The After-Hours Handbook
Purse your lips when the saxophonist in the fedora swears he’ll pay you back for the Uber. Tell him he needs to finish his beer in five minutes, just like you did five minutes ago. Yell, “Five minutes!” to the drummer and bassist who are taking their time. Yell it to your co-worker’s girlfriend who is slumped underneath the bar, because you know she can hear you. Open her tab on the screen, a mere $12.60, and wonder out loud if she’s on painkillers. Ask Danny to please start pulling beers. Ask him if his girlfriend is okay. Ask him if she’s on painkillers. Tell yourself you’ll quit your job in a month.
Toss the saxophonist in the fedora and Danny’s girlfriend into the same cab. Hold her gaze for a moment. Turn away before she can utter the words under her glare. Lock all the doors and silence the juke box. When the only remaining glow is of the dimmed, neon stage lights, take a mop from the dilapidated closet and begin helping Danny and Billy. Shrug when they say you don’t need to, and wipe down the bar instead.
Enter the walk-in cooler and sit on a keg. Rub dried mud from your ankles, and watch as the flaky residue floats to the ground like dead leaves. Remove your hair-tie and scratch your scalp. Consider how many health code violations you’re making. Take two cases of Ultra with you when you return to finish side work, because you know it’s Adam’s favorite, and he had your back when the 49-year-old bleach-blonde with sky blue eyeshadow called you a shitty bartender.
Peel open one case of Ultra. Wedge three bottles in each hand and Tetris them into a pyramid in the cooler. Wedge three bottles in each hand and keep going until the case is empty. Finish stocking beers, then fill the rusty bucket stamped with the Curious Traveler logo with Ultras. Top the bucket with ice. Place the rusty bucket on the end of the bar where no cameras point. Ask Danny and Billy if they want to take any longer mopping. Flinch when Billy flicks gray mop water at you, then joke that you’re more likely to get Tetanus from the handwashing sink.
Remember to turn off the fryers in the kitchen, and tell Billy he sucks at his job. Smirk at the sight of his soft, fuzzy belly as he lifts one arm to scratch his chin. Smirk as you cradle his face in your hands and tell him he’s a teddy bear. Smirk when he objects.
Exhale an accomplished sigh when Adam finishes the closing day-sheet, returns the till to its drawer, and reminds everyone to clock out. Clock out. Change into fresh clothes after he sends home the new server you were training because she’s not trustworthy yet. Pour yourself a Yuengling. Gather at the end of the bar where no cameras point. Plop onto one of the barstools that Adam pulled up for the two of you. Settle in when Billy and Danny take their places opposite you, standing. Tell Billy to turn on the fans so that his Camels don’t give you lung cancer. Wipe condensation from your glass and flick it at Billy when he asks why you only brought beers for you and Adam, and not for him and Danny. Tell Billy it’s because you thought he could use the exercise. Roll your eyes when Billy tells Danny to just wait until you start bullying him too. Chuckle when Danny says coolly that he can’t wait.
Ask Danny how he likes it so far. Nod in return when he says, “I have a new respect for this place.” Groan when Billy tells him to just wait until College Night, and Adam scoffs at the mention of College Night. Shake your head when Danny says, “I think it’ll be exciting.” Correct him by saying, “It’s the worst.” Laugh when Adam laughs.
Ask Danny why he’s drinking, and whether he thinks he should be going to check on his girlfriend. Shrug at his simple answer: “No.” Laugh when Billy reenacts her stumbling from the bathroom and slumping under the bar. Laugh when Adam laughs. Say you feel bad for laughing.
Snicker when Adam says, “So if it makes you feel better about that blonde chick, the guys call her a ‘fallen star.’” Respond, “Thank God you were there when she freaked out.” Gaze past Billy’s head as he describes how the blonde used to come in every Wednesday, back in the day, and would get housed and go home with different men. Slip into a daydream while scanning the dusty photographs that hang on the wall, the ones with all the people parading Bourbon Street, and sucking crawfish, and posing with jazz bands. The ones you always admire.
Snap out of it when Adam says he remembers the blonde from those days, too. Linger on the photographs for a moment longer, until Danny asks what happened tonight, then explain, “She told me I’m a shitty bartender and poured her drink on the floor. She kept yelling until Adam threatened to kick her out. Then she went home with Marty.” Try not to blush when Danny laughs, because you realize you like his laugh. The four of you agree to quit your jobs next week.
Complain about the new server. Insist that when you first started you never would have shown up late on a training day, or taken a smoke break on the patio where everyone could see, while burgers were getting cold in the kitchen window. Swear you don’t remember it when Adam teases that you did leave the utility sink running, flooding the back office. Argue when Billy says he remembers, and Danny laughs. Smile, and say that’s what mops are for.
Check the time on your phone every twenty minutes or so. Wave away Billy and Danny’s puffs of smoke. Tease Adam when he refuses more than just the one beer. Smile when Adam complains that he has to be up in four hours to take his kids to school, because he smiles as he says it, and Billy and Danny smile too. Wonder if getting older isn’t so bad, after all. Wonder if you’ll find someone like Adam someday. Wonder if Billy and Danny will be like Adam someday.
Start your car. Regret the shots of whiskey, because your head is spinning and your stomach hurts. Rest your forehead on the steering wheel. Turn the radio down. Roll the window down. Take a deep breath. Tell yourself you’ll quit your job in a couple months.
Get off early the next night and drink with Billy and Danny. Gather in the corner of the bar where no cameras point. Glare at the sour vodka and muddy footprints that sludge the floor. Glare at girls in too-high heels sliding around on their way to the bathroom and clamoring at the bar. Glare at Danny’s girlfriend as she slides around on her way to the bathroom.
Massage your temples as your head spins. After the place has emptied, pile into the cab with Billy and Danny. Roll down the window when you get motion sickness. Watch Danny as he stares out the window. Arrive at Billy’s and sink into the couch. Chat with Billy’s roommates about quitting your jobs. Snuggle into the couch and drift to sleep.
Wake up to Billy’s roommate shifting on the couch next to you. Look around and notice everyone else asleep, except for Danny, who also just woke. Smile at him. Look at Billy and his roommate, Cal, sleeping next to each other in sitting positions, like two towels laying out to dry.
Recall the night you were walking past Billy’s room at this same hour, and rushed in when you heard choking. Remember turning him onto his side as he vomited in his sleep, and removing Cal’s arm from its draped position over Billy. Remember locking the door when you left, so no one else would see them together. Recall the gratefulness on Billy’s face when you finally confessed this a month later.
Follow Danny to the backyard after he asks if you need some air. Sit down on the concrete steps together, not on the plastic patio furniture that’s dappled in early morning dew. Yawn as he sparks his lighter and burns a cigarette. Glimpse at his bending arm, the lean muscles that run down his limbs like creek water over stones. Ask each other questions. Talk about work. Say you don’t hate the money, just the people. Feign contemplation when he asks, “The people who go there, or the people who work there?” and pulls one corner of his mouth into a smile. Respond, “Sometimes both,” and make the same face.
Slip down to Billy’s basement when the sun gets too bright. Lay on the bed next to Danny. Roll over to face him, and let him drape his arm over you. Cringe when his exhalations suffocate you, and he laughs. Slip your hand underneath his shirt after he pulls you close and moves his hand to unbutton your jeans. Roll onto him. Graze your own prickling neck with your fingertips when he combs his fingers through the roots of your hair, then grabs a fistful. Cringe when he enters too soon. Tell each other to be quiet each time you hear footsteps above you.
The next night, congratulate Adam when he tells the three of you that he and his wife are moving into a bigger house, one by the river, because they think their kids will like it. Congratulate him when he tells the three of you that he got that contracting job he’s been talking about. Tell him you’re going to hate it when he’s gone. Tell yourself you’ll quit your job in two weeks.
Graze your thin arm against Danny’s firm one as you’re both reaching for beers from the bucket. Hand him the first beer and smile in return when his lips draw a faint grin. Swirl your finger in the foam in your cup. Describe in disbelief the 49-year-old bleach-blonde with blue eyeshadow who came back in tonight. Grab another beer when Billy re-fills the bucket, and clap for Danny when he turns the fans on. Laugh when Danny gives you the finger, and rest your chin in your hand as Billy tells stories about Adam.
Leave when the sun is rising, and sparrows are dancing around the crumbs that Billy should have swept from the patio. Gaze at the others that sing in the trees, perched on the branches of the maples that shade the perimeter of the parking lot.
Wake up next to Danny, who is still asleep. Peel the covers back and slip out of bed as he snores. Scoop your belongings from their pile on the floor and tiptoe out of the room. Dress in the hallway and return home. Silence your phone. Sleep all day.
Scroll blurry-eyed through the list of missed calls. Pinch the bridge of your nose and blink away the glaze. Call me back ASAP, from Billy. Are you up, from Billy. Can you come in? Call me back, from the General Manager. Calls from the General Manager. Calls from the bar. Calls from Billy.
Sit frozen on the barstool, at the table doused in dust-marbled sunlight, behind the locked doors of the bar. The ringing in your ears grows louder. Your vision goes black just before the voices speaking to you and the voices on their phones and voices in the kitchen and the dust-marbled sunlight erupt in an unforgiving combustion that throws your head into your hands.
When the room is silent, and they’re all looking at you, remain speechless. Remain speechless when they say, “We’re going over there soon. We’ve made some food to bring.”
Adam’s autopsy confirms drunk driving. Not Adam, the man who hit him.
Take a week off and consider not coming back. Drive to the river. Drive to Billy’s house. When it’s time, silence your phone. Sleep all night.
Yell, “Five more minutes to finish your beers!” to the drummer and bassist. Yell it to Danny’s girlfriend who is slumped underneath the bar, because you know she can hear you. Open her tab on the screen and wonder out loud if she’s on painkillers. Ask Danny to please start pulling beers. Insist that his girlfriend has to leave. Insist that you can’t finish the paperwork until everyone is gone. Danny asks you to stop talking for a second, please, and walks around the bar to lift his girlfriend from the rum-slick floor. Turn, and peel open a case of Ultras.
Ask Billy to help you finish side work. Wedge three bottles in each hand and Tetris them into a pyramid in the cooler. Wedge three bottles in each hand and keep going until the case is empty. Shove the bottles into their positions when they don’t sit right. Clank them hard against each other as you try to make them sit right. Take a deep breath when you feel Billy’s hand on your shoulder.
Sarah Batcheller is an MFA candidate at George Mason University, where she also serves as Social Media Manager for Phoebe Literary Journal and Blog Editor of So to Speak.