splash of cranberry

9:00 AM

9.18.2017



I don't usually write fiction, it's not my thing. However, I came across this short story I'd written years ago and I thought maybe I'll tweak it and throw it out there. So here I am.

***


I met Jeff at The Fifth on 6th and Park. I hadn’t been home for hours before I’d needed liquor.

Jeff was perched by the video poker machine, not playing, and he seemed very invested in a clear liquor with a splash of something red. Cranberry? I took the seat to the left of him with one barstool in between as a buffer.

“Vodka soda?” I wasn’t sure that the 90-year-old bartender had heard me until she started scooping ice into a glass. I exchanged cash for the drink and brought it to my lips. Before they even reached liquid a raspy voice came at me with inquiry.

“Vodka soda?” He had just repeated me.

“Yes?”

“That’s what I ordered. Don’t ask for a splash of cranberry.” He fondled his straw with his hand almost jabbing at each piece of ice.

“I didn’t, but why not?” It was a valid question, I thought. He is the one that interjected first.

“Taste this.” He slid his drink down the bar to me. Anywhere else it would have been strange but in Farmington, everyone seemed to think they were best friends after exchanging pleasantries. I was slightly reluctant though after he warned me about the cranberry. I nearly puked after the first sip.

“What the hell is in that?” I immediately looked toward the bartender. Luckily she was locked in a deep conversation with someone resembling The Dude so I doubt she heard me. I changed my volume to a whisper. “That is the worst thing I’ve ever tasted. Is it...?”

“Tomato juice? I think so.” He maneuvered his way onto the buffer seat and swept the drink from my hand. Bringing it to his face he sniffed, pondered, and downed the drink in one swallow. I think I made a face.

“Why did you do that? How could you do that?”

“I don’t know. Part of me liked that it was awful. You pound it down expecting something fruity and you get this tabasco, tomato, pepper, bloody mary thing and I don’t know, it just sang to me.”

It sang to him? “It sang to you.” It wasn’t even a question.

“So who are you.” I liked the way he completely skipped over the past five minutes as if it had never happened. Part of his charm, I suppose. Was he doing this on purpose?

“I’m James.”

“Well now, that’s a boy’s name.” He leaned back in his barstool, seconds away from falling, and sipped the remnants of his tomato spiked soda. Did I mention he was wearing flannel?

“Yes. Yes, it is.” How many times have I heard this? He had to know. He smiled and sucked the emptiness of his drink as if he was determined to not leave a trace of it behind. I took this opportunity to scour the rest of the bar. While intrigued, I felt compelled to seek out other company. Dingy beer signs and antlers lined the wall, and there were only two working light bulbs in sight. I overheard a patron slur the name Barbara which caught the attention of the woman behind the counter. From this angle, she looked even older. Once the man was taken care of Barbara turned her direction to me while I ordered my drink.

“Splash of cranberry!” came the voice to my left. I had forgotten he was sitting there. Watching Barbara piece together the beverage I noticed the cranberry and the bloody Mary mix were side by side and poor Barbara’s eyes could not tell the difference, even with the thickest of lenses in her cat-eye glasses. Politeness stopped me from speaking up. I would just have to bear it.

“So James, I’m Jeff. Why are you here? You must have family or know someone because no one just stops in here. No one even visits Farmington without a reason. So do you know someone? You have to. We’re off the radar, we aren’t even close to the freeway.”

“I have family here.” I figured I should be cordial, after all, I may be in town a while. It may not hurt to make some friends. “I’m back to stay...” I hesitated.

“What happened, did you get divorced?”

“No, I did not get divorced.”

“Then why come back? No one comes back, we’re not even close to the freeway.”

I considered spilling everything. Normally the chance of me ever again running into a man I met at a bar were slim, however as previously pointed out, this was a small town, off the radar, far away from the interstate.

“Well, I lost my job.” His expression changed for just a second, enough for me to notice he was sad.

“That sucks.” Sad and consoling.

“Yes, it does suck.” Back some time ago I was a photographer and a traveler. I was roped into an internship right out of college for a company that made motivational posters. It was my first and only job. They’d ship me to far off lands: Africa, Beijing, and Tijuana, where I would photograph landscapes and wild animals all for the sake of going on a card in new employee’s welcome manuals for various companies. Over time it became much more than that. The photos were also slipped into vacation brochures and airplane catalogs. Sometimes I didn’t even know what they were for, I just would take a photo, someone would come up with a tagline and art was created. There may even have been greeting cards floating out there somewhere.

“What did you do?” Barbara brought my drink, taking the money and smiling. She had lipstick on her teeth.

“I took pictures. For motivational posters.” I sipped. “And such.” And apparently spoke in fragments.

“And such.” He repeated. Again.

