When I was writing Spinning on a Barstool I discovered I really enjoyed researching places and people. Fortes is my imagination dipping in and out of reality.
The Reedsy Prompt was ‘write a story using the words ‘it’s the thought that counts.’
Sandwiched between Robson and Alberni streets two buildings keep company. The twenty-two-story skyscraper, a dark green prism pulled from the minds of architects at MCM sits on the corner of Thurlow and Alberni. In its shadow, on the corner of Thurlow and Robson, a rich two-story in red brick.
The brick oozes finery dipped in an age of old when men removed themselves from the world to smoking rooms where they would sit in burgundy leather wing backs sipping port and chew the end of a puro while discussing world affairs. An arched mutton window rises out of the blocks, and deep green awnings, like eyelids, hover over windows where the people on the inside observe the people on the outside and the people on the outside observe the people on the inside. The brick is reflected in the opulence of the glass tower beside it and the people in its windows watch Brunello Guchinelli wave at Prada across the street while the Audi, the BMW, and the Land Rover sit silently on the side awaiting their owner’s return.
The tower of glass feeds the business, they call it progress. The rich red brick feeds the people, they call it Fortes. Joe Fortes.
Joe Fortes didn’t start off as the seafood chophouse we know today. The luxurious interior of mahogany tables on iron legs under a soaring coffered ceiling was the invention of someone else. The real Joe Fortes was a black man. A swimmer. A swim instructor. A shoeblack. A bartender. A lifeguard. A hero.
Joe was a mixture of African, Barbarian, Spanish, and Portuguese and he swam to Vancouver on the Robert Kerr in 1885. Why he chose to leave his home in Spain to England and England to Canada we can’t know, but we can know that his arrival in Canada change the lives of at least 26 people. They remained alive because Joe saved them from drowning in English Bay. He was honored as a Vancouver City hero.
One hundred years after the lifeguard’s death someone thought to honor Joe Fortes by naming this restaurant after him. Ten years after that, Joe Fortes thought to hire Mike. Today Mike is behind the bar wiping water drop marks off of wine glasses with a soft white cloth as he watches the wealthy watch each other and the ordinary watch the wealthy. As dusk turns into night Mike watches dates depart hand in hand, business meetings close with a handshake, the ordinary leave for their stroll up Robson Street, and the wealthy as they head back to their Audi’s, BMW’s, and Land Rovers.
Hair black and thick that would curl if left too long is what one notices first about Mike, and second, his accent, lower Manhattan with just a little lilt of Irish breathed in on an ocean from far away. He rolled his R’s like St. Patrick and blew away the H in ‘thank you.’ “Tanks,” he would say and the heartbeat of every female would catch in her throat creating a certain breathlessness. He was a gentleman brought up the Irish way by his father who also tended bar. His father learned to bartend from his father before him in Ireland before the first world war. The fact was simple, the Doyles were a fine line of bartenders reaching back one hundred twenty-five years.
Some baby boys are born to their mamas dipped in sweetness and kissed by angels. Some baby boys come out screaming loudly and are kissed by Satan. Label Out was the latter.
Nobody in Fortes knew his name because they hadn’t wanted to know it. ‘Keep Off!” The warning screams when ordinary brushes up against arrogance. The staff instinctively knew to keep their distance lest he devour them. He was happy with that, he had little time to entertain the simple.
Tonight he sat alone at the bar sipping a twelve-year-old double cask neat. A large expensive watch dripped off his left wrist screeching loud money. His jacket, very carefully, very purposefully hung on the back of his chair with the label out. All of it howled raucously like the day he was born.
He was wealthy, this wasn’t to be argued. He worked very hard to make it to the top ten in his legal firm. He thrived there because as stated earlier he was kissed by Satan and when Satan lifted his lips he lifted off part of his soul. Label Out had no conscience and with no conscience, he was able to manipulate the law to benefit some very bad people. This made him a lot of money.
He was reading the menu.
She walked through the double glass door effortlessly. Mike glanced up as she stepped toward the bar and thought of three simple things simultaneously:
Stunning. Cocoa. Rosé.
In fact, Cocoa was exceedingly stunning. Her skin was iridescent. It was chocolate left in the sun melting into a bar of gold. Long dark hair the color of ink framed her face and when she pushed a strand over her right ear her temple revealed a kiss of a freckle left there by an angel long ago. Her dark lips were glossed in light pink and when she parted them to speak she revealed perfect teeth.
Anything held in contrast against each other is magnified, perhaps greater than it really is. Black coal beside a down feather makes the coal harder and darker, and the feather becomes softer and brighter. Cocoa’s teeth were that. Bright white against bronze skin. Cocoa’s wit was that. Vivacity honed along dark steel. She was saucy.
A smile pulled playfully at the edge of her lips and a hint of humor tugged the corner of her eye. She smelled like a tango. Vanilla Bean and Channel Number Five held tight in a calesita begging to be watched as they gently melded together. Sultry. Sexy. Thirsty.
Cocoa hung up her cream-colored raincoat on the back of the bar stool label in, she didn’t know there was any other way. She took a seat as Mike flagged her with a black napkin.
“What may I pour for you,” he asked fully expecting her to say Rosé.
She smiled and raised an eyebrow. “Today my friend, a shot and a beer,” she finished her order with a wink, laid her clutch on the bar top, and started playing with the corner of her napkin.
Mike was amused to be wrong his smile revealed that.
“Ah…” she glanced at the tap handles knowing full well what she would order even as she did so.
“Guinness and Jameson please.”
Mike’s Irish heart skip a beat as he tumbled into love. He turned to draw the pint and the corner of his eye caught Label Out peeking up over his menu studying hungrily, observing Cocoa as Cocoa observed the room. Mike wasn’t surprised when Label Out stood, lifted his jacket and his glass, and moved his position to the seat beside Cocoa’s. The bartender glanced to the corner of the restaurant to make sure Sebastian had noticed this too.
Sebastian was jovial and big. Hours were spent in the gym developing muscles that lay firm and rippled under roped veins. His tumultuous past cut into his skin with scars and ink. He walked away from that life five years before when he was saved by the blood of Jesus. The tattoos of his formal life were now tucked into his tuxedo, tucked into the corner of Fortes. He nodded subtly, assuring Mike he had indeed seen it. Mike knew it was safe to take his eye off Label Out and use it to flourish the Guinness with a foamy shamrock. He placed the finished masterpiece on Cocoa’s curling napkin. The shot beside it keeping company.
Without asking if he could be in her space, Label Out pulled back the barstool next to Cocoa and sat down.
She saw all that he wanted her to see; the fine watch, the pricey fitted silk shirt, the jacket’s expensive label waving. She smelled his expensive cologne and saw the bartender pour the scotch they hid behind lock and key. She took a sip of her Guinness and nodded when Mike asked her if she would like to see a menu.
“I don’t think I’ve seen you in here before.” Label Out started. “Where are you from?”
“Of course, you can take this seat. No, I’m not meeting anyone here at all…” Cocoa said sarcastically, licking the foam and her sass with the tip of her tongue from her upper lip. “Do you do this often?” she smiled genuinely.
“What do you mean? Do I come here often? Yes. I do. “
Mike winked at Cocoa, and a smirk pulled the corner of his mouth. He turned quickly to hide it from Label Out.
“Well, at least you smell nice.” She took another sip.
“You are very beautiful.”
” Are you visiting?”
“Yes, just a visit.”
“Alone or with a friend?”
“Excuse me? Bartender. May I have another napkin, please? It seems the Guinness is getting away from me today.” She smiled.
Mike nodded and swiftly placed another in front of her.
“Well?” Label Out continued to probe.
“I’m here doing some research,”
“That sounds interesting. On what?”
“Breeding Habits of the Nile Crocodile.”
Mike chuckled behind his apron.
Label Out noticed and looked visibly annoyed. “Did I miss something?” he frowned at Mike.
“Family history.” Cocoa turned her body directly toward him setting herself between his bite and Mike. “I’m from back east, I’m doing research on my family that immigrated to Vancouver from Europe. I’ve heard wonderful things about the city so I thought I’d combine a vacation with my research.”
