Verse 10: WORKIN' FOR A LIVIN'
Lex swallowed his mouthful of chowder, wincing a little as an unchewed chunk of potato went down a little rough. He swallowed again, then, as calmly as he could, answered the question. "I have not seen that much of it yet, but the natives seem friendly and the food is good. There are one or two minor details that might prevent me from giving it my most enthusiastic recommendation, but on the whole…" He shrugged, and addressed himself once again to the chowder. "So, what gave me away?"
Tully chuckled, waving to two women just entering the tavern, a stocky blonde and a svelte brunette. They returned the greeting before going to confer with Michael. "Place is opening soon, and I gotta get back in the kitchen, prep for the lunch rush. You finish that chowda and join me when you get a chance. I can work and talk at the same time."
"I shall," Lex replied and Tully rolled away just as Michael unlocked the front door. Within minutes there were a half dozen customers scattered around the tavern. The blonde barmaid, after delivering a few small brown bottles to one booth, stopped by Lex's table on her way back to the bar.
"Hey," she said. "I'm Bridget."
"Yeah, I know. Michael said you're playing here this weekend. I only work days, but maybe I'll stick around after my shift 'n catch your act." She looked at him with frank interest. "You want something to drink? It's on the house."
"Coming up." She smiled crookedly and departed, soon to return carrying a frosted mug. "Here you go," she said. "Let me know if you want another."
Lex took a sip. They dare call this ale? he thought. It was like being in the path of a flash flood – that is, perilously close to water. He thanked her anyway. She smiled, but continued to hover nearby, and soon enough the other waitress came to visit as well. The brunette introduced herself as Luisa and asked Lex where he was from and how long he was going to be in town. Remembering Gloria's admonition to watch what he said, the Minstrel found himself with no adequate comeback. The silence grew and he filled it by eating and drinking and hoping that they would remember their duties and depart. But they remained, watching him, saying nothing until Gloria returned. As they scurried away Gloria took the chair next to him.
"I see you've already made friends with some of the staff," she noted, a little archly as she took a seat and stole one of his crackers. "Don't flirt with them too much. They're too easily distracted as it is."
"I shall restrain myself." He knew better than to protest his innocence. Tavern owners never believed him. "Are you not eating? This soup is very good."
"I limit myself to one bowl a week." She lowered her voice, "Frankly, I don't eat here that much. I have to watch my weight, and chowder goes straight to my hips." Since there was no response that would not get him into trouble, Lex nodded sympathetically. "Normally I eat a salad in my office. Anyway, sorry to desert you, but I'm short-staffed. I haven't found anyone to fill in behind the bar tonight and if I can't I'll have to do it, which in all honesty I'd rather not have to do. I spend so little time with the kids as it is. Unless…" She turned to face Michael. "St. John," she called, "can you –"
"No way, Mary-Kay," he interrupted. "Agnetha would kill me. It's league night, and I have to watch the kids."
"I suspected as much." She returned her attention to Lex. "I lined up someone for the weekend, thank God, a friend of a friend, but right now he's in Pennsylvania – that's pretty far away – and won't be here until tomorrow. I'm trying temp agencies, but so far… nada." She paused. "Sorry, I mean I'm calling agencies that provide temporary workers, but with no success. So can you fend for yourself?"
"Worry not on my account," said Lex. "I have been invited to the kitchen to speak with Tully." He did not inform her that Tully knew the secret of his origin. She had enough holes in her boat already. Then inspiration struck. "Could I not fill in?"
She smiled, but shook her head. "Sweet of you to offer, but the job is more complicated than it might appear, and you don't know the lingo. Can you mix a Manhattan? A Sex on the Beach? A chocolate martini?" He looked at her blankly. "Thought not." She got up. "Finish your lunch and go talk with Tully. If you need me, I'll be in my office. If you get tired I have a couch, though you might have to wrestle me for it."
Bridget stopped by, asked if he wanted anything else, and – when he declined – cleared his empty bowl and half-drunk mug. He followed her into the kitchen where Tully was flipping meat patties on a flat grill.
"Welcome to my world," he said to the Minstrel. "Let me fill these orders and I'll be with you in a jiffy." As Lex watched, the man wheeled himself around, assembling, slicing, lifting things out of hot oil, and putting everything in baskets lined with paper. When done, he sat everything on a tray and rang a small bell twice. Luisa came in and whisked the tray away.
"Help yourself to more chowder if you like," Tully offered, jerking a thumb at a large pot on the adjacent stove.
"I fear it would go directly to my hips," Lex joked.
Tully guffawed. "You been talking to Gloria, I see. Y'ask me, the girl could stand to put on a coupla pounds. Don't tell her I said that."
"Gloria is quite attractive the way she is," Lex observed.
