He was one of those know-everything sort of guys. If you’re old enough to remember the TV series Cheers, he was a Cliff. Didn’t look like Cliff. This guy was big. Fat, really, but you’d better not call him that. He had a temper to go along with his opinions. Those were constant. He commented on everything and had a slant in his opinions that many would take exception to.
Take immigration, for just one area of his expertise. Most of us, I guessed, would agree that immigration was one of the things that made America unique. In other countries, immigrants weren’t really a problem until recently. Those who did migrate tended to pretty much segregate themselves into their own little enclaves that maintained heritage and culture and customs as though the people had never left their homelands. Sure, we had some of that here, but there also was a great deal of assimilation. If you were an immigrant and wanted to be part of the mainstream here, wanted a good job, wanted what would be best for your family, you had that opportunity and were welcomed. Most Americans had open minds, hearts and arms. And most Americans had immigrants in their heritage if you went back far enough.
Not this guy, as far as the welcoming went. Anytime someone mentioned foreigners or something came on TV, Borton had a pejorative comment.
That was his name: Borton. Whether it was a first name or surname, I had no idea. He didn’t really have any friends at the bar. He mostly made his comments to the bar as a whole, because if they were made directly to whoever was unfortunate enough to be sitting next to him, that person would invariably move to another stool as soon as he could.
Rarely were his remarks answered. No Norm at this bar, to continue the Cheers analogy. I think he frequented the bar because no one really disputed his opinions. What they did for the most part was ignore him. Even though he was loud.
There were two bartenders in the evenings which was when I went in: a middle-aged woman named Elsie and a younger man; his name badge identified him as Marv. He was about my age, young twenties, young enough that I’d wondered if he could be Elsie’s son. He was blond with a clear-skinned face and a slim body. Fairly good looking. Medium height—I’d guess about 145, 150 pounds soaking wet. Not that I’d ever get to see that, but one can dream. There was a certain natural grace to his movements behind the bar. He never said much to anyone. Just went about his work efficiently, smiled to himself frequently, nodded to the regulars when they spoke to him but rarely interacted more than that. I’d rarely even heard his voice; when I had, it was soft and diffident. He wasn’t the chatty type of barkeep, and he was younger than the regulars. But he smiled and nodded and wasn’t unfriendly. Just reserved.
Elsie made up for his reticence. She wasn’t loud. It wasn’t that sort of place. But she was loquacious where he was terse. One of those people who never met anyone she didn’t immediately take to. I thought it quite possible that half the customers in the place just came in more to be warmly greeted and then succored by Elsie rather than seduced by the allure of alcohol.
Both Marv and Elsie wore long-sleeved white shirts and black bowties. Yeah, it was an upscale tavern close to a nice neighborhood and served a respectable clientele. The bar was an L-shaped affair with padded stools that had backs on them. A lot of the regulars sat at the bar, probably so they could hobnob with Elsie, but there were about a dozen booths along the front wall. The lights were kept dim, and there was no background music, something I appreciated. My taste in music was specific and selective. It wasn’t what most people would expect to find or appreciate in a bar. No country-western, no rap, no heavy metal, no Frank Sinatra—not for me and not for the other customers, either.
Borton didn’t really fit in. The place was fairly quiet, just the sounds of soft conversations, the clink of glasses and ice, of beer bottles and glasses being set on the bar, and maybe Elsie’s laugh. And, unfortunately, Borton’s voice. There was a TV set where he could see it. It was always on, although with the sound muted. But it was on an all-news channel, and Borton watched and then commented on most everything he saw. He was happy to see Blacks being arrested and handcuffed. He was happy to see bombs going off in the Mideast. He was happy to see things like the Puerto Rico tragedy caused by hurricane Maria. And he spoke glowingly about all these things.
I wondered a little about why management put up with him. He was an anachronism, acting as though people wanted his opinions, his enlightenments, his out-of-touch put-downs washed in his persistent negativity. All I saw were customers wincing, rolling their eyes, and turning away.
I happened to be there the night it all changed. Well, that wasn’t surprising as I was there most nights. That makes me sound like a lush, but I wasn’t. I was simply alone. When you’re alone, the hours can stretch out between dinnertime and bedtime. A neighborhood tavern can be a place to hang out. You get comfortable there, you recognize other customers even if you don’t really join with them. Some people do, of course. I wasn’t really that gregarious; I’d always had trouble getting to know people; been that way since middle school, really. But I liked being around people. So most nights, I was in the bar. I’d have a beer, nurse it, maybe another, and spend a couple hours there before heading home. But I could easily spend the entire night sipping a single brew; I often did.
I’d only been in this town a few months. Just graduated from college—new job, new apartment, didn’t really know anyone, still learning my way around. A little bit socially inept, if truth be told, but I was accustomed to being by myself. I liked the job, liked what I’d seen of the city. Maybe I’d have friends eventually. I’d given up on ever having a partner. Another dream. I’d reconciled myself to it. I was who I was. There were things I liked about myself, things I didn’t—just like everyone else. Some people are destined to live solitary lives. I didn’t have to like it, merely accept it. I was pretty good at accepting things I didn’t much like. It had started with snipes and barbs and occasionally being knocked down in middle school. Changed my outlook and personality.
