Here’s a little story, with gratitude to all who have served, and who still serve. Including my nephew — I’m a proud Army aunt!
Mac carefully set the brimful pint glass of Smithwick’s in front of the customer who had ordered it, a thin, drawn guy in a faded camo jacket.
“Thanks, what do I owe you?” The man shifted on the bar stool and reached into his hip pocket, pulling out a battered wallet and opening it up, to reveal a wad of what looked like singles, and a very familiar blue identification card.
The man looked startled, but nodded. “Desert Storm, Third Armored.”
Looking the guy up and down, the bartender made a quick decision. “Then you don’t owe me anything. The club’s buying for all veterans tonight.”
“Least we can do.” Hell, yes. Desert Storm was pre-Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell. Which meant that this guy had served most or all of his career at risk of dishonorable discharge, if anyone had discovered the secret that made him one of Purgatory’s customers.
“Did I hear you right?” This from a balding bear in leather shorts and a harness, a couple of stools down the bar. “I did three tours, USMC, last one at Camp Fuji.”
“Semper Fi, what’ll you have?”
A small crowd gathered around the bar, as word started making it around the room that the house was buying for servicemen. Mac was more than a little surprised at the number of Purgatory regulars coming forward to claim drinks. Even Miss Mona, a drag queen who probably hadn’t missed a Monday night at Purgatory in forty years, turned out to have been a pilot in Korea. My paycheck’s going to take a beating this week. Mac laughed to himself. It’s worth it.
He looked up from pouring a martini – and grinned ear-to-ear, he couldn’t help it. “Sarge! – what the hell are you doing here?”
Thomas Almstead grinned back. “You turned down my offer of a beer tonight because you were working.” He glanced around at the men crowding his son-in-law’s bar – business is good, I see – and then reached across the bar to shake the hand of the man who’d saved his ass twice in Vietnam. “So I thought I’d come to you.”
“Did I hear him call you ‘Sarge’?” The speaker was an elderly man in a pink sequined mermaid gown and pink feathered headdress. “Then you can buy a lady a drink on the house.”
Mac grinned at the drag queen. “You need to finish your creamy Sex on the Beach, Miss Mona, then you can pester Sarge for another one.”
Thomas laughed. Two years ago, if anyone had told me I was going to be spending Veterans’ Day 2013 in a gay nightclub run by my son-in-law, I would have… well, I’m not sure what I would have done. Questioning sanity would have been high on the list, though. Then he leaned across the bar, as Mac motioned to him. “Looks like they really needed you tonight,” he commented, before the bartender could speak. From what Thomas remembered from dinner conversations with Tiernan and Kevin, Monday nights were usually fairly quiet at Purgatory. Tonight was, apparently, an exception.
Mac’s gaze swept the group clustered around the bar. “Well, it’s my own fault. I decided to pick up the tab for any vets in the house tonight. Who’d have thought there were so many?”
“You decided to –“
Mac rolled his eyes as a gaggle – there really was no other word for it – of boys who looked barely out of their teens waived at him. “Excuse me just a second, Sarge. I need to go card a few people.”
Thomas frowned in thought as Mac moved off down the bar, a slight spring in one step from the carbon fibre blade prosthetic leg he was sporting, then turned away from the bar and crossed the club, carefully skirting the edge of the pit full of black leather furniture and knocking on the nearly-invisible door on the far side of it.
Tiernan looked up, startled, from the computer monitor displaying his rotation of security cameras. “What the particular fuck?” Most people didn’t know his office door was there, and the ones who did generally didn’t bother to knock. He unfolded himself from behind the desk and went to the door, pushing it open. “Mr. Almstead!”
“I thought we’d agreed on ‘Thomas’, at least.” The human shook his head, chuckling briefly, before turning serious again. “I just wanted to let you know what your bartender’s up to.”
“Mac? Is something wrong?” Tiernan craned his neck to look past Thomas and over to the bar, but he couldn’t see the bartender over the unusual-for-a-Monday-night crowd.
“He’s picking up the tab for all the veterans in the club tonight. Even though he was discharged other than honorably himself.” Thomas shook his head, apparently at Tiernan’s confused expression. “An other than honorable discharge, back in our day, meant no benefits, no retirement, nothing. All because some rat bastard of a second lieutenant saw him holding hands with Lucien, off base, and Mac was too damned honorable to lie about it when they called him on it.”
Tiernan growled under his breath. He tended to do that, when reminded of what Mac had gone through. His husband had grown up on his father’s stories of his Marine Corps friend – hell, Kevin had been named for him, ‘Mac’ McAllan’s given name was Kevin – and the Fae tended to think of the bartender as one of the members of the extended family he’d managed to acquire when he SoulShared with Kevin. “Thanks for letting me know.”
“Mac. Over here.”
Startled, Mac, turned away from the group of just-barely-legals, to find his boss standing behind the bar, drumming the fingers of his gloved hand on the glass surface. “What’s up?”
“I’m told you’re buying for all these gentlemen.”
Mac cleared his throat. “Well, yes. It’s Veterans’ Day. Seemed only right.”
Mac wiped suddenly sweaty palms on his jeans. “It’s my own money –“
“What seems right to me,” Tiernan cut in, his voice raised, “is that your customers know that you served as honorably as any of them, you saved my father-in-law’s life, and you’re fucking well taking the rest of the night off.”
Mac felt himself turning bright red. On the far side of the bar, he caught a glimpse of Sarge, nodding at Tiernan, and customers staring. He’d never talked much about his service. Bartenders were supposed to listen, not talk, and most of the memories were still too painful. But looking into the eyes of one customer after another, he was sorry he’d kept it to himself for so long.
“Go on.” Tiernan made a shooing motion. “I’ve got the bar.”
A little dazed, Mac skirted the far end of the bar and made his way back to where Sarge and the others were waiting for him. He felt hands clapping him on the back and shoulders and Miss Mona tiptoeing to kiss his cheek as he shook Sarge’s hand. “You ratted me out.”
“Guilty.” The former first sergeant didn’t even try to look embarrassed.
“Look, I know this isn’t really your kind of place. If you want to go somewhere else –“
“Hell, no.” Thomas looked around at the men clustered around them. “None of you jarheads have heard any of my stories yet…”