Rain had fallen in steady sheets for two weeks straight, so the sun peeking out from behind the clouds in a dazzling sunset made for an especially ethereal Friday afternoon. From behind the bar counter, Jaime watched in shadow as the bloom of late autumn light painted the nimbus-quilted sky nectarine colors; just outside, a handful of yellow-gold ginkgo leaves liberated themselves from their branch and floated to the pavement. Jaime wiped dry the last of the champagne flutes and hung it from a stemware rail overhead. He knelt down and grabbed a canvas bag from beneath the counter, then made his way to the back of the bar and entered the restroom.
Cupping his chin, he combed through his unruly black beard and turned, closely inspecting his face at all angles. With an electric trimmer, he carved away much of the hair until he had achieved a neat pencil beard. He ran the water, washed his face, and cleared the basin of fallen hair; finally, he put on his apron, topping it with a black waistcoat and red necktie. Jaime’s sunken eyes lingered a moment in the mirror as he gently massaged the naked fourth knuckle of his left hand.
Now the room had gone pitch-dark. Jaime sailed to the back of the bar, flicked on the lights, and plugged in a small Christmas tree on the counter. Instantly everything was washed in a warm amber glow. He unlocked the door, and waited.
It was not long until the first customers arrived. The couple washed a wave of leaves in with them as they entered. “What do you think of this place?” the man said. “Seems quaint enough.”
“It’s cute,” the woman said, eyeing a booth in the corner.
“Good evening, folks,” Jaime said. “What can I get started for you?”
“Could we see a drinks list, please?” the woman asked.
Jaime laid a menu on the counter and leaned in. “I’ve got Manhattans on special tonight for cocktails, and for beer I just got a small-batch holiday stout this afternoon.”
Without another thought, the man licked his lips rubbed his hands together eagerly. “Get me one of those,” he said with the gusto of a casual connoisseur. “The beer, that is.”
“I think I’d like to try that Manhattan,” the woman said. “I don’t care too much for rye, but since it’s on special…”
“I can do bourbon for it if you’d like,” Jaime said.
“That’d be lovely.”
“You two take a seat wherever, and I’ll have those out shortly.” They made their way to the corner. Jaime pivoted and with one deft movement grabbed the whiskey, vermouth, and bitters. He muddled the ingredients in a mixing glass and decanted the drink into a chilled coupe glass; next, he selected a snifter and expertly poured the beer from the tap until its creamy head sat burgeoning about the rim.
For the first hour of the evening there was a steady stream of customers. In turn, they ordered and sat; Jaime, having tended bar upwards of seven years, made the drinks with innate precision, and each time he brought them out with a textbook smile and nod. “Holler if there’s anything else I can get you,” he would say.
Jaime had had his back to the room and was restocking the liquor shelf when he spun around to see a flat-faced, pale man seated at the counter.
“Nate!” Jaime said, feigning his surprise. “How’s it going?”
“Oh, you know,” the man said. “Long day.”
“Yep. Just another day, in a long week, in a long month, in a long year, in a too-long life.” Nate laughed. “What’s with this?” he asked, motioning to the little tree.
“Saw it on sale at Home Depot this afternoon. Like it?”
“Christmas comes earlier and earlier each year,” Nate said.
“I guess it does,” Jaime said. “‘Tis the season. Anyway, what can I get you?”
“You got it, buddy.” Jaime took out a highball glass and filled it with ice. He poured the gin, lemon juice, and syrup, then whisked the concoction with a metal swizzle stick; he topped it off with a twisted lemon peel and a sprig of fresh rosemary. “Here you are, my friend.”
Nate took the cocktail and drank greedily, letting out a sigh when he had satisfied himself. “Best damn Tom Collins I ever had. Every time. And look at this.” He flicked the rosemary. “It comes with a salad. Abby’s been on my back about going on a diet.”
“Much obliged,” Jaime said. He gave a slight bow. “You’re too kind.”
“No kidding.” Nate took another drink. He paused before speaking again. “So how was your vacation, Jaime? We missed you around here.”
“Nothing special, really. Lazed around mostly,” he said. “More of a stay-cation than anything else.”
“Well, I’m glad you’re back. Hope you didn’t get yourself into too much trouble.” Nate winked. The conversation trailed off, and the two reduced to simple small talk as more people came in, ordered, and took their places around the room. Soon enough the bar was bustling. A steady drone of near incomprehensible speech percolated in the thickening air.
