I prop open the door to Folsom Street and blink against the sun for a second or two before retreating through the black leather curtains. Happy hour will be slow today, and an hour later only one customer, a regular who often dj’s at the bar on the weekends, keeps me company, sitting across from me on his bar stool, sipping a Jim Beam and Coke through a straw.
His lazy eye looks over my left shoulder as he tells me stories of the previous night. In his stories he is a fierce presence, whipping rowdy customers into shape with a single look, or a bullet-quick line. I sometimes wonder if these retorts aren’t shaped by wishful thinking after the fact, the kinds of things we think to say hours after the interaction, when our blood is only just beginning to cool. For in person he is a tad awkward if unfailingly helpful, dragging full kegs across the bar, checking coats, watching over the register when I need to take a piss.
A few minutes later both of us – anxious for more customers – catch sight of a movement just beyond the gap in the black curtains; a strange movement, slow, methodical, made by something that neither one of us can quite make out. There is a flash of leather, and of the bright petals of flowers, and what looks like a billowing cloak.
“What the hell is that?” I say.
“I have no idea,” he replies.
I take a step towards the door when the curtains part and she walks in.
I say “she,” though her gender is ambiguous. I say “she” because it’s what the DJ mutters when he catches sight of her, “Oh, no,” he says. “Here she comes.”
She’s a large girl, dressed in a long black trench coat and a black hat, with a wide, dramatic brim that casts a shadow over her pale-face, her eyes rimmed with heavy mascara like some downmarket Boy George, circa 1985, without the braids, and with bad teeth. She carries a black leather purse over one shoulder, and in her arms a bouquet of flowers, which she hands to me after making careful progress to the bar.
“These are for Mitch,” she says slowly, speaking the words as though placing one careful foot in front of the other, maintaining the appearance of balance.
“I’m filling in for Mitch,” I tell her. “He’s out today.” She gazes at me silently through half-lidded eyes, as if waiting for my words to settle somewhere in the back of her head. I wonder if she’s simply misunderstood me, thinks that Mitch is coming in later. I am embarrassed for her, for the now-pointless extravagance of the flowers. “It’s his partner’s birthday,” I tell her, my voice more tender than before. “But I can make sure he gets them.”
But whatever she thinks remains a mystery, as she pulls her purse onto the bar and pushes her small pale hand inside, like a tentative animal. She rummages around for a few long seconds, and then pulls out a slender patent-leather wallet, mumbling something.
“I’m sorry?” I say.
“Absolut and soda,” she murmurs.
Any bartender worth his salt would refuse to serve her, as the security of his job depends upon discretion and common sense. During happy hour I’m the only bartender, the sole employee, responsible for the bar and its patrons, a hat that I wear uneasily. Feeling awkward about the flowers, eager to avoid embarrassing her any further, wanting, as always, to avoid confrontation at all costs, I pour her the drink, knowing that I will regret it.
She fishes a few crumpled ones out of her wallet to pay for the drink, and then hands me a crisp twenty.
“What’s this for?” I ask her.
She points at me unsteadily, arching an eyebrow.
“Do you want change?” I ask. She says nothing, eyebrow still arched. “This is for me?” I ask.
“You don’t know who I am, do you?” she murmurs.
I look over at the DJ, who merely shrugs.
“My name is Miss Michael,” she says meaningfully, and offers me a crooked smile as she pushes her wallet back into her purse. Then her gaze wanders up, across the bar, where she catches sight of herself in the mirror behind me. Years ago someone fashioned a series of lamps from old Crisco cans, and they hang over the bar, casting red circles across its battered metal surface. More red lights are strung behind the bar, above and below the very mirror she ponders.
What follows is, to date, the most bizarre thing I’ve seen as a bartender.
She places both hands on the bar, and begins to perform an exhaustive series of poses, as if from the pages of a fashion magazine. She raises her head and regards herself, like Norma Desmond, in the reflection, touching one finger to her cheek. She lowers her chin until the black brim of her hat obscures one eye. She turns in half-profile and fingers a small studded earring. She pauses in each pose a few seconds, sometimes for what feels like a full excruciating minute, her eyes never leaving her reflection, never wavering from their focus, seemingly oblivious to her own spectacle. “I wish I had on a different outfit,” she whispers, pulling the lapels of her coat together and giving herself a coy smile.
The DJ and I glance at each other, unsure of what to do in the face of such a performance, her intricate, elegant poses mere inches away. This goes on for a couple of minutes. She picks up her drink and coyly sips through her straw, arching her eyebrow again in self-regard, unaware that she has tilted her glass too far, and her cocktail is spilling down the arm of her coat. Wary customers stack up behind her.
I lean over and whisper to her, “I need this section open for my customers, sweetie,” and gesture at the bar between us. My worries, that she would cause a scene, that she would crumple in tears, or erupt in screams, dissipate as she responds, gathering up her her purse and clutching her drink with an unsteady hand. Miss Michael makes her slow way up the small flight of steps to the back bar, where she finds a table in the dark, leaving the flowers on the bar and a thin trail of Absolut and soda in her wake.
“You shouldn’t have served her,” the DJ says, and I lie, telling him that I didn’t realize how drunk she was until after I’d given her the cocktail. He either takes me for a liar or a naive. Even his lazy eye seems to regard me suspiciously.
Her performance, like a cloud of perfume, lingers over the bar, and for the rest of the afternoon and long into the evening I glance up at her, sitting alone in the dark, her back resting against the chain-link fence that encloses the DJ booth, one arm outstretched, her fingers playing and strumming on the fence.
Occasionally she responds to some lyric in the music blasting over the speakers, and raises one arm, her hand curling open and pointing at the ceiling. Every once in a while she gathers together her coat and purse, the gathering taking a good ten minutes, and I pray that she will leave, and take with her my responsibility for her welfare. But she merely shuffles off to the bathroom and back, removing her coat, taking her place again at the lone table in the dark. She sits there for four hours, as a slow trickle of customers, all men, pass her on their way to the back room.
Then, sometime around eight o’clock, she raises her hand again and cries out, “MADONNA!!” in a voice that overpowers the house music. It sounds like both a frustrated demand and a cry of victory, as if confirming the singer’s unassailable power over our lives. The customers look at her with a mixture of humor, disgust, and pity.
The hours pass slowly and I make my rounds behind the bar, tipping chilled pint glasses under a stream of draft beer, opening bottles, scooping ice, now and then wondering about Miss Michael, about her life, or what remains of it, outside the bar. Where does she live, where does she get her money? What does she think when she wakes in the morning to memories of the night before? Does she even remember the night before, and throwing flowers and cash away on bartenders?
Not that she could answer my questions, not tonight, when she is too drunk to respond. Would she even answer truthfully, or would every word cohere around the image she has woven of herself – you don’t know who I am, do you? And what did I really know of that image, after a few short hours?
Her twenty dollar bill rests in my tip bucket like a dark reminder of my passivity, of the single drink I poured onto the others she’d had before stumbling through the black curtains. If I truly cared for her welfare, I might have insisted she keep the twenty, but I am as selfish as the next guy; I will take what I can get on this slow Monday night.
When she makes her way back to me and asks for another, I tell her, finally, that I can’t serve her any more liquor.
“You can’t?” she asks, like a wounded child.
“No,” I say. “How about a bottle of water?” I ask her. “Would you like a bottle of water?”
“Okay,” she says meekly.
I place the bottle on the bar, telling her that it’s on the house. She regards it unsteadily, then catches sight of herself again in the mirror. She begins a new series of poses but I stop her again, this time more quickly, and remind her that I need to keep that section of the bar open. She takes the bottle of water and shuffles over to the bench behind the pool table, leaving a five for me on the bar.
There she appears to catch sight of the mirror again, and maneuvers herself a few feet to the left, undoubtedly to the best unobstructed view of her reflection, sitting within inches of a few of my favorite regulars, three guys with shaved heads who drink Skyy and sodas with a wedge of lemon and leave me big tips. She begins posing again, her elbow brushing against one of the guys.
A man at the bar asks for a Bud, and I turn away, rehearsing in my mind the words that will extricate Miss Michael from the personal space of my regulars, words that seem complicated to me but should be easy, just a few words every bartender must at some point say. “Honey, it’s time for you to go.”
I turn to the cash register and ring up the Bud, glancing up and catching my own reflection in the mirror, confirming what I had noticed a long time ago; under the red lights, we all look better. I regard myself for a second longer than necessary. When I turn back, Miss Michael is gone, the bottle of water, still slick with condensation, sitting unopened on the bench.