I think what Kip understood was that when I was behind the bar, it was similar to him being in the ring with all those eyes watching and waiting to see if I would crack under the pressure.
On the night of his fight, however, everything moved smoothly thanks to Graham’s medicine. Graham sat at the end of the bar like an old tamed dog no one took notice of, hiding behind his graying beard and Tiger’s baseball cap and expecting only heftier shots in exchange for his gifts. He gave me a few valium and the air became as wonderful as water, bodies moving and conversing around me as cheerfully as swimmers on a hot day, their eyes encircling the bar with forgiveness and charity instead of waiting to ridicule any failure. I, too, became as graceful as a boxer, like Kip, counterpunching with words instead of jabs for those clamoring around the bar desperate for their next drink, waving a bill or twirling their empty glass or bottle for my attention. Someone yelled, “Medic,” and everyone laughed. It didn’t matter. With Emily amongst the crowd they didn’t have a chance. All she said was, “Dean! Dean! Dean!” while pounding on the bar, easily hoarding all of my attention.
Unlike her and Kip I’d always avoided scrutiny. I didn’t want any attention unless it came from her. She did seem to take pleasure in watching me work, giving me hope that being Nub’s bartender might be enough to make me acceptable to her after all, though she knew nothing of my usual dosage from Graham.
Someone yelled, “Doctor Dean,” and I raised my head from the draft I was pouring and yelled to the crowd in general.
“Where’s the fire?”
“Down my throat,” came the reply.
They all became dependent, beautiful birds hungry for my service. I thought I would burst into tears from the camaraderie enveloping me. I soaked it in like heat waves of emotions. As long as no one uttered an unkind word I’d keep the beer flowing and we’d ride out half the night together and be better prepared for the rest of it, as long as Graham continued to offer his wares. Without him the bar became a cage and the crowd an enclosing wall with more incoming jabs than I could handle. Whenever that happened I knew what Kip would feel like in the ring if he started to lose, the humiliation of crumbling in front of the crowd, the fear of shame, the thought of it – all those eyes penetrating like needles. A few rum and cokes kept them at bay, barely, unlike the consistent zone of bliss Graham’s gifts delivered.
“Dean,” someone yelled, “let’s get a line of buckets going?”
“Only if you spontaneously combust.”