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February 19, 2024

Just One Rule

By Sand Pilarski

Knowing what was inevitable, I picked up my beer and went to stand by the window. I don't like to wash my robe any oftener than I have to, and the smell of stale booze on rough cloth makes me feel woozy in the mornings, and disgusted by hot autumn afternoons. No spillages for me, thank you.

I leaned against the wall by the window, noting the rain pounding the glass, glad to have come across this inn at lunchtime when the clouds were still merely threatening. The beer was nicely chilled and quite tasty. I'd have another when this one was done, I was certain.

"Uh, you're a shaman, aren't you?" asked the young man at the table closest to the window. At my nod, he said, "Umm, well, I was wondering if you could help me, I have this hairy wart on my ... "

"Sorry," I said. "Don't do warts. Witches do warts, not us shamans." I kept my eyes on the bar, waiting for the fated action.

"Know any witches?" he asked his tablemate, turning away from me. "My girlfriend just screamed and ran when she saw it, and I haven't been able to get her to talk to me since. You know, I knew meeting her in the haybarn at midday was a mistake, but after all these nights, I'd have thought she'd be a little more tolerant..."

The woman at the far end of the bar was tapping her fingernail on the base of her empty wine glass with growing irritation. The huge orc beside her was glowering, his brows lowered over his reddish eyes. A dwarf on the other side of the orc was leaning his face on his elbow, looking up at the ceiling joists as if seeking wisdom, or the evidence of termites, a small glass containing only ice cubes before him.

The bartender continued to slam saltshakers on the counter, picking them up, mopping under them with a sloppy bar cloth, whamming them down again approximately four inches to the left of where they had been.

He'd come on shift about three sips into my first beer. There was no doubt that he was the senior barkeep, showing up for the lucrative late afternoon and evening shift. And there was no doubt that he hated the younger bartender with a passion he should have saved for his customers. Puffing with dramatic breaths, he scrubbed the already-clean counter with his soaked and theatrically-wrung cloth, wetting the napkins under patrons' drinks and causing them to pick their glasses up in alarm.

Rearranging bottles in the spring-water cooler with splashings and clankings, he muttered under his breath. Sliced fruits in the tropical-drink bins were scooped out and flung violently into the trash barrel, while the younger bartender stood back, looking resigned. The older bartender yanked the dirty glass tub out with a vicious clinking of glass, dashed two highball glasses into the pile, and aggrievedly hoisted the thing to his shoulder, snorting in disgust, and stormed out of the bar into the kitchen in the rear.

I crooked my finger at the kid. When he approached me, I said, "Coming on shift, is he?"

"Yes, and he's furious with me," said the young man. "He hates when I don't put all the salt shakers in a row lined up with the margarita dipper. I'm sorry."

"He's not going to be the one who gets my tip, is he?" I asked.

The young man shrugged. "Probably. He wants me to go home."

"Doesn't want to share business or tips, I suspect. Look out, here he comes again."

Still puffing and snorting, the man went back to slamming glassware and liquor bottles around, making a stormy show of bopping the cheaper brands of vodka and whiskey to the left of the more expensive brands. He gritted his teeth as he worked, putting on a great show of being pushed to his very limits, so aggrieved that he could not even look at the patrons.

And hey, who knows, maybe it was the limit of his ability to adapt to his conditions or accept the presence of co-workers. Some people cannot abide change in even the smallest aspect of their routines. There was this goodwife in Elspeth who worried about her children's breakfast from the time she awoke before dawn until the last one was fed and the dishes in the pail for washing. Even after the youngest daughter had been wed and sent off to the new husband's home, the goodwife spent her mornings fretting about whether or not her son the blacksmith or her son the preacher or her daughter the bride had been fed adequately or on time. She made her daughters-in-law miserable, popping in on them in the early morning hours while they were either ladling porridge into bowls or putting water on for tea. And the daughter-bride as well, whose husband, in the newness of their marriage, wanted the girl to stay abed with him as long as possible -- only to have the mother of the bride knocking at the door feverishly, wondering if her youngest duckling was getting the nourishment she needed. In short, she was a pain in the ass, just as this grumpy bartender was. No one but the Goodwife of Elspeth wanted her to be worrying; not a single one of the patrons at the bar wanted to see the slamming and slopping and puffing and muttering going on, especially when their tankards and glasses were unfilled.

In fact, I could admit that though I found the irritable bartender's posturing and scuffling annoying, I was not nearly as aggravated by it as was the lady with the drained wineglass whom the bartender ignored, the more to thrash things about proclaiming his discomfiture about the younger fellow, who was backed up against the ice bin, trying to avoid the elbows and bootheels of his shift replacement. That was when I went to the window to sip my beer.

"What were you thinking," the man exploded at the boy, his purply face and bristling short moustache inches from the boy's face, "putting the rosé wine in front of the white zinfandel??"

The orc at the end of the bar leaped up from his seat with a snarl, reached across the bar, and grabbed the irate bartender by the shirt collar, dragging him over the bar (knocking various other drinkers' drinks onto the floor) and out the front door. I heard the sound of a sword being drawn, a suddenly stifled "NOooo!" and after a moment, the orc came back through the front door of the inn, dripping wet, wiping his blade on his pantsleg. The young bartender had already refilled the lady's glass, the orc's flagon, and was replacing the libations along the rest of the bar.

"Sorry about that, folks," he said mildly, and retrieved the dwarf's glass to pour more ice and bourbon.

I ambled back to the bar and sat down once again. The young man picked up my beer, topped it off from the tap, and smiled. "That's on the house, thank you for your patience."

Rummaging in my pack, I found a fat silver coin. "Next round of theirs is on me," I said, nodding at the orc, the dwarf, and the woman. "And what's left is a tip for you. Keep in mind -- customer service is everything."

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2007-09-03
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