They were trading beneath the night. Behind the bar on Richmond, its video gaming and upstairs Goth inspired dance floor were just a cover for what went on at midnight once a week. Brad knew they were there, rented the upstairs back corner booth and blocked off the entire west room area for their after hour “business meetings”. No one said much as Morgan, the bartender, worked for little under five dollars an hour plus tips, and they tipped generously.
Morgan’s rent on her fourplex and medical bills for a recent motorcycle accident kept her silent as she accepted the repeat meetings. An accident which occurred on a rainy evening two days shy of her birthday, flung her body into the muddy ditch and mailed her a bill for $5000 three weeks later. Minor scrapes and bruises with only one sprained ankle.
The disco ball over the dance floor spun as the air conditioning kicked on and would still as the air stalled. Occasionally they opened the patio door for a breeze and night view of Hermann Park and the museum district. Top shelf alcohol made it to the middle shelf, a small door and window for the kitchen. They served bar food at the end of the bar, in between Pac Man and a photo, and the back door. Silver streamers hanging from the front windows appeared red in the dark bar, fluttered with each entrance. Once a week became a crime scene but no one ever noticed and Morgan was apt to pay off her cancer treatment before Christmas so she could take a vacation to the Northeast.
Niagara Falls, her mother had always promised her and her brother a trip to Niagara Falls but ended up married to an alcoholic, working the night shifts with the homeless, and that should be enough to clue her in to the fact that he crept into her bed on the weekends, until the night she’d stabbed him. It was the way their apartment sat on the edge of the neighborhood, the way the street lamps left marks on the bedroom floor, the way the sirens wailed and no one stirred. It was the emptiness of the world around them, the silence. It was her Converse she needed replaced, as the soles were worn to holes at the ball of the feet. It was the way her mother always sat down with her at the table for a cup of coffee before she left for work at 7 pm, the way she smiled as she left. So clueless, so detached from her own child. It was the sound of the production plants in the background, the rustle of the trucks along the highway, the voice in her head that assured her it could be done.
The ashtray on the kitchen table was overflowing with cigarette butts that evening. Although the kitchen window usually remained open for fresh air, the house was dark and dank. Her curtains were faded from the sun, her sheets rarely washed as ‘the stepfather’ was supposed to have repaired the washing machine. Two weeks later and all he did was sit at the kitchen table, then creep into her room as the neighborhood went dark and quiet.
The blood was on her hands, on her shirt, and dribbled across the carpet.
Her mother complained as she scrubbed it out while on her hands and knees. Complained that he could have been a decent man if they’d have given him more time. As if they were taming a stray dog, training it not to hump the others and sling the babies around by the neck, killing them. As if his decent looks could override his primal instinct to kill. This was not a case of accidental, of mistaken identity, or wrongful conviction – some people are just bad. The end, they’re brains don’t function like normal people. They appear like everyone else on the outside, but on the inside, something evil.
Her mother never took them to Niagara Falls like she’d promised. Just court.
Four years later, Morgan landed a job at this bar. She started as a bar back, then took mixologist class after mixologist class until she’d perfected the finest cocktails and mixed drinks. Flair, that’s what she claimed she added, Flair.
‘More like flair and despair.’ Her boss finds her depressing, expects her to ditch the black for peppy pink cheerleading outfits.
‘Fat bastard,’ she mumbles beneath her breath, ‘to hell with you and your underage wife.’
Brad’s wife was a tiny petite waifish thing from the Ukraine. Escaping the turmoil in Europe, his uncle paid for her entrance into the States. Now, as she awaited citizenship, she is parading as Brad’s wife. She appears to play the part well; a light skinned girl who looks as if she’s fallen off the runway of a NYC event. Pretends to enjoy his clammy hands and fat jovial gut pressing against her as he introduces this lovely ‘find’ to his friends. She smiles well, appears confident and assured while slinking away afterwards to vomit in the bathroom.
“Disgustingly quaint,” Morgan sneers from behind the bar, doubling up Brad’s cocktail, just for fun. Then takes a smoke break, stopping in the bathroom to check her lipstick. “How’s it going in there Mackie?”
She called her Mack because she had a foreign name no one could pronounce. Here, at the bar, she was Mackie. Short for little mackerel, the small fish caught in the fisherman’s net of big money fish.
“Gut, gut,” Mackie wrenches softly, trying to hide her eating disorder.
“Hey, all good, I’d throw up too if I had to deal with fat Brad. The dude is sweaty and gross, that alcohol sweat smell where you can pretty much detect the color and grain of his all night dinner.”
“No, no, he ok.” She steps out, washing her face in the mirror.
“Well, ok, if you’re ok with it then I’ll let you carry on.”
Morgan heads to the back of the bar for her break. There’s a plastic chair from some old middle school, and a jar of cigarette butts. From the back of the building, the lights of the overpass a block away change colors, today they are green for St. Patrick’s Day. It will be a busy night of green beer, green cocktails, green confetti, and hopefully some big green for her. The museum district is only three blocks away, so although a dive bar, it attracts many unsuspecting visitors.
Green streamers hung from the ceiling of the dance floor and shamrocks were taped to every booth, door, and bar. Green napkins, green plastic glasses, and green suits. Brad was wearing a black suit with green shirt and tie. As for her, she opted for a green long sleeve t-shirt beneath her black jumpsuit. She watches the green lights fade in and out, listens to the whoosh of cars. It’s beginning to drizzle, a grey foggy day in one of the hottest, tropical cities in the country. It’s flooding in California and winter storm warnings in the Northeast. They’re experiencing blizzards and fifty plus car pileups. Down here, it’s just a slight chill and foggy air, maybe topping 50 degrees in the day with a light drop overnight.
“Perfect for parties.” She takes a deep breath in, calls her brother on the phone.
“Got another one.”
“You sure? I mean absolutely sure this time? That last one was embarrassing, and nearly cost me my job.”
“Yes, I’m sure. I’ve been watching them for weeks now, with an occasional listen in when I get bored.”
“You’d better be careful, they’ll knock you off or take you as collateral if they catch you.”
“I hope for imprisonment, maybe in a cage. Would be better than slinging green beer to a bunch of conservative jock want to be cool types.”
“Not if it’s a cage in a shipping container near a dock in a remote location and they poke you with cattle prods while starving, possibly raping you.”
“Yea could ruin my good looks.”
She hangs up, slips the vape back in her jumpsuit pocket and heads back to the bar. The men, five of them, have settled into the back booth again tonight. They order the same round of drinks, gin and tonic with a fruit splash, and talk amongst themselves for hours. Every now and then one checks his phone, one checks his watch, and one is always on the lookout. He’s the watchdog, a taller gentleman with a chubby face and torn earlobe.
‘Probably from a fight. Old ugly dogs, you all are, just old ugly dogs from some bitch mother.’
From behind the bar she half smiles, makes light conversation, and begins green cocktail after green cocktail for the new bar back to stack on a tray. She’s young, possibly not even old enough to drink, but old enough to fetch. She has her own personal bar brat.
“What’s your name?” she lightly grabs the girl’s wrist to get her attention.
The girl jerks her arm back, sneers, and mumbles something under her breath she can’t understand. Another language, and not one she’s heard before around here like Vietnamese or Spanish, sounds closer to Russian.
“Hey, you one of the Ukrainian ladies friends? Sister or something?”
“Could be. Or, I could be American princess like you.” She rolls her eyes and sticks her tongue out at Morgan.
“Trust me if I was a princess the last place I’d be is this bar slinging beer.”
As the D.J. Sets up his equipment, the lights dim and a green filter is added. Now the shadows and reflections from the streamers are green. Someone lays down a large shamrock sticker on the dance floor. The new girl begins to pass out the green drinks, going table to table. Then, stopping for an incredibly long time at the back table. One of the men is holding her arm, she is frozen as if in fear, looking back over her shoulder then smiling. They nod in Morgan’s direction as if to send her back to the bar.
When she returns, her arm is slightly bruised from the man and she is holding a wad of bills tight in her left hand, trying to tuck them in so Morgan wouldn’t notice. Morgan grabs her by the wrist, pulling her behind a sidewall alongside the bar.
“What the hell little girl? Tell me what’s going on now or I’m calling your bluff then turning you in.”
“No, no, it’s nothing.”
Morgan can feel her heart rate increase by holding her wrist, her eyes begin to tear up, she’s lying.
“Now,” Morgan whispers with a smile on her face.
“I don’t belong here.”
“Neither do I, but I believe your story is a bit different. How old are you really?”
“Ew, gross, god I can’t stand teeny boppers.”
“What is teeny bopper?”
“Never mind. Did Brad bring you here, or one of those fat thugs at table 9?” She motions with her head, trying not to look in their direction, “the group of ugly old fat guys are table 9, the one who grabbed you.”
“Yes, what? Brad or fat dudes brought you here?”
Morgan pauses for a minute, coming to the realization that her employer is the one involved in it all, that old dude table 9 was not only a discreet group of thugs doing their dirty work in the corner of a bar, but they were all in on something, she wasn’t sure what yet, together.
“No, no need shit.”
“Good god, not you. You go outside right now, I will cover for you. There’s a man I can call here within an hour can help you out of this situation.”
“What situation, you mean like run away?”
“Yes, the man’s my brother. And if you squeak a word of any of this, I will personally hunt you down and silence you. You have five minutes. Oh and hand over the wad of cash.”
“No, it’s for my house. They said I could buy house when I got here and go work.”
“Work where, here? Where else are you supposed to work?”
“With a man, he come to get me and I give him the money.”
“You have no idea. Go to the backyard, I will call my brother to get you in five to ten minutes.”
“Count to 60 five times then disappear through the kitchen, out the back door, and into a blue truck. The man, my brother, is Nate. Ask for his name BEFORE you get into the vehicle. If he gives you another name, do not get in.”
“Sixty, five times.”
“Yes. And if they ask me, you went to the back yard for a break. Do you smoke?”
“Well, you do now.” Morgan slips a cigarette and matches into the girl’s sweater pocket. “Light the cigarette and let it burn in the ashtray near the bench. It will appear as if someone is sitting there smoking…Take these drinks around the floor, act casual, and smile.”
Morgan calls Nate on the phone.
“Got one, Nate, can you be in the back in five? Oh, and she will ask your name so be honest, I told her not to get into the truck without your name.”
“I can be there in maybe ten.”
“Ten it is.”
Morgan never liked Brad, worked for him for at least two years and had no knowledge of this side hobby he’d begun. He was that good at hiding it. Considering the way he was inefficient at running the bar and had to hire an accountant and a secretary along with her bartending advise, it made sense. He was a shod, a weasel little man just 6 or 7 years older than her who had a thing for the newbie. The newbie’s were the just turned 21 and drink too much girls, the one’s who are into the party, into the all night cocaine off the toilet and bathroom sex girls.
Even better were the ones slightly older who passed out at the bar. Those were his favorite. He could nurse them and carry them next door to his apartment. Whatever he gave them over there, kept them coming back for more. He was right up there with rock star, athlete, actor, and drug dealer – something he possessed or gave them brought them around over and over. They piggybacked then disappeared.
Nate left home when he was eighteen, went off to the first university that would take him at his age. He’d graduated early as he was obsessed with his studies, and the fact that he had a crush on one of the librarian assistants helped him sit the library for hours on end. Nate was three years older than her, married twice, not kids just a Dachshund, and recently relocated after he found her on Instagram.
While he was MIA, he’d graduated cum laude in Engineering, climbed Mount Everest, backpacked through southern Europe, lost a pinky finger in a boating accident, almost got skin cancer but found out it was malignant, was shot in the calf by a German Nazi’s great grandson at a club in Berlin, and accumulated about 80,000 dollars of debt. Half of which was student loans. The main reason he looked her up was so he could move in and save his ass. He never said that, but Morgan knew that was why. Behind all of his toxic masculinity, he still needed a woman to push him around and do his laundry.
After he lost his job in Florida, his second wife left him. Somewhere in all of his travels, he’d become sterile. He claims it was poisonous mussels he’d eaten off the coast of Greece, that they were toxic and kept him bedridden for ten days, after which he was on antibiotics for a month. So with his sterility came occasional bought of alcoholism, which in turn left his wife to sleep with another man. His sperm lasted the weekend and she became pregnant.
That was the first time he’d contacted Morgan after their mothers funeral. He’d been drunk that day and lost his car keys, wallet, and phone with all of his contact information. Two years later and he wouldn’t stop calling, he was either crying over his wife or complaining about a co-worker. She ended up having the baby, and he took on the responsibility until the real father showed up one day. Gabe the strong, Gabe owns a restaurant, Gabe has this and Gabe does that. She ranted on about him as if all of their miracles were to be answered by Gabe.
So, one day Nate quit his job, drove home, packed half of his stuff in the back of his Jeep and was intent on driving his car off a bridge. He’d planned the day, the hour, and the route he would take to avoid traffic He brought a bag to put over his head and rope to tie around his neck.
“Nate, don’t be stupid. We need you,” she’d phoned while he was waiting on the entrance ramp to the bridge.
“We who, you and your fling? So, he just shows up out of nowhere and decides to replace me, be your lover and the father of our baby?”
“You know it’s not like that.”
“Really, who’s coming over for dinner tonight? Who wants to see ‘his’ baby? Who calls you ‘babe’?”
“Nate, come home.”
“F you. Mail me the rest of my stuff.”
“How am I going to mail a couch and desk?”
“Figure it out. Borrow money from your baby daddy.”
“Nate, you’re being…”
Emasculated, he thought. At least he was so angry that he didn’t care to drive his car off the bridge, now he wanted to drive it through the living room of their home. He sped off towards their house and directed the hood of the car at the front wall. But, then, she stepped out to check the mail, holding their daughter. So beautiful, he began to cry again. Then remembered it wasn’t his daughter, and she’d lost that passion for him, lost that innocence.
