Into the Mystic

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Verse 2: GLORIA

"Michael, I just don't have the time or inclination to argue with you right now," Gloria Robinette said with more than a trace of exasperation. "Just cover the bar for another half hour. If Buzz doesn't show by then, we'll discuss overtime."

Michael St. John glared, but left Gloria's office without further complaint. Tuesday night was far from the busiest at Gilda's Tavern, even during the summer, but with a bartender running an hour late and possibly a no-show, that left her only one person behind the bar to handle the late shift. Michael had clocked in at 11:30 a.m. and was entitled to relief, but Zoot couldn't handle things all by herself. Even a slow Tuesday night in July required two bartenders and four waitresses just to keep the tourists, locals, and day sailors in Sam Adams and free snacks.

Buzz Kochanski's absenteeism was just one item on Gloria's all too lengthy “Resolve Pronto” list. The distributor had shorted her half the vodka she’d ordered and supplied three cases of Cointreau instead of three bottles. The brand new digital jukebox was acting up, one of the pool tables was out of commission until the felt could be replaced, and there was a recurring problem with the lights in the Ladies' Room. And, topping her list, number one with a bullet, the weekend's entertainment had canceled. That gave her three days to find a replacement, an impossible task during high season. Still, she could always press Uncle Tully into service, although his repertoire relied a little too heavily on material that had been cutting edge when vinyl was a relatively new recording medium.

It was at times like this that she missed her father the most. Gilda's had been Bertram Robinette's pride and joy, and he thrived on the challenges of running a seaside watering hole. His death the previous November had left the bar and all its hassles to his eldest child, who loved the place almost as much as he had, but hadn’t figured on taking command of the good ship Gilda's for another decade or two, if ever.

Bert had been diagnosed with mesothelioma, a rare form of lung cancer linked to asbestos, ten months before his death. In the late 1960s, he'd worked the New London shipyards, where he had been exposed to large quantities of the stuff, then used to insulate boilers and pipes on naval vessels. In his last few coherent days, he'd told Gloria that he bore the asbestos no ill will.

"It may be killing me now, but working in the shipyards kept me out of Nam, so it probably saved my life, too. Karma. ‘Sides, if I hadn't worked the yards, I’d never met your mum, never had you, Red. So on the whole, I got no complaints."

Bert met and married Gilda O'Leary in 1968, and seven years later founded the tavern that still bore her name twenty-two years after her death. Gloria had barely known her mother, victim of a hit-and-run when Gloria was barely able to talk. Raised single-handedly by her father, she had come to rely on him for just about everything, and he had lavished all the considerable love he had to offer on her. Even after his remarriage (which had seemed like such a good idea at the time) and the birth of his other two children, Bert Robinette lived for the red-haired daughter who so resembled his beloved Gilda, and she loved him back just as deeply and unreservedly. So when illness grew too much for him, she had – over his objections – dropped out of med-school and come home to care for him and the bar. She had, after all, worked there every summer since high school, and knew all the tricks of the trade. However, knowing something and doing it were two different kettles of chowder, as Grandma Robinette would have said.

Gloria called the last agent in her Rolodex and got voice mail, so she left a suitably desperate voice-mail message, then turned her attention to the never-ending paperwork. She was interrupted by a knock on the open door. An African-American woman with purple racing stripes in her close-cropped hair stood there, looking apologetic.

"Hey, Zoot? Whassup?"

"I have some classic good news/bad news for you," her friend and employee reported.

Gloria's heart sank. "Let me guess. The good news is that Buzz is here."

"Right. The bad news –"

"Is that Buzz is here," Gloria finished. "How bad is he?"

Zoot looked uncomfortable as she weighed her next words. Finally, she said, "Bad."

"Have him to come on back. Let's try and keep this as private as possible"

"I'll try, G, but frankly I don't think he'll listen to me."

"Do your best. That's all I can ask."

Zoot left, returning alone minutes later. Gloria gave her a questioning look but Zoot just shrugged. Pushing herself to her feet, Gloria suddenly felt twice her twenty-five years. This, she sensed, was going to get ugly.

Gilda's Tavern was located at the junction of West Main and Water Streets in Mystic, Connecticut [part of the United States of America, situated on a world designated Earth, third planet of the Sol stellar system, an unaffiliated world of the Milky Way Galaxy in the Virgo Supercluster of the Higgs Expanse of the Fief of Storms in Aspect Reality 823,543]. The Tavern, formerly Rafterty's, dated back to the Depression, but when Bert Robinette purchased it in 1975, his very first act had been to change the name to “Gilda's”. The kitchen provided a limited menu of burgers, chicken wings, nachos, deli sandwiches, soups, and deep-fried things, and was closed Monday through Friday between 7 and 7:30 pm so Uncle Tully could watch Jeopardy. For its patrons' enjoyment, it offered three pool tables (two currently operational), a jukebox (currently wonky) with a small dance floor (currently unoccupied), and live music (God willing) on weekend nights. Happy "Hour" from 4:30 'til 7, M-F. The décor was eclectic, to say the least, but consisted mainly of vintage movie posters from the forties and fifties. The most prominent decorations were the two pictures behind the bar: a large black and white framed photograph of Rita Hayworth in her most famous film role on one side and a similarly sized oil portrait of the late Gilda Robinette dressed and coifed in the exact same fashion on the other. On the night in question, there were perhaps thirty-five patrons consuming beer and various mixed drinks at the tables and six more at the bar itself (well below the capacity set by local ordinance), but it was just before 9:00 pm on a Tuesday night in July, and things would pick up soon, as they always did once the sun set.

Gloria Robinette (like T'Lexigar Machallo) was also an equally unwitting part of a vast continuum stretching farther than any sane mind can safely comprehend. In her case, owners of businesses whose primary reason for existence is to allow sentient beings to gather together and trade items of value for the right to ingest things that are not all that good for their health. Gloria was also completely oblivious of her place in the Great Design. She had problems that were shared by billions of lifeforms, true enough, but knowing that would have given her scant solace.

In one way, however, she was unique. At that precise moment in time, across the full spectrum of such business owners, there were 6,787,900,461,282,995 who faced the task of terminating an underling's employment. Of that number, 42.6% were choosing that option because the employee had become habitually unreliable. The reason for such unreliability in almost a full third of such instances was the too-frequent consumption of (among other things) the very substances the establishment sold. In just over 25,000 of that limited subset did the employer have a history with the employee that extended beyond the purely professional to the (for lack of a more graphically accurate term) "romantic." But in only one of those billions of interactions had that history involved the owner being so emotionally drained and totally snockered as to have engaged in a quickie on a pool table with an egotistical jerk of a bartender one night after closing, the same pool table now in need of felt replacement (although not for that reason).

Gloria, generally not that kind of girl, had immediately regretted the moment of weakness which had come a scant two weeks after her father's death. Buzz had had the right body parts to satisfy her needs: ears to listen, hands to pour tequila shots, lips to feign sympathy, a shoulder to cry on, and a yin to her yang. In retrospect, Gloria sensed she would have done far better to unburden herself to Zoot, who was probably as much a sexual opportunist as Buzz, but at least had the scruples not to take advantage of a drunken woman who had just been left with the full responsibility of caring for two adolescent siblings and a bar named after her dead mother. Zoot would, doubtless, have been a better choice in terms of gratification, too, truth be told.

Most important, Zoot would have seen the occasion for what it was, and had the decency not to try to initiate a repeat performance several times a day, every day, for the next seven weeks. It had taken Buzz that long to realize that "Not if you looked like Brad Pitt and were dipped in chocolate" did indeed mean "No." After that, Buzz's work ethic – never exemplary to begin with – had begun a steady spiral downward. He started showing up late, at first once a week, then more often. His breaks got progressively longer. He called in "sick", usually on weekdays when his tips would be comparatively meager. He spent more time flirting with the female patrons, especially when Gloria was in the room. He was never brazenly rude to her, but there was an undercurrent of hostility. And it was clear he was drinking on the job, and probably smoking something a bit harder as well, if his jagged demeanor after breaks was any indication. Gloria had no proof, just gut feeling, but she trusted her instincts. Most of the time.

