I didn’t set the whole thing up. Parts of it, sure. Not the whole thing. Not the way it played out. Not in my wildest imagination could I have…well, that’s a lie. I could have imagined it. I spend much of my waking hours imagining just such things. But in the beginning, I had nothing but the best of intentions.
It was close to ten on a slow Thursday night when the buzzer alerted me that the back door had been opened. The only keys out were mine and…Diana’s, who walked through the swinging doors from the back room. A six foot tall redhead who wore her hair short and was partial to leather jackets and tight jeans. Tonight the jacket was short and brown and the crew neck silk jersey under it inky black. Diana had owned The Oaks for a decade and had hired me to manage it eight years ago. Help being what it is these days, I’m also the night bartender during the week.
Bars in the valley had a lifespan. We were well beyond being the new kids on the block but nowhere near being yesterday’s news. The clientele was mostly familiar, which was not bad exactly, but less than good. It was a good crowd, dependable and predictable but there was something to be said for new blood. Not necessarily for me, I’d gotten to where predicable and dependable were positives. But you could feel it in the folks around the bar. There was a sameness to the place and crowd. For every person who bellied up to our bar for the familiarity of it all, there were two who might be interested in something different. And who would go someplace that offered a change from routine.
“Welp”, said Diana, stepping behind the bar and helping herself to a heavy Tito’s rocks, “We need a bartender.”
“Tell me about it.” I said.
“No, really now. Jolene is having ankle surgery in a couple of weeks and will be out of commision for a while.”
Jolene was our daytime bartender during the week and handled the heavy load of weekend nights. Which she didn’t mind because that’s where the money is. I jumped in to help if it got too busy. Diane would help out too. It was a secret-not a secret-that Diane and Jolene were a couple.
“If he could make a decent Negroni, I’d hire him.”
Desperation made me ask, “You know Jennie Angelo?”
Jennie had played basketball with my daughter in junior high. Having played a bit in high school myself, I was roped in to help coach. We weren’t very good but we had fun. I had heard she was a bartender and had run into her a few months ago, behind the bar at a little roadside place across the lake. It was busy and she was handling the crowd well. As a kid, she was alway high energy and now at twenty nine or thirty, she hadn’t lost that. Plus she’d picked up a good six inches which would have been helpful back in the day.
“Hey Coach!” she said when I squeezed in at the end of the bar. Still a great smile which she tossed at everyone. In this business, you need to be on the lookout for talent all the time, so I made a mental note. Drank two beers, caught up a little and left her a ten dollar tip.
“You think she’s happy there?” asked Diane after hearing my pitch.
“Long hours, beer mostly, shots…crowd is coming and going: kids and old men.” Which meant shitty tips, even for someone who looked like Jennie.
“Think you can bring her in?”
It wasn’t hard. A few days later Jennie was behind the bar sharing an audition shift with Jolene. Jo had a very chill persona which fit her ice queen good looks and flowed behind the bar in a way that never seemed rushed or hurried but always got her to where she needed to be. She heard and saw everything. Jennie was her polar opposite. It was fun watching her effervescent energy bouncing around back there.
My concerns that she might bowl over the waif-like Jolene were allayed as they worked well together, each complimenting the other. At the end of the shift, even with splitting tips Jennie made more than any night at the other place. She was more than thrilled and gave me a hug and cheek kiss on her way out after closing. Jolene, used to working alone and possessive of her place, gave my girl (as she and Di referred to Jennie) a thumbs up and she was brought aboard.
After that first shift, she was plug-and-play. I would be with her late in the evenings to help if needed which was seldom and act as her barback-filling ice, running for liquor, whatever. Basically, I enjoyed sipping a bourbon at the end of the bar and watching her work. When I say it like that , it doesn’t seem like I was checking her out. But I was, and as time went on, I felt less and less skeevy about it. She was a woman now, not a pre-teen. Since I’m as subtle as a sledgehammer, she’d catch me eyeing her and wink or smile or stick out her tongue between her teeth which made me feel a way that I didn’t know if I was comfortable with. I got used to it, though.
She was touchy-feely, would lay hands on me in passing and if we were side by side, I could count on a hand rubbing my back. “Hellos” and “Goodnights” usually came with a quick hug. “I’m glad you looked me up”, she told me once. “I am too”, I answered pretty sure we were talking about the bartending gig. Some of her crew from the other place had followed her to The Oaks and livened the place up a little, giving us all a quick shot of energy.
