Welcome to Great Falls – A Serial Novel – Parts 1-16

For anyone who didn’t start reading from the beginning, I created this file so you wouldn’t have to navigate from post to post to read in chronological order. As the title of the post indicates, these are parts one through sixteen. Just a warning though, there about 16,000 words in this document.

Once again, thank you for reading.

Mister Saechao

October 16, 2014, Thursday

Brandon Fair kept his car a few seconds behind the small U-Haul truck his father drove as they entered the city limits of Great Falls. He promised himself he would never return to his hometown, but the more he heard about his mother’s cancer the more he felt he needed to be around. Besides, it would give him a chance to finish his Great American Novel, and it wasn’t as if he was doing anything particularly productive in Portland. After finishing his literature degree at UC-Santa Cruz, he moved up to Portland to “get life experiences.” He ended up bartending and hanging out in bars, and he fashioned himself as a modern day Bukowski or Hemingway but without writing anything beyond a few sketches and short stories.

As Mr. Fair turned left on R Street and headed north to their home, Brandon continued downtown to see if there were any changes. His last visited almost two years ago for Christmas but was bedridden by the flu and didn’t leave his parents’ house except to get firewood from the back patio. He didn’t have enough of a connection with the town to recognize any new businesses nor miss any old ones that had closed.

Early on a Thursday night, the streets were bare as Brandon expected, and he wondered if renting the downtown loft would be a mistake. But, he remembered growing up in Great Falls and his parents’ house being too far to walk to any other part of town, and after living in Santa Cruz and Portland, he got into the habit of walking for nearly an hour each evening and he always appreciated it more if he had an actual destination.

He parked his car in front of a pool hall and walked down the block to The Revisionist, whose orange neon sign advertised “Cocktails and Dancing” but the music spilling out the front door was punk rock. It was dimly lit with ceiling fans and a long rail bar made out of a lacquered wood slab, and the area behind the bar sat almost two feet lower than the rest of the place, so if you were standing and the music was too loud, you would have to lean for the bartender to hear your order.

At the far end, a half dozen patrons watched a baseball game with anticipation. A sports bar this was not. Brandon drank there years ago but didn’t recognize the bartender, who wore black and had tattoos on her forearms.

“What can I get ya?” she asked before he had a chance to survey the beer list on an old chalk board.

“What do you have on tap?”

She side-stepped and waved to the taps behind her. “I’ve got these and ten more down at the other end. What are you looking for?”

“I’ll do the Firestone Union Jack.”

“Good call,” she said before bending down to get a pint glass from the fridge.

Brandon looked up at the TV and saw a ball float into right field just beyond the red Levi’s logo, and the guys at the end of the bar whooped and jumped out of their seats. Brandon wasn’t a big fan of baseball but smiled at the dramatic ending.

Brandon checked Facebook and his last status update–Goodbye, Portland. We will meet again…–had several likes and a few questions from friends asking where he was going, which were answered by other friends who already knew. He posted a new status, “Back in Great Falls. Who wants to help me move into the apartment tomorrow?”

His phone rang. It was his mother. “Where are you? Dinner’s getting cold.”

“Oh, I didn’t know you were cooking.” Brandon got up and went outside.

“Where are you? Are you in a bar?”

“Yes. I stopped to have a drink. It was a long drive.”

“Well, get home soon. I made roast chicken and potatoes.”

Brandon lit a cigarette after finishing the conversation with his mother. He looked across the street at another bar with neon beer signs in its windows. It was surrounded by a Starbucks, a movie theater and a few different eateries.

“Got a light?” the bartender asked. She had wild black hair and introduced herself as Kristen.

“I’m Brandon. You’re taller than I expected.” In better lighting, she was also prettier than he initially thought.

“Optical illusion. Uneven floors.”

“True. What’s going on here tonight?”

“Thursdays we have a deejay come in around 10. You new in town?”

“I grew up here but just moving back.”

Brandon ate at the kitchen table while his mother hovered with a glass of wine. She checked the drawers and cupboards, moving a glass or plate from here to there.

“I just don’t know why you don’t want to live with us,” Mrs. Fair said. “With both you and Lizzie gone, the house always feels empty.”

“Ma, Lizzie lives around the corner.”

“It’s at least ten minutes, and it’s not the same.”

“You can drive to her house in less than two minutes,” Brandon says. “And, really, you don’t want me living with you guys.”

“Well, if you ever get lonely, you always have a place here.”

“I know, Ma.”

Brandon received a text message from Dennis Jordan, a high school friend, “Just saw you’re in town. Having a drink at The Cantina. First one’s on me.”

The Cantina was full but not crowded and brightly lit. Brandon found Dennis at the bar sitting between a white-haired gentleman and a younger Mexican woman with round eyes and a heart-shaped face. A few Giants fans celebrated the trip to the World Series with toasts and screams of “Ishikawa!”

“Welcome back to Great Falls!” Dennis said. “This is Bob and Vanessa.”

Bob offered his seat, but Brandon declined and told him he had been driving all day and didn’t mind standing at all. Dennis ordered a round of whiskey, and they toasted Brandon’s return.

“I’m going to need a cigarette after that,” Brandon said as the whiskey hung in his throat and nasal cavity.

Vanessa Silva and Dennis smoked with him outside.

“Thank God it has finally cooled down,” Dennis said.

“Long summer?”

“It was still 90 degrees last week.”

“So what are you going to do while you’re in town?” Vanessa asked.

“I’m moving into my apartment tomorrow, and I’ll figure it out from there.” Brandon looked at Dennis. “By the way, are you going to help me move tomorrow?”

“No can do. I’m sleeping in tomorrow,” Dennis said.

“I can help you tomorrow,” Vanessa said.

October 17, 2014, Friday

Dennis was hungover but he dragged himself out of bed and walked into the bathroom for a shower. The countertop had the bare essentials of a young single guy living alone: tooth brush, toothpaste, deodorant, comb, razor, shaving cream, etc. It used to be cluttered with hair and skin product and various cosmetics, but when his fiancée left him he went through the house and got rid of anything non-essential. He gave away the potted plants and threw away any clothes he hadn’t worn within the previous year.

While drunk the previous night, he changed his mind and agreed to help Brandon with moving. He even volunteered to bring breakfast. Besides, it would give him a chance to be around Vanessa, who he had been pursuing for half a year.

Dennis arrived at the loft as Brandon and his father pulled a box spring from the U-Haul. There were still a dozen or so items–sofa, loveseat, bookshelves–that would probably need at least two people to move. Most of Brandon’s belongings were books. Boxes and boxes of books. It was why the U-Haul had such a hard time on the highway. Though Brandon didn’t write much in Portland, he certainly read his fair share, and outside of his work and drinking, he spent plenty of time browsing at Powell’s Books and his local Goodwill as well.

Dennis lifted the bag of breakfast burritos as he got out of his Chrysler 300.

“Breakfast!” Vanessa screamed from the stairs. “You remembered.”

“I also brought some Gatorade in case any of you want any,” Dennis said.

“You don’t remember the rest of us just drinking water the last hour or so last night?” Vanessa asked.

“That’s right.”

“The stairs are awesome. I’m getting in my workout for the day.” She jogged in place. “One more box and I’ll have one of those burritos.”

“Bacon and eggs. Have one before they’re cold.”

The front door of the loft led to a hallway with a bathroom to the left and the pantry and utility closet to the right. In the rectangular living area, the kitchen was to the left in the near corner and the balcony directly ahead. The stairs ran along the left wall over the kitchen area to the mezzanine level, which had a large walk-in closet and another bathroom.

The bed and dresser were up on the mezzanine, but the rest of Brandon’s belongings were in the middle of the main floor.

“This is a cold space,” Mr. Fair said while looking at the gray concrete floor. “At least it’ll be easy to keep clean.”

“Note to self, I need to get a broom,” Brandon said. “Let me buy you all lunch.”

Brandon looked around the room and imagined where he would put his work desk, TV stand and bookshelves.

McNally’s Tavern had a square bar and at least two TVs on each of its walls. Most of the people in the bar had left work early, and Casual Fridays in this town meant jeans and just about any shirt without any holes or foul language. Brandon and Vanessa sat at one of the bar’s corners while waiting for Dennis.

“Have you thought about how you want to set up the room, yet?” Vanessa asked.

“I generally like to have my desk near a window, so I’ll probably have that near the balcony, but I haven’t given it much thought.”

Vanessa had aspirations to be an interior designer, but early in college she became a workout fanatic and developed an infatuation with nutrition. She worked at the local gym as a personal trainer while debating whether she wanted to go to graduate school or the military.

“Dennis!” everyone in the bar cheered when he finally showed up.

He blushed and waved before walking to a group of three men in their early forties, two of whom wore suits. One of the suited men was James Robinson, an extremely tall black man who owned the real estate agency where Dennis worked. James congratulated Dennis for a deal that closed earlier in the day and slapped him on the back. The other suited man was an Asian named Kao Saeteurn, a local businessman and retired basketball player who also owned McNally’s Tavern. Andy Johnson was the third man, and he looked like he just got out of bed. Dennis wasn’t short by any means, but the two men in suits dwarfed him.

Dennis nodded at Linda Marshall, the curvy bartender, and she poured him Stolichnaya on the rocks with a lime slice.

“Well, aren’t you the popular one?” Vanessa said when Dennis walked over.

“Great month at work! I should be buying you guys drinks.”

