Where Everybody Knows Your Name
Kate Sheeran Swed
Rumpelstiltskin popped a Vicodin and tipped his bowler to the side in the hope that it would lend a certain je ne sais--no, that was disingenuous. He knew how he wanted to come off.
With absolutely no intention of demanding heirlooms or babies.
Like someone whose name you wanted to know.
But the hat made him look like the target in a ring toss game at a carnival. Step right up, maidens. For the price of your firstborn, land a bowler on the bulbous noggin of a five-foot devil and you might win a prince.
He tilted the hat to the other side, considered, then discarded it.
Rumpelstiltskin made his way to the bar on the corner, where they played vinyls on a turntable and hung 45's from the ceiling, and where he hoped, someday in the near future, he would sit at the bar and the bartender would say, "The regular?" and he'd say "Sure," and after a while the bartender would bring it without asking. And if he wanted to try something new--pumpkin ale on tap in the fall seemed likely--they'd tease him and he'd laugh with them, but then he'd never order anything different again.
Today, he scrambled onto the barstool and ordered a local craft beer. Just like that, "a local craft beer," and the bartender gave him a little shrug. "Which one?" he asked. "Local craft's kinda our thing, ya know?"
"Ah," said Rumpelstiltskin, feeling the weight of his eyelashes dipping in front of his Vicodin-narrowed lids. The pills made it easier to venture out--and more importantly, they helped him to avoid the instinct for mischief--but they slowed his brain, too. "Which one's the best?"
The bartender leaned his palms on the bar. The rolled-up sleeves of his white shirt revealed a garden of flowery tattoos. Rumpelstiltskin noted his hat, which was flat and plaid, and had a small brim. It did not make the bartender look like a target in a ring-toss game. "You like an IPA?" the bartender asked.
"It's hoppy. Kind of mapley, but bitter on the finish."
"Um," said Rumpelstiltskin. "Sure."
The bartender tugged on a tap with a mermaid on the top, as though it were a ship and she its figurehead. The amber liquid spilled into the glass. "Here you go, buddy," he said.
"Thanks," Rumpelstiltskin said, and he took a sip. Bitter on the finish? No, bitter on the entire mouthful. This wouldn't be his regular. Maybe a well drink.
"I just moved to the neighborhood," Rumpelstiltskin said.
"Nice. You join the co-op yet?"
"Only way to get groceries around here, man."
"Thanks for the tip."
"Any time, guy. Any time. What's your day job?"
"I spin straw into gold."
The bartender snapped his fingers, and Rumpelstiltskin jumped. "I've heard of you," he said. "You've got a store in the Village, right?"
"Right," Rumpelstiltskin lied.
"Wicked," the bartender said. Then he went to serve another customer.
The conversation felt like progress, like a beginning. It felt like the first scene in a sitcom with a catchy theme song and characters whose whole lives revolved around a particular booth in a particular bar.
Surely, Rumpelstiltskin thought, a person had to start somewhere. Not every family had to be stolen.
But the bartender didn't ask Rumpelstiltskin's name. To offer it freely meant divesting himself of its magic, and relinquishing that power would require a kind of twelve-step program Rumpelstiltskin didn't think he'd find in Brooklyn.
They never asked. The maidens had hearts set on princes, the princes had hearts set on whores, and in all the scores of kings and lords who'd begged for his help, no one had ever asked.
You'd think they'd at least have wanted to know the name of the man who showed up, deus ex cashola, to save them from their own lies.
But they never asked, and he spun his name into their downfall with the whole "guess my name, keep your kid" routine.
The story never changed.
He wanted it to.
To alter it, to shift from rascal to confidant, would require a shift in tactics. It would have to begin with the name.
Little by little, Rumpelstiltskin learned the neighborhood.
A farmers market claimed the sidewalks on Thursday and Saturday, flimsy tables covered in organic radishes and handmade soaps, while the scent of lavender hovered over the strip like a blessing upon the squeezers of fruit and the tasters of wine.
