“Mine was fat,” she says, “I had a fat dad.” She sips the Margarita—extra salt on the rim—that I made her. I’m the substitute bartender. How we got on the subject of our dads, I don’t know. “He loved his mashed potatoes, would say bring more mashed potatoes, Ma, and he’d douse ‘em in gravy and butter, and eat ‘em with a spoon.”
“Not a fork?” I ask, the smooth wooden bar between us.
“A spoon,” she says, a wet newpaper beside her drink. She’s good-looking, wears bright red lipstick and tight jeans, straight black hair onto her shoulders, says her name is Claire. I’ve never seen her in here before. “See, he was fat and smoked two packs a day,” she goes on, “but he was a swell dad and I miss him. He’d do anything I asked, and he spoiled me.”
Pashi’s has a different feel in the afternoon, a lonely feel, with the rain outside. The dusty pennants and dull paneling make the place seem like a basement clubhouse. It’s not much more really, a narrow joint with a pool table and a grungy floor, no different than a half-dozen other bars nearby.
“And when he had the cancer at the end, I massaged his feet for him,” she says. “I rubbed in lotion. His skin was all dried out, and he looked like a skeleton, had lost all the weight, looked like a skull and bones, and he wouldn’t do anything but moan how he was dying and going to die. Finally I told him cool it. I told him try to forget your screwed-up life. I really wanted him to go out with a little oomph, you know?” she says, looking right at me.
“My father has two bellybuttons,” I tell her. “He has a regular one and one off to the side. When I was a kid and he’d be in his swim trunks, I’d be afraid to look. I was afraid to ask about the second bellybutton, but later I found out it was from a war wound. WW II. He was at Normandy on D-Day, got a medal.”
She pushes her hair behind one ear. If it were a Saturday there’d be customers, but it’s Wednesday and only Mr. Roy on his usual stool at the end before Claire came in alone out of the drizzle, the newspaper over her head. The typical crowd, the construction workers and grad school guys and assorted oddballs, won’t be in until later, Happy Hour, when I go off.
“World War Two? How old is he?” she asks.
“He was almost fifty when I was born,” I say. “We used to play golf together when I was a kid. We’d get a few clubs and hit plastic balls around the neighborhood, hit ‘em across the street and over houses, and make up the holes as we went along.”
Mr. Roy, who’s half-blind, signals from the opposite side of the bar for another gin-and-tonic. I nod to him, it’s coming.
“Except we always played this one hole, a dogleg right around the Kellerman’s backyard. Miss-hit it and you’d lose your ball to Paddy. Paddy was the Kellerman dog. He was always barking and nobody could stand him. One time my father went at him with the golf club, and there was nothing I could do but watch. I guess Dad was thinking of his old WW II days, thinking of Normandy.” I scoop ice into a fresh glass for Mr. Roy. “Fortunately he couldn’t catch Paddy, who was having a great time. So he went home and cursed the poor dog, then he began to blame me. He started yelling, ‘Why didn’t you head him off, run him into me? I can’t count on you for anything.’ I told him I was sorry, but he just kept yelling, ‘See why I don’t let you kids get a dog?’”
“Once I saw my father naked,” Claire says, after I’ve returned from Mr. Roy. “He had a very tiny pud, too. I think I surprised him. I walked in on him, into his bedroom. He didn’t try and cover himself. I was sixteen.”
“I was scared, what do you think? His humble little pud looked so dead. We didn’t say anything, and afterward, after I went back into my room, I wanted to leave. I wanted to pack my bags, not because I was embarrassed or humiliated. I wanted to be grown, on my own. I can’t think why, but I didn’t need home anymore. Maybe that’s why I was scared.” She sips the rest of her Margarita and says, “You like tending bar?”
I shrug, looking down at my cocktail shaker floating alone in the sink. Tony, the owner of Pashi’s, told me to hang in there, I’d pick up better hours, weekend nights. But he’s been telling me that for too long now, which is why I need a new job. “So what do you do?” I ask. “You work?”
