It’s Thursday evening and I’m walking towards Café American for a post shift cocktail. A cool breeze floats past me, fluttering summer skirts and caressing bare skin. Sidewalk cafés teem with young people drinking beer and savoring the gentle night. Girls sit with artful carelessness, displaying newly tanned thighs as they pull men towards them like moths to a flame. The guys line up, waiting for their chance to get burned.
I get to Café American and sit at the bar. After exchanging pleasantries with the bartender I order a martini. My drink quickly arrives in a frosted glass. Cold vapors struggle off the frigid vodka’s surface and die in the surrounding air. I pick up the drink and take a long sip. Almost instantly the cold booze begins to warm me up. I catch a whiff of perfume. A hand touches my shoulder. I turn around. It’s Jackie, the bar waitress.
“Hey,” she says, a tired smile gracing her face, “How was your night?”
“Good,” I reply. “How was yours?”
“Well,” Jackie says, “Rick’s on vacation……”
“The owner’s away so the mice will play?”
“Usually that’d be true,” Jackie says, “But tonight I wish he was here.”
“Some lady flipped the fuck out.”
“Not an unknown occurrence in the restaurant business,” I reply. “What happened?”
“This lady pulls up in a cab,” Jackie says, “Throws her purse on an outside table and says she’s reserving it.”
“And?” I ask knowingly. I can already tell where this is going.
“Of course I’ve got people waiting for the outside,” Jackie says, “So I tell the lady the table’s reserved.”
“How’d she take it?”
“She starts yelling at me, telling me she’s Rick’s best friend, and demands to speak to him.”
“Ah,” I say, “The old ‘friend of the owner’ trick.”
“I tell her Rick’s on vacation,” Jackie continues, “And there’s a forty-five minute wait for a patio seat.”
“How’d that go over?”
“She demanded I call Rick on his cell phone so she could talk to him.”
“Rick would bounce her out on her ass if he was here,” I say.
“Of course he would,” Jackie says, “So I tell her no way I’m calling him.”
“You called her bluff.”
“And she went ballistic,” Jackie says, “She stomped her feet, screamed like a child, and called me a stupid bitch.”
“How old was this woman?” I ask.
“She a botox babe?”
“How’d you guess?” Jackie asks sarcastically.
“To make a long story short,” Jackie says, “I told her to beat it before I called the cops.”
“Good for you.”
“She hightailed it out of here fast.”
“You’ll never see her again.”
“I hope so.”
Suddenly a customer calls out Jackie’s name. We both look over. Some guy in a pink shirt’s waving an empty glass in the air. Pink doesn’t look good on him.
“Duty calls,” I say.
“Ugh,” Jackie grunts softly, “That guy’s a prick too.”
“Dime a dozen in this town,” I say.
“See ya later,” Jackie says grimly.
I return to my drink. The bartender comes over and tells me a joke. It’s a bad joke but I laugh anyway. The bar fills up. People press in behind me clamoring for drinks. I take a small sip of vodka. Then another. Soon the drink is gone. I decide it’s getting too noisy in here. Besides, I need to get home and get some sleep. I pull out my wallet and wait for the bartender so I can settle up.
Someone taps me on my shoulder. I turn around. Suddenly I’m staring at a man with no face.
“You leaving?” the man asks.
The man’s been horribly burned. His skin is tight and waxy looking. His nose’s been roasted down to the nub and moved off center. One eye seems higher than the other. A baseball cap hides what’s left of his red hair.
“Almost,” I reply.
“My girlfriend’s tired,” the man says, “I just wanted to get her a seat.”
A pretty blonde comes into focus. Why didn’t I see her too? She’s holding the man’s hand.
“Hi,” she says,
“The seat’s all yours,” I say, sliding off the stool.
“Thanks buddy,” the man says.
The girl takes my seat. While she’s arranging herself on the stool I notice she has blue eyes and freckles above her ample bosom. I wonder how her boyfriend got burned. A car accident? An unlucky fireman or a solider scarred by war? Will she stick by him? Is love stronger than appearances? Or will she leave him when she thinks he can handle it?
There’s no way to know their story. I’m just filling in the blanks. The girl’s standing by her man in the here and now. That counts for a lot. I pay my tab, wish the couple a good night, and head for the door.
As I walk into the cool night air all my problems burn into inconsequence.