Johnny chuckled softly to himself and squinted out the windshield as fog collected on the edges of the glass. He pointed the Olds in the direction of the Bayside Bar and tried to imagine his parents together in this town. It was hard to do.
He was on Banks Avenue, near the viaduct over the railroad tracks, thinking how nothing seemed historical about Bay City, just old. How the past seemed to disappear like last winter’s snow, and once it was gone, nobody thought about it much.
Except maybe if you were drunk and blasted on pain pills.
At 12:20 he swung into the gravel parking lot of the Bayside and was jolted by the sight of two gigantic Great Lakes ships towering in the gloom at the back of the lot. Two brown monsters looming dry-docked, waiting for the ice to go out. Waiting for winter’s grip to loosen, just like everyone else.
He picked up a few stares when he came through the red door into the dim, smoky bar. He didn’t give a damn. To his left was a stage, four skinny white kids with ducktail haircuts, white shirts and stovepipe jeans playing electric guitars and slouching through a love song about a “Little Ragged Dolly.” A few couples slow-danced. Stage lights changed color from red to blue to yellow.
Two meatheads at the bar made a point of staring as he strode confidently and impassively past them. But nobody was about to say anything to the beefy, well-dressed black man with the Band-Aid above his eye and cigar stub clenched between his teeth.
He approached the barman and smiled at the slender guy with the standard ducktail haircut. The tender pointed towards the back of the room. “Mr. Lambert said you should go on back, Mr. Beam. Just go on back to the hallway there and hang a right.”
“Thanks,” Johnny said, as the kid moved down the bar toward a teetering, rouge-cheeked lush with a pink scarf wrapped around her frizzy, thinning red hair.
Beam walked towards the back of the room, squinted through the smoke and the dim lights at the pool table. He saw faces that looked vaguely familiar. He turned down a hallway of cracked brown linoleum. The smell of stale beer was in the air. Red and white shards of light from a cracked Exit sign strafed the walls. He knocked on the scarred and scuffed wooden door that said Office in gold letters.
“Come on!” Lambert hollered from behind the door.
Beam turned and pushed on the doorknob.
Jimmy was sitting in a wheeled leather chair, wearing sharply creased tan slacks and a tan western-style shirt, brown cowboy boots stretched out alongside a cluttered oak desk. Against the far wall, Gloria was sprawled out on a green, three-cushion couch, drink in one hand and Salem burning in the other, breasts damn near falling out of her dress. Her mouth wriggled into a big smile when Johnny sat down in front of the desk and grinned at her devilishly.
“Glad to see you could make it over, Johnny. Or should I call you Champ?” Lambert said. “Glad you came over, my friend.” He lifted out a green bottle of Cutty Sark from a bottom desk drawer. “Here, pour yourself a drink.
“Gloria, get Johnny a glass, honey. And then get me that plastic bag from the file cabinet.”
Gloria lifted herself from the couch, smoothed down her red dress and shook her body like she was trying to get all her parts back into place. She couldn’t quite manage it, tripped on her high heels and went stumbling and giggling across the room.
“So, Johnny, my friend,” Lambert said, lighting a Lucky Strike, sucking in smoke and slapping his Zippo down on the desktop. “Tell me about these booze bargains that you were referring to earlier. Tell me how you and I are going to rake in the big dough.”
“I’ve got some real solid plans, Jimmy, real solid. These are some things I’ve been thinking about for a long time. I thought I’d check with you first—I’m going to do it anyway—but having you along will sweeten the pot for both of us, I can guarantee that.”
“Go on Johnny, you’ve got my ear.” Lambert said, flicking his ash into an amber, circular glass ashtray on the cluttered desktop. “Exactly how can you save me a ton of moolah on booze?”
“No offense to Gloria,” Johnny said, bowing his head as she approached. “But I’d prefer to treat this as private business between you and me, Jimmy.”
Smirking, Gloria placed a thick short glass in front of Beam and then tossed a small rolled-up paper sack onto the desktop.
“Of course,” Jimmy said, dragging hard on his cigarette. “Gloria, sweetheart, why don’t you go out front and flirt with the guys in the band for a while or something. Maybe you can get one of them to take you home later. I’ve got to go out to the county tonight, and I know you don’t like it out there.”
