James D. McCallister

author of the Edgewater Chronicles

VAMPIRE SHIFT (Featured Short Story)

One day a few years ago I sat down determined to write a story with vampire in the title, but actually featuring no paranormal elements at all. No editors have as yet been suitably amused enough by this feint to publish it, so in the spirit of Halloween, here courtesy the management of Edgewater County Confidential is the complete piece. Whatever time of day they may toil, I lovingly dedicate this short story to all my friends in the hospitality and foodservice trade.


VAMPIRE SHIFT

James D. McCallister

I’ve been trying to get up earlier these days—four o’clock, four-thirty at the latest.

In the afternoon.

That’s working nights for ya. I need my rest, too: tonight, Halloween, is one of ‘those’ nights. A grownup holiday, now. Big party night. Big drinking occasion.

Before daylight savings time ends, which is next weekend, I want to enjoy a taste of each day’s fleeting sunshine. Once the Carolina autumn sets in and the sky starts getting dark by five? I’ll feel as though I’ve missed the whole day, other than what I might get to see walking home from the bar after work amidst the waking world going about its business. By then, I’m toasted and tired, cruising for a good solid crash. Maybe grab six, seven hours before starting the routine again.

I will admit that I’ve been doing this long enough now that during the day I feel unstuck and out of place among the worker bees, whose lives unfold bathed the light of the life-giving sun.

Suckers.

The night time’s the real time.

The only time.

Paddy, who’s been in the bar trade long enough to know, took me aside the other day, offered to rotate with me and work graveyard. Said I needed some naturally occurring Vitamin D and plentiful fresh air, which at first I reckoned to mean some old guy’s brand of speed, something from the 70s or early 80s before they had cocaine. Laughed at me, said he meant a normal life, lived during daylight. Paddy opens the bar every day, stocks, cleans, maintains, and then works happy hour, where he has his loyal crowd. He makes good tips, and is locally famous—or else infamous—for a deceptively potent, layered build he calls the Paddywhacker, not really much different from Long Island iced tea. Worked in half the dives down here, going all the way back to the 70s, he says. Paddy, a bartender’s bartender. A pro, unlike me. But I told him, nah, I’m into the groove, and so I think for now I’ll keep things as they are. I make more scratch working the late shift. He knows that. Doesn’t give a shit about my pale complexion, probably needs the bucks.

Doesn’t matter. I’m not long for this trade—my photography’s bound to come around again soon anyway, bound to come into focus, haha, and get the juices kickstarted and underway, finally—hell, maybe go to grad school. I’ll be done with the bar life. I’m on the windward side of 30; something better happen one of these days. After all, it’s not like I’m a professional bartender, not like Paddy.

More I think about it, he probably does care about my wellbeing. That’s the kind of guy Paddy is, crusty but empathetic, a good listener, wisdom at the ready no matter the subject. He’s also more sensitive than most folks know, more worldly, reads poetry like Yeats, Blake, Rilke, Wallace Stevens. Much more to the dude than just some aging dude slinging liquor.

Hell—I’ve seen Paddy cry once, when old Rogers Cuthbert died. Rogers, he’d been a regular at the Parlor for as long as anyone could remember, and I don’t mean on Friday afternoons—five, six days a week, slurping down gin and tonics, Marlboro Lights menthols smoldering between those gnarled yellow knuckles of his. For a solid week after we heard the news about him, we kept his high-backed chair at the corner tilted forward so that no one could sit there, and on the bar where his drink would have been we placed a single red rose in a vase—on a coaster—and watched the petals fade and turn brown around the edges, the way people do, the way Rogers had done: before our very eyes. Cancer, someone told us. I’d noticed the weight coming off, but he never said a word. Otherwise, he never changed, was always good old irascible and sardonic Rogers, and this despite dying day by day. Like everyone, I guess, if you want to take his worldview, which was pessimistic at best.

I asked: “Rogers—look here. How come you sit greasing this bar with those bony elbows every night?”

Over stooped shoulders, he slipped on a Members Only windbreaker that had some wear on it. “ Ain’t to sit here looking at Paddy’s ugly mug. Or yours either, for that matter. That’s for goddamn sure.”

I asked what, then.

“The smell of the urinal pucks you boys use. That’s what keeps me coming back.”

Ah, good old Rogers. I would say that he gave me a wink, or that his eyes smiled despite what his smart mouth was saying, but it wasn’t that way—he was kind of a jackass. I didn’t cry over him. Rogers wasn’t ‘my’ regular. He belonged to Paddy.

