Happy Hour

By Michael Conboy

Opening the heavy black door felt like rolling back the boulder from a tomb. Yeah, Tony chuckled to himself as he registered the drop in temperature, a tomb without a savior. The blistering sun had entered with him, slicing a wedge out of the dark interior that was blinding, as if he’d just stared into an eclipse. He didn’t wait for his eyes to adjust, nor was he startled by the wham! of the door slamming shut behind him—he’d worked here for almost a year and knew the place well.

The only light remaining came from unseen bulbs glowing behind translucent panels and filtering through the brown, green, and amber bottles of alcohol at the back of the bar. Shrugging off the wet chill of the air-conditioning, he heard Barry White growling softly about love, his voice like a warning you’d be eaten alive if the right guy ever came along.

At night, when jammed with people, Jojo’s was like the glass fishbowl full of cellophane-wrapped mints that sat by the coat check: shiny, crackly, hopeful. During the day it was like that same bowl, pawed through and smeared with fingerprints.

From behind the bar a guy bellowed, “Tony!” It was a rote attempt to breathe life into the place. “What are you doing here, Busman’s holiday?”

“Hey, Birdie,” Tony said.

Tony liked Birdie. He was sweet and had an easy laugh that made him fun to work with. His sandy hair and freckled nose took a back seat to the kind of big white teeth that were right at home in a face that dimpled easily at the first hint of a smile.

Birdie had been Earl when he started out life. At Jojo’s, some queen said he looked like Jay North (the kid who played Dennis the Menace on TV in the ’60s) and called him Jaybird. Along the way, Jaybird devolved into Birdie, and he’d been Birdie ever since. Tony imagined Birdie’s natural build came from the manual labor he’d put in on the farm he grew up on in Ohio. The term corn-fed came to mind, but he admired Birdie for being at home in his skin in a way Tony never was.

“I’m not on until Friday night, just need to ask Campbell for a favor,” Tony said.

“Campbell’s not in yet,” Birdie said. He placed a double scotch and soda in front of Tony, a reasonable assumption.

Tony hadn’t planned on hanging around but found himself sitting on the stool in front of Birdie, resting his topsiders on the chrome foot-ring. He felt the Naugahyde stick to his legs, reminding him he’d put on shorts. He was self-conscious wearing shorts, sure his legs were too long, too thin, (too girly?) but it was so damned hot outside.

From a cloud of smoke floating in the dark, came a voice like the pitched quiver of a highly-strung bow. “Well, look who’s slumming.”

A second voice, near the first, hissed from behind the glow of a cigarette. “Oh, it’s Miss Thing, look at her.” The words were spoken quietly, perhaps not meant to be heard.

Tony had thought the place was empty. Through the haze, he recognized the duo sitting at the far end of the bar. Don, the chubby one, had platinum-colored hair that sat curled on the top of his head like a contented cat. Marty was pale, wiry, and short, even in his platform shoes, his hair dyed jet black and cut like a monk’s. Both wore their wide-collared nylon Nik-Nik shirts unbuttoned low, revealing enough jewelry to make Alexis Carrington jealous.

He forced a smile, “Gentlemen,” and gave them a short wave. They were good tippers.

“Hello Tony,” Don said, sipping his drink.

Marty slurred softly in Don’s ear, “She thinks she’s so pretty.”

Don continued, “I heard the Mr. Jojo’s Contest was quite a scene last night. Sorry your ex, what’s his name, Gary? Sorry Gary won. What does that make you, the estranged Mrs. Jojo’s of nine-teen-eigh-tee-four?”

Marty choked on a laugh.

It was a nice try, but Tony was ready. “That’s me, guys, jilted, humiliated, and kicked to the curb.”

He hoped this act of self-deprecation would give them less to work with although it did make him question exactly what percentage of his income their tips represented. Seeing there’d be no fun at Tony’s expense, Don surrendered a small laugh and folded back into his conversation with Marty.

Tony took a long slow pull from his scotch. There had been a hundred things he’d rather have done last night than watch his ex, in a thong, shaking his ass for a rabid crowd. From his station behind the bar, he’d watched the kind of performance that, just a couple of weeks earlier, would have been only for him. Sighing, he had to admit that on some level he’d always known it wouldn’t last.

Gary had first shown up at Jojo’s one night, straight out of Central Michigan University. He was fresh meat, packed into black leather pants and a red mesh shirt that did little to hide his solid build: a frat boy’s version of Simon Le Bon. He’d been so eager to learn, eager to please, eager, once they’d split up, to systematically sleep with every guy Tony had ever casually mentioned wanting to have sex with. But what a wild ride! They were coked up, drunk, and screwing for six months straight, until it burned itself out the way these things always do, when sex talk turns to talk about rent, about who will do the dishes.