"Yep. She's a peach, but a little more padding wouldn't hurt. She worries the weight off. She needs to wallow in an orgy of comfort food every so often. Anyway – I know you have a question you're dying to ask me."
Lex nodded. "How did you know that I am not from your world?"
"Hey, bucko, when you get to be my age you develop a sixth sense about such things and – nah, I'm just playing with your head. You know that little box where my voice comes out? It's called an intercom. We use it to talk to people in other rooms. When you want to talk, you press a button; when you want to listen, you release it. Well, the button in the dining room sometimes sticks, so I heard your whole discourse on magic with Hannah and Nate."
"I see. I trust you will guard my secret? For some reason, Gloria wants no one else to know."
"Can't blame her," Tully said. "Might bring unwanted attention. But my lips are sealed, and so are the kids'. They're used to keeping quiet, had plenty of practice. With their mom running out on 'em and later their dad getting sick, they got into the habit of keeping their feelings hidden. They don't even unburden to me much and I've known them all their lives. Course that makes me ancient in their eyes. They have trouble enough opening up to Gloria, and she's only ten years older than Nate."
"How much older than Nate is Hannah?" Lex asked.
Tully laughed again. "She's two years younger! Honest mistake, though. She acts so serious and all. She grew up fast when Bert took sick. They all took his death hard, but I think Hannah took it hardest. She spent hours on the computer learning everything she could about possible treatments for what was killin' him… and finding none. Tough pill to swallow for a kid who thinks science has all the answers. Nate cried himself to sleep for weeks near the end, but not Hannah. She just stared at the computer screen. We all handle death in different ways. My father died when I was laid up in the Veterans hospital, so I missed his funeral, and somehow it's like he never really died, y' know? Your folks still alive?"
"Yes," Lex answered. It was almost certainly true. Had either died, someone would have notified him through the Guild.
"My mom's still hanging in there. Remarried and moved to New Mexico… that's a ways southwest of here. We talk every Sunday."
"Jeez, no. I'm not really their uncle. They just calls me that because me and Bert were best friends since grade school. When I came back from the war all busted up, he came to see me in the hospital. 'Jethro,' he says, 'when you get outta here, we'll find a place for you.' When he and Gilda bought the house, he set up a place for me to live and I been there ever since. That was back when Gloria was just a sprout, must have been only two years old."
"Yeah," Tully grimaced. "Never did like that name. It sounded so Beverly Hillbilly. Spent much of my teens trying to get a nickname, but it has to be a gift from someone else. Well, then a musical group named Jethro Tull came out with their first album, and all at once it was 'Jethro? As in Tull?' Bingo. Suddenly I was Tully. Mom's the only one who still calls me Jethro."
"It is a fine name. It suits you."
"Right down to the floor. When I was in the hospital, I musta listened to Thick as a Brick a million times. There was real music back then, not like that shit Nate likes. Today it’s all noise and choreography. There hasn't been any decent music since '72." Tully shook his head sadly, then brightened. "From what little I heard, you're a pretty fair singer, Lex, and you play that axe of yours better'n any I ever heard. You just need to learn some of the new material."
Tully wheeled over to a corner and raised his chair to reach a shelf. He took down a small grey box and a handful of dark green objects. "This is a Walkman," he said, handing Lex the box. "You put these cassettes in here, and press that button with the little arrow. Music comes out through the headphones. Try 'em on and I'll show you." Lex did and soon a growly voice came through singing about hard rain. "Made these myself," Tully continued, talking louder to be heard over the music. "That's Dylan. I got some Joni, some Judy, a little Simon & Garfunkel, and even some classic folkie stuff. You listen to these, and I'm sure you'll find some things you'll enjoy. Press the button with the square to stop."
Lex did and removed the earpieces. "Thank you," he said. "This should be invaluable."
"My pleasure," Tully beamed. "There's more at the house if you run out."
"Can I do anything for you in return?"
Tully shrugged. "Nah, I'm good. Just be nice to Gloria and the kids, and we're square. If you want to sing me some more of your favorite songs, that would be a nice bonus."
"I am certain I will have many opportunities to play for you," said Lex. "I may be here for a long while."
"There are worse places to be, Lex. I know. I've been there. Now take Gloria this sandwich before she completely forgets to eat."
Lex slipped the Walkman and tapes into his purse and took the basket to Gloria's office, where he found her talking into a device not unlike a magic mirror, only without a visual component. She did not look happy. He set the sandwich on the desk before her as she slammed the device into its cradle. "No luck?" he guessed.
"Lots of it – all bad," she answered. She took a sandwich half, peeked inside, then took a bite. "Looks like I'll have to work tonight. I can run you back to the house, and Hannah can order pizza for everyone. You'll like pizza. It's terrible for you, but it's what people eat when they're too busy to cook."
"Tully is concerned for you."
