Tony almost lost his new job on the second night. It was the bar's quiet time, that lull between office workers calling in for a quick drink before heading home and the arrival of the theater and club customers. Tony looked at the clock above the bar's mirrors: seven forty-five. He hesitated, then said, "I'm sorry, but I don't think I can serve you."
The woman looked about thirty-five years old, maybe pushing late thirties, and wore a dark, well-cut business suit. Her chestnut hair hung an inch above the collar of her white silk blouse. She looked at Tony and slid a cigarette lighter and a pack of Pall-Malls from the purse that lay beside her empty glass.
"So, who are you?" she asked. "My mother?"
Tony began to blush. "I'm sorry, but--"
"How long have you worked here, kid?" she asked.
"This is my second day." Tony started to get the unpleasant feeling that he might have made a big, big mistake. The woman seemed very self-assured, despite, or maybe because of, her four quick drinks.
The woman nodded. "Get Alec for me."
Tony went into the back office and tapped at the open door. "Mr. Stewart?"
The bar's manager, Alec Stewart, looked up from the open invoice book. "What is it?"
"There's a customer asking for you," Tony said. Then, "I refused to give her another drink."
"Why?" Stewart stood up and reached for his jacket.
"She's had four in less than thirty minutes, and it's still early."
Stewart nodded and adjusted his tie. "Fine. I'll handle it."
Tony followed Stewart out but nearly walked into the back of the manager when he stopped suddenly. "Mrs. Wilson."
The woman smiled. "How are you, Alec?"
"I'm fine, thank you." Stewart looked along the bar and saw that she was the only customer. "Is there a problem?"
"Your new barman won't serve me," Mrs. Wilson said.
Tony stepped forward, ready to explain himself, but stopped when the manager spoke.
"You're fired," Stewart said. "Empty your locker and get out."
Tony tried to speak but nothing came out.
"Now," Stewart told him, then turned to Mrs. Wilson. "Martini?"
As the manager reached for a fresh glass and the bottle of gin, Tony walked the length of the bar towards the staff room. Jackie, the early waitress, stopped pushing a cloth across a table and watched the scene.
"Wait," Mrs. Wilson called out. "Alec, he thought he was doing the best thing."
"I can't allow the staff to be rude to our customers," Stewart said.
"Of course, but he didn't know who I was." Mrs. Wilson smiled. "Give him another chance."
Stewart pushed the glass across the bar and nodded. "Whatever you say, Mrs. Wilson. Tony, you've got another crack at it; don't blow it."
For a moment, Tony wondered whether to keep on walking and leave the bar, but it had taken three weeks to find this job after he lost his last one. Red faced and silent, he walked back behind the counter.
"Thank you," he said to the woman, after Stewart had returned to his office.
Mrs. Wilson smiled. "You're welcome. What happened to Harry and Ray?"
"Harry moved back to Ohio," Tony said, repeating what he had heard about the ex-head barman. "Ray will be in at eight-thirty."
Tony didn't relish an evening looking across the counter at Mrs. Wilson, and he was grateful when two groups of people came in and kept him busy until Ray, the regular barman, appeared. Tony counted seven Martinis before Mrs. Wilson picked up her purse and left the bar around eight-thirty. He wanted to ask Ray about her but he was still a little wary of the taciturn older man.
Around nine, Jackie called Tony to one side of the bar and asked, "What happened to you?"
Tony told her.
"Jesus! You didn't?" Jackie said, shaking her head. "That's the boss's wife."
"Stewart's?" Tony asked, confused.
"No, Frank Wilson, Stewart's boss, the guy that owns this place and God knows how many bars and restaurants," Jackie told him. "You got to treat her like a queen: anything she wants, she gets it."
"I wish someone had told me," Tony complained.
Jackie grinned. "Well, now you know."
Tony finished at ten-thirty and got back to the apartment an hour later. He found Sarah, still wearing her coffee-spattered uniform from the University cafeteria, stretched out on the couch. The TV in the corner of the cramped room was switched on but silent. Sarah's textbooks lay open on the floor beside her.
"Hey, how did it go?" she asked, arching her neck and looking up at Tony.
"Not such a good start." Tony kissed her and told her what had happened.
"Well, I'm glad you spoke up," Sarah told him.
"Maybe I should learn to keep my mouth shut," Tony said, yawning. "We need the money."
"Not that much," Sarah said, lying.
"I guess I'll have to try and keep out of her way," Tony said. "I could do with a shower."
Sarah grinned. "Tell me about it."
"No hot water?"
