Tuesday, September 5, 2006

faux fur and fishnet stockings

Everyone here’s on their way to checking out. They’ve had their little trip. Bags sit, packed, on unmade beds. There’s the cursory glance around a half-lit room to check for the inevitable – something potentially left behind. Nothing found. Short trip, now, to the front desk down dimly lit hallways, feet treading on threadbare carpet. An anxious glance behind. Tense. Hands clench.

Who sees more than a bartender? Years piled on top of years. Hours poured, the last ounce from an empty bottle. Minutes rung from a terrycloth towel. Glassware clean and sparkling, lined up in brass racks above. A veritable wall of booze behind. The crystal clean bite of a good gin. The warm amber of an aged whiskey. The top shelf where only the bravest dare to venture. Who sees more than a bartender? Not many. In here, the world is easily divided into two types of people. Me and everyone else.

Before me, the usual row of sad sacks and schlemiels. Snakebitten duds and luckless losers. Underdogs and also-rans. Good old Clive, right there in front. Civil servant and non-starter, his eyes rarely move from the newspaper before him, page always turned to the financial section. Gus and Leon down the way. Critic and washed-up filmmaker, together at last. Words fly, as words are wont to do, on drunken pomposity and dirty wings.

Emily, leaning through the regulars, chockfull of studenty potential, face radiant with the glow of an ever distant future, turns up the charm as she produces another folded twenty from her purse. I’m over in one second flat, pushing another bottle of brew across the bar.

“Still waiting, eh?” I ask.

She just smiles. She smiles through it, stood-up again by the jerk she’s dating.

I’m reaching for that twenty, and as I make change, instinctively sliding my tip into the spill tray, my eyes flit to the end of the bar where a stranger’s setting up shop. Bottle blonde and bogus bust. Faux fur, fishnet stockings, and a fake Fendi purse. That type - you know the one. Always selling some kind of image. Looking for just one more look.

The boys at the bar have taken notice, and I watch, bemused, as they try not to. Try to be civilised. Try to be just a little discreet. Distracted, conversation goes astray, and Leon’s left to clean his glasses on his shirt while Gus runs a thick hand over his immaculate comb-over. Clive’s eyes dance down the stock columns, unable to read a line, until he can’t take it anymore and cocks his head, staring at the beast balanced on a stool at the far end of the bar.

“Don’t worry,” I tell him, sotto voce, “I’ll handle ‘er.” I smile and zip away.

Within seconds, I’m leaning across the bar, breathing in cheap perfume and second-hand smoke. Drugstore shampoo and cherry lip-gloss.

“Manhattan,” she purrs, producing a hundred from the folds of her faux fur coat.

“I can’t break that,” I tell her, matter-of-factly. “Got anything smaller?”

She smirks and reaches into her fake Fendi, producing a five.

“Better,” I smile, snatching the bill from her hand.

I set up the drink, and slide the glass across the bar along with her change, which the wannabe socialite promptly waves away as though she can easily afford to do without. Instinctively sliding my tip into the spill tray, I move on to tending to the lemon slices before being called over by a thirsty Leon.

“Another?” I ask.

“How about a couple,” he says. “Got another coming by in five. You remember Casey?”

I do. Another lost soul wandering alone down a darkening corridor. Yes, everyone here’s on their way to checking out. Whether they’ve been here for a quarter century or it’s their fist fifteen minutes, they’re on their way out the door. It’s universal. Inevitable. Unalterable. They’re all handing in their keys one shot, one highball, one pint at a time. I’m just here to make sure their checkout goes smoothly.

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