Image ©Huffington Post

Image ©Huffington Post

Whether we’re pro or not, Paddy and I work in a true bartender’s bar—The Parlor, despite its folksy sounding name, is the principal late-night joint in the college ghetto they call the Old Market, down the hill from Southeastern with its roiling burgeoning student population numbering in the tens of thousands. Here, every night is SIN night; here, we have a second happy hour called Crappy Hour that lasts from three in the ayeem until five, time enough that other service industry prols can count down, clean, close up and make their way over here to hang out in our dim nooks, on the leather couches perfect for semiprivate assignations, or clustered along our long burnished bartop that Paddy keeps impeccable and polished, upon which other assignations are also said to have occurred; or else out back on the porch facing the alley, where, if one’s inclined, it’s possible to take a discreet toke or two, bearing in mind that every so often the heat rolls through, trying to maintain social order here in the wild east.

Ah, the back porch—a fine place for customers and bartenders alike to sit unobserved on empty kegs and get high, to receive a sequestered and secret hummer from a drunken acquaintance, or else to avoid the mindless drunk prattle and general air of hustling inside. Or perhaps to talk for hours in hushed tones with a girl—a beautiful one in whom you’ve found what you at last perceive as genuine love beyond the boundaries of mere hormonal compulsion.

Poetic. I shoulda considered being a English major.

The Parlor doesn’t know of endings, like relationships that’ve gone sour; the Parlor doesn’t even have a posted closing time. If The Parlor wants to, it can stay open until ten in the morning.

If ‘it’ wants to, eh? The bar anthropomorphized, with a will of Its own to boot? The Parlor has a vibe and a flow and a rhythm, yes, but a will? Highly doubt that, though the place is said to have a ghost or two. Save these notions of personification for the English majors like my ex, Becca. Not that Becca, and who she was to me, matters now. In fact, if I don’t get moving this morning—this evening, rather—I’m liable to tart clicking around on Facebook looking for Becca. I won’t find her anyway, because she never had time to fuck around online like most people seem to.

Breakfast of champs, nom nom nom, procured at the Markette Diner two blocks from the Parlor, and in time for the national network news like we used to around the dinner table when I was a kid. The Markette, a godsend, serves such meals twenty-four-seven; it might sound crazy, but I’ve both started and ended shifts hunched at its Formica counter gnawing charred meat. Character. History. It’s a part of the fabric of the Old Market, this joint, so much so that its name suggests this symbiotic relationship.

My entree of choice for Halloween is called Hangover Hash-browns, one popular with the late night bar crowd, or any time of the day: it’s a couple of runny, over easy eggs flopped on top of potatoes grilled with onions, sweet peppers, and sharp cheddar cheese, all fried up on the ancient blackened griddle. The food, salted once by the cook, and again by me; a big platter. Like everything on the menu, it’s also a hell of a good deal for the money. Students, they need to make the dollars stretch. Students, post-grads, other unreconstructed, devolved adolescents unable to move on from the besotted milieu of their storied and youthful adventures.

Whoa, whoa, whoa—spoiler space. I can see myself reflected in the tines of my fork that scrapes at the last of the grease. A dangling tendril of cheese more orange than nature intended. A stray sweet banana pepper. Shredded potatoes dripping oil.

“What wrong?” Larry the cook, staring at me with a blackened spatula gripped with tension.

“Nothing, dude. Spacing out.”

“You looking at that fork like it about to bite you.”

“Just trying to decide if I want this last bite.”

Larry, he thinks I’m crazy. He thinks the world is crazy. “Who don’t want the last bite?” Saying it like it ought to have fifteen question marks. But not funny like in a comedy. More like scared at the thought of the uneaten last morsel on a plate of his food.

I eat the food.

Larry, he takes my plate away. Cook, server, busboy, all in one; it’s a small lunch counter. “Mo’ coffee?”

“Thanks—that was righteous.” Leaning into it. “Every bite.”

“Appreciate it.” The sound of the coffee dribbling into the stained china, a standard white diner cup. At four ounces, you need it refilled a lot.

“Dude, you deserve it. You make that grill sing.”

Repeating in a monotone, no eye contact: “Appreciate it.” Larry, one of those characters around here. Paddy says Larry has short-order cooked at about every place there’s  been around these parts. One of those bartender exaggerations. Paddy, he’s served enough booze to float the fleet, as he puts it. Language. Style. Larry could use some.

I’m struck that he and I seem like the only folks not wearing some get-up. “So, Larry—who you supposed to be tonight?”

“Do what, now?”

“Because of tonight.” I gesturing at two Star Wars characters walking by open front door, and at two kids eating in one of the booths—the girl’s a fairy with gossamer wings, her date a Latin lover in a shiny zoot suit and wearing a fake plastic pompadour with phony bling hanging around his neck. “Costumes? Ya dig?”

