“Can I get you a refill?” Cindee asked.
Her life was in turmoil. She was a month behind in rent, facing an impending eviction notice and she knew her check and her tips this week were not going to be enough. She had already borrowed money from her brother last month and could not revisit that well. Still, she smiled. A smile sometimes meant larger tips from the patrons she served, and more than that, she knew they had their own troubles and could spare no concern for hers.
The man across the bar from her nodded and pushed his glass toward her.
“Thanks” he said. “Same ice.”
Cindee looked but saw only a few remnants of the ice that had been in the glass previously. Someone else with troubles she thought, as she poured a shot and more of amber colored Macallister’s into the glass. The smokey aroma of the scotch wafted across her nostrils, tickling slightly. Odd. With all the bourbons and the scotches she’d poured in her five years of bartending she’d never experienced that sensation before.
She placed the glass in front of him and as he reached for it, briefly, accidentally, their hands touched. In that instant, and over before she could focus on it, a surge akin to a static shock raced up her arm and discharged in her temporal lobe, leaping from there to her cerebrum, searing nerves and interrupting normal synapse operation. Strange, unaccounted for recognitions imprinted themselves on her parietal lobe and flooded her memories. She felt as if she and he had known each other for years and had just been reconciled after a lengthy separation.
As quickly and unexpectedly as it had come, the sensation fled, leaving only vestiges of its explosive force and fragmentary filaments of memory. The ghost of recognition still danced haphazardly on her nerve endings but achieved only fading echoes of its former self.
What the hell was that? she wondered, flustered, and trying to regain her composure.
“That’s five dollars for the scotch,” she said, searching the man’s face to see if he had experienced something similar.
His sad, dark eyes glanced up from a perpetual stare at a spot on the bar, finally, haltingly meeting hers. She saw nothing but deep, raw despair in those eyes—the eyes of someone who had given up and then that too, passed, and all returned to normal; she was a bartender, he was a customer paying for a drink. She needed a break.
He handed her a twenty, and without thinking twice about it, she gave him change of a ten and two fives. He glanced at the bills and back at her. He seemed to drink in every facet of her being in mere moments. Once again that feeling of deja vu, of having met somewhere, long ago skittered across her consciousness. She shivered, not from cold, but from the intensity of his gaze, convinced that somehow, in those few seconds, he knew everything there was to know about her.
“Thank you, Cindee”, he said, reading from the name tag she wore pinned to her shirt, just above the swell of her left breast. He handed her one of the fives as a tip.
She started to protest, but he just shook his head. She stuffed the bill in the back pocket of her Levi’s and went to retrieve a Coor’s for ol’ man Simmons as someone fed the jukebox and punched up Louis Armstrong’s rendition of Hello Dolly. Armstrong’s already gravelly voice was accompanied by a great deal of scratches on the worn out 45. Still, as the tune played out, the regulars and most of the visitors joined their voices in drowning out all but the deepest of the scrapes and static.
Another memory teased from the edge of her consciousness, making its presence known, but refusing to yield any information.
“You visiting from out of town?” Cindee asked, returning from delivering the beer.
He nodded. “Just passin’ through. Heard this was the place to come to drink oneself into a stupor.
“Are all the songs on that old jukebox as scratchy as this one?”
She laughed, in downright good humor, her troubles forgotten for the moment. “Yep. Every single one of them. This one’s always been my favorite of them old tunes, though.”
And suddenly, she remembered why. “My Daddy used to sing that to me when I was little after he got home from work. Funny, I guess I’d forgotten all about that until just now. And then, one night, he never came home. Mama said he died in a car wreck. The police said he was ‘under the influence’. I didn’t know what the meant then; I was only five. Must have been twenty years ago tonight, actually, ’cause I remember it was on my birthday.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, “to hear about your dad I mean, but happy birthday tonight.” He raised his glass in a toast.
“How come you’re working on your birthday? Shouldn’t you be sittin’ on this side of the bar lettin’ somebody wait on you?”
“Well, you know, rent’s got to be paid, lights got to stay on, other bills need catchin’ up on,” she said, shrugging her shoulders. “Sometimes, I guess you just gotta do what you gotta do.”
He nodded as if he understood all that she didn’t say.
“Another?” she asked, indicating his empty glass.
“Nope. I changed my mind. Not the night to drink myself into next week. Coffee if you’ve got it. A glass of water if you don’t have anything brewed.”
She turned around and walked to the coffee station, removed the half-full carafe from the hot plate, sniffed it. Wrinkling her nose and shaking her head vigorously, she said “That ain’t coffee.”
He laughed. To Cindee’s ears it was melodic and infectious.
“A glass of water then, and I will be on my way.”
He handed her the ten this time and insisted she keep it as a tip. She placed it with the rest.
“Cindee,” he said, standing. “It was very nice to meet you tonight, and a pleasure to talk to you. Happy birthday again, and tell your boss I said he should let you off early so you can celebrate.”
He turned and strode out of the bar, leaving the last five behind next to his empty glass.
She scooped up the bill, looking to protest, but he had already gained the door and exited.
When she finally reached her apartment, the landlady met her as usual at the landing to the steps that led to the second floor. Cindee had no idea why the woman would wait up until she got home from work, unless it was to make sure she wasn’t bringing any of ‘them boys from that devil’s lair’ home with her. Needless to say, tenant-landlord relations were not always on the best of footing. The woman’s nosey meddling and Cindee’s late rent had only exascerbated the situation.
“Some man,” her utter disdain readily evident in her voice, “came by and paid your rent tonight. In fact, he paid it for the next year. Wonder what would make a man do that!” she scoffed, unable to hide the accusation behind her words.
“He said I was ‘sposed to give you this, too.” She thrust a CD at Cindee. “What is that? Your lovers tunes?” She stormed back into her apartment without waiting for an answer and slammed the door loud enough to wake the other tenants.
There was a card stuck over the label, when removed, revealed the CD to be Louis Armstrong’s Greatest Hits. Cindee opened the folded card. Inside, it read simply: Hello Dolly.