Private Label

(This story was written in response to the prompt:  ” Why hasn’t someone created a red wine label called The Erection. A nice table wine I’m sure” by Erin Sherbert)

He opened a bar because he’d never been very good at bars – because he’d always wanted to be that guy who can leave with a stranger, but couldn’t figure out how. Owning his own place was, he’d thought at the time, a way to get a leg up on the competition: to win through cheating, but still to win.

Six months in, Hal realized he’d had it all wrong. He still wasn’t bringing anyone home, but he now had regulars who’d say “I know the owner” and get action.

Bars drip with sex. But somehow being at the center of the universe put him no closer to it. Eight months ago he’d been sitting on a stool nursing a whiskey through last call; tonight he was cleaning the taps after announcing it. The view – watching other people live the life he’d wanted – was almost identical.

This was just harder work. Opening his own place wasn’t a winning principle, it was a variant on “those who can’t, teach.”

He watched his best customer, Lauren, finish her whiskey and head out the door, taking the possibility of a magical night with her once again. “I’m lucky to be open this long,” he reminded himself as he turned off the “open” sign and put the chairs on top of the tables. By “best customer” he meant “favorite,” not the most profitable – which was another bad sign, he supposed. He walked over to the counter and started cleaning it down. By “favorite” he meant “one he most wanted to sleep with,” which was also probably not the right way to think of these things …

“It just keeps getting worse and worse,” he muttered. It is amazing the number of things that can start out as adventures and become pathetic after just a few months. He was a collector of such experiences: they were his zodiac sign, his aura, and a decoration he wore around his neck.

He supposed it wasn’t so bad – though his back hurt as he pushed the mop. As long as you can walk away from you current misadventure to your next … as long as you have a future …

The cell that doubled as the bar’s phone rang. He checked the number. Took the call. “You want back in?” he asked Lauren.

“Tell me the story again,” she said, “about the wine.”

“Come back,” he said. “I’ll give you another shot.”

“No, I’m on my way to a … to a … party … and I want to tell the story.”

He leaned back against his bar. Are you kidding me? She wanted him to tell her his story, so she could use it to impress someone else and get laid. “It’s late. I’m tired.”

“Tell it quick. Please?”

I will never escape being a wingman, he thought.

It wasn’t that he was lonely – not more than most people, he assumed. It wasn’t even that he actually wanted to have that much more sex – not in the way that he wanted to make more money or wanted to stop having back pain. No, he just wanted to be that guy. Doesn’t everybody want to be that guy? Isn’t our whole civilization built on guys wanting to be that guy? Isn’t that why we build cities?

Talking to her made him feel like he should be building a city. So that they’d wake up together.

But … he looked around at the bar … you get your 20s, and maybe your early 30s, to see if you’re that guy. He’d had his chance. It was time for him to admit the obvious: that guy would never look back at him from the mirror. He would never wake up being held by two beautiful women and think ‘how did I get here?’ It was even possible that the best days of his sex life were already behind him, which meant that in the end his record would be more stressful than exciting. He would probably die alone. Or, more likely, die with a platonic roommate – which was a fate worse than death.

Time to accept it.  Embrace what you can’t accept.  He exhaled. It wasn’t even all that bitter a pill to swallow. It was even a relief, actually, to finally be honest with himself. He wished he hadn’t wasted so many years refusing to admit this.

“C’mon,” Lauren said over the phone. “Do this for me!”

The question was: if he wasn’t that guy, which kind was he? Did he want to embrace being a wingman, which meant always smiling about being on the outside, or did he want to put a stop to that game of musical chairs now that there was obviously no room for him?

“Okay,” he told her. “Real quick. You ready?”

Because, dammit, isn’t it better if somebody’s having fun? The alternative just seemed bitter and mean. Better to be a sad clown, he supposed, than to actually make the world a sadder place.

She laughed. “Ready!”

“So my friend Bryan and I have shared one of those home wine-making operations for a couple of years now. We don’t own an actual vineyard, because we’re poor, but you can totally make box worthy wine in your garage, and Bryan has one of those. It kind of sucks: he has a garage but not a car, I have a car but not a garage … but, put us together and we’re almost a fully functioning human being.”

“Ummmm-hmmmmm.”

For a moment, he entertained some kind of thought that his voice was making love to her in the back seat of her Uber. What a stupid metaphor, he thought. Reminded himself that he was giving that bullshit up. I’ll probably have to give it up a bunch of times before it takes.