“Maybe I want to go along tonight,” she whined, wiggled.
“We’ll talk about that later,” he said.
She flipped him the bird, rocked her hair back and bounced her ass in that tight wool dress out of the room, a slight pout holding on her rapidly aging visage.
The office door clicked shut.
“We’re alone now, Johnny. Let’s hear the plan.”
“Coincidence, I guess, but it concerns your holdings in the county, Jimmy. All the booze you sell out there. It’s well known that you supply those places, and I know a guy who can cook stuff up so it’s better than the real thing. That means tax-free liquor. High-grade. Stuff would be perfect for your blind pigs, man. This stuff will flat out light up those farmer johns.”
“Moonshine, you say?”
“More correctly, corn whiskey. My man says he can make whiskey as good as store-bought, color and everything, if he’s got the time to age it. If he ain’t got the time, he can use food coloring and flavoring. If there’s a call for it, we can get you bathtub gin. My prices are going to be low, Jimmy. I’m talking so low, you’ll have to squat down to see’em.”
“How low, exactly?”
“Truth is, we’re not ready to price it, yet,” Johnny said, but the truth really was that he didn’t have any idea. “We have to make a batch first, to see what it’s gonna cost and how long it has to age and other considerations. A wet run so to speak.” Johnny grinned.
Lambert was struck with the thought that Beam resembled Louie Armstrong—the big smile and the round face.
“Thing I’m getting at,” Johnny continued, “is that if the sample is to your satisfaction and you decide you want to order big for your clubs, I think I could price it even lower, say, if you were able to toss me a little advance bankroll, you know, in order to increase the size and scope of the operation.”
“And you’re sure this cook of yours knows his stuff? I can’t be financing any garbage.”
“I’ve tasted the stuff, the guy makes it for himself in small batches. Hillbilly lives in a trailer in the woods outside of Zenith. Son of a bitch is a master. Stuff is smooth going down and sure enough puts the fire in your belly. Of course you’d get a sample before any commitments were expected.”
In reality, never a drop of Big Cat’s shine had touched Johnny’s lips. But you gotta do what you gotta do.
“Your word on it is good enough for me, Johnny. If you say it’s kosher, then it is. Tell you what, my friend. Why don’t you come out to the sticks with me tonight? We’ll talk business and party a little and get a grasp on what kind of volume I do. I’ll show you how it works in the boondocks.” As he spoke, he lifted the paper bag off the desk, reached in and removed a rolled-up plastic bag. He let the baggie unfurl to reveal a snarl of white pills along the bottom, covered in a dusty white powder. “Why don’t you take a couple of these, Johnny, and come along for the ride tonight? You’ll like it. I’ll bring Gloria along and we’ll have a party.”
“I already took some pain pills tonight, Jimmy. I’m flying pretty high already. You know how it is after a fight, the adrenaline and all.”
“These are different than pain pills. These are bennies, my friend. Pep pills, goofballs, uppers. Benzedrine is what the doctors call it. Take all your troubles away and let you run a little longer, don’t ya know. You’ll feel like a new man with these, Johnny, that’s my guarantee.” He tossed the bag and Beam caught it with a smooth motion.
“I’m going to be flying so high, Jimmy,” Johnny said, grinning like Louie Armstrong, his voice velvet smooth, as he reached into the bag and removed one of the small white tablets. He figured he’d go along with Lambert for the sake of business. Same thing as having lunch with a banker to get a business loan.
“Big man like you needs at least two, Champ.”
Johnny shrugged and took another tablet from the bag, put them both on his tongue; poured some Cutty in his glass and washed them down. A bitter taste lingered.
“You’ll be right as rain in a little while, my friend,” Lambert said, getting up. “Pour yourself another drink while I get ready. We’ll snag Gloria on the way out. That is, if she isn’t already in the parking lot giving head to the band.” He laughed loudly then limped over to the metal filing cabinet, opened the second drawer from the top and lifted out a nickel-plated Colt Python .357 Magnum.
“Jesus, man, what you need that for?” Johnny asked, the skin around his eyes tightening.
