“Is this seat taken?”
Paul looked up and saw a woman indicating the seat next to him at the bar. The carpet had muffled her footsteps as she approached. As she gracefully alighted the seat of the high barstool, her knee length navy dress rode up just enough to show a little thigh. He wished he had been watching her wen she’d come in. Maybe she had scanned the booths and tables before noticing him and strolling over.
The bar tender was at the far end and nodded to acknowledge he had seen her and would be there momentarily for her order. Paul’s window of opportunity would be brief. Picking up his glass, he downed the last of his bourbon Manhattan then raised the remaining ice to indicate he’d like another.
He swiveled to face the brunette beside him.
“And what will you be drinking tonight?”
She toyed with the long strap on her clutch-sized purse. “I’m trying to decide between a beer and a martini. Any thoughts?”
“Well, what kind of day have you had?”
“It was okay. Not bad but not great either. Just average, I guess.”
“And what kind of evening are you hoping to have?” He was leaning toward her now and rested his left elbow on the bar-top.
She giggled. “I haven’t decided that yet either.”
“Then how ‘bout you let me buy your drink? I’ll surprise you.” He grinned in a crooked way that he knew was charming.
“Well… I don’t know.” She hesitated and pulled herself up straighter.
The bartender had finished with his other patrons and headed for them, stopping to deposit the meager tip they’d left him in his tip jar. She had seen him approaching and her bar-mate had followed her line of sight to the bartender with his disappointing tip. He shook his head a little and muttered under his breath, then turned and put on his biggest customer service smile for new customers.
“What can I get ya?”
She turned to the bartender and asked, “How much do you get paid?”
“Excuse me?” his eyes narrowed in mild confusion.
“How much do you get paid? Is it an hourly deal or do you get a certain amount each day?”
“It’s tips, isn’t it. You make your living based on tips.”
The bartender nodded slowly. “Yeah. It is mostly tips. So, uh… Can I get you something?”
“I’ll have another Manhattan,” Paul said, offering his empty glass to the embarrassed bartender. He gratefully accepted it and went off to fetch the drink.
“Have you decided if you’ll let me buy your drink?” She looked back at him for the first time. That is, really examined him. His suit was a little wrinkled from wearing it all day, but the carefully pressed seams still made themselves known. He had loosened his tie but it only made the intricately tied knot more prominent. And it was clear his shoes had been properly shined, if not that morning, then some time the day before.
“One bourbon Manhattan with rocks on the side.” The bartender placed the drink and ice down on the bar and turned back to the brunette.
“So did those cheapskates stiff you? How much did they under-tip you?”
“Give the guy a break,” Paul said gently. The brunette was more assertive than he’d expected. And he liked it.
“What? He’s a nice guy,” she gestured to the bartender, her voice growing louder as she spoke. “He’s doing his job. And he’s doing it well. I’m sure he’s got bills to pay. Rent. Or a mortgage. And these guys,” she indicated the other end of the bar where the patrons in question had already left. “These guys don’t get that their cheap… cheap… asses, their cheapness, it affects this guy’s life. Maybe he has kids. Maybe he’s taking care of his sick mom. Maybe he wants to take his girlfriend somewhere special for their anniversary. But they’re making it harder. Because they think they’re more important. That they are better than that and that tipping is a choice, is an option. But for him, for this guy, it’s not an option. Or, if it is, it’s his only option.”
The bartender rocked back on his heels with his arms crossed over his chest and his jaw set. “Are you going to order a drink?”
She turned to the man next to her. “You want to buy me a drink? Give this man here a tip first. And make it a good one. A really good one. You look like you can afford it…”
“Paul. My name is Paul.” He reached for his wallet.
“Nice to meet you Paul. Be generous to Rich here.”
“It’s Rick, actually,” the bartender said with narrowed eyes. Paul handed a fifty over to Rick whose eyebrows jumped towards his hairline. Paul made sure she could see and enjoyed the smile it brought to her face.
“Rick, will you get…”
“Will you get Vanessa here a martini.”
“Actually, I’d rather have a beer. Just a pint of whatever’s on tap.”
Rick clung to the fifty and muttered, “coming up,” before heading back down the bar for the beer.
Paul turned to her and leaned on his elbow, bringing himself closer. “So Vanessa, what do you do for a living that was only okay today?”