“Oh—fuck that noise.” He turns back to the sizzling griddle, another order of potatoes having come back. “No sir, not me, standing there in some goddurn getup like a bunch of damn fools.” Larry slashes at a sizzling lump of meat. Mumbling, annoyed to the point of anger. “Shit-fire, but no.”

I’m pleased. “We kids, or what?”

“Kids?”

Lowering my voice. “Playing dress-up.”

“Word to that.” Grease popping, he flips a burger. “Ain’t playing no dress-up.”

On my way out I nod to the couple, cheeseburger condiments dripping from their fingers, but they don’t notice me.

I stop and peer inside. A sly sweet smile as she reaches across and slurps two good swallows of his chocolate shake and slides the cup back over to him. She glances out the window at me and her expression changes to one of concern, pulling me out of my trance.

As I trudge off to work, the vision of their quiet intimacy disgusts and confuses me for no good reason that I can discern.

Hangover Hashbrowns

I cruise into the Parlor to find a few regulars sipping beers, classic rock on the satellite channel which I’ll later change to 90s hits. Scattered folks loll and lounge in the booths along the walls with the small televisions a patron can tune to any number of channels. Only one person in the whole place is in costume: a guy made up like classic Lugosi Dracula. All the others are in normal garb, which comes as no small relief.

But tension’s in the air. Paddy cuts narrowed eyes at me and then the far end of the bar where the big bossman, Reed ‘Reedy’ Giordano, sits yapping into his mobile and gesticulating; Reedy, a hand-talker, like a magician practicing misdirection. He leans on the bar, looking as though he hasn’t a care in the world.

I cruise by Reedy to go behind the bar. He ends his call, eyeballs me in silence.

I hang my jacket, nodding to the aging hippy dude, Neill, who like Rogers Cuthbert, drinks in here from four until about nine every night of the week but Sunday. That’s when he’s off doing old hippie shit, I guess. Tending his mushroom crops. Whatever they do when they go to ground. “Hey now, bossman.”

He asks me what’s shaking. Calls me ‘big-time.’

An odd smell in the air, like sulphur. “Paddy, you got a sour stomach again?”

Paddy grunts a non-answer, keeps slicing limes into a pile of shiny green chunks.

“So what you supposed to be for Halloween? Aging whiteboy with a gut?”

I hardy-har—Reedy, he likes to bust balls. “I don’t do costumes. Besides, bossman—what about you?”

“I got this crazy werewolf mask out in the Beemer, ugly as hell. Big bloody tongue hanging out,” which he mimes with three downturned fingers. “Looks like some goddamn demented Wiley E. Coyote. Got it at Halloween Express over by the Wallyworld. Gonna scare the crap outta my kids.”

What a psycho—his kids are like, one and three. “Had an uncle pull that kind of shit on me. You’ll scar ’em for life, dude.”

“So that’s what your problem is?”

“Okay—so what’d I do?”

“You tell me.”

“You’re really riding me tonight, Reedy.”

Scoffing, eyes boring into mine. “Grow a pair, you pussy.”

My cheeks grow hot. His vitriol renders me mute. “—”

Reedy’s phone buzzes. He ignores the call, dropping the black device into his jacket pocket. Now his eyes shine like glassy, polished stones. “Now, I don’t know what goes on around here when you’re shutting down, if you have friends hanging out, girls, whatever—but I don’t like the inventory sheets. Something ain’t right.”

“What does ‘something’ mean?”

“Numbers don’t feel right.”

“I ain’t skimming, chief.”

“Hope not.”

“Reedy—you know me.”

“Nobody knows anybody. Not really.”

“C’mon, bossman.”

Now one of the other bartenders, Kaylee, looking puffy-eyed, appears out of the back room. Kaylee’s been here a long time now, too, five years. She works a couple shifts a week here, and a couple as a server in a wings joint downtown in the other nightlife district. She’s high maintenance and sensitive to criticism, but on the other hand does a good job, seems honest, and probably hates as much as I do Reedy’s interrogation. Twenty-seven, Kaylee’s chubby-cute; since starting to work here, she’s put on weight (said Mr. Pot Kettleblack). Kaylee’s always griping about men. She’s been through a raft of loser guys. I hear it all from her, twice a week, clockwork.

Last year she confessed had to get an abortion, told to me through drunken tears, around daybreak and after numerous shots of Jäger. Teary, bitter. How the guy had done the right thing by paying for the procedure, and all? But how he’d never called her again, for which she was both glad but also sad in some vague way? I felt bad, but could think of no comfort to offer other than another shot, and a lingering hug on the sidewalk, blinking back morning sun far too hot and bright to tolerate.

