“This one’s good,” the girl slurs at me. I try to look interested, which is somehow easier with the eye-patch on. “What kind of socks does a pirate wear?”
“Hmm. I give up,” I say. I’m in no mood. It’s dark and noisy and I’m trying to remember a time when I didn’t feel so exhausted.
“Pirates don’t give up,” she pokes me in the chest. “They go down with the ship! Now guess.”
“I don’t know,” I say.
“Arrr-gyle!” She makes her finger into a hook and sticks it in my face. She cracks up. “Now come on. Lemme have another shot.”
“You got it, lassie!” I say to her. I’m only supposed to give out one shot per adult with I.D. and only if they fill out a questionnaire card and put down an e-mail address. She hasn’t even done that much, but I pour her another shot in hopes that she’ll go away. She does.
“Sean!” Janice whispers. She shakes her head at me and taps on the cardboard box where the questionnaire cards go. I shrug at her. I’ve worked with Janice one other time and she was the same way. I don’t exactly blame her, but she’s wearing regular clothes and it’s easier, I think, to play by the numbers when you’re in regular clothes.
“Are you telling them about rum dot com?” she asks. Even though the music’s cranked, Janice is standing right beside me and is well aware that I haven’t said a word about rum dot com. On our display table there’s an unopened bottle of Morgan’s Private Stock. I twist it open and pour two shots into our promotional shot glasses that say The Captain Was Here in slashy red letters. Janice glares at me.
“We’ve got to know our product.” I try to hand her a shot.
“No way.” She holds her clipboard with both hands. I tip my tricorner hat and give her a smile. The other time I worked with Janice we knocked off early and got margaritas and she talked to me about her cat, Rufus, as if he were her ex-husband.
“More for me,” I say to her. I slug mine down. A vaporous nasal rush follows. I pick up the second one, lift it halfway, and raise an eyebrow at Janice.
“Give me the fucking thing,” she grabs it and tosses it back. “But that’s-” her head glitches in a half-sneeze, “but that’s it. I don’t think Kelly wants you coming home drunk anymore. No more tonight.”
“Cool. No more. Let’s get to work.”
We’re pushing Parrot Bay pretty hard. It’s coconut rum that smells and pours like suntan lotion.
A pair of guys in white baseball caps come up to me.
“You giving out shots?”
“Arrr,” I say to them. “If ye be having I.D. on ye!”
“Cut the shit,” one of them says. “Are you giving out shots or not?”
“I.D. You each get a shot but I need to see I.D. and I need both of you to fill out one of these cards.”
I can smell cologne and sweat on them.
“We showed our I.D. at the door,” the other one says.
“He doesn’t work for the bar. He works for Captain Morgan’s. That’s right, isn’t it?” the first one says.
“That’s right,” I say to them. “Listen. Dudes. Just put down an e-mail address on one of these cards and I can give you a shot each.”
I hand them a pen. The first one writes down blowme@hotmail, and he shows it to the other one who then writes rimjob@yahoo.
I pour out two shots of Parrot Bay. My used shot glass is still sitting there and I go ahead and splash it full.
“Cheers, me buccaneers!” I say and slug my shot back. It tastes more like snowcone syrup than booze. They walk off with the shot glasses which they’re not supposed to keep.
“Sean,” Janice says.
“Oh, blow me,” I say to her. She looks sunken. “Jesus, I’m sorry. I’m just not on tonight. You know? You ever have a night like that?” I give her a playful punch on the arm. “Know what I mean?”
Janice just stares down at the shot glass which I’ve drunk from twice already and she says nothing.
“What’s Rufus doing right now? Huh?” I put my hand on her shoulder. “Living the good life, that’s what.” I’ve had a few drinks and I guess I’m feeling a little philosophical.
“Don’t touch me,” she says. “Just do your job.”
She’s right to say that. And for the next hour that’s what we do. Couples come into the bar, and groups of guys, and groups of girls. Everyone spots us right away, and I make them fill out their questionnaire cards and show I.D. When their cards have blank spaces I say things like, “That’s a required field.” I look at their I.D.s and back at them and I say happy birthday to anyone within a month. I throw in a few Yo-Ho-Ho and a Bottle of Rums and I glance over at Janice and she smiles and I feel like maybe I’ve made up for the blow me comment.
“Hello Sean,” a girl’s voice says.
“Kelly!” I say. And then we stand there for a moment.
“Well, I’m doing fine.” She sniffles, wipes her nose and says, “in case you were wondering.” She shakes her head at me and smiles, “I think the jacket is my favorite, but the pants are pretty good too.”
My costume smells like smoke. It’s dry-clean only. They’ll reimburse me if I bring in a dry-cleaners receipt, but that seems like a lot of work.
I turn to Janice. “I need five minutes, okay?”
Janice exhales loudly.
“Thanks, you’re the best,” I say to Janice. I grab the Private Stock bottle.
“No!” Janice says.
“Parrot Bay!” I shout over my shoulder to Janice as Kelly and I scout the bar for an open table. “Just keep pushing Parrot Bay.”
Kelly and I sit down on either side of a tiny end table in a dark corner of the bar. I take off my hat and set it down next to the bottle. I flip my eye-patch up and rub my eye and we look at each other.
“Are you okay?” Kelly asks me.
“Never better.” I flag down a waiter.
“Well you don’t look okay,” she says. “You look terrible.”
“Nice to see you, too,” I say. The waiter comes over to us, holding his round tray at his side.
“I’m going to need two glasses,” I say to him.
“No can do,” he says quickly, as if he’s been waiting all night to say it.
“What’s the problem?”
“No outside booze,” he says. “I don’t care what agreement your boss has with my boss. If you want to order a drink that’s one thing, but-”
“Just two 7-Up’s,” Kelly butts in. “Or Sprite, whatever.”
He nods at Kelly and says to me, “I was here last time.” And then he walks off.
I take a pull off the bottle and slump in the chair. There’s a tingling in my legs. In my thick, velvety pants and vest I feel a little too warm in a good way. I hold the bottle out to Kelly.
“Um, I’m not drinking, remember?”
“Oh. Right,” I say.
“What did he mean last time?” she asks.
“I don’t know. I’ve never been here before.”
She peers at me, searching. “Yes you have, Sean. We both have.”
“What? You think I’m the only Captain Morgan running around Chicago? Is the guy at the mall Santa Claus? No, I’m just helping Captain Morgan.”
“Whatever you say.”
I can see our waiter talking to the bartender and pointing at us.
“He was probably thinking of Alex, this frat guy from Madison who does this gig on winter and summer breaks,” I say.
I take another swig from the bottle and then tuck it into my coat when I see our waiter approaching. He sets down our 7-Up’s.
“Whatever,” Kelly says. “Listen, the reason I came by-I got a job today. I start tonight.”
“At Starbucks. The one at Milwaukee and Damen, just a few blocks away.”
“There’s no way that I heard you correctly.”
“Jesus, you should talk. Look at you. Besides, we need money, Sean.” She straightens up in her chair. “Do you understand that we’ve got real responsibilities now?”
“I’m not sure what you mean,” I say, unscrewing the bottle.
“I mean I’m going to need you to start taking things seriously. Look, I have to go. First night and all. I just wanted to tell you because I might still be there when you get home.” She gets up.
“Hang on a second,” I say and reach for her sleeve.
“I’m late,” she says.
“That’s all you ever say.”
Kelly gets up and quickly heads for the door. I put my hat back on and pick up the bottle. I take one last swig and then gulp down some 7-Up. Janice is clicking a ballpoint pen rapidly as if she’s using it as a stopwatch. “That was more than five minutes.”
“And yet you’re still alive. Astounding,” I say to her and set the bottle of Private Stock back down on our display table.
She picks it up to see how much is missing, “Jesus!”
Our questionnaire box has folded info cards poking out of the top. So we’re doing good. I grab a chair, slump down in it, and gaze at the bottles on our display table. Captain Morgan has one foot on top of a barrel, his cape billows before a mass of clouds and sunbeams. A gigantic clipper ship has sailed into the scene. Voices in the bar collide into a rolling wave.
I hear someone say, “Hey, what’s up with the Captain?”
