Category Archives: Stories

Shortfiction: “Sling”

I split my brain into thirds. The first controls one hand cracking egg, grip just tight enough to squeeze the whites into a glass, with other hand pouring out a long count of cognac.

The second does the counting. The second always does the counting.

And the third, my looking mind, stares out into the dimmed crowd. From where I stand, they always look like they’ve just stepped out of the night sea. Regulars in the eastern nook, clusters of weary friends at the other tables. As usual, couples dominate the bar itself. Every seat taken but one, its absence like a missing tooth between a lone man and the wall. He’s fiddling with a coin, twisting it between thumb and forefinger, and in the other hand is a smartphone.

Eggshell in the trash, shaker to glass. Dry-shake for fifteen seconds. Lone man is staring down, attention now focused on the tiny glowing brick of electronics. Inevitable as they are, I hate phones in my bar.

Pop the shaker seal, dump ice in and shake again. Crack that seal and then I’m pouring silky ribbons into a frail chalice. A woman in a summery dress squeals at the show. Smiling, I slide the drink to her and dash bitters on top.

“Can I get you anything?” I ask the lone man as I rinse my hands off.

“Nah,” he says, not looking up.

Less friendly this time, I say: “Waiting for someone?”

“Nah,” he repeats.

I turn around, scanning the room for anyone trying to get my attention but the sea is calm with intimate chatter.

“Listen,” I say, looking back at the man. “You can stay for now, but if people want your seat, then…” I let the conditional fade into silence, hoping he’ll fill in the blanks.

“Then what?” he asks, one crooked finger scrolling through a thick wall of text.

“Then I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

He huffs a laugh and smiles. “You can ask me to leave now to save yourself some time. Just gonna say no anyway.” The lone man chuckles again, shaking his head back and forth.

“You know what I mean.” My frustrating is beginning to show.

“Yes, I do. So why don’t you say what you mean then?”

I sigh, turning around again to scan the room. Still nothing.

“Because you’re a customer and I’m trying to be polite.”

“Technically I’m a potential customer,” he retorts.

“Fine, a potential customer. Same difference.”

“Not really,” the man says, idly. “A customer has already exchanged money for goods and services. They’ve given you the chance to impress them, to lock in more of their money in the future. A potential customer is a wildcard, an unknown. A probability.”

From afar, someone calls: “Excuse me!”

Order for two drinks, my choice. The couple asks for something with whiskey and sweet vermouth in it, stirred. But not a Manhattan. My first mind starts grabbing bottles while second mind dredges up recipes, stalling at the thought of dusty probabilistic formulae.

If the odds of a millionaire winning the lottery are X, and chance of winning the lottery is Y, what’s the probability that a non-millionaire will win the lottery if there are Z% millionaires in the world?

I serve up two Monte Carlos. “Rye, Benedictine, Bitters.” I tell the couple. “Similar to a Manhattan, but different.” I hear them repeat the phrase to themselves: “Similar, but different. Different, but similar.” I step back to the lone man.

“So tell me,” I say to him, noticing that he now has his phone held lengthwise between two hands. “What’s the probability of you actually doing something more than taking up space in my bar?”

“Your bar?” he asks, ignoring my question. “Do you own it?”

My lips fall into a pursed flatline. “No,” I admit.

“Why not?” The question almosts sounds genuinely curious.

“Are you really asking that?”

He nods his head up and down lazily, thumbs twisting to contort some image on his phone’s screen.

“I can’t afford a bar in the middle of Manhattan.”

“Few can,” he says with a summoned sympathy, as if he too once tried and failed. “Let’s say you saved up every penny you made working here. How long would it be before you could even put a 20% down payment on space like this?”

I looked back at the room, keeping my eyes focused on the sea of customers for much longer than necessary. I’d already done the math, just weeks ago; it wasn’t pretty.

“Ten years,” I say, my back to him.

“Ten years! You’d be what, 40 by then?”

“38,” I correct, turning back to face him.

“Still. Yeesh. How old is the owner?”

“None of your business.”

“Bullshit,” he spits out, laughing. “You basically just told me what your salary is but you won’t tell me how many candles the boss man gets on his cake? Whatever, that’s fine. I’m going to guess he’s no older than 35, probably closer to 30. Am I close?”

I stride away from him, running the rounds of the couples at the bar and seeing that the eastern nook wants its check. First mind is in overdrive as I build drinks in a row of pint glasses. Three on the left are sours, middle two pretty much straight spirits and the right two are up to me; I make them sours too. Most customers can’t tell the difference anyway; you give them a daiquiri with aged rum and they think you’ve discovered plutonium.

And why should I bother to do more? I’m here six nights a week, ten or twelve hours a day. When I go home my clothes reek, my lower back feels like a bent branch about to break and my feet swell so bad that my shoes get tight. If I’m lucky, my arms don’t ache so that I can do it all again the next night. All this, for what?

Drinks go out to the buzzed buzzards, their bloodshot eyes trained on me all the way from build to pour. Most of them say thank you and a few just give me an attemptedly sage nod.

“What’s your point?” I ask the lone man in a voice louder than I expect.

“No point.” He shrugs. “It’s just that I’m not taking up space in your bar. I’m taking it up in someone else’s bar that you work at. Go ahead, say it with me: This isn’t my bar.”

“You need to go, now. I’m not going to say it again.”

He slides his phone into his suit jacket pocket and leans back with arms folded across his chest. The look on his face is a half-breed, part sneer and part smile.

