She reached up and a bead of sweat dripped down the small of her back under her shirt. The sun was beating down on the small matchbox-sized bar where Julia worked. Her fingers finally reached the bottle of vodka that she was stretching for; dusty and hidden on the highest shelf. No one ever drank vodka around here, which is why it took so long for the last bottle to finally finish.
The kid at the bar, though, seemed to be wanting more and more, no water. Just vodka. On the rocks.
“That’ll be another $8.50,” said Julia as she slid the drink over to the lanky young man. He had a look in his eye that didn’t really say, I’m drunk, but it was almost there. He looked off into the distance. It was his second drink but the preoccupation with drowning his worries and sorrows wasn’t the smell he was giving off.
He looked up at her. “Yeah, thanks,” he said leaning back off the chair and to the left reaching into his pocket for his wallet. No wallet. He pulled out a handful of wrinkled 20s and handed her one. “Can I just start a tab so you can charge me all at once?”
Walking toward the cash register, she looked back at him with a look that dared him ask again. He stared at her wide-eyed, waiting for the answer. “No,” she said bluntly. “I stopped doing that last year when the guys started walking out and others disappeared in the bathroom. I swear, there’s a black hole in one of those stalls.”
She placed the change in front of him on the bar. He stared into the glass of melting ice, his face red from the heat. Julia walked over and wiped down the counter where the condensation was collecting as he lifted the short glass to his lips and sucked the last drops from the ice cubes.
“Can I ask you a question?” she said, in shock that this kid was sucking down these drinks like there was no tomorrow. He looked at her. “If I can have another vodka.” She looked at him with her side eye and picked up the glass. “How old are you?”
He smiled at her and before he gave her an answer said, “Guess.”
She laughed. “Really? OK, kid. My 16-year-old looks older than you, but I’m assuming that since you’re downing these things like a Coke on a hot day, you’re well over 21 because you’ve done this before. I mean, besides the fact that George over in the corner is older than dirt and can hardly read state IDs anymore, I’m guessing you’re about 22.”
“I do look 12, don’t I?” he asked in all seriousness. “I’m 25. I’m 25 going on what feels like 60.”
Because that wasn’t a loaded statement. Julia filled up the drink again and walked over to him, setting it down. Now she was intrigued. The only men that spoke to her at the bar were well into their 50s, married for about 30 years, had four kids and a nagging wife. This young buck was something different and she wanted to know all she could.
“Why do you say that? Are you dying? Got arthritis? Going through a midlife crisis?”
He gave a half laugh. “Ha. No, no. How old are you?”
“Son, don’t you know you’re not supposed to ask a lady her age? At least not before you know her name,” she laughed. “I’m Julia and I will forever be 21.”
He shook her hand and smiled, his hand wet from holding the glass. “Well, Julia. I guess this is how it goes when you come drinking at a small bar after a hard week, isn’t it? People just tell you everything. Almost like a gate-keeper to our secrets.”
She laughed. “Something like that, yeah. I’ve been bar tending here for over 15 years and I’ve come to know everyone like they’re my family. I’ve gotten couples back together, listened to worries and even bar tended weddings. I think I know a thing or two about people.”
“Well, Julia,” said the young man as he sat up and leaned his elbows on the wooden bar, obviously not feeling the water Julia had yet to wipe down. “Doesn’t look like you’re going to fix me.”
He sat back on the chair. He looked out the window at the scorching heat. “Don’t you all have air conditioning in here?” he asked.
“Sorry, kid. This isn’t a 5 star restaurant. Don’t know where you come from but around here we just deal with it,” she answered, pouring herself a glass of Coke from the fountain.
“So, you gonna tell me about what I can’t fix or are we just going to sit here while you critique the bar you chose to walk into for your bottle of vodka?” she asked.
“Here’s the thing, Julia. I’m calming my nerves right now. I don’t drink a lot usually,” he said as he took another swig of vodka, “but this is the only way I know how to do things without playing basketball.”
She was utterly confused. This made no sense to her. “Come again?”
He looked into the glass. “My dad died two days ago, Julia. Two days ago,” he said as the look of a drunk man finally hit him. His eyes were smaller, rimmed in a reddish pink and his eyes glistened from tears forming. “I’ve been as strong as possible. Yesterday, though, when we were making funeral arrangements, my mother broke down and told me that she didn’t know what she was going to do.”
Julia sat there and just listened. She had nothing else to say but all she could do now was listen. She had said too many wrong things in her lifetime and has regretted so many more.
“They have a mortgage to pay and my dad made the money. He didn’t have life insurance because he was going to wait, something that everyone told him not to do. He was only 56 and he was healthy.”
Julia poured him more vodka and didn’t even collect money anymore.
“My life just started. I just turned 25 and I moved a few miles away from home. This might sound selfish, but I just started and I don’t want to give it up. Why did he have to die so soon?”
The tears streamed down his cheeks and he didn’t know how to stop them. He clutched the glass with both hands and looked angrily at his glass. “I feel so awful for thinking that and wanting to be on my own but I’m more upset that my dad is dead!”
He threw the glass against the back of the bar which startled George in the corner. He stood up and walked over. “All right kid, you’re done. We gotta get you out of here,” he said.
“No, George,” Julia said as she walked around the bar to the other side. “I got him.”
The 25-year-old, fatherless young man sobbed into his bent elbow. Julia put her hand on his back. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’ll pay for whatever I broke.” She patted his back and told him not to worry about it.
“I want to play basketball,” he said. “My dad and I used to play basketball when I felt nervous or scared before games, tests or dates growing up. He said it would take my mind off of being nervous and keep it on winning at whatever it was I was going to take on. I want to play but I don’t think I can…” His voice trailed off.
“Why can’t you, honey?” Julia finally asked.
“I can’t win at filling my father’s shoes.”