“The Captain’s taking a little break,” Janice says. “I.D.? Okay, thanks. Thanks. Bottom’s up!”
“You giving out shots?”
“Need I.D. Great, thanks.”
Janice shakes my shoulder. “Hey. We should wrap things up here if we’re going to cover four locations tonight.”
We use Janice’s station wagon to lug around the booze and the display stuff and the foldout table. They made her sign a dozen waivers about DUI’s so she’s touchy about drinking on the job.
“I’ve got to use the men’s room,” I tell Janice. “And then how about we head off to the next place?”
“Aye aye, Captain,” she says, not cheerily.
I work my way to the bathroom, passing a small table where the two guys with the white baseball caps are sitting, staring up at a television mounted in the corner of the bar. There’s a half-empty pitcher of beer and a mess of glasses in between them. I push open the bathroom door. The floor is checkered with tiny black and white squares that are hard to look at. Fluorescent tube-lights buzz on the ceiling, a broken one hangs down at an angle. An old man is using one of the two urinals. He’s too old and too nicely dressed for this crowd. I take the other urinal, unzip, and try to keep my long shirttails from getting in the way. I lean forward until the tip of my tricorner hat touches the bathroom wall. The old man flushes, zips, and heads for the sink. He says to me while looking at his own reflection in the mirror, “You know why a pirate wears a gold earring?” He wets his hands and pats down his hair. “To pay for his burial if his dead body washes ashore.”
“Everything costs money,” I say.
“You don’t have an earring.”
“I know that,” I say.
He shakes his hands dry and then slips out the door. I think of my body washing up on shore, bloated and blanched, lulling back and forth in the waves and soaking in the sand. It’s pleasing to think about, better than being buried. I close my eyes and listen to the buzzing lights above.
My hat pushes back and my forehead bumps against the wall. I spring back up. I’ve pissed all over my shirttails. I ring them out in the sink and hold them under the hand-dryer, which only runs for ten seconds so I have to keep hitting the button. Above the hand-dryer there’s a condom machine with four products: Extra Thin, Extra Large, French Tickler, and Glow-In-The-Dark. Someone has written FREEDOM over the word French. I laugh for a second and then stop-they all suddenly seem funny, each of them sound like a joke and the whole thing is an absurd joke. I look over in the mirror. I don’t look like a pirate. My long white shirt is soaked, my eye-patch is still flipped up and my hat is crooked. I don’t look like the Captain of anything. I tuck my shirt in and flip my eye-patch back down. I take my hat off and smooth out the brim and-with the rugged hands of a seafaring man-I slam it back on my head. Pirates are lawless men and they don’t take orders from Janices. They go where they want and they take what they want. I spit into the sink and swing the door open.
It’s loud out in the bar. I don’t see Janice. The path in front of me is blocked by the table with the two guys from before. I step forward and kick the side of it with the heel of my boot. It topples-the pitcher spills and shatters, a shot glass plinks across the floor.
“What the fuck!” someone says.
I step over the table and search the bar for Janice. Someone pushes me from behind. My foot lands on a piece of glass. I slip and go down. When I push myself up, I feel glass shards cut into my palm.
“Son of a bitch!” A bouncer takes my arm and twists it behind me. I fall and he catches me midair and leads me outside. The I.D. checker holds the door open and the bouncer marches me out and lets go. My knees smack the concrete.
“Asshole!” I hear from behind me and then I’m knocked forward, kicked, onto the sidewalk.
I get back up and try to pick out the bits of glass in my hand. It takes a moment for my eyes to adjust to the streetlights and neon. Janice must have gone on to the other bar although I can’t remember which one she said. It must have been one of the bars right across the street since she went ahead without me. There’s one called The Gold Star and I head towards it. If it’s not that one then it’s got to be nearby.
I step out into the street. My legs lunge forward; I have to stare straight ahead to keep steady. I feel as though I’m standing on a rocking ship. A cab honks at me.
“Arrr, cabbie!” I shout back and sing softly to myself, “Hi diddle dee dee, goddamn, the pirate’s life for me!”
The Gold Star looks packed but it should be easy to find Janice and our table. I walk in. A guy on a stool says, “I.D.”
“Captain Morgan,” I say to him and walk past.
“Hey!” someone says. It’s crowded and I don’t see Janice-and I’m thinking the thing to do is to start without her. I spot the bottle of Captain Morgan behind the counter. The bartender is way on the other side.
“Need to get up there,” I say to a girl on a barstool.
“Need to climb up,” I say again. “Need your stool just a sec.” She gets up and steps back.
“What’s he doing?” her friend asks.
I get my foot onto the stool and step up on to the bar.
“Arrr!” I call out. People turn towards me. I reach back behind the bar and grab the bottle of Captain Morgan and hoist it up over my head.
“Avast, ye landlubbers!” I shout at them and take a swig. I bang the speed-pour nozzle on my teeth.
“Yeah!” someone shouts.
“Okay, here’s the deal,” I call out. “You get one shot each but you can’t be a dick about it!”
The bartender grabs my ankle. “Motherfucker!” he says.
“Mutiny!” I kick my foot loose.
Someone else pulls me forward and I tumble off the counter. The bottle drops from my hand. I knock into a girl and come down on top of her. I’m lifted up. I feel my feet drag across the floor. There’s a blur of faces and light and then I’m outside. I’m being held up and then I’m hit square in the eye and I feel the air as I fall.
A lump on the back of my head rubs into the concrete. I get up. My hat is trampled. I grab it and smooth it out and walk east. Towards the lake. I can commandeer a ship and navigate through the Great Lakes. Chart a path to the new world. There’s a gritty feeling along my teeth. I spit into my hand and it comes out red.
I step out into the street. A bicycle stops in front of me. Then another. Then more. The street fills. Hundreds of bicycles-a school of them, a current. I can’t get past. They cheer. The stoplights go from red to green to yellow back to red. Cars honk. People shout. I push forward. A tire rides over my foot. They hold up a banner that says: Critical Mass. They chant something; I can’t hear what. It’s drowned by car horns. Across the street I see a light. A glowing green circle-in the center a woman in white light, crowned, fin-tailed. A mermaid. A siren sounds. Red and blue lights flash. I wade over tires and chains and pedals and find a clearing. I push forward and step up onto the sidewalk.
Through a large window I see Kelly. She’s wearing a green apron. I push at the door a few times and then pull it open. She hands a customer his change. He drops it in her tip jar. I walk in. I want to leap on top of the counter, but my legs aren’t up to it.
“Sean!” Kelly says when she sees me. I go behind the counter and grab her hand.
“Let’s go,” I say to her. “We’ll leave tonight. We’ve got to get off dry land.”
“What? No, let go of me,” she says.
“Hey!” A man stands up at his table and stomps over. “This guy bothering you?”
“It’s fine,” Kelly says. I let go of her. The man stares at me. All of the customers look at us.
“Thank you, everything’s fine,” Kelly says to the man.
He keeps standing there. Kelly leads me out from behind the counter and sits me down on a chair. There’s a girl next to me, typing on a laptop.
“Just sit here and don’t make any noise, okay?” Kelly says. She goes back to the counter and fetches some coffee for a customer. The girl next to me keeps tapping away on her keyboard. Everyone else goes back to their books and conversations. I set my hat down beside me. My eye-patch sticks a bit when I peel it off. I hold my head in my hands and look at the floor.
Kelly comes back over. She hands me a cup of steamed milk and pats at my forehead with a damp towel.
“I’m sorry,” I say to her.
“No, this is good,” she says. “You’re giving me experience in taking care of little children.”
She gives me the towel and goes back to the counter. The cyclists chant outside. More car horns and then a blast of steam from behind the counter as Kelly works the machines. I sip the warm milk; a spot of red from my mouth is left on the foam. The cup warms my hands. I look at the mermaid on the cup and then up at Kelly. I sink in my chair and try to sit perfectly still, but I feel myself rocking back and forth. The people at the tables and chairs have found their sea legs. They talk quietly, calmly-like they’re preparing for something. There’s something coming up on the horizon. I know this. It’s small now-just a sliver rising above the water-but it’s growing.