He turned the car around, and never looked back.
“At least you don’t have to worry about child support.” Morgan reassured him.
And, he didn’t pay out alimony either because the child, who was not legally his, made their marriage contracts null and void. Two birds, one stone. Minus a couch, desk, and chair which wouldn’t fit in the back of his Jeep. Five years. They had been together for five years, one job at Disneyworld, one job at an insurance firm and three miscarriages. Life could be cruel when it wanted to. He had a box of photos, their Laga Vista parties with the wealthy, her in hundred dollar dresses and heels. She was his high school girlfriend he’d reconnected with years later and now it was all gone.
He set his high school yearbook on fire outside Morgan’s apartment the day he arrived. Five large totes, two plastic garbage bags of clothes, one filled with dirty laundry, and a cat with a limp. One box of memories, burning in the back parking lot near the dumpster – yearbook, photos, letterman jacket, all burnt to ash then turned to mud as the Spring evening rain fell.
A grey mush of memories and an unshaven older brother with a huge trash bag of laundry, exactly what she wasn’t in the mood for. Her ex had just moved out a month ago, leaving her with maxed out credit cards, a yippy dog she never cared for, a dented fender on her Kia Soul, an awkward and suggested hair cut, and a hole in the kitchen wall near the back door where he felt it was chivalrous to rage on and on about her long hours at the bar. As if she had a thing for drunken men who were rather incapacitated and rarely speak without a slur by 2 am. A wet nurse, she became a wet nurse by 2:15, running them off and ordering their rides home.
It was beyond her how he could assume she was having affairs with those god-awful intoxicated creatures. Not to mention the majority of them developed a distinct alcohol sweat smell by closing time. His addiction was paranoia. She was glad he left; she just wished he had taken the dog with him – Ralph. What kind of a name is Ralph?
She sounded as if she was vomiting stupidly when she called for him from the back door, or at the dog park. ‘Ralph!…Raaaalllpphh!’
Two months later and Nate has settled in. He’s turned her living room into his own personal office, her bathroom into a barbershop and backyard into a cross training space. Every morning he awakes at 6 am to juice and train. Good for him, but Morgan’s hours conflict with his and she is just hitting deep REM when the whir of the juice machine awakens her. Since she abhors working at the bar part time for extra income, she uses the 6 am wake up to read the job boards. Email after email, she sends out resumes and never hears back from them.
This week is the Oscar the Grouch; it’s a green machine smoothie. Ever week Nate creates a juice drink and makes it for 7 days then creates a new one. Morgan is worried he will be working from home forever, the kitchen table is no longer for breakfast, coffee and the morning news articles as Nate has taken over with his paperwork and laptop.
“It’s been six minutes, time for you to go,” Morgan nods her head and the girl places her tray on the bar. “Take the fat dude table some cheese sticks and fries then act natural. Don’t run, and don’t look suspicious. Head out to the back.”
Morgan hands the girl snacks from the kitchen downstairs. As the girl is dropping them at the table, they look over in Morgan’s direction. She smiles, waves, and motions towards Brad who is now schmoozing at the patio. They all look in his direction and nod as a thank you, raise their glasses and toast amongst themselves. Brad’s girlfriend has had at least two cocktails and was now dancing in the middle of the dance floor. Occasionally she glances up to stare at the D.J., who nods then plays one of her favorite songs.
They have a thing, the D.J. And Brad’s girlfriend, that’s how Morgan refers to it, ‘a thing’, they meet in the back yard on their breaks, he gives her these little trinkets every week, like stickers, small toy bounce ball, kitten key chain, a small broach and other things she claims she found or bought. Only Morgan notices, as she is probably the only sober person in the place. Every now and then the cook comes to work without being high. They can always tell because the food tastes phenomenal on these days. The cheese sticks are extra cheesy, the sauce sweet and spicy, and the Kimchi fires taste as if an Austin hipster rode up on a three wheeled bike to drop them off, and he just whips up the orders and dings on the kitchen bell as if its a wild cafeteria.
Brad’s girlfriend has a name although only Brad and his closest friends know it, the rest of them simply refer to her as Brad’s girlfriend or T, short for Tatiana or some Ukrainian name which starts with a T. Morgan stays fixated on her long enough to create a fan base. Soon, other people at the bar are watching, and then table 9 joins the fascination. The timing of the distraction is perfect for the young girl’s escape, almost as if she knew. Morgan couldn’t help but wonder if she was aware somehow, maybe even guilty enough to be remorseful.