Tony sat on the floor and rested his head on the couch. He felt Sarah's fingers ruffling his hair.
"You smell," she told him. "Smoke and drinks."
"Well, bar work is still better than digging a ditch." Tony turned to Sarah. "Isn't it?"
She grinned and kissed him on the lips.
Tony and Sarah fell into the rhythm of work, with their daytime classes finishing at four and his bar job starting at six-thirty. Mrs. Wilson would come in once or twice a week, usually around seven, and have four or five Martinis. She didn't say much to Tony, other than to order the drinks, but she didn't seem pissed at him, either; she always said hello and goodnight.
Tony guessed that Ray must have heard about what happened because the older barman kept his distance. "I don't think Ray expects me to be around the bar for much longer," Tony told Sarah.
The tips were good, especially on a Friday and Saturday, so, when Stewart asked him, Tony agreed to a few hours overtime a couple of Fridays before Christmas. By nine o'clock the bar was almost full, and thick clouds of smoke writhed around the suspended lights. Both Ray and Tony were kept busy, running from one end of the counter to the other, straining to hear drinks orders above the music and yelled conversation. Alec Stewart, the manager, stood in the doorway between the bar and the back office for a moment, watching the two barmen working, before he disappeared into the crowd.
Then, without Tony noticing the change in customers, Mrs. Wilson appeared at the first stool at the counter. Tony reached for a shallow, conical clean glass and waited; Mrs. Wilson smiled and nodded. After that first drink, Ray served Mrs. Wilson. Then, late in the evening, with the bar gradually emptying, Tony saw her waving him over.
"Another one of the same," Mrs. Wilson told Tony, her words thick and running together. She leaned on the bar with one hand supporting her head. Her eyes were wide and glassy.
"Yes, ma'am." Tony made a weak Martini and slid it across the counter. As Mrs. Wilson sipped at her drink, Tony walked down the other end of the bar and spoke quietly to Ray. "I've got a problem."
The older man looked up from the glass washing machine he was loading and down the bar to Mrs. Wilson. "What is it?"
Tony hesitated. "Look, I know it's none of my business, but I think she's pretty much out of it."
Ray nodded. "You're right: it's none of our business."
"All right," Ray said, sighing and closing the door of the machine. He disappeared into the rear office for a couple of minutes. When he returned, he nodded to Tony. "All taken care of."
After twenty minutes, a man entered the bar and approached the counter; Tony saw how the two doormen, both built like linebackers, stepped out of the way for the man. He wore suit pants and leather shoes, and an open-necked white shirt but no jacket. From the close-cropped graying hair, Tony guessed his age at mid-forties. The man sat on the stool next to Mrs. Wilson and said, "Coffee, Ray."
"Yes sir." Ray poured out a fresh cup and set it in front of the man, then pushed Tony down the other end of the bar, away from the couple.
Tony dried and polished glasses and tried not to overhear the conversation. He saw the man help Mrs. Wilson to her feet and escort her across the deserted bar, up the steps to the front entrance. One of the two weekend doormen, dressed in dark suits and overcoats, held the doors open for the couple.
"Who was that?" Tony asked.
Ray stared at him. "Mr. Wilson. You watch yourself with him."
"He obviously cares about her," Sarah said when Tony told her what he had seen.
"Then why does he let her get so drunk?" Tony asked.
"Let her?" Sarah sat up and stared at Tony. "Let her? What is she, his property? His chattel? She can't think for herself?"
"No, what I mean is--"
"Are you going to 'let me' have a drink when we get married? Or do I have to ask nicely?"
Tony struggled. "I never meant it that way. All I'm saying is that I'd be worried, if I were him."
"If it works for them, what's your problem?" Sarah asked.
"I guess," Tony said, but there was something catching at the back of his mind, something that nagged at him. "I suppose it's none of my business."
The next Friday, on overtime again, Tony looked out for Mrs. Wilson and saw her arrive alone. She sat at the bar and ordered her regular drink. Ray served her, as usual, until the bar started emptying out. When Mrs. Wilson dropped her lighter on the floor and almost slipped from her stool recovering it, Ray and Tony helped her to one of the empty booth seats and waited for her husband to arrive.
"You're a good kid," she told Tony when Ray went to use the office phone. "Even if you are a Puritanical son of a bitch."
Mrs. Wilson slumped in the wide leather seat. "Oh, I see you staring at me like I'm a piece of crap, 'specially when you're pouring me a drink."
"I never meant to--"
"Skip it, skip it." She waved a lazy hand in the air between them. "Maybe you have a point."
