"Malt and Malaise" | mariteaux

"Hi, what can I get you—sorry, sir, hold on—sir, please, I'm with someone else right now. Sorry about that, you were saying?"

Four hours into the busiest Saturday of the season and I was this close to hiding in the liquor cabinet. It was a rush that only seemed to build: one wannabe poet ordering round after drunken round turning into two, then three, each leaning a little further over the bar than the last like a mob. At least I could quiet the patrons down: the hyena on stage with the double bass needed a soundcheck, and a hip-check out the back for that matter.

Orange bled into my eyes from all directions, from the salt lamps scattered along the shelves to the glowing wall mounts reflected in the rococo ceiling carvings and bleached plaster. Pleasantly dim lights for them meant I had to squint the way through my shift. Every time I'd duck under for a bottle of malt, the urge to stay down there grew.

I don't know, maybe I shouldn't complain about it. It was probably the nicest of the three or so bars on Belmont Street, and tending bar paid alright when my hours weren't being cut, and occasionally there'd be a pretty decent band playing that'd take some of the edge off things if I wasn't too busy taking orders to hear them.

I was halfway through pouring a drink for a marten nursing a broken heart when a velvety little voice cut through the chatter.

"Yoohoo, Gabriel~"

"Rrrgh—I hear you, hold on..." I didn't immediately recognize it--thought it was some patron getting cute with me, but that nerve didn't last long. It was a marmot girl I knew by the name of Caroline. She worked in the legal department of Midas, a label in town for weird, obscure imported Italian albums or whatever. Local bands too. I met her when she helped me register my band's songs for royalties, and she's hung around my tribe ever since. Given her half-undone suit jacket, I'd guessed she'd just gotten off work. My stomach was glad for it.

Caroline leaned over the bar to match my height, and I leaned in just the same, grinning big. "Hi you," I whispered.

"Good night so far?"

"Mm, you can call it that, yeah." I squinted. "Didn't know you drank much."

She tilted her head and gave one of her coy smiles, the kind I couldn't quite read despite my better efforts. "Much?"

"Or at all, I guess."

Caroline giggled. "I'm heading home in a moment. Bastards kept me late clearing samples."

"The most exciting part of making an album."

"It's what every kid wants to do, isn't it?"

"Something like that."

"Hey, mongoose!" someone shouted behind me. "My drink?"

With a sigh, I turned to nod annoyed at him and then back to Caroline. "I gotta go."

"Have fun."

I liked to imagine she would've dragged me out of there with her if she could.

I watched her scamper out of the bar as I mixed another hipster's swampwater drink combo with a faint feeling of disgust. It was times like that I wished I didn't work Saturdays—or any of the days she had off. I'd seen her maybe twice that month, and this time, in passing. She was someone I didn't get to see often, someone who could go from reserved to bantering five minutes into a conversation. No bullshit, no politics, as unpretentious as they come around here—exactly what I needed more of.

I kept thinking about her as last call became closing time and as I wandered my way home. I missed the late night bus, the one with my apartment on route, but I only lived a mile or two away. Okay, "only"—but there's worse parts of The City to get caught in above-freezing temperatures in for an hour or so, I guess. Nothing to complain about. Things were pretty still, aside from the occasional gust of wind that made me burrow a little deeper inside my jacket...and the sound of the motorcade in the distance. And occasionally some arguing out a highrise window.

But even as my attention turned to the bleary, grey sky above me and the rough concrete giving way to unforgiving brick walkways underfoot, even as I looked around for the moon in that mess of light pollution and over my shoulder as I got to the door of my apartment complex—Caroline wasn't leaving me alone. I couldn't figure out why. Were they feelings? Was I really just that lonely? When was the last time I saw someone outside of work?

A month. A month, I reckoned as I stumbled my way into the elevator of my building at 1:30 in the morning. A month of day-in, day-out rushing about, listening to alcoholics and their stories more than the voices of my band, my friends, anyone whose order I wasn't taking right then and there. And I didn't realize until it had me leaning up against the wall of the elevator.

Mmh, I don't know. Maybe there was something to complain about.