“Anyway.” Reedy waves us over, me and Kaylee. “Look. I think this is a good crew here. Let’s keep it that way—noses clean. All that jazz. Sound good?”

“I think it was that way before, honestly. But, yeah, boss. Of course.”

His eyes, they pierce me. “Casey.”

“What.”

“You seem like you really love this place.”

I offer a hearty handshake. “Like home to me.”

Reedy’s taken aback, appears ruminative. A word like Becca might have used. I tried to work on my vocabulary because of her, but the odd part, it’s that I waited to do so until after she’d left.

The boss goes out to his car parked illegally in the alley, like he always parks—the important guy, flouting the rules. Who’s going to fuck with him? I don’t know, maybe he’s earned such a privilege. Like I said, he’s got other businesses, owns a couple of buildings, prosperous. He started with the Parlor, though. Made his first money right here. Close to his heart, he says. No wonder he keeps an eye on the joint. Never be an absentee owner, I’ve heard him say. Not that he’s here that often. Not now, I guess. Maybe back then.

“Thank god.” Kaylee blows out her lips. “Prick.”

I get my apron on and dance fingers across the speedrails to make sure we’re stocked with plenty of house liquors, the Beams and Smirnoffs. The call brands, they’re all displayed behind me on tiered lighted platforms, a warm aesthetic touch, more classy than the Parlor probably deserves. Mixers, garnishes—all stocked up. Paddy. What a pro.

“What’d he say to you?”

Petulant. “All but accused me of skimming. What bullshit. Fuck him.”

“Are you?”

Kaylee, mortified. “Am I what?

“Skimming . . . what did you think I meant?”

A laugh. “Hell, no.” She puts on a set of furry pink kitty cat ears, pulls out a compact. She draws whiskers on her cheeks with an eyebrow pencil.

“Meow. Here, pussy-pussy.”

Flips me off. “Where’s your costume?”

I explain my rectitude about participating in the ritualistic donning of occult-themed finery, of toying around with my own familiar markers of identity, concluding with a platitude regarding the pretentiousness of pretending: “Everyone should be satisfied with who they are.”

“Loser,” making the L with her kitty-cat thumb and forefinger. “C’mon, it’s fun.”

“Not for me.”

“You’re what my grandmother called a wet blanket.”

“Hang me out to dry, then.”

Concern. “Your banter—it’s forced. What’s wrong, hon?”

I shake my head, go on about my business.

I tell Paddy that since I’m here he should knock off early; he’s all over the idea like stink on shit, gone baby gone. He’d been quiet and cold to us both; I suppose maybe that Paddy’s the source of Reedy’s suspicion, but in this case they’re both wrong. Scottie, who comes in later, is another possibility, but I think his sins begin and end with being stoned as a bat a hundred freaking percent of the time.

The deep, smoke-scarred voice of Hippy Neill, in his literal cups of heavy brown ale, gets my shift off to a familiar start as he treats a few folks to one of his standard bits, an epic story I’ve heard a couple dozen times if I’ve heard it once—but hey, it’s Neill, he tips out real good, and so he gets to sit and tell all the tall tales he wants. He’s made some new friends, kids who never got to go to a Dead show because they were too young, which makes Neill a kind of oral historian, the type you get around bars in college towns like this one.

“. . . and so it’s like, we had dosed like a good solid hour before we left the house, right? And this was some shit they called windowpane—these little amber gel tabs,” squinting and making a tiny shape with thumb and forefinger. “But that ain’t important, just that this acid was like white lightning. I mean, god-dog, man.” He shakes his head, shrugging, laughing almost like he’s dosed right now.

At this point in the telling he always flutters his hand around and bulges his eyes, somehow trying to mime the onset of the psychedelic, no mean feat. “So anyways,” he says, fluttering, “we’re off to the show, it’s like the good old Grateful Dead, and they’re gonna be right here in the goddurn Coop. You can’t get your mind around it, but it’s all good, everybody stoked, all of us riding piled up in the back of my boy Tommy’s shit Suburban. Man, that thing had so many Dead stickers on the back window you couldn’t see out.”

“A cop magnet,” some dude says.

“True that. But you could see out the sides, and we was keeping an eye for them old bacon-burgers. We was tripping, and young, and watching the world pass by. But then, dang if we don’t take this back street, the one that runs over yonder past Hubert Maxwell Park, all right? And what’s next to that?”

I goose the story along. “The Southeastern ROTC mini-campus?”

Neill slaps the bar with an open palm, making everybody jump. Continuing in an ominous voice: “But all was not well in Hubert Maxwell park, my brothers and sisters. No, it was not.”

Neill goes on to relate how they see these ROTC cadets all lined up in full camo with their rifles and a couple of jeeps, and how his buddy Russell James, freaked at the sight of the military machines, starts screaming, “Something ain’t right, man, something ain’t right, man,” this being the big punchline. Neill says it a few times, laughing so hard tears squirt out and he has to catch his breath. “Something ain’t right,” he wheezes, barely able to breathe it’s so goddamn funny.

He goes on to say how he has to talk his buddy down. Persuade him that martial law hadn’t been declared because of the Grateful Dead or nuclear war or Martians landing or whatever. “I tell y’all what, we still say that to each other to this very day, me and old Russell James. ‘Something ain’t right, man!’ God almighty, if that’s not funny as hell . . . then I don’t know what is.”

Neill, giving me a wink, takes the kids up on an offer of a round of shots, including one for me. I pour myself a JD neat. Toss it back and chase with ice water, like some hard-case, hard-drinking private eye in a movie on TV.

Neill, out of stories settles up, tips 25 percent, staggers to his van parked in the one of the angled spaces out front along the main drag. I don’t worry about him driving home—he lives nearby, a few blocks. Probably, like me, by design. Why he drives, I don’t know. Some folks, they court trouble.

We get a pop. Like they dropped off a busload.

Kaylee and I work side by side—a machine, a delicate dance. For a solid hour, it’s nothing but a blur of slinging liquor and heavy, heady draught beer with foam that Kaylee remarks makes her miss the beaches down in Charleston, where she went with her last boyfriend all the time.

Floor getting sticky, hands too, but between orders I keep them rinsed, especially after rounds with syrupy ingredients. The bar, it’s steady but not packed, which is a surprise since it’s Halloween, though granted it is a Tuesday and not a good weekend night like you want for a national drinking holiday such as this one. Besides, most bars have costume contests and other such bullcrud.

At the Parlor?

We drink, read, talk about important stuff. We peak late, and on our own terms.

busy-bar-475x350

 

Peak experiences. Like with Becca.

There’s her booth, empty, a pool of pale light illuminating the spot where she used to sit reading, highlighting text, her glasses slipping down her nose. Becca. The girl who didn’t order cocktails, who instead studied while drinking our lousy, weak iced tea—doing her work here, she said, because in the coffee shops she always ran into people she knew and never got enough done. Becca, smoking, reading, looking bookish, whatever that means, which to me meant beautiful. Nodding to me as I’d come in for my shift, early, back when I worked as Paddy’s backup and got off about midnight. When she started calling and texting me instead of the other way around, I got butterflies in my stomach like some school kid with a crush.

Becca. We hung out. We went out. We stayed over, made breakfast together. Started sitting other places besides the bar, neither trading in witty flirtatious repartee nor often having conversations at all. Just being together.

It felt like love.

To me, anyway.

A sense-memory: a slow night spent watching her study, which she said she enjoyed, my attention from across the bar. Looking at Becca’s face, an easy task, even all twisted up by working on a paper about literary post-postmodernism.

Not understanding pomo, much less post-pomo, I asked for an example.

The answer as question, her eyebrows elevated, a weird flat smile. “Infinite Jest? Something like that?”

“Oh, right. I got you.” Not really, but I told her about how this cat I knew named Herbie used a copy of Infinite Jest as a prop: he carried the thick novel in order to strike up conversations with ‘brainiac types.’

Despite being his term and not mine she frowned, hard. That what I’d said constituted a “pejorative that hits a little close to home.”

“That’s Herbie talking. Not me.”

“Did he actually read it?”

“He never read a word. Not that I saw.”

“Did it work? His little prop?”

Shrugging. “Sometimes, I think it did.”

“What a loser.”

Becca scowled and shifted gears. “I feel guilty. I’m referencing David Foster Wallace, but honestly . . .?” She put her hands over her mouth. “I couldn’t finish it.” Her cheeks reddened. “Gave up under the weight of the footnotes.”

I didn’t know what Infinite Jest was like or what role footnotes played, only that the novel presented as long; I’d never attempt anything that challenging. Whenever I read, it’s more like Tom Clancy or Clive Cussler. “Couldn’t finish? Or wouldn’t?”

“Kind of the same? Neither up to the challenge, nor willing to try harder. Only so much time in the day,” gesturing toward her bulging book bag. Becca, ready to get undergrad over and done with, had been taking eighteen hours that semester.

“A brainiac type like you?” Willing my eyes to twinkle. Winking at my lover, at the time still dewy and new. “I thought you lived for that stuff.”

“I do. But Casey, I’m only human. A girl needs other things.” I felt her bare toes, wiggling and playful, on my shin. “Besides books and literary theories about them.”

