Written and originally posted as part of the Clare London 2012 Free Fiction Day during her annual Birthday Bash. 1100 words.
Made to be Broken
© Chrissy Munder
“There’s a fine art to being a successful bartender, Lou.” Manuel’s white teeth gleamed as he encouraged the young man fidgeting at his side, weight shifting nervously from one foot to the other behind the counter of the hotel bar. “Less than thirty percent of the job is knowing how to make the actual drink. The rest is all about learning your clientele and honing your people skills.”
Manuel reached out with a dark hand and twitched at the apron around his protégé’s narrow waist, smoothing the crumbled material as best he could while he recited the same speech he gave every newcomer on his or her first shift. “Remember, a well-groomed appearance will go a long way to helping you feel professional. And when you feel professional, you are professional.”
His entire body vibrating with eager agreement, Lou nodded his head, a hank of soft brown hair managing to escape his haphazard ponytail in the process. Manuel pressed his lips together and gestured for Lou to turn around as he continued his lecture. “Most times when a customer sits down at your bar you’re their mother, their father, and their priest all rolled into one. Sometimes, if the stars align, you can be even more.”
Lou nodded again, then shook his head. The confused gesture pulled his hair out of Manuel’s fingers where the experienced barkeep attempted to bring order out of the long strands of chaos. “Like what?”
Manuel recaptured the soft wisps, and struggled to ignore the enticing lure cast by the peachy scent of Lou’s shampoo. He used his shoulder to gesture at the series of photographs lined up on one of the mirrors behind them, his voice deepening with pride. “In the course of the five years I’ve worked this bar I’ve been responsible for thirty marriages, fifteen domestic partnerships, and three vow renewals. I’ve done some of my finest work behind this counter.”
“Wow.” Miraculously, Lou stayed silent as Manuel finished adjusting his hair. He reached his hand back, fingering the tight braid before tilting his head toward Manuel. “So it’s not getting them drunk and taking their money? That’s what Jim over at The Lazy Susan told me.”
A shudder coursed through Manuel’s stocky frame, rippling the starched fabric of his crisply pressed, white shirt. “God, no. Remember, you’re here to help people. To discover what will bring light into their life, lift their spirits, and let them become more than they were when they walked in.”
“It’s so complicated.” Lou bit his lower lip, the pale pink flesh already chapped and worried, and just begging Manuel to soothe it. “But I like the idea I’m helping people more than I do stealing their wallets when they’re drunk.”
“There will be no rolling the clientele at this establishment.” Manuel attempted a stern glance at his trainee, but failed when faced with an expression of pure sweetness evident even in the colored dimness of the bar. There was something about this kid he couldn’t ignore.
Fortified by an excess of alcohol, Manuel had promised himself no more strays when the celebratory countdown had hit zero this past New Year, but he consoled himself now with the basic truth behind every new resolution. They were after all, made to be broken.
“Now.” Manuel squeezed Lou’s shoulder; all too aware of the trouble he was in when his hand wanted to linger. “There’s a customer down at the end stool who looks like he needs a refill. Here’s your chance.”
Ignoring Lou’s pleading glance, Manuel gave him a gentle nudge to start him on his way. Normally he didn’t approve of trials by fire for his trainees, Manuel’s preference for slow and careful preparation carried over in all aspects of his life. But his desire to see if Lou could live up to the potential Manuel sensed beneath his scattered exterior pushed him out of his own comfort zone.
Hence the tingling sense of anticipation as Lou approached the lone figure seated at the end of the bar. To hide his atypical excitement, Manuel finished removing the glasses from the dishwasher. After a thorough polish with the clean white towel he carried over his shoulder, he fit them carefully into the racks overhead. Having poured out the client’s first drink Manuel already knew the guy was in a foul mood and this wasn’t a fair test, but he held his breath and eagerly waited to see what would happen.
“H—How’s it going tonight?”
Manuel nodded approval when Lou darted a quick glance in his direction after his stammered opening. He watched as Lou wiped the bar down around the customer while waiting for a response. His cautious movements were a clear imitation of Manuel, and proof that at least the kid knew how to pay attention. His patron, however, wasn’t playing along. Instead, he shrugged off his suit jacket, drained his drink, and motioned for another without a word; his gestures sharp and irritated.
“You here on business?” Lou tried again as he poured a finger of whiskey into the glass, but the frustrated businessman waived him off with an impatient hand and Lou slunk back over to Manuel’s side.
“I suck.” Lou’s shoulders drooped, his foot drawing indecipherable patterns on the tile between them as he owned up to his failure. Then, with a deep inhale, the forlorn trainee straightened his back in preparation of Manuel’s critique.
“You’ve learned your first real lesson in bartending.” Manuel resisted the urge to push the already loosening strands of hair behind Lou’s ears. This warm feeling in the pit of his stomach was the last thing he’d expected when he agreed to give the kid a chance. But his eager responses to Manuel’s firm handling proved impossible to resist. “Sometimes, the customer just wants a drink.”
“What?” Lou jerked his head up, mouth open in surprise. “But—, you said—,”
Manuel gave up his struggle and leaned against the ledge for support as he laughed, both at himself and at Lou’s expression. “Sorry,” he gasped, wiping at his cheek. “I couldn’t help myself.” Accepting the inevitable, he reached for a bottle of tequila, the good stuff – no lime or salt necessary, and poured out two shots, pushing one across the bar toward Lou.
“You aren’t going to fire me?” Lou hesitantly raised the small glass to his lips, his gaze lingering on Manuel’s hands.
“No, kid.” Spurred on by the interest he hoped he saw reflected back, Manuel downed his own shot, the quick burn of the alcohol fueling his courage as he met Lou’s hazel eyes with unmistakable intent. “That’s the last thing I’m going do.”
“Oh.” Lou swallowed the liquid, coughed, and then grinned at Manuel, all trace of hesitancy gone. “In that case, what time do we get off?”