A Penny for a Buckbyonly_more_so©
This is my first story, so I hope you all enjoy it. I would love to hear your comments.
* * * * *
Sometimes I lose my perspective. I tend to think of myself as no less normal that every other person running around. Everyone gets up, showers and shaves, gets dressed and goes to work in the morning. Of course, I put on clothes from a Big and Tall store and work in a lab where even the security guards have advanced degrees.
I was just about done building the stabilizer for my latest project when my boss came into my office. "Buck, we need to talk. Personnel has flagged your file because you haven't taken your annual leave for over four years. Your last psych evaluation came back within the acceptable range, but it did show a marked increase in stress levels. You need a vacation."
"Jack, I was kind of sick that day, and the miniaturized servos for the orthocopter weren't working. Anyway, in another month I'll be ready for sub-assembly testing, which should only take about two months. Then assembly, and another round of testing, probably some retooling, debugging and tuning will be required. But I should be done by say June of next year. I'll take my vacation then."
"No, you won't Buck. Because by the time this project is done, there will be another project with another tantalizingly close milestone. I won't let you end up like Regan."
"Yeah, Regan. Didn't they find him stark naked on his lab table singing 'The Candyman'?" I asked. "I don't think you have to worry about me doing that, I don't even know the words to the song."
"Look Buck, I'm serious..."
I cut him off saying, "Look, I promise, as soon as this project is over, I will spend at least a week on some beach drinking from coconuts with little umbrellas. Besides, you can't make me take a vacation."
"No, but I can fire you. You need to take a step back and get some perspective."
I couldn't help but giggle about needing perspective. The giggling is what decided me, Jack was right, I did need a break. Besides, he really would fire me for my own good, and trying to explain to another employer why I didn't do any work for the past five years would be a little tricky.
"Fine," I said, "I'll finish up this component and be ready for vacation by the beginning of next month."
"I've already talked to security, your codes expire on Friday, that's tomorrow in case you forgot. I also gave them orders to turn you away if you try to show up before New Years," Jack said before strolling out of my office. Three months? I didn't even know I had that much vacation time.
I sat there for nearly an hour, pretending to be working, before giving it up and heading home. As I was driving to my apartment, I knew I was only going to be there long enough to pack and head to the only real home I knew.
* * *
I took the scenic route, rather than the interstate or flying. The dappled sunlight on the back roads eased my nerves more than saving an hour or two by fighting traffic. Driving was also much more relaxing than waiting in lines, to sit on a cramped plane while the idiot in front of me slams his seat against my knees. After ten hours of driving, I pulled into town and was already feeling more relaxed. It was just past four, so I decided to swing past my alma mater's campus before heading to the apartment I had arranged to rent.
I drove by the campus slowly, watching the edifices of education go by. For four years of undergraduate study this was a home away from home. But over the years of graduate work, my parent's house became the home away from home, and the city surrounding my school became my real home.
It is actually a very quirky city, even more so than the average college town. The main reason is the number and disparity of universities that the city boasts. The city has everything from prestigious law schools, to beauty schools, a world renown school of fine arts, and more than a few trade schools. It also boasted just about everything in between. I, of course, went to the technical institute where we laughed at all the liberal arts types. They, in turn, laughed at us.
Although there were rooms for let near the school where I spent nearly a decade studying, I decided to rent a nice loft downtown, with a river view. Since I hadn't taken a vacation in four years, I could afford to splurge a bit.
* * *
I went around to the leasing office, filled out the requisite forms and was shown to my temporary abode on the tenth floor. People always told me it is ironic that a guy my size is afraid of heights. That being said, I did take advantage of the floor to ceiling view of the river, from a conservative three feet away. I unpacked my things and decided to head out into the city.
I took a stroll through the city and walked the familiar streets. I didn't have a particular destination in my, but I soon found myself standing outside of Brewster's Tap. Brewster's Tap was a below street level bar that tried to be an English Pub. Furnished in brass, leather and polished wood, it was a cozy place for the more discerning of the college crowd and the young professionals. I had spent many a night distressing in this quaint establishment while in grad school.
