Archive for the ‘Dive Bartender: Sibling Rivalry’ Category

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He hadn’t seen Nikki since yesterday morning. She’d called his house late Saturday afternoon but he let it go to the machine. Heard her voice inviting him to dinner at the Chinese Lantern with her folks. He blew it off, being in no condition to feign interest in the blathering of her “silent majority” parents. Although they weren’t very silent when it came to talking shit in Nikki’s ear about Frank Ford. Here was the generation gap in fully realized form.

Frank was doing a lot of thinking. Christ, that’s nearly all he’d done since the acid trip. His body was heavy and languid but his mind was still buzzing and running on. And now more customers were coming through the door. The early ones on Sunday were almost always your lushes, your chronic, full-blown alcohol junkies. Little brother Ray was one of those chronics when he was still walking the earth, although Ray was a little more evolved, easily substituting some kind of pill for the booze when necessary to keep the messy symptoms at bay.

Yeah, Ray-Ray used to be one real smart kid, all right.

But whatever he formerly was, it didn’t give anyone the right to kill him. And goddamnit, someone did kill the bastard.

One conclusion Frank had come to from his marathon brainstorming—he needed a gun. A gun without a past. Too many violent creatures lurking in wait out there to get through this ordeal unarmed. And on Sundays in Zenith City, one place you might be able to track down such an item was the Metropole Bar, the Sunday gathering place for Zenith City’s underground elite, such as it was. They’d all come here eventually; it was the only place open downtown where you weren’t expected to dress up. Unless you were Richard “Mr. Pills” Pillsbury, then you dressed up wherever the hell you went just to show the peons how much better than them you were.

Mr. Pills was also at the front of Frank’s thoughts a lot—too much—since the other night. Frank was sure Pills was the guy he saw beating on Ray last fall. There was something about the man, some slimy reptilian vibe. And, come on, Pills and Judy Bruton as a couple just didn’t make sense. Judy was just too damn hot for the self-important douchebag. True, this new version of Judy looked to have her shit together, seemed changed, somehow—but Frank wasn’t sure he was buying it. Bitch used to flirt with Frank right in front of Ray—her husband at the time— and never even tried to disguise it. Now every time Frank pictured her he felt a stirring in his shorts and saw that wild sex-drunk face he remembered from her days with Ray. And it was driving him crazy. But thankfully there were customers at the bar wanting service, which took him at least temporarily away from his dead end thoughts.

He got everyone squared away and then looked up at the clock on the wall. Shit, only a quarter after one. Time passes slowly when you’re stuck in a scream. Then he remembered the North Stars playoff game was today at the Met Center and he went down to the far end of the bar and switched on the television mounted on the wall. The Stars and the Blues were just getting underway. Frank lingered to watch the opening face-off and then turned back to his customers. He was surprised to see Jenny the waitress coming through the door on what Frank thought was her day off. She was moving slowly, nearly shuffling, her face displaying a comfortable blankness and resignation, possibly even acceptance, of her lot in life.

Jesus, Frank, you’re getting too heavy. “Lighten up” were Einstein’s last words, man—take the advice of a genius.

(To be continued)

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Sunday morning coming down

It was actually five minutes past noon but it’s the thought that counts. Frank was standing inside the front door of the Metropole gazing at the near empty barroom, the smell of the place hitting him so hard he was having some kind of gag reflex thing—throughout his entire body. And seeing old Mr. Harrison and Gary Steinmark struggling up to the bar trying to hide their impatience, their need, Frank was wondering how long it would take before they started shaking so hard they fell off the stools. If he didn’t run right the hell over there and serve them their fix of cheap bourbon, might not be long. Back when Tom Meagher used to work Sundays, he liked to make those guys wait. Harrison and Steinmark were usually the first ones in the door and Meagher enjoyed fueling the rising panic on their pale gaunt faces and the anxious, uncomfortable squirming on the barstools. But Frank was a little more sensitive than Meagher, a little more forgiving. Soft, you could say if you were so inclined.

But today Frank was in no hurry. He ignored the two chronics and turned to stare out the window at the empty sidewalk and the blue sky. And then, fuck, his sensitive nature kicked in and he felt bad for the hopeless bastards depending on him to keep the shakes at bay in a city where the liquor stores were closed on Sunday. Frank was never one to begrudge anyone an escape valve. Fighting against the stink, the lead in his legs and the fatigue that made every movement a chore, he went behind the bar and grabbed the Old Granddad bottle.

“Afternoon, gentlemen,” Frank said, pouring a couple of bumps, Harrison and Steinmark craning forward over the bar expectantly like a couple of withered whooping cranes, their muscles tense and rigid. Seeing the wrecked, sagging flesh on their faces, the eyes filled with years of pain, the crooked arthritic fingers like claws resting on the bar, Frank was thinking this was one depressing goddamn dive for sure and a lousy place to be stuck on a nice sunny Sunday. And as soon the thought crossed his mind he saw darkness washing over the front windows. Clouds were moving in with rain likely to follow and that made him feel better somehow. If he couldn’t enjoy the day why should anyone else?

