I’m bartending at the grille before the game starts. A flicker of sports jerseys from outside turns to a slow trickle of customers. Buckets of beer on sale I should prepare. Liquor bottles behind me, lit like Christmas by bulbs behind them, the competing smells of knock-off Pine-Sol and smoke that I carry in the fabric of my clothes. Rachel is already sitting at the other end of the bar when I return from my break.
I forgot to pay the other night, she calls over. Her voice sounds like a half-laugh, apologetic. The corners of her mouth are always upturned, a crooked smile by accident. So here I am, she says.
I nod. Behind me comes my boss Eric, who casually says he’ll fire me if a tab disappears. I think of last night’s menus – the double orders of bacon burgers and fries, rounds of picklebacks, baskets of wings that leapt from the fryer. Beers – the light ones no one thinks about, consumed by the gallon. I watched him crunching numbers this morning. Where do you get this suspicion? I ask him now – while he thumbs through the receipts and marks each liquor bottle with a dedication that’s almost monastic?
A feeling, Eric says. Just a feeling.
I nod at him and smile – neither yes or no, I just nod. I feign disinterest, pretend I can afford to lose this job. I walk to where Rachel sits, concerned look on her face now, and look back at Eric, watching Rachel and I with arms crossed.
I called yesterday to confirm, she says. When you weren’t here, I called.
I can almost feel Eric’s smirk from here. A feeling, he says.
Rachel looks back at me, expectant. I wipe the bar down, pretend like I’m in thought, watch the overhead lights shining white on the lacquer. Then everything dims and the TVs overhead grow brighter, turn my skin blue. Pirates game night.
No, I say, and I keep my voice steady, because I know the boss is looking. I’m aware of the dark stains under my arms, the food on my apron. Dark corners where I’ll pull the brooms and mops for later, the change on the bar table I’m too proud to pocket right away.
Glasses clink without warning. Going into the second inning, the announcer on the TV says.
Don’t worry, I say. Nothing’s owed. I glance at the taps in front of me. Solid knobs steady, and comforting like old door handles. The handle for a hard cider that’s shaped like a six shooter. The singer of the Cranberries has just died, so someone plays music by the band. Before that they played Tom Petty, Prince. A funeral dirge, I joke.
Matthew, Rachel says. The smile turned tight-lipped now.
Trust me, I say. A wink would be too obvious. I hope my glance is a knowing one.
She extends the card like an offering, says, Just run it for me, please?
In the corner of my eye I see Eric watching expectantly as he drops a bottle in front of a customer and shuffles off with bills in his fist. I must clean the glasses. I’ll need records balanced by end of day. I lean in, in between two people on the opposite side of her, inhale the fried grease and dough from the meals I cooked earlier. I take notice of her features, as though I haven’t seen them before. Squared shoulders, slick trail of freckles across her chin.
My smell again. Pine-Sol and cigarettes.
I must be thinking too hard. A look comes over her face, what next? In the background, a batter connects, the crowd cheers. Rachel’s eye stays fixed on me. I feel suddenly ashamed that, that serving does not require the degree she had, and that I cannot change her mind.
If you would let this go, I say. Then I could too.
She hands her card back. Then I’ll pay, she says.
So what did you get? I still try and make it sound as a joke.
She crosses her arms and glares.
Matthew, she says to me. I cut a look back to Eric, who’s watching. Matthew, she says again. Just stop.
I know she smells like lavender sheets; I know she cuts her hair down to a bob once every year. As of now, she’s three months off. I want her to notice me again.
I take her card, and slide it through. I already know the order from the other night. A wrap, veggie. Fries on the side. The two gin and tonics I made disappear. The flecks of bacon I snuck in. I print the tab out on drop it on the table in front of her.
The tip, she says simply.
Of course, I say back, and I turn to get her a pen she can sign. But then the tab’s signed already and she’s gone.
I’m fired, I say to Eric. I don’t mean it as a question.
He snorts and shrugs, turns back to the paper. Obvious is what you are, he says. Too goddamned obvious.
Jason Peck’s fiction has appeared in Smokelong Quarterly, Bartleby Snopes, Jersey Devil Press, Cheat River Review, and 100 Word Story. He also serves on the editorial board for After Happy Hour Review.