Rumpelstiltskin bought a package of gluten-free cookies. He wondered if straw could be considered gluten-based and if so, whether the cashier would mind that the money had come from it.
But coin was coin, and the vendor handed him a paper bag with a smiling sticker on the outside. "Ten cents off next time, if you bring a reusable bag," she said. She had a silver hoop pierced through her bottom lip, and Rumpelstiltskin wondered what he would look like with a hoop in his lip.
"Good to know," said Rumpelstiltskin. He thought of asking the woman's name, but she turned to help another customer and the moment decided itself.
On his way home, he stopped at the bar on the corner. Though it didn't have a sign hanging outside, he'd learned it was called Vinyl Bar and that signs were very much not the cool thing for a bar to have. "We want it to feel like you're walking into our living room, you know?" the tattooed bartender had told Rumpelstiltskin last week, and it had taken an effort not to point out that Rumpelstiltskin would have introduced himself to anyone who walked into his living room uninvited.
But no one at Vinyl Bar had done that yet.
Rumpelstiltskin still had hope.
When he walked in, the bar was characteristically empty. He pulled himself onto his usual stool, right in the middle of the bar--in case people did come in, so he'd be at the center of the action by default--and waited.
Behind the saloon-style doors leading to the kitchen, the bartender talked to a woman. Their bodies were strangely chopped by the door, so Rumpelstiltskin could only see head and shoulders above the wooden slats, calves and feet below. The bartender had on ratty sneakers; the woman wore black heels.
The bartender did most of the talking while the woman listened, a sour look on her face.
After a minute or two, the bartender noticed Rumpelstiltskin. He burst through the saloon doors, sending them flying into the walls. "What'll you have?"
"Everything okay?" Rumpelstiltskin asked.
"Bar's not doing so hot," he said. "Looks like we might have to close."
No, no. Not when he was so close to having a neighborhood. "Why?"
"The bank kinda has a thing about getting paid on time. Unhealthy obsession, if you ask me."
"And you can't pay on time?"
"It'd help if our customers ordered drinks."
"I can help you," Rumpelstiltskin said. "I'm good on a deadline."
"If we're gonna stay afloat, it'll take more than one bank payment."
Rumpelstiltskin fought the urge to leap on top of his stool and dance in a circle. It was too much like the old imp, the one he wanted to leave behind. Still, he couldn't help but wonder if a single cackle could possibly cause any long-term damage.
He leaned forward. "You want this place to be like a living room? You get to know everyone who comes through the door. No one cares about names and faces anymore." He wasn't sure they ever had. "But people like to be remembered. Make that your thing."
"Not a bad idea," the bartender said, "but what about the bank?"
"How much do you owe?"
The bartender--owner, Rumpelstiltskin supposed--gave Rumpelstiltskin a number.
"I'll get it to you by tomorrow."
"In exchange for what?"
Rumpelstiltskin let his eyes drift to the bottles lined up on the counter. "Rum and Coke," he said.
"That's one expensive drink."
"Add in some recognition," he said.
The bartender squinted. "Like you want to be a partner?"
No, he wanted to say. Literal recognition. Hey, it's Rumpelstiltskin, the helpful guy who likes rum and Coke. "Not a partner. Just a regular, with a usual drink and a usual seat."
And your beret, the impish instinct begged.
The temptation to give in was strong enough to make him pause. To reel this guy in would be nothing. First a hat, then an earring, and before he knew it he'd be offering his firstborn--or some equivalent.
In order to circumvent his nature, Rumpelstiltskin could see he would have to do a drastic thing. The consequences might be hard to predict, but his nature left him very little room for choice, if he truly wanted to change his ways.
"I'm Rumpelstiltskin," he said.
As the bar owner shook his hand, a trickle of magic left Rumpelstiltskin's fingertips. No more than drops out of a medicine bottle, and yet already it felt like a relief.
"That a German name?"
Rumpelstiltskin smiled. "What's yours?"
The bartender didn't look much like a Reggie. Rumpelstiltskin had figured his name was something like Bartholomew or Wentworth. Though Reginald, he supposed, might fit that bill.
"Well, Reggie, I'll take that drink now. And then I'll see you tomorrow with the cash you need."
When Rumpelstiltskin spun, he spun with cheer.
The spinning wheel creaked along as though humming a tune. He'd brought the thing up piece by piece when he moved in, thinking people would look at him strangely when he rolled the enormous wooden wheel to the third floor of his walk-up apartment building. But no one had. In fact, one woman had stopped him to ask where he got his raw fiber.
In the past, he'd spun with the prospect of shiny baubles, of companionship, of the simple delight in playing a trick.
Now, he spun with a happier purpose. If the straw was tighter between his fingers than usual, less inclined to leave its natural form, it was only because the stakes were higher than they'd ever been. Rumpelstiltskin worked well into the night, until his feet fell asleep and the tendons in his arms threatened carpal tunnel.
The straw twisted between his fingers.
Threads of gold fell at his feet.
He melted it, molded it into bricks or coins or chains. He sold it, and he made out a check to Reggie.
Rumpelstiltskin brought a reusable bag to the farmers market. When he reached the gluten-free bakery table, the woman who'd given him the tip waved in greeting. Her teeth were so straight behind her lip ring that the old imp would have been tempted to tap out chopsticks on them, and her hair so curly; she had it tied back with an elastic. The maidens always used silk ribbons, which slipped out at the slightest provocation, but this one seemed to hold the woman's locks in place without a problem.
Rumpelstiltskin decided to pick out a pie.
"Blueberry's the best," the woman said, bouncing up next to him. She had on cloth sneakers with a floral print. "But rhubarb is good, too."
"Did you make them?"
She laughed. "Trust me, you wouldn't want any pie I baked. The bakery's upstate near the orchard. I take them to a bunch of the farmers markets in the city."
"Not just this one?"
"All over. To be honest, I'd rather have a storefront. I've been dying to move here."
Rumpelstiltskin thought again of asking her name, but instead he selected a blueberry pie and smiled when she said, "Ten cents off for the reusable bag!"
He brought the pie to Vinyl Bar. For once, the tables seemed like they were actually starting to fill. He took his normal seat at the bar.
"Hey, it's Stilts," Reggie said. Rumpelstiltskin had been hoping the nickname "Rum" would develop, hence the rum and Cokes. Why else would he keep drinking something that tasted like the underside of a pirate's shoe? "Stilts" sounded too much like a sarcastic comment on his height.
But then Reggie said, "The savior of the Vinyl Bar! Can I get you the usual?" and "Stilts" didn't seem too high a price to pay.
Rumpelstiltskin pushed the pie across the counter. "Brought this for you," he said.
Reggie clapped him on the shoulder. "Blueberry! It's the best one."
"I guess the bank accepted the payment," Rumpelstiltskin said, watching as Reggie poured a generous glass of Captain Morgan and added a splash of Coke.
"Did they ever. Nearly keeled over from shock when I handed them the check."
Reggie slid the glass across the bar, then made everyone in the place shut up while he toasted Rumpelstiltskin, thanked him for his generosity, and dedicated his stool to him. "Rumpelstiltskin comes in," he said, "you vacate that spot."
And another trickle of magic drained away, as everyone in the bar heard his name.
"Really isn't necessary," Rumpelstiltskin began, but then they all clapped and it seemed ungracious to protest, so he waved and sipped his rum, wishing for more Coke.
Reggie shuffled around the bar, sank onto the stool beside Rumpelstiltskin's, and leaned an elbow next to his drink. "So listen," he said, "I was thinking we might redecorate, you know? Make this place more enticing."
"Sounds great," Rumpelstiltskin said, "but you should keep the exposed brick."
"Oh, totally, definitely," Reggie said. "The thing is, in order for the place to start paying for itself, you know, we need to invest more into it."
"That's reasonable," Rumpelstiltskin said.
"So you'd be willing to invest?"
Rumpelstiltskin turned his drink around on the bar. From what he understood, an investment eventually begot a return. He was willing to invest to keep his own spot in the community, though he did wish the spinning took less of a toll. Staying up all night with fingers to spindle meant a bone-tired week.
"Tell you what," he said. "Bring me a bowl of that popcorn you make here, and I'll float you the funds to redecorate."
Reggie hopped off the stool. "Right on, man."
The straw protested, which made the spinning less cheerful.
A knot developed between his shoulder blades. He reached back to soothe the ache, but his fingers curled into fists of cramping agony.
One strand slipped through, the straw falling dull beside the gold on the floor.
Rumpelstiltskin picked it up, hands shaking from overuse, and fed it to the wheel, fed it to the wheel, until it surrendered and hardened.
It took an extra day to get the straw money to Vinyl Bar. Rumpelstiltskin walked a shaky line to his stool and climbed up, feeling ill, while Reggie watched without pouring a drink.
"Stilts," he said, "expected you yesterday."
"I ran into some trouble," Rumpelstiltskin said.
One of Reggie's eyebrows curled toward his hairline, while the other stayed furrowed, dubious. "Which means?"
Rumpelstiltskin handed him the envelope. "No problem."
"So listen," Reggie said, and Rumpelstiltskin didn't want to listen because he'd plastered over the exposed brick--why would he do that?--and replaced the hanging 45's with blown glass ornaments that Reggie said were handmade, although Rumpelstiltskin was pretty sure he'd caught a glimpse of a "Made in China" sticker on the bottom of the one in the corner.
"So listen, I'm think about moving this operation to Manhattan," Reggie said. "The place is jumpin'."
Rumpelstiltskin tried to imagine what other outcome Reggie could have imagined. It was kind of the point, wasn't it? A neighborhood spot, where they knew all the customers, and the customers knew them. "Why not open a second location, instead of closing this one?"
Reggie's eyes lit up. "Hey, Stilts," he said, "that's a great idea. But it might take a little extra dough. Do you think you could float us a loan?"
Ask for the firstborn, Rumpelstiltskin thought. When they take and take, you ask for the firstborn.
"All right," Rumpelstiltskin said, "but once you expand, I want to take over the management of this location. It'll be my location."
It was better than a firstborn. A first bar.
Most urgent order of business: restore the exposed brick.
Reggie hesitated, then extended a hand to shake. "Deal."
The straw stripped the skin from Rumpelstiltskin's fingertips, worked its way between the nails. Droplets of blood twisted themselves into the gold. He had to run each strand through three, four times before it agreed, reluctantly, to change. Once or twice, he picked up a strand of gold to find it had only pretended.
Gold-colored straw, as though covered in spray paint. "You're only making yourself more flammable, instead of melt-able," Rumpelstiltskin told it.
He ran the straw through again, forced it to bend to his waning magic.
"So listen," Reggie said, when Rumpelstiltskin handed him the bloodstained check to bring to Manhattan, "I've been thinking. This place is my baby. I don't think I can give up control, you know?"
"We had a bargain," Rumpelstiltskin said. "I can make you follow through."
"How, man?" Reggie asked, tucking the check into his pocket. "We didn't put it in writing."
This was the part where he was supposed to say, I'll let you out of the bargain if you can guess my name. But Reggie already knew it.
There was a reason he never told it before they asked. Faraway Kingdoms, neighborhood bars in Brooklyn. It was all the same.
"So listen," Reggie said, "I think you've worn out that stool. Maybe you should go."