She pulled back from him a bit and relaxed. “I’m uh… I’m a teacher. Fridays can be hectic but they’re also the end of the week so…”
“Here’s your beer.”
Paul handed over some more cash to pay for their drinks. Rick headed for the register.
“You don’t really have to pay for my drink,” Vanessa said, opening her purse. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have…”
Paul reached out a hand and stopped her from taking out her money.
“I… I have a boyfriend, actually. I shouldn’t… I shouldn’t have flirted with you, lead you on, whatever. Please let me pay you back for my drink.”
The bartender returned with Paul’s receipt and his change. Paul gave him another ten for the tip jar and the bartender unsuccessfully tried to give it back.
“If you have a boyfriend, then what are you doing alone in a bar on a Friday night?” Paul wasn’t going to be deterred so easily. He believed that if she had a boyfriend who was a serious obstacle, she would have shot him down decidedly from the beginning, not when she had the drink in her hand.
Her nervous giggle told him that she had her doubts and his remark had hit the target.
“Well, he… uh… he works nights.”
“He works nights and you work days. Sounds lonely.”
“We make it work. Don’t get many date nights but he has carried my books to school on a few occasions. And I do drop in on him occasionally. I like watching him work.”
“You like watching him, huh? What does he do? Is he an actor?” She chuckled quietly and shook her head with amusement. “No, I’ve got it. He’s a stripper.”
Vanessa coughed as she swallowed awkwardly. Paul used it as an excuse to put a hand on her back.
“You okay?” Rick came over and placed a fresh bowl of trail mix on the bar a few feet away. “You need a glass of water or something?”
“No, thank you. I just swallowed down the wrong pipe.” She accepted his offer of a napkin, wiping her face and the bar-top. She had spilled some of her beer when setting it down suddenly.
“Look at me for a second,” Rick said, drawing her attention to his face. “Breathe, and one more. Okay. No dying on my bar. Our insurance rates are high enough.”
Vanessa smiled and nodded politely. “I’ll try my best to make it outside if I feel anything coming on.”
Rick chuckled and moved off to another beckoning patron. Paul’s hand had slid from Vanessa’s shoulder blades down to the small of her back, and lingered. She seemed to become aware of its location and fidgeted in her seat, readjusting her position but also shirking his hand off.
“So.” Paul tried desperately to recover the moment. “I take it he’s not a stripper…”
“Only for me,” she responded playfully. But she was sitting on the farthest end of her bar stool and had pulled out her cell phone. Checking for messages from the negligent boyfriend, perhaps?
“Well, I think you should find a guy who won’t let you go out alone.” Her smile froze and the amusement behind it vanished. Paul struggled on, “I mean… because he can’t stand the idea of leaving you alone.” Vanessa’s face showed that it had sounded as bad to her as it did to him when he heard the words spoken aloud. Rick stood shaking his head with his eyes closed, unwilling to watch but unable to drag himself away. Any attempt to recover would probably only result in a deeper hole, so he decided to make as graceful an exit as he could. Honesty. Maybe that would work. “Forget I said that. It… came out wrong, completely wrong.” She smiled and nodded politely but he knew the smile was forced and he had failed to undermine the boyfriend. Still, it was worth a shot.
He downed the rest of his drink and stood up to put his jacket back on. “I hope you have a nice evening and that your boyfriend appreciates what he’s missing while he’s working nights. If not,” he pulled out one of his business cards and placed it on the bar, an inch away from her left hand, which clutched the damp napkin. “You can always call me and I’ll buy you another drink. A martini next time.”
She picked up the card and gave him a farewell nod. Watching for him to leave, the moment the door closed she shuddered and relaxed on the stool. Taking the business card in both hands, she tore it in half and then again into quarters.
“That’ll teach you to visit me at work.” Rick picked up Paul’s empty glasses and wiped down the bar-top where they’d been sitting in a puddle of napkins drenched in condensation.
“Got you fifty bucks didn’t I? So where’re we gonna go? Beach? Wine country?”
“It was sixty, actually. He was really trying to impress you. But sixty’s not going to get us the gas for a day trip anywhere, let alone a weekend.”
“Well, we’ve got a few weeks. And I have a few other dresses in my closet that could stand getting aired out.”