Troy kept his eyes on the floor when he walked into the bar, barely nodding to Vincent when he passed. He grabbed his apron, went to the employee bathroom, and shut the door firmly behind him.

The adrenaline drained out of Troy’s bloodstream, leaving him shaken and tired. He splashed some cold water on his face and stared at his reflection in the mirror. He looked fine, a little pale maybe but nothing too bad. After all, Dmitri hadn’t run screaming into the night, so most of Troy’s freaking out must have been internal. Nobody had noticed.

As his heartbeat slowed and his breathing came down to normal, he told himself he was just overreacting. The doc had mentioned something about this kind of thing during his exit interview, but he’d been mind-numbingly bored by the end of the out-processing. Besides, he’d be okay; he was young, he was strong, nothing really bad had happened to him. He’d survived without major injury. He’d be fine. He’d just gotten out, a few more months adjusting back to civilian life and he’d be fine.

There was knock on the door, and Vincent’s deep voice asked, “You okay, kid?”

“Yeah, I’m fine. Be out in a second. Sorry.”

“No rush.”

Troy waited until Vincent’s footsteps moved down the hallway. Taking a deep breath, he wiped his face, tied his apron on, and went out to start his shift.

A heavy dragging sound caught his attention. The new bar back was dragging a keg of one of the most popular IPAs from the backdoor to the cooler.

Troy grabbed the hand truck from behind the bar and jogged over to him. “Hey, Danny, you’re going to hurt yourself. Use this.” He swung the hand truck around, and together they loaded the keg.

“Thanks, man. I didn’t know we had that.” He pushed the keg towards the walk-in cooler.

“Why are you doing this instead of the guys from the truck?”

Danny struggled to roll the keg back off the truck, and Troy gave him a hand. “They did most of it, but one of the guys got an emergency call. His wife is in labor or something. So I told him not to worry, I got it.” He straightened up, wiping his forehead with his bar apron. “There’s another four kegs outside. I know you’re short on set up. I was just getting to that when the delivery came.”

“Don’t worry about it. I’ll do that. Can you handle the rest of the kegs yourself?” He eyed Danny’s string-bean shaped form.

“No problem.” Danny struck a pose, wiry muscles popping up under his white t-shirt. “I swear my biceps have grown in the week I’ve been here. I can’t keep the ladies away.”

Troy laughed. “I bet. Okay, finish up here. I can cut my own fruit this once.”

“You got it, boss.” Danny rolled the hand truck out of the cooler. Troy checked the levels of beer in the kegs hooked up to the draft systems. Looked good, nice and full for a Saturday night, but maybe not full enough for the Saturday before the Fourth of July. Red Deer could be a heavy drinking town, and a lot of the locals and college students had no problem with some day drinking on a nice summer weekend. He did a quick count of the most popular drafts. He should be fine. Vincent knew what he was doing.

Troy wasn’t wrong about the day drinking, and by six o’clock, business was already booming. And it wasn’t the only thing. Faint background thuds of distant fireworks snuck in under the music and chatter of the bar, keeping Troy on edge.

Danny danced around him, magically keeping the wells filled, the glasses clean and the ice flowing, all without getting in Troy’s way. The kid was going to go far.

“I got those,” Troy said, grabbing a stack of clean pint glasses from Danny’s hands. “Can you empty the barbins?”

“On it.” Danny whirled away.

The icemaker kicked in with a high-pitched whine and a firework exploded with a barrage of sound just outside the door . Troy dropped to the floor, heart pounding. The stack of glasses shattered and rolled away. The chattering voices nearest the bar stopped for a second and then continued.

Troy crouched behind the bar. Logically, he knew he could get up, knew the building wasn’t going to explode in a deadly rain of metal and wood shrapnel. In his head, he heard the harsh, insistent screaming of the siren and the big voice booming across the base. Incoming, incoming, incoming. He screwed his eyes shut.

Someone crouched down next to Troy. “Hey, Troy. You’re okay, son.” The calm voice carried under the mutterings of the crowd and the music. “Troy. It’s all right. You’re at the bar, okay? It’s Vincent. I’m here with you. It’s okay. Just breathe. In and out. In and out.”

