“Tips Welcome” by Anna Zumbro

“Tips Welcome” by Anna Zumbro

The airport bar is called Baggage Claim, and my bartender, Manuela, isn’t even five feet tall. She doesn’t bother with a stepstool. She couldn’t — she’s all graceful, spidery motion, loose locks of hair swinging as she darts around mixing cocktails and offering refills exactly when I want them. In two drinks, I haven’t seen her crack a smile once, but she exudes friendliness all the same. It’s easy to see why the TIPS WELCOME jar is full of bills. Manuela pulls a couple of pints of Goose Island for an amorous pair of hipsters at the end of the bar, and nods at my glass.

“Another mojito?”

“I’d like to,” I say, and it’s true. Mostly because of Manuela. “But my flight — ”

“Seattle? You’ve got time. It’s just been pushed back.”

The words are just out of her mouth when the syrupy intercom voice announces a thirty-minute delay and gate change for flight 1377 to Seattle.

“Are you psychic or something? How did you know?”

Her eyes flick up to my Mariners cap, then back to the mint leaves she’s mashing.

“I meant the delay.”

She points to the departures screen across the wide hallway. “They usually change that before the intercom announcements.” She sets my drink in front of me, then goes to check on the hipsters.

I’ve never minded layovers, even at notoriously crazy airports like O’Hare. The security theater makes me feel like I’m entering another world, a liminal place where ordinary rules don’t apply. It’s a childish feeling, I suppose, yet here I am pushing forty and making pathetic attempts to flirt with a cute airport bartender ten years my junior.

I wonder if Manuela has this feeling about airports, too. When she comes back I try to ask her, only it comes out all wrong.

“So, working here, do you feel like… I mean, I guess you have some pretty good stories, right?”

“Good stories?” I feel hopelessly unoriginal. Of course, bartenders have good stories. Coroners probably do too.

Manuela pauses, then one corner of her mouth curves upward in half a smile. “I can tell you how I got my tattoo.”

“Where — ” I begin, but she’s ahead of me. She turns her back and lifts up her shirt, revealing a hybrid creature, a surprisingly elegant mix of a dragon and a unicorn. The animal’s horse tail and winged equine body smoothly morph into a scaly neck and reptilian head capped by a long gold horn that disappears into her bra strap.

“It’s nice.” I look away, embarrassed to be staring at her bare back in public like this.

Manuela turns back around and nods. “I got it from this lady who came to the bar two years ago.”

“Right here?” I ask, meaning at this bar.

“No, that seat,” she says, indicating the stool next to me. “She was a real weird lady. Short gray hair and really light green eyes, the color of limes. She had three scotch on the rocks. Even though I kept watching her, I never saw her take a sip, but the drinks disappeared all the same.

“Anyway, when it was time for her to go she paid me in cash, exact change for the drinks and tax. I’m thinking, awesome, no tip, thanks a lot. She started to walk away, then turned around real fast and said, ‘I suppose you expect a tip. Here. Four wishes.’ And she tossed a bracelet with four red beads on the bar.”

“Four wishes?” I interrupt. “Isn’t it supposed to be three?”

“Did it happen to you?” Manuela challenges. “Where was I? Oh, the bracelet. It looked like a summer camp craft from a kid who’s not the brightest light on the Christmas tree, you know? I didn’t really want it. But the lady was watching me, so I put the bracelet on and thanked her.”

Maybe she’s telling me this as a way of inducing me to tip well. I test her mercenary motives. “I’d wish for money. Is that what you did?”

“Nah. Thought about it.” Manuela slides me a coaster and wipes away the circle of condensation where my glass had been. “My uncle Pedro won the lottery ten years ago. Thirteen million after tax. He went wild with it. Bought houses in Chicago and Cancun, cars for everyone he knew, even a diamond dog collar for his Yorkie. He lost all perspective, you know? Burned through the cash and his sanity. Finally snapped during a game at Wrigley Field, where he stripped naked and threatened to jump from the balcony. He’s still in therapy.”

“Oh.” I wait for Manuela to wink or say “gotcha,” but she’s serious. “Sorry about that.”

“Yeah, so that’s why I didn’t want money. Anyway, ten minutes after the bracelet lady left, this couple sat down. Right over there.” She indicates the hipsters. “The woman was all nerves. When she lifted her glass of water I could hear the ice cubes clanging, she was shaking so much. She had some purple bruises around her wrist. The man was tense, like a wildcat about to pounce. It took me all of ninety seconds to figure out that he was beating her.

“She was so shaky she bumped her hand against his rum and Coke and knocked it into his lap. He jumped up and yelled curses at her, never mind all the people staring. I fixed him a new drink, hoping I could calm him down, but the whole time I was thinking, I wish he were dead. I didn’t mean for him to die or anything. I just hoped that he would. A minute later, his face turned purple and he sounded like he was sucking air through a straw. Then he collapsed.

“I called the medics. They couldn’t find a pulse. I thought his wife might be relieved, at least a little, but she threw herself on him and sobbed ‘No, no, no!’ It hit me that he died because I wished it. I noticed one of the red beads on my bracelet had turned clear. I was a murderer.”

My arms are chilly under my sweater sleeves. I’m clenching my mojito so tightly my fingers are cramping. I smile at Manuela. “My bartender’s a killer. Should I be concerned?”

She shakes her head, not taking the joke. “No, no. I didn’t stay a murderer. Now that I knew the wishes worked, I figured I could wish him back alive. So I did. As soon as they put him on the stretcher, he opened his eyes. He looked at me for just a second, but it was… demonic. I just knew he’d been to Hell and was bringing a piece of it back here.

“I panicked then. There was only one person I thought could help, short of an exorcist. I thought Please come fix this, and the bracelet lady came around the corner. She shook her head at me, saying, ‘I had to delay my flight to Wichita for this.’ Right after she said that, they announced the delay.”

“Hold on,” I say. “The witch was going to Wichita?”

“I never called her a witch,” Manuela says. “Anyway, she touched the man’s shoulder, and he blinked his eyes and started crying. He hugged his wife and blubbered how sorry he was. Before I could thank the lady, she was gone. I had one red bead left, and I knew it would burn a scar on my wrist until I used it. So I spent it on my tattoo. It’s a good one, right?” She turns around and lifts up her shirt again.

I allow myself to look a little longer this time. The creature’s fur and scales stand out with hyper-realistic detail against Manuela’s toned back. There’s a vibrancy to this chimera that only a top tattoo artist, or magic, could achieve.

“Extraordinary,” I say.

The intercom announces that flight 1377 is about to begin boarding. I pay my bill and deposit a twenty in the tips jar. I suspect Manuela will appreciate the twenty, even if she finds $13 million distasteful.

“Thanks for some killer mojitos, and the best tattoo story I’ve ever heard.”

“It’s not just a story.” Manuela holds up her wrist, which is adorned by four transparent beads on a leather thong. “See?”

I play along. “Still, though. Why did you spend your last wish on a tattoo?”

She graces me with a full smile at last, her teeth sparkling and charmingly crooked. “I didn’t want to do something I’d later regret.”

Anna Zumbro is a writer and teacher who lives in Washington, DC. Her work has appeared in Cricket, Nature, Daily Science Fiction, and other publications.