Nicholas Dolern holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Arcadia University. He writes fiction, short and long. When not writing, he can be found enjoying a good movie or an even better book.
It’s Monday, so I’m going to have to be at my best. Even half my best is pretty damn good, but this is the night Joyce comes in.
I have the place in its usual order: bare wood tables scattered around the room, a few old photos hanging on the brick walls, the small polished bar wrapping its way around me as I look out at everything. Cozy. I keep it small so I can take care of the whole thing—just me out front, Old Steve back in the kitchen, and the kid for extra help on the weekends. Most people you can’t trust. So it’s just the three of us.
Joyce has been coming in for a couple of months now. The first time it was with friends, after work. Business types—severe up-dos and dark dress suits lounging at the table in the corner. I snapped my head up when they first came in, said hello, ladies. I could’ve had any of them, all of them. When Joyce stared at me with her sharp green eyes, I wanted her most of all.
I could tell she was the type I had to play it cool with, so I didn’t go after her right away. I made some conversation, threw some signals, saw she noticed, waited for her to return another night. She did, alone.
“Evening,” I said, puffing out my chest the slightest bit when she walked in the door. She came straight to me.
“What’ll it be?”
I gave her the drink, looked her straight in the eyes, said I’d been hoping she’d be back. I zoned out the murmur around me—it had to be just the two of us. I asked her about her day. She said it was fine. When the conversation got going, I leaned both elbows on the bar and flexed to make my biceps bulge in front of her.
She looked at them, then at my face, her own face expressionless. A woman like that is too smart to fawn. That’s why I like them—a challenge. Closing her lips, she ran her tongue across her teeth, sizing me up.
“You seem sure of yourself,” she said.
“I’m sure I’d do anything to make you happy,” I said. Bob a few seats down let out a little snort. He’s always doing that. Bad sinuses.
Joyce let some air out of her own nose, and one corner of her mouth twitched upward.
“And how many women do you make happy?”
Wouldn’t you like to know, I thought. “Only the smart ones.”
She glanced over toward Bob. I saw her raise and lower her head, considering something.
“That I doubt,” she said, glancing her eyes up and down my body. “But if you do what I say I’ll let you try to prove it.”
“Name the place.”
“Give me your address.”
I did. And she came back the next week. Told me to take her home again.
* * *
It’s early, but this guy walks in, looks around, takes a seat at a table on the side. I’m ready—the whole reason I have this place is because of my gift. It’s not just for getting laid. Don’t think I can read minds or any of that shit—I’m just good with people. I know them. I get them. I can make them work for me. Like Joyce.
The guy squirms through a group of regulars standing by the door, scans the room, finds a table. He unfolds a newspaper he’s carrying and places it in front of him as he sits down. I size him up in an instant: side table, wants to stay out of sight; newspaper, something to make him look busy; jeans, coming from home, wants to blend in; no eye contact, timid and uncertain. Never seen him before. He doesn’t look at Bob sitting at the bar. Everyone knows Bob. This guy’s not from around here.
He doesn’t even look at me. Not like the one the other week, the guy checking me out when he thought I wasn’t looking. Made some great tips that night. Joyce saw the show I put on for the homo, asked me what I was up to. I told her I always did whatever had to be done. She said she still had to see about that.
But this guy’s just quiet and alone. I’ll be the best friend.
I walk over, turn around the chair across from him, and straddle it, leaning on the back. “Fucking awesome night, isn’t it?” I say. You might think that the quiet ones would get scared off by something like that. But it’s not true. It makes them feel part of the gang.
He gives the deer in the headlights look at first, but sure enough, he starts to relax after I smile at him. “Yeah, I guess it is,” he says.
There are only four other people in the place, so I can’t play it like I’m sacrificing other customers for him. It has to be like I’ve got all the time in the world and I’ll give it to you. So I reach out my hand. “Nice to meet you.”
He probably never had a waiter shake his hand before. “You too,” he says. “I’m Jim.”
Jim the Loser. I can tell. He doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to get to his newspaper, so I chat with him. He’s grateful to have someone to talk to. He’s new in town, just got transferred for work, whatever it is he does. He was looking to get out for a bit, he says, find some place in the neighborhood. It’s me he found. “I think you’re the only one open on Mondays around here,” he says.
I smile. “I’m here to serve.” I hear Bob let out a snort.
Jim orders a beer and a burger. Business stays slow, so we keep chatting. It’s not like I have anything better to do. And sure enough, when he’s done, it’s a big tip. I know I’ll be seeing him again. I’ve got him in my grasp. And what’s the harm? I get a customer; he thinks he has a friend. It’s a service, I say.