Troy did, following the rhythm of Vincent’s voice.

“Good. You’re doing great. Now tell me what you can see. Right now, what are you seeing?”

Troy pried his eyes open. Intricately tooled turquoise cowboy boots that could belong only to Vincent filled his field of view. “I…I see boots. Your blue boots.” The shakiness of his voice surprised him, and he realized he was trembling. He drew in a deep breath.

“Good, good. Okay, Troy. What do you hear? Can you hear the music? Do you know the song?”

Troy concentrated. The sounds of somewhere he’d thought he’d left far behind him started to fade and be replaced by the sounds of a busy bar. He could hear two older-sounding guys arguing over something. He heard the scuffling of feet as Danny shifted behind him. And he heard the song. Yeah, he knew it. Everyone knew that song. “American Pie. It’s American Pie.”

“That’s right. A classic. Okay. What d’you say we get up now? My old knees can’t take this much longer.”

“Yeah, okay.” He wanted to get up, really, he did, but humiliation kept him crouched behind the bar.

“Is it all right if I give you a hand up? And don’t worry. No one is paying us the least bit of attention. I told Larry that Fran called Lady GaGa a no-talent Madonna wannabe. That should keep them busy for a while.”

Troy laughed. “I didn’t know you knew who either of them was.” He reached a hand up to the bar and pulled himself upright, shaking off Vincent’s offered hand. He ran his hands through his hair, exhaling harshly. He couldn’t make eye contact with Vincent. He’d probably get fired now. His housing allowance would keep a roof over his head, but he needed a little more to get by. And he loved this job; he’d be devastated to have to leave.

“You look like you could use a drink.” Vincent pulled two bottles of Troy’s new favorite local beer out of the well and nodded towards the back door. “Let’s go get some fresh air.”

Troy followed Vincent over to his own truck. He ran his hand along the warm metal. The truck was his only connection to the person he had been before. He’d gotten it in High School, saved up every penny, worked some of the price off in trade, doing some handyman work at Mr. Delvechio’s house. It hadn’t been new then, but newer than most. This century at least. She’d been garaged the whole time he’d been deployed, much to his little brother’s displeasure.

With a pat to the top of the cap, he dropped the tailgate so they could sit. The shocks groaned with their combined weight, the truck bouncing a little.

“Nice truck,” Vincent said, looking inside. “Got her set up for camping?”

“Yeah.”

Vincent popped the top off a beer and handed it to Troy, clinking the necks of the bottle together in a toast. “To the end of all wars.”

“I’ll drink to that.”

They did, enjoying the colors and the breeze of the sunset.

“I was in Vietnam, you know. Two tours, back to back.”

“I didn’t know that. You don’t look old enough.”

“Well, thank you kindly for that. But I was just a baby when I got drafted. We all were. I was just eighteen when they shipped me over.”

“I was nineteen, almost twenty.”

Vincent shook his head. “Old men sending kids off to kill and die. Just doesn’t seem fair.” He groaned, shifting his weight and scratching through the white beard on his face. It made him look a little like Santa Claus. “Theirs is not to reason why…”

“Theirs is but to do and die,” Troy finished.

“Tennyson wrote that in 1854. The more things change…”

Troy nodded and finished his beer. He let it dangle from his fingers, swinging between his knees. “So am I fired?”

“What?” Vincent actually looked insulted. “Son, I know you’re kind of new around here, but do you really think I’d fire someone for having to deal with leftover crap from a shit war?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, I won’t. You’re new out, right?”

“Yeah, a couple of months.”

“Do you have anyone to talk to here? A counselor, veteran’s groups, anything?”

Troy shook his head. He hadn’t been able to plan further than one step at a time since he got out. He did one thing, and then the next, not even daydreaming about the future. Just plodding along, mind blank between steps. They only thing he’d looked forward to lately was his date with Dmitri. And look how that had turned out. “No sir. But I’m fine. I’ll be over it soon, I promise.”

Vincent looked skeptical, in Troy’s opinion.

“Really. It’s no big deal.