Okay, to be honest and forthcoming, I also liked looking at Marv. It was probably in the top two reasons I came to the bar most nights.
I was thinking about my loneliness that night. I did that—think too much and get morose at times. It didn’t help to drink when I was in that mood, but that night, I was lonelier or more depressed or whatever than usual. I made a mistake; I ordered a third beer.
Elsie gave me a look. She knew one was usual, two were seldom, and three—well, this was the first time.
She’d spoken to me like she did everyone. It was my fault I hadn’t let her in. She made it clear she was ready to listen to me if I wanted to talk. And I did want to. I just couldn’t. I didn’t have a gift for small talk. I embarrassed way too easily. I’d found it better not to try. So, I’d been polite but not forthcoming with Elsie. She respected that. Even if she did have a strong streak of the motherly type in her, she was a professional and didn’t push herself on anyone. But she kept an eye on me. And that night, she brought me my third beer and gave me an empathetic look. I didn’t succumb. Could have. Might have been better if I had. But I didn’t. I took the beer and nodded thanks.
I sometimes sat at a table. Easier to watch everyone from that position. I was sitting at the one where I usually sat that night. Less chance of someone sitting next to me wanting to chat than if I’d been at the bar, and in the mood I was in—well, I was sitting at a table. But with the third beer, and Elsie eyeing me, I somehow ended up throwing caution to the winds. I moved up to the bar.
No one was beside me. The place had been clearing out. It was getting close to nine, and the people who came here had jobs to go to in the morning. This was the latest I’d ever been here, but it wasn’t surprising to see much of the crowd had disappeared.
I poured my beer into my mug. I didn’t like the draught they had, mostly European and craft beers. I drank Bud Light, and they didn’t have it on tap. They brought me a bottle and a frosted mug with every order I made.
Borton was still there. He always drank draughts, and the TV was turned off. They always turned it off at nine; Elsie told me that when she switched it off. She was taking opportunities to speak to me, even if I wasn’t saying much back. I think she was trying to gauge my mood. She said she turned the TV off at nine because they closed at 11 and didn’t want to encourage more customers after nine. Borton was looking around, now not having a TV to rail against. His eyes caught mine. I shouldn’t have been looking at him. My bad.
He didn’t say anything for a moment, probably letting his eyes drift around the bar, but then must have returned to me, and what he said was aimed at me. I wasn’t looking at him any longer, but it was obvious he was talking to me.
“You drink that pussy light stuff, huh? Should drink a man’s beer. That stuff you’re drinking is what the queers all drink.”
I kept my eyes focused on the mug in front of me. Didn’t say a word.
“Hey. I’m talking to you over there. You could have the common courtesy to at least look at me.” His voice was a little louder.
Elsie had been polishing glasses. Now, she put the glass she was working on down and moved down the bar to right in front of me. “How you doing?” she asked. Her eyes were soft.
I nodded, not sure what to say. My heart was beating faster; I hated confrontations.
“Slow night,” she said. She was making conversation, and I’m sure it was to distract Borton, but also so I had a reason not to answer him. Protecting me. Mother-henning me. I didn’t mind.
It didn’t work. “Hey, I was talking to him! Let him fight his own battles, Elsie. Drinks queer beer, now needs his mother to stand up for him.”
He got up and walked down the bar. My heart sped up even more. He sat down with only one stool between us. “This is better. Don’t have to shout,” he said.
Elsie gave him a look, then moved over so she was standing halfway between us, the bar with its empty space directly in front of her. “You’ve had plenty, Borton. Time you finished up and went home.” Her voice wasn’t the soft, pleasant, musical one I was used to hearing; there was a hard undertone to it.
Borton ignored her. He was looking at me hard. I could feel it. I wasn’t looking back. What I was doing was wondering if I could just get up and leave. All sorts of things were running through my head, none of them a bit soothing. What if I did get up and leave? I could imagine what might come next. Borton could just make a few more ridiculing comments, is voice getting louder and louder as I walked away from him toward the door, and then let it go. Or, he could decide to follow Elsie’s advice and leave, doing so right behind me. Outside, he could tell me what I already knew, had already heard him say. He hated queers. And how now he was going to take the opportunity to show me how much he hated them.
So, I didn’t get up. I picked up my mug and took a sip. It tasted sour. Not pleasant at all. Just like what I was feeling at the moment.
“Cat got your tongue? Oh, you know what I think it is? You probably lisp like a lot them and don’t want me to hear that. Let’s hear you say, ‘Pass me the salt, please?’ Come on, say it. Huh? Say it, bitch.”
I felt a jolt, hearing that slur, hearing the anger in it. I kept my eyes on the bar. Elsie had much more fiber than I did. “Okay, that’s it. Out. And stay out for two weeks. You’re suspended. Got it. Now go. Now.”
