Heyo, I called as the couple walked in and took stools at the far corner. I inspected my polished glass against the light and set it in place on my way down the bar to greet them with menus and water glasses.
This here's our fall cocktail menu. Take a gander and I’ll be right with you.
Oh my god it’s a whole book babe, the girlfriend said. Look!
I grinned as I leaned down over the sink rinsing tins and strainers. The hardcover autumn menus had proven themselves powerfully useful. They were like cocktail foreplay. Especially to newcomers. Flipping through pages done by local artists and admiring the drinks that had inspired each design. Fingers bookmarking three or four pages. Building excitement with a tangible promise that this place was deadly serious about its playful cocktail program.
The books gave blind dates something in common. Priming the flow of conversation as they read the quotes to each other and pointed out artists’ names they recognized.
And the books united large parties around a central theme of drink discussion like a bonfire bringing a group's focus to the core for a moment of solidarity to decide the next round of drinks before fractalling out once again into a happy social rhythm of drink and replenish.
And behind the bar the books worked as a diversion. They bought a few precious moments of guest attention while I got caught up on tickets and cleanup in this game of compounding moments.
I kept an eye on the young couple as I updated all my tabs on the ipad and worked on a service ticket for one of Liz’s tables. Some bland hipster rock crooned from the speakers.
They were huddled together flipping back and forth through the book. Her small dark head brushing his cheek as they pointed out drinks and illustrations to each other and chuckled at the artists’ captions. They laughed and gazed in each other’s eyes and found constellations of approval sparkling within, knowing no matter what they’d always navigate back together. I felt a twinge of envy and melancholy and pushed it away.
When I had a moment I ambled back over.
Who did all the artwork? the girlfriend asked. Eyes bright and face wide open.
I told her we’d coaxed local artists to come drink one of the cocktails and then let flow their inspiration all over a TWF coaster.
I nodded. Good booze and spontaneity is the best lubrication for creativity.
True, she said.
Well put, her man said.
So what are you having? Decided yet?
I’ll try a ChooseYourOwn. His hazel eyes flashed. Somethiinngg…let’s do boozy and smoky.
My favorite. I winked. I knew I liked you. Ardbeg with a float of cold water, coming right up. And for you, lady?
She smiled and ordered something[ what?] from the book.
And can we get a couple waters when you get a chance? I’m Mark by the way.
Wade. I inclined my head at them. Good to meet you. I slid a pair of full waters to them and turned away to ponder my shelves.
Boozy and smoky. Ardbeg for smoky, naturally; especially for this dude.
Something spiced and fiery…High West rye, maybe Green Chartreuse.
And something to mellow and balance…I’ve been playing with sherries lately. Let’s try this one.
I built the drink and dipped a straw to taste. Needs some sweet to round it out.
A good dash of turbinado syrup tuned the drink's fire from flickering gout to sharp blue needlepoint and I stirred and strained the mix and brightened surface and rim with a squeeze of lemon peel and served it up.
Damn man this is good. Mark's face broke open with a smile. His faint freckles glowed and wisdom lines spidered out around his eyes. He nodded approvingly. What’s it called?
Thank you my good man. I like it too. I’m actually writing it down right now. Dont want to lose the recipe for this one. I finished scribbling the spec on a scrap of receipt paper and straightened up. But it is so far unnamed.
Mmm. It’s delicious. We need to ID this john doe.
Yeah? I reckon we do. Hey what’s your background, man? What do you do? You command a mysterious air.
He shrugged. I was in the military. Now I’m back in school and consulting some.
Were you deployed?
Yeah, Iraq. I was ROTC in college. Deployed as a platoon XO. First lieutenant.
Crazy, man! That’s really nutty. I want to hear more. Listen I’ll be right back.
I danced away and let them get at their drinks while I tended the bar.
There’s a reason it’s called bartending. Tending a bar is like playing a running game of whackAmole in the middle of a garden that needs to be done weeded by nightfall. It’s like juggling the grocery lists of a dozen families while walking their dogs at the same time, wondering how you’ll manage to get all the groceries and dogs back in time for supper.
Successful bartending is a damnedish tangle of mixed metaphors.
