by Matt Pine
Mark crossed the wine bar's patio, which was closed for the winter. The wrought iron chairs were stacked, cabled, and padlocked, the concrete shoveled and salted. He carried a briefcase filled with rocks and crumpled newspaper; he'd added the newspaper after a trial run to muffle the knocking sounds from the rocks. He brushed his elbow against the folding-window storefront. He did it lightly, just enough to feel the alternating textures of glass and wood. He could have sworn he heard a woman's voice and crystal goblets touching. Cheers.
He walked to the end of the block, crossed the street, changed direction, switched the briefcase from left to right hand, and passed the wine bar a second time. His eyes turned mostly, his head just slightly, to see the softly lit interior, warm and flickering like a woodcut in a children's book. Uncontrollably, his hand rose up to his breast pocket. He was reassured by the shape he felt, but greatly annoyed by the superstition and weakness that made him check. Resolutely, he changed direction a second time and re-crossed the street.
The wine bar was entirely empty. On each of the tables, which were circular and made of dark wood, were neatly arranged place settings. Oblong silverware rested on grey, woven place mats, at the center of which were white ceramic plates resembling biopsy trays, which for the last year had been fashionable. An empty glass for red and an empty glass for white, short and fat next to tall and thin, stood at each at each setting. No patrons was better than a crowd, thought Mark, but he'd hoped for a slight din.
He set the briefcase on the floor and pulled at the digits of his touch-polished leather gloves, working from the little finger inward. He unbuttoned his coat, brushed the sides apart, and then folded the gloves into an inner pocket. He loosened his scarf, clearing a patch of his crisp blue shirt, which that afternoon he had torn from the last unopened dry cleaning sleeve.
"Oh, hi!" said the hostess, as she emerged from the kitchen."It's been a while, hasn't it? We've missed you."
"I've been out of town," Mark remembered to smile, "on business. It feels good to be back. I've miss this place."
The cold seemed to hang on Mark and he was ashamed to bring it in. As his nose thawed, the first thing he smelled was his own coat: nicotinic damp wool. It all made him queasy. The hostess—he'd never learned her name, and now he wished he had—wore hoop earrings the same golden color as her hair. Although her face held attentively still, the hoops twinkled and swayed.
"Looks like you caught a tan while you were gone," she scrunched her nose, "and maybe lost some weight?"
Wind-burned and ruddy, he hadn't even hoped he'd look tan. How would she see the hang of his slacks, cinched as they were by a two-notches-tighter belt? Would there be a salt stain creeping up the cuff? He wished he were able to do this without a body, with just intention and words, but of course, that was absurd. He manually smiled. "It's unfair that when there's a pool, and it's eighty degrees out, it counts as exercise."
"Don't tease! That sounds like paradise." Her hoop earrings twinkled. "Can I get you a table?"
"No, no," he said, picking up the briefcase and sighing at the weight. "The bar's fine. I'm just here to warm up between the train and home." When he'd dined here regularly, he'd thought of the bartender as a good dog. Supplicant. Eager. Expectant. Trained. But now, as he walked from the host stand to the bar, he noticed the bartender sniffing too, discreetly, but no less vulgar than a nose pressed into his crotch. Mark's hand rose to his pocket, and he told himself that he was weak and pathetic if he needed such frequent reassurance. He removed his coat, folded it, and hung it over a stool. He set the briefcase beneath the stool and sat down.
Mark flipped through the menu, pausing on the cheese page only as long as was necessary to note two cow's milk, ten dollars, twelve dollars, and a goat's milk, fourteen. On the last page were the Bordeaux's. He gleaned the prices in one glance and imagined a cross-matrix with the cheese. He'd always been good at mental math.
Take it like a glass of wine at a wedding reception. Take it like the moneys nothing and like it means nothing to show that it's nothing. Take it, Mark told himself, the way you used to. He closed the menu in a wide motion that should have (inadvertently) caught Jim's attention.
"It's hopelessly optimistically of me to ask if you have an open bottle of the Mouton, right?"
"Hopeless," said Jim, eyebrows in lugubrious arches, his tone of voice an un-pulled wishbone.
"Could we make a deal then?" Mark drew his stool in. "I'll take a bottle, but only if you promise to share a glass with me."
"Please. After all, how long have I been coming here? And do you realize in that entire time, I've never bought you a drink?"
Jim looked eager but unsure. Come on you idiot, thought Mark. He continued, "Please, share it with me. The dinner crowd's not here yet. Just one glass and you'll be perfectly sanguine for the guests."
"Doubt that will be a problem," said Jim. The wishbone bowed. "Between Thanksgiving and Christmas hardly anyone comes in. They're shopping or saving money or I don't know. Office parties. No reason to teetotal, it's hardly worth opening up."
Mark's face lost expression like a footprint filled in with snow. Jim misunderstood. A loud snap from the kitchen startled both of them.
"Oh, but of course when a guest like you comes in, the evening's worth it by definition. It makes the whole slow day leading up to—"
"How about you," said Mark, turning towards the hostess, "will you have a glass with us? I've been craving another taste of this wine for a while now. Rare, of course, this vintage, and it's gorgeous. It'd be indecent to drink a bottle by myself. A great thing like this, it's meant to be shared."
His own voice seemed very loud. And when had his manner of speaking turned so British? Something was wrong with the way his thoughts were transduced. There was a time when words—the right words—came quickly. Now he had to think first, comparing his intention to the expressed meaning. The expressions he thought of were stilted, and he'd try to think of other words, the natural way to say it, but nothing came to mind. It really was warm in there. He wanted to loosen his tie, but he knew that he shouldn't. In fact, he'd decided before hand that if this was going to work, it was absolutely essential that he didn't look too casual, or overly intimate, or desperate—not desperate—and the only way to guard against all of that was to maintain an exterior: a look and a posture. Don't get lightheaded. Don't let that bead of sweat tumble from your forehead.