Lambert turned with the gun in his right hand, barrel pointing up at the low ceiling. “You never can tell, my friend. You never can tell. I ain’t ever had to use it yet, but there were, you know, times in the past when I wished I had a gun with me. And now, since I got one, nothing happens. It’s like hazard insurance, y’know? With this bum leg of mine I sure can’t run away if there’s trouble, and it doesn’t help me much if I have to fight, either. I can still handle myself, you understand, you’d be surprised. But I can’t handle more than one guy at a time.”
“Yeah, sure, I know. But I don’t like guns, had enough of guns in Korea. Seems like where there are guns, trouble follows close behind—if it ain’t already there. Way too many of them in Chicago when I was there. Got so you were always checking out a man’s coat to see if he was packing.”
“Man like you, Johnny, can get out of most jams with his fists, I ‘magine,” Lambert said, sticking the revolver in his waistband. “But ah, come on, man, take a look at me. Skinny old gimpy bastard like me needs a back-up.”
“I’ll watch your back tonight, Jimmy. You don’t need that thing.”
“No offense, my friend, but walking into one of my joints with you next to me, could start something right there. Could be some kind of trouble start up—uh—just on appearances—if you catch my drift.” Lambert looked down at a stain on the rug.
“I know what you mean, Jimmy; I know what you’re saying. But honestly, I don’t usually have any trouble when I go out. I’m a friendly guy, you know; I get along with people, for the most part. My mother always taught me that was the way you had to be to get by in this world.” Johnny shifted uneasily in the chair, rubbed at his throat and smiled.
“Just the same, my friend, I think I’ll bring the heater along.” He patted the pebbled grip and nodded. “You know the old line: Meet my friends, Mr. Smith and Mr. Wesson. So here, meet my friends, Mr. Colt and Mr. Python.” Jimmy cackled and a cold light danced in his eyes.
“Maybe I shouldn’t go at all,” Johnny said, wincing deep furrows on his broad brow. “I don’t wanna screw up your deal, Jimmy.”
“Ah, no, Johnny, don’t worry. Just come along for the ride, we’ll be all right. No, I mean it. One thing for sure, you won’t be sleeping anytime soon, I promise you that.” He cackled. “You gotta see these places of mine. You know, get a grasp on the scope of my operation. You gonna be a businessman, you gotta learn.”
“Well I ain’t gonna tell you your business, Jimmy, so we might as well get a move on. I’m already starting to feel pretty good. This is good scotch,” he said, lifting the glass to his lips.
“Have some more while I get a few things from out front, Champ. I’ll be back in a flash.”
The door slammed shut. Johnny leaned back in his chair and took a look around the office. Couch, TV, desk, a few chairs, file cabinet, pictures of fighters on the brown-paneled wall: Joe Louis, Marciano, Max Baer, Sugar Ray Robinson, Carmen Basilio, Benny “Kid” Paret and others, also a couple of wrestlers. He recognized Gorgeous George, long, curly blond hair like a woman’s.
Kind of place that Johnny felt at home. He could picture himself in a backroom like this, smoking a cigar and stuffing money in a canvas bag. His would be a little nicer, though, better furniture. Have a color TV, maybe a fridge… That would be real fine.
Half an hour later the three of them were bouncing along on bumpy, two-lane asphalt, ghostly snow and dark woods closing in on both sides.
Dig the spongy, yellow front seat of Lambert’s big gold Plymouth: Gloria in the middle, rubbing her thigh against Johnny’s to the beat of rock music coming from the dashboard radio, WEBC, 560 AM, on the dial.
Twenty minutes on the blacktop and a couple miles on iced-over dirt before they swung into the rutted drive of a ramshackle building, remarkable only for its existence in the seeming middle of nowhere. Cars were parked anywhere that would accommodate them, filling the adjacent roadside for fifty yards in each direction.
Johnny guessed they had to be paying off the local constable to overlook this large volume of visitors at a boarded-up wooden shack in the middle of a jack-pine forest. He found out later he was right. The clubs did enough business to afford payoffs without blinking an eye, and there were a lot of needy, underpaid constabularies in the woods of northern Wisconsin. In most cases and most places, with the exception of the occasional young and over-zealous officer, the rural cops hardly ventured out at night in the cold of deep winter, unless there was a call. And as long as nobody got maimed, mugged or murdered, the blind pigs were allowed to continue operations.
