Drinks on the House

By Mario Kladis

I live above Phyllis’ Musical Inn, and a couple weeks ago my landlord, Clem, asked me to watch the bar while he painted my apartment.

“But I’ve never bartended before,” I said.

“It’s nothing,” Clem explained. “You stand behind the bar, you get people drinks, you take their money.”

“But I don’t know how to make drinks.” He looked at me as if I’d told him I didn’t know how to make toast. “OK, I’ll do it,” I said.

“All right!” Clem said. He took my hand and gave it a good squeeze. When I pulled away, my palm was smeared with white latex paint. “Uh, sorry,” Clem said.

Bartending at Phyllis’ was about as simple as Clem said it would be. Most customers just wanted beer, and the few who ordered drinks like black Russians were only a little confused when I asked, “OK, what is that?”

When it started raining I came out from behind the bar to close the front door, which was wedged open to let in the 70-degree breeze. Winter came up to me as I was shutting the door. He’s one of the four or five homeless guys I recognize by face in my neighborhood. I don’t know his real name. I started calling him Winter last spring when I saw him walking down the street late one night in a ski cap, layers of shirts and sweaters, and a chewed-up pair of snow boots. The guy he was walking with had on a T-shirt and shorts, and together they looked like summer and winter. It’s easy to make jokes like that when you’re watching from the third floor.

“Hey man,” Winter said. “Can I get 50 cents?”

“Sorry,” I said. I didn’t even think about it. In fact, he was walking away before I realized we’d spoken.

“Hey Mario, get me a Dab!” yelled one of the guys in the bar. He was shaking an empty bottle at me. At least Winter had asked for what he wanted. I stuck my head out the door again and looked at him.

“Hey, uh, you!” I called. “You want a drink?” He turned around and I waved for him to come back. He stood there looking at me for a few seconds, then marched right up and into the bar without saying a word. I looked up and down the street, then closed the door and went inside.

Winter perched himself on a stool at the emptier end of the bar. I don’t think anyone had noticed him come in. After I took care of the other customers, I went over to him. “Old Style OK?”

“Yeah,” he said. I got him a bottle and walked around picking up empties, and when I came back he was half done with his beer.

“How ’bout some peanuts?” I said.

“Yeah.” I turned to get a package of Planter’s and he said, “You got Jack Daniels?”

I poured him a shot behind the bar, and Clem walked in suddenly and saw me fixing the drink.

“Mario, what’re you doing?” he said.

I was about to walk the peanuts and the shot over to Winter. “Um, getting people drinks and taking their money,” I said.

Clem shook his head at me. “Lemme show you how you pour a shot. What do you got there?”

“Jack Daniels.”

“Who gets it?”

I pointed at Winter, who looked down at his Old Style. It was empty.

“OK,” said Clem, grabbing the Jack Daniels and a new shot glass. He smacked the glass down in front of Winter. “You put the glass in front of the customer, and that’s where you pour the shot.” Clem filled the new glass. “That way it don’t spill. Got it?”

“Um, yeah,” I said.

Clem shook his head at me and winked at Winter as if to say, “Kids.” Winter stared at the whiskey in front of him.

“What do I do with this?” I said, holding up the shot I’d poured.

“Drink it,” Clem said. “Fact, get a shot for everybody.” Everybody cheered.

I put down the nuts and the shot and went around pouring tiny glasses of Jagermeister, Rumple Minze, and Jack Daniels. When I got back to Winter his glass was empty. So was mine. I looked at him, but he just picked his nails.

“You want another one?” I said.

He nodded and I poured two more shots. I was going to say something as a toast (I don’t know what–“Here’s to good friends”?), but Winter didn’t wait for me. He threw back his whiskey and put the glass down. I took a sip from mine, then closed my eyes and dumped the rest into my mouth. It burned, but a few seconds later my head and chest were warm and fuzzy.

“That’s good,” Winter said. He smiled at me.

“Yeah,” I said. “That is good.”

I gave Winter a few more Old Styles, and a while later he was gone. I didn’t notice him leave. I don’t think anybody did.

I got off around eight. When the new bartender came in to relieve me, Clem and I had a few drinks on the house. I tried a black Russian, and then I had a vodka cranberry. Clem said I should get a pink poodle, but when I went to order one he laughed and told me not to.

I left the bar and went home. The light in the front hallway wasn’t on, so I had to feel my way up the steps. When I got to the first landing I stopped and waved my hand around for the string that switches on the light. It always takes me about 20 minutes to find the thing, swatting at it like it’s one of those wire catnip toys you torture kitties with. Finally I snagged it. The light came on and I froze. A man was sprawled out on the stairs in front of me.

My heart banged against my chest. I was scared. I stood on the landing ready to run or throw a punch. Well, ready to run, anyway.

There was a noise and I flinched. I stared at the body for what felt like minutes. The guy was facedown on the steps, but I recognized the brown plaid shirt–it was Winter. I thought about waking him, but I wasn’t sure I could. And even if I did, what was I going to do, kick him out? I’d gotten him drunk.

I heard the noise again, louder this time. He was farting in his sleep.

I stepped over him carefully and went up the rest of the steps to my apartment. I can hear the hallway pretty clearly from my room, and I lay in bed listening for Winter.

One of my roommates came home a little later. He pounded up the stairs, then stopped suddenly. There was a long pause, and then the stairs creaked as he walked up quietly and let himself in. The next day he asked me if I’d seen the guy in the hallway.

“It scared the shit out of me,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said. “Me too.”

When I came home that night, the downstairs door was locked. I couldn’t remember the last time anyone had bothered, and I had to try most of my keys to find the one that opens the door. Once inside, I noticed that the lock springs back automatically; I closed the door and it was locked again. I didn’t even have to think about it.