He’s still hanging around looking lonely when Joyce walks in.
Every time is like the first time she walked in that door. She’s dressed in that tight black skirt that drives me crazy, hair starting to unravel out of its bun. It looks like she just came from work, spending all day arguing with some CEO or CFO. But I know better—it’s for me. All for me. I practically bone up on the spot.
Before I even realize it, I’m grabbing the vodka off the shelf. She walks in a straight line right to me at the bar. If there were more people here, they’d be parting for her like the goddamn Red Sea. I grin at her like I do at everyone else, like she’s just one of the crowd. That just turns her on more.
“Evening,” I say.
“Evening,” she says back.
“What’ll it be?” I let her think she has control, as if she would say anything other than what I know is coming next.
She orders her usual. I mix the drink and add a little extra vodka. I know she likes it strong. It’ll be worth wasting the alcohol. She takes it and sips one sip, puts it down, stares right at me with those green eyes.
“Good?” I say. I know it is.
“Good.” She smiles with her lips, but her eyes stay sharp and cool.
She stays silent for a few minutes while I go refill Bob’s glass. Jim the Loser tries to chat again, and I let him, for a little bit. Can’t let Joyce think she dominates my time. I see her out of the corner of my eye, glancing at me with him. I let her catch me looking back, and after I know she’s caught it, I look away like I’m bashful. She can get me to do anything, even act like a pansy. I circle my way back to her side of the bar a few minutes later.
“So, how’s life?” I ask, throwing her my half-smile.
“The usual,” she says.
“I like the usual.”
Our usual, she means. I could say me too, but I don’t. Keeps her wanting more. I hold eye contact and accidentally touch her hand as I pass the pretzels over. She doesn’t move her hand away. She doesn’t move to touch mine, either.
She only ever drinks the one drink. That’s all she needs. When she asks for her tab, I hand her the receipt. She hands me the credit card. I swipe it and hand it back. I don’t look at what she writes until after she leaves. There, as always: the extra-large tip and the words “your place” written at the bottom in her precise block letters.
* * *
She’s there waiting for me after closing time. I don’t know what she does between her leaving and my closing. I want to think she stays there waiting for me. Sometimes I’m late, just to see if she sticks around. She does.
I unlock the door and we walk down the hall to the bedroom. One time I made the mistake of trying to hang my arm around her shoulders. She slapped it away. Now I wait for her to make the first move. She does. Cold hand under my belt before I can turn the lights on, before we can even get in the room.
I let her warm her hands on my skin before she undoes my belt buckle and drags me by the waistband toward the bed.
* * *
When I wake up, Joyce isn’t there. She’s in the bathroom. I hear the water running.
I scratch my chest. It’s itchy where the hair wants to grow back in. The last one liked it rugged, but that first time with Joyce she kind of narrowed her eyes after she took my shirt off. I bought a new razor and shaved the next week. I was right—it made her go nuts.
The water squeaks off. It’ll be a while, though. She’s still getting ready. For me. So I just lie there and wait. The cool morning breeze is coming in the half-open window, so I leave the blanket draped over me. I think about the day ahead. It’s Tuesday. Tuesdays are busier. Wednesdays, busier than that. I always feel ready for the rest of the week after Joyce. It must be like practice.
She comes out of the bathroom, business clothes back on, hair done up in the tight bun, no hairs out of place any more. She looks right at me as she walks over to get her purse from where it had been tossed on the floor.
“Morning.” I smile.
“Good morning,” she says.
I stand up and wince a little. She likes it rough. Likes it on top. My wrists still hurt from the rope. That was new last night, but she liked it. When she likes it, I like it.
I stretch to show off my smooth chest, hoping it might start something more, but it doesn’t. So instead I stand up and start toward her. She turns her back and starts checking for something in her black leather purse.
“Who was that other guy last night?” she says.
“What other guy?”
“The new one. The one at the bar. Not Bob.”
“Just some loser I convinced I was his new best friend.”
She turns around. Her head is tilted, but I can’t read her face. “You do try to seduce everyone, don’t you?”
I grin. I want to tell her my secret, that the customer thinks they’re in charge when they’re not. But she can’t know that.
She sees my grin and adjusts her bra. I reach, and she lets me trace its edges under her blouse.
“But I’m special,” she says.
“You are.” I can’t believe I let her hear that.
She murmurs in my ear. “You’d do anything.”
“Anything.” Anything to get what I want, I mean.
She pushes me away, gives my crotch a quick brush, and turns back to her purse. I reach again and she doesn’t respond. I put my hands on her shoulders and she’s stone.