“I never thought you’d be doing sales,” Brandon said.

“Me neither, but not all of us get to go to college.”

“I was an English Major.”

Kao joined them and introduced himself to Brandon and Vanessa, but they already knew who he was. “I hear you might be looking to bartend,” he said to Brandon.

“I’m just looking for anything.”

“I don’t know if we have anything open at the moment, but if you call my general manager, she’ll keep you in mind. Her name is Amy. Just say I gave you her number.” He took a pen out of his jacket and wrote Amy McCoy’s phone number on a cocktail napkin. “By the way, welcome to the neighborhood.”

Brandon looked puzzled.

“We’re neighbors,” Kao said. “I saw you moving in this morning with your father. He’s our optometrist.”

“You live in the lofts?”

“No, but I keep a place and stay there once or twice a month.”

Kao waved to Linda and asked to close his tab so he could make it to the high school football game where his son was the starting quarterback.

“You owe nothing!” the bartender said.

“Seriously, you have to ring me up. For accounting’s sake.”

“If you want to pay for drinks in your own bar you better walk your ass back here.”

“Fine!” Kao started his way around the bar.

“Okay, okay, okay. You bought one for yourself, a round for those three and a round for those two.” She looked to the ceiling. “Thirty-three dollars.”

“Hmm, let me get another round for James and Andy over there and one for these guys over here.”

“Sixty-three dollars, sir!”

Kao left eighty dollars for the bill.

“Thank you,” Brandon said.

“No problem. You should try Hector’s rib eye if you get a chance.”

As if on cue, Hector Lopez rang his bell and announced, “Rib eye! Medium!”

Later in the evening, Brandon and Vanessa stumbled down the street arm in arm as they tried to keep up with Dennis. He led them to The Alley, which had an outdoor seating area where Brandon’s balcony was visible across the street. Inside, there were balloons and a deejay playing to a small birthday party.

“I have this urge to move furniture around,” Brandon said.

“Really?”

“Whenever I get restless, I want to do laundry or rearrange furniture.”

“We should get some drinks and do that.”

“You sure you can handle that much excitement on a Friday night?”

“Shit. You know it.”

“Let’s find Dennis.”

“He’s sucking face with some girl at the bar,” Vanessa said. “Besides, we can handle this by ourselves.”

“Shit, I have nothing to drink in the apartment.”

Vanessa called a cab to take them to the liquor store, where she bought a twelve-pack of Bud Light and a bottle of Jameson.

Back at the loft, it didn’t take long for Vanessa to figure out what best to do with the furniture. Not more than half an hour later, they started to arrange Brandon’s books on the shelves, which took longer than expected. He organized the books in reverse chronological order from when he finished him. The first five books were ones he hadn’t read: The Bourne Identity, Dracula, Choke, Underworld and Sabbath’s Theater.

“If you look in the front cover you’ll see the start and end dates,” Brandon said.

“It’s getting hot in here.” Vanessa took off her shirt and revealed a white tank top. “I can’t believe you’ve read all these books.”

“Most of them more than once. If you can just sort them as best you can, that’ll be great. I’m going to double check anyway.”

“So for the ones you’ve read more than once…”

“First time, please.” Brandon looked at the bookcase he completed while only having to look in the covers of two books. “You’re right. It is hot in here.”

He grabbed two beers from the fridge and his cigarettes off the black coffee table.

“You know, it’s been a while, but I’m going to have one of those with you,” Vanessa said.

They went on the balcony and looked at the patio of The Alley. The crowd thinned out.

Brandon turned toward Vanessa and they smiled at each other. He leaned forward.

“Wait, what are you doing?” she asked.

“Nothing, why?”

“Dennis told you I’m a lesbian… riiight?”

“What? Why would he?”

“He told me he told you last night.”

“No, he didn’t. I’m so sorry.”

“Look, if I wasn’t a lesbian, I would totally go for you.”

“Yeah, that’s what all the lesbians say.”

She laughed hysterically.

“I’m so embarrassed,” Brandon said.

“Don’t be. I’d hit on me, too.”

“I need some Jameson.”

October 18, 2014, Saturday

Vanessa sat up on the couch and wiped the dried rheum from the corners of her eyes. She looked around the loft with satisfaction and pulled open the balcony’s thick blue curtains.

“Too much light!” Brandon yelled from the mezzanine.

“It’s almost ten o’clock.”

She stepped onto the balcony and her throat got drier just from seeing the cigarette butts in the gas grill. Vanessa grabbed the empty beer bottles and took them to the kitchen to rinse.

Brandon and Vanessa walked a few blocks to the Downtown Café and arrived just after the morning rush. The tables were still full, but most of the customers had finished their meals and were just having coffee and conversation.  They took seats at the counter.

“I’m really sorry about last night,” Brandon said.

“Seriously. Don’t worry about,” Vanessa insisted. “But, I do have a way of getting back at Dennis.”

Dennis lay on the weight bench and did ten reps of 205 pounds. On the last repetition, Vanessa held her hands under the barbell just in case he needed help. He didn’t.

“I still can’t believe you guys ditched me,” he said.

“From what I saw, you wanted us to ditch you.”

“Everything was going fine until she disappeared to the bathroom while we were waiting for a cab, and the next thing I know, her friends are carrying her out the bar.”

“You roofied her?”

“Shut it,” Dennis said. “And you disappeared to move furniture with Brandon?”

Vanessa smiled mischievously as they moved through the crowded gym to the leg press machines.

“Wait!” Dennis said. “No! No, you didn’t?”

“I’m not saying anything happened, but if it did, it wasn’t very good.”

“So you’re not coming back to the light?”

“Not for him, that’s for sure.”

“Too small?”

“No, if anything… I’m not talking about this anymore. Put two forty-fives on your side, sir.”

Vanessa contorted her body into the proper position and did twenty leg presses easily. She ran the 1600 meters in high school and always had strong legs, but she hated the hard workouts. Besides, she wasn’t looking to bulk up.

“God, I barely remember anything,” Vanessa said. “We damn near drank the whole bottle of Jameson. Yeah, I definitely blame it on the Jameson. Do you want a ride to your car later?”

“No, I think I’m going to jog. Get tired of these treadmills after a while. Besides, the weather’s perfect for a nice run.”

“Good, get out of here because you reek of booze.”

“You don’t even drink Jameson.”

“Well, apparently I did last night.”

Brandon pushed his shopping cart through the produce section and glanced at the list on his phone. It not only reminded him of what he needed, it prevented him from buying too many things that could spoil, especially fruit. He was always mesmerized by the way the fruits gleamed under the bright lights. Yes, he was a merchandiser’s dream, but his list restricted him to half a dozen bananas and a combination of six apples or oranges. He grabbed a bag of red potatoes and headed to the meat section, where he selected a whole chicken, three T-bone steaks and a pound of thick bacon.

In the liquor aisle, he put bottles of vodka, scotch, bourbon, rye, gin and cognac into the cart.

“Am I getting an invite to the party?” Kristen Ferguson asked. Her wild black hair was tucked under a blue Golden State Warriors hat.

“You haven’t RSVPed?” Brandon responded.

She laughed. “I’m just kidding. Gotta work tonight anyway.”

“There’s always the after party.”

“Yeah?”

“Well, no, just shopping to fill up the apartment.”

“Cool. You live around here?”

“Actually, I’m down the block from The Revisionist.”

Kristen was thirty-five years old but looked much younger. It must have been from her mother, who was carded even for cigarettes until she was almost fifty years old.

“Well, I will be there all night if you get bored.”

Dennis kept a seven minute pace, and even with the traffic lights and his mind wondering if Vanessa actually slept with Brandon, he reached Brandon’s loft in less than fifteen minutes. He checked his car, and it was untouched from the previous night.

Brandon answered the door with a glass of Jameson in hand. “Hey, come on in.”

“Got any water?” Dennis asked.

“Did you run here? I think there’s still Gatorade from yesterday. Kao and I are just watching the street fair from the balcony.”

Dennis looked at the counter and saw a bottle of Jameson that was still three-quarters full. He felt relieved and didn’t say anything. It was the same bottle from the previous night, but after he left the gym, Vanessa called Brandon to fill him in on the conversation. Coincidentally, Kao had just stopped by with a bottle of Jameson as a welcome gift, and Brandon put that new bottle in a cabinet above the fridge. Otherwise, he would have done the same with the other.

They went out to the balcony.

“I have to run,” Kao said. “But if you guys want to play, there’s going to be some cards next door tonight.”

“Five-ten no-limit is too rich for my blood,” Brandon said. “Hey, thanks again for the Jameson.”

“Welcome to the neighborhood. I’ll let myself out.”

Dennis chugged his Gatorade and took a deep breath.

“Heard you found a lady last night?” Brandon asked.

“Oh, god, I don’t even want to talk about that,” Dennis said. “Just came from a workout with Vanessa.”

“Nice, how’s she doing?”

“Did I ever tell you she’s a lesbian?”

“No, why?”

“Well, she is.”

“Are you sure?”

“Look, she already told me about last night.”

Brandon smiled. “Yeah, what did she say?”

“That you weren’t any good.”

“What? That’s bullshit.”

Dennis started laughing. “Yeah, apparently, you failed to convert her.”

“Convert her?”

“Make her straight again.”

“Oh, Jesus. I didn’t even think of it that way.” Brandon paused. “I just wanted to christen the loft.”