Tony hadn’t expected to care as much as he did. He sort of felt it might have been love on some level, but he also had to admit maybe it was just nice to have a steady boyfriend when the news was full of weird gay cancer shit and every new trick was as much about worry as it was about fun. How many mornings had he jerked awake in some strange bed, covered in sweat and shuddering, before telling himself that no, no, it was just the alcohol leeching out from last night, only to check the size of his lymph nodes. Just. In. Case.

“Isn’t Campbell supposed to be here by now?”  he asked Birdie.

Birdie paused, glancing down the bar at the others. “Honestly, hon, I’m not sure he’s coming in today at all. I think he’s got the flu.”

“Aw shit,” Tony replied. “The flu, or THE FLU? Are you telling me—”

“I’m not telling you anything,” Birdie said. “I just—”

“Birdie,” Don interrupted. “Two more, darling. Chirp, chirp.” His hair readjusted itself as if briefly awakened over the commotion.

Tony could see his conversation wasn’t going to get in the way of their drinking.

Rocking his stool on two legs, he leaned toward Birdie. “What’s with those queens? They’re a pain in the ass.”

“Ha!” replied Birdie. “Don’t worry about them, dear. Miss Don used to be pretty but now she’s bitter and old, and Marty’s just a mess. They’re harmless.”    

Tony tried to mask his irritation: with Birdie, who always seemed cheerfully above the fray, and with himself for giving a damn about what they thought of him. He winced. Could his unease be a fear that soon enough he’d be just like them?

Birdie reached for two glasses and dragged them through the ice. He took a bottle of gin and poured it high up, close to the rims, before topping them off with tonic. His motions were fluid to the point of choreography and Tony was surprised to find himself wondering what sex might be like with him, how all that grace would translate in bed. In that instant, he knew someday he’d sleep with Birdie, just as he’d slept with all his friends, as if he couldn’t trust their friendship unless they’d experienced all there was of him.

The clean scent of juniper made active by the tonic trailed after Birdie as he walked down the bar. It was a sharp contrast to the overriding smell of Stroh’s and Clorox.

“Thank you, my dear,” Don said out of the side of a mouth full of cigarette. He used his bejeweled hand to slide a ten toward him. “Keep the change.”

“Oh no, thank you,” Birdie winked. He rang up the order then spun around, stuffing the tip into his jar.

“How long have they been here?” Tony asked when he returned.

“Ha!” said Birdie, in a clipped laugh that reminded Tony of a seal’s bark. “Since I opened.”

Birdie wasn’t a shrink, and he wasn’t the law. He was a mercenary. As long as those two were coughing up the cash, he’d serve them until they left, crawling on their hands and knees to the parking lot, pouring themselves into their car and pointing it north past Eight Mile Road and out of the city.

Tony tapped out a staccato rhythm with his foot as he stared into his scotch. He had come here to ask Campbell—beg, actually—for enough time off to head to Saugatuck for the Fourth of July weekend. How long would he have to stick around?

Saugatuck was a quaint sort of P-Town on Lake Michigan—a gay Mecca with white clapboard buildings and a boat-choked harbor. The holiday weekend was sure to be a wild mix of friends from Detroit and unknown guys from Chicago, all anxious to get to know each other—very anxious. It was the perfect place for an overexposed bartender, pushing thirty, to widen his opportunities. Campbell had made it clear there would be all-hands-on-deck at Jojo’s that weekend, so Tony knew he was asking a lot. How had he gotten himself into this situation? It was hard work pouring drinks for hundreds of guys whose endless thirst came from the need to forget all the lies they told Monday through Friday. Bartending wasn’t making him rich, but it was great at getting him laid, which went a long way in explaining his stasis.

Birdie set another double in front of him, unasked for, but not unappreciated, and headed to the back to start prepping for the night. Tony chewed on a straw as his finger traced the boomerang pattern in the bar’s Formica. He thought about the employee meeting last Saturday after the bar closed. Campbell was a decent boss. He’d come up through the scene in the ’60s, bartending in small, unmarked places that seemed mysterious to Tony: The Diplomat, The Iron Hinge, The Famous Door, before finally scraping enough money together to open Jojo’s, a dance club that leveraged the disco craze back when pride was just starting to peek around the corner. Campbell was thin with a not-half-bad face for a forty-year-old, not that Tony would ever go to bed with a forty-year-old.

“You’ve all got to be nicer to the customers,” Campbell had said that night, trying to balance authority with camaraderie.

“But Campbell,” Tony protested. “I have a loyal following of self-loathing guys who love verbal abuse. I’ll lose all my customers!”

Campbell was usually up for that kind of smart-ass shit, so Tony was surprised when he’d simply sighed and said, “Please, Tony. Please try.” He’d seemed tired and, frankly, looked like hell.

