I’m standing outside under a streetlamp, waiting. I’m not supposed to go in there. First, I am an alcoholic and I can’t go near a bar. I turn into a liar within two drinks, spreading gossip and promises, and hinting at extraordinary, eccentric hidden wealth. Two more and I am a beast, busting glass and wood, spurting blood, waking up later with rocks in my head, remembering nothing. Also, I’m a man of faith and I shouldn’t be in those places—places where ladies take off their clothes for money—and third, I’ve been banned. But Amber is inside there, so I stay. Check my watch. Count the time to when her shift ends.
The side door fills with light and she appears. She pulls her coat collar around her long neck, looks straight ahead, then walks down the alley. She wears sunglasses, a defensive act meant to insulate her from sloppy regulars, men who stuff her garter with crumpled ones and fives. I want to tell her it is dangerous after dark. That she needs to be aware of the dirty Lapiths who walk the night. She crosses Main and Whistler then passes the pool hall and the 24-hour Laundromat. I follow, like I do every night.
I’m not a perfect man. I’m veiny and thick and not pleasing to look at, plus I did a two-year bit for something I’d rather not talk about. I wasn’t violent. At least I wasn’t that violent. The guy had it coming. I was headed for worse until two weeks in de-seg, where I met my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. What I learned is that some of us are meant to straddle the world between good and evil and that God has made me a protector of the innocent. I have a purpose now. My purpose is her.
She steps into Bogie’s. She’ll order a burger and salad, steamed milk and Jello. I count to thirty, then go inside, slipping into the booth behind her. I order black coffee and cherry pie. Then I hide behind the newspaper and wait. When I look around it, she’s no longer there. She’s slipped away. My heart sinks.
She slides into my booth and says, “Why are you following me?” She is sharp-faced, suspicious. Her neck is thin and fine. I see tendons and ribs of trachea, a pulse fluttering under the skin. I say nothing.
“I see you every night, you know. You’re not that good at this.”
“I’m not trying to hide anything,” I say.
“Then why are you following me?
“Not following,” I say. “Guarding.” This is the truth.
“Why? You don’t know me.”
“It’s my job,” I say. “I protect the innocent. You’re an innocent.”
“I’m not,” she says. “You know what I do.” She cuts her eyes sideways.
“Everybody has a sin nature. Sometimes you can leave it behind, sometimes you have to live with it. Doesn’t mean you’re not precious.” I sip my coffee and look in her eyes for the first time. They are amber, like her name.
“I’m precious,” she says, the doubt catching in her throat.
“You’re precious in my sight,” I say. “Got a problem with that?”
“I don’t know,” she says, but she stays. Tucks her hair behind her ear. Takes a bite of my pie. Sits back.