Chuck’s challenge for the week: Cocktails.
Maybe I was a bit myopic. I tried to think of ways to make the title “Gin Rickey” not have anything to do with liquor and came up dry (haw) so I decided to lean into the skid and embrace my tunnel vision. I even ended up getting a bit of Father’s Day magic into this one, though it wasn’t even almost my intention at first.
These characters are a lot saltier than my usual fare, which was kinda fun to write. Here are 1489 words of boozed-up brouhaha.
He clumps to the bar and dumps himself onto the stool, two hundred pounds of lean beef. He plunks a heavy briefcase to the floor by his seat and thumps his thick, raw-knuckled hands onto the bar top. He doesn’t look up, so his prominent brow — almost like a baseball cap — overshadows most of his face. What I can see is grimy, sweaty. Swollen lip.
“Club soda. Ice.” His voice is as rough and cold as the stones I toss in his glass.
I pour it for him, serve it up on the cocktail napkin I know he won’t use. He immediately picks it up (the napkin, not the drink), wads it, dabs it in the soda and begins to blot at a bloodstain on his cuff. If he weren’t so immense and terrifying, or maybe if he didn’t look like he’d come straight from a punch-up at a wedding, he’s look almost dapper. Black tux: a bit too small in the shoulders, rented. Black tie, loosened and hanging at mid-chest below his unbuttoned collar where a tuft of chest hair springs out.
I don’t say anything; surly types like him don’t care for chit-chat. I tell him the soda’s free of charge and begin to move away when he surprises me by speaking.
“What would your last drink be?”
“Beg pardon?” I’m not sure if he’s talking to me or even if he means to be heard, his voice is so low.
“I figure you know all kinds of drinks. The classics, beers, that blue shit with the umbrellas and whatnot. If you had a last drink, what would it be?”
I ponder for a moment, polishing a glass in my hand. “What’s the occasion?”
He spreads his hands. “Dealer’s choice.”
“Bullshit. Why?” He’s not rude. He sounds disappointed.
I hang the glass with the others, my lovely inverted crystal garden. “It’s simple. Classic. Smooth, but powerful.”
“And a little bit James Bond.”
The bloodstain on his sleeve won’t come out. He lets the sodden napkin fall to the bartop with a *thup* and holds out a callused hand toward me, giving me a good stare. “I’m Lem, by the way.”
“Richard.” His hand has probably ground as many knuckles in torture as it has shaken hands, which he does curtly.
His lips pull back in a genuine, if frightening, smile. “I’ll have a martini, then.”
“Vodka or gin?” I toss the shaker from one hand to the other, clink the ice cubes in.
“Christ. How would you make it?”
“Then it’d better be gin, Ricky.”
I mix a hell of a martini; kinda a point of pride for me. I don’t bother asking him if he wants the Bombay or the well swill – I know what he’d answer. The gin flows in like liquid silver, crisp, clear, astringent smell. Vermouth, just half a capful, comes next, then the lid is on and swirl it in tiny little circles, like a miniature waltz in your hand. You don’t shake a martini, it bruises the booze. Ruins it. Like the bruises on Lem’s once-handsome face.
Lem doesn’t watch me make the drink; in fact, he makes a point of not watching me. He’s chuckling to himself, mumbling something about Gin Rickeys. On the television in a corner, a couple of featherweights are beating hell out of each other. He watches with mild interest, his fingers and forearms tensing and jerking in time with the blows onscreen. He doesn’t even notice as I set it down by his elbow, so I mumble an obligatory, “here you are.”
His head spins around like he’d forgotten I was there. “Oh, thanks.” The olives in the drink are little green eyeballs, one on me, one on Lem. He pulls the spear, sucks the olives off, and chucks the drink — untasted — across the bar. It hits a chair and bits of glass explode all over the place. Some guy in a booth gets a bit of martini splashed on him, stands up real belligerent, sees Lem, and sits back down.
