The Barkeep by William Lashner
The old man climbed onto a stool and knuckled the wood to snag the barkeep’s attention.
From behind the bar, the bartender nodded his head in acknowledgement. Just then he was in the middle of something because, even at the slowest of times, the barkeep made sure he was in the middle of something. No one wants a bartender looming over the bar, daring you to interrupt his leisure. No one wants a bartender lurching into action to pour you a drink. The barkeep was always busy enough so that when he took your order it felt like a favor. But not a favor from a friend, because this bartender was never your friend. If you wanted a friend, you bought a pet fish; you bellied up to his bar for a drink.
“A Mojito, doctor, if you please,” said the old man in a voice ripened by unspeakable vice, “but only if you know how to whip one up with a little pizzazz.”
It was a bit of a dig, but the barkeep didn’t take it personally. He was twenty-nine years old, thin and hard and handsome as a blade, and he didn’t take anything personally. He gave the old man the same look he gave the regulars and the first-timers, the cops and the politicians, the prostitutes and the corporate lawyers who rented the prostitutes by the hour, the same look that he would give to you if you took a seat across from him. He looked at the old man levelly but not intently—a bartender never probes beneath the surface—and he smiled as if he approved not only of the old man’s drink choice but of his life choices, of everything that led him to this one moment, where he stepped into this bar and ordered this drink. The whole expression was as crucial a part of the job as a Boston shaker. But truth was, the barkeep never cared what you were drinking, or where you came from, or the evils that were plaguing your soul. And he knew his Mojito rocked, so he didn’t need your approval either. You were a customer, that’s all there was to it, and behind the bar he existed solely to mix you a drink.
The Mojito man was lean and weathered and sickly pale. His shave wasn’t close enough, his greased white hair was a little yellow and a little long. He had one of those raw faces that bespoke long hard years on the road, and too-bright teeth too big for his mouth that bespoke a cheap set of dentures. There was something about him that the barkeep didn’t like on the spot, some arrogant sense of his own damn self that pushed at the barkeep’s buttons in a way no one had in years. But the barkeep recognized his dislike as weakness and took a moment to let it pour out of him. You know the voice that’s always barking, the one in your head that goes on and on and never shuts the hell up? For the past few years the barkeep had been training himself to turn off that voice like one turns off a spigot.
“You look like you’re doing all right,” said the old man.
“I’ve done this before.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
The barkeep was in the middle of preparing the old man’s drink, so he didn’t quite catch the full drift of the comment. He took his craft seriously, selecting the brightest mint leaves from the batch he had picked fresh that afternoon, pouring a precise measurement of the simple syrup he had prepped in the kitchen at the start of his shift. He brought to the mixing of a drink all the tranquility and generosity of a formal tea ceremony. He was in the process of gently muddling the leaves into the syrup right in the highball glass, concentrating on the gentle part because anything more and the mint ripped apart, leaving the drink with the general consistency of pond scum.
“You look like you’re doing okay for yourself, I mean,” said the old man. “Like things, they worked out all for the best.”
“I love my job.” That was the extent of what the barkeep ever said about himself to a customer. “How you doing tonight?” said the regulars at Zenzibar when they climbed onto their stools and asked for their usual drinks. “I love my job,” he’d say.
“That’s a good thing, to love your work,” said the old man. “I loved my work, too. It was a hard job, harder than you can imagine. It took more out of me than I even knew I had. But it was what I did, what I was. Excepting it’s pretty much over.”
The barkeep sliced a lime in half, squeezed the juice from each half into a jigger, dropped one of the emptied hulls into the glass along with a shot of the juice.
“I guess you could say I’m retired now,” said the old man. “Didn’t have no choice about it. My health couldn’t keep up with the demands of the profession. And then my health, bad as it was, it took a turn for the worse. There’s not much left of me anymore but the sickness. My last kidney is shot, my liver, my throat riddled with something. That’s why I’m on this little tour.”
The old man wanted to talk, needed to talk. The barkeep didn’t want to listen, but as he measured in two shots of white rum, he affected a mild interest. That was part of the job, to pretend to listen, to feign concern. There are three professions who play at that game; barkeeps are the ones who do it on their feet.
“You ever hear of a fellow named Walter J. Freeman,” said the old man, “a doctor of sorts?”
“No, never did,” said the barkeep as he opened a bottle of sparkling water and poured it into the glass. He used San Pellegrino in his Mojitos because the bubbles were so fine they gave the drink an admirable tightness. He filled the glass to the top with crushed ice and stirred with a straw.
“Quite an interesting man. He invented an operation that scrambled the front part of the brain like an egg. Lobotomy, he called it. He’d go right through the bone above the eyeballs to do it, with nothing more than a hammer and an ice pick. The man performed thousands of the operations all over the country. Claimed his lobotomy calmed the mind and aided digestion. Dr. Walter J. Freeman.”
