O c t o b e r   2 0 0 1

Guest Writer

John Riley
by Troy Eggleston

"It is indecent not to provide," said John, looking at me wearily.

I was busy but managed my time so that a large chunk of attention was thrown his way. It wasn't that I felt obligated to listen, either, like you do with some people who make it seem like you're their only sketch pad. I always felt sorry for those people.

I would usually lend an ear until the barrage of excuses became so embarrassingly drenched in denial that I could no longer see past their dripping woes. In desperate efforts I would try to shape their helpless words, give them form and presence, only to find that I was being just as repetitive to them as they were to me. The bars are alive with dead issues.

"Provide what?" I asked while making a cocktail for an impatient waitress. It was happy hour and besides that she thought John was creepy.

"Well, you know, provide," he said while adjusting the tape that connected a limb to his glasses.

"John, you need another Sprite and water?" I asked after handing the drink to the rolling eyes of the waitress.

"Yeah, another Sprite and water please." He was always polite.

The drink tickets kept rolling in. Suits began spilling toward the bar, impatient for their sake martinis. The place was a fusion joke. The owners acted as if the idea to combine regional northwest cuisine with classic Japanese was revolutionary. It was like shoving a square peg into a decimal point. The place had no freedom; it was mapped out like a bad Hollywood movie – a concept with a mission statement: to inflate the ego with a false sense of chic delivered through the pretense of sparsity. It was as bad as a pet rock, only this place was created by a machine, not nature.

I made the next cocktail, a Tokyo melon martini served on the rocks in a laughing Buddah. The drink menu described it as an enlightened blend of infused vodkas and liqueurs that calms the soul.

When I first got the job, the idea was to provide service with passion and fire in the heart. Let's say it together: "passion, fire in the heart."

"Hey John, go ahead – provide me with a clue," I said, shaking a cosmopolitan like a fucking maraca. He just looked up at me and smiled like I delivered a punch line to a joke he didn't get.

"A clue, John, something I can hold on to."

"I don't quite know what ya mean."

I could tell he was intrigued by the question, but it was just a bit too random for him to take hold of.

"You mean about providin'?" he finally asked after I had already abandoned the inquiry. I was mixing a passion rita served in a flamboyant ceramic coconut followed by a scotch on the rocks. It was for a cheerleader out with her grandfather.

"Yes, provide. Provide me with a clue, John."

"Well, I was an electrician for 36 years till they just let me go. Just like that, they let me go."

"Let you go?" I asked filling his water back up. He drank a lot when he got anxious.

"Yep, they just let me go because I didn't put up with their crap. They thought they could just do whatever they liked with me and I didn't put up with that crap at all."

Behind John stood a tall, muscular fellow with a wounded expression. He was wearing one of those T-shirts a few sizes too small, allowing his biceps to seem even more ridiculously exaggerated than they already were. In a flexed right arm he was holding a drink that I could tell was yet to be sipped. I refused to make eye contact, knowing that there was some ludicrous request to follow.

"Excuse me," he called out. His voice was scarcely what I had expected.

"What kind of crap?" I continued my conversation with John, well aware that I was aggravating a situation.

"Well, I don't know how many kinds there are," was John's resolute reply.

"Excuse me, bartender." The gentleman leaned over John's shoulder, to which John just looked up at him and smiled.

"Excuse me, but I was here last night and ordered the same exact drink and it was served in a different glass."

"What kind of drink is that?" I calmly inquired.

"It's a lime rickey and last night it was served in a tall kung fu glass or something."

"We don't have any kung fu glasses here, sir." I wanted to drag it out as long as I could.

"Well, maybe I'm not describing it properly. It was a very tall green glass with a face on it, you know like that guy in 'The Karate Kid.' The older guy." He smiled at me, probably assuming that everyone loved that movie and just the mention of it delivered a warm, kitschy type of nostalgia.

"Nope, still not ringing a bell," I deadpanned.

More drink tickets were flooding my printer as the cocktail waitresses cursed me behind my back. Just as I was about to abort the situation, this relentlessly boring individual pointed at a glass behind the bar and said, "There! That's the one, that's the glass it was served in. Now, can I please have this drink put in the Mr. Miagi glass?"

He handed me his glass and gave me one of those smarmy sarcastic grins in tandem with a small tilt of the head.

"That's not a Mr. Miagi glass," I said with a serious scowl. "That is a Confucius glass."

