According to the character in this story “if you can find a refuge away from the world, where people know you, where you feel comfortable enough to be yourself, that can be family enough.” For him that might be a comforting statement, but the place where he finds it is anything but comfortable.
A toast to Yellow Mama, the webzine that first published the tale back in December 2018.
All You Can Drink $5.00
by DL Shirey
I did a double-take at the sign on the door, to make certain I’d read it correctly. Who could blame me for checking, given my lousy day so far? I’d lost a good account, my phone died and I was stuck in a strange town overnight with nothing but a cut-rate motel room in my immediate future. Cheap drinks sounded like a good way to end a bad business trip.
I reached for the door handle when a man crashed through. Clearly drunk, he staggered forward, trying not to lose his footing. He was dressed as I was, in a blue suit and tie; but that’s where the similarities ended. He looked twenty years my senior and his suit had scuffs and stains, the sleeves and cuffs worn to frays. He hadn’t shaved in days.
Wild eyes met mine and his mouth unhinged to speak. Then a bull of a man shouldered through the door and grabbed the man by the collar.
“I’ll show you how to finish what you started,” Bull snorted.
Bull swung the old man in full U-turn, dragging his wing-tipped shoes across the sidewalk, then threw him at the door. The man flattened against unforgiving wood and crumpled to his knees; with cartoon-like irony his face slid past the door’s PULL sign.
Bull gripped the man’s armpits and pulled him to his feet. Both looked at me; the drunk with a wide-eyed plea and the bouncer needing help of another sort.
“The door,” Bull said. And when I didn’t move he emphasized, “Open it.”
I did. It was like watching a Doberman on a rag doll. All the drunk could do was flail his arms as Bull forced the man inside. One good shove and the drunk disappeared behind a thick, green velvet curtain. Bull turned back.
“Come in and have a seat,” he said cheerfully, “All you can drink, five dollars.”
The curtain danced close. There I was on the sidewalk, dumbfounded, watching people skirt past to avoid me and the door I was holding open. Never in my life had I seen a drunk thrown back into a bar. Curiosity, as much as cheap drinks, made me lean into the green drape. I caught a glimpse of an ancient, dingy tile floor, just before the front door closed and cloaked me in darkness.
The room was deep and narrow, with a bar of red-brown wood that seemed a block long. I couldn’t see the end of it, the room was so dark. As my eyes adjusted, I saw islands of dim light behind the bar, beyond that a bare wall of exposed brick. There was nothing on the back wall, no mirror or shelves or liquor bottles.
The space was so narrow between the brick and bar, the two bartenders had to struggle to squeeze past one another. Had they not been petite women there would have been no room to maneuver. The barkeep closest to me filled a pint glass with beer from a solitary tap. She glanced up at me and tilted her head to the back of the room.
“Back there,” she said.
Her words, I thought, were an indication where the bouncer and drunk had gone. Since my thirst was suddenly stronger than finding those two fellows, I stepped toward the open chair beside the beer tap.
“No, back there.” This time the motion of her head flipped a ponytail up on her shoulder. “Fred’s buying the first round.”
I shrugged. The place wasn’t busy. The patrons sat on tall bar stools and each hunched on elbows, concentrating on the measure of space before them. This was a drinkers’ bar, not a place to watch the game or meet up with friends. There were no decorative knickknacks, TVs or chalkboards listing pub grub. This was the kind of place that opened early in the morning—if they ever closed at all—for people who started their day with another one of whatever it was they drank the night before.
I walked ahead as instructed. This joint had a dark intrigue about it, like an old black-and-white movie: hard-boiled characters, bad lighting and a shroud of mystery. I licked my lips, wanting a drink even more.
In front of me stood a jukebox that played no music. A gaunt man in a three-piece suit leaned over the music selection. He held up one finger at me, to give him a minute, as if a critical decision was at hand. Then he knocked on the glass above the chosen tune, turned his gap-toothed smile to me and asked, “Got any quarters, man?”
I didn’t and he stepped aside to let me pass. “Back there,” he echoed the bartender, “Fred’s buying.”
Beyond the jukebox I felt the texture of the floor change from tile to bare wood. There was a velvet rope and stanchions blocking entry to a larger space. The bar continued to my right but to the left an unadorned room with sharp glints of light illuminating the place. The only furniture was a coffin on sawhorses. The twinkles were from Christmas lights draping the wall, hanging from nails. I could see pale squares where pictures had been removed. They were stacked in one corner, facing the wall.
