouragingly. “It’s better than nothing.”
“They don’t know what they’re missing,” she said, her blonde curls shaking with her dramatic mannerisms. “If only I hadn’t ever left New York. Where might have my career taken me next?” She smoked her cigarette ever so gracefully. “Maybe I wasn’t meant to be a star after all. Someone else always gets the lead in every part of my life.”
“It can’t be that bad. There will be other plays.”
He was glad to provide her with some encouragement, although this was the first time he’d actually spoken to her longer than five minutes. She always seemed to have someplace to go and someone better to talk with other than him. He had to admit he was curious if she was really as intense as he’d heard. How did that saying go? Curiosity killed the cat. But he wasn’t a cat. Maybe he just wanted a bit of adventure.
Glancing down at his watch though, he realized Robert had probably been waiting for ages.
“I best get going.” Kent’s eyes watered from the smoke blowing his way with the breeze. “My Friday night awaits.”
“And what dazzling young thing is waiting on you?” Lila’s asked in a teasing tone, her red lips pursed with curiosity.
“Ah…” He scratched the back of his dark head. “I ain’t got anybody if that’s what you’re thinking.”
She grinned and sucked a drag, blowing it out slow and cool. The gritty smell of nicotine mixed with her musk perfume. “Well, then. Why hurry? We were having a rather nice conversation, weren’t we?”
The way she studied him with a precise shrinking of her eyes threw him off a bit. What interest did she have in speaking with him about anything? Not that he minded attention from a pretty lady—especially her— but she was, after all, his friend’s arch nemesis and he wanted zero trouble with Robert. He licked his lips and tossed a shrug.
“It’s just I’m meeting Rob at the pub. Don’t want to keep him waiting.”
“Ahh.” She gave a slow nod. “You two seem to be good friends. I wouldn’t want to be accused of trying to destroy anything else in his life.” As an aside, she mumbled, “No matter how ridiculous it all sounds.”
“What’s with the two of you? Can’t you just ignore each other?”
“Oh, he does so famously.”
“Look, I need to go before he thinks I decided to ditch him.”
“What a shame. You were kind enough to get me matches and chat with me a little. I was having fun.”
She crushed her cigarette butt in the ashtray on the table. Her smile faded like the fast setting sun.
“Will you be here tomorrow?” He forced out the question between nervous breaths. “I work first thing.”
In a way, he kind of felt bad that he was soon to leave her alone on the patio. It was well past five o’clock and most of the theater workers had emptied the place while he and Lila had been chatting. He’d never really noticed her with friends before. At least none who worked with them in the building.
“I’ll be stitching up some costumes as a favor for Millie in the morning.” Her demeanor became suddenly chipper. “Suppose I’ll see you then?”
Actors. How did they manage to separate reality from their parts? Kent could never understand them as people. He only worked at the theater was because it was close to his apartment and the hours were reasonable. The pay, however, left much to be desired. And far as he knew, stage performers earned less than he did if they got paid at all. It’s why he’d decided to join the army and do something noble with his life.
“Good luck with the rest of your night,” he said, finding it difficult to peel away. “I hope it gets better.”
She waved back at him from the patio chair, a flirty smile across her lips. “Until next time, Kent O’Connor. It’s been a pleasure.”
Her perfume still lingered in his nostrils when he walked away. Dusk embraced the sky and Portland’s nightlife jolted awake with the sun gone. It was a beautiful city lit up and ready for the weekend.
A cool evening breeze brought in a whiff of car exhaust from the Willamette River Bridge. He hastened his walk, feeling a bit guilty at having left Robert waiting on him for so long. One beer might be a nice addition to his evening before reading his comics in bed. Some might say his life was boring and they’d be right. What could he say? He was a recluse who preferred the safety of routine.
But what the heck. Surely two beers would be living it up. It was Friday night and he didn’t have anything else to do. Get a life, came the voice inside his head.
“Maybe one day I will,” he mumbled to the voice and pushed open the door to the pub, Lila’s scent still on his coat.