When the drink was chilled and the glass frosty, the barkeep twisted off a sprig of mint, smacked it between his palms to activate the scent, and dropped it on top of the drink. He placed the glass atop a coaster and slid it before the old man. The old man looked at the drink as if it were a lover slipping her legs beneath his sheets. He rolled up his sleeves, lifted the glass, closed his eyes and pursed his lips daintily as he took a sip. His eyelids fluttered with pleasure
“That works, boy,” he said. “That’s just jimmy. Simple and pure. I feel like I’m back in that whorehouse in Cuba where I tasted my first.”
“Twelve fifty,” said the barkeep.
“That’s damn stiff for a drink.”
“It’s a stiff drink.”
“You mind if I run a tab, doctor?”
The barkeep glanced over at Marson, sitting like a sentry at the other end of the bar, before sizing up the chances of the old man being a runner. Marson would take it out of the barkeep’s check if the bill went unpaid. On the old man’s newly bared forearms were two matching tattoos, monochromatically blue but intricately wrought. On the left forearm was the head of Jesus, on the right forearm was the head of the Devil. Both were staring up at the barkeep.
“Suit yourself,” he said. He set up the tab as the customer rambled on.
“So this lobotomy doctor, this Dr. Freeman, late in life he was cast out by all them fancy-pants doctors who claimed his operation did more harm than good, which is always the way of it. And so Dr. Freeman, he drove all over the country, visiting his old patients, trying to see for himself how it all turned out. Sort of a farewell tour. And to him, his handiwork looked pretty damn sweet. Gave him a bit of satisfaction as the end approached.”
“I suppose it would.”
It was still quiet at the bar, early afternoon, before the happy-hour crowd arrived with their after-work bonhomie, and even as the barkeep kept himself busy wiping bottles and slicing limes, he had no choice but to nod and listen. He liked it busy at the bar, he liked it when the crowd was three deep and the calls for drinks came from all sides like a rising tide of feverish chants, when there wasn’t time to take in the stories and the gripes and he was able to lose himself in the work. That was the quest in everything he did:, the work, the meditation, the exercise, the sex. To lose himself. And as the barkeep would be the first to tell you, it was not without reason.
“That’s what I’m doing now,” said the old man. “That’s why I’m here. I’m taking my farewell tour. Before the sickness closes me down for good. To see how things, they worked out, to see the results of my handiwork.” He picked up what was left of his drink, examined it as if he were appraising an uncut diamond. “And from where I’m sitting now, things look like they didn’t work out half-bad.”
The barkeep stared while the old man guzzled the rest of his drink. Truth is, a bartender is only[EJ7] ever a sounding board. You don’t care about his opinion when you are spilling your guts, and why should you? But the barkeep still would stand there like he cared, nodding now and then, never reacting with more than a casual raise of the eyebrow. And you would see in his affect what you wanted to see in his affect rather than the truth, that he didn’t give a damn. But there was something about this old man and the buttons he pushed that seemed to make what he was saying personal to the barkeep. The barkeep watched as the old man greedily drank the dregs of his drink, like a vampire trying to suck every last ounce from a pale stretch of neck.
“The name’s Grackle,” said the old man after he thumped down his glass. “Birdie Grackle.”
“You know Gene Vincent?”
“There you go. Not so dumb as you look. I’d be hunting still if anything worked. But now it all just sets there like an old hound sleeping ’neath a cottonwood in the midday heat.”
“Another Mojito, Birdie?”
“Not at those prices,” he said, trying to laugh but ending up with a sputtering cough that turned his raw face red and brought tears to his eyes. “Why don’t you pour me up a gut puncher, just for the kick of it?”
The barkeep turned and grabbed a bottle of whiskey from the bottom shelf, something more suitable for stripping paint than drinking. As he poured, Birdie Grackle stared at the rising brown liquor as if it were some golden elixir that could transform body and soul.
“How much is that?” said Grackle.
“That’s a crime.”
“I’ll put it on your tab.”
“You do that,” said Grackle, picking up the shot glass. “And put two more on while you’re at it.” He downed the shot with a snatch of his wrist, let out a small slurp as his mouth and throat absorbed the alcohol, and slammed the glass onto the bar. “Another one for me and one for you to boot.”
“Thank you all the same,” said the barkeep, “but I never drink with customers.”
“Pour them both out, doctor. You’ll do me the honor before we’re through here.”
“And why’s that?” said the barkeep as he laid out a second shot glass next to the first and filled them both.
“Because, Justin boy, on this stop of my farewell tour, you’re the old patient I came to see.”
“You know my name.”
“I know more than that, doctor.” Grackle took hold of one of the glasses. “Here’s to blood in your eye.”
“What are we drinking to?”
The barkeep stared at him for a long moment, took in the old man’s alky eyes, his pale, ruined cheeks, the peculiarly self-satisfied twist of his lips. He glanced again at the tattoos of Jesus and the Devil on the old man’s forearms and realized, with a start, that despite the differing hair and expressions, the features on each were the same, they were the old man’s features, those of Birdie Grackle himself, both savior and Satan. The barkeep took the second glass of whiskey and downed it quickly, let the cheap rotgutburn his throat until something close to pain slipped out.
“Good for you,” said the old man before he drank his own.
“You knew my mother?”
“Not really. I only met her that once.”
“When was that, Birdie?”
Birdie Grackle sucked his dentures for a moment and then said, “The night I done killed her.”