Drinking Alone in Public
by Dan Nielsen
It was a quiet Tuesday. There were only cars in the parking lot, but once inside, the place was obviously a biker bar. There was that certain undeniable ambiance: band posters of tattooed fat people, the “Bikers Welcome” Budweiser banner over the bathroom doors, too many pool tables, wrestling on the TV, and not a fern in sight.
Bill Fredericks chose an empty stool and named his poison. The drink appeared. It went down easy, so he ordered another. The clock above the bar had a simulated waterfall and a bear. It advertized that brand of beer that comes from the land of sky blue waters and has a Native American sounding theme song. It was the beer you bought when you’re broke. The clock was in the bear’s belly and let him know he still had an hour until closing time. He should already be home; he had work in the morning, but the woman pouring drinks was attractive and friendly, a dangerous combination, so he settled in.
He couldn’t stop staring at her. She had a pretty face and a sexy body. When she spoke, it was with a girlish voice, younger than her years. She was probably forty, but of the type who could look much younger whenever she chose.
She said things and then laughed at the things Bill said in reply. Bill was drunk and falling in love. It happened to him constantly these days, and he would suffer for it later, alone, staring at the ceiling of his cheaply furnished room.
Bill noticed that the label tag on the barmaid’s t-shirt was sticking out in the back. The shirt was skin-tight and pink with Ed’s Place printed in silver sparkling letters. Bill said, “Come here a minute.” She took two steps and was there. “Now turn around a second; your label is out.” She turned around and leaned back toward him. He stood and leaned forward toward her. He could smell her, a stimulating combination of perfume and perspiration. He touched the shirt. One finger made contact with the skin of her neck. She wore her hair up, but there were loose, golden strands, moist and curled, adorning an elegant nape. There was a tiny brown mole, precious as a jewel.
“Thanks,” she turned and smiled. “That always happens with this shirt.”
Bill smile back. “I’ll keep an eye on it for you.”
That’s all it took. For Bill, that’s all it ever took. It was a moment, perfect and complete. In Bill’s mind a bond was established, an understanding. She would speak to him from then on as a person. This was special. Bill also realized and accepted that it was part of her job. A man will sit on an uncomfortable stool in an unfamiliar place and spend too much money for too little alcohol for the possibility of fleeting eye contact with an attractive woman. If smiles were exchanged it could be better than sex.
It was a barmaid’s job to look at him and smile, to remind him that he existed, to see if he needed anything, to see if there was anything she could do for him. What Bill needed was another drink. What she could do for him was pour it, and put it a little extra, and serve it with a smile, and maybe a word or two. It was her job to make Bill fall miserably in love, and to have him show that love in the only way available to him, with soggy bills left behind on the bar.
For Bill, going out alone was a perfectly normal form of torture. He hated it, but felt compelled to do it, over and again, night after night. The point was to become another person, the person he secretly wished to be, at least for a couple hours. The trick was to do this without becoming a hopeless alcoholic, or dying in a car crash.
That night Bill desperately needed to be someone else. Being someone else required serious drinking. But you can’t rush it. It all falls apart if you drink too fast. Changing into another person through the ingestion of alcohol requires timing and control. Drinks must be sipped. The third is the turning point. The third drink changes you every time, for better or worse.
Bill had reached and passed that point several bars ago. He was another person, but not quite the one he was hoping for. He’d tested this one out on the bartender. She’d allowed him to touch her shirt, to touch her neck, and all had gone well, but then suddenly it went terribly wrong.
“Hey, sweetheart, your tag is out again.” This time he slurred the words.
“That’s okay,” she said. “Thanks, but just forget it.”
He foolishly insisted. She reluctantly complied. He touched her neck, this time on purpose, just because he needed to touch it. She pulled away.
He said, “Sorry.”
She turned back toward him and forced a smile. She said, “Cold fingers.”
He said, “Someone put ice in my drink.”
She forced another smile. Bill ordered another drink. She poured it and set it before him. Sorting through the bills on the bar, she chose a five, took it away, and brought back two singles.
Bill drank this one like a man dying of thirst. The night was nearly over. He was someone else, but not someone anyone could possibly like, or want to be with, and it was too late for anything to change. He was drunk and that’s all he was, the sum total of his being.
If he closed his eyes, the spinning began. This was not good. This was not supposed to happen until he was safely at home and in his bed. The bartender took the empty glass and poured another. A knuckle rap indicated it was on the house. The look on her face said this was to be his last.
Bill nodded thanks. The best thing to do was drink it down in one go and leave the last of his money behind. Broke, he couldn’t stop somewhere else. Broke, he might just make it home.
He did that first thing. He gulped it down. He stood up, a bit wobbly, but he’d be able to make it to the door, and then the car, but then a woman some stools away said the nicest thing. She said, “Hey, I like your jacket.”
Bill turned his head toward the voice. “Thanks,” he said. He’d noticed her earlier and immediately dismissed her as an impossibility. She was too young, probably late twenties, but already had that damaged and dangerous look. She was trouble.
She said, “What is it?”
Bill said, “What is what?”
“Your jacket.” She was very drunk, but could still speak in sentences, if they were short and simple enough. “What is it made from? What is the material?”
“I don’t know,” Bill said. “Suede?”
“Good,” she said. “I like suede.” She screwed up her face, maybe trying to look cute, but it just screwed up her face. She said, “What is suede, anyway?”
Bill said, “You mean in the larger scheme of things?”
She smiled. Bill forgot about leaving. He sat beside her. Her glass was nearly empty. He said, “Would you like another?”
Her smile broadened. It wasn’t a bad smile at all. She said, “In the larger scheme of things, yes.”
Bill motioned to the bartender with two lifted fingers. What was left of his money was halfway down the bar. It had been the bartender’s to keep. Now she picked it up and brought it over to him, keeping out just enough for the drinks.
“This is it, guys,” she said. “We’re closing.” She gave Bill one last look. It felt like concern, but maybe mixed with a little something else.
The new woman said. “Hi. I’m Sharon.”
Bill said, “Bill.”
Sharon said, “Do you have something going with Gail?”
Bill said, “Who’s Gail?”
“Gail is our bartender,” Sharon said. “You two were exchanging some meaningful glances.”
Bill smiled at that. He said, “I think Gail doesn’t want me to leave with you.”
Sharon said, “But you’re going to anyway, right?”
“If you say so.”
Sharon slid down from her stool. She was shorter than he’d imagined, a little thick in the thigh, but she was alright. She drained her glass. She said, “Drink up, honey; there’s more at my place.”