October 31, 2014, Friday
A few people ordered two-part cocktails, but most of McNally’s Friday happy hour crowd were content with bottled Coors Light and shots of Patron. Hector, the cook, was the busiest person in the bar. He removed his Barack Obama mask and put an apron over his tuxedo t-shirt. Linda didn’t mind taking care of more customers, because the bartenders didn’t pool tips and most of the customers were there to see her scoot around the bar. In his usual last seat at the right side of the three-sided bar, Kao was in a deep conversation with Brandon.
“I used to be able to walk into a room of Asians and guess each person’s country,” Kao said. “It’s still pretty easy with the Koreans, Japanese and Chinese, but with the Southeast Asians, Filipinos and islanders, sometimes it takes me three guesses, which is basically throwing darts at that part of the world.”
Brandon made a note of it and asked how.
“They all have subtle differences, nothing I can put my finger on, but it’s like one of my old jeweler friends says, ‘If you look at enough stones, you’ll spot all the little variations.’ Like identical twins.”
“I didn’t read much about your parents. Can you tell me a bit about them?”
“My father is a grand shaman in the Mien community, and my mother does some farming, mainly strawberries. Small scale. Still has a fruit stand when they’re in season.” Kao took a sip of his Macallan. “I haven’t seen them in months.”
“Where do they live?”’
“Here in town.”
The door opened and Kao’s wife appeared. All the men hooted and offered to buy Erica’s first drink. She was tall with pale skin and full rosy cheeks. Linda, in her sexy nurse costume, walked from behind the bar to give Erica a hug.
“What are you drinking?” Linda asked.
“I can’t,” Erica said. “I have to drive to Modesto for the football game.”
She exchanged pleasantries and hugs with the men at the bar before reaching the corner where Kao was sitting. Kao introduced her to the writing bartender, whose tongue was tied from seeing her youthful face.
“I really loved your story,” Erica said.
It took a second for Brandon to register the compliment and thank her.
The peanut gallery hollered for her to have a drink. “Where’ve you been all my life!” “You bought my last one!” “Let me help keep this place in business!” “I’ll buy the brunette’s drinks.”
“Why don’t you have a glass of wine?” Kao asked.
After a bit of deliberation, Erica giggled and said, “You know what? I’ve been really craving a Shirley Temple. With whipped cream and two cherries.”
“I’ll get that!” a customer yelled from the other end of the bar.
Brandon turned to start on the drink, but Linda had beaten him to it.
“Do you write a lot of science fiction?” Erica asked.
“No, not at all.”
“Well, it was a very good story and well-written. Do you have anything else published?”
Brandon was slightly embarrassed and said, “Just some short stories and poetry here and there, but nothing serious.”
“Get me some of samples and maybe I can help you get things rolling. You want to have your name out there so people are more receptive to your Great American Novel.”
“Don’t distract him,” Kao said. “I’m trying to hire him to do my book. By the way, where are the kids?”
“Isabella and Carmen are riding up with Jenny. Francesca and Dexter are down the street getting ice cream.”
“To only get sorbet.”
“One Shirley Temple with whipped cream and two cherries for the most beautiful girl in the whole wide world,” Linda said as she eyed Erica.
“Don’t tease. This girl is forty with creaky bones,” Erica said.
“No way!” Brandon blurted before turning to Kao. “Oh, I’m so sorry.”
“I like this guy.” Erica pointed. “Pay him. Pay this man his money.”
“It’s actually—” Brandon started saying.
“I know. Pay that man his money,” Erica corrected herself and laughed. “I only do that because my husband hates it when I quote it wrong around his gambling buddies. So you play cards, too?”
“I don’t play anymore.”
Plastic cups and napkins were strewn across the bar. The hallway near the restroom still smelled of fresh puke from a girl who had one last shot of Fireball at the end of the night. When the bouncer turned the key to lock the door, Brandon took his till out of the register and set it on the bar in front of Elaine. He lit a cigarette and opened a beer.
“Who was your friend?” Brandon asked.
“I know who Vanessa is. She’s in the bathroom, right?”
“Oh, fuck. Guess!” Elaine said.
“Your stalker. Wow, he went all out on that costume.”
“I didn’t know it was him until near the end of the night.”
“He pretended like he didn’t know me. Asked me where I worked and all that.”
“That’s kind of weird.”
“Beyond weird,” Elaine said. “But it was a pretty impressive outfit.”
Two dozen people hung around the loft, some sat on the couch and sofa watching television and drinking. A few were at the dinner table rolling a joint and a couple were out on the balcony smoking cigarettes. Brandon looked through his bookshelves trying to find a book he had on the tip of his tongue for Elaine. In the kitchen, Kristen stood with Kao and Andy.
“What can I do? I’ve been bartending for almost fifteen years now,” Kristen said.
“I thought you were going to school,” Andy asked.
“I just started up again. I don’t even have my AA.”
“Can I ask you something?” Kao asked.
Kristen nodded and took a drag of her cigarette. The excess smoke pour out of her mouth and masked her face.
“Do you enjoy bartending?”
“Yes,” Kristen said. “But, I feel like I need to do something…”
“Something fulfilling?” Andy asked with a smirk.
“I don’t even know. You guys are going to make me cry.”
“No, no, don’t take it like that,” Kao said. “What do you do for fun or what do you enjoy?”
“I don’t even know. Cooking, traveling.”
“Cook on a private jet,” Andy said.
“How often do you cook?” Kao asked.
Kristen made at least a half dozen different meals each week ranging from Thai cuisine to Basque recipes. Kao asked if she wanted to see how some of the kitchens worked in his restaurants.
“That’ll be great,” she said.