I grabbed his beverage and dumped it into the wise head of Confucius, then handed it back to his thick, manicured hand.

"Whatever," he said as he whisked away.

John just stared straight ahead, seemingly in his own world and thinking about providing.

"Can you make my drinks, please?" It was a waitress in the key of impatience. I turned around to find a trail of about eight separate drink orders, each with tiny helvetica modifiers describing a preference under every two-ounce concoction. One was neat, another had a splash of cranberry juice, another wished for a float of coconut puree with six straws and a maraschino cherry without the stem or formaldehyde.

"Sorry, I had to take care of that situation. That guy is a friend of the owners." I was hoping that bit of false information would quell their hopped-up attitudes.

"Well, I need those drinks now," said the one with chopsticks in her hair, oblivious to my priority scheme.

"Captain's on it," I said, saluting the bitch. It was the same salute I learned in bartending academy, two fingers out, three tucked in. I pulled the first ticket and began mixing.

"Those are not my drinks," the little princess pointed out.

"Captain's going in order, babe." She hated when I called myself "captain" and despised it when I referred to her as "babe."

"I've been waiting 20 minutes for two beers and a glass of wine. My customers are in a hurry to see a movie."

"Which movie?" I asked, salting a rim.

"This is ridiculous!" she spouted, rolling that pretty green mascara of hers. She then huffed away, presumably to gather a manager of some sorts.

"Have you seen any movies lately, John?" I called out in his direction while filling my second prescription. It took him awhile to register and respond, but by my fourth ticket, the two beers and a glass of wine, he'd come up with an answer.

"I liked 'Cool Hand Luke' an awful lot. That sure was a good movie."

"That was a good one." I set the anticipated drinks down in the server station with a fluid motion and spun back around to find a lofty manager, standing semi-erect, looking down into my seaworthy eyes.

"Are you a bit backed up?" He delivered his words with diplomatic inaccuracy.

"Just trying to satisfy everybody's needs." Always beware the harpooner.

"Well, if you can't get drinks out in a timely fashion just come and get one of us managers and we will gladly give you a hand."

There was a large group of them somewhere in some cold basement, pooling together their psychological resources. They were all part of a devious plan.

"I'm fine. I'm right in the process of calming things down. Thank you, though," I said with my cup half full.

"You sure? I'm here to help." He had the look of a crazed missionary suffering from malaria.

"I appreciate that, but the rush is just about over." The conversation had a rotting appeal to it.

"Okay. I'll be in the office if you need me." He walked away, hunched over as if his chest was tangled with heavy wiring. I imagined him going directly to his keyboard so that he could type up an efficient incident report while the details were still fresh. They were an inspired crew, all extensions of the big head who gave each of the managers a unique calendar every Christmas party that had a message for each day of the week. Today's had read: "The illusion of freedom is a powerful tool."

"You sure are doing a good job," said John, peacefully observing this strange, stretched-out scene.

"Sometimes I wonder why, though, you know?" I replied as his words fixed a grin on my tumbling face.

He smiled back toward me. "I'm going to the bathroom; can you make sure nobody takes my seat?"

"Nobody's stealing your seat, John," I promised as he walked away, his camouflage pants blending in with the gardenias in the hotel lobby.

I turned to focus back on my duties, the details, my fire in the heart. My next order demanded four hot sakes. The hot sake was served in a small white ceramic vase and when the vase heated up a fortune appeared on the side. Most of the fortunes were these pleasant little sayings like "you are a kind and caring person and luck follows you in stride."

But there was one fortune, one lonely bitter vase among the multitude, that wasn't as imposingly kind as the others, it read: "Your main article is a small issue."

It was a cryptic piece of information, but nonetheless amusing. I loved coming across that pompous outsider of a vase because it lightened things up a bit. It possessed a subtle, accidental kind of genius that seemed rebellious within its formula.

Miss America was back again, unashamed of her loose lips nudging me with sour words to make more drinks. "Can I have my sakes, please? They are for the owner of the hotel and his guests. It's embarrassing that he has to wait this long."

"Captain's got you on his list, babe."

"My name is not 'babe,' and you calling me that is sexual harassment."

"Sorry. Here are your sock-eeees, steaming and ready to go." I set them down politely in the server station, winked at the little darling, then followed with a karate chop through the thick air.

"I am not serving this one," she huffed.

"What? Did you say you needed a wine key?" I was conveniently hard of hearing.

"No. I thought the managers decided to get rid of this glass. You know I won't serve this glass to my customers anymore."

A semi-regular had come in about four weeks prior; a street guy who always sat at the same table, always paid with the same dirty nickels. He was deeply amused by the fortunes and came in specifically for the sake. Each time it was brought out to him, he'd sit and stare, amazed as the message revealed itself on the side of the vase. He would usually write the message on a beverage napkin, put the napkin in his pocket, take a sip or two and leave.

She was reluctant to serve him the enigmatic vessel, saying this particular guy was a bit strange and might in some way take offense to the message. I convinced her that it was a charming little anecdote and, besides, it could be read in numerous ways.

After I steadfastly refused to give her another vase, she begrudgingly took it out to the gentleman. He was anxious, just like always, to receive his personal message; his pen in hand, he smiled broadly. But once he read the words that appeared magically on the side of his drink he picked the vase up from the table and hurled it at the waitress with inexplicable force.

He stormed out saying how we had launched an evil scheme against him and that he'd seek revenge. It was quite an odd scene, but what was even stranger was the fact that the vase, although it ended up crashing into a wall and just missing our favorite employee, bounced on the floor a few times, spun around a few times more only to land upright with a kind of graceful, stubborn intensity.

"Come on, that guy obviously had self-esteem issues," I said. "That was a one-time incident."

"No. Now give me another glass and I am personally going to get rid of this one." She dumped the sake out in the sink, forced the gladiator vase in her apron and stood waiting.

"That's cutting into my liquor costs, you know." I went and poured her some more sake in a less impulsive vase. I didn't even ask for the other one back. Some intuitive resignation came over me – its life resided in my faith and any attempt to get it back would diminish its reputation. The new one read: "Your wisdom is infinite."

John returned from the bathroom with some travel brochures in his hand, happy to find his seat still available.

"Thank ya for watchin' over my seat," he said with a slice of sincerity that made you wonder.

"No problem, John. Everybody here knows that's your seat and wouldn't dare sit there while you're around."

He smiled big and round, like a child. "No, no, this isn't my seat. I'm just here 'cause I like ya. You're a good person."

"Well that's your seat when I'm here, okay?" John wasn't used to feeling welcome.

"I guess, but I don't want you to kick nobody out of it for me, though."

"No, I wouldn't do that but I'd ask somebody to leave." That was the icebreaker. John laughed so hard that his face turned bright red, illuminating the room.

Later that evening, after things slowed down to a recognizable pace, John pulled out his wallet and showed me his V.A. card. He was younger and sturdy looking. He also showed me a picture of his only son, maybe 17. John said his kid was smart; and it seemed to have disappointed him greatly that the kid dropped out of his first semester in college.

He talked about his sister who lives in Kansas and how he loves her dearly but that he just can't live in the same state. He told me about his pills and how they keep him from getting too depressed. He said that he lives on $20 a day and that if he comes in on some days and he's not able to tip, it's because he's running low on funds.

"It's tough when you can hardly provide for yourself sometimes," he said, looking down at a picture of a whale jumping through a hoop on the Sea World brochure he'd grabbed in the lobby. "I mean, it's not the money. I worked as an electrician for 36 years and I did alright. My sister makes sure I get $20 a day, and that's plenty if you're careful enough. The V.A here treats me nice. They treat me real nice here. I have a comfortable cot and all."

"What do you mean, then?" I asked, wiping down the bar.

"Well," he said, not quite comfortable with the question, "I'm mostly talking about providin' the things for ya that make ya happy. I've done a lot of things in my life that I just can't seem to shake. You know, them pills help but they can't erase everything."

Before I could respond, the anxious sound of the printer went off as I routinely turned around to supply the demand. It was for a lounge lizard, a specialty cocktail featuring a spiced rum from Barbados combined with muddled mint and caraway seeds.

I began making the cocktail with robotic precision, while in my peripheral I noticed that John's demeanor had changed drastically. His head was buried in his hands and tears hung from the creases of his fingers. I immediately stopped all my civic duties and walked around the bar to see what was wrong.

"John, is everything okay?" My own voice sounded sterile and rehearsed. "Can I get you anything?"

I noticed his glasses had fallen. I picked them up and set the fractured spectacles beside him.

"Hey John, it's alright, man."

I had no idea about what my own "it" was and here I was trying to console another man's. I somehow felt responsible, like I pushed the conversation too deep, bordering on infected areas.