“I’ll go,” he says in a quiet voice as he stands up. “But just remember that most bars aren’t owned by guys like you. They’re owned by guys like me. Sure, maybe there are a few notable exceptions out there but that’s all they are, exceptions. You’ll be a lot happier once you admit that to yourself.” He pulls his wallet out from his back pocket and takes out five c-notes, placing them on the bar.

“For any trouble I caused you,” he offers, not waiting for a reaction. The adjacent couple of young 20-somethings look over, eyes fixed on the money.

“At least it wasn’t all bad,” says one of them, a shaggy-haired man in a dark polo.

I give a cursory smile and take the bills off the countertop, walking over to the garbage bin on the far side of the bar.

First mind crumbles the money in my fist, relaxing at the lack of restraint.

Second mind counts how many hours I’d have to work to make this much.

And third mind makes sure no one’s looking as I shove it in my pocket.

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This Drunken Life: The Face of Madness

This Drunken Life is a weekly series of stories that chronicle the strange and wonderful things that can happen while out drinking. Names and faces may be changed to protect the inebriated.

What expression does the face of madness wear? Is it anger? Rage? Hatred? Cold, distant, unflinching stoicism?

Nope, not even close. Madness, my friends, wears a big drunken grin that’s perpetually on the edge of an infantile giggle. And not long ago, madness was grinning right at me.

I was working a private event for a high class venue and a supposedly high class client. Going in, I’d imagined a room of be-suited salt-and-peppers, the kind of men and women who discuss last weekend’s traffic out to the Hamptons and the ramifications of removing tax shelters from major capitalist players. Infuriating, sure, but established. Mature. Not born during George Bush Sr.’s administration.

Such a crowd seemed fitting for the goal of the evening: to learn the difference between Old World and New World wine, followed by a blind tasting where guests would have to identify a mystery wine.

“A noble venture,” I thought before the client arrived, swirling my glass. “I should suggest this event for my own organization.” I swirled my glass again, nearly spilling it everywhere.

And then the masses descended upon us. Some 150 junior analysts filling the tiny tasting space, all aged somewhere in between “college super senior” and “hey, Jurassic Park came out the year I was born!”. The executives and national directors I’d expected were nowhere to be found, instead replaced with children dressed up in suits that Mommy and Daddy had gotten them as gifts for being such precious, priceless little blue-bloods.

Not that I’m biased, no no, not at all.

Within the first 10 minutes, I’d gone through three bottles of wine as I scrambled to keep up with the swarm of thirsty, thirsty bankers. It was oenophile whack-a-mole, every glass I filled replaced by another one or two or three. For awhile I tried to slip in the tasting notes as I poured, but met with varying success.

Some people listened, genuinely interested and some pretended to listen. Some just walked away mid sentence and others didn’t even look at me, simply thrusting their glass in my face and demanding a pour.

Oh and saying “thank you”? As vestigial and optional as a withered appendix.

Catching my breath at one point, I looked out at the throng of guests as they laughed with one another. At one another. At their surroundings, at their good fortune. They all wore the same look of triumphant entitlement, victors enjoying their spoils.

As I picked up discarded glassware and went to empty out my station’s overflowing spittoon, I thought about those psychology experiments where participants are separated into prisoners and guards, then given tasks to illustrate the power of authority and the imprinting effect of a prescribed role.

“Are we only what others tell us we are?” I asked myself as wine splashed onto my pants. “If the roles were reversed, would I act any differently?”

In the back kitchen, the venue organizer told me that the client had asked we stop serving and put out water instead. During this brief dry time, one frantic guest came up to my table and begged: “Is there any wine or anything you can serve us? Anything at all?”

“Sorry, you’ll have to wait until the blind tasting.”

“When is that?” he demanded with frenzied eyes.

“Soon,” I offered in consolation. He turned away in anger, off to try another station.

By the grace of some patron god of wine, the blind tasting round went quickly and the guests departed immediately after, seemingly unaware that we were open to serve for another fifteen minutes.

Clean-up was smooth, with other staff sharing their exhaustion but, amazingly, not giving in to total despair. They treated the experience like a war wound, a challenge overcome. With tired smiles they sorted recycling, packed up tables, racked glassware and stacked up chairs. They had every reason in the world to be infuriated with the client’s behavior and yet they weren’t, not in the least.

Walking home in the thick humidity of a mid-summer’s night, my throat sore, head pounding and back aching, I returned to that question I’d asked myself earlier: If I were the one wearing the suit, surrounded by those enabling me to drink myself silly in high-class dismissive fashion, would I behave any differently?

I wanted to say “No”, but really, who would want to say “Yes”? The truth is, we become acclimated to the way others treat us and everything becomes relative, making it nearly impossible to tell when we’re being unkind to those outside of our group. In this case, the group divide was clear: the served and servers, and witnessing that wide gulf between the two made me desperate not to wind up on the wrong side of it.

It makes you ask yourself: How far would I go to avoid that fate?

Sure, some steps are clear: hard work, clever planning, identifying what you will and won’t put up with. But what about the slippery, slimey realm of the political and the nepotistic, all those tiny little capitulations you agree to because the cost-benefit analysis says it’s worth more to hold your tongue than to anger a powerful, albeit awful, human being?

And then come the ramifications. If *you* won’t take a stand and sacrifice the comfort of complacency, why should anyone else?