Bull was standing by the bar, his shaved head was as shiny as the ornate casket. “Did you know Fred?” he asked.
“Never had the pleasure. Just came in for a few drinks.”
“First one’s on him. Then pay your five bucks, all you can drink,” Bull said, “Gwendolyn will take your order at the bar.” When he unhooked the velvet rope, it was a wonder Bull’s shoulders didn’t rip through his tight black T-shirt.
“Sit anywhere but there,” Gwendolyn said, pointing at the lone stool at the very end of the bar, “That’s Fred’s place. What’ll you have?”
“Vodka tonic.” I said and sat.
“Sorry, no can do.” She shook her head and a long, limp ponytail swished behind her. “Got no mixers here. Give you a water back, but it’s straight shots or beer.”
“A shot then.”
Gwendolyn nodded and the round-lens glasses inched down her nose. The eyes behind looked old and colorless in the dim light coming from below the bar. She was short, scrawny and the white tank top showed more ribs than bosom. Gwendolyn pulled up a bottle and shot glass and poured dark liquid from one to the other.
“No, no. Vodka, please.”
“First one’s on Fred, and Fred drank Scotch.”
I looked at the glass and back at Gwendolyn. Her up-lit face had deep hollows around the eyes. It emphasized the sag beneath her chin and the crepey texture of her skin. I hesitated reaching for the glass, thinking about beggars and choosers. Gwendolyn must have thought my pause meant I didn’t want the drink. She tossed back the shot herself.
“Thanks Fred,” she raised the empty glass to the casket. Then she removed the bottle and wiped the spot with a bar towel. Gwendolyn moved back up the bar, refilling the shot glass of the man next to me, moving on to do the same for others up the line.
Hands clamped on both my shoulders. My insides jolted at the unexpected touch. “You should know the house rules if you’re gonna drink here.” Bull said it to me, but his next line was for the man on my right. “Why don’t you fill him in, Gus. I got another customer.”
Bull went to pull the rope for a woman dressed in a tight skirt suit. Bull let her walk toward the casket, to pay respects, I assumed.
The man to my right shifted on his stool. Gus was the drunk from the front door. He had shed his suit coat. His rumpled white shirt was open at the collar, a tie at half mast. He had a blood-spotted bar towel held up to his nose.
“Everything all right?” I asked.
“Peachy,” Gus said, slurring the word. “My own damn fault. Shoulda never tried to skip out.”
“He muscled you like that. For five bucks.”
“Gotta settle up before you go, that’s all,” Gus said, pushing his empty shot glass to the edge of the bar. Gwendolyn was back with a dutiful refill. Then she lingered at a sink, rinsing glassware.
“What was the bouncer saying about rules?” I asked.
“You pay in cash. Get a choice of shots or beer. All you can drink. There’s only one catch.” His eyes shifted to Gwendolyn and it made him pause. She turned off the water and gave us her full attention.
Gus continued, “The only catch is you gotta stick with your first choice. You go with shots, then shots is all you get.” He picked up his refill as if to emphasize his words. Gus downed it and grimaced.
To my left, a woman’s hand, nicely manicured, pushed a five across the bar.
Gwendolyn plucked up the bill. “You want a freebie, it’s on Fred.”
“No thanks, just the usual.” The woman said and slid into the open seat beside me.
Gwendolyn shouted over her shoulder, “One beer.”
Above the manicure were a half-dozen thin, gold bracelets. I glanced over, looking for more jewelry, but found those the only bangles adorning an attractive businesswoman in her 40s. The bracelets tinkled pleasantly. They seemed like odd accessories for someone who looked rigid and buttoned up, from her ramrod posture to her perfect attire. Even her dark hair was pulled back too tight.
She reminded me of my wife, Anya, only harder looking. I couldn’t imagine this woman relaxing her face or her comportment or her wardrobe to achieve my wife’s easy-going nature. The home Anya made for us was tranquil and any sour news that entered, like the stress I was feeling from this bad business trip, she met with gentleness and calm. Perhaps what I needed more than a drink was to call Anya. Hear the salve of her voice, talk about my troubles, have her tell me of the simple joys she’d discovered today, remind me of the wonderful world waiting at home.
I reached for my phone and remembered it was dead. I felt my fist mold around the useless pane of glass and plastic.