“Christen the loft? That’s terrible,” Dennis said.

“Wait, are you in love with her?”

“No, I’m not. Well, I don’t know.”

Brandon debated telling his friend the ruse because he didn’t like being cruel, but he also knew Dennis wasn’t in love with Vanessa, so he said, “If we’re going to be friends, you can’t go falling in love with my sloppy seconds. Besides, you’re the one who ditched her to make out with Lucy Lush.”

Kao’s loft was decorated more like an office than a living space, but this night the furniture was pushed to the side to accommodate two poker tables. One table had $5-$10 no-limit Texas Hold ‘em and the other hosted a $20-$40 limit Texas Hold ‘em game. Most of the players were local businessmen in their forties and fifties and looking to just blow off steam, and they all chatted with little inhibition one is prone to do with longtime friends.

Brandon watched the tables from a distance but wasn’t impressed. He played a bit when he was in high school and college, mainly on-line but he logged some time on live tables as well. Right away he saw almost all of the guys playing too wide a range of hands and without enough aggression. Too many hands went to a showdown. When Brandon went to smoke on the balcony, Kao joined him.

“I’ll stake you if you want to play,” Kao said as he pulled a cigarette out of its box.

“No, it’s been too long since I last played.”

“Like riding a bike.”

“Why don’t you play?”

“I will later or if they need an extra body. Besides, I want these guys to have fun and get into their rhythms.”

“Patterns?” Brandon asked.

Kao smiled and lifted his glass for a toast.

They walked down the block to The Revisionist, and Kao commented on how dead it was for a Saturday night. Most of the bars were at half capacity because of mid-terms and there was also a stabbing the previous weekend that was all over the local paper. At the door, the bouncer nodded at Kao and let the two in while checking the IDs of a group of girls.  The speakers pumped nondescript dance music with a repetitive beat to a few dozen people dancing in front of the deejay’s stage.

“Well, you sure meet everyone fast,” Kristen said when she saw Brandon with Kao.

“Just wanted to make sure you’re coming to the after party,” Brandon said.

“You said you weren’t having one so I made other plans.”

She poured Bombay Sapphire on ice with a slice of lime and put it in front of Kao.

“What are you having?” she asked Brandon.

“Same.”

October 19, 2014, Sunday

Upon waking, Brandon reached for the small spiral notebook on his nightstand and pulled the pen from the coil. He always had a couple around to jot down any ideas or dialogue that came to mind. Most of the ideas were crap and some became redundant, but he liked playing it safe just so he wouldn’t miss out on anything, and it also gave him the impression of being productive.

He rolled over on his stomach and wrote down the basic premise for a time travel story, where a man was selected to be part of an experiment because he was receptive to thoughts sent from the future while he slept. Once Brandon’s mind went blank, he walked down to the living area and opened his laptop on the coffee table to transcribe the notes. He was a firm believer in writing upon waking when the head was still clear from sleep.

Brandon lit a cigarette and imagined what it would look like if someone took a picture of him from the mezzanine. The smoke rising, the faceless writer hunched over his work. He snickered and went out on the balcony to finish his cigarette. The street was empty except the sidewalk seating for the Downtown Café a block-and-a-half west of his loft. He smelled coffee from the Starbucks east of him.

Brandon took the blue Maxwell House tin from the top of the fridge and scooped a few tablespoons into the coffee filter. A few more mornings and he would have a new patio ash tray. He cooked four strips of bacon in a cast iron skillet and scrambled three eggs in the leftover grease. He reviewed his notes while eating.

Elaine Goodwin had at least a dozen flower tattoos, ranging from the stargazer lilies rising from her right hip to the middle of her back to the blue irises on her left shoulder blade. However, most of them were covered by her workout pants and t-shirt.

She jogged on a treadmill next to Vanessa, who was technically her trainer for the workout. They met each other in middle school but weren’t particularly close until Vanessa started working at the gym. It was the only thing they really had in common. While Vanessa liked going out with her friends, Elaine preferred sitting in front of a computer with one of her role-playing games or reading in bed, particularly thrillers and murder mysteries. She saw enough people as a cashier at the supermarket.

“I met someone new,” Vanessa said.

“Really? Who?”

“This guy.”

“Guy?”

“Actually, I want you to meet him. I think you’ll really like him.”

“No, I’m not doing this again. You realize you have terrible taste in men, right?”

“Because I’m a lesbian?!” Vanessa shouted.

The girls continued jogging as if nothing happened while the other members looked toward them unable to decide how to react.

“Tell me again what you want in a guy,” Vanessa said.

“Smart—”

“Nice, funny, interesting, blah… blah… derr… derr… blah. How about a guy who plays video games?”

“No, definitely not one of those.”

“Well, I didn’t see an Xbox in his apartment.”

Brandon leaned on the kitchen counter and watched his mother chop green onions for a salad. Mrs. Fair lost some weight over the last couple years but was still radiant and upbeat. Cancer was the most effective diet I’ve ever been on. Brandon regretted not being around for the surgery, but his mother insisted he stay away. He was quite squeamish and turned pale each time he walked into a hospital or saw needles piercing skin.

“Stop standing there. You’re freaking me out,” Mrs. Fair said and shot him a look.

“I’m just glad you’re doing okay.”

“You think I would ever die without you around?”

Brandon didn’t say anything.

“I’m kidding. Jesus, you’re just like your father.”

They looked out the kitchen window. Mr. Fair fiddled with the gas grill’s knobs while checking the thermometer on the cover.

“He does know that reading is never accurate, right?” Brandon asked.

“I’m not having that conversation with him again.”

“He does all that and I know he’ll take the tri-tip off after an hour.”

“How do you figure?”

“He does sixteen minutes a pound, and I saw the label in the trash.”

Lizzie walked in with a bottle of wine and went straight for the corker. She looked like a 28-year-old version of her mother. Light brown hair, tall, graceful.

“I thought you were never coming back?” she said to Brandon.

“I wasn’t planning on it, Nurse Lizzie, but then I missed you sooo much.”

“Come here.” Lizzie wrapped her arms around her younger brother and pretended to lift him. “Putting some weight on, aren’t you?”

“I weigh—”.

“I’m kidding. You look great. Ma says she wants you to have grandkids.”

“I said no such thing, Lizzie,” Mrs. Fair said.

“Don’t use the expired condoms in your room. She poked holes in them,” Lizzie said.

“I’m going to smoke a cigarette. I hear it lowers your sperm count,” Brandon said while leaving the kitchen.

The Fairs sat in the living room with quiet disappointment. It wasn’t even halftime and Peyton Manning had already thrown three touchdowns, but more importantly, the 49ers were down by eighteen points.

“The tri-tip was excellent, Dad,” Lizzie said.

“Thanks. Well, let’s hope the Broncos cover,” Mr. Fair responded.

“You bet against the Niners?”

“I thought they were going to lose pretty handily.” Mr. Fair played quarterback in high school and college and watched it as more of an analyst than fan.

“Oh, well.” Lizzie turned to Brandon. “Have you been writing?”

“Started a new project this morning.”

“Will you actually finish this project, or will you be too busy bartending?” Lizzie asked.

Mrs. Fair looked up from grading mid-term papers for her junior English classes.

Mr. Fair said, “Brandon, when I was your age—”

“You were still in grad school,” Brandon said. Everyone laughed except Mr. Fair.

“Wait, how old are you?”

The room went silent.

“I’m kidding. You’re turning twenty-six next month.”

“Well, I’d like to read the story when you’re finished,” Mrs. Fair said.

Brandon’s phone beeped. It was a text message from Vanessa asking him to meet her at The Cantina.

The Cantina was filled with solemn people in red 49ers jerseys and two Broncos fans who were buying drinks with their winnings.

Brandon saw Elaine through The Cantina’s windows while he and Lizzie waited for the bouncer to check their driver’s licenses. She had ridiculously over-the-top curls and a puke green-shirt, but he was fascinated by her face. She looked like no one he had ever seen but yet familiar.

“Sloppy seconds, huh?” Vanessa said to Brandon before introductions could be made.

Brandon froze until Vanessa and Elaine started laughing. He left them and his sister to get drinks from the bar.

“All the guys in the bar are pissed because the Niners lost, but even more so because you’re with the three hottest chicks in the place,” the bartender Josh Walters said.

“Hah! One of them is my sister.”

“Sorry, my bad. What are you having?”

“I need a shot for now. You want one?”

“Sure, I’ll have one.”

“Shot of Jameson for me and whatever you’re having,” Brandon said.

Sunday was service industry night and as the football fans thinned out, the place got rowdier with people who worked the bars and restaurants. Dennis joined the group and vied with Vanessa for Lizzie’s attention. Elaine and Brandon engaged in small talk.

“I really like what you did with your hair,” Brandon said while nodding and holding his laughter.

“Oh, you do?” Elaine responded. “It’s natural, of course.”

“Is it from your mother or father?”

“Grandmother on my dad’s side. It skips a generation.”

“You know, if I ask you more questions than you ask me, it almost guarantees you’ll like me more.”

“But I’ll only ever ask questions of you if I actually like you.”

Brandon nodded, and Elaine drank the rest of her Maker’s Mark.

“Hey, thank you for the drink. Can I buy you one?” Elaine asked. “You know, so we’re even.”

