“He should be fine, now, OK?” Brandy says, handing Oscar back to me. The little jerk immediately puts his paw on my boob and sits up, which he hasn’t been willing or able to do in a week. “He just needed some doggy chiropractic lovin’.”

“Great, thanks, Brandy. How much do I owe ya?” Not that I care, since it’s a tax writeoff anyway. All the money I spend on the rescue dachshunds, that’s an above the line deduction. Plus the whole thing got easier when I started working for Chiaroscuro full time instead of Caliginosis. Holly loves having the pups in the office, says they calm everybody down. Not that anyone needs calming but Cali.

“Hundred bucks? We’ll bill you. I don’t really handle that anymore.” Brandy’s mouth quirks in that way that drives her co-workers crazy, not to mention everybody here at the Mink. She brushes dark hair back over one ear in a gesture that should look practiced but just comes off as innocently seductive. She’s kind of an equal opportunity employer, from what I hear, not that I had an opportunity to find out. I’m always just missing those opportunities. Missed out on Mariah when she had it bad for Holly, before Cali showed up. Missed out on Holly the night she showed up at the Mink all hopped up on weird magic and ready to tumble anything that walked through the door (until she burned the place down, which I also missed out on).

Whatever. It’s almost the weekend, and what am I doing drinking in the Mink when there’s bars to close and boy-hearts to break in the rest of this city? Right. Meeting my veterinarian and picking up my latest foster dachsie.

“Thanks again, then. Let me buy you a drink at least?” I twist my blonde hair back into a casual ponytail and bat my big blue eyes at her in a move that for some reason actually works on guys, but girls find hilarious. Brandy’s no exception.

“Might as well, right? My damn date cancelled. I don’t know why I even still bother.” She rolls her eyes.

“It’ll be your turn,” Tambi says calmly, sliding a shot of Jack Daniels with a beer back over to each of us. That’s another one of the things I love about the Mink. Besides being the hottest woman that ever crossed the 200 lb mark, Tambi refuses to serve crap beer for a back. This one’s a Three Floyds nut-brown, according to the chalkboard. Fine with the whiskey.

“Yeah, when.” Brandy sighs and I slouch, letting Oscar get his front feet up on the bar and pant at Tambi. She gives him a rocks glass of water.

“Happened for them,” Tambi says, simultaneously pouring us another shot and pointing her chin at Barbi and Ken. The burly bartender gives us a thoughtful look as she slides the shot glasses across the polished wood to us.

“Brandy, you weren’t here the night Barbi drove Ken’s car into the Mink, were you?”

Brandy’s jaw drops. Like everything else about her, it’s ridiculously cute. Like a pinup.

“No way!” she whispershouts, glancing at me.

“Way,” I whisper back. “I was here, even.” I feel smug for a minute. I’m finally in on something good that somebody else isn’t. I mean. Holly gets superpowers, Natalie gets superpowers, Cali’s got superpowers, Mariah’s got Cali… I’ve got dachshunds. I’m never here when anything good happens. Except that night.

“Yes. Seriously…” Tambi looks up and down the bar. All quiet. She hooks a bottle of hundred year old Scotch out from under the bar and thunks it down in front of us. She adds a third glass for herself and tops them all up.

“No, this one’s on me,” she waves Brandy off. “I got the storytelling bug from my dad, and you look like a girl that could use a story tonight. Listen up.”

“So, you already know Ken.” Kenichi’s his full name. In drag, I mean. When she’s in civvies her name’s Rene and she’s campus security. It’s funny, we all used to call her Rene all the time, but it’s just Ken now that she’s with Barbi.

“Okay. Well, end of last year there was that big drag show, up in Boystown. Benefit a couple members of the community who had some financial trouble last year, medical stuff, pay for some transition surgery for one girl, that kinda thing. So a bunch of the drag kings came down here after the show, blow off some steam. Ken’s one of em, you know? Which is probably why, when Barbi stumbled in off the street, she didn’t figure out this was a dyke bar.”

That night was crazy too, all the drag kings showing off, muscles and arm wrestling and machismo. I came down to check it out cause they always know how to make a girl feel good… and then feel better, if you know what I mean. It’s nice to feel like a girly girl, I don’t care what anybody says. But nobody does girly girl like Barbi did that night. The whole Mink went silent when she staggered in off the street looking exactly like her namesake. But her perfect blonde hair was half-down and her perfect perky boobs were heaving with little half-sobs, and her low-slung jeans were torn enough to show that the perfect tan was all over.

