All Stories, General Fiction

Liza, Like Lizard by Joy Florentine

She’s like a storm cloud drifting my way. The thick, grey coat and bright yellow rain boots are probably a choice she made herself, because the sun’s out and I’m sweating like a pig. I don’t understand why Lenny would let her go out like that, but I don’t have kids and won’t pretend to understand what it’s like. I guess my only comparison to dressing a child is when Roger, my Rottweiler, comes running to me with his lead between his teeth because he wants to go to the park, and he’s got only that one lead. I guess I shouldn’t call a dog my kid, but all he wants is to eat, play, sleep, and shit. Roger’s the closest thing I’ll ever have to a kid—which I’m perfectly fine with.

Lenny’s kid leaves a soil trail on the floor as she drags her boots in shuffling steps. Her eyes scan over the room, her hand tightly clutched into Lenny’s. I suspect she knows she stands out between the tinted windows and dimmed lights. Our floorboards and hickory brown wallpaper are infused with the smell of rolling tobacco and beer, and all the chair cushions are bent to the shape of our regulars’ asses. Our radio only plays the decade’s greatest hits on repeat, with Smells Like Teen Spirit still charting at number one, which I doubt she’ll find as catchy as the opening to Sesame Street. This place definitely attracts a certain type of person.

I catch my reflection in the streaked mirror between the bottle-stacked shelves. Maybe I’m not one to judge. The heat has made my hair frizz and my fringe curl up sideways, I haven’t applied my eyeliner evenly, and I’m surprised the sweat hasn’t leaked through my shirt yet. Though I doubt that would stop some of the regulars from still coming onto me.

‘Daycare closed or something?’ I ask Lenny.

‘Just gotta be out back,’ he replies. ‘In and out.’ He plants his hands under his kid’s arms and lifts her onto the barstool opposite from me. The kid gazes at me with humongous eyes—bright blue—and not a hint of a smile, as if I’ve just vowed I don’t believe in fairies, or whatever else kids consider a crime.

‘Watch her for me?’

            ‘Pub’s no place for a kid, Len.’

‘It’s just a couple of minutes.’ Lenny’s eyes shoot to the back door. ‘Please, Jean?’

The kid looks like she’s got no neck. She’s got a plump, flushed face, which seems to get increasingly redder by the moment. I don’t want to get blamed for her drowning in that coat, since there’s almost no one around. The pub is empty save for old Jim, but I’m pretty sure he’s fallen asleep at his table. What do you even say to a kid?

C’mon, Jeanie.’

I shrug and turn around, pretending to look for something between the half empty bottles of Jack Daniels and Silver Spiced Rum. My shoulders are tense. With a deep breath in I try to relax them, then wipe at a red lipstick stain on the collar of my blouse.

‘Fine,’ Lenny grunts. There’s a fumbling, the scraping of wood on wood, then the jingle of coins. I glance over my shoulder and see Lenny has put his kid in front of our slot machine in the corner. Lenny starts pouring a fistful of loose change into the thing, and the lights blink brighty as it whirs to life. The kid’s face lights up. Lenny’s definitely bought himself more than a couple of minutes. That machine is the newest thing in the pub, save for one of the toilet brushes in the men’s room—some idiot broke one in half trying to flush it down the urinal after unsuccessfully scrubbing his vomit off the wall.

‘Adults only,’ I call out to Lenny, but it comes out half-hearted and he knows it too because he ignores me. The kid kicks her boots up and down, high above the ground.

‘Pull this big stick here—the lever. You’ve got to get three of the same pictures in this row, okay? And when the pictures move up to this screen, you press one of these two buttons. Heads or tails. You know that game, right—the coin one? Just press the right button as it lights up and you win the game.’ Lenny presses a rough kiss on the top of the kid’s head as she nods. A couple strands of hair fall in front of her face which she attempts to paw aside, but her puffy sleeve gets in the way.

‘In and out,’ Lenny mumbles as he walks past me. He disappears through the back door. The sound of the slots whirling fills the room, and I stare at Lenny’s kid for a good minute. She can only just reach the lever to pull it. If the police happen to show up, do I pretend I hadn’t seen her? She’s only small. I might get away with it.

I cast a glance into old Jim’s direction. He’s still asleep. Doesn’t sleep well at home, he always proclaims. The man retired four months ago, three of which he spent alone because his wife of forty years left him for another, younger guy. He said to me the other day, ‘Datin’ at thirty-two is great, Jeanie, enjoy it while ya still can. All women my age have a loada baggage, kids eagerly waitin’ on their inheritance, ‘n tits so saggy they can fling ‘m over their shoulders!’.

Lenny’s by no means an old guy, but already engaged to his soon-to-be third wife. When asked about it, he calls himself a romantic fool with a weak heart. All of the regulars like him, especially the women. With his thick brown hair slickly combed back into a ponytail and a set of straight, white teeth, I suppose I can see the appeal. Whenever asked how he’s doing, he says he’s ‘as happy as they come’. It’s funny, though. A lot of the regulars—especially Lenny—always seem like they want to be someplace else. It’s the glancing around, as if expecting someone to show, or rhythmless tapping of a finger on the bar. But they tend to linger. Some of them don’t even go home after the pub closes. I don’t ask where they linger next. Wherever it is, it’s never in the alleyway, which is always empty by the time we close.

