Ask the Bartender

It’s the music, or two whiskies on an empty stomach, or unrequited desire, but he can’t settle.  He returns from the can to find the place emptying rapidly.  He knows how much Dance can’t afford to lose the jacket he’s clutching, and still he’s halfway convinced Dance won’t be back to retrieve it.

The bassist departs with two of the eager fan ladies; the drummer meets his equally scroungy brother at the side door; and the sax player is chatting up a well-dressed couple.  Drin stands and waits.  Stubborn, yeah.  If it’s a test of devotion, he’s past caring what it reveals.  At the Metro, if Dance is late coming out front, it’s just because he’s a helpful guy.  Always shepherding things.  But that tense moment earlier keeps coming back, and Drin hopes there isn’t a fight.

The bartender pulls him a tumbler of water.  Pauses his mopping up to answer a phone briefly.  Collecting empty glasses, he says to Drin, “Them singing, that was new.”

Drin nods, perches on a barstool.  “I’m not sure they’ll try it again, if folks didn’t like it enough.”

The bartender shrugs.  “Takes all types.  I like a change, myself.  One night–” he grins reminiscently, racking glasses, “–you’ll never believe this, but one night the bass guy brought in this Carlos Santana-type guitar and amps, they did a whole set.  Black Magic Woman– man, that was good.  Well, Dance did this tribute with that crazy guitar on Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin and Joan Jett and Frampton and Clapton and Jerry Garcia–” he pauses for some brief, intense air guitar gestures.  “Hey, it made you hear what they musta heard live, back then maybe.   I mean, these guys ain’t none of them Clapton, but hand him strings, Dance does okay.  He claims he’s not so great on banjo, but hell, couldn’t tell it by me.”

“Oh, yeah, wish I got to see that.” The bartender’s statement jars on him, timewise.  The muscular guy with tats behind the bar looks solid as a bouncer, but he’s only mid-thirties.  Still, that’s completely ancient by the standards of the local music scene.  “I didn’t know he could sing. Or got groupies grabbing him.”

The bartender grins.  “Hey, don’t worry about Dance.  He won’t leave Constancia back there by herself on a bad night.  She did a great job on her solos tonight–there’s a chick who puts on her heels and kicks ass instead of lying down and crying.  But we all got our break points, you know?”

Drin makes a wry face, lifts his water glass in tribute.  “Here’s to kickass ladies, and the friends who help them strap the load back together and keep going.”

The bartender flicks up two fingers in salute.  “Ahhhh, tough chicks like that always manage, in the end.  But nobody covers shit for Dance.  Never goes the other way, you know?  Funny how that works.”

“Guess he’s used to it.”  Drin stacks drink glasses, hands them over.

The bartender bends with a grunt, filling the dishwasher.  “Sweet guy, but you gotta watch him.  Those crazy-ass paratroops, right?  They get off on fallin’ into all kindsa mess and obliterating everything in sight.  Don’t care what size they come, little ‘uns are just as bad.”

“Worse,” Drin agrees, handing over trash.

“Last Friday, we got this fuckin’ crackhead bunch screaming outside.  Dance just bent this guy’s shotgun into their steering wheel.  No kidding, in a knot. Then he curled up back here with me, gone fetal.  I said cool by me, leave him, he can have that corner all night.  The cops give up.  It’s a howling full moon, fleet’s in town, the place looks like a Navy goat locker, we got tourists pickin’ fights.”

Drin hands him more glasses.

“Midnight, I finally start callin’ Dance’s people.  Christ, the roommate’s outta town with his cello buddy, his patron guys at the Metro are out, fuckin’ hell, his damn conductor hung up on me. Nobody else has the fuckin’ time of day for him.  Us vets know that kinda shit, fuck whatever the damn uniform was.”  He points.  “I’m gonna call you, next time.  You’re one of his Metro guys, right?  I thought so. You coulda talked him down in a coupla hours, you’re that good.”

