Closing a joint that doesn’t have a two a.m. license is a double-edged sword. Right, the Customer pays the bills, as they do in any place, but when crowds diminish by ten o’clock on a weeknight, wallets are thin all around. Nine times out of ten, you get the bar cleaned, coolers stocked, cash counted, and soon as midnight rolls in—long as no lollygaggers are nursing a pint—you’re home free. Hop a couple blocks down to The Rooster, the only spot in a five-mile radius to possess the golden ticket that is a two a.m. liquor license, and let the suckers who tend bar there quench your thirst into blackness. Work up a mighty thirst, you do, pouring other people drinks seven straight hours.
The place is usually dead after ten and I’d bail out early if it weren’t for the elaborate DYI closed circuit system our borderline psychotic owner installed last year. Big Brother is liable to fire you if you lock up a second before midnight. Still, nine times out of ten ain’t a bad ratio. It does leave that ten percent you’ll get stuck babysitting some lonely sap who’s got nothing better to do on a Tuesday night than cut into your drinking time. Some nights it’s the crazy from down the way who stops in at half till midnight with a stack of mail and pecks at a glass of wine as she scrutinizes each and every piece. Some nights it’s the European couple who happen in and mistake the vacancy as an invitation to spread the contents of their fanny packs on the bar to map out tomorrow’s Freedom Trail route. C’est la fucking vie.
For six straight shifts, a streak of luck had me getting out and buckled into my usual stool down at The Rooster with a beer in my belly no later than ten minutes into the new day. That night since, I had the next two days off, I should have known I’d get held up. 11:58 found me pushing that worry from my head and swinging out from behind the bar to baton down the hatch. If no one walked in I would be out in five minutes. Tops.
I’m digging through the drawer at the hostess stand looking for the keys to bolt the front door when a whoosh of air catches the back of my neck. The atmospheric displacement could only mean one thing—an open door. My heart dropped.
Still leaning over the stand, I watch a pair of shiny black pumps carry a pair of legs, equipped with knees about a hand’s width below the bottom of a short, yet modest-for-our-times skirt, into the vestibule from the sidewalk. Of all the public houses in Boston, she had to walk into this one. Please, have the wrong place.
She enters, revealing a white cardigan over one of those tops with the lacy black fringe across the front that makes you instantly judge the wearer as the kind of girl who’d be into kinky bedroom antics. Not handcuffs, but a drawer of silk scarves.
“You’re not closed, are you?” she asks, clogging uneasily to the podium.
Her voice negates the suggestive wardrobe. Scratch the silk scarves. This has to be the raciest outfit she owns. Not a city girl. A nice girl. I glimpse the shoes again. Nope, they’re not glass slippers. Fairy godmother must have the night off.
“Not yet,” I say.
“I’m meeting someone. Has anyone come by?”
“None but you.”
“Oh, good. I wanted to be here first,” she says, taking in the oldness of the room; the vaulted ceilings, the hand-carved décor behind the bar.
“I’ll be right over,” I say, waving toward the impeccably angled line of stools. I dropped the heft of keys I’d finally located back onto the bottom of the drawer.
I squish down the black mat to the spot she’s picked as her perch. Placing a black cocktail napkin on the lacquered bar, I ask, “What’ll it be?”
She hesitates. “Okay, I have to warn you. You’re witnessing a blind date tonight. Not Tinder, but it might as well be. My friend thinks this guy she knows is just my type. Could be a train wreck. Could be decent. It’s anyone’s guess. So you’re welcome in advance for the comedy.”
I’ve been in this line of work far too long. I should respond in kind. I should throw out that charm that got me a job behind the bar in the first place. I just can’t. All I can do is kick myself for not having locked the door three minutes earlier. I should be down the street tying one on with my roommate Peter and his girlfriend Rosie. I want to put up my hands and tell her to stop. It might look like another Tuesday night to the rest of the word, but this is my Friday and I’m painfully sober. When she winces at the setup souring, the contempt within me builds for her and the guy who’s any minute going to walk in the door. Fuck their potentially perfect future together. Fuck their midnight rendezvous.
