On the House
by Emily Kiernan
Mark was behind the counter at Java Time that day, which pleased no one because while he was a nice guy (the first thing anyone said about him: just the nicest guy), he was also a remedial person with the dopey goodness of a golden retriever—symbolically golden, a retriever who has never suffered—an affect that permeated every facet of his work, from the quality of his soy-milk foams (flaccid), to the strength of his drip coffee (burnt), so we all endured an internal clench when we saw him, though no one, previously, had clenched with such unmediated extravagance as Jesse on the fabled day when he discovered Brittney Kern post (and also pre) coitally in bed with Danny Miller following one of Brittney’s infamous pool parties, to which Jesse had not been invited on account of his still-delicate, sub-ninety-day sobriety and the inevitability of drunken debauches at a Brittany party, which caused more than a few of us to question the wisdom of this particular relationship at this particular time, but love is love and was now a moot point as both the shimmering glass upon which romance projects its illusions and Jesse’s hard-earned edge had broken before noon against the hard reality of a plastic jug of vodka left sitting on Brittney’s kitchen counter, which might otherwise have been the active ingredient in hangover-cure screwdrivers, but which was now, unadulterated by anything as optimistic as orange juice, nestled into the passenger seat of Jesse’s car as he drove around town taking dipsomaniac swigs at stoplights, or so we were told by Naomi, who showed up in a state of rabid agitation she externalized via the purchase of three chocolate and cream cheese muffins which she consumed in a virtuoso performance of stress-eating while recounting the crackly cellphone conversation she’d had with an at-the-very-least-browned-out Jesse in which she had talked him into coming to meet her at Java Time, since she had to make this about her and would never waste an act of human kindness on its recipient alone when an audience could be found, though she didn’t say that last part, and the rest of us had not yet come to a consensus on whether we would stick around for this shit show—there weren’t any other shows at two pm on a Tuesday—when all negotiations were brought to a wrap by the arrival of Jesse himself in a tire-screeching, street-crossing swerve of a parking job that we all believed would end inside the shop with several of us maimed and cursing Brittney’s infidelities, though in fact Jesse pulled it off and stumbled in, looking pungent and regarding us all with a belligerence that remained impersonal until Mark came bounding up with his lolling tongue and muddy paws, an insult to Jesse’s shattered interior, saying “whatever you want, man, it’s on the house,” which was the moment we all remembered that Mark had probably maybe also slept with Brittney sometime that spring—though who hadn’t by that point—and Jesse must have remembered it too because we all saw a demon intelligence steal over his blunted features, a sudden animism as when a match is struck and transforms from object to something almost certainly alive and dancing, and some of us would later say we knew an iconic moment was in progress, though that is probably bullshit because it happened fast, Jesse’s arm already in motion, already reaching out to grasp the ceramic jug that held the half & half, the liquid contents of which he launched towards Mark in a swooshing parabola that recalled at once the St. Louis Gateway Arch and the celebrated high-speed photograph “Milk Drop Coronet,” this second suggestion made across the length and breadth of Mark’s torso as the cream landed, accompanied by the percussion of Jesse’s triumphant voice calling out, “And is that on the house?” before he escaped through the back door and into a protracted rehab stay, which was for the best, and none of us were saying Mark deserved it, but we had to admit there was a strain of genius in the thing, an impressive bit of wordplay for someone so wasted to conjure up, with Mark as the human representative of the abstract idea of “the house” and the dairy as a catalyst that clothed the figurative in flesh and blood and milkfat and meaningful vitality, a magic trick us denizens of Java Time immediately recognized as a metaphor for art itself, a transformation we were always trying to perform and mostly making fools of ourselves in pursuit of—as was amply pointed out by the high school kids who would drive by and heckle us as we sat outside with our lattes discussing poetry, yelling “ohhh, so intellectual” from their Dodge Neons, and who once egged us, and who once pelted us with a bunch of buns from the Burger King dumpster, inside of which they’d sharpied “kiss me coffee breath,”—because the truth was we did think we were smart, did think we were special, bright stars streaking across the gray of our city, lighting up the post-industrial decay, creating, as Jesse had, something elegant in the midst of our failures, even if it was nothing more than a perfect turn of phrase pulled up from the wreckage of our educations, a textbook example of metonymy.
Emily Kiernan is the author of a novel, Great Divide (Unsolicited Press). Her work has appeared in American Short Fiction, Pank, The Collagist, Redivider, Quarterly West, and other journals. She is a prose editor at Noemi Press. She lives in Pittsburgh with a husband, a child, and several wild beasts. More information can be found at emilykiernan.com.