I packed up my books and slung my backpack over my shoulder. Taking a minute, I stood in the middle of the classroom and looked around. It was a rather unreal feeling. My last college class. All I had to do was turn in a couple of papers the following week and take three tests the week after. Then I would put on a cap and gown and walk in the graduation ceremony. I thought I’d never get there, but finally I was done.
As I walked across campus, everything looked both completely familiar and somehow fresh and new. The flowers were blooming along with all the trees putting out new leaves. The grass was green after being brown all winter. The sky was the most gorgeous shade of blue, and the white puffball clouds floating overhead seemed to be decorating a scene just for my enjoyment.
I was free! I did it!
At the same time, it was one of the most terrifying moments of my life. I was going to have to go out in the world and be an Adult. Not a college-student-pretending-to-be-an-adult, but a real adult.
I crossed the street and turned to look at the campus. Soon it would be a part of my past instead of my all-consuming present.
Walking into the Library, I waved to Ed and took my backpack to the back room. I dumped it in the corner where it had sat for so many nights over the past year and a half.
“Tom wants to see you,” Ed said as I came back to the front. “He’s in the office.”
“Okay, thanks,” I said, and made my way back to the small office off the hall leading to the bathrooms. Tom was our boss, the owner of the Library. He was mostly an absentee owner, a CPA who bought a small off-campus bar as an investment. Other than dropping in for an occasional drink and the monthly review of the books, he didn’t spend a lot of time there.
I walked into the office. Tom told me to close the door and motioned me to a chair. He was about six feet tall, thin with brown hair that tended to flop over his forehead. I thought he was kind of handsome, with a long nose and silver wire-rim glasses. I didn’t know his wife very well, but she seemed very nice.
“Are you almost done with classes?” he asked.
“Done. A couple of papers to turn in, but I’m almost finished with one and the other one isn’t a big deal. Three tests during finals week, and that’s it.” I smiled. It had been a long grind, and he and Ed had always been really easy about accommodating my school schedule.
“How’s the job hunting going?”
“I’ve had some interviews, on-campus interviews through the placement office. Two or three have told me that I’m on their consideration list. I’m sending out resumes, but so far I don’t have any offers.” I shrugged. “You know how the economy is. The placement office says offers are way down this year.”
“Do you plan to keep working here until something comes up? You’re going to stay in town?”
“Oh, yeah. Tom, I’d give you plenty of notice if I find something. I won’t just disappear. You’ve been very good to me here.”
“Well, I have a problem. Ed turned in his notice. He got a job as food service manager at the Marriot, and his last day is two weeks from today.”
Tom didn’t seem terribly upset, although Ed had managed the bar for him for three years. I was the assistant manager, so what that meant for me immediately started running around my mind.
“Ashley, you know I don’t know anything about running a bar. I’m hoping that you’ll consider taking over. Your job situation makes that a bit complicated, I know. But I’ll pay you forty-five thousand dollars a year. The same deal that I have with Ed. You’d be in charge of ordering and inventory, hiring and firing, keeping the books. I know that you and Ed share those duties now. What do you say?”
It was a generous offer, fifty percent more than I was currently making combining an hourly wage and tips. A lot more than I would be making as a new grad with the large corporations with which I’d been interviewing. It also wouldn’t hurt to be able to put Manager on my resume instead of Assistant Manager. But it also meant staying in Fort Collins instead of going to some new and exciting place. My common sense confronted my dreams and set off an immediate storm of confusion in my mind.
“Tom, I’m flattered, but ...”
He held up his hand to stop me.
“Ash, take the job. Whether it’s for two weeks, two months or two years. I’ll take whatever you can give me. I need you. At the very least, I need you to be a bridge between Ed and whomever we can find to take your place. I need you to hire someone and train them. And if you get an offer next week, I’ll deal with it. I won’t be in any worse shape than I am right now.”
No one had ever told me before that they needed me. How could I say no?
“Okay, under those conditions, I’ll do it.” I smiled. “Thank you.”
“Good. Now, what should I do about hiring your replacement as assistant manager? Can you write up an ad for me to put in the newspapers?”