“I still think it wouldn’t hurt to talk to someone.” Vincent patted him hard on the knee. “Just give yourself some time. Fourth of July is hard for a lot of vets. Why don’t you take the next few days off? Take this truck of yours up into the mountains, get away from everything.”

It sounded like heaven. “But what about the bar? I hate leaving you short-handed.”

“We’ll be okay. You deserved some time off anyway. I know we’ve been working you a little hard. You’re just so damned good at it. But Holly’s been asking for some weekend nights, and this will give me a chance to test her out. I’ll put Angel on with her as a backup.”

“And Danny. The kid’s good. I like him.”

“Me, too. So, take off. Come back on the fifth.” Vincent slid off the tailgate with a groan. “You got any family or friends here? Besides us, obviously.” He smiled.

Troy smiled back. It had only been a short time, but he’d bonded strongly with the old man. He felt like a combination of Sargent and Uncle and Mentor. Vincent being both gay and a vet only added to Troy’s admiration of the man. “No. Just you guys.”

“We’re a motley crew, for sure. But we got your back. So, when you decide where you’re going, text me and let me know, okay? Text me a picture of this truck’s license plate, too. Just in case. If I don’t hear from you, I’m going to sic Rock Hudson on you.”

Troy laughed at the idea of Vincent’s old pug gathering enough energy to run across the room, let alone attack anyone. “It’s a deal.”

“Great. And when you get back, why don’t you come over to the house. Kevin and I would love to have you.”

“Okay. I will. That would be nice.”

With a hearty slap on the back, Vincent left. Troy rubbed his shoulder absently. Vincent was a toucher, probably the Italian in him. Troy had a bunch of Italian friends in West Virginia, and they were all like that. With a start, Troy realized that Vincent was the last man to touch him since he’d left home. He thought of Dmitri again and felt a flicker of something almost like hope. The date had been fun; they’d never run out of things to say, and Dmitri hadn’t been too scared off by Troy’s little freakout. Vincent was right. Troy just needed a little time off, a little rest, and everything would be fine.

DMITRI AND ANGEL GET DRUNK

Dmitri spent the hour after he’d left Troy puttering around in the house, folding laundry, reorganizing his bookshelves, and pretending he wasn’t trying to figure out the stop and go signals he’d gotten from Troy, then he gave in and did what he’d wanted to do the second Troy had disappeared behind the bar door, he texted Angel.

The phone rang ten seconds after he’d sent the text. “I’ll be over in twenty minutes,” she’d said. And she had been, bringing two bottles of strawberry wine with her.

They’d sprawled out on the huge cabbage rose print couch his parents had left behind and in between glasses of cheap too-sweet wine, Angel proceeded to lay out a thorough examination of his emotionally stunted personality and tragic sexual history starting at the age of sixteen when the nineteen-year-old brother of one of his friends, home from college over Thanksgiving break, had pushed him up against a wall, kissed him breathless, and jerked him off under the gray November skies.

“But he kissed you, right?” Angel repeated, referring to Troy, not the long-gone college boy, as if they hadn’t just gone over that a hundred times.

“Yes.”

“Well, that’s good.” She swiped her finger over the screen of her phone and Kiss by Tom Jones streamed from his speakers.

Dmitri bopped his shoulders to the beat. “Then he said he would ‘call me.’”

Angel hung her head over the arm of the couch, hair trailing down the side. “How did he say it?”

“Like he wouldn’t call me.” Dmitri pushed up from the couch and stood unsteadily.

“Tragic,” Angel said, pulling her head up.

He picked up the wine bottle and shook it. “Empty.” How’d they finish two bottles already?

“Doubly tragic. Got anything else to drink?”

Dmitri shook his head. “Forgot to pick something up on the way home.”

“Thrown off by hot man love.” She nodded. “Understandable. Hooch hutch?”

“Hooch hutch.”

They both turned towards the imposing ornately carved wooden armoire commandeering a corner of the living room.

When Dmitri’s grandmother had downsized and moved to a two-bedroom condo in Florida, she’d left the farmhouse and most of the contents to his father. When Dmitri’s parents had moved up into the mountains, they’d passed the house and the infamous booze cabinet onto Dmitri.

Dmitri crossed the room and threw open the double doors with a flourish. Inside, liquor bottles of every shape and size imaginable filled all four shelves. The top shelf held the most special ones.

Over the years, the favorite bottles – the giant-headed angel, the trio of cowboys – had been emptied and refilled countless times with god only knew what kind of alcohol. You had to sniff, try to guess, and hope for the best. New bottles were occasionally added to the collection as an intrepid shopper familiar with the hooch hutch tradition spotted a novelty bottle with the right level of kitsch and snatched it up regardless of what kind of liquor might wait inside.

The crowning piece was a dusty, unopened fish-shaped bottle made from sculpted glass. No one knew what kind of alcohol it contained, just as no one was one hundred percent sure if the alcohol or the glass giving it that yellow tint. Family legend held that it was, indeed, fish-flavored liquor brought back from Korea by either an uncle or a family friend. No one had ever been brave enough to taste test it and find out.

The music kicked up as Dmitri stared into the depths, searching for something perfect for the moment.

I think I better dance now, Tom Jones sang, and Dmitri did, swiveling his hips as he reached for a serene-faced monk with a twist off head. He sniffed. “Kahlua?” He held the bottle out to Angel. “Black Russians?”

“Sounds perfect.”

He dropped the bottles of Kahlua and vodka on the coffee table, then filled the pineapple-shaped bucket with ice and grabbed two old-fashioned glasses. One thing about inheriting a hand-me-down house. He might be upside down in the mortgage, but he could throw a hell of a cocktail party. Not that he ever did, but he could if he needed to.

He plopped down on the couch; pouring their drinks and arranging them so all the ingredients were within easy reach. He had no illusions about the direction this night was going in and how much like road kill he was going to feel tomorrow. But that sounded like a problem for future Dmitri. Tonight’s Dmitri was going to drink and party like it was 1999.

They each leaned against an arm of the couch, legs tangled in the middle. Dmitri pulled the crocheted afghan off the back of the couch and settled it over them.

“So you really like this guy?” Angel asked.

“Yeah, I do,” Dmitri confessed.

Angel kicked him gently. “You say that like it’s a bad thing. It’s okay to like people, you know.”

Dmitri’s sigh channeled every ounce of the teenager he used to be. Being around Angel brought that out in him. “I barely know him.”

“If it makes you feel better, we all like him. He’s a good guy. I wouldn’t have set you guys up if I thought he was a dick, you know that.”

Dmitri pushed himself up, pointing a finger at Angel. “Speaking of that. He asked me what branch of the military I had been in. You told him I was a vet!”

Angel took a sip of her drink, eyes wide over the lip of the cup. “Well you are,” she answered innocently.

“Don’t give me that.”

She snorted into her drink, sending drops of Kahlua and vodka spraying onto her face. She wiped them off with a finger and then stuck her finger in her mouth. “Fine. I thought it was funny. Vet, vet. Get it?”

He stared at her.

“Fine.” She rolled her eyes. “I’m sorry.”

“Apology accepted.”

Thoughts of the way Troy’s tattoos disappeared into the waistband of his jeans worm their way into Dmitri’s brain. The rattling of ice alerted him to the fact he had finished his drink without noticing. He reached out at poured a new one, holding the bottle out to Angel.

She nodded and held her cup out. “Still,” she said. “It was kind of funny.”

“Yeah. It was kind of funny.”

An hour and three or four drinks later, everything was funny.

“No, no, not that.” Laughing, Angel reached over, grabbing sloppily for the cell phone. Dmitri held it out of reach over the back of the couch. “Gimme,” she said, climbing onto his lap. “Now. Ha!” She grabbed the phone and crawled off the couch and across the floor, ending up sitting against the old recliner in the corner.

Dmitri would go over there and take the phone back, but it seemed so far away. Plus moving his head made everything swirl around him. He rolled his head again, just for fun.

Angel pulled her knees up to her chest, brow furrowed in concentration as she texted. It was the last thing Dmitri saw before he passed out.

%d bloggers like this: