Declan, the redheaded bartender, ladled mulled cider into white styrofoam cups. Paul, The balding host next to him, plugged a microphone into the small practice amp behind the bar. Trivia was getting a late start, but no one minded because Maxwell House offered a welcome warmth on this late-winter evening. There was an electric fireplace in the middle of the room and the brackish slush on the bottom of everyone’s pants dissipated quickly.
The place had already filled up with the kind of people that were here every week: a group of millennials from a nearby startup, couples coming together after what felt like a long day apart, and Ron Frongle. Ron Frongle was a handsome man, not so much because of his features, but because of his almost-irritating level of self-confidence. He’d shown up every week for the past six and sat alone at a booth in the corner. Most nights he was silent until the game started, at which point he’d shout whenever he felt like he’d written down the correct answer.
Della wasn’t sure if she found him maddening, or wanted to bed him. Regardless, she respected the fact that he came here by himself. In recent weeks she’d taken to doing the same, a fact that most of her friends found three shades of depressing. She was just happy she got to keep the bar after she and Todd split up. She loved the fact that she was a regular, and Ron Frongle was becoming one as well. As annoying as he was, she felt like they could relate.
She sipped her martini in three successive gulps. Per usual, the vermouth was light and the vodka was heavy, but the olives were stuffed with small hunks of prosciutto, so she knew it wouldn’t be her last. She grabbed one of the print-outs being passed around and scribbled down her go-to team name: Ellen & the Degenerates. She made brief eye-contact with Declan, who brought her another drink without a word.
Della made sure that she could keep her eye on Ron without coming off as obvious. She needed to make up her mind before she made any sort of move. She’d always wondered how the hell he had such a photographic memory of 70’s British pop-culture. She wasn’t particularly interested in it herself. In fact, it was a rare occurrence that she even got a single question right. She didn’t care, she just appreciated being surrounded by people whose faces she knew.
Trivia night was simultaneously Declan’s most and least favorite night of the week to tend bar. Least because of the amount of time he had to listen to Paul prattle on about 70’s British television, and most because of Della. After four months of pining for her, he finally had an opening. For the past few weeks, she’d been showing up without her boyfriend Todd. Their rapport hadn’t changed in that time, but whenever she ate the olive at the bottom of her drink they made eye contact, and if that wasn’t serendipity, he wasn’t sure what was.
Della was the caramelized brown sugar on top of fresh apple crisp.
Todd was a pair of socks that got wet as soon as you left the house.
And now Todd was gone now.
As soon as she’d walked into Maxwell House alone for the third time, he’d written his phone number down on a cocktail napkin. He intended to give it to her with every successive drink she ordered, but he hadn’t yet had the courage to do it. At first, he told himself that he respected the grieving period one goes through immediately after a breakup; now he realized he was just too chicken shit to go through with it. Until tonight.
“Which member of Monty Python starred in the 1975 sitcom Fawlty Towers?” asked Paul, “and for a bonus point, what common seasoning was his character named after?”
Della turned the question over in her head; the only member of Monty Python she remembered was Terry Gilliam; and she only knew that since Todd’s favorite movie was 12 Monkeys and he’d never shut up about it. She wrote down his name and let out a little burp, adding in “Nutmeg” for the bonus question. She didn’t care that she was likely wrong.
“Ron Frongle!” screamed the cardigan-wearing goof. Her skin crawled at the utterance, and she couldn’t help shooting a glance in his direction. From the angle she was at, she noticed the distinct glow of a cellphone screen underneath his table.
“Do we have to go over this again, Ron? This is a quiet, respectful game,” Paul cooed into the microphone. “If you keep this up, I’ll have to ask you to forfeit.”
“Ro-onn Frongle,” he giggled.
The usually jolly host groaned and continued, “Rowan Atkinson, the star of the 1980 show, Blackadder, is also known for his more famous character, named after what popular legume?”
Della absent-mindedly scribbled down the words “pea-brain” while looking at Ron. His scruff barely covered his face, which smirked even wider than before. The terrible cheat, she thought. She wanted to scream it at the top of her lungs. To expose the fraud that he was, and to make him pay back the past $300 in free bar tabs he’d already won. She sat idly by instead. She stewed.