It’s funny how gays put bartenders at the top of the heap. Tony and his co-workers were treated like the royal family at every club in town. True, standing six feet tall with features that gave away his Italian roots didn’t hurt, but he was never the best-looking guy in the room.

Second best, usually. Well, almost usually. No, he thought, it was more the stage he was on, as if the floor behind the bar had been elevated. Maybe the attraction was the illusion of pride; if you were a guy putting yourself in front of hundreds of people every night, exposing yourself to one and all with a big gay-bar T-shirt stretched across your chest, you were obviously out and proud. Never mind that you told your parents your job was some place way on the west side they would never have heard of, never mind that at Christmas with the family you were just as full of lies about women as the lawyers and bankers you served. If you were seen as out and proud, it was because that’s what the customers needed you to be, what we all dreamed we’d be in time.

Birdie returned with his hands full of lemons and limes. He placed them on the bar next to Tony and brought out a cutting board and a knife.

“How can Campbell keep running the bar if he’s sick so much these days?” Tony said, resuming the conversation. It took some balls for him to ask for the weekend off, and he clearly wanted to get to the other side of it.

“Beats me,” Birdie said, as he chopped. “I don’t ask a lot of questions.”

Hysterics erupted from down the bar. “Oh my god, they don’t know? You are the sickest. I love when you tell that story, tell them,” Marty prodded Don. Too excited to wait, he let loose, “Don was riding in the car behind Jayne Mansfield when she was in that terrible accident!”

Tony and Birdie turned to listen.

“It’s true,” Don said, obviously enjoying the shift of focus in his direction. “It was about fifteen years ago, ’67 or ’68, and I was driving my car on route 90 going over to New Orleans for a little assignation, if you catch my drift. She was up ahead, riding in this big red Buick Electra convertible when it slammed into the back of a tractor-trailer. She got decapitated! What a mess. Honey, there were bodies all over and people crying everywhere! I pulled over to check things out and saw her head lying in the ditch. Why, when the police got there, I picked it up and gave it right to them!”

“Oh, my Lord and Taylor,” shrieked Marty, killing his drink. “Have you ever heard such a thing?”

Their laughter ricocheted through the lounge, around the empty dance floor, and back again. Was it just Tony’s imagination or had Don affected a slight southern accent in telling this story?

“Ha!” Birdie hooted. “Oh my god, you’re nuts! You’re crazy!” He poured out two more for them.

“All true,” Don said, relaxing into a newfound sincerity. “Poor thing, never knew what hit her.”

Tony had laughed a little too, but he found himself questioning the insanity of it: Judy, Natalie, Marilyn, why did they worship these divas only to relish their tragedies? Those two really got under his skin. He turned his attention back to Birdie. “Campbell’s been sick a lot lately.”

Birdie’s eyes darted over to Don and Marty before focusing back on Tony. “Now don’t be a drama queen,” he said quietly. “Campbell’s always getting colds, it’s the air-conditioning, all that coming and going from hot to cold, everybody’s sick.”

“I dunno,” Tony said. “Bill told me last time he was out with him he shit his pants. That’s not normal.”

“Well, Miss Bill’s got a real mouth on her, doesn’t she?” said Birdie, his eyes hinting at a rare annoyance behind the lightheartedness.

The conversation hung briefly in the chill until a buzzer went off, shattering their little world.

“Oh, here we go!” said Birdie. It went off a second time. “Dear me,” he said, “the cops are thirsty today.”

“Detroit’s finest,” Tony scowled, recognizing the buzz from the door off the alley. He knew the drill.

Birdie left for the back and returned with an officer trailing him. Tony didn’t recognize the guy but knew the look: skinny, made big by the power of a uniform. His prematurely gray crew cut and his pale complexion suggested an Irish heritage, the gin blossoms spread over his nose and cheeks told another story. Birdie ducked back under the bar to pull a six-pack out of the cooler as the cop glanced around.

“Hello ladies,” the cop said, smiling from ear to ear. The back of his hand wiped away the sweat cooling on his forehead. “Everyone behaving today?”

Birdie set the beer on the bar in front of him, hoping for a quick visit. Tony, Don, and Marty nodded silently.

“Birdie, give me a shot of Kessler’s,” the officer said.

“Sure,” Birdie replied. “But what about your partner?”

“He’ll be fine in the car for a minute. It’s a beautiful day out there you know.” He scanned his audience. “Of course, you girls wouldn’t want to spoil your pretty looks with the sun.” He whacked back the whiskey and signaled for another.

“Oh officer, my looks are long gone,” said Don, in a play for friendliness.

Marty giggled but stayed fixated on his drink.

Downing his shot, the officer addressed Don. “My mother always uses Oil of Olay on her skin, you should try that.”

Don opened up. “Oh, Oil of Olay, does that stuff really work?”