“Actually, I’d rather promote from within,” I said.
Tom frowned. “Who are you thinking of?”
“Tyrell.” Tyrell was our bouncer, a former linebacker on the university’s football team whose eligibility and scholarship had run out. He’d been working at the Library for over two years.
“Convince me,” Tom said.
“He has the temperament,” I started. “He gets along well with customers. He already knows inventory. Ed and I use him to do the inventory and make out ordering lists when it’s slow. He has one more semester to finish his degree in accounting, so the books won’t be difficult for him.”
Tom’s eyebrows rose in surprise at that news.
“He has a wife and baby, so he needs a steady job, and he’s as dependable as the sun rising. He’s only called in once in the time I’ve been here, and that was to take the baby to the hospital.”
“Does he have any experience tending bar?” Tom asked.
“No, but I can teach him. Making drinks is a lot easier to pick up than keeping the books. Besides, eighty percent of what we do here is pour beers. He’s filled in a few times in the kitchen when we needed a cook. He told me he worked at McDonald’s when he was in high school. So that’s something he knows.”
“Make him an offer, and arrange for him to meet with me on Saturday,” Tom said. “If he convinces me, then he’s got the job.”
“Thanks, Tom. When do I start? I mean, you said Ed’s last day is two weeks from now?”
“Yes, two weeks from today. But as of now, you’re the manager and your new pay rate starts today. Go ahead and continue taking your share of tips until Ed leaves. Sound good?”
“Sounds great. Thank you!” Suddenly I was excited. A part of me was grumbling about putting off my adventure into the next phase of my life, but at that moment, all I could think of was, I have a job! A real job! With a salary! I’m a manager! I wasn’t even officially graduated yet, and I had a job.
I started to jump up and go out to the bar, but I stopped. “Tom, what kind of authority do I have? I mean, can I change the menu? What kind of authority do I have over promotions and advertising?” My head was spinning. All kinds of stuff I’d studied over the past five years seemed to be pushing itself into my brain. “Can I hire new people? I mean, create new positions?”
He leaned back in his chair, and a self-satisfied smile slowly spread across his face.
“Within reason,” he said. “I want you to run changes by me. You’ll find that I’ll probably approve most things that don’t change the basic nature of the bar. We’re successful. We make money. But if you have ideas that increase traffic and increase revenue, I’ll approve them. More people? You’ll have to convince me that they’ll produce a net increase to the bottom line. Okay?”
I ran a bunch of ideas past him. Everything I’d been thinking about for months spilled out all at the same time.
The corners of his mouth quirked up in a half-smile. “Write it up. Send it to me by email. If it makes sense, we’ll try it. If it doesn’t work, we’ll try something else.”
I thought my heart would burst. I leaped around the desk, wrapped my arms around his shoulders, and gave him a big kiss on the cheek.
“Thank you! I’ll have my ideas to you tomorrow!” The shocked look on his face brought me back to reality. I backed up. “Uh, I’ll try to be more professional. Don’t tell Kayla I kissed you, okay?”
He burst out laughing. “Not a chance. I wouldn’t keep this moment from Kayla for anything. She thinks I’m too dour and don’t connect well with my employees. She’ll love this story!”
My face felt as though it was on fire. “Do I need to get a bullet-proof vest?”
“No, Ashley. Believe me, you’ve made my day.”
I went out and Ed, standing behind the bar, gave me an expectant look.
“I took the job,” I told him. “Thanks for the recommendation.”
“He told you I recommended you?”
“He didn’t have to.” I leaned forward and kissed Ed on the cheek. “Congratulations on the new job.”
I looked around. The Library was a fairly typical bar. There was a dark-stained oak bar and matching tables. A few pictures of meadows with wildflowers and snow-capped mountains hung on the walls, along with the TVs that were always tuned to sports. The space consisted of a large front room and a smaller one in the back. We didn’t have shuffleboard or pool tables. The Library served food and drinks without much frill. The bar wasn’t too busy yet, and everything behind the bar looked good. Spic and span, everything stocked. Just the way Ed and I liked to start a night.
