The Empress and the Fool—Clark Humphrey
Upon hearing a vague noise of disturbance of some sort emanating from the bar, Annabeth quickly completed her tasks in the back room. She re-straightened her already nearly-perfect posture. She took three deep breaths. She opened, and refocused, her eyes. She mentally prepared herself to be in charge of any situation that might exist out there. She silently vowed to handle it as a refined young lady reproving the creaky, aging boys-in-men’s-bodies who, for the time being, comprised her establishment’s customers.
She opened the door out to the back bar area. She carefully scanned the room, right to left.
No one was fighting. No one was arguing. No one was vying for control of the two rundown sports TVs. No beer glasses seemed to have been broken or even spilled. No chairs seemed to have teetered over.
The disturbance came solely from one smoothly swaggering young man. He pounded his fist on the bar and demanded to get some service, preferably this year.
He looked unlike anyone Annabeth had seen in her three years of operating the Empire Tavern and Sports Bar.
Oh, she’d seen men who’d fancied themselves to be criminals of a sort. But they always turned out to be white fraternity boys affecting, poorly, what they perceived to be “ghetto” patois and mannerisms, down to the sagging jeans and exposed boxer shorts. Annabeth’s main challenge with these boys, besides the threat of fake ID, was to keep herself from snorting with laughter at their ridiculous countenance.
But this specimen was different.
He was decently, though flamboyantly, clothed. He sported a lean-cut black suit, pastel shirt, skinny crimson necktie, and slightly oversize fedora hat. Annabeth sensed that she had seen this exact ensemble in some 1990s crime-drama film, but could not immediately remember the specific title.
Annabeth also noted to herself that his garments were only slightly dampened by the evening’s heavy rain; he’d clearly driven (or been driven) here instead of walking.
He had kept his hat on after entering the establishment; a clear sign to her that he was not the gentleman he seemed to pretend to be. Also, his demands for service “sometime in THIS century, if you please, anyone, hello?” were decidedly uncouth, especially since he could now see that she now stood directly in front of him.
Still, there was something about his stance, his beady blue eyes (when he finally looked up to see her), and his boyish chin that could seem almost charming.
His ongoing monologue to himself about his deserving a quality drink, if one could be gotten within this less than quality establishment, barely changed tone when he first made eye contact with her. He stared at her across the bar and continued mid-sentence about how he most likely could not expect any true top shelf liquors in this pit of squalor, “but could I at least have something more sophisticated than the plastic jug whiskey from Hood River, Oregon?”
“I can assure you, sir, that our selection of the finer liquors, while comparatively small, is highly select and personally approved.” With a total lack of wasted motion, she waved an arm toward a small shelf on the back-bar wall. It held twenty-three bottles of various high-end liquors, most of them unopened or nearly so.
“I can tell that you have yet to persuade your standard clientele about the superior qualities of these products, compared to the more economical road to shit-faced-ness provided by a Monarch with a Bud Light chaser; isn’t that right, Ms….?”
“You may call me Annabeth. And yes, my dear, it has been a creative challenge to raise the drinking standards around here. The men you see around you are, shall we say, creatures of habit.”
“To me they seem more like the Walking Dead, except they don’t bite. Or at least I hope they don’t.”
“Now see here, my sir: These may not be the most sophisticated of gentlemen, but they have supported this business since before I acquired it.”
The man, who had been standing all this time, sat on the nearest bar stool. “You sound a little wistful there, a little less than completely adamant about that defense. Could it be that you might wish, that you might even be planning, to leave them at your first chance? And you can get me a Glenlivet, neat, with a hard cider if you have one or a Guinness if you don’t.”
Annabeth silently grasped the requested bottle, opening it for the first time. She poured a shot into a shot glass she kept on reserve for the rare occasions when someone ordered the good stuff, and handed it to the man. “I’m afraid I only have Guinness in the can, if that is acceptable.”
“If that’s what you’ve got, I’ll take it.”
She brought out the can from a room-temperature display case. He grinned. “You know that’s not meant to be served cold. That shows me you know too much to stay in a dump like this.”
She made the very slightest hint of a smile as she served him the opened can and a clean pint glass. “And what, may I ask, has drawn you within our doors this evening?”
“That, my gracious miss, is something I’d rather not reveal, at least not in a forum like this. Let’s just say I’m staying away from any place where I might be known.”
Annabeth silently snorted. The most flamboyantly attired person to visit the Empire Tavern and Sports Bar in all the time she’s been in charge, and he claims he wants to be discreet?
He downed his shot in one gulp; not the proper way to drink finer liquor, she thought. He poured the stout into his glass, slowly, stopping two thirds of the way through; at least, she thought, he got that routine right.
While waiting for the stout to settle in the glass, he resumed addressing her. “You can tell me something, though. You can tell me why you’re in this place that clearly doesn’t deserve you.”
With her operational routines caught up and the few other customers on the verge of nodding off, Annabeth chose to continue the conversation. “As you have correctly surmised, remaining in charge of this establishment, as it currently exists, is not my long term goal. No, I indeed have my dreams, and these dreams are large indeed.”