A pint of beer hit the bar directly in front of me and slid to the woman beside me. It was delivered by the other bartender, who might have been Gwendolyn’s twin, except for an obvious age difference. I turned to the woman next to me who had raised the glass to her lips.
“You come here often?” I couldn’t believe that stupid line tumbled from my mouth. “Sorry. I mean, you seem like a regular. Are the bartenders related?”
She flicked her eyes at me, but swallowed beer until a third of the pint was gone. She leveled the glass, but did not return it to the bar. It was as if she didn’t want the liquid too far from her mouth.
“Gwen and Maddy? Yeah, mother daughter.” She swallowed another mouthful and set the glass down. “Family business. Three generations run the place. Sad about Fred, though. Did you know him?”
“No. I was passing by and dropped in. Fred part of the family?” I said.
“Not really. He was like you, just dropped by one day and stayed. That’s kind of like family, isn’t it?”
I had to agree with her. If you can find a refuge away from the world, where people know you, where you feel comfortable enough to be yourself, that can be family enough. I was lucky, I had a place like that with Anya.
I never said any of this to the woman, instead I asked, “You been coming here a long time, miss…”
“Idella.” She nodded but didn’t extend a hand.
“Pop in for a beer now and again. The nows and agains do add up when you stop and think about it.” She took another long drink of beer. “I try not to think about it.”
I felt the press of a body between us. Bull leaned in, his big, polished head looking at me. “You gonna talk or drink. Slap the money on the bar and you can do both for as long as you want.”
As his head withdrew, Idella was draining her pint. A squelched, unladylike belch followed and she retuned the glass to the bar. She rose to leave.
“What about ‘all you can drink’?” I asked.
“One beer is all I can drink,” Idella said, “It’s good. I’d go with beer if I were you.”
She straightened her clothes and said goodbye to Gwendolyn.
Gus muttered to me, “Wish I ordered beer. But you know what they say. You don’t buy beer, you rent it.”
His laugh was sloppy. He pounded on the bar at his own amusement, spittle flying with each fresh cackle.
“Seriously, man,” he said, wiping his mouth on his sleeve, “Dunno what they put in the liquor, but I like it. Never had the beer, but this stuff is good.”
Gus fanned his fingers, a signal for me to lean closer, like he had a secret to share. He had a drunk’s whisper, loud enough to be overheard.
“You know they do their own hooch here.” He nodded to himself, assured of his facts. “Make it themselves. Got a whole dister…distillery out back and everything. S’why they can sell it so cheap.”
“Family recipe,” Gwendolyn cut in, pouring another shot for Gus. She thumped the bottle down and fixed her eyes on me. “Do you have a fiver?”
“Show it to me. Lay it on the bar.”
I withdrew my wallet and thumbed out the bill. I did what she asked.
“By the time I come back here you’ll have decided. Beer or shots, or my bald, son-of-a-bitch son-in-law will make a decision for you. Capiche?”
Gwendolyn grabbed the neck of that bottle like it was a club she used often, tossing it below the bar where it clattered atop an unseen pile of empties.
“Don’t look at me,” Gus said, “Drink what you want to drink. Just don’t cause no trouble. Take my word for it. Better yet, take my nose for it.”
That sent Gus off again, spitting out laughs, slapping the bar. He clapped me on the back like I was his oldest, dearest friend.
Bad day or not, I did not want to end it like Gus. Worse yet, with Gus; matching him shot for shot, laughing at each other’s bad jokes. No, I would take a page from Idella’s book: one drink and leave. I’d find my way back to my motel room and call home to Anya.
I didn’t wait for Gwendolyn to ask. She returned to fill Gus’s glass again, so I slid the bill toward her. “Shot of vodka.”
“Now you’re talking,” she said, grabbing the money and plucking a fresh glass from below the bar. The bottle tipped, pouring a tar-black liquid. It looked almost syrupy.
“Vodka, I said.”
“That’s what I gave you, honey,” Unlike before, Gwendolyn’s voice was sugary, with an assuredness to it. “Taste it, you’ll see.”
Bull planted himself backwards on the stool where Idella had sat. He leaned his bulk back against the bar and stared at me. This was ridiculous. One drink and I was out of here. I picked up the glass, but the shot froze under my nose. The smell was vile, like someone had combined garlic and burnt rubber. As if to allay my suspicions, Gwendolyn clinked the bottle against Gus’s shot glass. She took a swig from the bottle, while Gus tossed his back. Bull nudged my narrow shoulder with his massive one. I held my breath and let a sip past my lips.