“I take pictures. I shoot birds of the city, go down to bird central, which is Wyman Park, the center for all the birds in the area, and I watch them fly out to Glen Burnie or Essex or Roland Park to do bird things.”
I sip my club soda, holding back a little, reflecting. “You sure about this?”
Claire smiles. “You’re cute, you know that? Huggable,” she says.
Behind the bar I straighten; I’m tall, lanky. I have bushy hair. “No one’s ever said I was huggable.”
“I’m saying it. I’m saying you’re huggable.” She reaches across, grazes the back of her fingers along my cheek. “I have to go now.”
“I just broke up with my girlfriend,” I tell her. I don’t want her to go.
“I once broke up with a guy on his birthday,” she says. “That was wrong, I could’ve waited, but I guess it doesn’t matter in the long run.”
“She claims I squirmed too much, that my squirming woke her up at night.”
“That’s why she broke up?”
“She did some kind of Voodoo on me,” I say. “I can’t explain it.”
“Men are such simps,” she says.
“How ’bout a drink, one more, a freebie?”
She watches me salt the rim of a fresh glass. “Once I lived in a tepee,” she says.
“A tepee?” I ask, setting the drink in front of her.
“Yeah, a tepee. It was in Vermont, but then it got too cold. It was after I left home. I was up there by myself, in the woods. I put up this tepee and went for walks in the high grass and didn’t eat much and got sick.”
“My skin got pale. I didn’t know what was wrong. I walked to the nearest town, could barely make it, and the doctor said I was dehydrated. I stayed in town and got a job at the inn, and I lived in a little room there in the carriage house.” She pauses, as if picturing the carriage house. “I stayed through the winter, and then on the first warm day I walked out into the woods to see my tepee. I’d been looking forward to this all winter,” she adds, gazing at me. “I’d been looking forward to the walk, the approach up an embankment. I’d found a secluded spot for the tepee, and I was hoping it’d survived the weather. And I’d built myself up, I was feeling strong, and excited, and I was going to move back into the tepee. I’d been eating three meals a day, and working extra hours at the inn whenever I could.”
“Did you have your camera?”
“No, I didn’t. I wasn’t there to take pictures.”
“Why were you there?”
“I thought it would be cool to say I lived in a tepee. I could look back and think about my days in the tepee. Getting the water from the stream, making a fire, listening to the wind at night.”
“That is cool,” I say.
“Except when I went back, my tepee wasn’t there, there was no tepee, no sign of it and that scared me. My tepee had completely vanished, and I wondered if I’d ever really lived in it.”
I pause, trying to picture the tepee, so I could picture it gone. “You’re making this up.” She laughs. “You are, aren’t you? You’re pulling my leg.”
She says, “I like you, you know that?”
“No, I don’t know that.”
“I really do.”
“Maybe we could get together then,” I say. “You and me.”
“That’s a thought.”
“How ’bout one night next week?”
She takes a red swizzle stick off the bar, toying with it. “You don’t want to get involved with me,” she says. “To tell the truth, I thought you were somebody else. I thought you were Rick.”
“Rick? Who’s Rick?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?”
“I’ve got to go,” she says.
That evening at home I get out of the shower. I’m drying off when it occurs to me: I should’ve told her I am Rick. It must have been a test and that was the correct answer. “I am Rick,” I hear myself say.
Saturday morning Tony calls, says he needs me at noon. I walk the six blocks to Pashi’s and don’t take off my sunglasses, so when I go inside I can hardly see who’s there, except I know who’s there: Mr. Roy and Tanya Simpson and a transvestite-looking Spaniard who’s always asking Tony when he’s going to “go Karaoke.” The reason I don’t take my sunglasses off is to ease into the place, but I bump into Mr. Roy, who doesn’t see too well, and Tony says to me from behind the bar, “Don’t knock over the clientele.”
Mr. Roy says, “Got any peanuts?” I’m not sure if he’s speaking to me. “I like a handful of peanuts every now and again.”