Borton moved his eyes from me to her. I had shifted mine to her when she’d started talking, and I could see Borton from the corner of my eye. He looked right at her and said, “I’ve got a half a beer in front of me. I’m going to finish it. I paid for it, it’s mine, and no way am I leaving it. This powderpuff faggot next to me can move if he’s scared by man talk.”
Elsie was quick. Her hand swept out, grabbed Borton’s mug, and just that quickly had it behind and below the bar. “Out!” she said, repeating herself. “Now!”
She leaned closer to Borton, speaking right into his face, resting her weight on her arms on the bar. Borton didn’t jerk back. He started to smile and put one of his meaty hands up and pinned her arm to the bar. “I’d better be getting my beer back right now if you know what’s good for you.” There was a baleful challenge in his voice, and his eyes were flashing.
I still have no idea why I did it. Maybe it was because I was sipping a third beer. Maybe I was tired of being me. I don’t know. I do know what I did. I jumped onto my feet and grabbed Borton’s arm.
My hand didn’t come close to fitting all the way around it. I pulled, and he didn’t move at all. I’m not sure he even noticed I was there.
That was when all hell broke loose. Like something otherworldly, I saw a fast-moving figure suddenly appear behind the bar, moving fast: Marv. When he was only about five feet away from us, he put one hand on the bar and somehow, bracing himself, vaulted up over the bar and landed on his feet beside Borton.
Marv, all 150 pounds of him, lighter than Borton by at least 70 pounds, said, “Let go of her,” and said it in a voice I didn’t recognize. Borton heard something in it, too, because he released Elsie’s arm and at the same time tried to swing at Marv with the other hand. That hand was attached to the arm I was holding.
Well, trying to hold. When he swung his arm, I was shedded off like the inconsequential object I was, and I kind of flew and stumbled until I came up against one of the tables, where I caught myself and just managed to stay on my feet.
Then I watched as Marv pulled back from the swinging fist. That fist flew harmlessly by. Somehow or other, Marv grabbed that arm and gave it a yank. Borton was off balance by then, and he staggered toward Marv. Marv held onto the arm, somehow gave it a violent-looking twist, and Borton ended up on his knees, caterwauling like an injured tomcat.
“Get up,” Marv said. I couldn’t believe it, but his voice was back to normal, soft and almost timid. But his intentions were clear because as he said it, he gave a little more twist to the arm, and Borton howled louder and rose jerkily to his feet.
“The door,” Marv said, and accompanied him all the way there and out. I could hear his final words to Borton because the door was still open. “Your two weeks is now extended to one month. Show up before then, we’ll call the cops. Uh, have a good night, sir.”
Marv walked back in and closed the door behind him. There were only a few customers left, but we all gave him a standing ovation. He blushed.
Back behind the bar, he came over to me. “I’m sorry, sir, that you had to put up with that.”
“Thanks. But how in the world—? You’re my size. You saw how he just shook me off. How could you do that? And leaping over the bar, too?”
“Gymnastics in college and then training for the Olympic team. Didn’t make that, but it wasn’t because I was too weak. To be a gymnast, you have to be very strong. I guess I was strong enough for Borton. I was mad. He shouldn’t have touched Elsie and shouldn’t have treated you that way. I saw how you tried to help. That was incredibly brave of you. You never seemed to be the type to get involved in something like that. Not from what I’d seen of you, but you came to Elsie’s defense. That was amazing.”
I dropped my eyes and probably squirmed on my stool. “I can’t explain that,” I said sheepishly. “That’s not me. I don’t know why I reacted like that.”
“You don’t need to understand it. The fact is, you did it. You should be proud of yourself. That took courage. Whether you think you’re brave or not, you did it. You should try to remember that. And remember that when you act even when you’re scared, when you risk your own safety because someone else is threatened, that’s true courage.”
I lifted my eyes to meet his. His eyes were empathetic. We just looked at each other for a moment in silence before he continued.
“There was no excuse for Borton to say what he did to you before that. Being gay is nothing to be taunted about. Maybe that didn’t really offend you; you may not be gay. I am, and I was offended.”
He grinned. I’d never seen him do that before. “Yeah. If I had to guess, you are, too. I watch you a lot when you’re here. I keep watching the door till you come in.”
“I am,” I said. “Gay. But I never tell anyone. Never. That’s the first time I’ve ever said it out loud.”
“I thought you were. I can’t always tell, and you’re not a bit obvious about it. Maybe I didn’t really know. Maybe I was just hoping.”
I was feeling things I hadn’t felt before. I was looking at him up close and seeing all the ways he was gorgeous. I was hearing him say in that soft voice of his that he liked what he’d seen of me, too. Me. Really.
All of a sudden, I wasn’t so sure any longer that I’d never have a partner.
And all thanks to Borton. Who’d ever have thunk it?
The picture is a license-free photo attributed to AllGo, An App For Plus Size People and posted on Unsplash.
My appreciation to my editing staff for their marvelous work. They’re brave enough to view my work as written. Ugly job, but they take it on with great resolve.
Thanks for Mike continuing his great site. And to those of you who contribute to keep it up and running.