“She was in a terrible mood.” Tambi’s a master of understatement. “I could tell right away it was boy trouble, ok? You know, after tending bar this long. You just know. So when she asked for a wine spritzer I gave her a Scotch and soda. She made a face but she drank it down and asked for another so I did. Next thing I knew, she was spilling her guts.”

Which is why God made bartenders.

“So she’s with this guy, Todd. Only he keeps trying to talk her into a threesome with her friend Traci? And she’s so not into that. So everything comes to a head and Todd tells her he’d rather be with Traci anyway and he leaves her up here on Belmont, no car, no ride home, nothing. She has no damn idea where she even is, really. Just that she needs a drink.”

Thre’s something about the Mink, ok? When I ask Holly, she plays it quiet, but she knows what’s up. Data’s her thing, and she’s been drinking in here since Mariah brought her in that first time. Nobody walks through those doors that doesn’t belong. Me, I think it’s a little bit of magic they don’t talk about.

“So a little later there’s Barbi, two stiff drinks in here and God knows how many before. And there’s Ken, tossing back a Jack and Coke, when she catches his eye. It was like, I don’t know.”

“The soundtrack kicked in,” I offer. Tambi nods and Brandy sighs a little.

“Yeah, just like that. Like everything went soft-focus for a minute. So he makes his move, and you know Kenichi. Rene might trip over her own tongue but Ken’s suave, and he’s out to play tonight. Every line in the book, ending with “your father must be a thief” delivered in an Irish accent from a Filipino face.”

Brandy giggles, and Oscar takes the opportunity to hop over from my lap to hers. The fickle little jerk. Tambi takes a generous sip from her Scotch before going on.

“So she goes home with him. And like a gentleman, he doesn’t do a damn thing. I know, cause he came right back here and drank his own self under the table. We had to put him in the safe room in the back to spend the night.”

Brandy looks a little surprised at that. I guess she wouldn’t know about the safe room. She doesn’t spend as much time in here as I do. I’ve seen it used a couple times, once for a gal who stumbled in here with her boyfriend after her and once this kid came in looking all beat to hell in motorcycle gear. Next time I saw either one of em, the kid was helping the gal get a cab to a shelter and, well, we took care of the boyfriend.

“A couple weeks go by and they’re meeting up regular-like. Ken refers to her as ‘the kind of femme a guy could go for,’ you know? Barbi tells me over a cosmo while he’s in the bathroom that he kisses like no boy she’s ever kissed, all soft and sweet and nibbling. The first time she spends the night we all know about it, cause he’s in here for Bloody Marys the next morning at early o’clock, like he can’t believe what he just did.”

Brandy gets a bad case of the wistful sighs, and Tambi tops her glass back up, then raises an eyebrow at me. When I look down, Oscar is investigating my glass with a look of horror on his pointy little bugeyed face. Fine. More for me.

“We hardly see Rene any more at this point, right?” Tambi picks the story back up. “Like, in case Barbi comes in, she’s gotta be Ken. And we can all see how hard it is on Rene, trying to be Barbi’s lover all the time but not let her know that one, really important, thing.”

“They fuck with the lights off, is what she’s saying.” I clarify.

“Okay. I don’t know what the hell happened or how it all came to a head, but end of last summer, I got one of those feelings. So I encourage everybody to maybe sit at the bar instead of the tables. Good thing, too. The Mustang didn’t go far, but it was going fast when it came through the front window.”

I remember it was right after Holly finally quit dodging Sarah – like any of us thought she’d win that one, right? – and it was still warm enough out that the wind off the lake didn’t change the temperature in the bar when the wall caved in. I dropped a seven dollar beer, dammit. Foam and glass all over the floor by the bar, bricks and glass all over the front of that classic Mustang Ken spent hours restoring.

“So we all go over to see if Ken’s ok and there’s Barbi in the front seat of Ken’s Mustang, all alone. So we didn’t know what to think except what the fuck. Over to you, Jennybird.”

“Kay. Um. After I dropped my beer – sorry Tambi – I went outside with Ria to see if Ken was there. And he was… kinda. He pulled up on a borrowed bike like thirty seconds later, and started immediately freaking out that Barbi was hurt. Barbi, not the car. So we knew he had it bad right then.”

