Thank goodness the lobby bar was still serving. Actually, they looked like they were just about done for the night. There was no clear delineation where the lobby ended and the bar started. It went from being mostly couches to some chairs, to some chairs with low, round tables. The place was empty, and a lone bartender was wiping up behind the bar. She was one of those LA women you see, the sort of former glamor-queen type where they’ve caked the makeup on to hide their age.
“Can I get something for you, sugar?” she asked, without looking up when I slid onto a stool at the actual bar-bar.
I looked around. We were completely alone. “You know what? I’ve never learned what I like in alcohol. So I never know what to order.”
She looked up, like I’d said something new and interesting she’d never heard before. Which maybe was true. “You got any idea what you don’t like? That might give us a starting place.”
“Well, I’ve had a lot of scotch and bourbon, which at least tastes like something, but sometimes I like it and sometimes I don’t. Beer is okay if you’re thirsty, I guess, but I can’t say I really like it. I’ve heard too many sob stories about tequila for it to sound fun. And people tell me the better vodka is, the less flavor it has, which kind of has me wondering what the point is, then.”
She mulled it over, looking up at the ceiling and pursing her lips in a kind of exaggerated manner, but I didn’t mind the play-acting. She had a wide ribbon in her hair in a kind of 1950’s style. “Well, you left out gin entirely.”
“Huh. I guess I did.”
“Why don’t we try you with something gin-based then.” She looked around at the bottles on a glass shelf behind her. “The classic is a gin and tonic, but if you don’t like bitter, you won’t like tonic.”
“You’re too young to like bitter things, anyway.”
“Yeah. You see, people lose their ability to taste bitter as they get older, so they start to actually like the bitter drinks. You like grapefruit?”
“When you get to be my age, they taste like weak lemons.” She pulled a blue bottle off the shelf.
“You mean it isn’t just that getting older, you get embittered with life and so you start to like bitter things?” I asked.
“Funny guy. Who said it isn’t that, too?”
“I suppose.” That gave me an idea for a song, though. “Hey, can I borrow a pencil?”
“Here.” She handed me a golf pencil and an almost-blank business card, then got out a glass.
“What’s the card for?” I asked.
“Oh. Most people who want to borrow something to write with are trying to either give or get a phone number.” She took a chunk of lime out of a dish I couldn’t see.
“Gee, and I was going to use the tried-and-true napkin.” But I jotted down the note to myself on the card and stuck it in my pocket. “So what are you making me?”
“You know anything about vermouth?”
“It’s a state north of Massachusetts?” I tried.
“Funny guy. Here’s what you need to know. Sweet vermouth, dry vermouth.” She held up two bottles. “Drastically different. I’m gonna use the sweet though, and some gin. There’s a lotta cheap-ass gin out there. This one isn’t as expensive as the name makes it sound, though.”
“What’s the name?”
“Yeah, that sounds like something worth stealing from a museum.”
“Don’t it, though? But it’s not hard to find.” She poured things into a metal cocktail shaker and actually shook it, then poured it out into a glass. She set a napkin in front of me, put the drink on it, and said, “Try it.”
I took a sip. “Hey. it’s good.”
She nodded at me. “See, there are two ways to counteract something bitter. One’s with sweet. One’s with salty. All alcohol is bitter to some degree.”
“But salty and sweet don’t go together, do they?” I eyed the drink suspiciously and sipped again. But it was good.
“Sure they do. You ever have caramel popcorn?”
“Yeah, okay.” I sipped and for half a moment my brain had completely forgotten about what had happened upstairs. Then I remembered and took a bit bigger swallow.
She put another glass down on another napkin.
“That’s the water you’re going to want to drink, also. You want some lemon in it?”
She squeezed a lemon over the top of the glass and both of us shied back as it squirted aggressively. “When you’ve been partying hard, water is a great cure-all.”
I let out a long breath. “Do I look that rough around the edges?”
“Nah. But it’s okay. I know who you are, sugar. I heard what happened upstairs.”
I had some lemon water. “Does everyone know?”
“No. But you know, we’re all sworn to secrecy.”
“Don’t look so surprised. It’s not like a conspiracy theory thing. Just common sense. Any hotel employee at any decent place has to sign a thing saying we won’t ever talk about guests of the hotel. And especially a place like this. You’re not even the only A-list celebrities staying here right now.”
“Am I A-list?” I wasn’t fishing for a compliment. I wondered what the criteria was, or if there was one.
“If you’re not, you will be soon. If the number of girls we had to chase out of here is any indication.”
“How many is that?”
“After the first two dozen or so, they locked the side entrances and you have to show a hotel key to the guard outside to get in. You didn’t know that?”
“I haven’t been outside in a while.”
She cracked a crooked smile. “It’s still new to you.”
“Pretty much. I mean, we toured before, but the stuff is still climbing the charts. I guess it’s like a giant bandwagon that more and more people are getting on all the time.”
“Is it scary?”
“A little? I mean, like a rollercoaster is scary. I just keep thinking if I wake up tomorrow and our moment is over and people stop buying the records or forget about us or whatever, well, you know, we did a lot more and got a lot farther than most bands ever do.”
She looked skeptical. Truth is, I don’t know if I believed what I said or if I was just trying to convince myself. She asked, “What would you do if that happened? If it all ended tomorrow?”
“Look for a real job, I guess. Maybe go back and finish school…?”
“You don’t sound too sure about that one.”
“Well, I can’t say I really liked it the first time, but I’ve got a friend who seems to think education is a big deal.” I picture Jonathan and his elbow-patched jacket. “And now I could probably appreciate it better than when I was a teenager.”
“Speaking of which, I’m not going to check your ID,” she said, looking me in the eye.
“It’s okay, I’m twenty-two,” I said, crossing my heart. “No, really.”
She nodded, but I’m not sure she believed me. “You ready to try something else?”
Oh. The glass was empty. I didn’t realize we’d been chatting for that long. “Um, sure.”
“You said you’ve had a lot of scotch and bourbon, but some you liked, some you didn’t.”
“Yeah. And I tried a manhattan the other night, and I liked about the first four or five sips of it. And then it was too… bitter isn’t quite the right word.”
“I gotcha. I’ll make you something I think you’ll like better.”
She pulled out a bottle with what looked like red wax melted down the side. Maker’s Mark. She added a bunch of other things while I jotted down a few more ideas about the song. Just a phrase or two.
This one had a cherry in it.
“What do I call it?” I asked, holding up the glass and watching the cherry roll around in the bottom.
“I learned to make this in New Orleans,” she said. “It’s named for the French Quarter. Vieux Carré.”
I took a sip. It was kind of like a manhattan, only sweeter. “Okay, yeah, I like it.”
“Drink your water, sugar,” she reminded me. “The only problem with the Vieux Carre is that it’s an old-time cocktail. A lot of bartenders won’t know how to make it. So you have to tell ’em yourself. Well, they’ll know in New Orleans, but a lot of other places they’ll give you the hairy eyeball.”
“I really liked New Orleans when we passed through there,” I said. “I want to go back.”
“It’s a great, great city, especially if you’ve got money to spend,” she said. “Stay in one of the old hotels right in the Quarter, if you can. They know how to treat people right. And the music…”
“Yeah. We barely got a taste of what was going on when we played there.”
“Where’d you play?”
“Oh, great place. I spent many a night off down there when I lived there.”
“How long were you there?”
“Just two years. I would’ve stayed, too, but it was time to move on. And I’m really a West Coast girl. Born and raised in LA. I proved I could live somewhere else, and then I came back.”
“You’ve always been a bartender?” I asked, then realized how dumb that sounded. “I mean…”
“I know what you mean. I’ve been doing it over twenty years.”
“So it’s not just some low-wage, get-by sort of job for you.”
“Nope. Well, it was when I started, but I discovered I liked being behind the bar better than out on the floor. Waitresses get groped a lot. And I had worked my way up to bar manager for a while, and my time in NOLA, me and my man, we were talking about buying a place together. But things didn’t work out with him and I decided it was too much work to actually run a place. I’ve been here enough years though, I’m making a decent wage, and sometimes celebs leave big tips.”
I sat up straight suddenly. “Oh shit, am I keeping you? Double shit, I don’t have any cash on me. No, wait…” I dug in the pockets of my jeans. Two guitar picks, a crumpled piece of paper, and a few twenty dollar bills came out. “Phew. Okay, I forgot I’m still carrying yesterday’s per diem.”
She had been trying not to laugh at me the whole time. “It’s really okay, sugar. I don’t mind hanging out. You’ve been fun to talk to.”
“So have you. Wow, you really got my mind off what happened.” Of course, as soon as I said that, I started to think about what happened. But I felt less stressed about it now. Maybe a drink and a half will do that, though. I wasn’t drunk, though. Just pleasantly buzzed.
“Anytime, sweetie. I figured you’d…”
She broke off, though, as some people came pushing through the revolving doors, Digger in the lead.
He made straight for us, while the other two peeled off for their rooms, presumably. While he made his way through the tables and chairs, I said to her, “I’ll give you ten bucks to call him ‘daddy-o.'”
She held in a laugh. “Sure.”
He sat down heavily on the stool next to mine. “What are you drinking, whiskey? Make it two,” he said to the bartender.
I don’t think there was vermouth of any kind in what she made him. Just bourbon. Which was probably just as well.
“Well? Is she going to be okay?” I asked.
“Yeah, think so. Not surprisingly, the ER doc seemed to be familiar with this kind of thing. So, I think so. They’re keeping her overnight.” He downed half the glass at one go, then cracked a huge yawn. “I better get some shut eye. You better, too. It’s late.”
He knocked back the rest of the drink and got up. “On my tab,” he said.
“You got it, daddy-o,” she said.
That didn’t even get a rise out of him, so I knew he must really be tired. Off he went.
“I guess I should go, too,” I said, even though I hadn’t quite finished the drink. I’d had enough, more than enough, really. “Can you put all of this on his tab?”
“Great. Then this is all for you.” I put about fifty bucks down as I stood up.
“Well, thank you,” she said, and swept it into a pocket on her black apron. “You have a good night, now.”
I did not stagger as I went to the elevator. I sort of floated, like gravity was set too low.
The elevator doors opened and there was Ziggy. We stared at each other a moment.
“You comin’ out?” I finally asked.
“No, since I was only come down here to look for you.”
“Oh you were, were you?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” he asked, frowning. I think it came out sounding more confrontational than I’d intended
I shook my head. “Never mind. Just remember where the line is, okay?” I stepped into the elevator.
“Oh. Oh, that.” He had the good grace to look a little embarrassed. “I promise. I just want to talk.”
I punched the button for our floor. “Well, to be honest, I don’t want to be alone right now, either.”
“Great. Your room, or mine?”
“Whichever one we come to first off the elevator.”
The first door we came to was mine. I let us in and went into the bathroom to relieve myself. When I came out, Ziggy had turned on the radio. He was sitting in the chair that went with the desk.
I sat on the edge of the king-size bed, then realized the only thing that was going to keep me from lying down was if I had a guitar in my lap. So I got out the Ovation and picked along every quietly with the radio. He leaned back in the chair and listened. He wanted to talk. I figured I wouldn’t hurry him.