The big Plymouth bounced along the tree-lined drive and pulled directly in front of the sagging, gray, two-story house of moderate size that one time might have held a family of six. Lambert wheeled into a private space marked by a wooden sign nailed to a post in the ground, Management painted crudely in red house paint.
Lambert switched off the ignition, shut down the lights and took the revolver from under the seat, put it in the waistband of his trousers, got out of the car and smoothed down his jacket over the bulge. Johnny and Gloria got out the other side. Beam’s heart was beating like someone was working a speed bag in his chest and he surged with a peculiar excitement.
Jimmy and the lady walked up a trampled pathway of dirty snow while Johnny kept slightly behind, breathing deeply of the cold air. It was dry and crisp and smelled of wood smoke. The three stepped onto the warped, ice-speckled porch and Lambert gave a hard rap on a thick metal door with an eye-level viewing slot. A dull roar came through the thin walls. Yellow light seeped through the cracked and yellowed shade of a bay window. About fifty feet to the right of the porch was an outhouse with a sagging roof and two men beside it in the gauzy moonlight, urinating in the snow.
The door is the only thing solid on this whole damn building, Beam thought—truly a business with low overhead. The slot in the door made him smile. But man, where did all these cars come from? Hadn’t been a house for miles.
“You like this door, Johnny?” Lambert asked. “I had it specially made for this place. This welder I know can do some pretty cute things. The guy is a genius, but he can hardly even read. ‘magine that, eh. The guy is a goddamn genius with metal and cars and stuff like that but it would take him a fucking hour to read a goddamn postcard, if he could do it at all.”
The slot slid open with a metallic click. Raucous noise bled out. A pair of yellow, translucent eyes beneath a narrow forehead and a shock of greasy black hair filled the space.
Lambert scowled at the eyes in the slot. “Open the goddamn door, Gooder, you retarded cocksucker. Can’t you see who this is?”
A metal bolt scraped and the door jerked open.
“What the fuck, Ray?” Lambert snarled.
“Sorry Jimmy,” said a lanky, oily guy in soiled blue jeans and a red flannel shirt. “I was just surprised that it was you, uh, when I saw the… uh… they ah—don’t look like our normal customers, so I—”
His voice trailed off as clouds of tobacco smoke billowed out into the night. There was sawdust on the floor and a great roar of voices trying to be heard over a loud jukebox. Johnny noticed a couple of large and rotund women standing among a crowd of men at a bar made of unvarnished wood.
Ray Gooder stepped out of the way and the three walked in.
“These are my friends, Ray. That’s all you need to know,” Lambert said, his face tightening. “Don’t ever make me wait out here again, you hear me? Where’s your fucking brother?”
“He’s in the back. I’ll tell him you’re here,” Ray said, the tendons in his jaw bouncing.
“I think I’ll just go back and surprise him tonight, Ray. Ted likes surprises, don’t ya know.”
“All three of you going back there?” Ray said, squinting at Johnny.
“Is there a problem with that?”
“No,” Ray said, pushing a hank of hair back into his pompadour.
As Johnny became visible to the crowd inside, the roar became a murmur and then a kind of hissing, as the inhabitants took notice of the black man with the white woman, and the skinny guy with a limp and a face like a rattlesnake. Some in the crowd recognized Lambert and went back to their card game or their drink or their overweight prostitute.
Johnny felt the tension right away. He’d expected it. He was used to it. At 5’11” and 185 pounds of thick muscle, with hands as fast as two cobras, he didn’t have to take it if he didn’t want to, and hell, Jimmy had a gun for Christ sakes. But tonight he didn’t want any trouble. He was starting to feel too good for trouble. And Gloria was beginning to look mighty fine. Sure was coming on to him, what with her leg-rubbing routine and all that.
No, he didn’t want any trouble from these Farmer Johns. You often heard the BS about peaceful country folk, but they just seemed like a bunch of ignorant rubes to him. Put them in the same room with a person of dark skin and it’s like they’ve seen the devil himself. A nigger with a white woman is just too much for the retards; their blood starts to boil. A hanging offense to the slack-jawed dipshits.