It was vodka, with a pleasant, briny tang and flat aftertaste. I pulled the glass to arm’s length, surprised to see that the liquor was colorless. I sniffed at it again and got no distinctive scent. Vodka. I finished the shot.
“See,” Gwendolyn said, and Bull jumped to his feet, freeing the stool.
“Not bad,” I said.
Gus agreed, “Best bourbon I’ve ever had. Hit me again.”
Gwendolyn poured, the bottle moving from his glass to mine without spilling a drop: a rich amber for Gus, mine crystal clear.
“Last one for me. I’ve got an early morning,” I lied and drank down the second vodka.
The prick of liquor hit my throat and I could trace its path down inside, the warmth compounding like a small sun. Its brightness pulsed at my core, radiating molten waves of pleasure out to my skin.
I instantly became aware of my clothes, how they lay against my body. It was more distracting than sensual, like there were too many contact points competing for my attention. But this was nothing compared to my fascination with the shot glass in my hand: the thick facets at the base, tapering up to a smooth, perfect circle of glass. Such a simple object, but the design was hypnotic. It was a miracle such a thing existed, its smoothness and crystallinity. My mind ached with the fact that I could see through something made from sand.
As amazing as the glass felt, I became aware that my other hand rested on the bar. The mahogany yearned for me to touch it. I set the shot glass down on her, with a gentle respect, and caressed the wood with two hands. Instantly I conjoined with a solitary sentinel rising above her sister trees, gazing out across a canopy of green as far as the eye could see. There was a sudden memory of pain, metal teeth chewing into her, a sweeping fall and a hundred humiliations afterwards. She was beautiful and tragic to the touch, yet didn’t seem to mind being here, with the countless people she’d known. There had been so many elbows that leaned on her, and because of her all those drinks were in easy reach of her friends.
I looked up to see that my shot glass had been filled again. It was like a comforting handshake, to touch the glass again. I couldn’t wait to bask in the warmth of the vodka once more. It would almost be a sin not to. I tilted my head back and communed.
Laughter to my right. It was sad and somehow musical at the same time. Gus was consumed in thought, concentrating on the hollow of the glass in front of him. His lips moved, and while I couldn’t hear the words, I felt the regret they conveyed. Gus was a lost man, an echo of emptiness came from within. He had slapped me on the back earlier and I could still feel its imprint, the tendrils of anguish that lingered from his brief touch: his mundane life, the only woman that mattered, and a son he refused to name Gus Jr. because the child would grow to hate the name. The boy died tragically and a divorce soon followed, then nothing happened afterward that ever came close to happiness.
Gus Dunn. I knew everything about him.
I reached for my freshly filled shot glass and raised it to Gus Dunn. “To you, man.”
I set the empty on that regal mahogany plane. Gwendolyn was there to refill it. Had I not known her better, I would have guessed the deep creases in her forehead were from anger. But it was pain–dull, deep-seated and continual. This bar was the only thing that kept her going. That and her family, and the customers she treated like family.
“Welcome home,” she said, sincere and unequivocal. Then she shouted “One beer” down the bar at her daughter. I could feel the longing in Gwendolyn to hold a grandbaby before the cancer robbed her of life.
There was a jangle to my left. Idella wedged herself onto the stool, sitting up perfectly straight. She nodded my way, a coldness to her, no recognition of me at all.
“Back so soon?” I said, but the conversation we had a minute ago had slipped my mind. I looked at her hard, trying to remember, like there was something consequential she’d said or that she’d come back to remind me of something important. Yet she wouldn’t meet my eyes. “Name’s Wyatt, remember?”
“Oh, right. You were here the last time I was in,” Idella said, “Guess you’re a regular now.”
Gwendolyn refilled my glass and tipped the neck of the bottle towards Idella. “Want a freebie? It’s on Gus.”
I turned to my right. The seat was empty, the mahogany spotless. I spun around on my stool. There were two people walking up from the casket, Bull escorting a stranger to the bar. “Sit anywhere but there,” Bull said, pointing at the empty space next to me, “That’s Gus’s place.
Confused, I rubbed at my chin, trying to think. The rasp of thick stubble made my shoulders tighten; how long had I been here? I tried to measure the distance to the front door, but it was too dark and the mahogany bar seemed to stretch forever. And there was a man leaning on the jukebox, blocking my way.
One more drink, for courage, and I’d get the hell out.