Maggie McGee’s was quiet at 2:30am.
Champ and Tex celebrated that silence with a beer in one of the back booths. There was a chess board on the table, but only a couple of moves had been made.
The men were a sharp contrast in styles. Champ looked content and at peace, while Tex appeared to have experienced the kind of things that change a man. His shirt was half untucked, his hair a mess, and his face a mask stuck somewhere between shellshock and exhaustion.
Tex counted a large wad of cash in something close to a fugue state, while Champ excitedly studied the board for his next move.
“Champ thinks you did great for your first night,” the older man said as he moved a pawn.
“I’m not sure I actually survived. I’m thinking I died and this is an outer body experience,” Tex blurted out and then chased the comment with a long pull from his beer.
“Champ can assure you that you’re alive. Corpses don’t stink of sweat,” he replied with his trademark cackle. “It looks like you made a lot in tips.”
Tex finally managed a smile and fanned out the bills in front of his weary face. “It’s mostly singles, but it’s a nice haul.”
“I still think you deserve a cut,” Tex insisted as he slid half his take across the table. “You worked the entire shift with me, so it’s only fair.”
Champ shook his head emphatically and placed the bills back on top of Tex’s pile.
“Champ is well compensated by Maggie for his new position,” he reminded his protégé. “Besides, some of the regulars slipped Champ a few bucks over the course of the night.”
Champ cackled again and Tex couldn’t help but smile.
“Thanks for teaching me everything I need to know,” Tex said and then moved his bishop.
Champ winced. “Champ clearly has a lot of teaching to do when it comes to chess. As far as the job goes, here’s Champ’s pearl of wisdom: When people are here, see them solely as customers. It doesn’t matter what they do for a living outside. In this bar, they’re just a customer. The same is true of the company they keep. Who they associate with is none of our business. They come here to get away from the world, and they tip us generously to go along with that little illusion.”
“So this is like Fantasy Island with a liquor license?” Tex quipped as he pocketed his tips.
“Champ believes there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be someone else, even if it’s only for a few hours. Champ bets your birth certificate doesn’t say Tex Bourbon.”
Tex chuckled at the unexpected comment.
“Ted Bergeron,” Tex confessed as he raised his arms in surrender. “That sounds more like a Canadian newscaster than a rock star, so I decided to make a change. What about you? There’s no way Maggie writes out your paychecks to Champ.”
“That’s why Champ insists on being paid under the table,” Champ cackled with delight. “But since you came clean, Champ will, too. Just swear you’ll never tell a soul.”
Tex crossed his fingers over his heart to show that he agreed to those terms.
“David Berkowitz,” Champ whispered.
A puzzled look crossed Tex’s face. “Why does that name sound so familiar?”
Champ shrugged and took Tex’s bishop with his knight.
“This is going to drive me crazy until I figure it out,” Tex growled and took a sip of beer.
Then his eyes lit up as it dawned on him.
“Son of Sam!” Tex blurted. “You’re named after a serial killer!”
Even though the bar was empty, Champ motioned for Tex to lower his voice.
“Champ wasn’t named after him,” he clarified. “Champ just has the misfortune of sharing the same name.”
“No wonder you want to be called Champ,” Tex laughed.
“Champ thinks it’s time to change the subject. Tell Champ about this new gig you landed today and the intriguing young lady who made it all happen…”
It was a bright, open space, with plenty of tables, colorful murals, and pieces of art by local artists for sale.
Only one table was occupied as Tex slowly made his way to the counter, guitar case in hand.
Aspen stood behind the counter, head down, entranced by a pile of invoices. Without looking up she said, “Prompt and follows orders well. I like that.”
When she looked up at him, a smile graced her attractive face.
Tex smiled, too, but tried to play it cool.
“I take my music very seriously,” he assured her. “Please pass that on to the boss lady. It’s important to make a good first impression.”
Aspen nodded her agreement. “You’re hired. What night are you free this week? 7:00 until 9:00 would be ideal.”
Tex was confused. He was excited to get the gig, but expected there to be more to the process.
“I’m off on Thursday…”
“Perfect,” Aspen replied as she organized her invoices. “It pays forty dollars, plus whatever you make in tips. I suggest brining a huge tip jar to encourage generosity. If you get here early, I’ll throw in anything off the menu for dinner. Deal?”
“Sure, but what about the boss lady?”
Aspen waved off that idea. “I spoke highly of you, and that’s all that matters. You do know more than just that one song I heard you play earlier, right?”
“Of course,” he muttered.
“I’ll take care of publicity,” she assured him. “The café has an awesome website, and a huge customer email list. We’ve been promising live music for weeks, so I’m sure we’ll have a packed house. I’m going to put up flyers, too, so I should get a picture…”
Before Tex realized what was happening, Aspen whipped out her phone and took a photo. She looked at it and shook her head.
“Maybe lose the hat,” she suggested. “We don’t want to give off a country music only vibe. We want to reach as large an audience as possible.”
Tex nodded and removed his cowboy hat. Aspen snapped a series of photos.
“I’m sure one of those will work,” she told him as she pocketed her phone. “I’ll need your last name for the advertising.”
“Bourbon,” he informed her.
Aspen gave him a look.
“I agree that it might be time for a rebranding,” he conceded.
“It’s good to see you’re open to new ideas,” she replied with a sly smile.
“So that’s it?” Tex sought clarification. “I get the gig just like that?”
“Life doesn’t need to be complicated,” she answered. “If Thursday goes well, we can talk about making this a regular thing. That is, if you’d like to go steady with Infinite Sheep…”
She giggled and Tex had to laugh because that was a sentence he’d never heard in his life.
“And I don’t have to meet the eccentric boss lady?” he asked.
“You’ve been talking to her the whole time, Cowboy,” she informed him with a wink. “Now let me focus. I’ve got a business to run.”
Tex had so many questions, but he realized now was not the time. He had a feeling that getting to know Aspen Roark was going to be an exciting adventure.
“Wait…you own this place?” he decided one question had to be asked.
“Is that so hard to believe?” she countered with a raised eyebrow thrown in for good measure.
Tex shook his head. “No. It just makes me realize I’m not living up to my potential.”
Aspen smiled and basked briefly in the compliment.
“The more you get to know me, the more you’ll find I’m full of surprises. Maybe I’ll even inspire you to exceed expectations.”
“Looking forward to it,” Tex admitted. “I love surprises and inspiration.”
As he walked away, Aspen serenaded him with the chorus of her favorite Foo Fighters song:
There goes my hero,
Watch him as he goes…
Tex smiled and made a mental note to add that one to his set list Thursday night.
TO BE CONTINUED…