I finished editing a poem and left Diane's house, in Edgerton, for RUFF'S, in Madison, a twenty-five minute drive, in her car. It had a hole in the front bumper, a box of Duraflame logs in the backseat. It was the end of January, a Friday. I had moved back to the area after eight years and landed with Diane, my old friend's mom. I tended bar at RUFF'S in my earlier twenties, which were about to be over in the summer. My last stint at the bar did not end well. But I was older, and a much better bartender now. I worked at a high-volume, destination bear bar when I was in Denver, from where I had just moved a couple weeks ago, to be closer to my mom, who was sick. The bar was called Denver Honey. Its logo was an emoji-esque bear head set on top of a paw with golden honey dripping from it. Yum! Woof! Arf! Grr! Bears, otters, wolves, pups and their handlers, leather daddies and their boys, and just plain gay guys—I had mingled with and served them all. I knew how to do it. There was nothing to it. I was a sometimes pleasant, sometimes catty robot behind the bar. My wit was honed. My honey was sweet. My body was covered in psoriasis lesions. A stress outbreak I was trying to get under control. I did not want to work in a gay bar again after leaving Colorado, but I texted Gino once I got to Wisconsin, to see if he needed help, because I needed help myself. I was on the ever-present cusp of broke-a-tude. He did need help. Help was wanted. He had opportunities. I had a stellar letter of reference from the owner of Honey, describing my "fun quarky" sense of humor. I was not just funny: I was subatomically hilarious. I wished he had let me proofread his letter. That was something I did on the side for extra money. I would have done it for him for free, an errorless letter being in my interest. I appreciated the gesture, though. I was grateful. I had no complaints. None.
Gino and I met over coffee across the street from RUFF'S, before he opened the bar. He had started tending bar three happy hours a week, he said, because it let him "keep track of things." He asked me what had changed since I last worked for him. I told him I had changed. I grew up. I was no longer resistant to posting about my shifts on Facebook, a sure sign of adulthood, which had always seemed to evade me in the past. He offered me a job. He said I could have whatever I wanted. I would take on some shifts, yes. Yes, Gino, I will work for you again. He was an older, stocky, grey-haired man of Italian descent with a beard like a genie's. He was somebody's type. Somebody I never wanted to meet! There goes that wit of mine. Up the river like a spawning salmon toward a bear. Grr! Chomp!
I parked on the street outside RUFF'S three minutes before 5, the start of my re-training shift, and dropped some quarters in the meter. I looked good. I had gotten a fade the other day to look the part. This otter's noggin was fresh, with minimal dandruff, thanks to some topical corticosteroids. I strode into the bar like I did not own the place. Gino greeted me.
"Did you not get a RUFF'S shirt?"
"Oh, I mean, yeah. You gave me one. It's in the rotation. Did you want me to wear it?"
"Well, yeah! Get one from downstairs. They're in the crates." Gino shook his head and rolled his eyes, looking to the full bar of patrons. What he was looking for in them, I knew not. Affirmation of his impatience and disdain for me, maybe. Just a guess.
"Okay, cool. Thanks, sorry. Won't happen again, sir. I'm just gonna hang my coat up."
"This is why you show up fifteen minutes before your shift."
"Oh, I just thought since it wasn't a shift change and I'm not relieving you—joining you rather—that I could show up when you told me to. I'm just gonna hang my coat up."
The back room was dark. I searched with my fingers for a switch.
"Why are you turning my bar lights down?"
"Oh, sorry, I can't find it."
He came over, head still shaking, and found the switch for me, one of about eight.
"It's this one here on the top left." He flipped it and nothing changed. "Or I guess the top right."
The room lit up and I hung my coat on a hook. I opened the downstairs door.
"Which shirt did I give you?"
"It was the Pride one. The Stonewall fiftieth. The ringer tee."
"Get a different one."