Let them come after him tonight, Johnny thought. They started something; he’d sure as hell finish it. The way the bennies had him going, his hands would be quick. Except for the throbbing in his eyebrow, it was like he hadn’t gone ten rounds. He was fresh, like he’d just woken up five years younger. If only Lambert had given him these pills before the fight…. Would’ve put Sparks on the canvas to stay, without a doubt. Fuckin’ right. And any Clem Cadiddlehopper motherfuckers decided to give him trouble tonight, they were gonna be spitting teeth real quick. Anyone pulled a blade and he had Jimmy with that cannon of his. But he didn’t want any trouble. The goofballs were really taking hold, putting a little tightness in the solar plexus. Room was full of white guys spending money.
Ted Gooder’s office had once been a bedroom at the back of the house. The door was closed but Lambert barged right in.
Maybe some poor, lonely little kid used to sleep here in this room, Johnny thought as he floated in behind Gloria.
Besides a console model television in the corner, the office held a desk, a few folding chairs of various styles and a brown vinyl couch against the left wall. The doorman’s older brother Ted was sitting on the couch watching the late movie next to a plump blond in her forties, a former stripper once known as Ethyl Flame. At their feet was an old-fashioned metal washtub filled with ice cubes and bottles of beer. A jug of Seagram’s Seven and a quart of 7Up were propped in the center of the tub like the crown on an ice sculpture. Not that anyone in the room had ever seen an ice sculpture, except maybe for the frozen mounds of urine-carved snow at the side of the outhouse and the bottom of the back porch.
“Don’t get up, Ted, you might miss something,” Lambert said, limping to the metal desk and sitting on the top. He rubbed his hands together. “Come on Johnny, Gloria… pull up a chair. Ted’s going to offer us a drink, aren’t you Ted? And then we’ll conduct our business and get the hell out of here. Looks like you’re busy tonight, anyway, Ted.”
Lambert was pretty buzzed himself and he didn’t care much for the Gooder brothers except for what he could get out of them. He knew they were capable of anything, as he had witnessed them torturing cats and screwing sheep back in their school days together at old Walnut School.
But Lambert knew the Gooders were perfect to run this joint for him. Everyone in the area, including the law, was scared of them. And the general populace accepted the fact that if you crossed one of the Gooders you’d better sleep with one eye open and take out plenty of fire insurance.
Jimmy had been able to kick their ass when they were kids and he still had a hold over them. Now they worked for him. It wasn’t hard to be smarter than the Gooders, and in the long run, Lambert was even more ruthless than they were. Over the years, Ted and Ray had accepted it. Sure, they still skimmed a little off the top of the rake at the poker table, and lifted a few bottles of liquor or a couple cases of beer once in a while. But they weren’t aware that Jimmy allowed them to get away with stuff like that—the little things. They just believed they were devilishly clever.
The Gooders didn’t mess with Lambert. They knew quite well what he was capable of, having been his enforcers for years. Besides, why bitch too loud? They were making money and doing what they liked best: getting piss drunk, screwing whores, fighting and dealing in stolen property.
Jimmy believed that contented cows produced more milk. Give the ignorant pricks a little frosting and they’d lay off the cake. And he had other ways of insuring his fair share of the take.
He charged for the liquor used and kept track of the empties, refilling the more expensive brands with cheaper booze. He offered cash to the bartenders in the joints in exchange for any information on skimming, and often hired informants who would come in, spend a little money and watch the goings-on with an eye out for employee theft. The Gooders never could be sure whom Lambert might send. The threat of being caught and what Jimmy might do to them had kept the degenerate siblings in line, so far.
Ted Gooder slid his arm off the bare shoulders of the former exotic dancer. She shifted her position and continued to stare at the TV. Gooder, a slight sneer wrinkling his lips, stern-eyed Johnny. “Jimmeee,” he said, cocking his head back and assuming a slit-eyed smirk. “You’re early tonight. You got a hot date or something like that?”
“Something, like that. And if you’ll get me the bag, I’ll be on my way.”
“You’re so goddamn early, man, it’s still a little short. I gotta hit the till and the poker table one more time. Unless you don’t have the time.”
“I can wait, Ted. For a minute. I’ll have a Seven ’n Seven while I wait. And get us a bottle of good bourbon, would you? We need a jug for the road. Deduct it from the tab.”
Ted turned to Ethyl, still engrossed in the Doris Day, Rock Hudson feature. “What say you be a good girl and fetch my friend Jimmy a bottle of our finest whiskey,” he said. “Some Canadian Club or something. Tell Pete to put it on my tab.”