“Well, my mother thinks so,” said the cop. “And she’s seventy and still beautiful.”

Tony downed his drink as his thoughts went south. When a cop, who is supposed to be the fucking archetype, the goddamned symbol of what a man should be, starts talking about his mother, about beauty products, well that’s a betrayal, a sign of power squandered.

“Oh, I’m sure she is,” Tony muttered, his voice heavy with sarcasm.

There was a glint, then a whoosh, as the shot glass sailed by his temple. It was followed by a thud after embedding itself in the far wall. Pain shot through Tony’s skull, his neck vised between the cop’s thumb and index finger. It was a helluva grip.

“What do you mean by that, you fucking fag,” the cop spat. “Just what the god-damned fuck do you mean by that?”

Birdie backed away, just slightly, as Tony’s shoulders bunched, arms shot out, and fingers splayed, held that way as if paralyzed. Marty shut his eyes.

“Hey!” Don shouted in a voice like a bullhorn.

The cop jerked his head around and glared at him. With his fingers laced under his chin, Don batted his eyelashes and paused for effect before speaking in a voice remarkable in its similarity to Vivian Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara. “He simply meant that with a son as handsome as you, officer, she must be beautiful.”

The cop stared at Don. A hum filled the air. Was it the air conditioner or the blood rushing inside Tony’s eardrums?

“Ha, ha, ha, you queers,” the cop roared, releasing his grip. He gave Tony a little smack to the back of the head. “You crack me up, you fucking cocksuckers. Gimme another Kessler’s.”

Birdie complied, the cop downed it and slammed the glass on the bar. With that, he scooped up the six-pack and headed for the squad car where, Tony imagined, he spent the rest of his shift drinking with his partner and keeping the mean streets of Motown safe. From the back door he hollered, “Have a lovely day, ladies!”

Tony exhaled and glanced up from his glass. For the first time since he’d come in, he looked Don straight in the eye, not for long, but it was enough.

“Thanks,” he said softly.

Don waved him off. “Oh girl, that was nothing. Those cops are pussycats these days. You have no idea what things were like, honey. Things are good these days, things are real good.”

Birdie shook his head. “Man, Tony, you got a real mouth on you.”

Tony quietly asked for another drink and slipped off his stool for a trip to the john, hoping a piss and a little cold water would help him regroup. Unzipping, he noticed Birdie had filled the urinals with ice in an aspirational attempt at glamour. He closed his eyes and let his forehead rest on the mirror above the urinal where it formed a sweaty bond with the cool surface. Pissing felt good, like a release of more than just his bladder. Mid-stream, he found himself thinking about the cop, wondering what he looked like out of his uniform, in bed, or rather, on the floor beside the bed, heavy on top of him, his hand on his neck.

He returned to his drink (his third?). What was he even there for if Campbell wasn’t coming in? Birdie busied himself, cutting the rind of a lemon into strips, filling glasses with bar straws, and twisting piles of napkins into decorative spirals, an exercise that felt as hopeless as putting ice in the urinals. It wasn’t long before another burst of laughter broke the lull.

“Oh my god, OH MY GOD!” cried Marty. “Tell them, tell them, that’s hilarious.”

Chomping his ice, Don turned to the two of them and asked with great delight, “What’s the hardest thing about getting AIDS?

A beat went by before Marty blurted out, “Convincing your parents you’re Haitian!”

Their laughter, once faded, left a void in the room even Barry White had trouble filling.

“Oh Marty, let’s get out of here,” Don fussed. “These two are no fun and Tommy’s tending bar down at the Jewel Box.” They gathered up their Kents and their keys and headed for the door.

“Don’t forget to come back for happy hour, Boys,” Birdie yelled after them. “We’re having the Jayne Mansfield special—beer without a head.”

Cackling as they left, the light from the open door flashed like an atomic blast, illuminating and consuming their silhouettes in an instant. Birdie turned away to make himself a drink and caught Tony’s eye reflected in the gold-veined mirror behind the bar. “Honey,” he sighed.  “I couldn’t talk with those two around. You take whatever time off you want, Campbell’s a goner, he’s not coming back.”

Tony bit the side of his lower lip and nodded. “Fuck.” Poor Campbell, it hit a little too close to home. Still, if Birdie was in charge now, then that was that. He took a long pull on his scotch and let his imagination play out all the possibilities awaiting him on the sunny beaches of Lake Michigan. It was going to be a great Fourth of July.    

View next: Shake Your Tail Feathers, inside When Life Was a Gay Bar: A Dossier by Michael Conboy

Founded in 2020, Three Fold is an independent quarterly based in Detroit that presents exploratory points of view on arts, culture, and society in addition to original works in various media, including visual art, literature, film and the performing arts. We solicit and commission contributions from artists, writers, and activists around the world. Three Fold is a publication of Trinosophes Projects, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization.