On Friday as I opened my bar at 8:00 as usual, my phone rang. It was my friend Pamela. "Look at the moon!" she bade. I walked around the bar and tapped Taylor, one of my favorite regulars and the first one in the bar, who had just told me about a fight he had had with Matt, another regular and Taylor's good friend. I'd never known the two to fight. It was a little surreal to hear about, quite honestly.
Look, I'm not superstitious by nature, but in my long history of bartending there are two eerie things that can affect the night, and both are far more Mulder than Scully.
They began their summit meeting with a cautious handshake, which I took as a good sign, and went back into the bar, thinking like I always do that maybe my Superstition #2 was unfounded. (I often attempt to disbelieve this anomaly, and I am constantly saddled with more evidence to its veracity.)
And regarding Superstition #1, had I known there was a full moon to compound the issue, I might have just closed the bar then and avoided what was sure to be an off-kilter night.
Back in the bar, I found that a dirty man whom I quietly named Gristle McGrizzlepants had come in. Taylor and Matt followed shortly and seemed to be on the mend. I went to G McG to see what he wanted.
"Hey man, how ya doin'?" he asked, extending one filthy hand across the bar. I eyed it warily, noting grit under the nails, cakes of dirt on the palm, and wondered not for the first, third or hundredth time, why is it the filmy, nasty people are the ones who want to touch you the most? And they will not give up; if you do not return the handshake, their diseased limb hangs there like a fart in an elevator and their eyes turn puppy-sad and puppy-hurt that you're not returning the bonhomie they wish to share with you.
"I'm fine," I said, interlocking my fingers behind my back. "Can I get you something?"
"How 'bout a handshake?" he pressed the point. God, they just do not give up!
To move the unpleasant situation along, I gave his hand a brief squeeze. It was dry and sandpapery. I then walked immediately to the nice, clean, scalding water in my dish sink and disinfected.
"How bout a PBR, man?" Gristle asked.
"No prob," I said drying my hands, popping one open and pushing it across the bar to him.
"Thanks man. Gimme a punch," he said, making a fist and waving it obscenely in my face. I made a fist, bumped his knuckles and disinfected my hands again, which were still smarting from the scalding water of a moment ago.
"That'll be $2," I said. He brought out a wad of bills, crumpled and equally leprous as his hand. I thought, and why is it these people never have a wallet, but keep their money wadded up in little spitballs and reeking like it's been marinating in ass?
I took the money, ironed it flat on the edge of the bar, squirted it with disinfectant, wiped it down with napkins and put it in the drawer at the bottom of the $1's so I wouldn't have to touch them again for awhile.
"And here's a dollar tip for you," he announced magnanimously, pulling out another spitball dollar.
I winced and grimaced, "Thaaaaanks," took the dollar, and put it through the same routine as before. Then I washed my hands again.
"You know Adem?" he said, mentioning my co-worker.
"Of course," I said, shooting a glare at Taylor and cursing his weird fight for tainting my night.
"I work with him over at the deli."
I've ordered delicious sandwiches from that deli. With horror I thought, you touch the food?!?
John and Mitch came in. Two better people are hard to find. They're a lovely couple who often come to see me and my night is brightened by their presence without fail. I poured them their Abitas and immediately unloaded my worries on their sympathetic ears, explaining Superstition #2.
"…so while the night didn't start off with a bum coming in asking for a glass of water and a book of matches, which is the WORST first interaction to have as that will murder any business I expected to do that night, Taylor and Matt's fight just isn't sitting well with me, and McGrizzlepants over there has only cemented my unease. You two aren't going to be … weird … or anything … are you?"
Then shook their heads and shrugged their shoulders.
"Thank you," I sighed audibly.
The night went on. People came and went. Not everyone was creepy, but everyone was a little … off … often in intangible ways that would be difficult to call them out on. Like ordering something and using a strange word in a common phrase: "Could I take a beer?" or "How much is a drink of well?" After a dozen or so iterations of this I felt like I had stepped into an alternate reality where people walk and talk like earthlings … sorta, but so much left me scratching my head.
A guy came in, tall, twenties, clean and well-spoken. "I'd like a whisky and ginger please," he said without swapping in any strange words or rearranging basic grammar. It was almost as strange to hear someone speaking normally in this alternate universe, so accustomed had I become to everyone's Martian translation to English.