“Ah Ted, can’t it wait ’til the commercial?” Ethyl whined, wrinkling her nose. “What’s the matter with the Seagram’s, anyway?”
“Get the fuck off your fat ass and do what I asked you. You tell me I should ask when I want things, and now I do, and you don’t do what I ask. What the fucking hell is that?”
Flustered, her bright red lips sagging down like a sad clown, she reluctantly struggled out of the couch and slinked away, thinking that Ted wasn’t getting anything for free tonight.
“And get three clean glasses, too,” Ted yelled as the door swung closed. Then he stood up and stretched his arms. “Jesus, Jimmy,” he said, moving toward Lambert. “You really oughtta knock at a man’s door, y’know. What if I was getting a blowjob or something, and you came barging in? A guy could get his dick bit off. Someone comes barging in on you like that, it could be dangerous.” He slapped his thigh and laughed, his chin jutting out sharply like a blade.
“Don’t you be talking like that in front of Gloria,” Jimmy snarled playfully, before laughing and coughing at the joke. “The way I see it, Ted, you got no worries at all. First of all, I seriously doubt if anyone would ever suck your dick, but if for some strange reason it actually came to pass, like maybe you had a blind, retarded sister… you’d still be safe. Yup, with a one-inch dick, there’s not enough there to bite off.”
Gloria giggled and glanced quickly over at Johnny’s crotch, all rounded and full under those nice, creased slacks.
“Very funny, James,” Ted said, flipping the bird, his left cheek and eye twitching.
Johnny stood up and creaked across the warped, aqua blue linoleum to a window. Looked out into the small backyard, the gray, grainy snow and the dark tree line dimly lit by a three-quarter moon riding high in the sky. He was thinking about who should run his juke joint when it opened. How it was good to delegate. Spread the responsibility. And the culpability, should the authorities ever choose to enforce the laws and crack down on this shit. His choices were admittedly thin.
First things first, though, he needed to get ahead on the booze angle. His mind was flying with ideas and it was hard to contain his thoughts. The knot in his stomach was still there, like maybe an ulcer.
He turned from the window and walked assuredly to the tub of ice. Smiling politely as he passed Ted, he reached down and grabbed the Seagram’s, twisted the top and tipped it to his lips.
“Your boy sure makes himself at home, doesn’t he, Jimmy,” Ted said, cocking his neck to the side and squinting at the black man.
Johnny felt the muscles in his neck tighten. He gritted his teeth and sucked in some of the moldy air, smiled at Ted with hard eyes.
“That’s nobody’s boy, you inbred piece of shit,” Lambert snapped. “That’s Johnny Beam, light-heavyweight champion of Minnesota. You better show him some respect or he’ll kick your skinny white ass.”
“I’m not out to kick anyone’s ass tonight, Jimmy, I already did,” Johnny said, eyes going gentle. “I’m just trying to relax and have some fun. I’m a guest here, and I should’ve asked for the drink. My mother always taught me to be polite, and I’m afraid I forgot my manners.”
Ted seemed pleased for a second, then confused. His hand went up beneath his nose and covered his mouth.
Johnny took another pull of the whiskey, felt the flush in his cheeks. The cretin would probably throw good booze away, he thought, before drinking from a bottle that a nigger had touched to his lips.
He set the bottle back in the ice and went back to his chair humming the tune of “Sweet Georgia Brown.”
Then Ethyl came careening through the door with a jug of Canadian Club and three glasses, her bleached blond, straw-like hair falling in her face and the straps of her green dress slipping down off her shoulders. She set the booze and glasses on the desktop and flounced back to the couch
Ted stared at her, half sneering, then lifted a pack of Camels from his shirt pocket, shook one out and placed it on his lower lip. “I s’pose I’ll go make the rounds,” he said, his eyes flickering darkly. “You gonna empty the machines tonight, Jimmy?”
“Like I always do.”
“Well, yeah then, enjoy your drink and I’ll be back before the next gas is passed.” He flicked open a war surplus lighter; lit his fag and exited in a cloud of blue smoke.
