The Birthday PartyBy: Keddy MarshallThe headline read: Local bartender suffers heart attack, dead at age 50.I am still stunned by this news even though it has already been three days. I would have thought the initial shock would have worn off by now, but it hasn’t. The newspaper rests on the marble bar counter in front of me. It was time to reopen the establishment. A surprise birthday party was scheduled here a month ago and the owner didn’t wish to cancel. She knew everyone would understand, it was the principal of the matter. She felt it a necessity to show her patrons that she kept her word. I disagreed. In this little hick town, everybody knows everybody. My opinion was that too many people would still be in mourning. Telling myself I have work to do, I fold the newspaper and place it off to the side. I wipe a tear trickling down my cheek.Let me introduce myself. My name is Josephine Jolene Miller, but everyone calls me JoJo and I whave been elected the substitute bartender at the After Five (shortened for The After Five O’clock Bar and Grill) for this evening activities. Probably because I just turned twenty-one a few months ago and my mother said it would be a good job experience for me. Of all the applications I planned on filling out after my college graduation, bartending was not on the list. Somehow, I didn’t think it would flatter my resume. I’m told it’s an open bar for anyone who comes through the door, no limit on the cost; just make sure everyone is having a good time. I’m miserable, yet I’m supposed to make sure everyone has a good time. That doesn’t even make sense to me. It was also my job to decorate. I started with the helium tank, blowing up balloons. I had about an hour to transform this hole in the wall into a hopping, festive get-to-together. I really didn’t see how. I definitely had my work cut out for me. The After Five had been appropriately named. This place resembled a historic cemetery where the empty barstools played the role of the headstones and the front door really did creak when opened, mimicking ancient iron gates. I would be better off hosting a Halloween party here because it was lifeless and haunting in here until that familiar shrilling whistle blew.It was the local paper mill, the main source of income for many in this area, which brought the dead to life around here. When the five o’clock whistle blew, indicating the shift is over, mill workers piled in. They were eager to drink away their work day, get free advice from the bartender and hopefully not fall off their stools before they had to go home to their loved ones. Then they turn around and do it all again the next day.I began taping up streamers from the ceiling.I found it difficult understanding the concept of sitting in a bar, drinking half of your day away. Wasn’t there something more to life than that?Anyway, I always came home every weekend, leaving on Friday after my last class in the late afternoon and returning Sunday night, sometime after supper. This Sunday, I’m staying until after the party, savoring the short three hour drive back to the Community College, letting my emotions settle before I encounter the books again. Maybe I should mention that I’m not much of a people person. I tend to keep to myself, a mediocre recluse. I have no boyfriend, by choice, so I can concentrate on my studies. I have few close friends and even less acquaintances. Besides, socializing does not come easy for me. Maybe that’s why I have chosen a degree in accounting. My ideal job would consist of crunching numbers all day, which requires very little interaction with people. A cozy cubicle in a law firm or a make-shift wall office in an insurance company, minding my own business, is my ultimate future work environment.But one thing I have learned about life is that it changes, sometimes for the good and sometimes for the not so good. “That’s how life teaches lessons,” my mother preached into my head the entire time I was growing up. “We wouldn’t appreciate the good if there wasn’t any bad in this world.” Then she would go on to add, “They go together like peanut butter and jelly.”I figured I could make it through, sing happy birthday, wear a goofy party hat and serve drinks the best I could, hoping the night would end quickly. Again, it’s worth repeating that I am only a substitute bartender. Sure, I have spent numerous accounts occupying a barstool on the other side of the counter, but I have never mixed a drink in my life. The rum I pour over my own coke on many evenings, while relaxing in my dorm room, doesn’t count in my book and I have very little knowledge of how to make drinks. The cheat sheet given to aide me, which listed various mixes of alcohols, was my best friend right now and I read it again as if I was preparing for my mid-term exam. The closer it got to the party starting, the more the words on the sheet started jumbling around in my head. Everything was swirling together. These were not numbers. It made no sense to me. Frustrated, I threw the paper under the counter.Maybe I’ll get lucky and everybody will just order beer, which I can half-ass pour with little foam appearing. Just thinking about someone asking for a Harvey Wall Banger, a Long-Island Ice Tea or even an Old Fashion has me slightly nervous.Fortunately, I know everybody planning to attend this party so I’m assuming they will be patient with me. For those who temporarily lose their cool, I will just have to add extra “feel good juice” to their drink. Either way, I’m winging this job to help out, or because I was told to. However you want to look at it; all these people are stuck with me tonight. And I’m stuck with them.I think of how I spent the last hour decorating this old north woods bar with paper streamers, helium-filled balloons and colored confetti. A table in the middle held a white cake with butter cream frosting, plastic forks, napkins, and a huge Happy Birthday sign. Numerous refreshments, mostly finger food, overflowed the platter next to the cake. Party hats and blow horns had been sporadically placed about. Now I am preparing to put on a fake smile. In a few minutes the party-goers will be showing up and I’m not even close to being ready. I just want to cry.I am still shaking my head in disbelief.I choke away the tears as I hang the last remaining balloons over the doorway. Taking one last look around the bar, I am somewhat pleased with my handy work. Deep breathe, exhale slowly, I tell myself, it’s show time. Then it hit me! The cheat sheet!Well the hell did I put that? I had leftover unfilled balloons, balled-up string and pieces of streamers laying everywhere. I wanted to clean up, but no time for that now. Find the damn cheat sheet!Oh God, people would be showing up any minute and I wasn’t ready. I start throwing open confetti bags everywhere in a haste. Moving rolls of tape, flinging cellophane wrappers, I finally glimpsed a corner of the paper hiding under a party hat. I quickly scan the list. Grabbing a pen from the counter, I label the drinks. Each type of liquor gets a number. Then I mated the numbers with their drink partners. Swiftly, I continue down the paper, knowing I was running out of time.Perfect! Proud of myself, I now had a cheat sheet that worked for me. If somebody ordered a Screwdriver, it was simple. Take the number 3, which was vodka and the number 12, which was orange juice, mix to make a number 15 on the list. I created a useful chart without even trying hard to do so. I was even more tickled with myself when I labeled the size of the drinks using the mathematic symbols for division, multiplication and subtraction; small medium and large.The numbers formed in my brain like an Algebra equation. It didn’t make a difference what anybody asked for now, what kind of alcohol it was made of, or even what size; my mind was now a functioning calculator. I sighed deeply.I see the first car pull up so I hit play on the jukebox and get this joint rocking. It’s the elderly couple who lives just down the road. I expected them to be one of the first to arrive. Ruth and Art were close family members and regulars every Sunday here during the football games. Ruth had even made the cake, dropping it off yesterday. They were the ideal partiers for breaking the ice and making my anxiety diminish. Shortly after they sit, the parking lot begins to fill. I conclude this had to be the busiest night for this little bar since opening day thirty two years ago. The line of cars begins to form on the shoulder of the road. Impressive is an understatement. The music is loud, yet soothing and I find myself grabbing glasses, adding ice, and pouring liquor (I have never even heard of) into fancy crystal glasses. Listening to the commotion surrounding me, I flourished in my temporary occupation.More people arrive, filling up the small backwoods building. It’s not long before the bar stools are occupied and many more mingle around the cake table, smiling, laughing and consuming the concoctions I made for them. So far, no one has even mentioned getting a screwed up drink. I figure they don’t care or they haven’t noticed. Either way, I am grateful my system must be working.I concentrate on making the next drink required of me when I see the crowd gathered by the front door, anxiously awaiting the guest of honor. The chatter in the room almost drowned out the jukebox playing the next booming song. I find myself getting excited as well. At first I feel guilty that I’m starting to have a fun but I quickly push those thoughts away. If everyone else can easily be entertained, then why can’t I? And I really was starting to have a good time. That’s when I decided today is a day for celebration. No more sadness.The atmosphere is light, good times and great memories being made and for a brief moment I stop what I am doing to let myself embrace the energetic electricity that is freely flowing. I suck it up like a dried out sponge.I am relieved that my nervousness is gone. I’m actually having an amazing time. Mind you, I have yet to juggle glasses high in the air or slide a full beer down the counter without spilling it, but I’m feeling pretty proud of myself. Having this occupation on my resume wouldn’t be so bad after all. I could say I was a Numerical Bartender. It’s crazy enough to get noticed by a prospective employer. It’s definitely creative.Every glass that lifts up and every voice that hollers “JoJo, I’ll have another,” makes me grin. I’m surprised my hands work steadily, easily, like a professional. My body is swaying to the music, letting loose, letting go of the sorrow. My personal achievements have outdone my own expectations. I’m loving it!Suddenly the words “He’s here!” ring out.Everyone scrambles.Soft giggles can be heard as they crouch under the bar, gather behind the door, and hunker down in the dark corners when the lights quickly are turned off.The entire room is now silent, waiting in anticipation.When the wooden door opens, the lights come back on and people come out of hiding and a burst of voices shout “Surprise!”The middle-aged lady in the long red coat had no look of shock on her face. She strolls into the bar, admiring the party favors, the room packed with friends and family. She knew all along about the party for her husband. Pleasingly smiling, she carries the small black box to the counter, setting it down gently. Hands feverishly clap in the background while I pour her the usual, my first easy drink of the evening, a cold draft beer. I watch my mother slam it down. She turns to the crowd, waiting for the applause to lessen and thanks them all for coming. Familiar faces greet her, the compassion sparkling in every set of eyes.I set another cold one on the counter, this time next to the black box, listening to my mother propose a toast. Cheers echo through the walls and glasses clink, toasting to a wonderful man who died way too young, arms being held high in the air, celebrating a loved fixture in this town.I notice Art makes a friendly wink my way and I respond with a beam and a slight blush in my cheeks. I take my mother’s glass and refill it. She stands proud, accepting it graciously and leans in close to my ear.“JoJo, your father would be so proud of you!”A feeling of satisfaction overcomes me.This was going down in history as the best birthday party I have ever attended. I look at the box, filled with my father’s ashes, knowing he was watching us all, enjoying ourselves in his favorite place.Somehow, I believe it was him all along that helped me through this night. And I have faith that he will still be there for me in the future. So the next time I get anxious and nervous, I will close my eyes and remember the Numerical Bartender. I am even considering expanding my career into acting. Hey, I pulled this party off, didn’t I? Nobody had a clue what I was like before they walked through that front door. I smiled to no one in particular.After bartending tonight, I truly understand why my father did it for so many years, the camaraderie of being with people, enjoying their companionship. Then I realized, it wasn’t that the mill workers came here to drink away their day, they came for the winding down of the day, the release of the tension, the friendly voice that greeted them. They came for the man, who listened to their problems, shared his thoughts with them all, never judged them and always made them feel good.My father’s spirit will remain here forever and if my mother gets her way, so will the box. Perched right behind the bar where he always was.I touch the box, whisper happy birthday daddy and start moving along the bar, filling up the empty glasses.This party has only just begun and so has my new social life.
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