Jamie had finished mixing Nate’s fourth Tom Collins when, just past nine o’clock, a trio approached the bar and took three stools at the far end. “You’ll have to excuse me,” he said.
“You know where to find me.”
Jaime handed them a menu. “Evening guys,” he said with a smile.
The men on the sides knew what they wanted without having to look at the list; the one in the middle needed a little more time. “Just a minute,” she said. The woman threw her hand over her shoulder as if to flick away some wayward strands of hair, but found nothing.
Jaime made an Old Fashioned for the one on the left, and a Whiskey Sour for the one on the right. He finished the drinks and turned to the one in the middle. “Have any questions about anything?”
“As a matter of fact, I do,” she said. She jammed a finger to the last line on the page. “Dealer’s choice. What’s that?”
“Exactly what you’d think,” Jaime said. “I’ll make a drink, of my own creation, and cross my fingers that you like it.”
“Sounds risky,” the one on the right said, elbowing her.
“Yeah, I don’t know about that,” the one on the left added. “You can be just picky as hell sometimes.”
“Oh, screw you two,” the one in the middle said. She straightened her back and grinned. “Let’s do it. I’m feeling adventurous. Surprise me.”
There were the regulars, of course—those like Nate who came by the bar most nights of the week for a drink or two—often more. He would at first wonder what they did, about their stories; sooner or later they would tell him everything. It was always the same formula: every day was long, every holiday came seemingly sooner than it had the year before until eventually Christmas might land in July, Valentines Day in October. He loved his customers, and they loved him. But it was the out-of-towners Jaime liked the best, the skinny hipsters with thick glasses and flannel shirts attracted to the rustic interior like moths to a bare lightbulb. Young people and exposed brick. No matter what he was doing, no matter how complex the drink, Jaime had ears like antennae for idle chit chat.
Wait, what do you mean? What I mean is…
I need another. Honestly is there any alcohol in these at all? A total rip off, these bars.
Okay, but did I tell you about last week?
Seriously. Four hours in that surgery. I can’t believe it.
“What are you doing?” the woman asked. He had taken two bell peppers, a green and a red, and was shedding thin ribbons into a highball glass.
“You’ll see,” Jaime said. With a swizzle stick he muddled the vegetables, then dropped in three large ice cubes and poured the drink. He set it in front of the woman.
Her eyes widened. “What’s this?”
“This,” Jaime began, “is a variation of a drink called a Lawn Dart. It’s got a gin and tequila base, but here I’ve added a bit of something else. Give it a smell.” Jaime rinsed the shaker.
“Oh!” the woman exclaimed.
“What are you picking up?”
She lifted the drink closer to her face and took a deep breath. “It smells like…like freshly cut grass?”
“Exactly,” Jaime said. “That earthy aroma you’re getting is from the bell pepper. This drink is meant to give you a bit of a homey, summery feel. I know it’s winter, but this is a great year-round drink because it makes you think of a warm day.” He placed the shaker back in its spot and wiped his hands on his apron. “At least, that’s what I hope it will do. I went with green and red for the holidays. Try it.”
The woman drank. She closed her eyes.
“Well?” the one on the left asked. “What’s the verdict?”
“I love it,” the woman said. “I can feel the sun on my skin already.”
“I want to try!” the one on the left said.
“Me too,” the one on the right said. “A sip for a sip?” He extended the half-empty Whiskey Sour.
“No way,” she said. “You’ll just have to take a chance on your next drink. I’m not giving this up.”
“Speaking of the next drink,” the one on the left said. He tilted his glass and drained his Old Fashioned, rattling the ice before planting it on the bar. “I think I’m ready for another. Make it a dealer’s choice this time, please.” He twisted back around to his friends.
“So, tell me,” the one in the middle said. “Elevators. What the hell, right?”
The two looked at her curiously. “Elevators?” the one on the left asked.
“I don’t know,” she continued. “Just, that weird feeling you get. It’s so silent when you get in an elevator with another person.”
“Yes. And everyone wants–”
“But no one does, but also then someone starts talking and you get uncomfortable, even though that’s the one thing you’ve been waiting for the whole time. For that silence to break. But as soon as someone does you shit all over them in your mind.”
“It’s true,” the one on the right said.
“Stare up at the monitor,” the one on the right said. “Read the news, if you’re lucky enough to have one in the first place.”
“What I want,” the one in the middle said. “What I would love–I want to ride up on an elevator one floor, wait for someone to get in, then press all of the buttons as I get out.” She took a sip of her drink. “Actually, what I want more than that is for someone to push all of the buttons as I’m getting on and they’re getting out.”
