Last time, Tracy started her job at The Wilted Pen. Claire introduced her around and warned her off the surly bartender, Davis. Tracy’s first night went well – until she slipped in ketchup, caught the sarcastic turn of Davis’s smile, and wondered what she was getting herself into.
Back Up Appreciated
The Wilted Pen is working out better than I expected. The regulars are mostly harmless, and I’ve discovered the power of a blank face instead of trying to explain something to an obstinate patron. In fact, it’s going so well that Nell has actually decided to take a weekend off.
None of us thought she was serious until we showed up on Friday, and she never appeared. Claire and I juggled the floor all night while Davis handled the bar, and we slowly but surely got into a clocklike routine of support.
Claire hasn’t said any more to warn me off of Davis, but I got the gossip from the dishwasher Nell has work the weekends. Not so much gossip really though, more like bar-history. Claire was here year round, working hard for Nell and learning to run the place. Davis was the hired help in the summers and had been since he graduated high school. They got along fine the first few years, and then he came back one summer with a few more muscles and a surlier expression and threw Claire’s head for a loop. They dated, and it did not end well. The dishwasher didn’t know who dumped who but they had yet to exchange a civil word that anyone had noticed.
Davis stayed behind the bar for the most part and Claire stuck to the floor. They worked well together – that harmony that comes from long-time dance partners doesn’t disappear just because someone breaks the other’s heart. Davis waffled between silence for the entire evening and never shutting up. He was odd but he had a biting sense of humor that mirrored karmic justice on the customers who became insulting and rude as the night progressed and the beer flowed.
Saturday night was looking to be pleasantly busy if the dinner rush was anything to go by.
“Tracy,” Claire shouted. “Can you cover the window area? I just got a four top in the back.”
“Yeah!” I yelled from the walk-in cooler. The front section of the restaurant had a few small tables that were typically filled with regular customers who couldn’t squeeze in at the bar. The tips were typically a little lower than a family eating dinner, but the needs were predictable.
“Tom’s holding court in the corner,” she added. “His whiskey is low so grab another on your way up there.” She winked at me. Tom was a young guy who worked at the art supply store around the corner. He was in two or three nights a week, and he’d been flirting with me non-stop for the last two weekends.
Davis’s smirk and wink when I grabbed the tumbler of whiskey from the bar as I sauntered past were about as subtle as Claire’s shout. The men around the table – and it was all men – looked up and back down briefly when I approached but barely stopped their conversation. I set the drink in Tom’s reach, and stood back on my heels with a hip jutted forward as I pulled my notepad from my back pocket.
“How’s everybody doing tonight?” I asked with a smile. I got nods and a few tapped empty glasses on the table to indicate they wanted another round. With a scribble to the pad, I was ready to turn back to the bar and hit the rest of my tables on my way to pick up the drinks when I was drawn back and right up against Tom’s side.
“Trace,” Tom grinned up at me from his chair, one arm looped around my waist. “When are you going to let me take you out?”
“Sorry Tom, you know Nell has a rule about dating the clientele,” I said with a smile and attempted to spin gently out of his grip. But he just reeled me back in, his fingers wrapped in the belt loops I wasn’t using with an actual belt.
“Aw come on,” he drawled. “I don’t bite. It’s not like I’d stop coming here. Hell, I’d probably be here more.”
I glanced over my shoulder, looking for back up but Claire was juggling a tray of beers and handing them out at the table she had gotten. I couldn’t twist the other direction but the bar was busy enough that I assumed I was on my own. Dating the customers wasn’t exactly forbidden but it was a convenient excuse to keep the handsier guys at bay.
“Sorry Tom,” I repeated with a smile. “I really can’t.”
“You seeing someone?” He asked with what looked like the beginning of a sneer.
I paused. I could lie and say yes, I had a boyfriend. Or I could be honest and deal with another, probably less polite, exchange about why I couldn’t date him. It seemed cruel to just go with, “Not interested” though I’m sure it was flashing across my face like a light-up sign.
Fending off guys who thought more with the liquor and their libido than their brains wasn’t new. And I can handle myself against them. But I never get mad when I feel the looming shadow of a male coworker at my back. There are times to assert my independence, and there are times when my whole posture relaxes.
“Need help with the glasses, Trace?” Davis asks, stopping at my shoulder and crossing his arms across his chest. Sometimes the straight face and lack of expression works on the customers. But when in doubt, the pourer of beers and drinks standing at your shoulder works even better. Tom’s arm dropped from my hips, and he scowled at Davis.
“Thanks Davis,” I said with a smile, slipping my pad back into my pocket and grabbing a few of the glasses before heading back for the kitchen.
He followed me to the kitchen, the rest of the glasses from the table stacked neatly in one hand.
“Everything alright?” he asked once the door swung shut behind us. Mike and Jed looked up at his tone.
“Yeah,” I brushed it off. “Tom’s just a little more aggressive in front of his friends than usual. I appreciate the back up though.”
“Okay,” he nodded and moved towards the sink with the glassware as I grabbed a tray from the counter and headed back out with a smile for the rest of my tables.
Avoiding Tom’s section wasn’t terribly difficult, and I handed the section back to Claire as soon as possible. No one messed with Claire. They all valued their “regular” status too much to piss off the heir-apparent of Nell’s bartending by hitting on her too much. Plus, her current boyfriend was a regular fixture at the end of the bar on weekend nights.
The night wound down, and by closing, Tom’s group was the only one left in the place, loudly debating the horribleness of one of the summer reality shows I had yet to watch. I was wiping down the front tables when I felt a hand glide around my side only seconds before it yanked me back against a male chest.
Instinct is hard to quell, and my heart rate skyrocketed, but my foot also slammed down in the general vicinity of where I assumed his foot was. Handsy would no longer be the adjective I’d use to describe this particular customer.
“Tom, let me go,” I stated loudly, attempting to control the rattle in my voice.
“Come on Tracy,” he cajoled, his hand inching the bottom of my shirt up slightly and slipping his fingertips to my stomach. “Just one date. It’ll be fun.”
“Tom, let me go,” I said again, squirming in his grip and shoving at his hands with mine.
“Not until you say yes,” he said. “You know it’ll be fun.”
This time my foot connected, but he did little more than bounce his foot out of the way and tighten his arm around my waist. I could feel his heartbeat at my back, and his stubble grazed my cheek with every breath he took.
“Now, now Tracy. No need to kick. Just say…”
His abrupt pause was followed by a whimper of pain that didn’t come from me.
“Drop her,” I heard Davis growl.
His hand dropped from my stomach, and I squirmed away from the table he had pinned me against before turning. Davis had one white-knuckled hand pinched to Tom’s neck and the other wrapped around his free arm. Mike and Jed stood in the doorway of the kitchen; Claire and the dishwasher were right in front of them.
“You okay Tracy?” He asked, nodding me towards the kitchen.
I nodded faintly, my eyes on the red and pink splotches that highlighted his grip. The muscles in his arm were tightly bunched, and it looked like Tom would have a colorful set of bruises tomorrow. Once I reached Claire, she stepped in front of me with a gentle push towards the kitchen before she moved to stand in front of Tom.
“Tom?” she asked. “I ever hear about you touching one of my waitresses again? Even a friendly hand on the shoulder? I call the cops. You’re banned. Don’t come back.”
She was scary when she was pissed. With a nod to Davis, she turned back towards us. I watched over her shoulder, expecting Davis to release Tom and move away. Instead, he leaned in and told Tom something that forced the remaining color from Tom’s face before he let go of his neck and frog-marched him towards the door.
Tom was set free on the sidewalk. And though he was smart enough not to turn and attack, I saw the bitter look on his face as Davis walked back inside. The guys may have thought it was over – Tom’s friends were quietly filing out the door after him – but it didn’t feel that way to me.