The owner of Brewster's Tap, Chuck Flowers, was a pot-bellied man with an impossible to place accent. He had gray hair, gray eyes and the habit of wearing gray clothes. If he didn't swear so much, I would have thought him a priest torn from a black and white movie. He could be a caustic sort, but he was also a good friend.
I climbed down the steps and remembered just in time to duck under the door lintel. Although the door frame is wide enough for my shoulders, the lintel was only six feet five inches over the threshold. At six foot six myself, that meant it is low enough for me to crack my head, but high enough that when I am drunk and having perspective problems I manage to brain myself. I would roundly curse all buildings built before modern codes, swear I would never return, only to make myself a liar the very next night.
As it was still early in the evening, the place was pretty empty. I strolled down the length of the bar, checking out the latest additions. Brewster's has a tradition that once you drank a hundred different beers they buy you a mug and hang it on a hook on the wall. There were maybe a dozen new additions since I was last here five years ago, and maybe the same number had been replaced with tombstone like plaques which indicated a person had moved on and taken the mug with them. Each mug was specially designed for the drinker by Chuck, usually with some input from the drinker in question. Some were short and wide, others tall and narrow, and each had a beautiful painting on the front and a name on the back, reversed for the left handed drinkers of course.
I was halfway down the bar when I saw a mug that surprised me. It surprised me because after five years I would have expected it to have been retired. Usually a person takes the mug with them, but sometimes they forget, and when forgotten and a certain amount of dust has accumulated, the mugs are wrapped up and retired. But there was my mug, looking exactly as it had been when I left. It was still the smallest mug in the bar, and the one with the simplest painting. A stag's head with an exaggeratedly complex set of antlers graced the front of the mug, and on the back in suitably bold gothic letters: "BUCK."
I took the mug down, my mug, and headed for my favorite stool. The owner had a peculiar sense of humor and had the mug crafted to tease me. I was never much of a beer drinker, and it took me more than four years to choke down enough beers to qualify for my own mug. In between I would annoy the bartender by ordering obscure mixed drinks that would send him to his barman's guide, my favorite being a gloom lifter which actually contained an egg white! Anyway, the night I finally downed my hundredth different beer, and was drunkenly telling Chuck what sort of design I wanted, I proclaimed, "I want the biggest mug in the whole bar, since I am the biggest guy in the whole bar." I then proceeded to explain in detail the colors I wanted, and about the elaborate design featuring symbols from math and science. Anyway, when he unveiled my mug, there were hoots from everyone in the bar. Instead of the biggest mug, he had given me the smallest. Of course, Chuck was thinking better than I was since if I had a bigger mug, then it would always look mostly empty with, as Chuck put it, "You're fancy-smancy bartender's nightmares."
"Barkeep, let me have a gloom lifter," I called out as I placed the mug on the bar top. Since it was still early, I knew Chuck would probably be in the kitchen getting ready for the brief dinner crowd.
A young guy with a stained apron came out of the kitchen at looked at me strangely before asking, "what the heck is a gloom lifter?" He then noticed the mug in my hands and said, "Hey those mugs are for regulars only, we have other glasses you know."
"This is my mug; I'm Buck." I glanced the guy over for a bit before adding, "So where's Chuck?"
"Chuck? Chuck died three years ago. His daughter runs the place now, but she is finishing her degree so she doesn't usually come in until later."
I felt like an ass. Chuck wasn't just my bartender in college, he was a friend. How could I not know that he had died. Heck, how could I not have known he had a daughter.
"Just give me a bourbon and coke," I said handing him my mug. My earlier nostalgia quickly fading. I drank my drink, and a few more. Then I ordered the fish and chips. They were just as good as when Chuck was running the kitchen, so the recipe had outlived the man.
* * *
I hadn't intended to get drunk, but perspective was catching up on me a little too quickly. My static little world of the last five years hadn't prepared me for the changes to everything else. Maybe it is a good thing I had a forced vacation. I couldn't help but laugh when I realized I didn't even know who the President was anymore. Laughing when you are drinking alone is definitely a bad sign.
Just then, over the noise in the now crowded bar, I heard a woman angrily shout, "Michael, I told you not to retire any mugs without my say so."
Michael, I soon discovered, was the bartender. He was quickly out from behind the bar and heading in the direction of the angry voice. I glanced in that direction with slightly bleary eyes but couldn't tell who had raise the ruckus. So, I returned to contemplating perspective, and bourbon. I heard the angry woman's voice becoming slightly less angry, and finally quiet enough that it blended with the background noise.
I was soon down to the last swallow, and decided I should probably call it quits before they had to drag me out of the bar. I reached into my pocket for my wallet while trying to find where the bartender had run off to. Then I remember the argument and looked behind me, but he wasn't there either.
Turning back around I found myself staring at a pair of intense and oddly familiar gray eyes which said, "So you're Buck."
* * *
Lying on your back, looking at exposed rafters is an interesting perspective. Especially with people standing around you looking like skyscrapers. Michael was slapping me lightly on the face, "Are you okay man? You like passed out or something."
I grabbed Michael by the apron with both hands and stammered something to the effect of, "You said he was dead. So it must have been his ghost that said, 'So you're back.'"
"Actually, it was his daughter who said, 'So you're Buck.'" It was the same voice from earlier, and this time I could see the voice was attached to a slim pair of legs, that disappeared into a bright green skirt. Above the skirt was a golden blouse, and above the blouse a slightly flushed face framed by copper colored hair. She was standing over me and I suddenly felt like an ant staring up at a beautiful flower.
Either she could read minds, or I suddenly got a stupid look on my face, because she started to giggle. "You had quite a fall, Buck. Michael, help him up."
Between Michael and a couple of friendly patrons, they managed to get me on my feet and then onto my stool. The gray eyes were back behind the bar and on a level with my own. She tilted her head slightly, as if to get a different perspective. As she did, I took in the rest of her face, the thin proud nose, the small determined chin, the exceedingly rosy cheeks and red hair in a neat queue hanging over her shoulder. Comparing her face with my memory of her father's face I could definitely see the relationship. Especially when I looked in her eyes, which were much like her father's eyes only incredibly feminine.
"I didn't mean to startle you. My father told me a lot about you. Even though you had said your goodbye's years ago, he said he always knew you would be back. He said, 'A man like that doesn't leave something behind by accident.' So every month he had me clean your mug and told me not to retire it no matter how long it's been." She got a faraway look to her eyes before refocusing and continuing, "I almost retired it last month, but when I was spending a weekend at a friend's cabin, I saw this magnificent stag come out of the woods and stare at me. His antlers reminded me of your mug. Yeah, it is corny, but it was a sign. And here you are."
"A sign? You see a deer in the woods and think it's a sign?" The grin that had been on her face was fading when faced with my scientific cynicism. I thought as fast as I could and said, "Did you know, your dad gave me that name. Before that everyone always called me Walter, or Walt, or Wally, or hey nerd boy. He said he had an uncle named Walter, who everyone called, 'Buck.' Somehow the name stuck."
I must have said something right, because she burst out laughing. "And you believed him? My dad didn't have an uncle named Walter. His only kin was his spinster aunt who raised him when his parent's died."
She got that faraway look in her eyes again. I could tell she was thinking of her father, by the way her eyes got a bit misty but her lips started to smile. "My dad always had a sense of humor about things." She tugged on her braided a bit self-consciously and continued, "after all, when he saw I was born a redhead he called me Penny!"
* * *
Penny, whose real name of course was Penelope, and I reminisced for hours. We talked a lot about her father, but we talked about everything else as well. I was fascinated, and was more than a little self-conscious of how tipsy I had become. Eventually Michael came over and said he was going home, which was when I finally realized we were the only three people left in the bar.
As Michael walked out, I glanced at my watch and realized it was nearly three in the morning, and that I'd been up for more than twenty hours. "I'm glad I don't have to work in the morning," I said, and for the first time in my life realized that I really meant it. My perspective was changing already.
"Miss Penelope Flowers, it would be an honor, if I could escort you home," I said trying my best to sound as dignified as John Wayne would in a similar situation.