The alleyway through the back door is officially pub property, for our rubbish and all, but it ended up becoming a gathering place for a certain type of people I’d rather not mingle with. A couple of the same guys occasionally come in and ask me if I’ve seen this or that person. Sometimes one of them buys a drink and leaves a generous tip. The owner of the pub told me to leave them be, so I’ve never actually caught them doing anything wrong. I’m not stupid, though, but I mind my own business.

Lenny’s ‘In and out’ hits fifteen minutes on the clock. My eyes drift to Lenny’s kid at the slot machine. It looks like she’s pressing buttons at random, but something in her face is almost calculated. Like she’s determined to win gold in the Best Slot Machine-Playing Kid League. She sits up straight on the bar stool with near perfect posture.

My gran used to have these porcelain dolls when I was a kid. I remember them vividly because they had smooth, pale skin and big bright green eyes, and I used to worry my gran wouldn’t love me because I looked nothing like them. She had painted circles on the dolls’ cheeks in a rosy colour, and put little lace dresses on them and sat them down on the settee whenever I came to visit. They sat perfectly straight, too, and I tried to sit just like that. I wasn’t allowed to touch them. I broke the rule once when my gran left the room. I just wanted to feel what it was like to hold one. I’d intended to put the thing back down before my gran came back, but it slipped out of my hands. Its face cracked right through the middle, and I quickly put it back with the other dolls. Of course my gran immediately noticed. She yelled so much I cried for three days straight. After that, she locked the dolls in her glass cabinet whenever I came, up until the day she died. I was nineteen then.

I decide to pour Lenny’s kid a drink. Not coke. Coke probably has way too much sugar for a—what, six or seven year old? I rummage through the cupboard and find a carton of apple juice. Almost overdue, but unopened. I give the juice a sniff after I’ve filled the glass. Should still be fine.

I walk over to the kid. She doesn’t look up when I put the glass on the high side table next to the slot machine. Her eyes are glued to the top screen, her forehead gleams with sweat. She slams one of the buttons. She’s not bad, actually. Better than some of the regulars at least—who are, to be fair, often drunk. Then she messes up. The machine plays its sad tune, but she seems unfazed. She doesn’t immediately pull the lever again. Instead, she slowly zips open her coat and tries to pull it off. The intense eyes make a return my way, and I slowly grab hold of one of the sleeves and pull. The coat slips off and falls to the ground.

The kid grabs the glass of juice with both hands and brings it to her mouth with careful precision. She takes three big gulps, then lowers the glass. ‘I like your hair,’ she says.

‘Oh. Thanks.’ I pick up the kid’s coat and put it on the table behind her. I’m not sure I’m well met in a conversation like this. Most people here either do a whole lot of complaining, or everything they can to avoid talking about their lives. There’s hardly ever an in-between. A popular topic of some of the regulars is how all the foreign workers and their families are taking over the neighbourhoods, and how none of them speak our language. Old Jim once broke into a teary-eyed, raging fit about a foreign construction sign of sorts outside his house. He smashed two of our glasses and almost got into a fistfight that night. It later turned out he’d been drunk when he passed it, and the workers had accidentally placed the sign upside-down. Old Jim was still upset, though. ‘It might as well have been foreign,’ he said. People  like it when I just listen. I usually try not to engage when people go off on a tangent like that, but I know which jokes make them laugh. Those are often appreciated when emotions rise. Most jokes that I can think of are too inappropriate for a kid, though.

‘I want long hair like yours.’ Lenny’s kid puts the glass back down and smacks her lips. ‘Do you have another name besides Jeanie?’

            I frown. ‘What, like a last name?’

            ‘I know you have a last name. I mean like another first name.’

            ‘A middle name?’


            No one’s ever asked me that before. ‘My full name is Jeanette Marie van Dyk.’

The girl stares at me, blinks twice, then says, ‘I’m Liza with a z, like lizard.’

‘Oh. Do you like lizards?’

‘Daddy says we can’t afford one.’


And with that our conversation is over. Liza turns back to the slot machine and cranks the lever. The machine obliges. I return to the bar and stare at old Jim, who hasn’t woken up yet. It’ll be a while before the pub fills up, if it even does at all today. It’s a Wednesday. Is it a school holiday?

I end up refilling Liza’s glass with apple juice twice. I busy myself with cleaning the bar, restocking the fridges, and finally discarding a broken minidisc player someone left behind weeks ago. I occasionally glance at the slot machine and see if Liza has enough to still play with.

Two of the regulars walk in.

‘Your daughter, Jeanie?’ Molly snorts, prodding David to take a look at Liza, whose face is like steel.

‘No.’ I immediately hate how fast the word slips out of my mouth. ‘Lenny’s. I’m watching her for a bit.’

Molly and David take their usual table at the back of the pub, and I serve them two beers from the tap. They roll their cigarettes. I usually let them smoke inside when it’s just a couple of regulars, but smoke’s pretty bad for kids. Should I ask them to wait until Liza’s left?