“What do you drink?”
She doesn’t tell me. Instead, she pulls her phone from an oversized handbag and places it face-up between her the empty napkin. You can tell a lot about a person by how they lay their phone on the bar. Her nerves have abducted social reason. She vents on, as they all do; no distinction between stranger, therapist, and bartender. With nowhere to run, I am at the mercy of the Customer. She tells me how she hasn’t ever done this kind of thing before and doesn’t know if she really trusts her friend’s judgment and the guy doesn’t use social media and so she doesn’t even know what he looks like and she hasn’t been able to garnish talking points from his various digital personas and so on. She appends the tirade by asking me if I’ve ever been on a blind date and if so, to pretty please with a cherry on top provide her with tips.
“Never been on a one,” I croak, “unless you count when my bartender asks me what I’ll have and I tell him to surprise me.”
She smiles, but plainly. In the same instant her phone lights up and she grabs for it. Her head turns toward the door before swiping the screen to see the new message.
“He’s running late,” she says, pretending I give a damn.
Compulsion does not allow for empty cocktail napkins on the bar, no matter the hour. I make her an ice water. She twirls the straw. Ice clinks the glass chamber.
“Listen,” she says, fingering at the air in front of her in an attempt cinch up the range of distance between her voice and my ears. I turn sidewise to the bar and feign an interested lean. “I need to ask you this since he might be here any second. I need some on-the-fly criticism. Notes, like a how a director gives their actors. Just promise you’ll humor me with your opinion once this is all over?”
I assure her of the bounds of mental notes I’ll be taking.
She illuminates the screen of her phone and peeps the time then sighs and lays it back on the bar.
“Keep an eye while I freshen up?” she asks, gesturing to the now facedown phone on the bar, the purse hanging on one of the hooks underneath, and the white sweater hanging on the stool’s brass back. She slowly points a finger to each corner of the room as to coax the way to the washroom from me without using her words.
I tell her.
She turns the corner and I curse my luck. So close to leaving. Why can’t this guy just show up, suck down a cocktail, peace out to another bar, and work on nailing her from there? I have no more work to do. All I can do is wait. Waiting makes me thirsty. I consider pulling one of the tap plugs and pounding down as many pints as I can before she gets back. Then I consider the strategic angles of the cameras facing the bar and curse my luck again.
Her phone buzzes. I resist the urge to flip the phone over and look at the name of the person texting her.
I have half a butt cheek on the cooler where we keep the frosted pint glasses, blankly wiping lipstick wax from martini glasses when I hear the washroom door slam and her thick heels smack the hardwood floors on her march back to her seat.
“Still not here?” she asks, obviously.
I shake my head, not moving my eyes from a crimson stain I’m working from the lip of a glass.
She looks at her phone and smirks.
“You clearly want to get going, but is it alright with you if we give him another 10 minutes or so?”
“Hey, you’re welcome to stay as long as you’d like. We close at one a.m. or when our patrons have had their fill, whichever comes first,” I hope my sarcasm isn’t lost on her. She seems like a smart enough girl.
She puts her phone into her purse.
“In that case, I’d like a glass of your finest house cab,” she says. She’s not used to this, but she’s trying. If she hadn’t been trying so hard to act the part, she would not have said ‘finest’ house. There’s no need to qualify a joint’s house wine. They only have one.
I frisbee another napkin in front of her before setting a red wine glass on it and pour the 2013 vintage. She watches the liquid trickle down the walls inside the glass. She watches my wrist flick the bottle a quarter turn as not to dribble any down the label. My mundane is her spectacle.
“Do you do that when you pour wine at home?” she asks.
I could say yes. I could tell her how my mother delights in the fact that I buy $40 bottles of Malbec for the rare occasions she visits and how before we eat veal parm I pour a splash into her glass and she tastes the first of the bottle before nodding approval for me to fill the glass. I could say this, but I don’t.
“I’m more of a beer guy,” I say.
She takes a small sip. “Interesting,” she says with her silence. She gives me the look of curious trepidation that she’d been giving the door since she walked in.