“So when I said I was going to start a bar, we were thinking we might sell our homemade wine there, right? Have our own label. But it turns out that being a hobbyist for yourself and producing wine to sell at your establishment are completely different things, which meant that if we didn’t want to pay a shit ton of money and fill out a shit ton of paperwork for the privilege of selling the wine we were going to make anyway … and remember, poor … that we were going to have to do it under the table. Totally off the books. And …”

He leaned his head back and smiled at the ceiling. The place still had some antique tile work up there from back when it had first been a building worth looking at. “… I don’t know about you, but there’s something about being a criminal that brings out my creative side. Right? Do you know what I mean?”

“Ummmm-hmmmmm,” she said again. Fuck he loved that. “I know what you mean.”

“So we’re drunk one night, in Bryan’s garage, and we’re thinking: as long as this is going to be an illegal, off the books, underground, completely un-legit thing we’re doing anyway … let’s take it to the next level! Let’s live up to it … down to it! Let’s put Viagra in the wine, and call the label ‘Erection!’ And sell that on the sly! Because I think people would buy that! Don’t you think people would buy that!”

“I have been trying,” Lauren said petulantly, “to get you to sell me some since the moment I first heard about it.”

“No can do,” he said. “You’ve gotta be a member of the club.”

“Where do I sign?”

“Ahhhhhhh,” he said sadly. “Nope. You’ve got to be recommended by a member.”

“WELL?” she said.

Those tiles really were lovely. If he had the money, he’d do the whole bar up like that. Which would make it completely unrecognizable. Something totally new, something he probably didn’t know how to own. “Sorry,” he said. “I can’t play favorites. I’ve gotta be impartial, and the rules are strict.”

“Hal …” she cooed.

“And it’s not like we really know each other, is it Lauren? It’s not like I can vouch for you, or you make a point of hanging out with me when I’m not pouring free drinks. We’re bar buddies. You’re a customer I’m into. Let’s not make it more than it is.”

He didn’t think he was being petty. It was the right call. Wasn’t it?

She laughed. “I’m going to get some of that.”

“I hope so,” he said. “Because it’s even possible that we’ve moved on to other varietals and drugs. We might have a whole series of wines specifically blended with different pharmaceutical fun. It just might be what’s keeping this place afloat, actually: that might be the secret sauce that keeps me open. Strictly hypothetically, of course. This could all be bullshit I say to impress a pretty girl.”

“Right,” she said, laughing again. “Right. Is ‘Erection’ white or red?”

“Red,” he said, immediately. “It’s a shiraz.”

“Tasty.”

“Strong and deep,” he agreed. “Goes down rough. Leaves an impression.”

“Fuck,” she said. “I love that story so much.   You know if you’d let me in the club …”

“… Hypothetical club. Bullshit, rumor, probably not even true club …”

“… I could bring you so much business.”

He laughed. “Are you a cop, Lauren?” It was kind of a serious question. It would also be so hot if she were a cop. Though … that probably wouldn’t be a good thing …

“I’m in risk management, you fucker.”

“Then you shouldn’t be giving me shit about managing my risks!”

“I’m just saying, this is a …” there was noise in the background. “I’m here,” she said. “But you have not heard the last of this.”

“Have a great time,” he told her.

It occurred to him, after he’d hung up, that That Guy would have let her in the first time she asked about it. Would have talked her into a private tasting. Well, there you go. I’m not even the one in ‘risk management,’ and that’s all I do with my whole life, he thought.

She was probably a cop. Keep telling yourself that.

Bars drip with sex. He was making money on that. It wasn’t the same as getting some, but,it was something.

Right?

Maybe it’s better to be in my position, he thought. Or maybe nobody gets what they really want, and the sooner you make peace with that the happier you are.

As he turned out the lights, he pulled a case of private label “Erection” and “Ecstasy” out from below the bar. Best not to keep them here, just in case.

He walked out of the bar, carrying what in somebody else’s hands might have been a week of great sex in a box, but in his were thousands of dollars of product. Such a small difference. The kind that lives are made of.

Like this?  Benjamin’s collection of short fiction “A Guide to Bars and Nightlife in the Sacred City” is available. 

“Benjamin Wachs reveals a distinctive and highly personal flair for storytelling that will engage the reader’s total and rapt attention throughout.” – The Midwest Book Review