"Why sir, it would be most wonderful to have such an escort," she said in a southern accent that put my attempt to shame. She winked at me and said, "Go hang up your mug, and I will be around the bar shortly."
And shortly she meant. It seemed that she had shrunk a good eight inches walking around the bar. Then I remember that there was a step behind the bar that let Chuck hang glassware from the overhead racks. She must have been standing on it the whole time!
I looked down at Penny, and realized she probably wasn't even five feet tall. She gave me a curious look, I couldn't tell if it was because I was staring, or because she hadn't realized quite how tall I was. After sufficient staring, I grinned and offered her my elbow. She placed her hand in the crook of my arm and we strolled into the night. I even remembered to duck.
* * *
"So which way are we headed?" I asked as we gained street level.
"I live on State and 1st, but could we take Charles Street? I know it is a bit longer, but it is much prettier, plus we can go by my school."
We strolled down the empty streets. The scenic route took us down the few remaining cobblestone streets, and eventually along the river.
"There's my school!" she suddenly exclaimed, tugging on my arm and pointing.
I looked and was surprised to see her pointing at one of the city's many art school. Maybe it wasn't world renown, but it had a very good reputation and was second best in the city.
"When Michael said you were finishing your degree, I assumed he meant like an MBA or something like that. You know, to help run the bar."
"Silly boy. Dad taught me all about running the bar. But although that is quite fun, what I most love is painting. Who do you think made all those mugs?"
It struck me then that the little "P" in a circle stamped on the bottom of many of the mugs must stand for Penny.
"Why didn't you tell me earlier that you had made my mug? I would have loved it all the more."
"Flattery will get you everywhere, if you're not careful. By the way, did you ever notice that on your mug, and a very few others, the 'P' wasn't closed? So it kind of looks like a '1' and a backwards 'c'. One cent. Get it? I know, it's terrible, but I put it on the mugs for my dad's extra special customers. Kind of making them a little more personal."
I knew that Chuck had liked me more than the average patron, in spite of how we could tease each other. But I really hadn't realized how special, or extra special that was. I was still contemplating this as we concluded our little stroll down 1st Street and made it to State.
"This is it," she said as we stood in front of an apartment building. I suddenly realized, this was my apartment building.
"You won't believe this, but I rented an apartment in this building today. I'm up on the tenth floor."
"Wow, you must have an awesome view. I'm on the second floor. Can I come up and check out the view? Did you get a river view? Come on!" She was tugging on my arm and dragging me to the elevator. I was dead on my feet, but Penny's enthusiasm wouldn't let me decline or postpone.
* * *
When the key turned in the lock, Penny raced to the window, her face pressed against the glass. I had gotten as close to the view as I cared to earlier, so I merely sat in one of the chairs, took off my shoes and socks and then watched her watching the river. She glanced back at me, gave me a wink and turned back to the river.
I closed my eyes for a moment, to store the image in my mind. I must have been more tired, or more drunk, than I thought. The next thing I knew I felt warmth pressed against my chest and around my neck and a hot breathe in my ear murmuring, "Wake up sleepy head."
Penny was standing in front of the chair, between my legs with her arms wrapped around my neck. She must have felt that I was awake because she started stopped whispering and started humming softly against my ear and swaying against me. I put my arms on her sides and suddenly realized that she wasn't wearing any clothes. I pulled my hands back quickly, like they were on fire. The heat from her skin lingered on my fingers, and of their own accord my hands went back to his sides. Her skin was incredibly warm and smooth as my hand slide up and down.
She stopped humming and pulled back slightly, so that her forehead rested against mine. Our noses aligned and she stared deeply into my eyes. She circled the pointy tip of her nose around mine a few times, before slowly closing her eyes, tilting her head and kissing me. Her lips were soft, but not very soft. They felt almost muscular as she pressed them against mine. Her tongue brought to mine a taste of mint and the hint of berries. That, and a deep need. I kissed her as hard as I have ever kissed anyone. My hands slid down to her small round ass, pulling her toward me, and deeper into the kiss.