He picked up his drink, turned around, and immediately dropped it on the floor.
He turned back to me with a face eerily devoid of shame, remorse or apology. "I dropped my drink," he added uselessly. "Guess I need another one."
I blinked bovinely at him, poured him another and set it down. He brought out more money to pay for it. I waved him off. "Um, it's okay," I said, then fled back down to John and Mitch who occupied the space at the bar that I had come to think of as my Safe Zone. They really were a last link to a sane world I felt had left me.
The bar filled up. People came and went with varying degrees of off'ness. One guy I had poured a vodka tonic for came back and put his glass on the bar. "There are spiders in my drink," he said. I looked in the glass. Clear vodka and tonic.
"I don't see any spiders," I said.
"Oh. They must have crawled out. Could I have another one please?"
I poured him another, refusing his money in reverence of his utterly original line. He thanked me and left a dollar. I put it in my box.
Gristle McGrizzlepants was sitting next to Matt and Taylor, who were chums again, I noted with relief. Maybe their newly-reclaimed friendship would erase Superstition #2 that had cursed my night. Yah right. It doesn't work that way, does it.
"I'd like to get this guy another beer," said Gristle, pointing to Matt. I shrugged and got his beer. Gristle pulled out three more wadded up filth-dollars. "Keep one for yourself," he announced loudly and glanced about to make sure everyone heard he was tipping."
"Um, thanks," I said, ironing, spraying and wiping the money.
"Hey thanks man," said Gristle, presenting his odious limb once again for a handshake. I fled back to my Safe Zone and showed John and Mitch a tweet I had made an hour earlier. "See if you can guess who this is about," I said, handing my phone over to them.
Why is it only the filthy-looking people at my bar want to shake my hand? And when I refuse they won't give up.They answered my challenge correctly.
Another gristly man came in and sat down and ordered something, I couldn't hear what. I asked him to repeat himself. He muttered something inaudible. I cupped my ear and said over the not-very-loud music, "Louder please?"
"A Guinness," he said.
I gave Mr. Mumbles his Guinness. He gave me a credit card. "Keep this open?" he said.
"Sure," I said, looking at the name. "Can I call you Ace, or do you prefer your surname, Mr. Customer?" I asked. He winked mysteriously. Gristle leaned over the bar and extended his hand at me. I fled back to John and Mitch.
My old friend Rory came in with his friend Melinda. I had met her once before under the same circumstances: with Rory, in my bar, she was already drunk, it was her birthday. This was about four months ago, I approximated.
"It's my berfdy!" she slurred loudly at me.
"Honey, if you're going to have three birthdays a year, you're going to age before your time!" I told her. She was confused by this. Rory corrected me: it had been a year since I saw her last. I apologized and got them their drinks.
I handed Melinda her drink and she smiled. "You really need to wash your hair," she cooed.
"Well that's a lovely thing to say to someone out of the blue!" I said and fled back to my Safe Zone. I heard Rory explaining to her why that's not a good conversational opener.
I picked up a dollar off the bar and put it in my box. There was a little spider on the top bill. I squished it.
Gristle came up to me, "Hey man, can ya do me a favor?"
Not if it involves touching you in any way, I didn't say.
"What's that?" I asked skeptically.
"Could you put this on ice for me?" He handed me a huge can of Natural Light, which makes PBR a rich, nutty ale by comparison. The can of beer was wrapped wetly in a once-white paper sack. Absolutely revolting.
"SERIOUSLY!?" I said, gesturing towards the ghetto beer. "I mean … SERIOUSLY!?"
"What?" Gristle asked, eyes wide with not-getting-it'ness. Some of my regulars around him started snickering.
"You're going to not only bring a drink into my bar, but ask me to chill it for you?" I asked, incredulous. That's not the right word; nothing tonight was incredulous.
"Is that bad?" he asked, stung. "C'mon man. I bought two beers. I even tipped you!" he said as if that were a huge deal, which I'll allow probably was for him.
My friends were laughing outright now. I rolled my eyes and took the beer. I cannot tell you why. It had something to do with not fighting the night, but just getting through it. It was a survivalist manœuvre. I peeled the nasty paper bag off the beer, sank the beer in the hot soapy water. Drained the sink, wiped the beer clean and buried it in the ice.
Melinda shouted apologies at me. I waved and smiled and rolled my eyes.
In the corner I saw Spiderman, swatting at spiders on his shirt.
