At the Old Astoria Bar, dusty beer signs elbow photos of long-decommissioned navy cruisers and faded Goonies and Free Willy swag. Elliott had figured Thanksgiving would be dead. But a dozen men, every one north of 60, slump or perch around the bar. On the TV, Lions and Bears slog through a muddy, low-scoring affair.
As a surprise for Thalia, Elliot brought in strands of battery-powered fairy lights. He strings them under the bar, using purse hooks to swag the strands. Thalia emerges from the storeroom with two cardboard gin boxes. Shakes her brown waves. “No lights!”
Elliot sighs, begins unswagging.
Thalia is Elliot’s boss and also his roommate. Last night, the two had watched Young Frankenstein shoulder to shoulder on the couch. The other roommates, a couple, were camping for the holiday week. It was thrilling to see Thalia relaxed. Barefaced in her pajamas. Twice, her arm brushed Elliot’s.
Afterward, Elliot proposed dinner together after this short Thanksgiving shift at the bar, said he’d pick up a Fred Mayer tray of turkey and fixings. “Sure,” she said. “Just us orphans.”
Now Mr. McDougal asks in his reedy voice, “Is there any food? Some kind of protein?”
“Yeah, Thalia. Got any meat back there?” guffaws Fred, wearing a brown UPS uniform even on his day off.
“For you losers and leftovers? Forget it!”
She nurses a G&T at the end of the bar. Unusual for her. Normally, she sticks to the office and storage room, sometimes stepping out into the alley to negotiate with delivery drivers.
“Turkey? That tryptophan’s a menace,” Rudy says. “Makes my brain go fuzzy.”
“My sister’s an ER nurse,” adds Old Will. “Full to bursting every Thanksgiving.” He shifts self-importantly in his overalls. “See, it’s the first unmissable family holiday. So you see thems you avoid the rest of the year. The game. Politics. Eating and sitting around.”
“I’d rather drink and sit around,” calls Rudy.
“Cheers to that!” Thalia says, and each man lifts his glass an inch. Thalia slides under the counter, disappears to the back.
Elliot supposes these men have family at home. The Old Astoria’s an unscheduled stop before a convenience store run for canned cranberry and aerosol whipped cream.
When he was a kid, his mom always cooked extravagantly for Thanksgiving. For days, there’d be sandwiches on sourdough slathered in cranberry. Gooey turkey tetrazzini. Turkey enchiladas. And sometimes she used to bring him along to The Astoria. It would be him and Thalia, doing their homework together on the corner table. Her dad tended bar. Later, when he was older and Thalia off with her friends, Elliot would head to the docks to regard the boats moving gently in their slips. The steel-trussed Astoria Bridge spanning the Columbia’s mouth. On the other side was the cove Lewis & Clark dubbed the Dismal Nitch. Sometimes when Elliot got home, there’d be muffled laughter and squeaky thumps from his mom’s room. In the morning the men were always gone.
Elliot pulls a Henry’s Blue Boar for Fred. Thalia knows her customers, goes light on local microbrew orders.
When Thalia returns with a tub of ice, Elliot asks, “What about a little stage in here? Music. Or karaoke?”
“Dude, seriously?” Guffaws from around the bar. Thalia fishes an ice cube from her glass, crunches it in her teeth. This side of her, he isn’t crazy about. Playing to the crowd.
“Watch a bar a sec.” Thalia nods and Elliot ducks underneath, heads for the Gents.
Mr. Cleese is inside. Elliot unzips at the urinal. Cleese had been Elliot’s favorite high school teacher. Elliot got his only A, for a paper on Lewis & Clark and their Corps of Discovery. Cleese takes his time washing his hands. Wipes them on his slacks, then uses both thumbs to smooth his brows.
“Son, it’s not my business how you all conduct your affairs,” he says. “I’ll say it plain. Your lady friend makes money by manually pleasuring men in the back.” He maintains eye contact. “Hand jobs, son.”
“Thank you, sir, but it’s all under control,” is all Elliot can think to say. Cleese gives Elliot’s shoulder a sympathetic pat and exits.
Elliot remains at the urinal, dick in hand. His face burns. He marvels at his own naiveté, thinking these losers have anywhere to go but this bar. Does everyone else know about these handies to the dads and uncles and Rotarians?
At the bar Cleese stands beside Thalia, who smiles at Elliot. The fairy lights twinkle, re-swagged.
Elliot grabs a bottle of Tillamore Dew from the top shelf. He says nothing, strides out jacketless into coastal fog. As he walks, he takes a swig, and then another, impatient for the syrupy feel to start under his knees. He passes one bright-lit cannabis dispensary, then another. The fancy corner bakery that came in with the displaced Portlanders, themselves displaced by the hated Californians.
Elliot’s high school friends have all long departed Astoria for greener pastures. Portland, Seattle, and points beyond. He rationalized he made good tips. He’d avoided crushing student loans or diaper pail debt. But really, he stayed for Thalia. He reaches the greasy harbor underneath Astoria Bridge. Just four miles away lies the Dismal Nitch. For six days in November 1805, a fierce storm pinned the Lewis & Clark corps to the cove, little more than jagged rocks and steep hillside. They’d arrived without fresh food and with the clothes rotting off their backs. Elliot is freezing. He is also, he realizes, hungry. Washington. So close. A different state entirely. Beyond that, British Columbia and the Yukon Territory. Alaska. Dismal but new and raw. Wilderness.
One thing that’s a given in our families and communities is an awareness of those people who have to work on holidays. Health care workers and first responders, to be sure, but also gas station attendants, hotel staff, and food service/tavern workers, to name a few. COVID brought awareness to essential workers and how “essential” status points to economic and health vulnerability and outsider status. In our county, liquor stores were deemed essential businesses. Further, Thanksgiving and its traditions come with extremely specific expectations. The table crammed with traditional and beautifully presented dishes, the smiling faces of loved ones crowded around it. It can be painful when one’s experience does not match the narrow idea. Grieving Elliot wants to bring the holiday into the bar with fairy lights and traditional food (albeit from a department store). His boss is stubborn about seeing the bar for what it is: work. Simply put, we wanted to show a character who is driven to give another person the sustenance he himself so deeply needs.
Los Angeles natives now living in the San Francisco Bay Area, Patricia and Trinidad Bidar met in the ‘90s, at University of California Davis’s Graduate Writing Program. Trinidad’s poetry has been published in ZYZZYVA, California Quarterly, and Northwest Review. Patricia’s fiction has appeared in Wigleaf, SmokeLong Quarterly, Atticus Review, and Pithead Chapel and is forthcoming in W.W. Norton’s Flash Fiction America anthology.