After the destruction of his marriage, Nick Rabb finds solace in the most unlikely dive.
|Word count: Approx. 2,500
Summary: Re-purposed from an older piece I wrote, for the prompt(s): Where does the character go when angered or upset? Who does the character confide in when needed? What behaviors and/or experiences upset the character?
“So . . . I left my wife.”
The bartender, a young guy with curling, too-long hair and a Bollywood starlet’s dramatic eyes, looks at Nick blankly then shrugs, looking back at the bottle he’s in the midst of opening.
“For my best friend.”
A disinterested grunt.
“Who I found out has been in love with my wife for eight years.”
An eyebrow quirks so quickly, Nick’s scarcely sure it even moved.
“They’re getting married in spring.”
“That’s, uh . . . tough luck, buddy.”
Nick hunches his shoulders and watches the dim, dive-y bar’s only other patron accept the opened Miller Lite sullenly. “Which is my way of asking what would you recommend for a man in my situation? A seven-and-seven? A Tom Collins?”
Without missing a beat, the bartender cracks open another Miller Lite and slides it to Nick without meeting his eyes.
“An analyst,” he says curtly, hurrying off to the other end of the bar. He flips open a ratty, old looking issue of Time magazine and reads.
Ten minutes later, beer finished, Nick leaves the bottle on top of a ten dollar tip and slouches his way out of the bar, his shoes seeming to squish in the damp carpet. The bartender doesn’t look up or say good-bye.
Nick mentally bookmarks the bar and steps into the cool November morning.
“So . . . do you make mixed drinks, here?”
The bartender mutters something, but puts his magazine down—this time, it’s an ancient People—and turns to the wall of booze, leaning down toward the bottom shelf. Nick rolls his eyes.
The bartender moves and shakes, then finally turns back to Nick, slamming down a glass of something that’s more ice cubes than liquor.
“Scotch-rocks and soda.” Those dark, carefully blank eyes meet Nick’s for a moment. “That’ll be seven-fifty.”
“Right,” Nick sighs, placing a twenty on the bar. The bartender takes it immediately—his fingers are long and tipped with bitten-down nails. “Keep the change.”
If Nick expects a ‘thank you,’ he doesn’t get it. The bartender merely opens the register, puts in the twenty, makes change, then drops the change in the tip jar as if it’s garbage.
Then he goes back to his magazine.
Sighing again, Nick looks out the dirty window, through which very little filtered sunlight comes in. Nick can just about make out the stairs that lead up to the street.
Nick thinks about leaving, Scotch-rocks and soda untouched.
Instead, he nurses the drink till it’s watered down even more then quaffs it in one long swallow. He almost orders another then he thinks about the drive home . . . to his brand new, shiny, sterile, cavernous, empty apartment. It's not home, not really, but it's a damn sight better than this shitty dive, with its squishy carpet; dingy, off-white walls; and ancient, chipped, tacky bric-a-brac and tchotchkes.
Not to mention its bartender, who has the shittiest attitude Nick's ever come across in person.
He runs a hand through his hair and wipes at his eyes, knowing that even if the bartender sees, he won’t care. In fact, right now, Nick's just as alone in this bar as he'd be in his fancy apartment.
“Another. Please,” he tacks on belatedly, and the bartender slowly abandons his reading material to go about the task of making another drink.
This time, when he hands it to Nick, he doesn’t make eye contact.
Nick smiles bitterly and drinks in silence until the second customer of the day finally comes in, bringing with him the fall-scented breeze. Said breeze barely makes a dent in the sour beer/stale peanuts/dead dreams-fug of the place.
The bar is practically crowded when Nick steps in one afternoon, already shrugging off his coat. Almost every stool at the bar is taken, and a few tables, too. Taken by dour, older men staring off into their own pasts or having monosyllabic conversations with miserable counterparts.
In the midst of all this lovely atmosphere, the bartender is reading a novel, this time, the cover page bent back, his lips moving slightly as he reads.
Nick hangs his coat on the scuffed coat-rack and makes his way to one of the only stools left. It creaks warningly when he sits.
The bartender doesn’t even look up, but he puts his novel down and begins making a drink.
Watching the long, graceful hands move among the bottles, then glasses, Nick’s eyes eventually drift to the rest of the bartender. He’s average height and lanky, but his body is otherwise a mystery in a long, baggy plaid shirt and loose jeans.
He snaps his eyes front and center when the bartender turns around and slides a glass toward him.
Without saying anything, he then moves back down the bar, to his novel, and resumes reading.
Curious, Nick picks up his glass and takes a sip.
It’s a perfectly made Tom Collins. A strong one.
And just as Nick finishes it, another one is slid between his hands. The first glass is whisked away and the bartender puts it in the sink.
“Thanks,” slips out, quiet and pathetically touched. Nick hopes the bartender was too far away to hear it. As it is, the patron nearest him look over and mutters fag, before going back to his own drink: a watered-down scotch-rocks and soda.
“You want I should call ya a cab, buddy?”
Startled, Nick looks up at the bartender, into those normally blank eyes. They’re not so blank, now, but Nick is too tipsy to read what’s in them.
The bartender rolls his eyes. “Yeah. On account of you bein’ wicked hammered, an’ all.” It’s the most Nick has heard the bartender say. He has a rather thick Southie accent. All his A’s are flat and rolling.
Nick frowns. “I’m not hammered . . . am I?”
The bartender snorts. “Well, lessee . . . you got here just after seven, and you’ve been steadily drinkin’ Tom Collinses for five hours straight. Yeah . . . I’d say that makes you hammered.”
Huffing, Nick waves a dismissive hand. Or three. “I only had—what, five drinks?”
“Uh . . . more’n that, buddy.” The bartender looks ceiling-ward for a moment. “Your tab’s seventy-five.”
Nick fumbles out his wallet and slaps it on the bar. The bartender plucks it up and removes some bills, puts the wallet back into Nick’s sweaty hands and goes to the register. A few moments later, he comes back with change, and his eyes are blank once again.
“I can’t stop ya from drivin’ like ya are, but I’ll for damn sure call the cops on ya if ya try.”
Nick rolls his eyes and gets vertigo so bad, he nearly falls off the stool. He clutches at the bar to stay upright.
When the spinning has lessened, he opens his squinched-shut eyes to see the bartender looking at him with that something in his eyes. Nick realizes in a sluggish flash that it’s concern.
“I walked here,” he says finally, and the bartender looks doubtful. “No, really. Needed to clear my head.” Nick pauses. “My ex-wife wants to move to Paris. With my kids.”
The bartender’s brow furrows and his mouth opens, then closes. Then opens again. “I’m sorry to hear that,” he says quietly.
“So’m I.” Nick looks down at his hands. At the broken heart-line. He wishes he believed in palm-reading, because if he had, his life wouldn’t have come as such a surprise. “Not that I blame her. It’s mostly my fault. She nearly died because I—”
Nick cuts himself off and wipes his mouth on the back of his hand. “Can I have another drink?”
The bartender appears to think it over, his eyes drifting toward the ceiling once more, then back to Nick.
“No,” he says, and Nick sighs.
“Then I guess call me a cab.”
“Okay, you’re a cab.” And with that the bartender turns away reaching for the grimy cordless phone near the sink.
Nick doesn’t realize the man made a joke until the cab arrives.
“Look . . . about the other night,” Nick says awkwardly when he sits at the bar, a week later.
The bartender’s disinterested dark eyes meet his own briefly as he drums his fingers on the bar-top. “About that night, I’m . . . sorry,” Nick says quietly, glancing quickly around to see that none of the other patrons are listening. When his gaze returns to the bartender, those disquietingly still eyes remain on his. “I was drunk, and, well, that’s no excuse for what I said . . . or did—”
“You were drunk, like ya said,” the bartender finishes, eyes narrowed a little, mouth pursed. “And it’s not like you’re the first drunk guy to try somethin’ with me. Don’t go makin’ a federal case outta it.”
“I don’t think I am. I think you deserve my sincerest apology, and that’s what I’m trying to give you.” Nick spreads his hands helplessly. “I don’t know what else to say, other than—”
“—you’re sorry. I know. Ya certainly are,” the bartender says flatly, but his dark eyes flicker with something else Nick can’t read and is afraid to try.
And when the bartender brings him a Miller Lite, he doesn’t have the heart to ask for a Tom Collins. And anyway, the bartender immediately goes back to his crossword puzzle.
“Ya missed last call, buddy.”
Nick steps carefully down the snowy stairs, to the bar door and the man setting its alarm system.
“Yeah, I kinda figured,” he says, not certain what else comes next. “It’s after two, after all.”
“That it is,” the bartender says, setting the alarm with a final beep then shoving his hands into his pocket. He turns to face Nick. His eyes seem huge in his pale face and his shoulders are hunched against the chill—pointlessly, in such a thin, rayon jacket. Away from the bar-top, he looks smaller, almost frail. “Whaddaya want? Need me to call another cab for ya?”
Nick blushes. “Ah, no. I drove, tonight.”
“Good for you.”
The bartender watches Nick warily for a few seconds, then shrugs, stepping past him. “Have a good one, buddy.”
“You, too . . . uh—wait—“
The bartender pauses. “Look, I gotta be back here in eight hours, so—“
“Can I walk you to your car?”
The bartender looks over his shoulder, at Nick, frowning. “Don’t have one.”
Nick quickly casts about for something else. “Then, can I give you a ride?”
The bartender shrugs then glares. “If you're trying to put the moves on me again, I swear—”
Blushing, Nick quickly shakes his head no. “I won’t, I just—I don’t want to see you walk home on a night like this.” Which is true, as far as Nick’s concerned. And if he tries to use this . . . detente to maybe help erase what he did three weeks ago, then what of it?
The bartender hunches his shoulders and turns away. “I do it most nights. That’s how I keep my girlish figure,” he says, continuing up the stairs.
Nick, desperate, now, follows him, up the stairs and into the night. He keeps pace easily, though he has the distinct feeling the bartender is trying to out-walk him.
“So, uh . . . that’s a pretty long shift you work, ten a.m. till two a.m.”
The bartender shrugs, his mouth pursing. “What can I say, I got that whaddayacallit? Protestant work ethic. 'Cept I’m Catholic.”
“Huh.” Nick, himself, isn’t a believer in much of anything except: if it can’t be in one’s hand, it’s all in one’s head. But now’s hardly the time to antagonize or argue. “And how long have you been working at the Rusty Nail?”
The bartender casts him a haughty look. “Ever since I bought it, two years ago, pal.”
“Ah.” Nick kicks himself for his assumption, however justified. “You’re young for a business owner.”
The bartender snorts and laughs a little. “How old do ya think I am?”
Nick shrugs. “Twenty-two, twenty-three?”
“Well, that’s still young.” Young enough that Nick shouldn’t be sniffing after him, at any rate.
“Oh, really?” The bartender casts him a curious look. “And how old are you, Methuselah?”
The bartender whistles. “Sheesh.”
“It’s not that old.”
The bartender laughs, the first time Nick has ever heard him do so. It makes his attractive, but disagreeable face quite handsome.
They step onto Caton Avenue, where Nick pauses, and surprisingly the bartender pauses with him.
“My car is that way.” Nick points to the right.
“Well, my place is that way.” And with that, the bartender starts walking left. After taking a moment to sigh, Nick catches up.
“I don’t even know your name,” he says, almost pleadingly.
“Well, I haven’t told it to ya, so that’s understandable,” is the mild reply.
“I’m Nick. Nicholas Rabb.” Nick holds out his gloved hand and the bartender looks at it then takes it in one of his own. His hand is so cold, Nick can feel it through the glove. “Aren’t you going to tell me your name?”
The bartender withdraws his hand and shoves it back in his pocket. “I’m thinkin’ about it.”
“You make it awful hard for a guy to flirt with you, you know.”
The bartender looks at him, wide-eyed and startled. He blinks, then looks ahead once more, lips twitching like he wants to smile.
“You call this flirtin’, where ya come from?”
Nick rolls his eyes, but can’t help the small thrill that goes through him. “Jesus, but you’re a tough nut to crack.”
“I take that as a compliment.”
“I meant it that way,” Nick says simply. “That’s what I like about you.”
The bartender glances at him again for a long moment then smiles a crooked half-smile that makes him look ten years younger than his actual age.
“I’m Riazzi,” he says finally, stopping dead in the middle of the sidewalk. “Benjamin Riazzi . . . well, thanks for the company. Have a good night.”
Nick stops, blinking in confusion. “What?”
Benjamin nods at the building they’re in front of, a five story walk-up apartment house. “This’s me.”
“Oh, right,” Nick says, feeling a bit foolish for insisting they take his car to drive two blocks.
“Alright. Uh . . . have a good night, uh, Benjamin.”
Benjamin rolls his eyes again. “Just ‘Ben’ is fine. G’night.” He climbs the front steps to his apartment building. At the top, he takes out his keys and unlocks the door.
“G’night, I guess.” Nick’s about to turn despondently back down Caton Avenue, when Ben looks back at him.
“Heyya, Nick?” When Nick looks around hopefully, Ben crooks that little half-smile again.
“Don’t be such a stranger at the bar. How the hell else am I gonna keep my hand in with those old-man drinks you like?”
Grinning and nodding, Nick turns back down Caton before he can say or do anything to screw his second chance at a first impression up.
Halfway to his car, when he glances back, Ben is still on his doorstep, watching him.
Ben waves back.