October 20, 2014, Monday

Brandon called Amy McCoy at noon and was asked to meet her at McNally’s in two hours. He loaded his printer with nice heavy stock for his resume, which consisted of his educational background and his experience at two Portland bars. He made a second pot of coffee and thought of witty lines to explain his situation but came up blank. He brushed his teeth, washed his hands twice and at a quarter to two he walked out of the loft wearing a black wool suit and blue Royal Oxford shirt and silk tie. It was an outfit his last girlfriend picked out so they could attend a wedding.

Amy sat at one of the bar’s corners with a clipboard and her second glass of rye. She had just called in the week’s order to the distributor. Her reddish blond hair was pulled up in a bun and little white wisps flared out from the nape of her neck.

“You don’t plan on working in a suit, do you?” she asked

“I could if you need me to.”

She laughed. “What are you drinking?”

“I’m okay, but thank you.”

“Rule number one, always say yes when a woman asks if she can buy you a drink.”

“Okay. Jameson on rocks.”

Amy ordered the drink, and Brandon took his resume out of a leather portfolio.

“You even brought a resume.”

“Who doesn’t bring a resume?”

“Look, I know you can bartend. I just have a few questions I need answered, but I don’t want to interrogate you, either, so we’re going to hang out for a while if you’re okay with that.”

They went outside and smoked cigarettes, picked classic rock and 80s pop on the jukebox and split an order of hot wings.

“Three things you never talk about in a bar?” Amy asked.

“Religion, politics and music.”

“Music?”

“Fanatics and zealots.”

“Do you want to work days or nights?”

“I prefer days but don’t mind either.”

Amy waved over George Franklin. He was the head bartender, a large man with a large brown beard and friendly disposition.

“George is going to train you a couple days this week unless you’re busy. The register is a touchscreen and pretty self-explanatory, but I’m sure there are some quirks.”

“Sounds like a plan.”

“We don’t currently have any openings, but you’ll be on call and hopefully be available to cover.”

Mrs. Fair walked around the class room with a box of sandwiches. Peanut butter and raspberry jam or turkey and pepper jack cheese. It was the weekly lunch meeting for the College Prep Club, and almost all the juniors and seniors preferred the turkey because it was more sophisticated by their estimation. Besides the underclassmen, the only student who regularly had the other sandwich was Saan Saeteurn, and he usually had two or three of them. He was president of the club for the second year running and also the school’s star quarterback. Saan’s older half-brother chartered the club a few years ago and when he graduated, the club members naturally voted for him, and it seemed prescient when the club figured out his SAT scores from the previous spring and dubbed him “Mr. Perfect”.

Saan spent most of the lunch period going over different thought processes for how to find the answers for tough verbal analogies and word problems, but when he was done he spent the rest of the time talking with the underclassmen about their various interests and the different paths they might take to do something they would enjoy. However, Mrs. Fair knew the kid had no idea what he wanted to do himself. She remembered a conversation they had the previous year when he was her student and asked for help on an essay that was already better than you could hope for from someone his age.

“Aren’t you going to play football or basketball in college?” she asked as she looked over the paper.

“If I’m good enough.”

“Saan, all those schools are giving you scholarships to do just that.”

“But what if I get there and I’m not good enough.”

“Well, what do you like to do? Besides football and basketball.”

He thought about it for a while. “I don’t know. I like to compete.”

“You’re still young, and that’s exactly what college is for. I have no doubt you’ll find your calling.”

“But I’d rather find it now than later,” he said with a look of desperation.

“It’ll be soon enough.” She put a hand on his shoulders.

When she had her surgery and chemotherapy that winter, he brought her flowers and get well cards signed by her students and the kids in the club. And even though she never wished to have Brandon replaced, she was overwhelmed by guilt the moment she imagined Saan was her son.

October 21, 2014, Tuesday

Mornings were the toughest because Saan never slept enough and caffeine had little effect on him. To keep awake, he chose a seat in the front row but even that couldn’t prevent him from sitting bent over with his head in his arms. Luckily, Mr. Beasley understood and didn’t give him too hard of a time. It wasn’t as if he skipped assignments or played hooky, so aside from looking like a mope, he wasn’t doing much to disrupt the class.

“Saan, can I talk to you for a minute?” Mr. Beasley asked when the bell rang.

“Yes. I’m sorry. I’m just really tired.”

“Maybe this isn’t my place, but have you gone to the doctor lately?”

“I have and everything is fine.”

“Not mono.”

“Oh, god no,” Saan said. “Sorry.”

“It’s okay. Have you thought about scaling down your extracurricular activities?”

“The problem I have is if I’m not tired enough I’ll just be in bed wide awake with my mind racing,” Saan said.

“What do you think of during those times?”

“Nothing. Just the normal stuff. I’ll be okay. I’ll just have to figure out a way to get to sleep sooner.”

By lunchtime he was wide awake and sitting with his teammates at a table in the school’s square. He picked at the grilled chicken salad his mother packed for him but he had no appetite. He felt empty yet his body felt like it was pulling in on itself. But, he knew he needed to eat to have enough energy for practice so he shoveled the salad without tasting anything and gobbled the tuna sandwich and two bananas as well.

Brandon’s eyes blurred from staring at the laptop, each word came out slower than the next. He grabbed his copy of Choke from the bookshelf because it was the thinnest of the five unread books and headed out the door with no specific destination.

He walked aimlessly looking at storefronts in the downtown area. Besides the Starbucks and movie theater, just about everything was a mom and pop shop. There were a handful of barbers and hair stylists, a few dozen restaurants and bars, an Asian food market and even a couple music stores.

Brandon stumbled into Sally’s Books. “New and maybe passed around books.” He went to Tom the cashier to show him the book he walked in with.

“You can leave it with me or lug it around the store with you.”

Brandon opted for the former.

“If you’re looking for anything specific, please let me know,” Tom said.

“I’ll just browse for a while.”

It was impossible to explain why some of the books were in their specific sections, yet, there was a huge selection of books under “Miscellany.”

Brandon tripped over Elaine while he was staring at a large leather bound Steinbeck anthology sitting on top of a bookcase. He tumbled and fell to the ground in a heap. She shrieked and almost ripped apart Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.

“I told you not to sit on the ground,” Tom said from the cash register.

She accepted his apology and offer of coffee as well.

They sat outside Rubia’s. She with a latte and he with a double Americano. Unlike the other night, her hair was curly but relatively normal, and she wore a ribbed sweater with tattered sleeves.

“I still can’t believe you made me buy back my own copy of this book,” Elaine said.

“At least he sold it to you for what they bought it from you for.”

Elaine doesn’t keep books. Once she finished something she would announce it on Facebook and offer it to her friend. If she didn’t get any takers within a couple of days, she would sell it to the second hand store. Sometimes, it was a book she bought from there, and after a while, they just let her make trades.

“There’s also this thing called a library, where they’re free,” Elaine said as she picked up her mug.

“Look, when I want to read East of Eden, I want it right away.”

“No one really wants to read East of Eden.”

“Have you read East of Eden?”

“What if I haven’t?”

“Would you like to borrow East of Eden?” Brandon asked.

Back in the loft, Elaine stared at his bookcases and shook her head. She didn’t believe he could find any of his books.

“Where’s Moby Dick?”

“Never read it. Don’t have a copy.”

Pride and Prejudice?”

“Summer before senior year of high school, so it’s down toward the beginning.”

After dinner, Saan saw the Giants were up 7-0 in game one of the World Series and went to practiced jump shots in the backyard with his youngest siblings, who were both adopted. Thirteen-year-old Francesca was white and eleven-year-old Dexter was black. He also had an older half-brother, Cheng, 20, who was in his second year in the NBA and two sisters, Isabelle, 16, and Carmen, 15.

Saan smiled at the memory of a then nine-year-old Dexter explaining adoption to Francesca. Just because you’re both white doesn’t mean mom’s your mom mom. They were good kids. Bright and considerate and happy.

At 8:30 their mother, Erica, came to the court to corral the two young ones for baths and bedtime. She stood slanted with hands on her hips. When the ball bounced to her, she heaved it toward the basket and missed everything. Her children serenaded her, “Airballll! Airballll!” Dexter threw her the ball and she missed again to the children’s delight.

“Don’t stay up too late, honey,” she said.

“Just going into the batting cage for a while. Goodnight, mom.”

Later that night, he filched a bottle of Jack Daniel’s from the pantry and snuck it to his room. He took three big swigs before hiding the bottle in an old shoe box in his closet that held old medals and ribbons from elementary and middle school. He chewed on an Altoid while staring at the ceiling fan and waited, but he started thinking about upcoming tests and papers… his teammates who had a hard time reading… Jenna in physics class with the limp… Mrs. Fair and her cancer… Dexter having to explain his white mother and Asian father… the player from St. Mary’s calling him a dirty chink after sacking him… if Mary actually liked him.

He went to the closet and took three more swigs.

October 22, 2014, Wednesday

Saan woke up with a clear head and went to the bathroom to brush his teeth. He could smell the alcohol on his breath.

He smelled eggs and chorizo in the kitchen when he walked to the gym to join Kao, who was already on the treadmill. His father smiled at him and nodded to the bench press.

His father’s rules included his son having to lift more than the linemen, which used to be hard when he was a freshman but by the end of his junior year there were only two guys on the team who lifted more.

“How’s the team looking?” Kao asked.

“I really don’t know.” Saan lied down on the bench.

“That’s good.”

“How do you mean?”

“What’s the point if you already know the outcome, right?”