“Please do.  I’d fly back if I’d known Dance was freaking.  Call if you get other vets who need it, there’s my volunteer thing.  You’d be doing me a favor,” Drin says, handing over a card.  The guy adds the number into his phone on the spot.

brown flooring made of wine crates
flooring of recycled wine crates

He wonders, though, what the police report looks like.  Dance is too young to be a veteran, surely, even when those kids have to do mandatory South Korean service–but Drin doesn’t argue.  The idea that the diminutive musician was a paratroop veteran sounds absurd by beefy Western standards.  But he believes it after chatting with folks at the dojo where Dance works out.  Hooray for due diligence.  “So, you got out on a medical, Sarge?”

“Feet first, the only way they let us go.  Truck bomb in the nice safe Green Zone, halfway through my third re-up.  But no bitterness, right?  Where’d you get yours?”

“Burns, in Afghanistan.  Just after the Russians gave up and left a mess.”
“Talk about advance work!”  The bartender wiggles his left hand, which moves stiffly and is missing part of the little finger.  “Can’t stand up all night, but I can still play keyboards.”

Drin lifts his water glass in salute.  He drags up another stool to hold Dance’s jacket.  The bartender abandons all pretence of cleaning, folds his arms on the bartop, pulls up a stool on his own side, and starts talking.  “So you’re thinking, what silly meathead would work a bar in a cheap Navy town like this, huh?  Well, my sister married this redneck mechanic kid outta South Carolina, he gets to be a Navy chief, right, and–”

Several funny stories later, Drin is resigned to getting locked out as the last one left standing, reeking of smoke and his own sweat. He’s laughing at a deployment story from the bartender when something breathes at his shoulder, and he swings around with a jolt, arm flying up.

“Oh, we are sorry, please, no wish for startling our Mister Drin, we are thinking you heard us laughing right there–” Dance says, holding up open hands.  This time, there wasn’t even a scuff on a squeaky floorboard to warn Drin.  Dance bows several times, that rapid little bob that means he’s agitated.  “Please not to worry, I have not forgot you.  Our apologies, again please, for taking so long.”

“Oh!  I thought you’d come in this door, over here.  It’s okay, Dance.  No, really, don’t worry,” Drin says, clutching the jacket.  “So you got things sorted?”

“One of our ladies needed help on these sad home problems–it was not pretty, we all think she deserves better treatment but–” and Dance gives a flying-away gesture with one hand, shrugging.

“Yeah,” Drin says, looking him over.  “So do you.”

diaper safety pins with animal heads
diaper safety pins

Dance is wearing the worst rehearsal sweat outfit ever.  The pants sag with new muddy streaks and old stains.  The ragged collar of the sweatshirt has been ripped downward recently.  Half his chest shows under a motley collection of safety pins and plastic-headed diaper pins.  One of them is a smiling duck’s head.  Of course he’ll patch the shirt and go on wearing it to rehearsals.  There’s a dark bruise on his skin under the duck, mid-chest.

“Was that a present from Constancia’s husband, brother, or father?”

The bartender snorts.  “Um, yeah.  Plus a former boyfriend, all Tijuana cops.  Ugly shits swung by here twice tonight.  We only have a bouncer two nights.  Thanks for sorting it, Dance.”

Dance looks down at himself, sighs.  “We are so loving this very glamorous life,” he says, adopting a pompous expression and waving his arm in an imperious gesture that is too much like the current conductor to be accidental.  “Ow,” he adds, and grimaces while he delicately readjusts a safety pin that has flopped open and stuck him.

“You did that on purpose,” Drin says, laughing.

Dance gives him the pained face.  “Not that part.  Ow, ow.  We give up on that bending pin.”

The bartender rummages in a drawer.  “That’s what you get, borrowing pins from Constancia.  Huh.  No, we’re out.  You’re on your own.”

“So parents still use diapers that pin, these days?” Drin says, fascinated.

Dance nods.  “Well, green progressive types, yes.  Waitress moms here take pity on Constancia and me.  We get lectures on solid waste diversion.  Oh yes, and the–erm– impact of different vegetarian diets.”  His nose wrinkles into a wincing expression that suggests all kinds of horrors.

“You’re kidding me again, aren’t you?” Drin pleads.

“Only a little bit,” the bartender says grimly.  “All together now–fuuuck!”

Dance flaps both his hands in droll imitation of the bartender.  “Does it help?”

“No,” Drin says firmly.

Dance sighs, looking down at the silly pins.  “So much for making a good impression on our Mister Drin.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry too much about that.  I’ve heard you play.”

“Well, you could take that several different ways,” the bartender says dryly.

“Take it only as a compliment.”

Dance bows, and shifts a cloth shopping bag in one hand and his instrument case in the other.  He looks like he’s used to going home hungry and tired.

“You got any food allergies?  Lactose intolerant or anything?”

Dance shakes his head again, looking puzzled.  More of his hair is hanging loose.

singer actor Chen Kun
after a long night

Drin pats the empty bar stool, and beckons to the bartender.  “I know it’s late, but while he’s waiting, can you make my buddy a nice big milkshake?  His choice, my treat.”

The bartender grins, showing gold front teeth.  “We can do you some real nice pineapple tonight, Dance.  Gotta use it up, it’s really ripe.”  He cups one hand at his mouth, points at Dance, stage-whispers, “His favorite.”

“May we take our jacket now, Mister Drin?” Dance has his belongings piled together under his stool, his hands solemnly folded on the counter before him.  His height is all legs.  Sitting down, turning those big dark eyes up at them, he looks absurdly young.

Drin clutches it tighter.  “No, my hostage.  You don’t get it back yet.  Not until you get all of that milkshake inside you.  The whole thing.”

“Ahh, the mean ice cream monster will make me eat something delicious,” Dance says, nodding.  The outer corners of his eyes are crinkling upward.  He licks his lips broadly, like a kid might, gazing up at Drin, who remembers exactly what it feels like to get all the air knocked out of his lungs.

The bartender chops pineapple, shakes his head.  “They just so cruel like that, ice cream monsters are.”

“Big meanie,” Dance says, looking up at Drin with his eyes laughing.  Drin has no idea why people think the man doesn’t know how to flirt.

“Yeah, you better believe it,” Drin growls, as deep as he can.  He gives them a huge scowly face, making big silly clawhands.  “Rarr!  Ice crrream, Rarr!”

Dance laughs, flapping his hand at Drin.

“Rarrr?” Drin backs off, acting puzzled.  He pitches his voice at different notes, tries out different monster, piratey voices.  “Polly wanna cracker, rarrr?” Drin says, way up in his nose. The falsetto voice has Dance leaning into the bar, laughing.

“Rarr, matey– okay, gimme a minute, ” Drin says, dropping his hands to pull out his wallet.  Clenching his knees together into Dance’s jacket is excusable then.  And it hides things.

The bartender glops icy balls into a metal mix can.  “We gotta get you here on Pirate Night to emcee the charity contest, Mister Drin, cause I sure ain’t lettin’ you compete, not a pro like you.”  The bartender shoves the metal shake container up into the mixing beater.

Drin puts a bill down on the bar, and waits for the noise to subside.

“Rarr,” he says, in a flat ordinary voice, and he’s pleased when Dance is cracking up again. Dance flaps one hand at him again, leaning on the bar.  It takes his whole body when he laughs. This time he isn’t flirting, it’s just the sound of a young boy in a state of delight.  Maybe it’s the sound of exhaustion.  Everything’s hysterically funny to him.  Just look at him, absolutely calm, not even making silly faces, and he’s laughing.

The bartender pours out the shake, puts a tall glass in front of each man. “Yours has just a touch of booze, Mister Drin, but yours don’t, Dance.”