“So, what do you do when you’re not pouring wine for cute single girls?”
Oh please. Is she really coming on to me while she’s waiting for her date to show up? What am I, batting practice?
“Pouring beers for dickhead guys,” I say.
“I mean when you’re not working,” she says. “What do you do when you’re not here?”
When I’m not here I ride the T to or from here. I try to keep my head above a bog of student loan debt. I binge watch television shows using login credentials that do not belong to me. I drink.
“You know, it honestly feels like I never leave this place,” I say, wanting like never before to have her out.
“But you have to have a hobby. For instance, I like photography.” There’s a shocker. “Don’t even tell me you don’t have a girlfriend.”
“I’m between girlfriends right now,” I say, recycling the line I’ve been using for the better part of a year. I don’t have it in me to explain the series of events that’ve led up to my now year-long hiatus from dating. I’ve collected too many exes. Watching relationships flourish or fail from my side of the bar is more than enough for me.
She laughs. Then she gets herself straightened up on the stool and looks me as square in the eye as she can.
“Okay, fair,” she says, taking another, larger sip of her drink. “Let me ask you, if you had to give a critique of me as of now, what notes would you have for me, Mr. Director?”
Finally, an out. I see the door closing and the lock clinking and I hear the thick soles of my ugly, greasy, non-slip shoes pattering down the sidewalk to meet Peter and Rosie for a night of obliteration. I seize on the chance to send her packing.
“About you? I would say that are awfully concerned about yourself and what this guy is going to think about you. I would say that it’s pretty obvious you don’t wear shoes with heels often and you went way too heavy on the makeup tonight. I think that if that fact’s not obvious to the guy you’re meeting here, he’s probably a royal douchebag. Scratch that.
"There’s a ninety percent chance the guy you’re meeting here is a royal douchebag. I bet his proudest moments of late involve moving a stack of metal plates a few inches in the air by means of a pulley system. He’s probably late because today is Tuesday and Tuesday is leg day and he’s making sure he’s only uploaded the pictures to his Instagram that make his quads look like tree trunks. Oh right. He’s not on social media. Yeah, that’s a load of shit. I also don’t think he’s going to show. Wait, that’s about him. Sorry. Back to you. I think just because you’re set up on a blind date doesn’t mean you have to accept. At least you don’t have to doll yourself up to act like you’re someone you’re not. I think a first impression should be genuine.”
Her smile’s eased. Halfway through my rant she’s put on an introspective face. “Royal douchebag, huh?”
I am not sorry, but my fingers tingle from nervous guilt. You don’t say shit like that to the Customer.
“Look. I know you’re trying to leave. I don’t think the guy I was expecting is going to show. I’ll leave,” she says, pulling the sweater from the chair and putting her arms through the sleeves. “Out of curiosity, though…how are you so sure I don’t normally wear high heels?”
For the second time since midnight, the thought crosses my mind that I have been in this line of work too long. The warble in her voice as she’s admitting defeat, the stoic recognition of being stood up, and how after all that she’s still looking for my stranger’s critique, it all manages to penetrate the calloused skin covering the realm of warmth and romance I’d resided in before three years of double shifts bookending blackouts crept in like a never-receding high tide.
I don’t tell her I know she doesn’t wear high heels because there’s lightness in her laugh, intellect in her words, humanity in how she trusts a strange bartender who’s bitter about having to stay open for some petty blind date to watch her things when she goes to the washroom. No, my tirade cannot be tainted with sentiment, not if I want to get her out and a buzz on before last call.
“I see a lot of the same people coming into this place. When you’re constantly in public you develop mannerisms that gild your personality with a coat of something fake. Your coat is thin. Not necessarily a bad thing, just easy to spot. Plus, you can hardly stand up in them.”
Her buzzing phone breaks the cresting wave of silence. Her eyes hold my gaze for longer than the urgency of a phone call permits, answering on what has to be the last ring. I hear the muffled din surrounding the caller. The girl averts her eyes from mine and strains to listen.