Brandy nods and finishes her shot, gesturing a “go on” with the empty glass that almost makes Tambi spill the Scotch as she goes in for the refill.

“So while Tambi and everybody was in here calming Barbi down, Ria came in and got a bottle of Jack and brought it back out for us. After Ken had a few slugs off the bottle, the whole story came out. They were up in Boystown having a drink when in walks Jaclyn – you know Jaclyn? Goes as Jesus in drag? God, what a bitch. Anyway, she walks in and invites herself to the table. In about ten seconds she figures out what’s going on and in maybe ten more she figures out that calling Ken ‘Rene’ is the best way to spoil someone else’s night ever. Yeah. So now Ken, I mean, Rene, is like totally outed. And Barbi’s like um. Um no. No, I’m straight, what are you talking about how could you? And now that she knows all there is to know about the crying game she gets the hell out. In Rene’s car, because the keys are on the table. By the time Rene convinces somebody to loan her a bike, Barbi’s nothing but a set of smoking skidmarks.”

I sip at my drink, trying to figure out how to explain the next part. I’m no saint, and I don’t want to come across as one, but Ken was so broken that night. I couldn’t not help.

“Ria whispers to me, Tambi said wait. So we wait, we get a little more Jack Daniels into Rene, and she wants to go in, she wants to see if Barbi’s ok, get slapped in the face, take her medicine, and go home with her heartache. Because nobody could see a happy ending coming, you know?”

“Meanwhile,” Tambi picks up the story and the Scotch at the same time. They’re both coming to an end now and I keep sneaking sidelong glances at Brandy as she absentmindedly feed Oscar the pretzels his fat little butt shouldn’t be eating. “Barbi’s in here at the bar next to Holly Lee, because one straight girl needs another, right? And she’s with the wailing and weeping and woe and wurrawurra, because she loves Ken with all her heart really and how could he I mean she do this and he’s a sheeeeeee. Poor Holly’s patting her back super awkwardly and she’s got one of those oh is that what it was like when I was like that looks on her face so I slip em both a stiff drink. Holly shoots hers, blinksniffs a couple times, and then works on getting the other one into Barbi.

“Which is how ten minutes later, you’ve got Barbi explaining to Holly of all people how it’s just not possible to be in love with a woman, she’s a good girl, she was brought up right, and every other damn thing Holly ever said when she and Sarah were doing their dance. Bless her scheming little heart, Holly grits her teeth and says something like ‘just love who you love. If you’re lucky enough to love someone who loves you back… love her hard. The rest doesn’t matter as much as you think it does right now.’ She might have been quoting Sarah herself, for all I know.”

The bartender shrugs her broad shoulders.

“I don’t know why it worked. Sometimes our little Pinkie Pie is just too obviously sincere, you know? But Barbi shifts from flat negatives to stuff like ‘what will people think’ and ‘but my parents,’ so I know the time is right.”

I bounce excitedly in my stool, vaguely conscious of motion as more than one pair of eyes appreciates my tight t-shirt. It’s my turn and this is my favorite part of the story.

“Tambi gave us the high sign, so Mariah took away Ken’s cigarette and we kinda just shoved him in the door and watched through the hole in the wall. He looked like he was gonna die, ok? He just stood there, braced for anything, waiting for her to yell at him, slap him, run out of the room in tears.”

I let the silence draw out. I mean, it’s only kinda suspenseful. We all know how it ends.

“You shoulda seen his face when she launched off the stool,” Tambi smirks. “I’m pretty sure he thought she was going for his throat. Instead, she gave him the biggest damn tearful kiss you ever saw outside the end of a Julia Roberts romcom. And the rest, as they say…”

“Is history!” we finish together, looking at Barbi and Ken, who have gone from sipping each other’s drinks to touching noses lightly.

Brandy sighs, and snuggles Oscar a little closer.

“So. Cute.”

“So what I’m saying is, it’ll be your turn,” Tambi says, with the self-assurance of a woman who’s seen it all. Behind her, the kitchen doors swing open and Hazel peeks out, wiping a steel pot down with a thin towel. Her dark hair clings to her chubby face with sweat, and her chef’s whites are spotted with grease. And it’s obvious when Tambi turns around that Hazel’s the most beautiful thing in the room.

“So. Cute.” I murmur back to Brandy. Oscar yawns.

I don’t know if Tambi leaves the Scotch on purpose when she heads into the kitchen to “check on the hot plate” but we finish it between us anyway, toasting “our turn.”