“Oh?” he says, hand already on his lighter.
“Maisie’s last day of school is the twenty-fourth,” she says. “You work weekdays?”
“Wednesday through Friday, yup.”
“So — if we came in for, hang on, okay, here…” she pauses.
He flicks the lighter into life: once, twice, three times, until the ridged metal becomes hot and singes his thumb.
“We might try for the first Friday of June, if Phil can take off work.”
“If not, I guess there’s Memorial Day?”
“I wouldn’t,” he says, “the city’s such a cluster– a mess, with the traffic and everything. That’s a busy weekend. Where will you park the car?”
“Maisie wants to take the train in.”
“No need for sarcasm.”
“That,” he tells her, flicking the lighter in another burst of three, holding till it hurts, “is true. Take the train.”
“Okay,” she says, “I’ll let you know.”
“My family is coming up,” he tells Sandro.
“Fun!” he beams, and then his face droops quickly. “You don’t need off work, do you? Please tell me you can help out Memorial Day, still. Coverage will be impossible to get this late–”
“Sandro,” Luke interrupts, placing a fresh drink at his boss’ elbow, “I’m going to be thrilled to come into work, okay? Probably I’ll come in early to be rid of them, you know?”
“Tsk,” Sando tuts, inspecting his vodka grapefruit first by eyesight and then with a sniff. He takes a drink through his capped teeth and smacks his lips, “That’s not very nice of you to say.”
“Since when am I a nice person?” Luke asks, and then goes to the end of the bar by the window where he pulls and serves a Guiness to a pale man with red hair and no companions.
Worse people than him exist and get by just fine, with no voice of conscience speaking obnoxiously over their shoulders — who rip people off, overcharge surly drunks because they feel it’s owed them, skim from the till to cover extra expenses, stop working at one and yet only clock out at three or four — same as there are those who are better; who expend time and energy to endlessly improve the world around them.
They would not, as Luke does, ask the homeless Vietnam vets who come inside when it rains if they have money with which to buy their single draft beers, and they would not glare when the man with a gray-greased coat would painstakingly count out nickels and dimes from spare changing down at the pier, with a sign that reads WHY LIE ITS FOR BEER and he can, indeed, attest to this, because his bar has pre-inflation prices on beers, so if they find themselves south and west of where they panhandle, they are his to deal with. A problem no longer general, abstract (neighborhood, city, nation-state, empire) — but harshly specific, here now (this block, this building, that stool, this proximity.)
“What can I get–” they will say, dumping out their haul on the bar, “for a dollar?”
“A soda,” Luke might tell them, even though he gives sodas away for free to his friends, and only charges the full three bucks for when the customer acts like an entitled cunt.
“How much is a beer?”
“Three-fifty,” Luke will say, and as they start to make piles, he might tell them, “We’ll settle up later, no worries,” and pour them the cheapest draft beer and move the peanuts closer to their elbow. If there are remaining tasks he completes them, double-checks his till, and then goes out for a smoke. Mostly these afternoon patrons can be left alone, because they remain quiet and watch the television, with creased faces that do not relax even as they nod off to sleep while sitting upright, and he allows them to sleep until actual customers come in and make pointed remarks about the smell.
“Hey man,” Luke will say, shaking the guy by his elbow, “Wake up, wake up.”
And with nods and coughs, futile pattings of his pockets, he will wiggle down from his perch and say, “What do I owe you?”
“You paid already,” Luke will tell him, even if this is a lie.
“Did I?” the man will ask, and Luke will affirm that it is true.
“Well, son,” he will say, “Thank you for your hospitality.”
“Come back and see us.”
“Will do, will do.”
The door swishes in, out, shut.
“Ew, you’d better get out the Lysol now,” says a guy (30s, rum and Diet with a lime, dollar a drink tipper) with a high-voice and huge biceps, and his two thin friends laugh, meanly.
Lisa calls his refusal to settle down arrested development — for he is merely a boy trapped in the muscle-bound body of a man, whose urges overwhelm him, whose anger frightens him; great wellsprings of it, for all his attempts at generosity — and how could he ever consider making a life with another person, putting his toothbrush next to theirs on the side of the sink and sharing a toilet, getting their socks tangled up together in the dryer at the laundromat, and the tiny detail, of snagged tight cotton wrapped in on itself so that they have to stick around for a second load– that utter nothing of a moment sees anger swell his chest like so much acid reflux and like acid it seethes and comes up.
Luke bolts outside to spit in the gutter repeatedly, until the nauseated feeling goes away. He wipes hand across his mouth. Without telling Nando he walks a few doors down to a shop where he buys a can of Coke. They sell hot dogs there, and without asking, he shoves a few of the napkins into his pocket in case the spit floods his mouth again.
The anger lives in him: bacteria in his gut that he cannot disinfect.
Back inside he pinches his nose as he sits down in the orange plastic chair, stamped out in the seventies: too ugly to be retro.
“I’ll wait,” Nando says, “Go on home. Call her.”
“Don’t want to,” Luke whines.
“She’ll only keep calling.”
Luke thinks about this. “I won’t pick up.”
“Whatever.” He shrugs. “I’m not telling you what to do.”
A fat woman with a flat indigenous face folds grayed pairs of underwear into a green basket, and Luke watches her for a time, then stares at the floor, and eventually gets a second soda and has a smoke by his dog, who is equally restless. They have to keep moving while he smokes, a combined effort that diminishes his enjoyment of both activities, but what can you do?
When he comes in that time Nando is the one doing folding, into the army duffle he uses for laundry.
“Give me that.” He pulls it off his shoulder, “It’s heavy.”
Luke carries it back to his apartment and up the stairs.