As she walked down the hall from her office to the steady thrum of the jukebox's speakers, she saw Buzz standing behind the bar, looking as wasted as a vote for a third-party candidate. He was unshaven, his hair uncombed, and his shirt sweat-stained under both armpits. Sunglasses perched jauntily atop of his head, he was talking to three men and a woman, all – including Buzz – drinking shooters and laughing way too loud.

"Gloria?" Michael St. John was suddenly standing beside her.

"Stick around, Michael," she instructed him. "You'll get your overtime."

"You need any help?" he asked, obviously ill at ease.

She shook her head. "I hope not. We'll see."

Gloria strode up to the bar and tried to edge her way through the small crowd between her and Buzz. When they didn't respond to her calm "Excuse me, please," she tapped the young woman – a bottle blonde with a halter-top and cut-offs – on the shoulder, and repeated her request with a little more emphasis.

"I'm stan’in' e'ar, grandma," the blonde sneered.

"Very good," Gloria replied. "The ability to stand upright when clearly blind drunk is quite the useful talent. Now shall we see if the legs work well enough for you to move two steps to the left? That would be in that direction," she pointed. The blonde blew smoke in Gloria's face, staring defiantly. Gloria stared right back and it was the blonde who grudgingly gave way. Gloria moved two steps closer to her objective. "Buzz?"

He glanced briefly at his employer, then returned to his conversation with the three men. They were apparently talking about the Red Sox, who had beaten the Twins earlier that day.

"Buzz, can I see you in my office, please?" Gloria struggled to keep her voice calm, but could not keep the edge out of it.

"You're interrupting, Gloria," he drawled without looking at her. "I'll stop by when I get a chance."

"Now, Buzz!" she snapped.

He turned and looked in her direction. "I – said – when – I – get – a – chance! What's the matter? Don't you understand English? Or do you just understand Icelandic, you frigid bitch?"

"Icelandic!" one of the men snorted. "Good one, Buzz."

On closer examination she recognized the men as Billy Thurber, Nick Torkelson, and Nick's kid brother Dell, three of Buzz's old high school cronies. Buzz, Billy, and Nick had all played varsity football together. In the years since, they had not noticeably matured past the butt-slapping camaraderie of the locker room. They were all-too-regular habitués of the bar during the low season, and she had had to cut them off on more than one occasion. The girl was a stranger, but she didn't look old enough to be drinking here legally. In fact, she didn't even look old enough to drive legally.

"Buzz, you want to do this the easy way or the hard way?" she asked, making one last effort to salvage a situation that was zipping from bad right past worse to calamitous.

"I do everything the hard way," Buzz bragged. "Ain't that right, Ashley?" He leered at the blonde, who giggled. "Of course, you and the pool table already know that, right, Red?" His use of her father's pet name with such contemptuous familiarity was the match that lit her fuse. Gloria had worked hard all her life to belie the cliché regarding redheads and their tempers, but there were times you simply had to give rein to your inner warrior princess.

"Okay, Aloysius," she snarled, giving each syllable of Buzz's given name equal emphasis. "I want you, your sidekicks, and your pimply-assed, jailbait, mall-trash skank out of here in sixty seconds, or I'm gonna kick your limp-dick, crackhead, Rayban knock-off wearing ass all the way to the state line! "

"Who you calling skank, you…" the blonde began, but Buzz shushed her.

"You firing me, Red?" he said, smirking.

"I'm doing more than just firing you!" she yelled. "I'm banning you AND your posse from Gilda's. Forever. You show your butt-ugly face in my place ever again, and as God is my witness, you'll be singing soprano."

"Oh, I'll leave, all right. And wait 'til you see the sexual harassment suit I'm gonna file! In six months, I'll own this joint and you'll be the one who's banned. And you want to know the first thing I'll do after I take over? I'll get rid of this stupid, cheesy painting!" With that, Buzz snatched a bottle of Johnny Walker Blue from the bar and threw it with all his might at the portrait of the late Gilda Robinette, where the three hundred dollar bottle of whiskey tore a hole just under her hairline before shattering on the brick wall behind it.

Then all hell broke loose.

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