Saan explained that everyone was healthy and set to play on Friday, which was their homecoming game.

“Are you going to the homecoming dance?” Kao asked.

“Yeah, I’ll probably be home early though.”

“Why?”

“I need to catch up on some homework. Got some mid-terms coming up.”

“Look, these guys are easy to serve,” George said. “You cook before?”

“Yeah, just let me know how people want things,” Brandon said.

“Hector will show you. There’s some shit about this grill. Can’t figure it out to save my life.”

George gave a rundown on how the well drinks were set up and how to mess with the register in case of a mistake. “Look, you can give away drinks during the day at your discretion and not have to worry about it. Amy don’t give a shit about that. But if you do it at night, you better have a reason.”

“What’s Amy’s deal?”

George looked at Brandon with a weird look, and Brandon asked if she was related to Kao.

“Amy’s Andy’s wife. Andy and Kao are like family,” George said. “You don’t fuck with that.”

“What do you mean?”

“That’s my people. You don’t mess with them.”

Brandon took a step back and put his hands up.

“Look, don’t take it the wrong way. They’re family to me.”

“Okay.”

“Pour heavy and don’t ever have anyone ask for a double. If they do, you pour them a standard drink and ask if they want another one.”

Vanessa walked out the gym and watched Elaine do lunges on the curb.

“You think he’s gay?” Elaine asked.

“You going to keep on finding excuses?”

“His books and cooking and… His place just seems too organized.”

Elaine lied and said no when Vanessa asked if Brandon made her dinner.

October 23, 2014, Thursday

Dennis sat on the loveseat and played with the remote. He wore a decent wool suit but didn’t want to work that day. He flipped through the channels but mainly watched Brandon sitting at his desk reading articles on his computer.

“You don’t have cable?” Dennis asked.

“How do you not have cable? I need my ESPN.”

“I think the guy is coming tomorrow.”

Brandon poured a glass of wine, but he didn’t want to tell his friend about his ambivalence for sports and pop culture.

“Did I tell you about the house I’m showing?” Dennis asked.

“Aren’t they all the same?

“Yeah.”

Dennis changed his mind and decided not to tell Brandon this was the actual house he had planned on buying for him and his ex-fiancée, so he asked for a beer instead. “I have three families bidding on it, so I think it’s pretty much sold.”

“Should make for a nice commission,” Brandon said. “Fridge is open. You can get a beer yourself.”

Dennis remembered how he would have set up the nursery.

James and Andy watched Kao at the grill while they talked. He had his back to them. A bystander might be upset by the setting, since they were talking about business, but both of them knew he was paying more attention to them than to the steaks and mushrooms over the fire.

“Why do we still do this?” Andy asked.

“We don’t really have to,” Kao responded.

“Have has nothing to do with it,” James said.

“Look, this is the thing,” Kao said looking over at James. “We made promises a long time ago. Well, at least I did. But that was a long time ago. I’ll talk to him about what he wants to do. I think he kind of knows either he goes in completely with us or he keeps doing what he’s doing by himself.”

Tony Chao walked through the back door and the whole mood changed. He had a bottle of Hennessy and a carton of Newport. “Just for you, James.” He was not serious.

“Nigga, please!” James said.

Tony, who had more street cred than anyone at the table, put his phone on the table and it played some old Tupac song, “…you don’t want to fuck with me…”

And before anyone knew it, Tony dumped chicken feet from a white plastic bag onto the grill.

“Erica! I need the food processor!” Tony yelled. He planned on making a dipping sauce with Thai chili peppers, limes and cilantro.

Tony handed each of the men thick envelopes full of cash.

October 24, 2014, Friday

Brandon and Elaine got out of Gone Girl and both were unsatisfied. It probably wasn’t the best movie to see early in a relationship.

“Well, now, I’m not sure about you anymore,” Brandon said.

“Yeah, well, don’t go cheating on me with the girl from ‘Blurred Lines’.”

“I’m going home to make dinner,” Brandon said. “Would you like to join me?”

“What do you have?”

“I’m not sure. Didn’t know if I was cooking for just myself.”

Saan watched his teammates drinking around the bonfire, but he just wanted to leave. They were celebrating a big win, but he took little pleasure in it. He loved playing and being on the field, but the adrenaline was coming down. He thought about sidling up to one of the cheerleaders, but it wasn’t like him to make the first move, and he knew at least one of his parents would be home and awake. That was always the case when they weren’t out of town. He finished his beer and threw the red cup into the fire. He watched the plastic cut melt and thought about his father smoking a cigarette with a glass of scotch in hand. He wondered what the scene looked like from a distance. It seemed ridiculous after a few seconds. It wasn’t even midnight.

He was in his car when Jenny McCoy banged on his window. Her red hair glowed.

“I need a ride,” she said.

“Okay,” he said. Their families had been friends for years.

“Take me out to the lake, Homecoming King.”

He cringed and remembered being blinded by the spotlight during the dance.

Saan drove a to the north side of the lake and was surprised when there weren’t any cars on the road to the gated entrance.

“You smell like bad whiskey in the morning,” she said. He had been sneaking pulls from a flask of Jack all night.

Saan stopped walking.

“It’s nice out. Let’s go for a walk to the tower,” Jenny said.

“Nah, I’m going home.”

“Just hang out with me for a bit.”

“No. You don’t want anything to do with me.”

She stared at him but he kept his gaze at the locked gate.

“Don’t tell people about the whiskey,” he said.

She walked back toward him but he got in the driver’s seat.

“I’m sorry, I’m fucked up,” he said when she got in the car.

She hesitantly put her hand on his shoulder.

“Please don’t do that,” he said.

After a few minutes, he turned and apologized. “Look, you can crash in one of the guest rooms. I can’t drive all the way back into town. We can call your parents. It’ll be okay.”

“Are you serious?”

“I’m not fun to hang out with. Now you know. And you can tell all your friends.”

“I don’t get it,” Jenny said. “I just want to hang out with you.”

He thought for a while. “We can go out a ways from my house and start a fire.”

“Start a fire?”

He laughed. “No, literally start a fire. I know we just came from a bonfire, but it’s the starting part I like best.”

Saan drove to the edge of the property, and they walked to a clearing with a makeshift fire pit. He sent his parents a text message letting them know what he was doing and looked at Jenny nervously before asking her to find kindling. He found a branch and pushed the remnants of a previous fire to the side next to the stones.

“Is this what you do?” she asked.

He pretended not to hear her as he built a cone of small twigs over tinder.

When the fire started, they just stood there and looked and took turns putting larger branches into the flames.

“You do this a lot?” she asked.

“No, never.” It was true; his mother and father always started the fire while the children watched.

“So, why tonight?

“It’s you, I guess.” He pulled a bottle of whiskey out of his jacket and took a swig. “I’m sure you’ve heard all the stories about me.”

“I heard you’re a whore.”

He said nothing but took another drink and held the bottle out to her.

“Why the fuck are you here with me then?” he asked when she took a pull.

She nearly choked. “I thought you were different.”

“What does that mean?”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry. We’ve known each other a long time. Damn near grew up with each other, and all you know is I’m a whore?”

She took another draw off the bottle. “I don’t believe it. I see you in class and I worry about you.”

October 25, 2014, Saturday

Kao looked in on Saan only to see him snoring. The smell of whiskey and smoke in the room concerned him, but he also smiled at the thought of his younger days. Down the hallway light escaped a cracked door from one of the guest bedrooms.

He knocked lightly.

“Hi, it’s just me,” Jenny said.

“Do you want breakfast?” Kao whispered.

“Okay, Mr. Saeteurn,” she whispered back. “I’m not sure we put out the fire in the field. It was still smoldering last night.”

“It’ll be okay. Do you work out in the mornings?”

She laughed.

“I figured. How’s your dad?” Kao asked.

“Haven’t seen him since yesterday. You can come in.”

She was seated on the bed and putting on her shoes.

“I hope you know you can always crash here,” Kao said.

“I want to talk to you about something.”

“Thank you, Jenny. I have an idea. I’m glad he has friends like you.”

They walked to the kitchen. Jenny’s smile reminded him of Amy, her mother.

“If your dad doesn’t know you’re here, you should give him a call. Or, if you want, I can do it, too. Wouldn’t want him to worry.”

“I sent him a message last night.”

“Good,” Kao said. “Now, don’t go breaking Saan’s heart, you little devil.”

She said nothing while taking orange juice out of the fridge. Kao poured himself a cup of coffee.

“Does Saan know how you feel?” Kao asked.

She shrugged and rolled her eyes. Her phone beeped. “I’m guessing mom and dad are coming over?”

“Yeah,” Kao said, chuckling. “Can you grab a few bottles of champagne from the pantry?”

“God, already? I can’t deal with them.”

“Jenny, you have no idea. How was the dance?”

“Same as when you were in high school, but a lot of phones.”

After three unanswered text messages to Brandon, Elaine became frustrated and anxious. She had been studying all morning at Rubia’s and had a half dozen shots of espresso. She knew he worked the previous night but made it a point not to show up at the bar nor the after party, especially since she herself worked until midnight.

She needed a break from her homework and it was almost one o’clock.

To her surprise, he answered the door two seconds after she rang the bell.

“Hi!” he said.

“Hello,” she responded. “I brought you a bagel.”

“Thank you. Come in. I have some coffee.”

She shook her head dramatically and followed him to the kitchen. He topped off his mug and lit a cigarette.