“I see.”

I remember how the light from the beer signs glimmered kaleidoscopic on her glasses. “Yes. You will.”

That’s what reminds me of her right now—I catch a flash of neon glinting off a shiny surface, and Becca’s sitting there again.

Only she’s not.

I thought I was over her, or at least getting her out of my system, until one day when I heard that David Foster Wallace had hung himself. I’d never own up to having done so now, but when I read the blurb about the suicide on CNN.com, I burst into hot, hateful, hungry tears; I thought I was losing my mind. I didn’t make the connection, not at first.

But after I came in to work, and saw the booth, the situation racked into focus like one of my disused, dusty camera lenses sitting on a high shelf way in the back of a closet.

Becca. Writing her paper. Infinite Jest.

Might as well have never happened.

She wanted to write books, Becca said; or failing that, edit other people’s. Maybe eventually teach. All of it went well beyond either my experience or my ambition—I thought I’d be a photographer, but not in an artistic sense, something more workmanlike, but it hasn’t come together yet.

As for writing, forget it. I did manage to read some of her short stories. I thought they were pretty good, kind of abstract. Sent me to the dictionary a couple of times a page.

That’s when I started collecting words. Trying to keep up. It didn’t matter. All was fine, you see, until she decided to go to another school for her MFA.

Becca had two big slobbery golden retrievers named Parsley and Sage, with bandanas tied ’round their necks like in that sad Stephen Malkmus song about the mismatched couple who don’t work out; on Sundays we would take her pets to the dog park. The dog park, where I’ll never go again even should I one day acquire my own. The park, the place where she told me that, as much as she liked me, she thought with grad school looming, and a move away from here imminent, well . . . that we should . . . try going back to calling it friendship for now, and go from there.

Go from there the only relevant words that I heard.

After ruing my sense of ice water being dumped over my head, I joked that grad school was for chumps. That she didn’t need to move, not with so many jobs in the hospitality trade available, all positions, I noted, that lacked prerequisites like terminal postgraduate degrees.

“Grad school, Becky-Bo? Who needs it.”

She asked that I stop joking.

“I’m not. Not really.”

A cloud of unease across her dimpled face. “I’ve had such a good time since the first of the year.”

Ouch. “A good time. I get it.”

“It’s okay to be friends, isn’t it? Like how this all started?”

I barked an aggrieved epithet, which prompted the two worst words in the cursed language from her:

“I’m sorry.”

For the rest of the day, heartache bloomed inside me like metastasizing cancer, tumors of regret and yearning that grew for weeks afterwards. Months.

Two years, now. But only pangs. Occasional fleeting ouches in my gut where warmth once pulsed. Like, every night when I trudge into work and see the Booth Where We Usually Sat Together.

Some of the problem is that Becca, at six months, constituted my longest relationship since my other great love, Alice Faith. This is all the way back when I was a fifth-year senior dragging out that last couple of semesters, working at the independent camera store, a mom and pop enterprise passed down to a son who then sat watching the business get squeezed by the big boxes out on the beltway. That job didn’t work out, but I did manage to get some really cheap gear.

Another media major like me, Alice Faith, had been a sophomore taking the B&W Photography class I’d aced two years prior. I had noticed her and spoken in passing around the media hallways and classrooms. One afternoon she came into the camera store. I flirted like mad and tried to sounded knowledgeable, a photographic badass with scads of experience under my belt. She made a camera purchase; we made a casual date, and afterwards, hung out for three or four fun-filled months. Much to the chagrin of rent-paying roommates inconvenienced by such behavior, we had noisy coitus and bounced around like young people are apt to do.

About that time, I started bar-backing at McHaffie’s Pub to make some extra scratch. I had begun thinking about asking if she wanted to get a place together.

Then one day the camera store owner formally announces that his business, it’s struggling to compete with the big bad corporate outlets, and how very sorry but everyone’s hours now to be cut, and as low man, I got cut altogether. Laid off. I thought, well, it’s no big deal. I have McHaffie’s. I have options. Maybe grad school, anyway.

Soon after I got let go from the camera store, Alice Faith met a guy finishing up a master’s in international business, and as fast as you can snap your fingers at a slow server, I found myself wrapping fish as yesterday’s news.

A semi-tearful breakup ensued. Alice Faith came off contrite but blunt, explaining that true love was what it was, and should only be ignored at risk of enormous emotional peril. Later that summer they got married. I heard they had a kid about seven-point-five months after the wedding night. I didn’t, and do not, care. Maybe only sometimes. When I miss her pretty face. Which is usually only after I finish feeling sorry for myself about Becca.

After Alice Faith dumped me I managed to finish my degree, got drunk for a week, and went full time at McHaffie’s while I figured out what to do next on the road of life. Worked for three months like a crazed monkey stacking bananas. I saw no shame in tending bar to make do until a break of some kind came along, one sure to happen to someone like me, someone who maybe didn’t so much deserve a break as feel that the odds of impending good fortune were favorable: law of averages, all that shit.

One day I decided on a whim to pack it in and go to Europe. Europe, I thought. I’ll go to a faraway land, get my shit figured out. Meet the right lady along way. Who knew.

I went into work to give notice, and the owner of McHaffie’s, Jay—or Jayboy, as everyone called him—looked at me with his cheeks sagging. I thought he was pissed, but instead he said, “By all means, go. If we can’t squeeze you back in here after you get back, there’s always another bar to work in somewhere—trustme.”

Jayboy, a successful businessman. I took his advice: Amsterdam, Paris, Italy, Greece. Hostels, trains, backpacking. Taking hundreds of snaps, at least until my camera disappeared on me one night while partying in Greece with these cats, olive-skinned guys who spoke my language with reasonable fluency and who laughed a lot, seemed fun. Had a couple of girls show up; a real good time. We were drinking ouzo in a park and I got about as saturated as I’ve ever been, head spinning, finally passing out on a picnic table. Because they spoke English so well I had let my guard down, trusted those dudes.

Woke up to no camera.

Heading back toward Amsterdam to fly home, me a French girl along the way, Alexandra; charmed, she seemed, by the American claiming to be a photographer and yet having no camera. A likely story. The best memories of the whole trip ended up being Alexandra’s dark eyes flashing, the squeaking of the bed in a cheap room, her soft moans, the scent of her body earthy, spicy, unfamiliar; the goodbye, at the train station.

A lingering hug. “I will see you again someday, I am certain,” in her charming accent. “Goodbye, Ca-zee.”

I still can’t watch those Richard Linklater movies, the ones with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy.

I spent the rest of the trip in the Amsterdam coffee shops. I got ripped on Afghani hash and tried to forget about the idea of ever seeing her again, or Alice Faith, for that matter. I suffered the stuff of romantic, wistful remorse. Not so much for the acts themselves, or their small number, only, I think, that I never got to know Alexandra any better than I did. Or Alice Faith.

Or Becca.

Or maybe it’s that they get to know me too fast.

Ouch. Am I that bad?

Amsterdam

“I think I’m in love with you.”

I say this as Kaylee and I bump elbows, both trying to muddle mojitos from the same plastic sack of mint leaves. Mojitos, a bullshit rigmarole build, a drink that Paddy, an old guy who savors single malt scotch, thinks is ‘fruity’: takes a long time to make, the customer drinks the damn thing down in half the time it takes to make it, and then? They want another.

Kaylee seems cynical at my declaration of affection: “Oh, please.”

“Maybe I’m serious.”

She warns me not to joke about such matters of the heart, not to a girl between meaningfuls, as she terms relationships that last longer than a weekend.

“I’d never lie to you.”

“Gimme a break, Case Logic,” a nickname she gave me one day when I was flipping through an old binder of CDs. “I’m fragile right now.”

Kaylee, a drama queen. Heard her call herself fragile more times than I can count.

Here’s the thing. I feel like I know Kaylee. Wouldn’t be like another drunken meaningless lay, bada bing and all that. We’re already friends. A shorthand between us. Intimacy, of a kind.

“You’re the most beautiful woman I know.”

“Just make both of these fucking things, okay? I’ll pull your ales for you.”

“Beautiful, and giving. A rare combo. A sexy one.”

A scoff and a frown—a curious frown.

I make a perfect pair of mojitos; I’m a damn good bartender. Would that my pouring skills translated into matters of the heart.

Now that Scottie’s here I accost Kaylee, whom I find removing her kittycat ears out on the back porch. She looks cuddly in her Southeastern Redtails sweatshirt, mascara smudged from sweating during the shift, or else from crying hours ago over Reedy’s accusations.

I grope and tickle ribs layered by cloth and flesh. Kiss her cheek.

“Ow, you pervert—quit it.”

I pull her close. “So look: maybe I wasn’t kidding.”

“I told you not to mess with me like that.”

I take her face in my hands, which I made sure to wash before following her outside.

“Kaylee: what are you doing tomorrow afternoon?”

Her face remains confused and wary. “What is this foolishness?”

“Totally serious.”

“You want to take me out on a date?”

I do indeed; I tell her so. “I’ve liked you for a long-ass time.”

“You have?”

“What’s not to like?”

A cautious smile. “Why don’t you call me tomorrow. We can talk then—just weird sometimes when you work with someone? To hook up? Don’t you think?”