Dance leans in, halfway closing his eyes, and he works that straw.  It’s a thick mixture.  But he doesn’t have to run a ridiculously long tongue along it like that. Then he smiles, and goes back to sucking on it.  Dance’s hollowed cheeks are nothing like a little boy’s.  “Oh yes, it is excellent.  Very ripe pineapple.”

“It is,” Drin agrees, clutching his knees into the jacket.

There’s just a whisper of some rum in Drin’s drink, just enough to add some warmth, not much alcohol.  He can feel the cooling drink spread through his whole system.  His scalp prickles, and he’s aware of how hot and sweaty he has been feeling, now that the drink is relieving it.  He and the bartender exchange more service stories, trying to get Dance to laugh.

Dance is lagging by the time he’s halfway through his pineapple drink, leaning on his hand.  There are more purplish shadows, unfamiliar lines, around his eyes.

Drin asks him, “Why did you change into sweats when it’s so hot in here?”

“Oh, when we are cooling down after, it is like running.  We are always getting the shivers.”

“Do you have a ride home?”

Dance touches him on the forearm so lightly it’s barely there.  “Not to worry, our roommate is picking us up right here, so convenient.  But is our Mister Drin okay to drive?”

“I will be, if I wait and see you off first.”

“You are very kind,” Dance says.  He gestures, and the bartender puts a couple of tumblers of water up for them.  Dance pulls his shoulders back, straightens up, takes a deep breath.  Performing, even if Drin is his only audience.
Drin laughs.  “And you are very patient!”

“We are trying, yes.  My roommate says we are very trying sometimes.”  He releases the widening grin when Drin laughs.   “Would our Mister Drin like hearing our poor six-year-old jokes?”

“Do you mean jokes you learned six years ago?” Drin asks.  He’s got nephews, he knows how this stuff goes.  “Will there be snails? Promise?”

“Oh yes.”  Dance cracks his knuckles slowly and impressively, and starts unreeling a respectable catalog.  There are some fun translations of Korean school experiences.  There are pickle jokes.  Dance claims pickling is very big in Korean cuisine.

large lidded stoneware jars
stoneware crocks and jars

Drin’s ribs ache a bit by the time the musician has, at last, finished making slurpy noises with that straw in the empty glass, and there is a single honk from the parking lot.

“I must pack up my bad jokes and take myself out and go home now.”  Dance makes a sad-clown face.

Drin holds out the folded jacket, and then his empty hand.  This time, Dance wraps his long fingers warmly around Drin’s hand.  Ceremonially Dance cups his other hand around Drin’s knuckles.  Dance bows several times over their hands, thanks him for the drink, allows Drin to pat him on the back once before he lets go.

Drin watches him go, but he doesn’t follow the man.  He knows he’s probably not fooling anybody, but damn, that violinist has a fine-looking ass.  Yes, the same butt that bruised him just by shoving him into the bar, guarding him from nothing much.  He’s very sorry to see the door close.  Drin stalls for a few more minutes, though, gives the bartender a final tip in the jar, gets a salute.  Apparently he has the guy’s approval as one of Dance’s Big Time Fans.  Or possibly the only one.

The night air outside feels blessedly cool when he departs the front door, smiling.  Progress!  The tricky part will be to avoid making obvious claims in public, when Dance is on the job.  Especially when Evans is asking nasty questions about why somebody might go vandalizing the Metro’s office.

Dance’s tongue on that damn straw has a lot to answer for.  Drin might regret that he didn’t try to fuck the violinist tonight.  But he’s not going to shortcut things, not after what he saw tonight.  There’s a lot more in the guy than a weekend blitz. The fey little musician, the deadly martial arts champion, the chilihead madman.  Solemn First chair, six-year-old boy.  The way his dark eyes suddenly go pale as a cat’s.  All those questions to hunt down just to satisfy his own inner auditor, too, that’s going to take awhile.

Right, Drin tells himself, patting the shirt pocket with the shred of cloth in it. This will be a strenuous long-term project.

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