The service door to The Restless Prawn flew open harder than expected from the touch of my hip. I was carrying in a new batch of snakes for the night, and both hands were required to keep the box steady. Of course, the mandatory 4-inch platform heels weren’t exactly helping matters. Loud music flooded up the stairwell into the cold smog of the outside world, and the body heat of the dancing masses below me did well enough to send warmth my way.
“Who’s ready for some more shots?”
It was my boss, Stelrick. He bounded over and grabbed the box from me so I could take my place back behind the long bar. First though, I shrugged out of my trench and hung it up in the coat closet. One hard tug at my shirt in front of the mirror and I was ready to get back to work. The cleavage wasn’t a requirement for the job—Stelrick’s no perv—but I needed all the tips I could get to help out at home, and if I was going to serve these whackjobs all night, I was going to maximize my rewards.
“Beck’s here to take care of all your beverage needs!” he gave off in a sing-song while he made his way into the kitchen with his newly acquired box.
I thrust myself into character, taking a step out into the overcharged energy of the main room. Goodbye sensible Rebecca Lichenbouer and hello party hardy Beck.
“Whooooo!” I shouted out to the crowd as I walked up to my spot as bartender. The patrons in turn lifted their glasses and shouted back. I was getting pretty good at playing the crowd, it was starting to feel less dirty and more fun.
Stelrick worked the bar with me most nights, the Restless Prawn was getting more popular since he bought it and transformed it into the den of chaos, colorful lighting, booze, and exotic dancers that it was now. He came up to me as I poured glasses of one of our signature drinks, the Rakshasa, a dark, heavy liquor that we serve in the tallest, thinnest glasses possible. It was genius on his part, the unique glass, the name people just want to say aloud, and the precision it takes to pour, it’s all a great spectacle.
“Beck, we got some blokes askin’ about the snake wine. You up for it?”
It was a question of formality, there’s no saying ‘no’ to serving up, especially for this kind of ordeal. Snake wine, of all the disgusting, inhumane dishes we served up here, was my least favorite. The whole appeal was basically a pissing contest. ’Oooh me big man, me drink snake blood, eat heart while still beating’. I’d even prefer the horrific dancing squid dish to serving snake wine, but honestly I was the only girl who would hold the snakes without dropping them, and with guys being it’s main demographic... you could see why they’d appreciate the visuals of me, not Stelrick, milking a snake in front of them.
I swiped the payment for the Rakshasas and went to pick out my next legless victim. This was the important part: I’d have to get the little guy to wrap himself up my arm, presentation is everything. I’d have to be as nonthreatening as possible when I picked him up, and only get his blood pumping as part of the real show. I always felt like a charlatan, befriending the animal just to slice it open minutes later.
Everyone in the bar stools gasped as I walked back out, some of them knew what was coming and gathered around to watch the gruesome show. One of the other girls working, Ada, pulled a dark blue bottle of rice wine and a stack of shot glasses from under the counter for me. She selected one of the ornamental knives and waited.
The show began as I let the snake wander back down from my arm, onto the bar in front of the men. It struck out at them, realizing the threat. I grabbed it, tapped it’s sides around, teasing it, making sure it’s heart would still be beating rapidly when the shots were divvied up. It was luck of the draw which man would get it in their glass, we say it’s a good omen for the future, but really, who the hell knew?
Ada handed me the knife, I held it in the hand that wasn’t grasping the snake’s head. It’s tail was writhing, attempting to wrap around my arm with harmful intentions this time around.
The men watched, chattering amongst themselves about how awesome they were, how gross this was, that they’d have to tell everyone back home what they did here. Ada laid out the shot glasses in front of me, she made sure to lean over just so as she poured rice wine into each.
Sorry buddy, I thought as I held the snake over the row, turned his head backwards and cut a slice down his body. I squeezed the blood out into each glass and the clear liquor was overtaken by the red clouds forming in them. Each man took their shots, slammed the glasses down and Ada quickly refilled them. Blood was dripping everywhere, this was a drinking game of speed. This went on until the blood stopped flowing easily. On the last round, Ada signaled them not to drink yet. It was time.
I carved out the heart, held it in my hand and let them watch it beat, they always ate that mess up. I plunked it down into a glass and Ada spun them around, mixing all the shots up. The looks of doubt in the men’s faces began to show through, none of them really wanted to get the lucky serpent heart. This was the only part I enjoyed, the time when they downed the final shots and one man ends up chewing. Riled up men were great tippers. When they felt like they got a story to take home, the money flowed much more readily.
The crowd cheered him on as he chewed and coughed, struggling to get the heart down as his friends watched on.
When I clocked out, I snuggled up into my coat and waved goodbye to Stelrick. Ada, my partner in crime earlier today, was busy carrying out two plates of ying-yang fish. One thing you could always be sure of was that you would be leaving work at the Restless Prawn smelling of too-fresh fish, alcohol, and animal cruelty, but it was what paid the bills. People weren’t interested in anything but the most extreme of entertainment these days. It takes so much for them to feel alive, stimulated. I hated it. But dad is out of work, and things aren’t looking like they’re gonna turn around. If this is what it takes to not just feel alive, but literally keep the two of us breathing, I could do it. At least that’s what I told myself. And when I’m there, in the middle of that particular brand of chaos and carnage, when I’m in character, it’s easy to tune out the real world and just be Beck, the crazy dancing bartender without a care in the world.
The walk home wasn’t too long on a normal night, but the temperatures lately had been unusually low. I fastened the topmost button on my coat and applied pressure to the heater panel inside my pocket. At least my hands could be toasty.
There were so many people walking the streets—there always were—I wouldn’t be able to make it across to the public subway if I tried, there were too many hurried figures between it and I. Being shoved in a high-speed tube of pick-pockets wasn’t the ending to the day I wanted, anyway. I was so tired of explaining to people why I smelled like death after work, apologizing to strangers left and right. Instead, I walked, following the flow of shoppers and party-goers as they flooded down the wide strip of asphalt.
Apartment complexes and shopping centers towered above me, glaring down with glossy windows and lighted signage. It would take me a while to reach my ancient, rickety building on the outskirts of the city, but I needed the time to decompress anyway. Empty brain, fresh (eh, fresh-ish) air, and the clack clack of footsteps all the way home.