“Ron Frongle,” he muttered, still pleased with himself, though quieter than before.
Paul had begged Declan to ban Ron from Maxwell House, but he wouldn’t do it. Ron had been coming here since before trivia started. The guy was a prick, no doubt about it, but he tipped 20% on every drink, so Declan had never been inclined to take any action. Ron’s impossible confidence threw him, sure, because the guy was honestly a bit schlubby, but the bartender appreciated his need to cause a scene. Anything that got on that squirrel Paul’s nerve’s was another point in Declan’s book.
“Tom Baker’s 70’s stint as the eponymous Doctor Who was popularized by wearing what piece of clothing?” wheezed Paul.
A heavily tattooed girl in scuffed Doc Martin’s sidles up in front of him and orders a Guinness and a shot of Jameson. Declan nodded and, as he poured, caught Della staring bullets at Frongle. Once he’d handed the girl her change, she waited a moment before asking, “Did you really grow up in Ireland?”
“Aye,” he said, scowling.
“Ugh, that must have been so cool. I was in Dublin for a week last summer.”
“Very nice,” he sighed, not taking his eyes of Della, “I don’t go back much.”
“Have you ever been to the Guinness brewery? I think it might be my favorite place on Earth.”
He walked away without answering so that he wouldn’t have to hide his eye roll.
The rest of the night was a bit of a blur. Declan stopped by with another drink without her asking, and stood there for a moment, as if he were waiting for something. She glanced up at him, before returning to her gaze to Ron Frongle, trying to catch him in the act again. She rustled through her wallet for another twenty before he shook his head.
“S’on me,” he sighed and sulked off.
There was a bit of a commotion as the game ended and Paul walked around to collect the game sheets to tabulate. Chatter filled the room and Ron sat still by himself, scrolling through his phone. She felt like she should do something to hide her fascination with him, but she chose to stand up and walk over to his table instead.
“I know what you did,” she whispered.
“Hmm? Whatever do you mean?” he asked, sheepishly.
“I saw you on your phone, you were cheating,” she spat, sticking an accusing finger into his flabby chest.
Della could immediately tell that his shocked expression was fake as he exclaimed, “Who me? Never.”
Paul sighed deeply before announcing, “Surprise, surprise, we have a winner. Ron, you have a $50 tab to use before the end of the night.”
Frongle grabbed her elbow, stopping her as she turned to rat him out. When she looked back, he had a glint in his eye and her knees felt weak.
“What’re you having?” he asked.
“Whiskey ginger,” she said, changing it up.
Ron nodded once before walking up to the bar to collect. He had a swagger to his movements, was light on his feet, though he probably could have stood to lose a few pounds. She couldn’t figure out what it was about him that she didn’t want to keep her eyes off of. She sat back, waiting patiently to see where things would go from here.
Declan was crushed, staring at Della sitting in Ron’s booth while the smug bastard ordered not one, but two drinks. He’d finally left her the napkin from his back pocket and he could still see it now, at her table, unmoved by her half-finished martini with its abandoned olive.
“What’d she want?” he asked casually, pouring ginger ale into a plastic cup.
Frongle was confused, “Huh?” he asked, looking backward. “Oh, red?”
“That’s the one.”
Frongle shrugged, “Beats me.”
Declan gritted his teeth, fingers wrapped tightly around the soda gun, as Ron departed, a fresh tenner left on the bar in front of him. Della’s smile lit up her whole face, the whole room, from his vantage point as Frongle returned to her. Declan felt frustrated, felt like that smile was owed to him and not this cocky joke of a man.
“Hey, Guinness,” he said to the tattooed girl, quietly building a house of coasters to his left.
Her ears perked up, “Yeah?”
“My shift’s about to end, you wanna get out of here?”
She smiled, biting her bottom lip, “Sure.”
As soon as Declan was relieved behind the bar, he grabbed her hand, and lead her out into the night. Instead of stealing one last glance back at Frongle, to the conversation he felt he should be having, he imagined the fingers laced through his own as Della’s. And for a moment, he believed the night was everything he’d wanted it to be.