"I know," she said wearily. "And I wanted to spend some time with the kids and hit the sack early. But who knows? Hope springs eternal and all that." She yawned. "What do you want to do with the rest of the afternoon?"
"I shall find something to occupy my time," he replied. "Tully has loaned me some music." He pulled a cassette from his bag. "This one says 'Limeliters/Kingston Trio.' Of what is this made?"
"The cassette? Plastic."
"Plastic?" Lex repeated.
Gloria looked stunned. "You don't have plastic? I can't imagine a world without plastic."
"I suspect we would make such things out of crystal. It lasts a very long time."
"We make things to wear out as quickly as possible." She yawned again. "I'm going to lie down for an hour. Maybe the phone will ring and it will be Prince Charming calling to say, yes, he'd be delighted to tend bar tonight. You enjoy the music."
Lex said he would and left, shutting the door behind him. He walked over to the bar and took a seat there.
"Can I get you another beer, Lex?" Michael asked.
"No" he replied. "But I do crave a boon."
"Yes. Could you teach me how to mix drinks?"
Gloria's rest was uninterrupted and lasted far longer than she had planned. What finally roused her was the hubbub of Happy Hour in full swing. She cursed herself for oversleeping, and Michael for not waking her. "He must be swamped," she muttered as she opened the door and strode into the tavern. The jukebox was blaring and she could hear the clack of pool balls. She scanned the crowd for Lex and was astonished to find him behind the bar wearing a Gilda's T-shirt. As she gaped, he placed two frozen margaritas on a tray for Luisa.
Storming up to Michael St. John, she demanded, "What gives?"
"Damnedest thing," he replied, looking dazed. "Your boy asked me to teach him the fine art of Mixology. I tried to blow him off, but he insisted. I figured what the hell, so I gave him the Bible." Gloria knew he meant the reference book they kept handy in case a customer ordered something esoteric. "I thought that would discourage him, but he just sat down, stared into space for about ten minutes, and then started turning pages, one after the other. In less than a half hour, he came back and said he was ready!"
She glanced over at Lex, who was making a Seabreeze with the practiced hand of a seasoned professional.
"I didn't believe him," Michael continued, "but he insisted I test him. Believe it or not, he had memorized the whole thing! Rusty Nail. Sidecar. Banana-friggin'-Daiquiri. He rattled off the recipes without a moment's hesitation."
Bridget asked Lex for two drafts and a Long Slow Screw Against the Wall.
"So I told him that bartending was more than book learning, but he pleaded with me to give him a chance to prove himself. Once he learned where everything was, he's been letter perfect.
"No problems at all?"
"Only one," Michael conceded. "He's hopeless at making change. I better get back there before he has to break a twenty and has a stroke."
Lex finally noticed her and his face broke into a broad smile. He was clearly having fun. Gloria returned the smile, noting the unusually large number of women clustered at the bar seeking Lex's attention. Usually, men sat at the bar and women congregated at tables. Not so that afternoon. Lex was a full-fledged Chick Magnet.
"Who's the new guy?" a familiar voice inquired.
Gloria wrenched her attention from Lex to find Zoot standing by her. "How long you been here?"
"Long enough to catch his act, G," Zoot replied. "Nice moves, killer smile. What cake did he pop out of?"
"Believe it or not, he's the new singer I hired. He arrived this morning, and I brought him by to see the place."
"So he sings, too?" Zoot marveled. "Sounds like a man of manifold talents."
Gloria recognized the look in Zoot's eyes, a look that often as not led to extremely graphic morning-after stories. For some reason, that bothered her, and Zoot's innate radar sensed her unease.
"I'm not poaching on your private game reserve, am I?" Zoot asked quietly. "If you have your eye on him, well you go, girl. You certainly could use it."
"What? God, no!" Gloria exclaimed. Zoot's blatant sexuality always caught her off guard. She’d known the other woman for a decade and if one word described her it was "direct". Her father had told her the story. One day in '94, a young black woman got out of a car, noticed the help wanted sign in Gilda's window, and walked in. She strode up to the bar and demanded to see the boss. Bert was working behind the bar at the time, and told her that he was the owner. She held out the sign and said "I'll take the job."
"Don't you want to know what the job is and how much it pays?" he’d asked, amused despite himself. He had taken an immediate liking to the woman.
"Doesn't much matter," Zoot had said. "Whatever the job is, I can do it. Whatever the pay is, I can live with it. When do I start?"
Bert had hired her on the spot.
Zoot started as a waitress, studied to be a bartender, took classes in bookkeeping, and worked her way up to night manager. Before Bert took sick, when it looked like Gloria was heading for a career in medicine, he had seen the day coming when he would have had to decide whether Zoot or Michael would end up managing the tavern on his as-yet-unplanned-for retirement. Zoot, he had conceded to Gloria, had the edge.
