John leaned forward on the bar, a bar cloth caught between his left hand and the gleaming wood top, as he watched Tom laugh at something one of the regulars said. He'd probably told him a joke: Larry thought he was quite the comic. Most of his jokes were crap, though, and were more often followed by groans and rolling eyes than actual chuckles. Still, judging from Tom's reaction maybe the old guy had finally gotten one right.
Tom had been in a great mood for the past few days. Kind of freaky considering the story he'd told John, but then maybe just getting it off his chest had helped the poor guy. Fuck! To lose his family that way… He probably would have ended up cutting his dick off, John thought, if it had happened to him. He'd almost done that the first time he's gotten a stiffy after Paul died. He'd felt like he was betraying him, betraying their love, and he'd hate his body's reaction to a particularly attractive man he'd seen. It had taken some time, and okay, he'd admit it, some counseling from friends, before he forgave himself for having a normal bodily reaction and to come to terms with the fact that, despite the death of the love of his life, he would still have needs. He shook his head, smiling wryly at his own folly. Sure, he'd come to terms with it. Just couldn't get around to acting on it yet.
"Rye and ginger and 3 Buds," Tom's voice interrupted his reverie and he gave a little start before jumping to fill the order.
"Larry getting any better?"
Tom snorted. "Hell, no. But if I laugh at his attempts he leaves a bigger tip." He flashed John a wink and headed back with his laden tray.
"Oh yeah, he's fitting in nicely," Mary laughed as she leaned back on the bar, elbows braced behind her. "Give him time, though. After a while I couldn't even muster a laugh if it meant another quarter or so out of that guy."
"You're jaded, Mare."
"Nah. Just not interested in flogging a dead horse. And that guy's comedy career?" She shook her head. "Let Secretariat rest in peace."
He laughed. "Didn't think you knew so much about horses."
She fluttered her eyes and waved her hands dramatically. "What? You mean you didn't notice my fantastic new clothes?" She ran her hands over her tight sweater, adjusting her breasts to a greater advantage. "Third horse in the second race. Always bet on a horse called Whisky. "'Cause you know that they say, 'candy is dandy…'"
"But liquor is quicker." He chuckled, finishing her joke.
She snapped her gum. "Ain't that the truth."
They both looked up as a large group of guys strolled into the bar, shouting and teasing each other uproariously. John recognized them as one of the scrub hockey teams from the area. Not good enough to play against anyone, but damn enthusiastic. And usually very thirsty. His night had just gotten busy.
Mary obviously agreed. She napped her gum once more. "Hot damn, lots of tips tonight." She ambled over to the table, hips swaying.
"I'm off tomorrow, right?"
"Hunh?" John spun around, surprised to hear normal words not a rapid-fire order. Since the team came in he'd been run off his feet. And very glad he'd restocked the beer supplies. He'd have to make another order sooner than he'd expected.
"Me. Off. Tomorrow," Tom repeated slowly.
"You. Pain. In. Ass," John retorted. "Yeah, you're cool. I know you hate working Thursdays. But if you could look over the set up before you take off I'd really appreciate it. Last time the system died halfway through some chick's version of "Bridge over Troubled Waters". Shame, she was good too."
"So where you headed?"
Tom glanced at him sharply: John never asked him where he went on the nights he took off. "I don't know really. I always seem to end up somewhere different. Sometimes I shop. Sometimes I see a movie. Sometimes I just sit somewhere and think." He shrugged. "I just don't want to be here. With the music and all, you know?"
John nodded, though the look on his face said he didn't really understand.
"I did want to thank you though," Tom continued quietly. "For the other night. For listening."
The other man nodded, not sure exactly what to say.
"You're the only one, you know? The only one who knows the full story? I couldn't… I couldn't tell them. My friends. And since then… it's just not something you talk about on the streets."
"Glad I could help." It seemed like the only thing he could say.
Tom reached over and gave his hand a quick squeeze. "You did. It's like… It's like saying it all… it just…"
"I get it. It's like that alcoholic group's thing: 'admitting it is the best step' or whatever."
Tom smiled widely, glad that he didn't have to try and put it in words anymore. John understood. "Yeah. Like that." He turned at Mary's approach and changed the subject. "How you doing, babe? Need any help over there?"
"Nu-hunh, you. I already got 3 phone numbers slipped to me. You are so not taking away my action or my tips. Back off, buddy."
It was a smaller crowd than usual and John was feeling mixed about it. Part of him was sick of the hassle of it all and the other half was figuring how much money he'd lose if this kept up. Maybe karaoke was getting passé. Maybe he should look for something else on a Thursday night. Or maybe he should just change the night or something. Maybe having all these singers in here was driving customers away. Once the humor of the situation wore off there was only so many god-awful renditions you could listen to until your ears started bleeding…
He was depressed.
He knew it. He'd been fighting it all week. Trying to keep his feelings bottled up down deep. He'd focused on Tom's problems and that had helped, but not having the man around tonight meant he didn't have anyone else to think about. Just himself and his wretched problems. His wretched despair. His wretched memories.
Tomorrow would have been Paul's 38th birthday.
God, he missed him so much.
He took a deep breath, trying to keep any errant tears from filling his eyes. He'd do that tomorrow when he drove into the city to the quiet little cemetery on the far side to put roses on the small gravestone. White roses. Paul's favorite. He'd said, once, 'hey, I'm a queen and I know it! So give me roses, beautiful roses. Just not them red ones. That's too gay even for me." John had laughed with him, pulling the petals off the white rose he held in his hand and showering his lover with the petals. God, that had turned Paul on… The stamina that man had…
John swallowed a short sob, ducking under the bar, pretending to be checking the bar fridge but actually wiping his eyes.
John rose from his crouch to answer the deep voice that had echoed from above him. Tall, lean, dark and, downright sexy. Fuck! He didn't need this. Not on the night before Paul's birthday. Accepted his sexual needs he had, but not right now. Not when he was so damn tangled up inside emotionally…
"Hi," he squeaked, then blushed and cleared his throat quickly. "Sorry about that. Stood up too fast. Head rush."
The man on the other side of the bar smiled, his green eyes flashing. "Know that. Once I did it so fast I fell over on my ass 'cause I couldn't keep my balance."
Must not think of his ass, John told himself firmly. "Anyway, welcome to Tangles. What can I get you?"
"Vodka rocks. And some information, if you can spare it."
John turned grabbing the vodka bottle. "Depends on what you need."
"Nothing much, really. I heard somewhere that you did karaoke some nights here." He glanced behind him, wincing as a young man butchered Joan Jett's I Love Rock and Roll. "And I see that it's true. Though I bet you wish it wasn't some times."
"Ah, he's not too bad. Too many beers is all. He was pretty good earlier," John replied, pouring the alcohol over the ice cubes. He nodded at a thin, white-haired woman who was perusing the song listings. "Just run for it before she decides to go for it. She could wail paint of walls."
The man chuckled, sipping his drink. He opened his wallet, pushing a twenty at John. "What I was wondering was, I heard you had some sort of special singer in here a while back."
Tom. He was talking about Tom. Had to be.
John shrugged nonchalantly, playing dumb. "We get all kinds." He put the change down on the bar, pushing it towards the mysterious man.
Who pushed it back at him. "Yeah, some sort of street person or other. Maybe you can remember…"
Dude was trying to bribe him! And with a few measly bucks too. What a shit! "Man, have you seen some of the folks who come in here? I bet more than half of them are down-and-outers. I try not to remember too many of them."
The man put another twenty down on the pile. "You sure? He'd be about 5'8". Kind of dirty blond."
John brusquely grabbed the man's glass, refilling it, then picked up the twenty and dropped the change from it on top of the other pile of bills. "Can't think of anyone like that."
His green eyes narrowed a little, then he glanced around the room. "Maybe someone else will. Anyone else work here regularly? Maybe you just weren't here when he was."
John snorted. "Been working here for years. But you're welcome to ask around if you want. Only other person works here is Mary." He glanced over the man's shoulder. "Mare!" he called, waving his arm to bring her over.
"What you yammering for?" Mary gave the man a long up and down glance. The sort that John had wanted to until he'd started asking his questions. "Well, you're a long drink of water. What can I do for you, honey?" Mary leaned forward a little, giving him a chance to peek down her low-cut shirt if he wanted to.
John got the impression he didn't really want to, but he did, if only because it may help him get the answers he wanted. He worked hard to keep his face blank.
"Aren't you a beauty?" the man drawled lifting her hand and kissing the back of her hand. Mary fluttered a little, but the sharp glance she shot John told him she wasn't fooled in the least.
"You're a sweet one, aren't you? What can I do you for, hun?"
"I was just asking this gentleman about one of your, umm, customers. I've been trying to track him down."
"Well, I am sure John'd know 'em all better than me, sugar. But you can ask away," she cooed.
"I hear he caused a but of a stir a while back. A street person. Came in here singing."
"Oh lord, not him!" Mary broke into laughter. "I swear, I'd almost forgotten about him." She turned to John. "You remember him? He was the one they did that stupid news story about?"
"Oh yeah. I remember now," John rubbed the counter with his bar cloth. "Shit, I'd forgotten about that guy. Wonder what ever happened to him."
The man was looking at them avidly, searching their faces. "You remember him? What can you tell me about him?"
John opened his mouth but Mary cut in. "Not much really. He was only here a few times. It got mighty cold this winter. John let him in to warm up a few times." She glanced at him with an admonishing gaze. "I told you he'd be trouble, but you were all 'It's okay, Mare. I'll make sure he doesn't bother anyone.' So as soon as his back is turned that guy was up singing some song and everyone was going on about how good he was. Then he disappears and everyone is all over here stirring up shit about how it was a publicity stunt or something." She snorted. "Like we need publicity. I get my ass pinched enough without trying for more." She twisted her body, aiming a butt cheek towards the man. "Get's so I am so bruised some nights. You should see it."
The dark haired man ignored her overture. "Can you describe him? Was he medium-built? Blond hair?"
This time John answered. "Buddy, I don't know if you've ever seen a bum or what, but you can't hardly tell what color their hair is. And they wear so many layers he could have been as thin as a stick and I wouldn't know. Like Mary said, it was damn cold this winter. He'd have been wearing layers. Shit, I can't remember that far back. Can you, Mare?"
She shook her head. "Nah. He was only in a few times and then he took off. Must have headed down south. They do that, you know? I mean if he stayed here he'd have turned up dead in a dumpster. Had a couple hobos do that this winter." She shook her head again. "Damn parasites on society, them. Always looking for a hand out. And stink to high heaven." She wrinkled her nose derisively.
The man sighed. "Thanks for your help." He gulped his drink back and turned towards the door.
"Hey, buddy. Your change," John called after him.
He shrugged his shoulders. "Keep it. Thanks for your help," he said as he pushed his way through the door.
"Interesting," Mary said as she counted out the bills on the bar, quickly dividing it into three piles. "Here's your take. Better put Tom's aside for him." She tucked her small pile under her bra strap. "Nice to make a few extra bucks, but I don't think I want him back in here do you? And I sure as hell think Tom wouldn't want it either. Better keep him on the down low until tall, dark and handsome clears out of town. The guy's entitled to a little privacy."
John stared at her slack jawed.