Tommy Gray always drank a pint of Harpoon first. You could count on him like you can roaches in a Southie brownstone, every night at 6:00 PM. By the time he sat down the bartender would already have the pint drawn and sitting on a napkin. This is where I’d come in. I’m not the kind of girl who does anything like this for money. But it’s like that. Times are hard. I have a boyfriend, Damon—also unemployed—and a Labrador puppy at home chewing my good shoes, probably.
In my last job, I was quality control for Bic, and I sat at the end of a long assembly line, surrounded by pads of paper, picking up ballpoint pens and writing something quickly, then grabbing another a few down the line. All day long I wrote things like my name, or short mottos like “Jesus Saves” or Drink Quickly,” whatever I could get out in a couple seconds. I wondered what the cleaning people thought of me at the end of the day, reading over these quick hits of advice. I bet they thought I was trying to convince myself of something. Jenny—Jesus Saves—Drink Quickly—Jenny.
What I was expected to do wasn’t so bad. I would sit down with the good customers and try to get them to buy me drinks, and the bartender, Willie, would give me a cut of his tips on the down low. Tommy Gray, though, was on to me, I thought.
“Jenny. You spend more time here than I do.” He tipped Willie two bucks and set his elbows on the bar. “Can you get me a burger and fries, Will?”
“A girl’s got to have hobbies.” I said. Tommy leaned down and opened his briefcase, picked up a book. It was a weird title—Hot Water Music—by Charles Bukowski.
I slipped over onto the stool next to Tommy. It’d been a slow few hours. I couldn’t chat anybody up, and if Tommy didn’t turn out, I might end having been on my barstool ass for hours with no money to show for it. I remembered the pen factory—Jesus saves. “What’s that about?”
“Drinking. Among other things. Here. Take a look.”
“Oh.” I wouldn’t be getting much out of Tommy today. I started counting Willie’s tips without seeming like I was looking.
“Bars are a bad place for a girl as pretty as you. Before you know it, you’ll be hooked up with some old dude with ear hair and bad tattoos.” Tommy smiled like a prophet.
“I have a boyfriend.” I don’t know why I said it; he knew already. Damon had ear hair already, at 27. I dreaded what 57 might bring.
“Does he know what you do?” He winked. “Willie. Harpoon for the lady and another for me.” Inside, I thanked God, remembered the pen factory. Drink Quickly Jenny.
“He knows I have friends at the bar, yes.” I started fiddling with my hair and leaned in against him, brushing against him. “I keep trying to get him to come down with me, but he’s busy.”
“I wouldn’t let a sweet thing like you away.” He slipped his arm over my shoulder and as I was trying to get out from under it, I saw Damon walk through the door.
“Jenny goddamn it who the fuck is he!” Damon hadn’t even bothered to put on socks. He was dressed in Birkenstocks and a ratty t-shirt, and he reached for Tommy’s shoulder and that’s when everything exploded around me. Tommy and Damon and then one of their fists, somebody’s, coming at me like God.
I came to with a headache, still clutching the book by Bukowski. Willie mopping my face with a bar rag. I had nothing else to look forward to—Tommy and Damon had been carted away—so I opened the book and began to read aimlessly when Willie tapped me on the shoulder. “Here you go, sweetie.” He handed me a ten dollar bill, and I could see the rest of my life laid out in front of me then in a series of bills and brawls. Jesus Saves¬—Jenny. Drink Quickly—Jenny. I laid the bill down on the bar and smiled as best as I could through the bruising. I knew then that salvation might come, but it wouldn’t be tonight, and it wouldn’t be any of these men, not Tommy, certainly not Damon. Drink Quickly—Jenny.
“Harpoon, please,” I said.
Rusty Barnes lives and writes in Revere MA,but grew up in Mosherville PA, population 300 on a good day. You can find out more at www.friedchickenandcoffee.com.