I have to take a leak, so I walk into the bathroom. Between spurts of piss I notice Joyce’s makeup is on the shelf above the sink. I leave it there. I had never left it there for any of the others, but now I figure it just makes things easier.
Before she goes, I decide to throw her one kind moment. Something to let her think everything’s not cold, to keep her coming back. I lean in close and give her a kiss. Just a light one, on the lips, but lingering a little longer than normal.
“Have a good day, Joy,” I say.
“I’ve told you before,” she says. “Joyce. Not Joy.”
* * *
Monday night. Joyce night. I’m at my best again.
Jim the Loser is back. It’s the third time he’s been in. Must be some vacation, sitting alone at a bar half the nights he’s here. It’d be like him to vacation by himself. Or maybe he just moved to town. I can’t remember—I’m waiting for Joyce.
The door opens. I reach for the vodka. She walks in, black skirt on, fixed gait heading my way.
And there’s some guy walking behind her.
I catch myself holding my breath, hoping that the guy was just coming in at the same moment, coincidence, happens to people all the time.
But he sits at the bar next to her. He’s all tall, stubbled, and square-jawed too, almost enough to make me look bad.
I wonder why I’m caring about this, but then I figure it out: this guy’s on my territory. So I’m not going to let him change my act. I’m still the best. I look at Joyce. She’s taunting me, flaunting him in front of me. I’ll have to play this right.
“Evening,” I say.
“Evening,” she says back.
“What’ll it be?”
I turn toward my right, to the guy, casual as can be. “And you?”
Joyce sucks in a quick bit of air through her nose. I bet she thinks I don’t notice.
I go to get the drinks, and Bob stares at me with this little smirk on his face. He knows I’m up to something. When I come back, I wait until they’re both taking sips. Then I lay it on them: “So, how long have you two been together?” I ask.
My question doesn’t seem to faze her. She finishes a long sip and puts down her drink square in the center of the cocktail napkin. “Not long,” she says, looking straight at me. The guy stays quiet. The loser in the background is trying to get my attention, but I ignore him. I see his pathetic doe eyes in my peripheral vision, but then he slumps his shoulders, looks away, and opens up his newspaper.
It’s not long until they finish the first round, and I ask Joyce if she wants something else, though of course I know she doesn’t.
“Whiskey sour,” she says.
I almost break my act. I think I flinch a little bit, but it can’t be noticeable. I stretch my neck around anyway, as if it were just a cramp.
“Not sticking with the usual?” I say.
“I like the usual,” she says, “but sometimes I want a bit more.”
I grasp for something to say to that.
“Me too,” I come up with. Don’t want her thinking she’s the only one I’m fucking, after all, if she’s got someone else one the side. She gets this half-smile on her face, must be happy at the independence I’m giving her. She’s nothing if not independent.
The loser has had enough and is up at the bar, asking for his refill. I give it to him. I see Joyce whispering in the guy’s ear while I’m busy. I can’t tell what they’re talking about. I shouldn’t care what they’re talking about. I don’t care. He gets up and heads for the restroom. I turn back to Joyce as the loser takes his drink and slinks back to his corner.
“What do you think?” she asks.
“Seems like a nice guy.” I grin.
“So you’re okay with him?”
“I’m sure he’s good. When you can’t get me.”
“You’re saying you’re busy tonight?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“You do want it tonight.”
She let out a quick noiseless laugh. “I can’t believe how cool you’re acting. Most guys I know would be furious.”
“I’m not most guys,” I say. “You do what you want to do.”
I knew that would get her. Independence again. And for playing up to it, I’ll get my reward.
He’s back from the restroom, but she’s already asked for the tab. She takes the receipt before he can even offer, hides it with her left hand as she writes on it with her right.
I collect the slip, but I can’t make myself wait for them to leave to look at it. I see “your place” written there like always. I smile. Winner. I throw the guy a smug look as they leave. He winks back. I laugh to myself—he has no clue.
I go to try and schmooze the loser again, but he’s already gone. I didn’t even see him leave. No matter—there will be others. He’s not Joyce.
* * *
She’s there waiting for me after closing time. I still don’t know what she does between leaving and closing. I still want to think she stays there waiting for me. I’m not as sure anymore that she does.
As I get closer I see she’s not the only one there. I stop walking. She’s with the guy—he’s holding her around the waist. I’m sure my mouth has dropped open. I almost run away. This woman has tortured me enough for one night—she would deserve to get stood up. But then she sees me and I have to keep going.
“This is Brian,” she says as I approach.
I nod hello.
Brian looks from me to her and back again. “So are we doing this?”
Joyce looks at me and suddenly I get it.
That’s new. Jesus.
But she’s still looking at me and I can’t look away.
He’s into her. I’m into her too. Maybe it could work. I wouldn’t do this for just any woman. Then I start to think of all sorts of ways of humiliating this guy. In front of Joyce. That would be hot. I’d come out of it on top.
I act like I’m not sure for a second, then I nod a slow nod. We head toward the door. Inside. Down the hall.
He’s kissing her neck, I’ve got her mouth. Her hands go under my belt, and I try to ignore his. He doesn’t know where to put them, so he gets it wrong. I slide my ass away but he puts them back. She puts her hands on top of his and my pants slide to the floor. His follow suit.
I catch a glimpse. I thought she didn’t like hairy dudes.
* * *
They’re both gone by the time I wake up. Gone gone. No water, no noise at all. I call out a weak hello. No answer.
I scratch my smooth chest and feel naked even though I’m under the covers. I grab my boxers off the floor and slide them on under the blanket before I get up and head to the bathroom.
Even the makeup is gone. Guess she had her fun. Guess I made her happy. I hope.
I shake it off and go about my business. In the shower I scrub myself extra hard. She liked watching. I pound the side of the shower. My wrists sting from the impact and the soap. The rope had been tight.
I take all the sheets and blankets off the bed and put them in the washer. While the machine is humming, I sink down into the recliner in the living room and turn on the TV. Nothing on. I leave it on any old channel. The washer’s done. Then the drier does its job. Then I put it all back on the bed and sink into the recliner again.
I start dozing off and shift in my seat. My shirt moves up. I jump at the feeling of stubble against my lower back. It’s the wool blanket I keep on the recliner. I breathe and settle back in. I start to doze off again.
The look in her eyes got me though the first part. While she watched.
Then I had to watch. Then she left.
Before I realize it, it’s afternoon. I should be at the bar. Old Steve calls in a panic. “Where are you?” he says.
I tell him they’ll manage without me tonight. The kid can wait tables. They can close the kitchen if they have to and just serve drinks. I don’t care. I own the fucking place. I can take a night off if I want to.
I go to bed and pull the covers over my face.
* * *
It’s Tuesday night. I’ve been closing Mondays for a few weeks now. I told Old Steve as soon as I got back—I told everyone so there’d be no mistake why. It’s the best night for me to take off. Need to rest up for the week ahead. A guy needs a night off.
So she won. So what. Everyone loses once in a while. I’ll get back into the game. It won’t take long.
Jim the Loser walks in again. I can’t believe he’s back after the way I had treated him. The schmuck. But I feel sorry for the guy. Obviously he doesn’t have any other place to go. I smile and invite him to the bar. He comes up, folds his newspaper and puts it away. We chat a bit. He thinks he has a friend again. Maybe he does. It wouldn’t kill me to be nice—actually nice.
We talk about weather, sports, ordinary stuff. He tells me he’s been feeling down lately, and I say I’m sorry to hear that. I mean it, too. When I ask why, he says just lonely. Having a hard time getting used to a new place.
I glance down and rub a spot on the bar that’s not dirty. “I feel like I’ve not always been very welcoming,” I say. “Sorry about that.”
He opens his mouth for a second, then smiles, relaxes. Admits he almost stopped coming here, but he says things have felt different the past week or so.
“What things?” I say.
“I don’t know. Just better.”
I feel something change, something unexpected. Like air rushing back in me, propping me up.
He had been almost out of my grasp, but I reeled him back in.
He orders another beer, stays for a while. I make it on the house. Starts talking to Bob about the game on the screen. When he leaves he says thanks, he’ll see me again soon. Gives me a fucking clap on the shoulder. Leaves me a huge tip.
Maybe I’ve got my game back.
I feel myself stand up a little straighter. More customers come in, I reward them with a smile. They order a round and I amaze them by carrying all the drinks in one go, not spilling a drop. I swing by another table, bust up my buddies there with a joke. I try not to miss the loser now that he’s gone.
But then some woman walks in. I don’t remember seeing her before. She’s a knock-out: blond, a little timid in the way she looks around the room before deciding where to sit. I grin at her, think about what I should do.
She’s an easy target. Nothing like Joyce.
But I feel a little bad for her, alone like that. Vulnerable. I think about backing off. I think about going for it, doing it right this time. There’s more than one way to win.
Bob sees the way I’m looking at the woman. “Another one?” he says.
“This one’s different.”
None of them will be like Joyce again.
I walk over to the woman, slap a hand on the bar, stare her in the eyes. I feel the old power bubble up in me again, but I speak soft. That’s what she needs.
“Evening,” I say.
“Evening,” she says.
“What’ll it be?” I flex my bicep, nice and slow.
She steels herself and stares back at me.