Steeled for another Friday night gig behind the club’s horseshoe bar, Carol fashions fruit garnishes as DJ Danny and his tattoos play the usual songs. Between lemon twists and orange peels, familiar faces order a beer, a punch board, or so-many-bucks worth of tickets from the fishbowl.
A stranger shows up on the lobby TV camera and rings the bell. He takes out a membership card from his wallet and shows it to the camera. Don Henderson pushes his big belly against the bar and points to the TV.
“Who the hell’s that? How about a draft, darlin’? Whoops! I mean Carol.”
After she buzzes open the front door, she spins a napkin Don’s way, draws a beer, and plunks it down, spilling foam.
“Hey, I said Carol.”
The stranger sits across the bar from Don and his crew. Carol perks up when he orders a bourbon old fashioned.
“Love your accent. Are you French?”
“I’m from Quebec. At one time I lived in Paris.”
Carol muddles, mixes, and garnishes with a flourish. She pinches a napkin by its corner, places it down, and sets the cocktail in its center.
Ice tinkles as the stranger raises the glass to his mouth. “Wonderful,” he says, sipping.
Carol beams. She wipes hands on her jeans, tugs her T-shirt down over her hips, and leans forward, forearms on the bar, ankles crossed, floorless heel jiggling. “Tell me about Paris.”
“Ah, La Ville Lumière.” The stranger recounts the Champs-Élysées, the Eiffel Tower, the boutiques along the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, the cafés and bistros. Voice and accent marry and swim circles in Carol’s imagination until she walks a cobbled Paris street after dusk where couples bathed in soft light sit under an awning at intimate round tables, their whispers mysteries.
“Three drafts, Carol,” Don calls.
He’s mocking the stranger. Lips puckered, he sounds like Pepé Le Pew. Turning to his crew for approval, they all laugh. The stranger folds his hands atop the bar, regards Carol, and shrugs. She shakes her head, eyes closed.
The stranger’s name is Henri. Carol has thousands of questions. He paints Parisian scenes for her as an evening pall gathers over the club — smoke from dozens of cigarettes, smoke from fryers in the kitchen — gray cotton candy turning in the drowsy ceiling fans. Friday’s fried chicken night. It’ll start coming out soon — big platters of it — fries and slaw on the side.
Second bartender Phil shows up. Old Phil, slow but steady. The after-work drinkers settle down. Don and his crew move to a table. They’ve graduated to shots and pitchers. Wives arrive; appetites sharpen. Talking with Henri, Carol’s washing mugs. Two at a time squeak on standing brushes in the wash sink, then gulp in the rinse and sanitize solutions.
She ignores Don when he comes next to Henri and keeps repeating her name, thumping an empty pitcher on the bar. Phil comes over, but Don waves him off. He gives Henri a look.
“Hey, Frenchy. How about letting this sweet thing do her job?”
Carol bangs mugs into the rack. She takes a breath and comes from behind the bar. “Play a nice slow one,” she calls to DJ Danny. She asks Henri, “Do they dance close in Paris?”
The music starts. She holds out a hand to Henri and guides him to the small dance floor between the bar and tables. She settles in close against him. They turn in slow circles. She can’t help peeking at Don. Back against the bar, he’s staring, mouth open. Quiet applause comes from his table after the song ends and Carol goes back to the mugs.
No one says another word to Henri. Not a word while Carol serves up fried chicken platters or draws beers. He has one more old fashioned and leaves a nice tip. DJ Danny cranks out the tunes. People eat and dance, grow drunk or weary, and head home.
After Phil walks the kitchen ladies to their cars, Carol sends him home. Alone to close up, silence her only companion, tonight she doesn’t mind.
She wipes down tables, stacking their chairs on top afterward so the morning clean-up crew can vacuum, breaks up cardboard boxes and carries them to the recycle bin, and secures the till, all while dreaming up aromatic cocktails, setting them down atop a zinc bar, and receiving accolades from gracious patrons in the city of lights.
Mick Bennett is a retired English teacher/adjunct. His short fiction has appeared in Confrontation, Beloit Fiction Journal, Flash Fiction Magazine, and Literally Stories, among others. His novels include The Belmar Series trilogy and Beat the Blues. A new novel, Take the Lively Air, is forthcoming from Unsolicited Press.