The diversion worked. He took his teeth out of the bartender and set them back down.
“Oh, I could show you around.” He offered.
“Of course, you could.” Cocoa cocked her head to the left never letting go of her grin.
“I mean it,” Label Out continued, “this city is mine, I know all the best spots, and I can get us into all the great clubs. Hell, I even have tickets to tomorrow night’s hockey game, club seats. Gretzkey’s in town. We could go there. This gold watch isn’t a replica you know, Vancouver is mine. So what do you say? Let me show you my city.”
Cocoa died a little more inside and desperately worked at keeping her eyes from rolling back.
“I think I’d just like to chew on a steak.”
“I’ll buy it for you.”
“No thank you.”
He seemed like a smart man it perplexed her and humored her that he didn’t know he was dumb. She let him continue.
“I’m a lawyer, I’ve just won another case…”
“I work for many celebrities perhaps you know them…”
“I drive a convertible coupe in the summer and hire car service in the winter.”
“See this watch, it cost me…”
and Cocoa continued to smile and nod disinterestedly until her Guinness got low.
“Bartender!” Label Out clicked his fingers together demanding attention. Immediate attention. Mike turned toward him and smiled.
“Yes sir, what can I get for you?”
“Please bring the lady another drink, put it on my tab.”
The lady looked up at Mike and said “Please don’t.”
“Let’s move over to a table I’ll buy you dinner.” He pressed.
Cocoa reached across the bar and drew her clutch purse closer to her. Calmly she opened the clasp and glanced inside. She drew out a five-dollar bill and laid it on the mahogany bar top. Closing the clasp she laid the clutch back on the bar, picked up her Guinness, and took a sip.
” I have been nothing but nice to you. I offer to take you to a game with really great seats. I offer to buy you dinner and then I offer to buy you a drink. You turn everything down. What is wrong with you?” Label Out’s agitation was visible. Sebastian noticed and moved a step closer to the bar. Mike stayed put before them not moving to the left or the right keeping his eye steady on the scene in front of him.
Heat could be felt from the being beside her. Cocoa sat calmly drinking her pint.
“Well?” He spat out.
“Which steak would you recommend today, the Rib eye or the Tenderloin?” She asked Mike.
Label Out flicked his tongue between his teeth like a serpent before he picked up the golden liquid, twirled the glass, and sipped, sucking it back through gritted teeth. Whiskey coated his tortesngue and the words continued to slide out.
“I said WELL?”
Cocoa lifted her head and looked Label Out directly in the eye.
“Honey, it seems to me you’re looking for some easy spread, may I suggest a jar of mayonnaise?”
A pin drop. Silence so silent a pin drop could be heard followed by spontaneous uncontrolled laughter lifted from deep inside Sebastian on the right and Mike on the left. Cocoa sat sweetly sipping her Guinness. Label out turned seven shades of red.
“It also looks to me,” Cocoa continued, ” that you might be maxed out on your credit cards.” She put one fingertip on the top of the five-dollar bill and slid it in front of Label Out. “Please allow me to buy you that jar.”
When arrogance is rebuffed it changes to rage and that was what stood in front of them now, rage, iced eyes hard and cold.
“Bitch.” Slid off his serpent tongue.
“It’s the thought that counts right?” Cocoa shrugged her shoulders and crinkled up her nose playfully.
“Time to go, sir.” Sebastian stepped forward with two other Tuxedos.
“Ya, ya. I’m leaving. I don’t need your help.”
As Label Out was escorted from the building, Mike put a fresh Guinness in front of Cocoa. “I don’t think he was expecting that.” He laughed as he slid the pint toward her. “That was bloody brilliant.”
“Thank you. ” Cocoa genuinely grinned. “The next show starts at ten pm get your tickets now.”
Mike laughed and put out his hand to shake hers. “My name is Mike. God, I think I’ve fallen in love with you!”
Cocoa raise her hand and slid it into his still smiling. “I’m Josephine Fortes, call me Jo.”