“Okay, yeah. Five minutes,” she says before lowering the phone from her ear. She looks back to me.
“Sure, what’s five more minutes?” I try to maintain sarcasm and hide the fact my desire for her absence has eased.
She puts her phone away and pushes her stool away from the bar.
“No, I had the wrong place this whole time. You can close up.” She pulls the handbag up to the adjacent stool. “What do I owe you?”
I could tell her it’s on the house, but I don’t. “Five fifty,” I say. All hail royal douchebags.
She leaves a five and a single on the bar and splits without another word. Beautiful. Maybe I’ll use the fifty cents to buy myself a gumball next time I’m at the grocery store.
I put one last wet rag to the lacquered surface of the wooden bar and am smacked with the unexplainable desire not to leave.
Alone in this place, thoughts from the shift and all shifts prior congeal, unfiltered. The people who come to you with their woes, pulling you into their lives and walk out the door as they please. How many potential ex-girlfriends had waltzed into this place when I’d been pacing up and down the bar? How much jealousy had I suppressed for the guys they’d been sitting opposite of in my liquid office? I am left indignant for all the pieces of me they’ve taken for granted.
I close my eyes and wish for those five extra minutes with the house red sipping blind date. I close them tighter and I wish for her to see through the fake gilding coat of the Lord of Leg Day at whatever the hell bar they were supposed to meet. I open them and wish the invading headache all this has summoned would go away.
The din from the already drunk line feeding into The Crowing Rooster finds my pounding head half a block out. Being the only bar in five miles that serves until two a.m. makes the place a mecca of sorts. People kicked out of the neighboring bars that close at one funnel in until the place reaches capacity. Then they stand out front smoking cigarettes or drunk dialing or bitching to the bouncer about not letting them in.
Henry, the nicest meathead you’ll ever know, waves me up in line and inside without checking my ID. The token bro next to the door goes into a heated diatribe about whose dick you have to suck to get those privileges. I resist the urge to turn around and unload on his freshly-pressed vineyard pink shorts and the yuppie ass they cover.
Peter’s at our usual spot down the end of the bar, half a beer in front of him and the back of an empty stool propped up against the bar next to him. Jake sets a frothy pint in front of the tilted stool, nodding regards to me as I set the hind feet on the floor and hop up.
“Hey, dude,” I say to Peter. “About time you showed up.” I grunt and take a hefty bite out of the pint. “My, was I parched.”
Peter lays his phone facedown on the bar and looks at me.
“Rough night?” He doesn’t really care. We don’t talk usually about work.
“You have no idea, dude,” I say, tilting the glass steeper for my second gulp. “Where’s Rosie?”
“Bathroom. Friend of hers who’s new to the city is with her. Rosie’s got it in her head that you two might hit it off.”
“Theme of my fucking night, man. You don’t even know,” I tell him.
“Oh, I think I know,” he says, his smile curling past the rim of his glass as he drains the last of the pint.
And then, as if they hadn’t been there when I sat down, a pair of wine glasses manifest on the bar next to Peter, dark red puddles lingering in each. My knee knocks into a handbag hanging on a hook below the bar, a duo of square soles pointing out from inside. I look through the clumps of people crowding the bar toward the bathroom, see Rosie emerge holding the hand of a girl wearing a pair of plain, pastel flats. A soft, white sweater drapes from her arm.
Approaching, Rosie shakes her head at me, mouthing what I translate into “you’re an idiot.”
The girl stops next to my stool and reaches for the glass surrounding the last swallow of wine. Facing me, I notice the makeup’s been removed from her cheeks and eyes. “You know,” she says, “this cocky bartender once told me ‘a first impression should be genuine.’ I wonder what he’ll say about the second.”
Dan Metzger may look good on paper, but what you can't tell by skimming his résumé is that the bulk of the time he was supposed to be writing academically he was nursing his passion for writing fiction. Don't get him wrong, earning a MA in English from UMass Boston was a real hoot. He just doesn't want you to get all caught up in diplomas and titles and such. Dan currently writes, works, and resides in the southern tip of Berks County, Pennsylvania.