People clustered on street corners and outside restaurants. He avoided their gazes but felt them watching him down the sidewalk. Red lipstick on waitresses twisted into disdainful puckers, while the leers of the scraggly-bearded men made him want to duck down an alley to escape. A bicyclist tore through the crosswalk an inch from his foot and raised his middle finger, presumably to indicate Rumpelstiltskin's blame in the matter. A panhandler chased him three blocks for refusing to exchange a donation for a three-week-old paper.
He'd have been better off in a small town, he thought, rubbing his thumb along the scabs on his fingertips.
If he left here now to try a town where no one knew his name, would his magic return?
Did he want it to?
Eventually he grew tired and wandered to the farmers market. It was comforting to watch people examining vegetables and selecting the most colorful bouquets of wildflowers. Someone had opened a fire hydrant, and kids danced back and forth in the spray, squealing with joy as their feet smacked the wet pavement.
"How'd you like the blueberry pie?" asked the gluten-free bakery representative when he stopped at her stall.
"I gave it away," Rumpelstiltskin said.
"Wow," she said, "I hope they deserved it."
"Turns out they didn't."
She pursed her lips. "That's too bad. What happened to your fingers?"
I gave them away too, he wanted to say. "Craft accident."
"Rogue glue gun?"
"Here." The woman unwrapped a blueberry pie and began slicing it into small bites. She cut one full triangle and slipped it onto a napkin, then handed it to him. "You never sampled the first one before you bought it, did you? How about a sample for our best customer?"
"I'm your best customer?"
"Most consistent these days," she said. "Come on, take it."
Rumpelstiltskin accepted the pie and lifted it to his mouth. It smelled like summer and syrup. He took a bite while she watched and had to close his eyes, because the way the sweetness met the tartness between the flaky crumble of the crust--it made his eyes tear up.
"I told you it was the best," the woman said, and he opened his eyes.
"You were right," he said.
"So," she said, and he thought about Reggie and so listen that'll be $14.95, so listen you've worn out that stool, so listen, so listen.
She tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear, and Rumpelstiltskin waited. "I'm Maggie," she said. "What's your name?"
As Rumpelstiltskin hesitated, the scabs on his fingers melted away, his skin becoming whole as his magic poured back in. He curled his hands beneath the pie to hide the quick healing job. No amount of controlled pharmaceuticals would ever replace this high. And no neighborhood bar would ever be worth the trouble of trying.
The silence had stretched beyond the usual social expectations, but Maggie still had that smile on her face. Rumpelstiltskin gave her his very best wink and said, "Can you guess?"
Reggie folded his arms when Rumpelstiltskin walked into Vinyl Bar, followed closely by Maggie, who carried a stack of blueberry pies.
"Told you, man," Reggie said, "stool's worn out."
"Actually," said Rumpelstiltskin, "your contract's worn out. I'm here to collect your firstborn."
Reggie just stared, mouth open either in stupidity or surprise. Maybe he really had a firstborn, Rumpelstiltskin thought. Maybe he should try and collect on that.
Rumpelstiltskin went up to the bar, reached into Reggie's pocket, and pulled out the check. He ripped it into bits and tossed them in the air.
"Real mature," said Reggie.
The first scrap hit the floor, and the wood darkened to black. Maggie gasped as the magic extended across the room. It lifted her gently when it reached her. It climbed the tables. It snaked up the walls, dissolving Reggie's plaster. The blown glass ornaments shuddered as if in fear, and one broke loose and fell. By the time it landed, the floor had turned to black-and-white checkered tile. The ornament shattered, and the magic absorbed its shards.
Glasses of beer morphed into cupcakes.
The bar shrank and became a display case.
Reggie's beret dissolved into a hairnet.
Rumpelstiltskin took the pies from Maggie, slipped behind the bar, and added them to the display case.
"What are you?" she asked as Reggie hightailed it out the back door, ripping the hairnet free as he ran. She wouldn't play his game, but Rumpelstiltskin didn't mind. She hadn't asked for his help, which somehow made her worthy of it.
What was he?
Imp. Trickster. Baby-stealer.