It was a couple of weeks later, in the back room near the ice machine, that she first gave me a kiss that wasn’t a peck on the cheek. Her lips, full and wet, opened to allow her tongue to slip into my mouth and explore. She tasted faintly of gin; a surprise as I hadn’t seen her nipping. I told myself it could have been peppermint. I wasn’t into doing a whole forensic analysis as her tongue seemed to be engaged in counting my teeth. My embrace was less reluctant than previous quick hugs we’d shared. I explored her back intending for all I was worth to stop at the beltline. Seems I wasn’t worth much. My resolve lasted as long as a snowflake on a windshield as my hands slipped over her hips and cupped her bottom. She was solid back there and did a little clenching as if I needed more stimulation. For a moment a matchbook couldn’t have slipped between us. Just as my arousal was becoming manifest, I released my hold and she withdrew her tongue with a finishing kiss on my closing mouth.
Her eyes were shining and her cheeks were flushed and she gave me a happy smile that warmed me as much if not more than the embrace had. “Finally!” she said.
“I didn’t know this was a race”, I said, feeling both spent and energized.
“I’m not a kid anymore.”
“I’m starting to get that…”
“You never were quick on the uptake”, she said, her smile turning sly and crooked. She either remembered or intuited that smart-assery in a woman is a desired feature and not a bug.
“Timmie knows I’m working here”,she said unbidden, referring to my daughter-her erstwhile teammate and school chum.
“Uhh…” I stammered a bit, that skeeviness trying to bubble up again. “I didn’t know you guys were still in touch.”
“Online” She shrugged, “I’m a bartender, I follow everybody. I posted that I was working here and she reached out.” She must have seen the cloud scud across my face. “Don’t worry, Coach, there will be no posting about you tonguing my tonsils.”
Her tone was so bright and her smile so wide that I couldn’t resist laughing. Neither could I resist grabbing her arm and turning her half way round. I telegraphed the smack to her bottom well enough that she could have easily blocked it or turned away. She did neither and in fact stuck her bum out a bit to provide a better target. It was a moderate slap, somewhere between a pat and a solid smack.
I released her arm and she rubbed her targeted cheek, more for effect than anything.
“Finally”, she said again. “Thought I was gonna have to draw you a map.”
“Go wait on some customers why dontcha…pushing her toward the swinging doors. She disappeared, trailing a laugh. I reached into the ice machine and pulled out a few little moons and held them to my eyes, then the back of my neck. I felt like I had just stuck my finger in a light socket and actually felt a little lightheaded. A cigarette would be good. It was a shame I’d quit. But I knew DIana slipped out back now and again to burn one, so maybe in her office?
Her office door was always locked but there was a trick-not much of one-but a trick. The molding around the door was poorly attached and could be pushed aside. Then a finger, even one as fat as mine, could be slipped behind the strike plate and release the latch. The switch above the copy machine turned on the overhead fluorescent which was too much for the small room, There was a couch, an old refinished desk, steel locking cabinets a few well positioned lamps and a safe so big and old the it would have been there from the beginning. Place was neat enough to see no cigarettes on first scan. I went around the desk and sat in the chair-nothing in the middle drawer, nor in any of the three left ones. Stapler, broken stapler, old Blackberry, and how many paperclips does one woman need? I had almost given up when I pulled the bottom right drawer and there was the slightly crumpled green and white soft pack. I sntached it up and was relieved to see there was at least a half pack, so she wouldn’t miss one. Also a couple of lighters, one of which I borrowed.. I must have wanted that smoke pretty badly because I almost missed what else was in the drawer.
The pack had been sitting atop a ping-pong paddle. An older one, with the sandpaper on one side and hard green rubber nubs on the other.. My buddy had a table when we were kids and we played a lot. There wasn’t and never had been a ping pong table at The Oaks. My chest lightened as I held the paddle and thought of Diana, then of Jolene, then of Jolene and Diana and tried to remember if I’d ever heard or seen anything….My mind reeled and my hand wanted to shake as I replaced the paddle and took a second cigarette. I did my best to put everything exactly as I found it, shut the lights, locked the door and left the office.
Outside on the loading dock I leaned against the cool block wall, filled my lungs with the sweet menthol smoke and felt the nicotine firing synapses in my brain that had been long asleep. Things suddenly looked brighter and the traffic sounds wafting from up the hill were sharper. I looked at the burning end of the cigarette and took a second drag. Maybe it wasn’t the nicotine…I tossed the butt into the parking lot where it landed in a shower of red sparks. Damn! Even that looked pretty. I let myself back in and took my seat at the end of the bar.
Continued….Jennie’s Over the Knee.