Mr. Mumbles called me over. "This Guinness is off," he said, pushing it towards me. "Could I have a rum and orange juice instead?"
"Sure," I sighed.
I was worried for a sec because I had been serving car bombs to my regulars. I poured a bit of Guinness and tasted it. It was fine. I wasn't surprised.
My phone rang. "Is … [mumbled name] there?"
"No, you have the wrong number." I was about to hang up when the woman on the other end said, "But he called from this number. This is his aunt."
I did a double take and remembered an episode from earlier in the week at the Circle Bar where I went to see my friend play a gig.
I was sitting outside having a cigarette and texting friends to arrange doings for later when a semi-scraggly but not totally homeless white guy came up to me and asked if he could call his aunt.
Uncharacteristically I said yes, finished my text and handed him my phone.
"Is it ringing?" he asked.
"Um, no," I replied. "I don't know your aunt's number."
He rattled off the numbers. I punched them in and handed him the phone. It went to voicemail. He hung up and handed it back to me.
"Could I, uh, try that number again? Sometimes she doesn't answer on the first try."
"Yah sure, whatever," I said and hit redial. It went to voicemail again.
"Hey, it's [mumbled name]. I just got in at the bus station. The police interfered. Find me." He handed the phone back to me. I took it, eyes wide.
"Can I ask you a favor?" he said.
"You already did," I said, going back into the bar. He tried to follow me but the door guy stopped him with a cover charge.
His aunt. Sure. Whatever, I thought. But here she was several nights later calling me on the most skewed night imaginable.
"I don't know him. He just borrowed my phone," I said in disbelief to the apocryphal aunt.
"Well if you see him, tell him [mumbled instructions]."
"I'll be sure to do that," I said and hung up.
I realized that this night was an exceptional example of Superstition #2, and grabbed a notepad and jotted down notes to mull over later.
"Wotcha doing? Writing in your diary?" asked John. (I had, of course, wandered back to my Safe Zone.)
"Actually, that's exactly what I'm doing," I said.
Melinda grabbed me and twisted my wonky, painful spine towards her. "I'm really sorry about earlier," she said.
Gristle called me over. "So was it really a bad thing to ask you to ice my beer?" he asked.
"Let me put it this way," I lectured. "Would you walk into a restaurant with food and ask the cook to heat it up for you?"
"Ummm…" he pondered the hypothetical seriously. "I … don't know…"
I stared at him stonily. He held out his caked hand. "I'm sorry man."
"I. Don't. Want. To. Touch. You. You're Dirty." I said and gave him his now-cold can of beer and shooed him away.
Mr. Mumbles asked to close his tab. I ran his card. He tipped 8%, then ordered another rum and orange. "Can I just run this one drink on this card?"
I rolled my eyes and was about to go into my standard $10 minimum routine, then remembered not to fight the night, and ran the card for $5.
He smiled, scribbled on the receipt and said, "I tipped ya last time, my friend!" waved cheerily and left.
I picked up his credit card slip and noticed he had very specifically written a zero on the tip line, but, being a nice, upstanding guy who bethought me his 'friend', had turned it into a peace sign. I filed it away without another thought — it would take a lot of bizarre to turn my head at this point.
Melinda called more apologies.
Midnight finally came around. I finished my end-of-shift chores. I had a drink with John and Mitch and —not so much bitched, but … regaled the off-kilter events of the evening. I thanked them for being impervious to the weirdness and helping me to keep my sanity. I wanted my husBen who was in Munich, and I told John how lucky they were to be together.
"Wait, you think…" John sputtered. "You think Mitch and I are together!?"
"Well …" I was stunned, "…yah! I mean … aren't you?" I had known them a fairly long time and always assumed. They were always together. Their bar tabs were always together. They could communicate with each other with facial expressions.
John told Mitch my misunderstanding. He laughed. "Dude! We're not together! We're not even gay!"
I admit my gaydar is weak on the best of days, and broken most days, but sometimes you just know. I was nearly knocked off my seat with how wrong I had been all this time.
This isn't creepy, I noted. It's just … off. It's … skewed. Even my anchors of sanity had forsaken me.
I explained to them that it was a compliment, my previous assumption, and to their credit they took it as one.
I promised to start pimping them out to the single ladies at once, finished my drink, biked home, hid under the covers and wailed to the universe.