I loved my job. I loved it, loved it, loved it. I even said my daily mantra out loud once as I turned over, squinting into the early afternoon light that peeked through my lopsided blinds. A glance at the clock told me I had less than four hours before I had to be at said job. That's what I got for staying out until 5 in the morning after work last night.
I put a hand to my head, trying to rub out the headache that I guessed was more from lack of sleep than alcohol, considering I'd only had two beers. Probably inappropriate that I'd served them to myself at the closed bar in the restaurant in which I worked during an all night poker game with a couple line cooks and a coked out busboy, but it was too soon after waking up for me to really ponder any ethical dilemmas.
Rolling over, I buried my face in the pillow for a moment and all it did was make me realize that it had been several weeks since I washed my sheets. I stood up and stretched, pulling my worn boxers off and throwing them on the growing pile of dirty laundry in the corner. After pulling on a new pair I stumbled down the hallway to find the bathroom door shut and loud rock music pounding behind it.
I banged on the door with a fist. "Spence!" I yelled. The only response was an off-key rendition of the Stairway to Heaven chorus. I knocked one more time, halfheartedly. I knew he wouldn't hear me and instead I mentally calculated how long I had before my bladder gave out. I'd heard a story once about a royal subject of a king who, knowing it was in poor taste to remove himself from the king's table for any reason, held his pee in for so long that his bladder literally exploded and he died. I was pretty sure that was an urban legend but it was enough to make me consider taking a whizz in the kitchen sink.
I thought better of it when I saw the actual sink piled high with dirty dishes. I sighed. Sometimes I really hated being a guy. Why did I let things get so disgusting around here? Looking around I took in the piles of newspapers on the floor next to the ratty old couch, the video game controllers haphazardly strewn about the room, an empty pizza box to one side of the mismatched chair. Upon closer inspection I noticed a line of ants marching daintily back and forth from the solitary piece that was left.
Back upstairs I listened to hear the shower turn off and the bathroom door creak open. I took the opportunity to sneak in and relieve myself then squared my shoulders and marched into my roommate's bedroom.
"Dude," Spencer said, quickly wrapping the towel back around his waist. "It's called knocking."
"Yeah, well there's also something called cleaning and unless you help me with it right now I'm going to make sure that the line of ants marching from your empty pizza box crawls up your ass tonight while you sleep." It was harsh but I'd learned long ago that the only way to get Spencer to help in matters of apartment cleanliness was to threaten bodily harm.
He stared at me stupidly for a moment then shrugged. "Whatever, Cam. But I gotta be at work by 5."
"Me too," I said, feeling satisfied that I'd won. Spencer worked with me at El Nino Abuelo, one of the four Mexican restaurants in our Cleveland suburb. Roughly translated it meant "The Boy Grandfather" but no one seemed to care as it was a huge corporate chain that had managed to stay afloat in the exploding area of capitalizing on the ever expanding American waistline. It seemed they were opening a new restaurant in a new city -or even in a city where one already existed -nearly every six months. Spencer was a server, having put in nearly as many years as I had there. I tried very hard not to dwell upon the fact that I was a 25 year old bartender in a chain Mexican restaurant in a cold, snowy suburb of a declining industrial city and rather that I made great money (on the weekends at least) and had a job that I still considered relatively fun and not requiring the elusive college degree that I'd given up years ago.
Spencer and I spent the rest of the afternoon cleaning our townhouse. It was something that I forced him to do about every other month and each time we both pledged that we'd keep it clean although we knew we were both lying. It helped though when I was scrubbing week old macaroni off one of my mom's cast off sauce pans or holding my breath as I delved behind the toilet with a paper towel practically hosed down in bleach.
Around 4pm I finally was able to enjoy my first shower of the day, reveling in the fact that I didn't have to wear flip flops to keep from getting some kind of fungus. I had even had the forethought to throw a load of towels in the washer and used a clean one to rub the water out of my rather unruly sandy brown hair. That's what my mom told me at least. To me it was just the color of mud, but she insisted that it had tones of blonde in it. Women tended to notice these things more than I did. One thing that I did have clean and in copious amounts was work uniforms. Over the years I'd managed to swindle my managers into giving me shirt after shirt, claiming that the washing machine had eaten them or that I'd spilled bleach on them thus rendering them useless as with any corporate machine we had to look the part too, and that included not showing up to work with a shirt that was spotted black and white like a Jersey cow. Of course, all of these tales were untrue- I simply wanted the opportunity to have a clean shirt for every day of the week because I loathed doing laundry. All my work clothes smelled like fried cheese whether they were clean or not, but there was something to be said for showing up wearing something that wasn't crusted in day old sour cream residue. It tends to make people tip more when you're presentable.
Since we were working the same shift, Spence and I drove together in my car. Normally I ended up staying later than the servers as the cantina was open until 2pm on the weekends and the dining area closed at midnight, but he agreed to help me stay and clean up if he finished before me. Spence really was a good guy, overall, if not a little dopey and misguided.
We were greeted at the door of the restaurant by one of our new hostesses. She couldn't have been more than 16 and she plastered a fake smile on her face when she opened the huge double wooden doors for us before she realized we were employees. The smile vanished as quickly as unwanted food in the kitchen.
"Hey there…Whitney, right?" I said, flashing what I hoped was a charming smile. I didn't want it to be too charming- she was young after all. My ego took a hit when she merely snorted and turned back around, sashaying back to the hostess station.
I headed straight to the bar while Spencer veered toward the kitchen. IOne nice thing about being a bartender was that I didn't have to leave all my stuff in the office like everyone else. I simply stashed it below the bar and never worried about it since that was basically my prison for the next 8 hours. There was already a wait for customers to be sat. I knew that it was probably more because we were short-staffed than for lack of tables but the customers didn't have to know that.
I patted the shiny, u-shaped bar with a hand. It was like a welcoming old friend and I glanced for the millionth time at the drawing I'd made nearly six years ago that was still taped to the underside of one of the margarita mixers. "Welcome to Margaritaville!" it said, and I'd drawn several cartoon figures that were clearly drunk, wobbling away from bar stools and holding up bubbling cocktails. We'd affectionaly called the bar "Margaritaville" ever since although the enormous, open-air and incredibly famous bar of the same name in Key West, Florida was about as opposite from this crummy chain restaurant in Cleveland, Ohio in January as you could get.
At the bar I got a very relieved look from the afternoon bartender, Bunny. I was quite certain that in high school -sometime in the late 80s for her -Bunny was as popular as they come because let's face it- you don't get a nickname like Bunny when you're toting a tuba in the marching band. But her life had sadly not really gone anywhere since then and now the lines on her face told the tale of her three kids, an alcoholic husband, and long hours in cramped and lightless bar over the last 15 years or so. Still, she was genuine and sweet, albeit a little flaky; but she poured fast and the men seemed to like her, so I never minded sharing a bar with her. I was disappointed that she wasn't staying for the night shift.
"Hey, Cameron," she said, rinsing out a margarita glass in one of the sanitizing sinks. "Dell was supposed to be on tonight, but he just called off. Something about his car not working. I'm pretty sure it was Dell code for hung-over."
"Shit," I muttered, not really caring if the few customers at the bar heard me. Saturday night alone in the bar was one of my worst nightmares. In fact, I suffered often from serving dreams where I had thousands of tables but couldn't do anything because I also, inexplicably, had giant Mickey Mouse Hands. Usually in some part of the dream I would try to run from table to table but could barely move, like I was swimming through pudding. The nightmare wasn't far off from what I was about to experience being the sole bartender. Not only would I be responsible for the entire bar area, including the few tables that people would inevitably inhabit and expect to be served, but also making drinks that all the servers in the restaurant rung up.
"I got you a server though," Bunny said. My world suddenly brightened a little. Having a server in the bar when I was alone could possibly make this night bearable. "Rachel agreed, although I'm sorry Cam- I had to promise that she wouldn't have to clean out the salsa bar at the end of the night."
I grabbed her and planted a sloppy kiss on her cheek. "You're the best!" I said, bending her over comically. She giggled and blushed. I may not have had that effect on the teenage girls, but my ego bounced back quickly because the older ones seemed to find me quite charming. It was a quality that I liked to think was necessary to be a good bartender. You needed to be able to listen to customers and make them think you cared. Or, even more importantly hear what they were saying without listening because frankly if I had to stomach one more sob story about a love gone wrong I might end up lacing their tequila shooters with something stronger than water.
Before Bunny's shift ended I need to take stock of the liquor so I headed back to the tiny room adjacent to the cantina that held shelves of alcohol and three huge kegs of beer. It was also the area that most servers like to congregate, sometimes cramming three or more in at once where they could smoke and gossip and try to steal shots before going back to the floor. One thing I'd learned about working in a restaurant was that sooner or later you were going to end up smoking. It wasn't just a social nicety; it was a social necessity to get along in a place like this. When I'd started working here during my one year foray into college nearly 7 years ago I'd picked it up right away, coughing and hacking my way to a pack-a-day habit. Only three months ago I'd decided that waking up to an elephant on my chest and feeling so dependent on that stupid little white stick, that it was time to quit. It'd actually been easier than I thought and now as I stood amidst the half-full ashtrays I gagged at the stench of decades of smoke. Ohio had just passed an anti-smoking bill that would make it illegal to smoke inside any public place, including restaurants and bars. Six months ago I would have been outraged, but now I couldn't wait for the statute to take affect so I could start breathing through my nose in this room.
Rachel was in the bar stacking up the glass rack when I emerged. I noticed she'd recently gotten a haircut and commented on it.
"You think it's ok?" she said, running a hand through her short, cropped blonde locks. It stuck out prettily over her ears and highlighted her cheekbones in a way I hadn't noticed before. The thought left me as easily as it had entered my mind as I watched a stream of people walk in and sit at the stools surrounding my bar.
"It's perfect for you," I said, truthfully, turning back toward her. "Thank you for working in here tonight. Really, you saved me."
She grinned. "Well, I couldn't say no after Bunny promised you'd split your tips with me." When my eyes widened she burst into laughter. "Kidding! I just won't-"
"Clean the salsa bar, I know." I said, returning her smile. "I got it. " The salsa bar sat in the far corner of the cantina. It looked so innocuous but Rachel and I knew that beneath its seemingly benign appearance lurked a beast of drastic and smelly proportions. Last year she'd been working with me in the bar and diligently cleaning it out for the night only to find the stash of old salsa and food that someone had left in there for at least a week. I'd been wondering what the smell was. She'd opened the doors to the cabinet beneath were the ice buckets that kept the salsa cool were supposed to drain. Instead of a bucket of water she'd found several dirty plates crawling with maggots and a bucket of rotten salsa. To add insult to injury she'd tripped when trying to remove it and it had spilled down her front, covering her in rancid, week old tomato and onion remains. We laughed about it now but it was a pretty harrowing experience and the only thing that kept her from walking away after the managers begged her not to call the health department was the fact that I'd practically bribed everyone in the restaurant not to make fun of her for it.
Rachel had started at El Nino her freshman year in college, nearly three and a half years ago and although we were friends I didn't know her that well as she wasn't one to hang out after work and drink and play cards. I shook my head, saddened that my entire life and friendships were wrapped up in this place. Regardless, I was really glad to have her in the bar tonight as she was one of the best servers on staff. I actually was surprised she'd agreed to it because money for serving in the cantina was notoriously bad, but I shrugged it off, just thankful she was there to help.
I forgot about the salsa bar as I turned to greet the people who'd just crowded up to the bar. There were several guys but only one girl. One girl who was staring directly at me, causing me to lose my breath for a moment after one look into her perfect, green eyes. She was tiny, almost elfin and I thought would have looked fantastic with one of those sweet pixie haircuts that girls like her pulled off so effortlessly. Her hair, though, was long and thick, shining and straight and the most perfect shade of auburn. I swallowed, wondering if she was staring at my mud-colored tousled hair, or less than average height. I self consciously tucked my shirt in tighter, thankfully my age hadn't caught up to me in terms of paunch and for a moment I was endlessly thankful that I didn't have to wear the hideous, multi-colored shirts the servers were forced to sport. I was sure that the corporate office must have thought they exuded Mexican culture but I doubted that authentic restaurant workers in Mexico wore shirts bearing pictures of margaritas and dancing fajitas. My simple black shirt highlighted my hazel eyes, I knew because someone had told me that once. Ok, that someone being a waitress I'd slept with a few years ago and never came back after the summer I broke up with her, but I think she meant it. Regardless, I hoped it was true as I locked eyes with the lovely woman who'd just sidled up the bar and was waiting for me to take her drink order.
Perhaps tonight wouldn't be so bad after all.
AN: What, did you guys think I was going to wait to post it or something? Like I said before, this story has been complete for awhile. I have to say that it's not particularly my favorite anymore, but it once was. I am quite partial to Cam though, and I hope you'll give him a chance or at least tell me what you think. I notice that the chapters are a lot shorter than my most recent story but as I go through and edit perhaps I'll add some things here or there.
Glad to back (after ONE WHOLE DAY!) and I hope that I can entertain you for awhile.
p.s. Cleveland represent!! I set this story in my own town because it rules. :D