“But god forbid anyone ask you about the weather on the way up,” the one on the left said. “I was in an elevator with this guy. He stares up at the monitor and sees the forecast. ‘I’m from California.’” His voice became flippant and nasal. “‘We sure could use it.’ I wanted to smack him.”
“Lucky,” the one in the middle said. “That’s exactly what I’m talking about.”
“Sounds like there’s a lot to unpack there.”
“Voila,” Jaime interrupted. He set a drink down in front of the man on the left.
“Try it,” Jaime said. “It’s mostly rum,” Jaime said. “But that’s all I’m going to tell you.”
“And if I have any allergies?” he quipped, contorting his closed lips into a sneer.
“If they were serious, you would have told me.”
“Fair enough,” the one on the left said. He shrugged. He took a sip and his eyes lit up. “Wow.” He nodded to Jaime, then quickly turned away. In the man’s eyes, Jaime may as well have disappeared right then.
“Now it’s time for the real questions,” the one in the middle said. “Boys, would you rather–”
“I hate this game.”
“–would you rather give up all drinks except water, or never be able to eat anything that was cooked in an oven?”
“Oven,” the one on the left said. “No-brainer, hands down.”
“Dude,” the one on the right said. “Wait,” he said to the one in the middle. “When you say anything cooked in an oven, do you mean it had been baked entirely, or can we not eat it if it was only just, I don’t know, finished in there?”
“If it went in the oven for even half a second, it’s off the table.”
“Well, that makes it harder.”
“Not really,” the one on the left said, swirling his drink for emphasis.
“You have a problem.”
“C’est la vie.”
“Alrighty,” the one on the right said. “I’ve got one for you: five percent of the population has telepathy, or five percent have mind control powers.” He finished his drink and tapped the menu to indicate his next order. “Oh,” he added. “And you don’t get to be a part of that five percent.”
“Hands down mind control.”
“How is ‘hands down’ your response to everything?” the one in the middle asked. She coiled her nose into a scowl.
“I guess I just know what I want–and what I want is to keep all these dirty thoughts to myself.” He rapped on his temple. “Precious cargo.”
“Telepathy for me,” the one in the middle said. “I value my freedom too much.”
“Alright,” the one on the left said. “But at least you wouldn’t be responsible for all the weird shit people might make you do.”
“I’m with her on this one.”
“Yeah, well. You have to take sides with your girlfriend.”
“Not true,” the one in the middle said, caressing the one on the right’s cheek. “I let him do whatever he wants.”
“Gag,” the one on the left said. “Another, please. Save me from these two, Mr. Bartender.”
“I’m sorry. I just love this guy so much.” She pinched the one on the right’s cheek and pivoted around. “No more mush. We’ll be more sensitive. You have my word.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” the one on the left said. “Is it my turn yet?”
“Make it a good one,” the one on the right said.
“It will be. Thank you, by the way.” The one on the left raised his fresh drink to Jaime. He sipped it and coughed. “My god,” he mumbled. “So sweet. What’ve you got?” The two men exchanged drinks.
“I like this much better,” the one on the left said.
“Keep it. Now, what were you saying?”
“So,” he started. “Would you rather be a reverse centaur, or a reverse merperson?”
The one in the middle spat up. “Excuse me?”
“I know you’re picturing it.” The one on the left cocked his eyebrow.
“I really wish I weren’t.”
“But you are. So what will it be? Dealer’s choice.” He smirked and drank.
“Can the half-mer me still breathe on land?”
“See? You two never break rank.”
“Not true!” the one on the right said. “What about if we could breathe on land and in water? Then I am merperson all the way. Honey?”
“See? Told you.”
“My turn again?” the one in the middle asked.
“Whatever,” the one on the left said.
“Would you rather spend the rest of your life married to someone you don’t love, or live the rest of your life alone.”
“Do we at least get to like the person we’re with?” the one on the right asked.
“Sure,” she replied. “You like them just fine. You might even like them a lot. But you never get to actually love them.”
“And when you say ‘alone,’ does that mean no relationship of any kind? Serious, flings…” the one on the right asked.
“Occasional fling, sure. But nothing sustainable.”
“Ouch,” the one on the right said. “That’s bitter.” He stopped himself. “Not the drink!” he said to Jaime. “The drink is lovely.”
“So what you’re saying is that either way we end up miserable?” the one on the left asked.
“Huh,” the one in the middle said. “I guess so. But what kind of miserable is worse?”
“I’m going to need some time on this one,” the one on the right said.
The one on the left squared his elbows on the bar. “You know what I’d rather?” he mumbled. “I’d rather never answer any of these stupid fucking questions ever again. I’ll be back.” He drank off the rest of his beverage and slammed the glass on the table. Jaime watched as the man suddenly shot to his feet and, without so much as a glance towards the bar, made a bee-line for the door.
Even in the warm light of the bar Jaime could see the woman’s face transition from white to crimson. He tried to focus on the Cosmopolitan he was shaking for another customer so as not to give the couple the impression that he had been listening.
“Now you’ve done it,” the one on the right said.
“What?” she stammered. “What did I do?”
“He’s still shaken up about Eli, you know.”
“It’s been at least six months!”
“Seven, actually. But you know how he is, how he gets.”
“I honestly didn’t mean anything by it. I wasn’t thinking.”
“He’s also drunk. It’s not your fault.”
“God, I feel terrible.”
“He’ll be alright.”
Jaime approached the couple as casually as he would any patron. “You guys alright for drinks over here?”
The woman glanced out the door. “I believe we’re ready for the check.” Her hand was shaking as she rifled through her purse. “Actually, could I get a coffee first? Then the check.”
“Cream and sugar?”
Jaime left them to talk unimpinged and safe from his incessant eavesdropping as he prepared a fresh coffee for the woman. In seven years he had seen his share of meltdowns and figured he knew how it would likely play out in the end: not ten minutes later, he would come walking back through that door.
And when he did return, acrid with cigarette smoke, he greeted his companions as though seeing them for the first time that night.
“What’s that?” he said, throwing his hands in the air. “That better have booze in it. ‘Tis nay but midnight my dear.”
“No,” the woman said. “I have to drive us, and we should be going now.”
“Ever since you got that haircut you think you’re so mature.”
Her cheeks distended, she stuck her tongue out and blew a raspberry. “It’s just who I am, sweetheart. It’s very disappointing. And we paid the bill while you were gone, so you owe me the cherry.” she dug through the half-melted ice of the man’s drink and popped the crushed fruit into her mouth. “Delicious,” she mocked. “Now let’s get out of here. We have to be on the road no later than eight tomorrow morning.”
The one on the right stood up, jovially plunking his arms around either of his friends. “Oh, there it is.” He swayed slightly. “And it all comes rushing in. I love you guys.”
“I love you too, honey,” the woman said.
“Love you honeybear,” the one on the left said.
“Watch it, buddy. He’s mine.” She jammed a finger in the man’s face and laughed. “You boys are not going to be happy with yourselves tomorrow. And I just want you to know now, I’m not dealing with it.”
With that, the trio unsentimentally sauntered out, not once looking back.
By two, all but one of the night’s patrons had left; by two-thirty, Jaime had changed back into his torn casuals and finished cleanup. Nate had been snoring away in a puddle of ice sweat, his last Tom Collins nearly full in his limp hand. Jaime tapped him gently on the shoulder, then prodded him when he refused to be roused. “Alright, Nate. Let’s get you out of here. Closing time.”
“You’ve got to get home.”
“Shit,” Nate said. His head shot up. He looked around in a panic. “Shit. I’m going to be in so much trouble.” He laughed and reached for his drink, but Jaime had taken it away.
“I already called Abby,” he said. “She left the door unlocked for you.”
“Where are my keys?”
“I called you an Uber. Don’t worry about the bill, it’s on the house tonight.”
“You’re my favorite person, you know that?” Nate said.
“I know buddy.” Jaime winked wryly. “Now out you go.” He shepherded Nate through the door and into the waiting car.
“Tell the missus I say ‘hi.’”
“I’ll do that.”
“Really, don’t forget, okay?”
“I won’t. Promise.”
Jaime set off in the opposite direction as the car pulled away. The sky was clear and the late-November air chilly. He jammed his hands in his pockets and cast his eyes on the pavement. When he arrived at his apartment he quietly clicked the door shut behind him, removed his shoes and, out of instinct, tiptoed through the foyer, his bare feet collecting a thin film of dust off the hardwood floor. Faint light of the exposed full moon steeped everything in a rusty glow. He tossed his bag onto a pile of laundry in the corner and made for the kitchen. There was a pileup of dirty dishes in the sink; he removed a bowl, gave it a quick rinse, and filled it with the remaining dregs of a box of Cheerios. The milk was two days expired, but he poured it anyway.
Would you rather, would you rather. The words churned in his head.
He hoisted himself onto the counter and stared out the window into the dissolving evening.