“Did you lose your phone?” she asked.

“It was dead when I woke up this morning but almost charged now. Why?”

“Oh, nothing.”

“Hah. I wouldn’t ignore you if I got your messages.”

She blushed. “I’m so wired from all the coffee this morning.”

“You look it,” he said as he walked out onto the balcony. “You didn’t stop by last night. I thought you might be mad at me.”

“Not at all. Just can’t be out all the time. Anything cool happen?”

“I came home after the bar closed and did some writing,” he said. “Wanna meet my mother?”

It startled her.

“I completely understand if you don’t or can’t, but we’re going on a little drive through the foothills if you want to join.”

“Let’s do it,” she said.

Mrs. Fair and Elaine sat in the back seat and chatted, while Brandon navigated his car through the windy two-lane road. During the straightaways he looked at the trees, whose yellow and red leaves were even more spectacular against a blue sky. Every now and then the women asked for his opinion but most of the time they laughed and giggled amongst themselves. It struck Brandon oddly, because his mother had always been lukewarm at best to any girl he ever dated. Elaine even pulled up her shirt to show one of her tattoos.

As they pulled up to a bar in the middle of nowhere, he had a sick feeling in his stomach.

When Elaine excused herself to use the bathroom, Brandon turned to his mother, but before he could say anything, she said, “I’m not dying. So get that look off your face, and give me a cigarette. She’s a nice girl. Don’t be a jackass.”

The older gentleman behind the bar put down a shot of Jameson in front of Mrs. Fair and said, “I think you used to drink this some years ago.”

“Well, mind as well, I’m not driving.”

Brandon shrugged and watched his mother and Elaine walk to the jukebox with their arms hooked.

October 26, 2014, Sunday

The customers started filing into McNally’s a little after nine o’clock to get their favorite seats. Hector Lopez thought it would be a slow Sunday because the 49ers had a bye week, but he didn’t account for the drunkards, gamblers and early Raiders fan, even though the team was winless for the season and were actually playing an afternoon game. As such, he made only two-thirds of what he needed for the all you can eat breakfast special, which was nothing special. Just scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage and hash browns. Coffee was extra.

George Franklin took a look at the stamped and turned to Brandon. “You want to help Hector peel potatoes or do you want to work the bar?”

“I’ll do the bar, but we can switch whenever you get tired,” Brandon said.

“Sounds like a plan. Holler if you get slammed.”

An hour after opening, almost all the tables were taken and there weren’t but a few seats available at the bar. Luckily, Amy McCoy showed up to check on things halfway through the rush and decided to stay and lend a hand. You would be hard-pressed to find a woman move so fast in a sundress and heels. All the men’s eyes followed her bouncing red hair as she weaved through the tables.

“Must not be your first rodeo,” Amy said to Brandon when she went for another carafe of coffee and noticed everyone at the bar had been served.

“Just trying to keep up with you.”

Lizzie Fair and Kristen Ferguson entered and took the two remaining seats at the bar. It was their third bar of the morning.

“Brother, is it true? Is there really an all you can eat breakfast?” Lizzie asked while smiling with glassy eyes.

“Only if you have coffee and water with it,” Brandon said.

“I’m kidding. I’ve had one beer, I swear. Had to save this tall drink of water from a dive down the street. Have you met Kristen?”

Kristen widened her eyes and shook her head with a smile.

“Hi Kristen. I’m Brother Brandon.” He shook her hand. “Breakfast?”

“Two plates with coffee and screwdrivers,” Kristen said.

“Don’t judge me!” Lizzie said as she dramatically dropped her head on the bar.

Brandon watched the two women scarf down two servings each and several cups of coffee. Lizzie asked about his writing, and Brandon sent a rough draft of a short story to her phone.

Lizzie opened the file and pretended to read out loud. “It was a dark and stormy night.”

“The rain fell in torrents,” Brandon added.

“Go away. Let me read this in peace.”

Outside smoking cigarettes, Kao asked Kristen how she knew Lizzie.

“Sometimes we party with some mutual friends.”

“My sister has friends?”

“Your sister’s pretty awesome. Didn’t know you were related. Also didn’t know you started working here.”

Neither of the women had been to sleep. Kristen worked the previous night and didn’t get out of her bar until almost four in the morning, and Lizzie’s nursing shift didn’t end until six, when she went home for a quick shower. Less than half an hour later, they walked into their first bar to meet up with friends.

Back inside, Lizzie yawned as she finished off her screwdriver. “I liked it, but I’m in no shape to give you any criticism right now.”

After a few minutes of playful arguing and agreeing to take a shot, Brandon finally convinced his sister and Kristen to take a nap in his apartment.

Rubia’s had a sparse Sunday afternoon crowd. Most of the people were waiting to go see a movie or had just gotten out of one.

Jenny was frustrated with her physics homework and even more frustrated because Saan wasn’t studying. Instead, he played with the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle and drank a hazelnut café mocha spiked with Jack Daniel’s from his flask. She kept thinking of the scene from Good Will Hunting, where Skylar refused help from Will with her organic chemistry homework, except Jenny was upset Brandon only offered help when she asked.

“How long did it take you to do this assignment?”

“An hour and a half to read the chapter and half an hour or so for the questions.”

She turned her attention back to her assignment, and he continued with his puzzle. She wished he was more talkative, but he didn’t want to be a distraction.

“So why does everyone call you a man whore?” Jenny asked.

“It’s probably because I’ve slept with a few girls. Why else?”

“Girls at school say you have VD.”

Saan laughed. “I can assure you I do not. But who said that?”

“I don’t remember, you little slut.”

“I just let them use my body so I can be popular. And after they realize how boring I am, they leave anyway.”

“Oh, my poor little Homecoming King.”

“Slept my way to the top.”

“Hey, this is kind of a serious question. Is it true you’re named after your uncle?”

“I suppose so,” he said. “I mean, Saan is a pretty common name for Mien people. Usually it’s for the third son, but my father did say they named me after a great uncle of mine. Some businessman who died a year or so before I was born.”

“That’s kind of cool.”

“Not for my great uncle.” Saan smiled. “Wait, are you going around asking questions about me?”

Jenny laughed. “Right. No, I was just talking to my mom and dad about how they knew your parents, and it came up.”

Saan nodded.

“By the way, I can smell your whiskey from over here,” Jenny whispered.

“I sure hope so. What’s an eight-letter word for comeuppance? Second letter ‘o’, last letter ‘l’?”

The loft was unlocked, and Brandon worried he had been robbed until the TV’s sound provided relief. Kristen sat up from the loveseat and put her two together to signal that Lizzie was still sleeping. Lizzie’s snoring carried to the hallway.

“I’m going to make dinner,” Brandon said. “Please stay.”

Brandon cleaned red potatoes in the kitchen while Kristen scanned the bookshelves.

“By the way, your story was very good,” Kristen said. “The time travel was very logical.”

“Thanks, it was just an idea. I don’t really write science fiction.”

“I liked the way narrator’s emotional capacity.”

“How did you feel about the ending?”

She looked over and tried to find the right words before saying, “It worked.”

Brandon dried and quartered the potatoes.

“Can I borrow this?” Kristen held up The Barbarians are Coming.

“Sure,” Brandon said. He walked over to her and took out his phone. “I hope you don’t mind, but I take pictures of each person with the item they’re borrowing.”

Kristen laughed. “That’s a pretty good idea.”

She put the book next to her face and grinned widely.

“I like what you did with the place.”

“Thanks, but the credit goes to Vanessa.”

“Vanessa huh?”

“Hah, no nothing like that. She works at the gym. Grilled chicken and asparagus okay with you?”

Kristen nodded.

The Giants fans in the Cantina got louder with each batter Madison Bumgarner retired, but Brandon was more impressed by Josh Walters’ ability to keep up with customers and their never-ending order of micheladas. Josh was even taking orders for the kitchen and delivering the meals himself. The guy moved non-stop with a smile on his face.

After Bumgarner finished his four-hit masterpiece, Dennis and Vanessa went outside to smoke, while Brandon sat at the bar with Elaine. After a few minutes of small talk, Elaine laughed and said, “Go outside and smoke.”

“Fine, just throw me out!”

Vanessa was alone. Dennis left after his ex-fiancée showed up with the guy who made the winning bid on the house Dennis sold, which he had planned on buying when they were still engaged.

“Just let him be,” Vanessa said. “He’ll get over it. Besides, there’s no telling where he’s going.”

Brandon called Dennis but it went straight to voicemail.

“It’s happened before,” she said. “He always becomes a wreck when he sees her.”

October 27, 2014, Monday

Kao sat with Tony in a corner of The Revisionist. Most of the lights were off because the bar hadn’t opened for the day, but Kristen was moving around doing inventory. The two men had a pitcher of beer between them and spoke in hushed tones.

“I have to talk to Biggie about this,” Tony said.

“I want him to be out, too,” Kao said. “I don’t want to see either one of you in jail. Shit, you’ve been out almost twenty years now.”

“Yeah, it’s going to be my china anniversary next summer.”

“I might have to get you something platinum.”

They laughed and got a glare from Kristen behind the bar.

“We ain’t talking about you!” Tony shouted.

“Better not be!” she retorted.

“I know you’re concerned about the young bucks, but you have to watch out for yourself sometime,” Kao said.

“Man, this is all I know though.”

