You mix ten pounds of pretzels with two pounds of cheesy goldfish, dumping everything into an enormous plastic bin and then stirring with your hands. Salt leaches the moisture from your skin, and, later tonight, tourists will sit at the bar, pick out the fish, complain that there are too many pretzels.
No one wants the pretzels.
You’ll shrug and offer to refill the bowl with the same unsatisfying 10:2 mixture.
You eat the pretzels, though. It’s your most consistent source of nutrition, not counting returned food the waitresses from the dining room steal in exchange for you sometimes forgetting to charge a drink or three to their tabs. You’re not proud. You’ll eat a steak a forty-year-old Frenchman says is overcooked. Even if he touched it.
The dining room is brightly lit by an absurd number of hanging bulbs, and Wyoming summer sun beats through the big windows all day long. The views of the woods around Canyon Lodge are spectacular, no argument there, but that sunlight all day combines with the baking heat of the fireplace in your lounge in the evening, creating a sauna-like effect that’s numbing.
It makes you sweat, and you don’t have much moisture to give. Pretzel salt’s a crutch.
The other employees call you a vampire. They get up early, hike, fish, enjoy their work cleaning cabins or leading tourist groups around Yellowstone on horseback. You hang together with the other bartenders, with the cocktail waitresses, with the poor roommate who works in the cafeteria, wears a nametag that lies about him being from Sweden, and can’t escape your group’s gravitational pull.
Vampires don’t hunt or fish, but each smokes and struggles with depression, anger, other defects. Harlan singles out a different woman every night, usually someone middle-aged and blonde and traveling with friends. He plies her with top-shelf tequila and bottom-feeder compliments. He worries aloud during smoke breaks that his girlfriend at home is being unfaithful. Leola drops acid ten hits at a time and tells you one night that the stars leave tracers behind them. Her voice is calm when she makes this declaration, which should alarm you but doesn’t because she says it while her head rests on your chest, her lips moving against the middle button of your white bartender’s shirt. Eventually she leaves Wyoming for Nevada, Canyon for Vegas, where an escort can make more money than a Yellowstone bartender.
Once she’s gone, you miss her.
Your pretzel-salt dried hands smell like lemons. Cutting fruit to fill your garnish tray is all that protects you from scurvy. Patrons lean across the bar, grab cherries from the dish, pop them into their mouths, leave the stems tied in knots on soaking cocktail napkins. You don’t eat the cherries. Ever. When you bus tables, your bias against cherries is confirmed by the number of abandoned glasses that hold only ice cubes and battered maraschinos. People who sit at the bar eat their garnishes; people who sit at tables leave them.
You think about it.
Cherries are expensive, but the manager never complains about them. She complains constantly about your lavish dispensing of cheesy goldfish, which are also expensive.
Even cherry haters love goldfish.
The cocktail waitresses get a $100 bank at the beginning of every night, dispensed not long after the garnish tray’s filled for the first time, and the lounge is divided into two zones. The area by the fireplace is a Bermuda Triangle of tips. That’s where sweaty families from Minnesota sit while they wait for their dinner reservation to be called. They don’t order drinks, don’t care that they’re sitting where a paying customer should be, don’t keep their kids out of the bar and away from the piano that Emily plays for tips. She wears a red dress that’s slit up one side and knows only classical music and never makes much beyond the pity bills you leave in her jar. A few $1, an occasional $5 when you’re having a great night, like that time just before closing, everyone drunk, including you, when you poured a shot of cognac into a snifter, lit it on fire with a wooden match, tipped it onto its side, and rolled it down the bar.
Everyone cheered, and you’ve never tried to do it again.
The other cocktail zone forms an L that runs from the fireplace to the windows, following the edge of the scarred dance floor where no one dances. The waitress running the L makes fine tips, especially if it’s Katie and she wears the black skirt that the manager always makes her change out of if she sees it, usually reminding you that supervision of the cocktail waitresses is among the bartender’s responsibilities.
You don’t care about the skirt, and Katie getting tips isn’t keeping money out of your pocket, not when she has to give you 10%.
When the manager rides you about your long hair, you put it in a ponytail and slide it down the back of your shirt. Sweat gathers there all night, and you sometimes wring it out like a bar rag at the end of the evening while you wait for Katie or Leola or Emily, if she wears the red dress slit up the side.
No matter which zone she’s responsible for, the cocktails start every night with $100 each from your till. Customers order drinks from them, and the waitresses buy the drinks from you. Then the customers pay the waitress. At the end of each shift, the cocktails each give you $100, paying back that initial 0% loan.
Anything left over belongs to them, minus your 10%.
The system begs for abuse and gets it. The girls charge on a sliding scale, jacking up prices the most for customers who are drunk or French. Everyone pays an extra $.50 for domestic beer sometimes or pays the White Russian price for a Kahlua and Cream. As long as the girls remember what they were charging—in case someone comes back in after dinner—the system holds out. You just make what you’re told to make and charge the cocktails accordingly. If Katie pays you $6 for a drink and then charges some Frog $7.50, there’s no way you can know, and you don’t really care, not after that night all those Frenchmen pushed a lounge-worth of tables together to accommodate their whole busload of companions, demanded “whiskey!” by yelling across the room, and didn’t leave a tip.
When Katie forgets what her Long Island Ice Tea price was for some German kid, you cover her lie by rattling off “drink special happy hour” nonsense to a guy with limited English.
You’re not proud.
You serve customers who sit at the bar first. That’s where your tips come from. Katie stands between the serving-station rails and drums her pink nails. You’re involved with Leola, mostly, and Katie can wait.
It’s a power structure, and the cocktails kneel near the bottom, abusing the customers and themselves. They know how to game the system within the range of their duties; there are other abuses. The liquor inventory has to be done every month. It takes you and Harlan all night, since you don’t have to count anything you drink, and it’s fun to take shots followed by a chaser right out of the soda gun. The cooks always leave steaks in a warmer on these inventory nights, and they laugh as they punch in to prep breakfast and you stumble out from a night of hard-core record keeping.
Your “pour cost” is the best in park, which seems impossible, given the amounts that you drink and give away and spill.
As a bartender, you make $4.15 an hour, minus what the government estimates you should be making in tips. Before you punch out each night, you and Harlan agree on how much you’ll list as gratuity income. Made $300 cash because of the Japanese tour buses that went through? Write down $27.
Your first paycheck, minus taxed income and taxed phantom income, minus $8 for every day’s room and board, is -$11. You frame this, later, after passing time makes it funny.
After she leaves Canyon for school in Michigan or Minnesota or Maryland, Katie writes letters that you don’t answer. She writes them during a night class she’s failing, and you read them sitting in the window of your dorm room in Washington, smoking Marlboros and listening to “American Pie.” Later, you call Harlan at Christmas but miss him. He never calls back.
Neither do you.
Twenty five years later, after RK surgery has ruined your night vision, the stars often blur and leave tracers behind them when your eyes are tired. It makes you think of Leola and acid and 10:2 ratios.