But I’ve always loved comparing the melee of a dinner rush to a battlefield sans violence. A live action wargame executing strategy by deploying tactics. Different units operating their intersecting theaters. Everyone maneuvering and straining to maximize efficiency and scrounge up resources. Everyone hyperalert and buzzing with techniques and experience. Everybody feeding on each other and thriving or crashing on the pivot of one misstep. All the while maintaining a goodnatured rivalry between units.
Most of the time goodnatured.
The back of house wearing clogs and greasy chefwear cottons toil in the forges behind the lines assembling the ordnance and dishing out round after round to light up targets as the front lines call them in. Supporting the troops on the ground. Laying artillery cover for the infantry grunts humping the front lines among tables and chairs and tripfeet.
Those gallant servers facing boozy boobytraps and dietary restriction ambushes every day. They engage without hesitation when called upon, maneuvering for battlefield position and anticipating problems by prescient instinct. They face off again and again within smelling range of their adversary, collecting intelligence and acting on it. Serving hit after hit in a sisyphean ground campaign that seems to go on forever.
In their wake scurry the bussers and foodrunners like medics and comms people. Cleaning up messes and stitching ravaged tables back together in the wake of an engagement. Maintaining furtive comms between BoH and FoH and seeing mostly only the carnage aspect of service.
Bartenders perched behind a solid barricade armed to the teeth with heavy munitions and bristling with the latest hardware are the machinegunners and snipers of this scenario. Mayhem makers. Clearing the way for service tactics and dealing out precision bullseyes sight unseen. Morale makers. A fuckup behind the bunker could wrench the night down a hellish spiral of compound moments stacking into each other like a crashing train.
I shuddered, thinking of the chaos sprung by breaking a glass into the icewell.
And in some places the bartenders are special forces too. Wielding a complex arsenal of craft technique and charm. Magic makers. Infil and problemsolve and exfil leaving behind only what traces we choose to leave.
And above it all the general sits in his office monitoring the tumultuous game he’s set in motion through the birdseyeview of several cameras. Administrating and shuffling paperwork and drawing up plans until the game itself requires he descend and make an appearance in the field.
At the end of each night the tumult finally lulls. Every shift will end. Even Prometheus was allowed respite each night when the eagle stopped eating his liver long enough to let it regrow.
The end of each shift is R&R time. A hot familymeal and a strong shift drink or two before breaking it all down ready to run it again the next night.
I returned to the corner of the bar to check on the couple’s drinks. They were still working. Enjoying slowly, as they said. I spotwiped the bar with a damp towel and tidied up the menus.
Iraq huh? I prompted. You mustve seen some really nutty stuff over there.
I held the Fernet Branca draft handle so I wouldnt accidentally bump it open and cascade a mess and swabbed its nozzle. Mark nodded.
I dont know if you’re into talking about it or not, but I love hearing war stories. I’ve always had this dream of writing a duality novel set in Vietnam and Iraq. A story of lost generations.
Mark shrugged his chin and nodded thoughtfully.
I’d read that.
There must be a bunch of families like that. Plenty of resources.
Yeah my dad’s oldest brother was in Vietnam.
Holy shit. You want to collaborate on a family biography rendered in highres historical fiction?
What was something really nutty you experienced?
He finished his cocktail and pondered. I assembled a replacement and slid it across. Jenny’s was still half full.
Mark looked off beyond the bottles lining the dark wooden shelves. His pupils widened and narrowed. Then his face broke into a smile and he met my eye.
Okay so this one time we were getting briefed for a mission right, and this was supposed to be a just routine patrol sort of thing.
He took a sip and nodded admiringly. Appraised his glass and continued.
And anyway so they’re telling us what the parameters are and where we’re going, what we’re doing, who we should look for, all that. Everything per usual. Until the very end.
Yeah. They’re showing us satellite infil and exfil intelligence and alternate routes and safe zones and stuff right? Outlining equipment specs for the mission and exigencies. Support and all that. Then they did the whole, Oh yeah and be eyes open for all these potential threats they list off. Which it was like, known badguy hangouts and potential sniper nests and stuff. They’re like watch for this and that and IEDs – he leaned in – and lions.
Whut…? I whistled low.
Yeah look it up. One of the early casualties of Iraqi Freedom bombs was the Baghdad Zoo. Breached all around its perimeter. Walls and fences tumbled and twisted. Bars bent and loosened. Concrete moats blasted through with huge craters.
After the smoke had cleared the surviving animals ventured out into the world. From little brown birds and harmless lizards to elephants and lions all roaming the streets they now shared with Marine patrols and locals and aid initiatives and insurgents and stray dogs. Staying alive like everyone else. Getting by on whatever means they could find. For a while a lot of the dangerous ones were still at large. And the most dangerous were the most furtive.
Did anything ever happen?
Yeah. To this one Marine.
Shit wait. I held up a finger. Give me one sec.
I turned away to greet an incoming group.
It was his fourth day without sleep and he was starting to see shadows. The coffee and adderall and coopenhagen can only keep you awake. They can't keep you afloat.
The platoon was leapfragging houses. There was a rhythm to it. Chucking fragmentation grenades and kicking in doors and expanding the battalion’s secure perimeter block by block.
The shuffle of boots in gravel. The BUMP! of frags in the windows.
The CRACK! of breaching.
The shuffle of boots on concrete. The refrain flitting room to room.
Knit together by the occasional chatter of M4’s as the rifle squads alternated house by house.
Frag BUMP! breaching CRACK! clearing closets bedrooms toilets prayer rooms. Always praying to see hands up and frightened eyes. Always expecting AKs flash and kamikaze hatred.
And between each jack of adrenaline he was seeing shadows.
It was his fourth day without sleep and he was starting to see—wait.
He shook his head clear and leapfrogged another road to the next house and fragged the window which silenced the crackle of gunfire that been had Bravo pinned down. CRACK! someone breaching.
BUMP! someone fragging. Heart racing. Bullets snapping. Someone screaming. Sweat streaking bonewhite tiedye marks everywhere his webbing touched. Frags weighing straps. M4 hot and heavy. Begging to be unloaded.
Crouching at a house’s corner. Catching his breath. Covering the squad running. Frag and breach and next and next.
They hammered the door in CRACK! as he sprinted across the street and they followed him in through the breach clearing every nook and upending every table, pulling down every shelf and curtain and chugging along on the tracks of training. Everyone in the squad swoll rocksolid on reps and hardened in the fire of experience and fuckin well knew it. Spartans aint got shit!—
Boots and breath and kit. Heart pounding. Lungs pumping. Gravel and gear and breath all rasping and he pulls outside himself and watches his sprint to the next house and sees the shadows there.
Just there just ahead.
And before he gets there he registers the hulking feline shadow crouched between houses but it’s still too late and he turns his head and there’s a lion and then it’s on him HUGE! dragging him back into the alley tearing at his body armor biting at his neck teeth clacking metallically along the M4 butt pinned across his chest by the lion—
By the mother fuckin LION!—
And he knows this is it.
This is death. So strong and so heavy he can't even struggle against the weight of paws that could use his helmet for a steeltoe.
Stepping outside himself again as the lion clamps down on his face. Standing on his chest. Chomping down for a better grip and sealing off his nose and mouth. Darkness crowding the sparking edges of his vision thinking finally get some sleep...
And his buddy lit the thing up just in time.
Sweet jesus. Can you fucking imagine? I shuddered. The hair stood on my neck.
After the medivac his company CO called it quits early so the platoon could go back and take the skin for him.
Was he alright?
Yeah. Alive anyway. But his face was shredded. Bunch of broken bones and stuff and some teeth cracked out. Needed a lot of work.
Goddamn. And it had nothing to do with the mission.
Sick souvenir though. A fuckin lion pelt.
With about thirty little holes in it.
All the better. Punctuates the story.
Ha yeah. Believe me that story got around pretty quick.
Good god man. That’s dead scary no matter how you slice it. Watch out for IEDs and lions.
I swabbed a wet spot on the bartop.
So how did your mission go after a briefing like that?
Well, Mark said. That’s a story for another day.