She told him of her dream restaurant, the Green Peahen; how it would emphasize always-fresh ingredients within an ever-evolving menu, all under her constant caring supervision; how it would be a “destination” spot attracting knowledgable diners from throughout the region; how she would start it at the site they’re now in, after a thorough remodel, once she could arrange the financing.
“Well that’s all fine and all gourmet artisanal pie in the sky. But, my dear lady, and if I may dare as to ask, what are you actually DOING to make it real?”
An unfazed Annabeth told how she had been dutifully applying for every small business loan and grant she could learn about; how she had developed a complete set of menu designs, logos, and architectural renderings for the project; how she had tested various menu items and combinations on her friends and at group dinner parties.
“Yeah, but what are you doing NOW? Aside from talking to me, that is. I’ll tell you what you’re doing. You’re serving up swill beer to what looks to me like a dwindling bunch of addled armchair athletes. Yeah, it’s a slow night in here. But I bet you have a lot of slow nights. I bet your “fast” nights aren’t as fast as they used to be. I bet you’re only barely paying the bills; am I right? You don’t have to answer. But you do have to know that at the rate you’re going, you won’t have your quaint little bistro in here. You’l have nothing.”
Annabeth might not have been the proprietress of a strip-mall sports bar for that many years, but she had at least learned to refrain from arguing with drinkers when it could be avoided. So she remained quiet as he continued his glib little rant.
“What you need to do isn’t to make any more action plans. What you need to do is ACT. Do something. Take the situation into your own two hands, and pretty hands the are if I’m allowed to say that, take it into your hands and get going already.”
Against her better knowledge, Annabeth responded. “And what, kindly sir, would that entail, specifically?”
“Obviously I don’t know more about your specifics than what you’ve said and what I’m seeing around me now. But you’ve got to do SOMETHING. Get out of your rut. That’s what I’m doing.”
Instead of rudely reminding him that he’d declined to say what he was doing just moments ago, she simply asked, “And what ARE you doing, besides talking with me?”
“I’m working it, I tell you. I’ve got my angle. I’m making it happen. I’m telling this pantywaist suburban purgatory goodbye forever. I’m a player, and a player needs his stage. A big stage, with wings and rafters and maybe a trap door in the floor.
“All this time I’d been held back, just like you, held back in this subdivision shithole. Circumstances had conspired against me. I was stuck in a dead end job, at a dying business, against my will.
“Then, not too long ago, I had a revelation. Something came to me. A vision, if you will. I saw the image of the man I could become. A man who took charge, who got things done. A man who created his own reality.
“From that moment on, I’ve been taking charge. I said goodbye to the dead end job. I said goodbye to everything and everyone that was holding me back. Now I’m ready to start my real life.”
Annabeth’s natural skepticism toward the boasts of a drinker gradually eroded during this. She looked around at this most familiar room, and envisioned it as a self-made prison, with the barflies like prison guards who both restained her and worked for her; she could dismiss them any time but had never done so. She saw her dream restaurant moving farther away from reality instead of nearer.
The man motioned to get another shot and another stout; she attained them. She walked back toward him with his drinks, her eyes a little wider and her mouth slightly opened. He resumed.
“I’m gonna give you a suggestion. You get your hide and your money out of this sinkhole. Get yourself prepared to make the break, but don’t take too long at it or you’ll never do it. And when you do do it, look me up.” He jotted an email address and a cell phone number on a coaster, which he handed to her. “I don’t know where I’ll be when you’re ready. Maybe in New York. Maybe in Mexico. Maybe in St. Maarten. But you get your things in order and contact me. We’ll get you that restaurant; unless you’d rather see the world with me. Do you know what this place is insured for?”
When Annabeth realized what the man had asked her to do, she was only briefly visibly shocked. She turned around for just a moment, ostensibly to take glasses out of the dishwasher.
As soon as she’d lowered her head, she heard another set of noises. The door opened and quickly slammed. She’d have to get that fixed, she thought.
She looked up and saw a balding man of about 60, his clothes oily and tattered in spots. A loose strand of brown tape clung to one shoulder of his overcoat. With just a slight limp, he marched directly toward the younger man. He gave off a slight aroma of smoke and burnt plastic. He coughed a little as he spoke.
“You realize, son, you’re not that hard to find. All I had to do was track down each of the last bars in town you haven’t been kicked out of.”
He looked at Annabeth. “Don’t worry, lady. He’s not underage. He’s just a good-for-nothing punk.”
He looked back at the young man, who did not turn around toward him. “Surprised your old man’s not a stiff, eh? Did you really think I’d not have noticed that you’d tried to disable the sprinklers?”
The young man spoke to the man behind him, clutching his shot glass and staring straight at the yellowing Budweiser bikini poster behind the bar. “Look, it was you who made me keep working there. It was you who thought anybody still wanted to go to a tiny suburban video store—one that didn’t even have any pornos or good horror.”
“But it did have the one with the glib crime lords, at least until you wore it out. What was it again, ‘Pulp Fiction’?”
“No, I kept telling you it was ‘Henry Fool.’ Hal Hartley is a real filmmaker; Tarantino is just a ‘meta’ parodist.”
Annabeth took one step back as the two continued their glum argument. She pondered whether being a fraud was really any worse than being a dreamer.