The Smell of the Deal
by Chris Kuell
part 1 of 2
A neon PUB sign buzzed its orange greeting to passers-by. Jack dropped his cigarette and smeared it with the toe of his sneaker. Instead of drinking, he should be home helping his wife with the kids. He pulled open the heavy door and stepped inside.
The smell of cigarettes, moldy carpet, and stale beer welcomed him to the dimly lit room. Could use a VisionAir-650 Commercial air cleaner, he thought, as he headed for the mahogany-colored bar.
Four people occupied stools and stared silently into their drinks. A few couples chatted at tables made steady with matchbooks squashed beneath their legs. Two leather-jacketed punks busted each other’s chops while they shot darts into a worn-out board.
Jack chose a stool on the left end with two vacant seats to his right. A small piece of duct tape, edges curled and black, covered most of a split in the fake leather of the stool. He caught the bartender’s eye.
The bartender, a middle-aged man suffering from male pattern baldness, backed away from a drunk telling a joke at the other end of the bar. He picked up a rag from the counter and approached Jack. “What are ya havin’ tonight?”
“A pint, whatever’s cheapest.” Jack looked at the many bottles behind the bar. Some were dusty and nearly full, some almost empty, a symphony of tonics for the sinners of this world. The bottles stood on veneer wood shelves, behind them a mirrored wall.
Jack could see the reflection of the door and grimy windows facing the street. He observed the back of the bartender through the assortment of bottles in the mirror while he asked an old barfly if she was ready for another.
He focused on the pale blue shirt of the bartender. The shirt was split perfectly in two by a tall, green bottle. He recognized the distinctive long neck of a Midori bottle, about two-thirds full. A thin cloak of dust covered the bottle, obviously not a popular seller at — what was the name of this place?
A memory surfaced in Jack’s mind. He and his wife were having drinks in an outdoor café in south Florida. Ocean waves frothed and bubbled before disintegrating into the sand. A cool breeze carried a damp, salty smell. Licking his lips now, he could almost taste the ocean on his skin.
His wife, Sharon, sat beside him. Young and happy, the sparkle of future possibilities glinted in the deep blue of her eyes. She sipped a Midori and soda decorated with a maraschino cherry. A distinctive white tan line ran across one shoulder where her shirt opened. Seagulls squawked in the distance. The horizon shifted from blue to yellow to the burgeoning orange of a Hollywood sunset.
The wife in his memory sipped her drink, flirted shyly, brushing her loose hair away from her face with one hand. The kids were at Grandma’s, and he and Sharon got some much needed time alone. Amidst the fun they had fishing, searching for shells, and attempting, hopelessly, to master miniature golf, Jack told Sharon of his idea to quit his job and start his own business. Everybody nowadays had allergies or asthma, and air purification was the wave of the future. She trusted him and believed he knew what he was doing.
“That’ll be a buck,” said a baritone voice. The seagull sounds were gone, the air was not warm and electric with possibilities, and his wife was not there. Just a balding middle-aged man with a paunch and knuckled fists on the bar expecting payment for a foamy, draft beer.
“Sorry, I must have been off somewhere else. You said a buck?” Jack reached in his pocket, pulled out a handful of crumpled bills and a few coins. “That’s a good deal.”
“It’s happy hour.”
Jack pulled a five spot from the jumble of one dollar bills. “Little late for happy hour, isn’t it?” Above the mirrored wall an ancient Budweiser King-of-Beers clock read six o’clock. That couldn’t be right. Jack checked his wrist, only to see the pale outline of a watch.
“It’s always happy hour when I’m on duty.”
The bartender left the money on the bar and moved a step to his left. He grabbed a few empty glasses and plunged them into the dank, soapy water kept in one basin of the sink behind the bar.
“A night off from the wife and kids?” the bartender inquired. He pulled out a soapy glass and swished it around in the second basin of supposedly clean water.
“How’d you know I had a wife and kids?” The video in his brain kicked to life again: Sharon in tears, dark circles around bloodshot eyes, nose runny, hair disheveled.
“Jack, what are we gonna do-o-o?” The last word was more of a moan.
The video came to a stop when the bartender said, “It’s the ring, always a dead give-away. The kids were just an educated guess.” Another glass glurbed as it was tossed about in the soapy mix. The bartender put the washed glasses on a drying rack and moved down to another customer.
Jack took a gulp of cold beer and licked the foam from his mustache. He imagined his three-year old son looking up at him with a broad smile and lively blue eyes, the same blue as his mother’s. The boy had a buzz haircut, dumpy overalls, and pockets bulging with ferocious, plastic dinosaurs. He gently swirled the foamy beer in his cup.