I descended to the basement and the smell hit my memory of it. Reunited at last. Oh, how I missed you so, moist concrete. I found a different shirt in my size and removed it from its plastic bag. I shed the one I was wearing, a shirt with an angry-looking, open-mouthed bear's face on the back. Roar! The basement's cool, wet air soothed the rashes on my back. I put on my RUFF'S shirt, which was different—so very different—and went back upstairs.
"You remember how all this works, right?"
Gino patiently and graciously reacquainted me with the touchscreen point-of-service system above the register, an older version of Aloha, which is what I had used at Honey, except at Honey, it was the newest version. It was better. Better, faster, and sleeker. The one I was looking at was the same one that was there eight years ago.
"Yeah, most of it."
"Clock in using the last four of your social."
I started tending bar. The robot, which had been dormant for a long three weeks, had been activated. Its hydraulics wheezed and creaked. I greeted the patrons, some of whom I knew from my previous tenure there.
"You still drink Miller Lite bottles and shots of Jameson?"
"I switched to rum and diet, but that's remarkable," said Dean.
Dean-o was always my favorite. In a violent clash between Gino and Dean-o, if I was the judge—and I was—Dean-o would be the victor.
"Bryan, you like gimlets, yeah?"
"I'll be damned."
"Hey, I don't have to remember much. What about you? I don't remember your name but you do Seagram's VO and diet, right?"
"What's your name again?"
We shook hands. It seemed like people were happy to see me. They were happy to have me back. Those I didn't know, well, they would learn. I would teach them.
"You ready for another? What are you having?"
"He'll tell you when he's ready. He drinks paper planes. I'll show you how to make one when he needs one," said Gino, leaning into me and lowering his voice, "we don't want customers drinking too fast. We want them to stay as long as possible. Helps keep the atmosphere of the bar."
The atmosphere, of course. What was I thinking? I knew how to make a paper plane like the patron's, which was almost empty, but I decided against mentioning it. I would not want to bristle any fur. Arf!
I went to give another patron a refill. He had a tall glass, so I made him a double.
"He drinks single talls," said Gino.
"Oh, my bad."
"Yeah, we don't want customers to get too drunk too fast. We want them to stay."
We wanted them to stay, but did I want to stay?
I brought the patron his drink, a whiskey diet.
"Let's talk about these pants," he said, "they're a little baggy. We need to get you in something tighter. We need to get that shirt off."
"What, you don't like these joggers?" I spun around like a model, putting my hands on my hips and thrusting my elbows forward while sucking in my cheeks and making a pouty face.
"I'm just giving you a hard time." He laughed.
"Hey," I got closer to him, lowering my voice and tenderly touching his elbow, "I'd take my shirt off, but—"
"I need you to get some ice from downstairs and refill the cherries," said Gino.
"—Tell you about it later."
"What happened to the ice scoop?" said Gino.
"Oh, I left it in the well. Was that wrong?"
"Now you have to wash it. I don't know how you did things in Denver . . ."
I washed the ice scoop, which had been made suddenly filthy by sitting in the very ice it was used to scoop. I grabbed the ice buckets from their hooks in the back. I went downstairs and filled them up, not feeling, at this point, in a rush to return. I filled up the ice wells. I looked for a glove to grab the cherries, but could not find one. This robot did not remember everything, after all.
"Hey, Gino," I apprehensively placed my hand on his back as he chatted with a patron, "sorry, where are the gloves?"
"Top of the stairs."
I put on a glove and headed to the cooler in the back, fished out a handful of cherries.
"Make sure to put the juice in there, too."
I flinched and almost knocked over the large container of cherries floating in their "juice." Gino was behind me, standing in the doorway of the cooler. The gay Italian genie had appeared.
You will get your juice, Gino Bianchi. Worry not, for I am your juice man. I am the deity of nectar. The otter of your loins. Mwah! I returned to the bar with the cherries, and the goddamn juice.
I knew Dean-o did. He always did, until he did not. I made a single tall rum and diet.
"He drinks doubles," Gino said, "just assume our customers want doubles. We make more money that way."
I had done just that, just before, and was corrected for doing so. Which was it, singles or doubles? I was confused. I was so confused, in fact, that I was beginning to get upset.
"Here you go, Dean-o."
"Do you want a shot with me? Gino, can he have a shot?"
"No, he's training. He's on probation."
Jail sounded better. Lock me up, daddy bear. Slam the door. Slide me my food and leave me alone. I refilled another patron's drink, the one who drank single talls.
"That's a double," Gino said, "you poured him a double."
"Oh, I thought I poured him a single."
"No, you poured him a double."
All the liquor bottle nozzles had small weights inside them. Perfect pours. Exact pours. Nothing extra. You get what you pay for and nothing more. I remembered this from when I last worked there. Somehow, now, I hated it more.
"Dan-o is coming in, remember what he drinks?" said Gino.
"Miller Lite bottles and Jager bombs, right?"
"That's right. If you have it ready for him, he'll be impressed."
The Jagermeister was in a machine that refrigerated it close to freezing, with a convenient spout mounted on the front.
"Is the handle stuck?"
"You have to do it sideways."
"Fill it to that line and fill the Red Bull to an inch below the rim."
"You got it." I tilted the spout handle sideways.
I let go of the handle. "What's up?"
"Oh, that's fine."
I brought Dan-o his beer and bomb.
"Oh, you remembered! I love you." He held my hand.
Gino, Dean-o, and Dan-o. I thought about it. Dan-o was Curly and Dean-o was Larry. Gino, without a doubt, was Moe.
Louis, the bar manager and a former coworker of mine, showed up to relieve Gino, who relieved himself at 7, two hours before the other bartenders. Gino was a man who made his own rules, as well as everybody else's. I gave Louis a hug. It was really good to see him.
I went to the bathroom, and when I returned, Gino was laughing, but not smiling. He was shaking his head.
"Hey, would you mind not leaving the Red Bull cans in front of the door of the cooler, please, so I don't knock them on the floor and make a mess?" Gino looked at Dan-o knowingly, half-laughing, half-scoffing. Dan-o looked at me and frowned. He was on my side, but he was also in Gino's bar. RUFF'S.
I made a mistake. I had an accident. Whoops. I felt terrible about it. Nevermind that Gino did not see the can there, in front of the cooler door, before he opened it. It was my fault, and my fault alone. Nobody else was responsible for what had happened. Nobody but me.
"Clean this up. You can use a rag from the back. Don't use a white one."
I went to the back and Louis was there. I asked him where the rags were. He showed me. I grabbed a blue one, returned to the scene of the crime, and cleaned it.
"Which rag did you use?"
I showed it to Gino.
"Okay, that's fine."
I was glad it was fine. I just wanted everything to be fine. Gino clocked himself out and Louis took over.
"I'll have a tall Dewar's and soda with a single shot in it," said Gino.
I made the boss his drink and he sat next to Dan-o. Another patron asked for a refill. I turned to Gino.
"Double, right?" I smirked, knowing how much I wanted to rip his beard out of his face with my fist. Grant me this final wish, my genie, so you may return to your lamp and be buried deep in Sicilian sands. Gino rolled his eyes. I wanted a cigarette, a habit I picked up over Pride in Denver, but I knew better than to do it while my overlord was present.
Gino finally left. The last hour or so of my shift with Louis went by smoothly. He and I worked well together. It was fun. At 9, my relief showed up. He was someone I had never seen before. He was a balding ginger bear with glasses and a thick ass. The rare ginger bear, a weakness of mine. A thick ass, also a weakness. I was having a moment of frailty. He was adorable. I was smiling uncontainably.
"I don't think I've ever seen you before in my life," I said, "what's your name?"
"Tim. It's nice to meet you."
"It's nice to meet you, Tim."
I clocked out and sat at the bar, and Tim talked to me. We talked for five minutes straight. That is a long time to talk to a bartender. I was making him laugh. I could tell he was smart. I told him I was an artist, a writer. He told me he was a local politician. I told him that was really cool, and I admired people who could do that, because I could never. I told him I was looking for a place in Madison, and he told me he was connected to cheap housing resources, and could help me. I told him that would be great. I went outside and had a cigarette. I texted Diane.
"I don't want to work here."
When I returned, Tim was not wearing his shirt anymore. I was smiling. He was smiling. Smiles, smiles, smiles. I closed my eyes and looked down shyly, shaking my head.
"I have to go now."
I did not have to go. I did not want to. I wanted to talk to Tim. I wanted to look at him. I wanted to make him laugh. I should have left, though, and I did. Diane texted me earlier that it was snowing between Madison and Edgerton.
It was Saturday. I had the weekend off. My next shift was Monday. More re-training with Gino. I texted him.
"Hi Gino, yesterday was good. Thanks for everything. I can't make it to the event tonight. I know you wanted me there. Bummer. I was going to ask you for Tim's phone number. He said he was going to help me find a place in Madison. I'm going to create a Facebook profile tomorrow, by the way, to promote my resurgent role at the bar."
He texted me Tim's phone number. I texted Tim.
"Hi Tim, this is Ben, your new coworker at the bar. It was great to meet you yesterday. I wanted to reach out, because you mentioned that, when the time comes for me to leave the boonies, you could direct me to some channels/resources re: housing in Madison. Also we should hang out, if you'd like. You seem awesome."
"Thanks! Working right now. Gino mentioned he was giving you my number. I did a couple reach-outs since Gino told me a couple hours ago. If you're looking for a place right away, I know one person in town who has an efficiency available now through May 31st for 540. It's the off season, so a sublet is probably your best bet since it's almost impossible to get leases that start now."
"That's a good price. I'll need to work for a few weeks first. But something like that would be perfect. Thanks a lot!"
"Yeah I'll keep asking around too so let me know when you're closer to needing a place. We should totally hang out sometime too btw :)"
"That is what is up."
It was an hour before my shift on Monday, and I was dreading it. I had created a Facebook page on Sunday, and the bar friends rolled in. I was up to almost one-hundred already. I texted Gino.
"Gino, I hate to tell you this, but I can't work for RUFF'S, effective immediately. I'm not coming in this afternoon, or ever again, at least as a bartender (provided I'm not now 86'd for such a sudden departure). I've thought about it a great deal, and I know it's the right choice for me. I also know you will be completely fine without me. You've been fine and great for 14 years. I know such short notice is shitty, and I feel terrible about it. But I seriously cannot go through with this. I want to thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to return, but I especially want to extend my gratitude to you for talking to me about what's happening to my mom and everyone around her because of what's happening to her. I hope you're not *too* pissed off about this. It has to suck. I'm sorry. All Best."
"Ummmmm . . . ok! Did something happen to create such a major departure from where you were last week!?"
"What happened, happened within me. I love everyone at the bar. I just can't work there."
"Well ok then."
I deleted my Facebook. Tim texted me.
"What happened! No more RUFF'S?"
"No more RUFF'S. It was both a very hard and very easy decision to make. I'm going to tell you some things in confidence here, because I instantly felt a trust with you after meeting you. All it took was 3 hours behind the bar with Gino to know I didn't want to do it. But more, to ever work in a gay bar again. It's all I've done, pretty much. Right off the bat, he was on top of me and up my ass with criticisms, demeaning me in front of a full bar of patrons. He said I was late. I was on time. I make it a rule to show up early for shift changes, but I wasn't taking over for anyone. I was joining Gino to 're-train.' He criticized me for not wearing a RUFF'S shirt, as if one needs a uniform for that job. I told him it was in the rotation, that I just didn't wear it *that day*. He was not okay with that. It reminded me of everything that made working for him miserable. A customer nearly tried to suck my face off when he said goodbye. Another one, while I was smoking outside, tried the same. I was a very successful bartender in Denver. One of the most. I was beloved there. If you went there with me, and we went to a bar, you would understand and know this. It seemed Gino's primary goal on Friday was to humiliate me and put me in my place as his subordinate. But we all know who really makes bars run. It's the managers and bartenders and bar-backs and door-persons. The owner's authority is general, and s/he should entrust a dedicated staff with the details. But he's a micro-manager. He wouldn't let me breathe. He even said, when I left an ice scoop in the bin (an entirely normal and non-health-code-violation act), 'I don't know how you did things in Denver . . .' I'd have taken it jocularly with anyone else, but it struck me as definitively mean-spirited and cruel. It re-dawned on me just how humorless, grave, and arrogant he is at what he does. I don't like him, as a human being. Please don't share what I'm saying with anyone. Maybe you have a different relationship with him. He treated me like shit. I'm trying to move forward in my life. I just finished my second book the other day and I'm waiting to hear back from publishers. I have a skill-set and resume that exceeds any bar. I don't need it. I know the short notice was shitty, but he and everyone else there will be fine, barring minor scheduling inconveniences. I have other opportunities. Mickey's Tavern, for instance. Also I was really hoping I wouldn't develop a crush on any of my coworkers, and that happened last Friday when I met you, to both my delight and somewhat chagrin. I bet you saw right through me. I feel like I was pretty transparent. I'm not good at hiding in that way, or 'playing it cool.' You seem so wonderful to me, and I hope we can stay in touch, and even get together sometime. I'm not saying everyone should hate Gino or anything, but I can't permit myself to work for him. What can I say, my tolerance for him is thin, and I, a grown man, refuse to be treated like a child by another grown man. Also, 8 years ago he fired me by taking me off the schedule without any notice. I was 22. It cast me into hardship. So I don't have much sympathy for making the life he chose for himself any harder. I wasn't fired this time. Pettiness plays rough."
"You're not the only person to say that stuff about Gino. I have a good relationship with him but I also mostly started working again there just because he was low on staff. I know a lot of other folks have had different experiences. The RUFF'S community can be a bit much too sometimes. I did pick up on the other thing Friday though. You were a bit obvious ;). Shame too about RUFF'S. I was looking forward to running into you tonight. Celebrating my b-day :)."
"We can have a late celebration. Gino and I are done, but I have an intuition that you and I are not. Happy Birthday, Tim. You were the best thing about last Friday for me, by far."
"Thanks it's tomorrow, but I have to do forum prep and then stream a school board forum tomorrow so today is the day for celebrating :)."
"I feel it might be in bad taste for me to show up to RUFF'S tonight."
"Just a bit, it won't do you and Gino any good. He's good at reestablishing that customer-owner relationship though so don't bar yourself from coming back."
"I want to lay low anyhow. But I also want to go on a date with you, if you'll allow it. Even just to get to know each other more."
"If I'll allow it huh?"
"I mean. I'm just trying to be respectful. You're a politician. Your wheelhouse is the concealment of emotions in the service of policy and representation. I'm an artist. I do the opposite of that. Hope you find that cute."
"I'd love to go out sometime. What's your schedule like?"
"(Checks calendar) wide open."
"What are you up to Wednesday?"
"(Checks calendar once more) nothing."
"Care to grab a drink? Since you mentioned Mickey's already how about there?"
"It's my favorite place in town."
"I like it because it's close to where I live so I can walk there :)."
It is Tuesday afternoon, Gino. Tomorrow, I am going on a date with one of your bartenders. I am pretty into him. He seems pretty into me, too. Did you know he has a pet parrot? He is a Congo African Grey. They both have the same life expectancy. Wild. I am looking forward to meeting him. Maybe Tim and I will come into your bar together, once you have cooled off. Are parrots allowed? I am not in any rush. You will not be able to do anything about it, anyway, when it happens. I am proud of myself, Gino, for standing up for myself. I hope you are proud, too. I have had enough of the animal kingdom. I bet Tim found that attractive. Woof!