“I don’t know. Let’s figure it out.”

“All right, honey.” She gives me a sisterly peck on the cheek.

This is going nowhere. I feel like an idiot. Why Kaylee? Why now? Why not.

Crappy Hour’s upon us. A wave comes through the front door, goblins and witches and cheerleaders and fake rock stars with plastic guitars, whooping and hollering and ready to drink—it’s the floor staff from the fern bar across from the fountain. Scottie has managed to get stoned enough to be a decent bartender for a change.

A new round of pouring beers, making shots, straining to talk over the revelry. “I see they made y’all dress up.” I say this to Carla, a cute hostess from the restaurant, who appears tonight as a Johnny Depp-style pirate.

“I don’t mind—dude, I fucking love Halloween.”

“How were tips?”

Now a sour face. Slurring: “Like, for shit.”

Fewer tips means less to tip me. What am I saying—they work in the trade. They’ll tip out.

“Casey—will you do a shot with us?”

“Sure.”

I make the shots, a stupid sweet one called a Purple Hooter. After I do one, everybody cheers but I feel a cold hole open in the middle of my body, like the liquor has burned straight through.

More off-the-clock bartenders come in. I turn down another shot, make a chocolatini or two, make a bourbon rocks with a water back, pull pints, make G&Ts. I keep looking for Becca, have to remind myself that I’ll settle for my friends Mel and Johnna who will be coming soon, loyal early morning cowgirls who’ll close down the biker bar on the other side of the Market and then amble over in time to greet the sunrise. Far from Halloween ghosts, these women present instead as real and tangible. But only friends.

Thinking of Johnna makes me think of how I’d asked Kaylee out. Johnna’s wise about stuff, a bartender for 15 years now. She’s always talking about the do’s and don’ts of working in the trade. For instance, never to fuck your coworkers or your boss.

Oops. Maybe she’s wrong about that.

Another bit of wisdom, this one offered at about ten ayeem one morning while we sat getting drunk as hell watching the Today show together, the bile from doing shots of Maker’s that sat lapping at the back of my throat, briny and acidic as a polluted harbor.

Johnna, besotted yet lucid, explained: “You can party alongside your customers, sure, but you’ve got to stay one stair-step less fucked up than them.”

“Because . . .?”

“Because that’s when you get ripped off.”

“You mean people skipping out on tabs?”

“Well, there’s that. But it’s that you stop caring about the quality of your service. Which is what gets you the tips. Which is where the real money is.”

I understood completely, told her so. Johnna, a pro.

For some reason, though, Mel and Johnna don’t show up on this waning Halloween night, and people stagger out earlier than normal; by six-thirty we’re winding it down and buttoning her up. What do you know—Scottie and I are done in time to see the first lilac band of sunrise appear over tops of the downtown buildings.

“So I heard a rumor.” Outside on the street, Scottie, pulling his jacket tight against the chill of November 1. “You hear it, too?”

I remember Reedy, and his visit at the beginning of my shift. Seems like a different day, mainly because it was. “Someone’s getting fired.”

“Not exactly. I heard that Reedy wants to sell this dump.”

Terrible news. “A new boss? That’s just what we need.”

“Heard that he wants to sell, but only to someone who loves the place like he does.”

I absorb this remark. “Really, now.”

“S’what I heard. Take it easy.”

“Take it sleazy.”

Scottie gets into his shitbox Jetta and putters off, leaving me alone but for the dawn and the songbirds and the garbage trucks rumbling along.

Maybe I’ll talk to Reedy. Couldn’t hurt. Reedy, he gets his rest, has a good life, a family, a good wife. He got there somehow.

Owning this dump.

Yo—for real?

Is that where we are? When did we get here?

Okay, then.

Hell—even if I don’t want to buy this crummy joint, I like the job, but again, it’s temporary until I get my shit together. The money’s good; hours weird, but that can be fixed.

What else would I do, now? Maybe I’m trapped in this cycle. He lives and roams by night.

Yeah. The normal everyday world turns on a different axis from mine, people living their lives exposed and examined beneath the harsh scrutiny of the noonday sun, meanwhile I’m hiding safe beneath the cloak of darkness—a nocturnal wraith taking the pulse of the nightswept city, waiting for sleepless drinkers to come in, for folks to order and consume, for customers to offer remuneration for a service most valuable: the transfer of spirits from one vessel to another. It is thus that the vampire shift—the wages of SIN—sustains me. For now.

–end–

Five Points

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About dmac

James D. McCallister is a South Carolina author of novels, short stories, and creative nonfiction. His latest novel Let the Glory Pass Away releases in January 2017.

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