Tony said nothing, hoping Ray would get back soon. Mrs. Wilson turned to him and demanded, "Anyway, if I want a drink, whose business is it? Not yours, right?"
Tony nodded and said, "That's right: it's none of my business."
Tony stood up when he saw Mr. Wilson walking towards the booth.
"Hey, honey," Mrs. Wilson called out.
"How are you feeling, sweetheart?" Wilson asked, his voice like honey. He ignored Tony and Ray and sat down next to his wife. When the two barmen started to move away, Wilson told them, "Don't go."
"I feel okay." Mrs. Wilson pulled herself up and got to her feet. "Feel a little tired, though. Been a long day."
"I know, babe, I know." Her husband took her arm and led her gently across the floor. Without turning his head, he told Tony, "Grab her bag, kid."
Tony pushed the cigarettes and lighter into Mrs. Wilson's purse and followed the couple to the exit.
"There you go, baby, nice and easy," Wilson murmured reassuringly to his wife, as a parent might speak to a tired child. As one of the doormen held the car door open for the couple, Wilson helped his wife onto the rear seat and fastened the seatbelt over her. "How's that, sweetheart? You feeling okay?"
Mrs. Wilson smiled. "I'm fine."
"We'll soon be home." Wilson turned and saw Tony holding the purse. His expression changed and he said, "Oh, thanks, kid."
Tony watched the car disappear into the snow and walked back down into the bar. He found Ray tidying away the last of the glasses, and asked, "What the hell was that?"
"A happily married couple," Ray said without looking up.
"I know, but--"
"Don't think about it, kid," Ray said. "There's no mileage in it."
Tony sat on a barstool and folded his arms on the bar. He thought about the expression he had seen on Wilson's face as the man spoke to his wife: tenderness, unguarded affection, and maybe some sadness. Tony said, "I just don't get it..."
Ray poured the last of the night's coffee into two mugs and placed one in front of Tony. "How old are you, kid?"
Ray nodded and sipped his coffee. "Girlfriend?"
"Fiancée," Tony corrected.
Ray leaned against the counter and looked around the empty room. After a minute he asked, "You ever hear the story about the campers who lose their little girl in Yellowstone?"
Surprised, Tony asked, "What story?"
"This family of campers drive up from the city and decide to spend the night in the Park," Ray explained. "In the morning they find their daughter's tent is empty; all day long the rangers follow the tracks, until they find the little girl fast asleep in a bear's cave. The bear's guarding the girl, and even brought her some food to eat. So they knock the bear out for a while and rescue the girl. They don't find a mark on her, not even a scratch."
Tony wondered if the older man had decided to avoid the subject of the Wilsons altogether, but Ray continued speaking.
"They've been married a long time now. It takes a while for people to settle down and find their feet, find out how they can get along with one another."
Tony waited, letting Ray speak at his own pace.
"I was married for twenty years," Ray continued. "We found our own way, we learnt to get along. Some people find different ways. Mrs. Wilson is a lawyer, family court, successful from what I hear, and she works hard. Her husband, our boss, never stops working--he's a full-time businessman."
Tony hesitated, then asked, "Legit?"
Ray smiled. "You've been watching too much TV, son. Yes, he's on the level, but I wouldn't want to get on the wrong side of him."
Tony drank his bitter, strong coffee.
"So you got two hard-working, hard-headed personalities," Ray said, "both trying to get along. At the start, maybe they fight all the time; maybe they gouge the hell out of each other and give everybody a rough ride."
Ray raised his hand to interrupt Tony. "Like I said, maybe that could happen. And maybe one of the two personalities sees what's happening and decides it's time to either take off or change. So she changes: she gives in."
Tony began to understand what Ray was heading for. "She makes herself vulnerable? So he feels he has to look after her?"
Ray shrugged. "It could work."
"And you can't get much more vulnerable than when you're drunk," Tony said. "But don't they see--"
"It's late for guessing games, kid." Ray drained his coffee and washed the cup out. He reached for the light switches. "Time to close up."
When Tony got home, Sarah was already in bed. Tony slipped out of his clothes and beneath the covers. He curled his arm over her stomach and kissed her neck.
"You're cold," Sarah complained, but pulled Tony in close to her. "How'd it go?"
"It went okay," Tony said. "I learned a lot."
"I meant the bar, not your classes," Sarah said, already drifting back into sleep.
"I know." Tony listened to her soft, regular breathing and felt the warmth of her skin. In the darkness he listened to the sounds of the traffic far below, and the settling creaks of the apartment block as it cooled in the winter snow.© 2001 Tom Brennan. All rights reserved.