“Do you mind if I take a couple of minutes?” I asked him.
“So you can call people?” he asked with a smile.
I nodded and he motioned with his hand, giving me permission. I dug out my phone and walked out the side door. We had placed five wrought-iron tables with chairs out there the previous week. My idea. I was a bit surprised to find that four of the five tables were occupied. There were almost as many people out there as there were inside.
Monica waved at me, as I took a seat at the open table and punched in Pat’s number.
“Hey, what’s up?” he answered.
“How’s the electrical-engineer-to-be?” I asked him.
“Doing okay. I turn in my final project tomorrow and I’m done.”
“No tests next week?”
“Nope. Nothing between now and graduation but celebrations.”
“Lucky you. Hey, I called to tell you I got a job.”
“Thank God! I had visions of having to support you for the rest of your life. Poor little Ashley, only one step away from either living on skid row or selling your body.”
I laughed. “No way I’m going to indulge your fantasy of becoming a pimp. You’ll have to talk Jenna into walking the streets to support you. Here’s the scoop. Ed’s quitting the bar, and Tom offered me the manager’s position. Starting salary forty-five thousand. Not bad, huh?”
“Congratulations,” his voice was warm and genuine, and I relaxed. It made me feel good to hear him validate my decision. “Not exactly Tahiti or Bora Bora, but it’s in your field.”
“Yeah, it is. Thanks. What are you doing tonight? Stop by later and I’ll buy you a drink.”
“I have a date with Jenna, but we’ll stop by afterwards.”
I signed off and called Marcie. “Hey, Sugartits, guess what? I’m gainfully employed!”
“No way. They’re hiring janitors at the student center?” she replied.
I told her my news, and she sounded as happy as I was. Except for one caveat.
“Are you sure about this? It isn’t what you were hoping for.”
“No,” I said, “but it’s a good gig, and Tom expects me to keep looking. I’m happy with it.”
“Good. I’m going out with the girls tonight, but we’ll stop by and let you buy us a drink on our way home.”
“Wait. I’m the one with the good news and I’m buying you a drink? I bought you a drink when you landed your job.”
“Get used to it,” she said and hung up.
I called my mom next and gave her the news. I could tell that she was pleased I was staying in Colorado, at least for a while. I also got the feeling that she was relieved, as if Pat’s jest about selling my body was the only option she thought I’d have.
As pleased as I was with Tom’s offer, I was disappointed that I was still in Colorado. Five years of college and I wasn’t any closer to my dream than when I started.
The Library had a great location, which had a lot to do with its success. It was the closest bar to campus, on a short block amidst chain fast-food places, with a bicycle shop on one side, Starbucks on the other and a convenience store across the street. The next block had several bars, larger places, and many of them had dance floors. Two of them had live bands on Friday and Saturday nights.
To the north of us was fraternity row. But to get to the meat market bars, students from the dorms and from the Greek houses had to walk past our place. We had pretty good food and cheap beer. We served a great burger, and with half-price appetizers on Fridays, it was a hot happy-hour spot for professors and grad students. With the end of the semester only a week away, this Friday it was hopping. I watched several professors I knew filter in, as relieved as the students that the semester was over.
Pat called around ten thirty and told me they were on their way. I watched for a two-top table to open up, and when a couple got up to leave, I put a ‘reserved’ sign on the table. Pat and Jenna walked in about eleven.
Patrick Coughlin was a campus darling. Six-feet-two and the starting shooting guard on the basketball team for the past three years, he was devilishly handsome with an engaging smile. I’d wondered at times how he got his schoolwork done with all the girls hanging off him, but somehow he’d managed. The past year or so, there’d only been one girl to worry about, Jenna. But I could tell there was trouble in paradise when I saw their faces as they walked into the bar. And believe me, I knew Pat’s face better than anyone. I’d been looking at it since we shared a womb.
I pointed toward the table I’d saved for them, and then crooked my finger at Pat. He walked Jenna to the table and then came back to the bar.
“Are you driving?” I asked.
“No, we walked.”
“What can I get you?” I poured him a beer and her a glass of wine. I also put a shot of Irish whiskey in front of him. “You look like you need it.”
He glanced over his shoulder, saw Jenna digging in her purse, and knocked down the shot while she wasn’t looking. “Thanks.”
“Still arguing about California?” I asked.
“Yeah. She seems to finally accept that I’m not taking her with me, but she wants to go out with me and help me look for an apartment.”
“And then you’ll have trouble getting her to leave,” I finished.
“You got it. Ash, it’s not that I don’t love her. I do. But from what I’ve been told, new engineers work sixty hours a week. They want you to get immersed in the culture. And I don’t want to go through learning to live with someone at the same time I’m trying to learn a new job.”
He picked up their drinks. “She’d just be sitting around, waiting for me to get off work all day. I’ll get home tired, probably with stuff to study, and she’ll want to go out.”
“So tell her that. Offer to fly her out in August for a couple of weeks just before school starts. Tell her that you won’t have time for her now, and if she loves you, she’ll understand.”
“You don’t really think she loves me, do you?” he asked.
I was surprised that he asked. The way he stood waiting, he expected an honest answer. I don’t know what he hoped I’d say, but I said, “I think she loves the idea of you. I think she loves the idea of getting married. Anything to get away from her parents.”
He gave me a long look. I think he knew I was right, but you can’t tell anyone something like that and have them accept it. I wouldn’t even try with anyone but Pat. The fact was I didn’t think he really loved her. She was hot and very compliant, but I didn’t think that was enough to base a lifetime on. I also didn’t think the compliant act would survive much beyond the wedding.
Things slowed down a little later, and I walked over to check on their drinks. “Hey, Jenna. How’s it going?”
“Oh, God,” she groaned. “I’ve got five finals to study for. After tonight, I’m going to be buried in a book for the next two weeks.”
“Are you going to hang around here this summer?” I asked. “Take a few classes, maybe?”
“Dad wants me to work in his firm,” she said, with a facial expression people usually reserve for talking about major surgery or a root canal.
We chatted for a few more minutes, and then I went back behind the bar to fill a drink order. They left a bit later, and the way Jenna was hanging on him, I knew they were done for the night.
Marcie called about midnight, giving me a heads up that she and the rest of our friends were headed my way. I placed the ‘reserved’ sign on a four-top near the back. At twelve thirty, the crew rolled in.
Marcie looked my way and I pointed to the table I’d saved for them. She strutted across the room trailing our friends in her wake. She had definitely dressed for attention, wearing a swishy dark-blue polka-dot dress showing plenty of cleavage and strappy fuck-me shoes that, in her case, were more promise than tease. I could tell she was in a mood, and she attracted every eye in the place.
Bev, at whose station they sat, looked over at me with a questioning expression, and I shook my head. “I’ll take care of them,” I said. The questioning look changed to a grateful one.
“Man, if I was single …” Ed trailed off, appreciatively eyeing Marcie’s derriere.
“Be glad you’re not,” I laughed. “She’d eat you alive just like her previous thousand conquests.”
“But what a way to go,” he smiled, shaking his head and moving down the bar to refill some parched soul’s glass.
Marcie wasn’t the most beautiful woman in the bar. She and everyone else took a definite back seat to Perfect Sheila, another one of our group. Indeed, I doubted that Sheila had ever walked into a room holding someone prettier than she was. But Marcie had presence—sensual, confident, animal-magnetism presence—that made women envious and made men lose their minds.
“Who’s driving?” I asked as I approached their table.
“We took a cab from downtown,” Marcie said. “We’re two sheets to the wind, and the only driving any of us will do tonight is if Prince Charming happens to stop by.”
They gave me their drink orders. A Cosmo for Marcie, Margarita for Carolyn, white wine for Sheila—the upscale Sauvignon Blanc, not the standard Chardonnay or Riesling—and a Guinness for Darlene.
“I don’t know why I ask,” I said. “I could have poured your drinks and had them on the table already. Don’t any of you have any sense of culinary adventure?” They laughed. I looked at Dar. “Not in the mood for three shots of tequila tonight?”
“Already had them,” she pouted. “No one took the bait.”