Five weeks ago Sharon had taken Sam, the second of their three kids, to the doctor. He normally ate like a hog, but lately the kid wouldn’t eat a bite. No pizza, no cookies, not even ice cream. They had been slow to bring him to the pediatrician because of the goddamned insurance. Jack figured it was a kid virus that would clear up in time, but to keep the peace he agreed to a doctor. They could pay with plastic.
A call came from Sharon, long after she should have been home, her voice flat and far away. Liquid sounds dripped through the line. Jack bummed a ride to the hospital from his neighbor. He found his wife and kids in the waiting room of the hospital lab. Sharon stood with a young man in a freshly pressed lab coat. He saw everything in her bloodless face.
The children ran around and around the waiting room chairs. Jack approached and heard the doctor speak confusing, frightening words to his wife. High white blood cell count. Oncologist. Mortality rates. The words swirled around Jack’s head like second-hand smoke from a nearby cigarette.
Now, sitting in this bar, Jack remembered his first thought after learning his son was so ill. How the hell are we going to pay for this? He tipped the glass back once more.
He set the empty on the counter when the bartender appeared with a frosty glass of clear, brown liquid. A red swizzle stick poked up above the cubes.
“This one’s on the house.” The bartender picked up the empty beer glass and swiped the ring of condensation with a rag.
“What is it?” Jack eyed the free drink. He was a beer drinker, and rarely touched the hard stuff. Years ago, before his life went down the crapper, perhaps. Today, however, it was beer, the cheaper the better.
“It’s a new concoction, my own invention,” replied the bar man.
“Gracias,” Jack said, and hoisted his glass. He didn’t want to appear ungrateful, and ten more minutes at the bar wouldn’t make any difference. Past his lips, the cool drink bathed his tongue with a nutty, yet slightly fruity flavor.
“So, what do you think?”
Jack studied the pudgy man for a second. Hadn’t he seen him somewhere? The guy seemed kind of familiar, but then again, he possessed a very typical look. The eyes were a little unnerving though, too intense for this otherwise placid face.
Jack took a bigger sip. “Yeah, it’s pretty damn good, pal. What’s in it?”
Nodding in satisfaction, the bartender said, “All the wisdom in the universe.”
Jack shifted uncomfortably on his stool. Strange bastard. He took another sip. A damp breeze surrounded him as the door to the pub opened. He glanced into the mirror and watched a pale, dark-haired woman enter. Jack conjured a profile of the woman: divorced, crappy job, pain in the ass kids, bad teeth, in for her nightly courage.
He closed his eyes and tried telepathy. Don’t sit here, don’t sit here, please, don’t sit here. She sat down next to Jack with a melodramatic sigh.
“Gimme’ a Bloody Mary,” she rasped, “and a pack of Pall Malls.” The woman pulled a lone cigarette out, and then crumpled the empty package. The crinkling of the cellophane caused Jack to glance at her thin, age-spotted hand. Nicotine-stained fingers with long, fake nails placed the wadded pack into her purse.
The woman must have felt Jack’s eyes on her. She turned to check him out. “Evening,” she said smoothly, accentuating every syllable.
Jack nodded and took a big swallow from his drink. The last of the sweet liquor drained into his mouth, and he decided it was time to move on. When he set down the empty glass, he noticed a full drink sitting next to his untouched five dollar bill. Jack dismissed his pledge to leave and started in on this second drink. This one was the last.
The bartender returned with the woman’s drink and smokes. Jack studied the newcomer through the mirror behind the bar. The woman coughed hard and hacked up a phlegm ball that Jack tried not to think about.
“This weather really sucks, huh?” The question was carried by a sociable voice.
Jack grumbled an affirmation.
“A real conversationalist,” she snorted, smoke trailing from her mouth and nostrils. Already half her drink was gone. Inspired, Jack took a large swallow from his own glass. It went down easily.
“Cheers.” She raised her glass to him and took a gulp.
Jack looked at her thick eye make-up and foundation-laden cheeks. She wore tiny, gold maple leaf earrings, probably a souvenir from a trip to Niagara Falls. He wondered about her story, about why she was in here flushing her system. What happened to her dreams of the good life? It can cut like razor wire, discovering fairy tales don’t come true. In Real World U.S.A., she was just another sad sack loser. Welcome to the club, baby. Jack drained the last of his drink and left.