The waitress was nervously staring at the situation as if she was somehow going to be affected. She was watching me fumble with my empathy. I was trying to diversify my emotions, but all that came out was a state of confusion that skirted the edges of embarrassment.

"Do you want me to get a manager?" she walked over and asked with spit and polish.

"No, there is no need for a manager." My response was curt.

"Well, this is freaking out some of my customers."

"What do you mean, freaking out your customers? You have one four-top and it's on the other side of the bar." I was trying to keep my voice down so that John couldn't hear us.

"Well, if they see him they will get freaked out," she said with a disgusted expression.

"Look, do you realize ..."

I stopped myself from a potential deviation from what really mattered. I walked over beside John, where he shivered like a frightened child.

"John, you okay? Want me to call somebody?" My words were accidental thorns. There was a long silence in which I could tell he was trying to gather himself.

"I'm sorry," he said, still hiding. "There is nobody to call, anyway. I'm sorry."

He slowly lifted his head. His face was wet, secluded in the past. An elemental sense of defeat had crossed over him.

"I'm sorry. Sometimes just thinkin' sometimes gets me all sad. I'm sorry."

"Stop apologizing, John."

"Now ... I know, I know." He wiped his cheeks with a napkin. "I get worried, is all."

He pulled his barstool back and stood up, seemingly dazed.

"Have you seen my glasses? I need those to see ... to see properly."

"Right there, John." I pointed.

"My wallet. You seen my wallet? That has my only picture of my boy in it."

"There." I pointed again.

"Do I owe you anything?"

"Nothing. We're square."

"Well, square is good, square is good." He turned around and walked out.

"Good night, John. You take care," I yelled, ashamed of my internal thoughts. There was a sense of relief to his departure. I walked back around the bar and nervously straightened up a bit, cut a few lemons, washed a few glasses.

Moments later I saw the shadow of the illustrious manager with his minion by his side. He approached in a fascist zen fashion.

"Is everything fine?" he asked. His blue contact lenses stared back at me like stranded glaciers.

"All is well," I replied, somehow concocting half of a smile for reassurance.

"Good, then. No problems, then?"

"Not one." We both knew that the world is filled with liars..

"I'll be in my office if you need me." He turned and marched out.

Two incident reports in one night must have been exciting for him. Last I heard, incident reports could be cashed in for a free appetizer at our sister restaurant on the hill. Sept. 7, 1998: "Incentive inspires involvement."

I needed a cigarette. I needed a reason to just walk out and leave, to pursue something beyond mixing drinks for the weary, afflicted souls of the world. I threw back a shot of bourbon to calm my nerves.

"I'll have a gin and tonic, light on the tonic, and a glass of pinot gris. Your house will do." A deep southern drawl snuck up from behind.

"I'm sorry." I turned around, a bit flustered. A tall, thin man pulled up a stool beside a slightly buxom curly-haired brunette with sagging eyes.

"Gin and tonic, heavy pour and a white wine, a pinot gris for the lady," she looked up at me with a coy curve of the lip. The man picked up his cell phone and started dialing.

"Sure thing."

I began pouring the drinks, wondering the whole time if they had seen me down that shot or if either one of them even cared about my indiscretions. I set the drinks down before them and lit a cigarette for the lady, to which she seductively mouthed the words thank you. By the time she gently tapped off her first pile of ashes, the guy had gotten through to whomever he was calling.

"Yeah, honey, I'm fine. The flight had a bit of turbulence, but I slept most of the way. Three days is all, I figure; maybe I can close the deal in two. Yes I know. I know you don't have to keep reminding me. Okay, now ... okay. I love you, too, honey. No, no, you don't have to wake her up."

He looked over to the woman beside him and rolled his eyes, holding a finger in the air to signal one more minute.

"Okay, okay. Put her on."

The lady, making love to her Virginia Slim, seemed unconcerned.

"Hi, baby. How's my little girl? Sleepy, huh? Well, daddy is, too. I miss you, too, sweetheart. I'll be home in three days. That's Wednesday. Yes, Wednesday when you have swimming lessons. Now you get some sleep. Okay, sweetie, I love you, too. Goodnight."

He hung up, then leaned over and kissed the brunette's swollen lips. As she put out her cigarette, they picked up their drinks and headed for the relative privacy of a booth.

I poured myself another shot. My bones felt frail. I felt ashamed and alone. More ice. The well needed more ice. I turned, gathered a bucket and walked over to the machine that made the ice. My stubborn conscious, in such dim light you paint. It seemed all of my confessions had been stolen.

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