“The night’s still young,” I said, patting her on the shoulder. “Maybe Prince Charming will stop in and you can arm wrestle Marcie for his attentions.”
The tequila thing was an inside joke. When Dar—tiny, pretty, intelligent, funny Dar with the pixie haircut—had arrived at college, she was on a mission to sacrifice her virginity at the earliest opportunity, and planned on taking down every male who crossed her path afterward until she graduated.
The only problem with her plan was that Dar was so painfully shy around men she could hardly look a man straight in the face, let alone talk to one. Completely obsessed with men and sex, it took until her junior year before she managed to drag one into bed. The secret was three shots of tequila, which loosened her up enough to simply say the word ‘yes’ if a guy approached her. She’d had three boyfriends since, and I wasn’t sure if any of them knew she was able to speak. When she managed to latch onto a guy, she never let him out of bed, and I don’t think they spent any time with pillow talk.
All of us arrived on campus as freshmen and ended up together on the third floor of a dorm for nerds. It was so far away from the center of campus that you needed binoculars to see a classroom. Five years later, we were still together. Four of us would graduate in two weeks. Sheila, Perfect Sheila as Marcie and I privately called her, had graduated on time and immediately started working on her master’s degree in clinical psychology. Other than Marcie, she was the closest girlfriend I’d ever had.
Sometimes I thought that Sheila was just coasting through life, obliviously perfect, untouched by the world. But she was a watcher. She saw everything that went on around her. Her insights into people, and why they did things, were incredibly sharp and accurate. She didn’t let too many people in, though. Her motivations and feelings were carefully guarded. I think she talked to Marcie more than she did to me, but I always knew I could talk to her about anything.
Sheila was from Connecticut, the daughter of a Wall Street financier and a perfect country-club mother. I never did get the real story on why she chose a college in a cow town in Colorado, two thousand miles from home. She didn’t go home in the summers, and usually went to Europe or Cozumel or some such place for holidays.
She was stunningly beautiful and elegantly dressed to perfection on all occasions, and I’d never seen her have a hair out of place. She was probably the only woman in the world who was too perfect for the sororities, though they’d all tried to recruit her. Instead, she fell in with our little group of misfits. Sheila was a dateless wonder, similar to the rest of us, except Marcie. Sheila’s problem was that every guy she met automatically assumed that she was so far out of his class that he had no chance. As a result, they never asked. In fact, she was so desperate for attention that she had a hard time saying no. Those guys brave enough to ask her out usually had huge smiles in the morning.
Carolyn was bubbly and bumbling. A chemistry major with gorgeous thick, wavy-red hair and a voluptuous body, she had the kind of personality you’d want in a sister-in-law. The kind I would want in a sister-in-law. Her problem was what could only be mercifully described as a very unfortunate nose. Very unfortunate.
And then there was me, the fifth wheel nowadays. I’d worked almost every Friday and Saturday night since that glorious, earth-shaking, never-to-be-spoken-about-in-polite-society night when I turned twenty-one. But they never forgot me, or forgot to invite me, or let me feel as though I was no longer part of the group. Best friends forever. I knew that when I was an old lady, I would be able to drop in on any of them and go out for a drink and we’d laugh until we hurt.
Looking around to check out the bar, and how busy things were, I asked Ed if I could take my break. I stopped by the kitchen and put in my order, then delivered my friends’ drinks.
“So tell us about the new job,” Carolyn said. “You’re really going to be in charge here?”
I told them everything, even about my faux pas of kissing Tom on the cheek. They erupted into gales of laughter. Even Sheila, after her initial shocked expression, laughed so hard that she felt the need to check her makeup.
“What about DJ?” Dar asked as my cheesy fries and burger with no bread were delivered to the table.
“What about him?” I answered. “I assume that his agent will be taking over his life immediately after graduation. He’ll have workouts and interviews and all sorts of things going on before the draft. His lease is up on May thirty-first, and I’m not sure where he’ll be moving. Probably hotels.”
“Aren’t you going to miss him? Don’t you want to go with him?” Carolyn asked.
I sort of blinked at her, trying to assimilate the question. “No, why would I? We’re just friends. He’s been working for this chance all his life, and I have this,” I said, sweeping my arm about to indicate the bar.
“Friends with major benefits,” Marcie muttered.
I ignored her. Carolyn stared at me. No matter how many times I tried to explain to her and Dar, they never seemed to get it. They kept trying to fit my relationship with DJ into their idea of what a relationship with a man should be.
I finished my dinner and went to the ladies’ room before going back to work. Sheila went with me.
“Ashley, do you mind if I ask you a question?” she said as we checked ourselves out in the mirror. “I guess it’s really kind of personal.”
“No,” I said, amused by how timid she sounded.
“Is it really true about black men?”
The question didn’t register at first. It never does. Marcie had to explain it to me the first time someone asked me. “I don’t know,” I finally said. “I’ve only been with one guy, so I couldn’t say.”
“But, I mean, is he really, you know …” she pursued.
“Sheila, the man is six-foot-ten. He’s huge, and I’m not talking about his equipment. I have no idea about other black men. I’d guess it’s a myth.”
She blushed, swaying a bit, and I realized she was sloshed. She still looked immaculate.
“Why? Are you thinking about dating a black guy?” I asked.
“Well,” her blush deepened, “there’s a guy I met, another grad student, and he’s been paying a lot of attention to me. He’s nice. We have coffee and talk. He listens to me.”
A guy being nice to Sheila, showing genuine interest in her instead of just making a pass, was something she would notice.
“Has he asked you out?” I asked.
“Well, no. But I’m thinking that I want him to.”
“Go for it,” I advised. “Sheila, I don’t even think about DJ and I being of different colors. He’s nice, he’s sweet, he treats me like a lady. We enjoy a lot of the same things. I don’t love him, and he’s not in love with me. We’re just friends. I’d feel the same about him if he were white or purple. I will say, though, that I get some very weird comments sometimes, and some of them aren’t at all nice. I get called some unflattering things.”
She nodded. “I’ve heard people say stuff. I wanted to punch Cindy Trotter in the nose one day.”
The idea of Sheila punching someone was as absurd as cows flying. I snorted, trying to hold in a laugh.
“I’m not worried about idiots like Cindy,” I said.
“Well, I told her that someone who sleeps with a different guy every night didn’t have anything to say about you. I mean, you’ve been with DJ over a year.”
I lost it, leaning against the sink and laughing my ass off. I could just imagine the look on Cindy’s face.
“Sheila, I’m not with DJ. We’re just friends. Yeah, with benefits, but we’re not going together.”
“You still only sleep with one guy,” Sheila insisted. “Cindy probably can’t find a guy willing to screw her twice. Can you imagine waking up to that bitch in the morning?”
She caught me off guard again. I laughed so hard my sides hurt. I swept her into a hug.
“Sheila, I love you. You know that, don’t you?”
“Of course I do. I love you, too, Ashley.”
I went back to work, checking on my friends occasionally and chatting with them as the evening wound down.
Ed had found an old ship’s bell somewhere and hung it behind the bar. At one twenty-five in the morning, I turned off the music and rang the bell. In the ensuing silence, I announced, “Last call. Bar closes in five minutes.”
The waitresses scurried around getting their customers’ final orders while Ed and I took care of the customers at the bar. I looked over at my friends and made a circling motion with my finger, asking if they wanted another round. They looked at each other, and then four faces turned my way and nodded.
Marcie took pity on me and came to the bar to get their drinks. She handed me four five-dollar bills before she picked up the tray.
Shaking my head, I said, “Drinks are on me.”
“Of course they are,” she said with a smile. “That’s tip. Can you call a cab?”
“Sure. Let me wait for the waitresses to see how many we’ll need.” We always ask our customers about taking a cab. It’s not only good customer service, but the laws on serving drunks are such that a server can get in real trouble if a customer gets in a wreck.
“Can I catch a ride with you?” Marcie asked.
I nodded. When the cabs showed up fifteen minutes later, Marcie walked the girls out and then came back inside. No one said anything. The bar crew were used to her or Pat waiting on me while I closed.