Gloria met Zoot the same day Bert hired her, since Bert had insisted she stay at the house until she could find a place of her own. Zoot fascinated the young Gloria from the get go, and despite the differences in their ages and backgrounds, they became close almost at once. At Bert's funeral, Zoot cried longer and louder than anyone. Gloria’d suddenly realized that Zoot and her father must have been sleeping together, apparently very discretely, for years. She was shocked at how unshocking she found the idea to be.
Zoot nudged her in the ribs. "So he's up for grabs?"
Gloria made a snap decision. "Go for it, Z."
"I just might do that little thing," Zoot said. "That is one good looking white boy. You gonna introduce us?"
Gloria led Zoot to the bar and would have done the honors, but the other woman took matters in hand immediately. "And what's your name, good sir knight?" she asked.
Lex looked down at her. "Lex. Lex Machallo."
"Mine is 'Zoot' – just 'Zoot'." She regarded him questioningly. "Like in the movie?"
"I am afraid I do not know this, um, movie?" Lex admitted. He looked at Gloria.
"She's referring to Monty Python and the Holy Grail," she explained, fully cognizant that she might as well have said Abner Doubleday and the Invention of Baseball for all the difference that would have made.
"I do not know it," Lex informed Zoot. "Paro Dimah."
"What planet are you from?" she demanded, sounding both shocked and disappointed.
Before Lex could blurt out the truth, Gloria held a finger to her lips. He caught the signal and kept mum, just smiled apologetically
Zoot clucked her tongue. "Too bad," she said, and walked away to lock her purse in the office.
Lex looked at Gloria helplessly. "Zoot has a thing for that movie," she explained. "How people react to it is sort of a litmus test to her." He still looked bewildered. "It's not important. She'll be working with you tonight, so do whatever she says. Within reason." She reached into her pocket and came up a few bills. Peeling off a ten, she handed it to Lex. "Here's some cash.”
"I still cannot believe this kleenex is currency," he commented.
"Well, it is," she replied. She scribbled her address and phone number on a napkin and gave that to him as well. "After closing, ask Zoot to call you a taxi. A car will come and you give him the money and that paper and he will take you to my house. I'll leave the front door unlocked for you. Got all that?"
He held up both pieces of paper and nodded.
"Thanks so much for helping out." On impulse, she stood on tiptoe, and leaned over the bar. As if he had read her mind, he in turned leaned down so their faces were inches apart. She lightly brushed his cheek with her lips. "You're a godsend."
"T'ain't no big thing," he said. It looked like he was blushing a little, but that could have been the light.
"Who taught you that?” she asked, laughing.
Suddenly Gloria was aware of something. "Your accent – it's fading. You're starting to sound more like everyone else."
"I am an unconscious mimic. At the Guild, they train us…" He trailed off, aware they were in public.
"Zoot may take some getting used to," she advised. "Don't let her size fool you. She may be small, but she's tough.
He smiled. "There is an expression among the fisherfolk of my land: 'You always throw the small ones back.’"
"We say the same thing in Mystic, but don't say it where she can hear you."
The front door opened and Hannah rushed in, holding a multicolored sheaf of papers. She looked out of breath.
“Good, you're both here,” she panted. "We put these up all over, I don't think there's a windshield or utility pole anywhere in all of downtown that doesn't have your face on it, Lex. Here's the leftovers." She handed over the remaining flyers. "I already stapled one on the front door."
"You have been very industrious," Lex said. "I am grateful."
"Customers!" Michael called.
"Go," Gloria told Lex, and he went.
"You could pay me back for the cost," Hannah prompted. Gloria gave her another ten. "And something for my time," she added.
"All I have left is twenties," Gloria told her sister, who just stood there looking owlish. "Fine." She handed over one of the larger bills.
Hannah gave her a slip of paper. "The receipt," she explained, "for tax purposes. Gotta run. Marcy's mom is waiting outside."
"I'll follow you home," she said, and quickly explained about Lex's transformation to Bartender Man. Hannah looked dumfounded, a look she did not often wear. She dashed out the front door and Gloria went to her office to get her gear for the ride home.
Zoot was still there, eating what was left of Gloria's turkey sandwich. "Hey," she said. "I didn't think you'd mind."
"I don't," Gloria said, taking her helmet. "If there are any problems, call."
"Will do, G."
"I may stop by for a sec after dinner," she told her friend. "Just to see how everything's going."
"You worry too much, boss," Zoot observed. She got up and started massaging Gloria's neck with a strong but tender touch. "I love you, you know. You need to remember that."
"Love you back," Gloria said, and suddenly felt like crying. Before she lost it, she headed out the door.
"Don't worry about a thing," Zoot called after her. "What can go wrong?"