“Tony, we’ll find something for you to do that you like. Biggie, too. I just can’t be connected to any of it anymore. Don’t you and Biggie have some kid lined up and you can pass it off to?”

Tony filled up their glasses. “Nah, man. These kids can barely tie their shoes. By the way, Billy says hello.”

“How’s L.A. treating him?”

“Good.”

“You guys don’t have someone like him? He learned in half a minute.”

“True, he did.”

“Even then, even how careful he was, he still got unlucky,” Kao said.

“Didn’t talk though.”

“No, no he didn’t. Just did his time. You ever think about going to L.A. to join him?”

“I ain’t got the movie star looks like him, and I’m too old, damn it.”

“But you can be the Asian Danny Trejo.”

“Nah, don’t got ‘nough scars on my face,” Tony said before punching Kao in the shoulder.

As Brandon pulled in front of his parents’ house, he gently stepped on the brakes to keep the pizza from flying off the passenger seat. No one answered when he announced himself inside the doorway. He set the pizza on the kitchen counter and saw his mother on the patio. The sun had just set.

He stood at the glass doorway and watched her smoke. She had a few cigarettes (“The first cigarettes I’ve had in decades.”) a couple days before, and Brandon hoped it hadn’t triggered a habit.

Mrs. Fair turned around when he opened the sliding glass door. She wasn’t smoking cigarettes.

“Oh, crap. You were bound to find out,” she said. “Why are you here early?”

“Why are you smoking the dope?” he asked jokingly.

“Don’t tell me you don’t smoke.”

“I maybe smoke once a year when I’m drunk and think I might enjoy it.”

“You don’t enjoy it?” she asked and held the joint out for him.

Brandon laugh. “It hits me wrong two out of three times. Feels like there’s an air bubble in my chest that I can’t burp out.”

“Well, more for me.”

Brandon laughed and lit a cigarette.

“Look who’s got the bad habits.”

He put a hand on her shoulder. “I got vegetarian with sausage, the works and Hawaiian with bell peppers for Lizzie.”

“She said she’s not coming. Apparently, she had a rough day yesterday.”

“That’s one way to put it.”

“Why don’t you call Elaine and see if she wants to come?”

“She’s at work, ma.”

“That’s why I haven’t got a text message back from her.”

“Seriously? You’re texting her?”

“She likes reading mysteries.”

“You hate mysteries.”

“No, I hate most mysteries. I just want to make sure she’s reading the good ones.”

Kao’s Aunt May lived in the same house for more than twenty years. Her kids were gone. They had careers in Silicon Valley, New York and Washington, DC. Her husband passed nineteen years ago, the victim of an unsolved murder. But she loved the house, and it gave the kids a familiar home base when they were in town.

“You didn’t come by the restaurant this week,” Kao said when she opened the door.

“What are you talking about? I was there yesterday for lunch.”

“Why didn’t you pick up your check?”

“How else am I going to get you to come visit?”

Kao handed her an envelope with her share of the profits from the restaurants and bars. “You can always call me.”

“Your mother is worried about you.”

“She can always call me, too.”

“She’s more stubborn than you and your uncle used to be.”

“Why don’t you and Bruce come by this Sunday? We’re having a barbecue.”

“Any particular occasion?”

“No, just having some people over for football and what not. Starts around ten, usually lasts until about five.”

“I’ll have to check my schedule.”

Elaine shivered when she saw him walking through the produce section. Wade always showed up on her shifts, and though she didn’t keep track, she was sure she had seen him at work for the last month and a few times at the gym. Every now and then, she declined his invitations for coffee, but he didn’t do much more than say hello and make small talk about the weather and news.

He greeted her before taking pasta sauce, vanilla ice cream and toothpaste out of his basket and setting them on the conveyor belt.

Just as he was getting ready to start the small talk, Elaine saw Brandon out the corner of her eye and smiled. He carried three slices of pizza on a paper plate wrapped in clear plastic.

“Take your time,” Brandon said.

After paying for his items, Wade gave Brandon a dirty look.

“My number one fan,” Elaine said.

“I imagine you have many,” Brandon replied. “Speaking of which, please disregard the text messages my mother sent you earlier.”

“Is everything okay?”

“She wanted to invite you over for dinner.”

“Your mom’s a sweetheart.”

“That’s what you think now. Well, I didn’t know your lunch break, but my mother wanted me to drop this off.”

Brandon greeted the bouncer at the Cantina and chatted with him while finishing his cigarette. There were a handful of Cowboys fans who were out expecting to celebrate an early win, but they weren’t happy with how the game was going. He could see Dennis inside throw down a shot with a handful of people at the bar.

“How long has Dennis been here?” Brandon asked the bouncer.

“I just got here a few minutes ago, but I’m guessing he’s had a few.”

Dennis walked outside with an unlit cigarette in his mouth and his speech was slurred. He asked Brandon to go with him to his car. Inside the vehicle, Dennis got out a vial of cocaine and asked if Brandon wanted any. He shook his head.

When the football game went to overtime, Dennis collected a few hundred dollars from some Cowboys fans and bought a round of shots. An hour or so later, Brandon drove both of them downtown to his loft with the promise of making food for Dennis. But during the drive, Dennis just repeated, “I never cheated on her when we were engaged.”

Dennis passed out on the couch before he could even find what he was searching for on the television.

October 28, 2014, Tuesday

“How’d I get this cash?” Dennis asked while pulling bills out of his wallet. He smelled the stale alcohol and cigarettes from the recesses of his throat.

“You won some bets against all them Cowboys fans,” Brandon said.

Dennis rolled down the windows and felt the wind on his face. His skin was dry and his eyes even dryer from falling asleep without removing his contacts.

“You sure you don’t have time to get lunch?” Dennis asked even though he was in no mood to eat. The car dipped under some railroad tracks, and the fluids rolled inside his stomach.

“Just get me back later. I have to be at work at noon. Besides, I don’t think you want to be out in public smelling like you do.”

McNally’s was so empty George left to run errands and left Brandon by himself with Hector. Even then, Hector spent his time organizing the walk-in fridge. The only customers were three older gentleman sitting at corner of the bar. They never ordered food and drank only Jack Daniel’s and Coors Original, and they were having the same conversation they’ve had for the last fifteen years.

“It’s near the end of the month,” one of them explained to Brandon about the lack of customers.

“I believe it,” Brandon said while replacing the man’s beer. “It was pretty much the same story up in Portland.”

Brandon had his head in a notebook and startled when Kao walked in through the backdoor. He apologized.

“Don’t worry about it. The bar is clean. Clean and empty,” Kao said. “I know Amy tells everyone to bring a book just in case this place gets slow. Let me get these guys a round, and I’ll have a Corona with lime and salt.”

“Mexican piss this early in the week?” one of the men said.

Kao laughed and asked Brandon about the notebook.

“Just some stories I’m working on,” Brandon said.

“Mind me taking a look?”

“They’re really rough sketches. Let me send you a story I’ve been working on.”

Vanessa and Brandon smoked on his balcony while waiting for the tri-tip and corn to finish cooking. She told him about possibly going to college or joining the military.

“So why don’t you just do ROTC and kill two birds?” Brandon asked.

“Can you do ROTC as a graduate student?”

“I don’t even know, but it’s something to look into if you’re really interested.”

She punched it into her phone. “Hmm, says it’s definitely possible.”

“Well, good for you. Can I ask you something about Elaine?”

“You can ask. I might not answer.”

“She says she has a side business.”

“I’m not following,” Vanessa said.

“She says she sells things on-line.”

Vanessa kept a straight face for a couple seconds but couldn’t resist laughing. “Yes, totally true.”

“How do you know?”

“When we work out, she goes to the ladies’ room every fifteen minutes or so to put on different panties.”

“Okay,” Brandon said.

“It’s good money apparently.”

“Um, is it me or does the apartment look like it’s missing something?”

Vanessa scanned the room and said, “You need one of those kitchen islands.”

Both their phones beeped. It was the same message from Dennis: “Drunk at the Cantina. Come meet me.”

While they were eating dinner, the bartender at the Cantina called Vanessa and told her Dennis was in bad shape. When Vanessa and Brandon arrived, Dennis was slouched on a bench in front of the bar.

“His tab is a little over $200 but he lost a bet on the baseball game for $500,” Josh Walters said. “I told him I’ll call it a wash for $500.”

All of Dennis’s cards were denied even for just the tab. Vanessa paid to clear everything, and Brandon carried Dennis out to his car.

“Fucking Giants,” Dennis slurred.

October 29, 2014, Wednesday

“I’m always going to be your friend, but you’re not making it very easy on me,” Vanessa said when Dennis woke up.

“What the fuck happened last night?” Dennis asked as he sat up on the sofa.

“Brandon had to carry you in here.”

“Why didn’t he just take me home?”

“I didn’t want you to be alone,” she said. “Coffee?”

“Sure. Shit, I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t say sorry. Just take care of yourself. That’s all I ask.”

It was already dawn, and Vanessa hadn’t slept much. She nodded off around midnight but was stirred from her sleep by Dennis’s violent noises and spasms. Once she moved the coffee table away from the sofa, she watched TV with the living room light dimmed and moved Dennis to sleep on his side each time he turned onto his back. He finally settled into a normal breathing pattern a few hours before he woke.

“I hope I didn’t make a mess,” Dennis said.

“Nah, but that’s the scary part. You shouldn’t be able to drink that much without puking.”