A big, wooden index finger engraved with Restrooms pointed toward the back of the lounge. He relieved himself, washed his hands, and splashed some water on his face. Time to steel up his nerves and go home. A long trudge followed by the bitching out his wife would give him for being late. First he needed to settle up with the bartender. It wasn’t right to assume the second drink was free. The goddamned bartender probably wanted to get him soused and then charge five bucks a pop.
Back at the bar, Phlegm Ball’s stool stood empty. Things were looking up. He leaned against the bar, looked for the barkeep. A young woman appeared from an open doorway at the far side of the bar. She instantly captured his full attention. Long, curly, dark hair tumbled down her shoulders. Her brilliant, green eyes locked with Jack’s while she moved toward him. Smooth, olive skin complemented her soft smile. A tight, brown shirt was tucked into black leather pants that must have been tailored to fit her fabulous ass.
She smiled and placed another drink in front of him.
“Actually,” he said, “I should be hitting the road soon.”
She pouted, using that age-old technique beautiful women use to exercise control over men. “I’m sure you have time for just one more. Besides,” her eyes twinkled, “it’ll give us a chance to talk a bit.” She leaned toward him, putting her elbows down on the counter and crossing her arms under her breasts.
Lightheaded, Jack said, “All right.” He resumed his position on the stool and grinned.
“I’ll even join you.” She pulled a straw from nowhere and put it in Jack’s drink.
He sensed her body heat, smelled a musky fragrance as she leaned in nearer and sucked on the straw. Her eyes, penetrating emerald lasers, never left his. Goosebumps rose on his arms.
“Someone walked on your grave,” she said.
Unsure how to reply, he grinned sheepishly, then inquired about the other bartender and his unpaid tab.
“Shift change. Far as I’m concerned, your bill is paid.” She pursed her full lips around her straw and took a long, slow sip. She studied Jack with an intensity he found flattering, if a little unnerving.
He was in his late thirties and didn’t pay much attention to style or fashion. Had he even shaved that day? When was the last time such a woman even gave him a second glance?
Alcohol warmed his blood now, and the attention of the lovely bartender relaxed and soothed him. The constant ache at the back of his skull had left. The sexy bartender asked if they could share another. Jack felt like a Zen Master, living only in the moment, his life outside the bar forgotten.
“Sure.” He admired her backside in the mirror while she worked.
She came back and said, “So tell me what’s wrong.”
Jack shifted nervously on the stool and glanced around the bar. No patrons anywhere, the place was vacant. This development didn’t bother Jack. In fact, he felt relieved. “I thought this was going to be a fun-filled evening.”
She leaned on her elbows, chin propped on her clasped hands, and offered Jack a view of the luscious valley between her breasts. Her bright eyes, now with little pools of purple swimming in the irises, drilled into him. She didn’t say another word, only waited.
Powerless, Jack complied. Over the course of that drink and halfway through the next, he told her of his troubles. Seemingly captivated, she took in the tale with little commentary. After he’d finished venting, she said, “It sounds like you need a bit of good luck.” She took his hands gently into her own. In a voice soft as sable, she said, “Close your eyes for a second and relax.”
Like a teenager about to get his first kiss, Jack’s eyes fluttered shut. Her hands were warm and soft. Calmness flowed over him.
“I want you to imagine something for me. Starting tomorrow, your sales increase dramatically. Your business recovers, and you enjoy a healthy profit. See yourself two years from now, financially strong.” Her warm voice wrapped around his mind.
Eyes still shut, Jack thought of how wonderful it would be to kiss her, to taste those sweet lips.
“If that image became reality, would you be happy?” she asked.
“That’s not exactly what I’m dreaming of right now,” Jack said. “But I’ll play along.”
A rush of emotion swelled inside him as if he were dreaming, except he was in complete control and could make his imagination go wherever he willed. “Yeah, sure, more sales, more profits, my life would be a hell of a lot better.” In hazy, pastel colors he saw a beautiful house, his happy wife laughing in a pink sundress. He saw himself park his new Volvo, shiny golf clubs in the back, then stroll across his wide, green lawn to the kids swinging on a play set. Sam waved from the top of the slide, strong and healthy.
He murmured, “Yeah, that’d be great.”
A long silence passed. The woman still held his hands, an alliance of spirit. She leaned closer, no more than an inch from his ear and whispered, “I could make that happen for you.” Her honeyed breath drew him in like a bee to nectar.
Jack came out of his trance and opened his eyes. His breath froze at the unexpected visage. The bartender’s mouth was twisted in an odd smirk, her head tilted slightly, her eyes open wide, the whites luminescent. A cartoon wolf right before it snuck into the chicken coop. A second later, her face smoothed and that excited, about-to-devour look disintegrated.
Copyright © 2007 by Chris Kuell