This is a first for me. Drunks have come in here and done all kinds of crazy shit over the years, but as far as I can tell, Lem is stone sober. He saves me the trouble of thinking of what I could possibly say in this moment.
“I mean, Jesus, Richard, a martini? Really? That’s the best you can come up with? Here you’ve been tending bar for, what, seven years? You can’t mix me up a goddamn… I dunno… sidecar, or a tequila sunrise, or a gimlet, you know, something with some originality, some personality, no, it’s a goddamn martini.”
He’s angry now, steaming, and full of nervous energy like he’s about to jump the bar and deck me or run for the door. “Jeez, I can make you another if you want –”
“I want you to not be such a sap! Such a fucking bore! Christ! You could’ve even served me up a Gin Rickey, you know, got your name in it and everything, that’d be funny. Original. No, name a cocktail and Rich goes for the tired-as-fuck martini.” I’d forgotten that he came in with a briefcase, but he grabs it now and slams it down on the bartop. By now, some of the other patrons are staring, but Lem and I might as well be on Mars. “He told me this was a dumb idea, trying to find you.”
He blasts me with don’t-pretend-you-didn’t-know-it-already eyes, but I’ve got nothing. Seeing my confusion, he softens a little, like a house of cards shedding its outermost layer. “You don’t know.” He sighs real heavy, like he’s about to tell me my dad’s been in a car accident. “I’m your brother. Half.”
His eyes flick back and forth across my face; I’m stunned and can’t even think. A brother? Dad? He and my mother just celebrated their thirtieth. Happiest two human beings I’ve ever seen married. Blissful. A half brother? I say the only thing I can think of. “What do you want?”
This remark seems to satisfy him, like he’s been expecting it. “Yeah. People always think I want things. Don’t worry. I don’t want anything from you. I want to give you something.” His big ham-hands reach for the latches on the case and suddenly I’m terrified of what’s inside.
I slam my hand down on the lid before he can open it. “Easy.”
He barks a laugh and sucks his teeth, just like dad does. “Whoa, there, Gin Rickey. I changed my mind anyway. Ain’t sharin’ nothin’ with my boring, weak-ass, can’t-think-of-any-drink-except-a-martini half brother. God, to think I beat the hell outta three of dad’s associates to get this shit, too.” He rubs his chewed-up knuckles reproachfully. “Nah, forget it. I’m out.”
He grabs for the case but I’m faster. In one fluid motion, just like dad taught me, I pin the case with my elbow and aim my .38 at his face. It’s my turn to give him a good stare; his eyes just about cross trying to focus on the gun. My words come out slow, like frozen gin. “I think not.”
Now his swagger is gone, his bluster and his toughest-guy-in-the-room confidence drains out of him like a pinholed balloon. “I’ll be goddamned. Maybe you’re my brother after all.”
“By the time I count to ten, you’re going to be gone. You won’t come looking for me again, you won’t try to call, you won’t exist for me unless I say so. Yes?”
He nods, his mouth working like he’s got a mouthful of rancid jello.
“And for my trouble, and my patrons’ trouble, you’re gonna buy the next round. And give me whatever’s in your pockets.” I raise my voice for the other customers to hear, but keep my eyes locked on Lem’s. “How’s that sound, everybody?” They stay silent, of course, except for one drunk asshole in the back, who “woo”s like the idiot he is.
“Son of a bitch,” Lem mutters as he digs a crumpled handful of bills, twenties and fifties, out of his pockets and tosses them on the bar.
I take his money and toss it in the register. “I guess you got that right.” I slam it shut and keep the gun trained on him.
He shuffles to the door. If he had a tail, it’d be giving him one hell of a wedgie. The door jangles and bangs shut behind him.
I can’t make myself open up the case. It doesn’t seem right. I throw it in the backroom next to my jacket and keys. I’m about to stow the gun back under the bar when I think better of it. I can stop by dad’s on the way home and make him open the case for me. Make him tell me about Lem. At gunpoint, if I have to.
Just like dad would do.