The depth of Brandon’s story surprised Kao, who did a fair share of reading himself. He had to in order to keep his sanity on all those red-eye flights and lonely hotel evenings. Even he couldn’t play cards every single night with his teammates. Besides, the cards stopped being fun when the competition was lacking and the money became irrelevant.

Kao waved Brandon over when he showed up for his noon shift.

“I have a project if you’re interested,” Kao said.

“Hmm, what are you thinking?”

“My agent wants me to write an autobiography and I need some help with it.”

“Okay, how can I help?”

“I need a writer and editor who can also be a project manager.”

Brandon had a blank look on his face.

“I also don’t know if I want it to be an autobiography or a memoir,” Kao said. “Let’s go have a cigarette.”

Kao looked with exasperation at the overcoat on his chair. He had a habit of misjudging the weather and was wearing a three-piece wool suit. He took off his jacket and retrieved a cigarette from one of the inside pockets before going outside.

“What do you know about me?”

Brandon’s face flushed. “All I know if you grew up in this town and you played professional basketball for a while and you have these restaurants and bars.”

“That’s good.”

“There have already been books written about you.”

“Yeah, but none of those were actually mine,” Kao said. “Do some research and figure out what might be interesting that hasn’t been written. I’d like something that starts from the beginning.”

“How famous are you?” Brandon asked.

Kao chuckled. “Not very. If you’re not Asian, don’t follow basketball or grew up in this town, you wouldn’t be able to pick me out of a line-up of accountants and lawyers.”

Brandon thought about it and couldn’t recall Kao being in the news, except during sports highlights in his youth when he and his father pretended to bond. When the high school had assemblies or rainy days in gym class, he remembered seeing Kao’s last name on two of the three retired basketballs jerseys on hanging on the wall of the gym.

Mrs. Fair took a peanut butter and raspberry jam sandwich out of her lunch bag and waved it in front of Saan. She had noticed he was chewing his tuna sandwiches with quite a bit of effort while reading his government textbook. It wasn’t mixing well with the whiskey in his stomach.

“Have you narrowed your schools down any further?” she asked when he got to her desk.

He shrugged and shook his head. It was actually down to Georgetown (his father and brother’s alma mater), UCLA (his uncle’s alma mater), Duke, North Carolina, Michigan and Florida. No one knew, but he was leaning toward Michigan and Florida, two schools with top-tier football and basketball programs without creating any family controversy. Florida had better weather, but Michigan provided a better education. “Maybe I’ll just draw a name out of a hat.”

“Go where you think you’ll be happiest. You’ll find your way with time. My son went to Santa Cruz, and he had a great time there.”

“I’m going to visit Michigan in a few weeks, so I’ll get a chance to see how the weather is this time of year.”

“Well, that should be fun. Have you thought about any of the Ivy League schools?”

“I haven’t rule out Harvard or Yale, but I can’t say I’ve thought much about them.”

The patrons who weren’t already standing in The Revisionist jumped out of their seats when Salvador Perez popped the ball up into foul territory near third base. Madison Bumgarner had pitched since the bottom of the fifth inning and didn’t give up a single run as the Giants won game seven of the World Series by a score of 3-2.

“Two dollar shots!” Kristen yelled.

“I’ll take a shot of orange Stoli and a shot of Jäeger,” Lizzie said.

“Nice call,” Kristen said while cringing.

“Fandom comes with its price.”

“Have you seen your brother lately?”

“He worked earlier but I don’t know what he’s doing tonight. Why do you ask?”

“I borrowed a book from him.”

“Please don’t fall for him.”

“Hah. If he was older… He’s a nice kid but not my type. I just want to talk to him about writing.”

Kao sat at the patio table and looked into his backyard. The thought of the autobiography unsettled him. He would have to address the lack of a relationship he had with his parents and put some of the rumors to rest. It had been months since he last saw his mother or father even though they lived not more than ten minutes away from driveway to driveway.

The best part of the previous biographies was not having to address any of the innuendoes or stories because they were unauthorized, and he could always say he couldn’t respond because he didn’t know what was written and he didn’t want to provide extra press on books with which he had no involvement. But, this definitive work would bear his name, and on top of that he didn’t want to put out a book that just regurgitated what had already been written. It wouldn’t be fair to his fans.

He thought of Christmas and the upcoming visit by Mr. and Mrs. Parker, who were his housekeeper and chef when he was younger. Their daughter Norah, who was now married to Kao’s younger brother, would be coming as well with her children. It had been a few years since the Parkers retired and they had yet to spend the holidays together.

His smile quickly faded when he remembered how long it had been since he looked forward to spending the holidays with his own parents.

Kao topped off his glass of red wine and lit another cigarette and waved to trigger the patio light’s motion sensor.

October 30, 2014, Thursday

Kao and Tony sat at a small booth in the dark bar of Ranchers Steakhouse and Grill. It was a popular spot for local businessmen, farmers and retirees. The restaurant was part of the clientele’s weekly routine, and they didn’t hesitate to recommend it to strangers and visiting family. At one point or another they had met the head chef and restaurant manager. Everyone knew Kao was the owner, and though approachable, he acknowledged not being a big part of the place’s day-to-day operations. “I don’t know how to run a steakhouse. That’s why I have the best staff I can find.” It wasn’t quite true, but he believed it himself and trusted Amy’s judgment along with that of the restaurant manager and head chef.

“Three months?” Kao asked.

“Yeah, Biggie says we can get rid of everything by then.”

“Give any thought to what you guys want to do?”

“I think I’m going to take some months off and do absolutely nothing,” Tony said as he took a sip of his wine. “Ashley’s graduating med school after this year, so Biggie says she’s going to take care of him.”

“Wishful thinking. She’s going to be in residency for years and years.”

Tony laughed. “I didn’t have the heart to break it to him.”

“At least he can say he raised a brain surgeon,” Kao said. “You talk to Billy about any of this, yet?”

“He knows. He’s fine with it. He almost sounded relieved.”

“How are your kids?”

“Lazy as shit. All they do is play video games.”

The bartender approached and asked if the men were ready to order.

“I’ll have the big porterhouse, medium, with rice pilaf and vegetables, vinaigrette for the salad and a baked potato, plain,” Kao said.

“God damn! You do realize this is lunch?” Tony said.

“Gotta keep my energy up for the rest of the day.”

“Right. Um, chicken marsala… with rice pilaf and green beans. And let me get a bottle of the wine we’re drinking. Planning my afternoon nap.”

Brandon walked into Sally’s Books and headed to the register to show Tom his list of biographies about Kao. He drank two pots off coffee in the morning while reading articles on the Internet.

“I am pretty sure we have four of these, but these two I know we don’t have,” Tom said before getting up from his chair and leading Brandon through the empty store.

“Cool. I’ll get those through Amazon.”

They reached the small sports section, which consisted of two bookshelves, and half of the second shelf was dedicated to health. Tom pulled the four books and handed two of them to Brandon. He looked at the other two and shook his head.

“I can’t in good faith have you buy these two,” Tom said.

Brandon chuckled. “No, it’s fine. I need it for research.”

Tom flipped through the pages of one of the books until he reached the glossy pictures. “I’ll sell you these two for a dollar each if you buy this, too.” He reached for a copy of David Halberstam’s The Breaks of the Game.

“You’ve read it?” Brandon asked.

“And I don’t even like sports.”

Brandon couldn’t help but laugh at how uncomfortable Elaine looked. Wade hadn’t sat down for more than five minutes at the other end of the bar, and Elaine’s forehead already had a sheen of nervous sweat.

“I’ve only ever seen him at work or at the gym,” Elaine said.

“Well, he looks harmless.”

Josh approached the couple and said Wade wanted to buy them a drink.

“Sure, I’ll have the same thing,” Brandon said and lifted his Jameson.

“I’m okay for now,” Elaine said.

“Bring her another one,” Brandon said. “She’s almost done with her drink.”

She leaned in and whispered, “I don’t want a drink from him.”

“I know, babe, but it’s the courteous thing to do.”

Brandon waved and toasted Wade when the drinks arrived.

While Brandon was outside smoking, Amy McCoy and Andy Johnson showed up. After introductions, Amy asked to speak with Brandon in private. Her earnest tone and body language betrayed her intentions.

“George and everyone you’ve worked with says you’re a good guy and know your way around the bar, so that’s good,” Amy said. “The problem is it’s slowing down this time of year and most days we don’t need more than one person, but you’re at the top of my list if you want to be on call.”

“I understand, that was the impression I’ve always had.” Brandon thought about what was left in his bank account.

“Well, we have you scheduled for Halloween, so you’ve got that. Do you have a lot of family around?”

“Just my parents and sister.”

“I’m looking for volunteers for the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and Thanksgiving night as well.”

“I can do those,” Brandon said, knowing it increased his chances of getting any other shifts. “I’m right across the street from McNally’s, so I don’t need much notice, and I can always work the other bars as well. If anyone calls in sick or just needs a day off, please let me know.”

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 minute for Brandon to 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.”

“Sure.”

“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.”

“Dexter knows—”

“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.

“Vanessa?”

“I know who Vanessa is. She’s in the bathroom, right?”

“Yes.”

“The Stormtrooper.”

“Oh, fuck. Guess!” Elaine said.

“Who?”

“Wade.”

“Your stalker. Wow, he went all out on that costume.”

“I didn’t know it was him until near the end of the night.”

“No?”

“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.

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