A yelp and an eruption of bleeping tunes break me out of that thought. I look at Liza and see her face dotted with coloured lights. Coins start pouring from the slot machine and into the bucket, and Liza pulls her hands away. I hurry over and I stare at the blinking letters on the top screen. Liza’s mouth is a perfect O as she gazes at the waterfall of coins that slip out of the full bucket and onto the floor. I quickly pull the barstool with Liza on it back, making sure the coins don’t rain on her boots. She roars with laughter, and old Jim groans loudly as he is awoken by the sound of the jackpot. Liza and I watch the money fall until the machine stops and starts blinking red letters: REFILL. I hesitate for a moment, but when Liza stares at me full of expectation I run to the cash register and take out a couple of unopened coin rolls. I open the slot machine to pop them in. The machine continues to spit out what it owes Liza.

‘What’s this?’ Lenny’s back as if on cue. Would he have heard the commotion from all the way out back? He frowns from his daughter to the slot machine and the money on the floor.

‘It was that stupid heads or tails game that no one’s ever dumb enough to play.’ I let out a small chuckle. ‘She’s fast.’

Lenny rocks back and forth on his feet, hands tucked into his suede jacket. ‘You wonderful girl!’. He grins, and Liza radiates as he lifts her up off the barstool and spins her around in the air. ‘My little winner!’

‘I won the game, daddy!’

‘You sure did!’ Lenny puts the girl down on the ground and starts scooping the coins up from the floor. Liza wants to help him, but he tells her he’ll take care of it. He pockets the money, triple-checking that he’s got every single coin. ‘Don’t tell mummy about this, okay?’

‘But I won. It’s my money, right daddy?’

‘Of course, of course.’ Lenny glances around, then slips a handful of coins out of his pocket. He takes one of the larger ones between his index finger and thumb, and hands it to Liza. She grabs onto it with both hands, and marvels at it, as if it’s the world’s greatest treasure.

‘Right then,’ Lenny says, and he takes Liza’s hand and her coat. ‘See you later, Jeanie.’ And just like that, they’re out the door. Liza glances back at me over her shoulder and waves. Her little yellow boots shuffle right back through the soil that she walked into the pub.

I hope I don’t see Liza again.

Unfortunately, several months later, I do. She’s wearing her yellow boots again. This time it’s raining outside. Lenny sits her down at the slot machine again and pops a couple of coins in. He gestures to me—in and out—and disappears.

Liza doesn’t win the jackpot this time. She plays until the machine stops whirring, and it dies. The lights fade out, and Liza sits quietly on the barstool. The weatherman on the radio gives us a forecast of more rain for the rest of the week. Liza isn’t smiling today, and although I bring her apple juice from a new, unopened carton, she doesn’t drink it. I decide to move her from the slot machine to behind the bar, and we spend some time together in silence. She peers at the ground, her boots, the bottles behind the bar, opens her mouth to stay something, then closes it again. I’m not sure what to say either. Hey, how’ve you been, Liza? How are things at school? Any idea what you want to be when you grow up? How often do you actually see your mum, by the way?

Then, finally, her face lights up as if she’s realised something, and says, ‘You know, last time I was here they had to refill that machine because I won the jackpot.’

It takes me by surprise, but I’m not sure why. The only thing she probably remembers about that day is how thrilled Lenny was: her daddy’s smiling face and the treasure he gave her. Not Jeanette Marie van Dyk with the long curly hair. Liza waits for my reply with anticipation, a smile playing around her lips. It leaves me unsure of what to do. I can feel my shoulders tense up. Then again, this is something to talk about at least.

‘I know.’ I say. ‘I was there.’

Joy Florentine

Image by Mihai Panait from Pixabay 

10 thoughts on “Liza, Like Lizard by Joy Florentine”

  1. Joy

    Speaking as someone who has spent a great deal of her life doing “research” in such establishments, you certainly nailed the environment and the attitude. I’ve heard people (who I know have done lines off the back tables) bemoan the lousy way other people raise their kids. And yet no matter the situation, children always want to please Daddy. Very well done.


    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Joy,
    You did paint a picture.
    I used to see the divorcee dads and their offspring in a pub I used to frequent. It did annoy me…Nothing to do with their merit as fathers, it’s just that I hate kids and don’t want to be in an (Adult) social environment with them.
    I’ve been chastised for swearing when I was ten pints in and all the family had bought was a sharing platter for them and a freebie for the sprog. I politely suggested that maybe a café or a restaurant would have been a better place for the kid. I then impolitely told the owner what they could do with their kiddie friendly pub!
    Anyhow, this was brilliantly done and a very entertaining read.
    All the very best.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. A perfect vignette of life in a pub and the assorted characters and scenes we are all familiar with (well, I’m definitely familiar with having also done my research @Leila). A very well observed and true to life account.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Very well written story, esp. about the connection between Jeanette and the little girl, The pub atmosphere and characters…. Lenny, a hustler pushing the limits and boundaries, Jim the heavy drinking oldster, everyone has a story. Life in the pub seen thru Jeanette’s observations, and we get a very good sense of who she is, without her telling all that much about herself. I would ask her out!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.