“And this is the most God-awful drink I’ve ever had in my entire life.” I don’t know what I’d expected taking a gulp. I wiped my lips with a napkin but it was not enough to rid the taste of Tabasco from my mouth.

Jeff laughed. No, he snorted. I don’t believe that guys like Jeff laugh. They chortle or snarl or wheeze, sometimes all at once.

The minutes ticked away and the conversation turned to Jeff. I wanted anything to get the attention off of my recent failures. Jeff worked at a dog grooming facility. He worked exactly one day a week, two if they were busy. He mostly lived off of a settlement check he received two years ago after being hit by a Sears truck delivering a washing machine to his neighbor. He claims he didn’t see them rounding the corner as he sprung out of his driveway on his Vespa. After spending the last half hour with him, I think there may have been some intent behind it.
Jeff lived with his parents and his younger sister Maddie. Maddie was a senior in high school and after graduation was going to spend her summer hiking to Mount Everest and then would start at Brown in the fall. Jeff never went to college so his fund was used to give Maddie the best education available. He was not in any way bitter. He still had most of his settlement check since he didn’t have to pay rent.

Jeff’s parents didn’t seem too concerned with him leaving. They traveled a bit themselves so he had lots of time to work on his new endeavor: starting a bumper sticker company. He had the run of their house and when he wasn’t busy walking or bathing puppies he could focus on his life goal of creating the next ‘Shit Happens’ to grace the back of people’s station wagons. I think Jeff’s parents were fine with the arrangement as long as they weren’t bothered by him.

“Jeff it seems like you live a very full life.” I wasn’t intending to come off sarcastic, but luckily Jeff didn’t notice. While telling me his story his eyes hadn’t moved from the clock on the wall. The hand on the clock was stuck as well, I believe it was out of batteries. Either way, his gaze hadn’t moved since I’d stopped talking.

“I do. I think I really have a handle on things, unlike most people. I know what I want and I’m not afraid to go for it. I think that I’ll be able to turn this company into something huge. Then I can buy my parent’s house and they won’t have to worry about anything until I have to put them in a home and then they die, but until then they’ll be set, they’ll live the life and I can do that for them. I may be able to even help Maddie through school, though I’m not planning on this thing taking off until she’s probably graduated and married and has a few kids, but I can help with that. I can be the cool uncle that buys them toys and sends them home to their parents. Maddie will understand because she is my sister and I used to buy her beer.”

“I’m sure she will. I’m sure she’ll be grateful.” Something about the guy rubbed. I wasn’t sure if it rubbed me wrong or right but I hadn’t left yet. Something about this conversation was keeping me interested. Jeff wasn’t physically attractive. He had messy blond hair that hadn’t been washed in a few years, the flannel, though his jeans looked nice. He had a scruff on his chin that matched his eye color, which was hard to see because his eyes were small, very small. Beady, almost. He had beady, brown eyes.

His staring contest with the immobile clock ended abruptly when he turned back to me and I felt his hand on my knee. It wasn’t sexual, almost like an older relative before they’re about to utter the words “In my day...”

“James. I like you. I think we are good together. I think you should visit me tomorrow at Paws and Pizazz. I’ll introduce you to some of my friends. They’re dogs so they don’t judge or anything. But they’re really nice.”

I thought about everything I had to do and honestly there was nothing. Spending every waking second with my family seemed like torture and this man in front of me didn’t seem to care that I’d been fired from a well-paying job with amazing travel opportunities. Maybe he just wanted a friend, or maybe he planned on keeping me locked in his basement and eventually wearing my skin. Both avenues seemed far superior to being interrogated by five relatives about every shortcoming imaginable.

“I can do that. Time?” I reached for my phone in my purse to make sure I had a contact for him. He didn’t speak so I continued.

“Your number?”

“Be there at one and I don’t have a cell phone but I can give you the number to the store.”

“You don’t have a cell phone?”

“No. I don’t like being too available. You never know who is looking for you. Besides, I have to spend my money on the business and on Redbull to keep me awake to work on the business. It’s just a lot simpler that way.” He stood up and wiped his hand on his flannel. He set a $20 bill on the bar to cover his disgusting beverage, then rattled off the 10-digit phone number to Paws and Pizazz almost too quickly for my fingers to find the buttons.

“Well, it was nice to talk to you. I’ll see you tomorrow?” I asked almost as another confirmation that this dude was for real.

“I’ll be there. I cannot wait for you to meet Legion.” I could only assume that Legion was a dog. Jeff walked out and left me in the bar alone with Barbara, a couple playing the video slots and a man wearing an “I lost my ass in Vegas” t-shirt.

“Another one?” Barbara’s grated tone came from the opposite side of the bar.

“I’m fine, thank you.” I had already paid but I left a $5 bill next to Jeff’s money as a compliment to the chef of the worst cocktail imaginable, which led me to a conversation that could almost qualify as life-changing.

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