The hostess glanced around Mark, or perhaps through him, to exchange a look with Jim. "Sure. Why not?" she said. "I'll just sit at the edge of the bar. If anyone comes in, I can be back at my station."
"It's settled." Mark quickly refigured the number. "And how about a plate of the Roquefort to go along with it. Sounds like a good pairing, right? A soft cheese and full-throttle wine?"
Jim ducked through the cellar door. The hostess needlessly smoothed down the front and back of her pencil skirt, pulled a stool out from the bar, and sat down.
"You must have had a successful trip."
"Depends on what you call success."
"Mouton Rothschild? You must be doing well for yourself."
"Well enough. But in all honesty, I'm getting out of it. This," he rolled his hand in a small circle, as if his quotidian routine were hanging around them, "gets old. It was never a matter of material success, although..." He trailed off, forcing a lupine grin. "Great gambles, finding profit in improbable places, leave that for the fresh faces. Conversation. A good glass of wine and—"
"And travel! I'd love to see the world," said the hostess.
"But then what? You can't always be in transit," Mark reminded himself to stay pleasant. "I'll have to find something. I can't just not do nothing. What I mean is, I'm considering all my options. Really, all of them."
Jim returned with the bottle. Carefully he cut the foil then removed and presented the cork. Mark found it satisfactory and so Jim poured a small glass. Mark inhaled once, twice, sniffing for raspberry jam or tannins, white chocolate, layers, floor of the forest, barrels and complexity, but all he felt was the ethanol, dilating, enticing.
"I expect it needs to breathe," said Mark, which is what he had planned to say, and it was good he'd practiced in detail, because just then the temptation to gulp was very strong.
Jim and the hostess suggested that they start with a small glass of shiraz. Their treat. Not as fancy as the wine that Mark was being so generous about, but a respectable glass, something to cut away the cold. Mark looked at him then her, then looked at the way Jim was postured relative to her, and then decided that they really were serious. He felt something similar to the tingle at the base of his penis that meant he needed to go slower to please his partner. With moistened eyes, he accepted the offer.
The shiraz set a small flame in Mark's empty stomach. A high-pitched ringing switched on in his ear, and he felt again as he had for the last few months. Walking in early winter, without direction, his vision bobbing, sharp wind burning his face, alternating jolts to his knees, a coldness setting into his bones, into his heart, while the future twisted off into a dark knot. He made sure to drink no faster than his hosts and that was hard.
When it was time to pour the wine, Jim filled Mark's glass then put the bottle before him.
"It'd be unprofessional to do mine. Do you think that you could..."
Mark reached for the bottle, thinking of how to torque his wrist in the last phase of the pour so as not to loose a drop. He hoped that Jim might be impressed by his grace. But then he caught himself.
"Don't be silly. Just fill yours, both of yours, to the same height you filled mine."
The cheese, white and creamy, smeared across Mark's teeth before the sharp, purple wine scorched it off. Both were wonderful and strong. And the three of them agreed that the wine and the cheese went well together. And Mark smiled. And Jim met his smile. And they all smiled. It had gone very quickly. And everyone was smiling, isn't that what he wanted? And then there was nothing left to do but ask.
"How do you find working here, Jim?"
"I like it."
"Is that right?" He felt a nervous hot pour and gave two clucks of affable laughter. "Maybe this is just the wine talking, but it seems to me like you have the perfect job."
The hostess smiled and touched the bartender's arm.
"No, I really do mean it," said Mark, as he twirled his glass around a circle of fingers, "I'd jump on a chance to work here."
"Well, we are hiring."
"Is that right? Maybe I could fill out an application?"
The hostess had a charming laugh, and Mark laughed with her, and Jim laughed along with them. But as it became clear that Mark was serious, they all went quiet. Jim's smile fell. Without seeming to move, the hostess withdrew. And then Mark remembered what was going to happen next. It was intolerable to live it again.
"Actually, there's no application. We just need a resume with the names of the last few restaurants or bars that you—where an applicant—worked, along with the names and contact info of three references. Experience is required."
Two older women came in. The hostess practically whispered as she took them to a table.
"What about experience on this side of the bar? Certainly, I know how customers expect to be treated. Certainly, I know the wines."
Jim looked pained thinking of answer. Mark wanted to slap him and say, you really aren't that smart are you? But instead he suggested, "I suppose it's not quite the same."
"Not quite," Jim agreed.
Mark stood up. He took his coat from the stool, shook it out, and was careful to avoid snagging the lining as he pushed his arms down the sleeves. For the last time, he put his hand over the pocket. He took out a folded stack of clean bills and placed it on the bar.
"That should cover it."
"I trust it will," said Jim.
The hostess leaned was between the two women, her delicate hands miming how a flight worked. She hadn't noticed Mark stand up, but as he passed between the interior and exterior doors, he caught her eye. She looked surprised and waived for Mark to stop. What could she want, he wondered, with senseless optimism. Certainly, if she was stopping him from leaving, if she was prolonging his humiliation, she must have had something really special. Had she perhaps bought Mark a christmas gift? A little something to thank a regular for another year of patronage? No, she picked up Mark's briefcase, which he'd forgotten at the bar. The buckles snapped as she hefted the weight. The leather mouth opened, spilling rocks and newspaper across a place setting, smashing glassware and hope.
Matt Pine is a Chicago native, 28. Recently, his work has appeared in Pif and The 2nd Hand. He has a super minimalist website at mattpine.com.