Tony says, “You going to sing for us, Mr. Roy?”
“I’ll sing for peanuts,” Mr. Roy says and begins to croon off-key.
“Oh, Daddy, make him stop,” the transvestite-looking Spaniard says, and a tall unshaven man by the pay phone says, “Hey, this thing ate my quarter.”
I walk around behind the bar and turn the sink on and wash my hands while Tony counts out the register. Soon the transvestite-looking Spaniard leaves, and Mr. Roy says, “You believe that man is married?”
Tony holds up his hand and points to the gold band on his ring finger. “See this? It’s from when I was married to the wanker,” he says. “I’ll have to cut off my finger to get it off.”
“You hear that?” Mr. Roy says to me. “He says he’s going to cut off his finger.”
“I was married at your age, see?” Tony tells me. “But you, you want to flit around like a balloon man. I was married for sixteen years. I wasn’t any balloon man.”
“I’m not a balloon man,” I say.
Three men are sitting at the bar drinking shots of tequila, celebrating the completion of a clean-up job downtown. They’ve got a lot of money on the bar and I’m playing it loose, hoping for a big tip. When Tony leaves, I pour them each a shot on the house. After a while they go off, and I’m stuck with just Mr. Roy and a few regulars. Claire doesn’t come in.
At home that evening I wonder what to do about Claire. I’ll probably never see her again, which is actually okay, all I did was talk to her the one time, and in truth I doubt she ever actually lived in the tepee, she was making it up, except I can’t help thinking about the tall grass and also about how she held the Margarita glass, using both hands to sip, so that when the phone rings at around eleven, interrupting my pacing, I think it’s somehow her calling me, which is of course ridiculous, it’s only a wrong number.
I end the night in bed with thoughts of the tepee, what exactly it was made of—was it tanned animal skins or canvas from a surplus store, and where did she get the poles, and wasn’t she afraid at night, out there alone like that? I want to believe in the tepee story, but she must’ve been making it up.
Yet I like the picture of her in the tall grass, resting in front of her tepee, the cold weather coming on, her fingernails full of grit and the overcast sky above and a threat in the wind; I like imagining her sitting alone and still and thinking perhaps this wasn’t such a great idea to live in a tepee—but in the next instant thinking about getting wood, thinking about a fire, and then no more thinking and that night the wind strong but the tepee holding up.
Suddenly elated, I whip off my covers. If I see her again, I’ll tell her, “You really did live in a tepee.”
But I don’t see her again. Instead I get a new job as a service bartender in a French-Asian place down the street from Pashi’s. A service bartender of course is not a real bartender, doesn’t serve the public, only makes drinks for the waiters. I also handle the cash register, but I’m hidden away in an alcove at the top of the stairs, with the restaurant below. The waiters tip me at the end of their shift, plus I make a small hourly wage. I control the wine and beer and top shelf stuff, and mostly I get to stand at my post making silly jokes, trying to impress this one waitress named Karen. She has orange-red hair that’s not dry or kinky, but smooth and silky. She’s not thin, but solid, well constructed, not the least bit heavy. And her personality is solid too, no matter how busy she gets, or how crazy Andre, the manager, acts. She’s everyone’s darling, has worked at the French-Asian place forever, and I’m told she’s never been seen with a boyfriend.
I drive her home one night and manage to kiss her in the car, and I think it’ll lead somewhere, but when I see her at work the next evening we’re only friends again. I know because she doesn’t right away come over or even glance my way. There’s no joking as usual before the dinner rush or during it. Her expression remains neutral, her eyebrows rigid as she stands sturdy, waiting in my alcove for two Rob Roys. I set up the rocks glasses, the Rob Roys something my father would drink.
“I have some news,” I tell her, pouring in the vermouth, desperate for a smile, a sign, anything. “I’m moving to Vermont this summer.”
She’s tense, has customers waiting. She arranges the drinks on her cork tray.
“To live in a tepee,” I say, but she’s already headed away.
© Luke Tennis
[This piece was selected by Rachel Wild]