Late Shift by S.F. Wright

John’s got coke, so after the last customer goes and they lock up, Kelly does lines with him.

The coke’s good, but the taste and drip evoke sameness and ennui; Kelly thinks not only of the first time she did coke 20 years ago, but all the times since. How many times has it been? A hundred? A thousand? She isn’t sure, and as John breaks up more white powder with his Visa, the thought fascinates and frightens her. But before she can ponder it further, John says, Want another? and Kelly takes the rolled-up fifty.

An hour later she leaves McDougal’s. John’s stayed to make sure everything’s ready for when his Father opens. Kelly walks three blocks to the studio she pays $1,800 for. One reason she stays at McDougal’s (she’s been there four years), even though her friends tell her she can make more at trendier bars, is its proximity. Or maybe she keeps her apartment because of McDougal’s nearness. She’s not sure, and as she walks under streetlights soon to turn off and a gray sky getting lighter with each second, she lights a Marlboro Light (she’s down to ten a day but wants to get down to five and eventually none) and decides she doesn’t care. Her mind’s too scattered by coke, along with the half-a-dozen or so shots she did throughout her shift, to consider why she works where she works and lives where she lives. Or perhaps it’s not the whiskey and coke at all; maybe it’s that a bigger concern looms: that at 37, even though she has an affordable, desirable apartment; makes hundreds in tips each night; and is a popular enough bartender that if she ever quit she’d find employment the next day—that despite this, she feels trapped.

Or maybe it’s that she fucked John again tonight. Or let John fuck her. She isn’t sure which; she isn’t sure it matters. Or she isn’t sure it matters to her. And that’s, perhaps, the biggest problem.

She can’t sleep. She regrets doing the coke and knows unless she takes measures she’ll be a zombie when she returns tonight. The only thing that’ll get her through will be more coke. She’s sure John will hook her up, but she’s slipped into this schedule before of coke, work, no sleep. She’ll probably fuck John again, and she isn’t sure she even wants to.

The sun shines, though the morning’s still steeped in grayness. Kelly opens the window and lets in a cool breeze. She remembers being a little girl with her parents on a camping trip in Virginia and her mother opened one of the cabin’s windows and let in a breeze like this. Kelly closes her eyes and tries to immerse herself into this memory. But it already fades. She tries to think of a similar remembrance; none comes, though. Her mother’s been dead thirteen years. Her father’s in Florida; she only speaks to him once a year.

She decides she’ll do what she can. She needs her rest and doesn’t want to depend on John’s coke—or John at all. From a cabinet, she takes a bottle of Smirnoff.

She pours a shot’s worth and adds ice cubes. She takes a sip. The vodka burns, yet feels good as it goes down her throat and reaches her stomach—like old-fashioned medicine. Kelly thinks of her grandmother and grandfather, who both died when she was a child.

Two people walk by. A car passes. A man in a shirt and tie rides by on a ten-speed.

Kelly wonders what it’d be like to have a regular job. She ponders if she’s naturally fit for her work or if something happened that compelled her to accept and embrace it; that made her do coke because it was there, have sex with guys like John because they were there, and drink in the morning because she needs to sleep before her next shift.

She takes a sip. The vodka feels wonderful, and she knows she has to watch it. She has to work later; she has to be in decent shape. Or she could not go in; she could quit. Kelly imagines the freedom, and the scariness, too, and as a man walks his daughter to school a thought occurs: she finds safety in those white lines; comfort in those meaningless, impersonal fucks; security in these mornings of drifting seemingly between two worlds, when, in actuality, she’s lingering in one that’s hers alone.


S.F. Wright lives and teaches in New Jersey. His work has appeared in Chiron Review, Steel Toe Review, and The Tishman Review, among other places. His website is


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