Except for the two assholes, it’s a pretty slick operation, Johnny thought to himself. Low overhead, a percentage of the gambling and Jimmy owns the machines, supplies the booze and takes a chunk out of the till. But what about the whores? Much money to be made off whores. Something he’d have to look into. Maybe he and Lambert could work some kind of lend-lease deal.
Gloria and Ethyl were on the couch looking at television, engaged in an amphetamine-fueled conversation. Lambert was in a chair at the desk, his bad leg stretched out, and Johnny, unable to stay seated for any length of time, paced around the room, talking a blue streak and gesturing animatedly with his slightly swollen hands.
Whereas the broads yakked about actors and Hollywood and the contents of their purses, Beam and Lambert were speaking rapidly and in depth about percentages, availability of product and volume discounts, as well as security, bribery and the law.
Twenty minutes passed before Ted returned with a canvas bank bag in his hand and a pained look on his face. Lambert took the bag and looked inside. “You got the invoices on the liquor handy, Ted? I forgot to bring my book out tonight. I also need a bag for the coins from the machines. Forgot that, too.”
“Got your key, for fuck sake?”
Ted said, “Top drawer, James, everything’s in there: bags, invoices, rubbers—whatever the fuck you need.”
Lambert ignored Ted’s strutting and checked the liquor receipts while Johnny finished the last of his drink. Gloria stood up from the couch just as the national anthem began to blare from the television, tinny and out of synch with the words running across the bottom of the screen.
“See ya next week, Ted, be good now,” Lambert said, slipping on his suede leather jacket. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” grinning like a decaying jackal.
Ted smiled back, his lips peeled back to reveal yellowed canine incisors. “Don’t know what the fuck that would be, Jimmy, you sick son of a bitch.”
“You see the way I get treated, Johnny?” Lambert said, his eyes flashing. “Save these two ungrateful punks from a life of poverty and sex with animals, and see how I get treated. I got half a mind to sell this place to you, Champ, if you want it.” He side-glanced Johnny then back to Ted.
Stuck there inside his stupid grin and filled with the desire to punch somebody smaller than himself, Ted could only stand stiffly, stunned look on his sagging, hang-dog face, while his Adam’s apple bounced up and down like a frog on a hotplate.
Lambert grabbed the Canadian Club from the desk, snickered, and made his way out, not looking at Gooder. Gloria and a smiling Johnny Beam nodded their good byes and followed close behind.
Some sucker is gonna pay for this goddamn shit, Ted Gooder thought, as he watched the door close behind them. Jimmy comes out and embarrasses me in front of Ethyl and now she’s sitting there thinking I’m a stooge. Fuckin’ asshole brings a stinking nigger with him who puts his ju-ju lips on the goddamn booze bottle.
Trying to save some face and always one to look at saving a buck, Ted came up with an idea. He could give that bottle to Ethyl and get back on her good side. She wouldn’t know the nigger had lipped it. Maybe he could salvage something out of this lousy night, anyway….
While Jimmy cleaned out the pinball machines and the jukebox, Johnny and Gloria retreated to the car, got the engine running and the heater going. Johnny had thought it best to leave the building before any trouble started, having correctly assessed the mood of the crowd as just a very short step above a lynch mob. Discretion triumphed over valor despite the pounding speed in his head and the feeling of invincibility it gave him. Funny thing though, sitting out in the car in the empty black woods, he wished he had Jimmy’s gun.
His paranoia evaporated when Gloria brushed her hand across his thigh and brought her mouth close to his ear. “It sure would be an honor to touch the chest of a champion prize fighter,” she cooed, sliding her curvaceous ass a little closer. “I’ve always wanted to feel the muscles of a fighter, you know. They must be really, really hard.”
Well it wasn’t long before his chest wasn’t the only thing that was hard and Johnny was sliding his bruised hand up along Gloria’s thighs, all the way to the moneymaker. In response to this bold move, she moaned and leaned in for more. Their tongues intertwined while Johnny kept one eye on the door of the house. After a steamy few minutes, Johnny finally had to push her off, sensing something.
Lambert emerged from the house a few seconds later, looked around warily and searched the darkness. Seeing no danger, he got in behind the wheel and threw the coin bag on the backseat floor. Johnny liked the musical chink the coins made when the bag hit the carpet. Sweet music indeed.
“Well, gang,” Lambert said, “Only two more stops to go.”