"One beer," said the nervous young man in the new panama hat. He watched the big, barrel-chested old bartender carefully draw the brew and pave off the head. The man reminded him of one of those expressionless polar bears at the zoo as he waddled with an awkward suppleness up and down the length of the counter.

   There were only two customers in the bar, himself and a sullen fellow who stood at the opposite far end over a double whiskey. The young man put one foot on the bar rail then quickly removed it and looked to see if the blade-like crease had flattened at the knee. It hadn't. He made a motion with his shoulders as though jumping rope and his jacket rose up and settled down neatly on his neck. Now he felt all in place again. He cautiously rubbed each of his gleaming shoes against the back of the opposite trouser leg in turn. He glanced out the window and glanced out the door and tapped his breast pocket. He wondered why the bar wasn't full of thirsty people, since the humidity had reached some kind of record. He wanted to run his finger around the inside of his damp collar but he feared disarranging the twenty-seven minute knot of his tie. He felt like a man in a steam room trying to show off a fur coat.

   When the beer was brought he gulped it without pause until it was gone. He sensed the bartender observing him and was embarrassed.

   "I don't drink, really," he apologized, pulling at the cuff of the sleeve he had just bent at the elbow. The bartender held a toothpick in his mouth thoughtfully, and when the young man spoke it tilted like an alerted antennae.

   "It's just that I'm so dry," the young man continued lamely. "I really wanted a coke, only I didn't think you would serve just a coke."

   "Don't matter," the bartender said. "Relax."

   "I can't relax in this suit on weekdays," the young man said.

   The toothpick raised questioningly.

   "I guess you must have seen me walking up and down outside this window for a while before I came in." The young man's hands shook a little as he plucked out a pack of cigarettes, scarcely disturbing the contour of his coat which he immediately pulled straight. Then he glanced out the window and glanced out the door and tapped his breast pocket and smiled weakly at the gimlet-eyed bartender. "What's your name?" he asked.

   "Sam," the bartender said.

   The young man leaned on the bar with great care. " I like to know the names of people I talk to. It makes it easier to talk."

   The toothpick stuck straight out at salute.

   The young man pushed the beer glass aside. "Do you know anybody patronizing this place named Johnson?"

   The toothpick wiggled uncertainly.

   "I don't want you to think I'm nosing into anybody's business," he added hastily, crushing the unlit cigarette into the nearest ashtray.

   The customer at the far end banged his glass. While the bartender went to refill, the young man hurried to the door, looked this way and that, then came moodily back to his place. The bartender returned and folded his hands across his belly. The young man leaned over to him.

   "I'm in a helluva pickle, Sam," he said. "My future father-in-law's going to meet me here any minute." He looked at his watch. "He should have been here already. I never met him before, and this is where Sue picked out for us to meet. I don't know what the hell to say to him."

   The toothpick poised high, mulling the problem.

   "Sue's a wonderful girl. I've known her over ten months. We suit each other like a diamond and a ring." He patted his breast pocket. "That's what I've got right here, in fact. An engagement ring. I'm in the jewelry line. I work for a very big company. They promised me a raise as soon as I get married."

   A short man with a white goatee and dirty white shoes entered and ordered ale. Sam served him, exchanged a few words and drifted slowly back.

   "I swear, if I didn't have someone to talk to now I'd go out of my mind," whispered the young man.

   The toothpick rose sympathetically.

   "I've been taking her home three times a week and she won't even let me come upstairs. She lives in one of those brownstones. She said she'd be a half hour late today so her father and I could have that time together."

   The goatee finished his drink and left. They watched him go out.

   "She says he's always late for appointments. When Sue and I kiss goodnight in the vestibule I always have the feeling that he's watching us through the keyhole. Were you ever married, Sam?"

   Sam sighed. The toothpick drooped.

   "Sorry, Sam. She must have been a fine woman. But can you remember anything about the whole business? Was it tough meeting the family? I meet hundreds of people every day and I like it. But now, it's just torture. And right in the middle of the week, too."

   "Why not Sunday?"

   "Because he sleeps all day."


   "Works all day."

   The toothpick moved puzzledly about. "Why today?"

   "Because I get Tuesday morning off. And he said he'd have a little time around lunch. She said he works at night, too."

   Sam grunted. "Huh."

   "Getting dressed up to meet him and all. I felt- well- like it was the biggest deal of my life and I wasn't going to louse it up. But I'm practically going nuts because- because- "

   The toothpick eased forward, curious.

   "You wouldn't believe the things that went around in my head, Sam."

   The toothpick cocked sideways, asking.

   "Things like- like maybe her old man was a lush and she wanted me to see what I was up against first hand. That's like Sue. She's square. She's honest. She might look at her old drunken bum of a father and say to me, I can't leave him, Harry. He'll have to live with us!"

   "Tsk!" Sam said, his eyes alerted to the door. The young man jerked his head around swiftly, but there was no one there.

   "What could I say? I love her. I love her so much I decided that no matter how much of a drunk he was I'd try everything. Alcoholics Anonymous, psychiatrists- everything!" He looked sheepishly at the bartender. "Oh, hell, Sam. I guess this is no place to talk about things like that."

   The toothpick jerked about.

   "I'm sorry."

   "It's okay," the bartender said, wiping off the counter. The young man removed his hat and fanned himself. A man appeared in the doorway, swayed there a moment, then turned about and went back in the direction he'd come from. They both watched this. The young man let out a deep sigh and flipped his hat back on his head.

   "And that's not all," he said. "I've got a good job, but I'm not making a mint. In fact, when they promised me a raise when I got married I knew it wasn't going to be much to crow about. I'm practical. I never fell for any of that movie stuff. When a guy gets married in the movies he doesn't have to be earning more than a hundred bucks a week and he's got one of those nice houses, and a car, and an electric lawnmower. Well, I couldn't even afford a push lawnmower, to say nothing of a house. We're just going to have to live in one of those small flats and use the bus. And if the fare goes up any more, we'll walk."

   He wiped the perspiration from his forehead with his handkerchief. "But that's not what I had in mind to tell the old man. I had a fast spiel figured out. I was going to blow about what a big job I had. I was going to wear an expensive rock I borrowed from the store. I was going to talk about the next raise like it was a junior partnership. I had a story all worked out that would have made her old man throw us both into a cab and rush us down for the blood tests before I could change my mind."

   He looked despairing. "But I couldn't do it. I just couldn't do it. I'm too honest. I can't throw the bull. If it comes right down to it and he begins asking me a lot of questions, I'm liable to lose Sue like that!" He snapped his fingers. His wristwatch caught his eye. "Half past twelve?" he cried. "He's a half hour late! I better phone her. Maybe something happened. Maybe the old drunk fell down a flight of steps or something and- "

   He fished in his pocket and shakily produced a couple of quarters. "Can you change one of these for me, please?" he asked.

   But the bartender was looking up at the door.

   Sue was standing there, bright and sweet and alone.

   "Hello, Harry!" she cried, running up to him. They kissed. "Well, how'd he do?" she said to Sam.

   The toothpick perked up and Sam held a bottle of champagne before him.

   "Gee! I'm so happy, Pop!" she said.

-Al Geto

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Buckhammer's Last Chance | Once You Know, You're Stuck With It

Here We Come, Ready or Not! | Aaron

What's In A Name | The Day I Almost Became A Vegetarian

Ah, Sweet Mystery Of Life | The Nervous Young Man

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Copyright August 3, 2000-

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