Man, was that what it was coming down to?

Christ, he hated this place on a Sunday. In denial all those years. But everything did seem sort of different in here today. Place was the same as always but now he couldn’t ignore the caked-on dirt or the odors of urine and stale puke with an overlay of cleaning fluids. All of it searing the inside of his nostrils in concert with the insistent and ever-present stink of stale tobacco, which served to remind him why he was trying to quit.

Yeah, shit, it was going to be a long, goddamn twelve hours.

(To be continued)

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Man, his eyes had a distant look, his white shirt was filled with greasy finger smears and the gray slacks had a rip in the inseam and stains on the knees to go with the preexisting smudges. Painter’s pants for sure now. He splashed water on his face, toweled off with a small towel that smelled like a girl and scanned the feminized bathroom. Seeing some Ban deodorant on a shelf, he lifted up his shirt and applied the handy roll-on ball.

Christ, now he smelled sort of like Viola Stemwaggen, a little old lady who frequented the Metropole. She’d pull up a barstool, hand her black velvet jacket over the bar for Frank to hang up and then order a vodka Gibson. Usually had at least three before asking Frank to call a cab to take her the four blocks home to her high-rise.

Trying to come to grips with smelling like an eighty-year-old woman, Frank put his palm to his mouth and blew out a breath reminiscent of the backwash from the sewage treatment plant. Seeing a bottle of Listerine on a shelf to the left of the mirror, he twisted off the cap, poured in a splash and swished it around. Now his mouth tasted like a science lab, but it was markedly better than eau de sewage.

Coming into Nikki’s bedroom was like entering a beautiful garden, everything green and fresh and inviting. Nikki was sitting up in the bed, pillows propped behind her back, green floral-patterned bedspread pulled up above her breasts, bare shoulders looking oh so sweet. Frank wanted to jump right in and start fooling around but knew he had to follow the proper procedure. He got a chair from the corner of the room and pulled it up next to the bed. He fumbled around in his pants pocket for the matches and brought out the flattened green book. He fished the roach from his shirt pocket, handed it to Nikki and struck one of the two remaining matches, leaning in close as she inhaled.

They smoked.

Frank tapped the ashes in his palm while telling the story of last night’s adventures, leaving out the parts about the braining of the big orc with the tire iron and the battle with the giant crab. Frank had concluded from the looks he got describing Artie “Praying Mantis” Autry and Doughboy “Cockroach” Loy, that Nikki would not only think he was insane—which he could live with—but that he had a violent streak she found unacceptable.

Oh the games people play.

What he did tell her:

“So after the cockroach and the mantis drove off I got in the wagon and started cruising around. I just couldn’t get away from the image of Ray-Ray’s body lying on the fuckin’ ground, y’know. And the next thing I knew I was down at the bay on my knees, staring at the goddamn spot. Stayed there for a good hour or so trying to find some kind of peace or understanding, but I never did find it. And then all I wanted was to do something for Ray, Nik, avenge him or something. Seems like what a brother should do. But nothing changed and nothing came to me, so I left. Then I was going down Garfield Avenue when I saw Bruce Munkwitz and Larry Seline standing outside the Black Cow hitting on a bottle. I didn’t feel much like going home so I stopped for a visit and they invited me inside the Cow for a drink. When I came back out the Poncho was all crushed to shit. I figured it had to be Autry and Loy. Probably used one of those old bangster cars Autry keeps in his backyard.”

Look on her face said she wasn’t totally buying it. “You didn’t hear anything at all?”

“Nah. Bruce and Larry had the radio cranked. We were banging pans and shit, cleaning up the kitchen, y’know.”

“It still seems like you’d hear something as loud as a car crash.”

“I was parked a block away from the place, obviously out of earshot.”

“Well, at least you weren’t in the car. But, um… then how did you get that egg on your forehead?”

“That’s the funny part. I was helping with the cleanup and we were hitting on Bruce’s pint of Windsor, y’know. I was lifting this big cast iron skillet up to its hook and my hands kinda went numb and I dropped the goddamn thing right on my forehead. Damn near knocked me out. Bruce and Larry sure got a kick out of ‘old fucked-up Frank,’ thought they’d never stop laughing. Remind me to spit in their drinks, next time they’re in the Metro.”

“Maybe it’s not such a good idea to give so much of yourself to the dead, Frank. You need to be there for the ones that are alive, like your mother and your sister. You can’t help Ray anymore.”

Frank knew she was right. Also knew there was something inside him that wasn’t going away anytime soon. “I guess you’re right, Nik,” he said. “That’s why I came here, to give some of my energy to the living.” He stood up and started unbuttoning his soiled shirt, wolf’s grin on his face.

“Frank, you are so forward,” throwing out a coquettish grin and batting her eyelashes.

(To be continued)

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It was good in the kitchen, bright and cheery. Normal, just what Frank needed. He took the roach out of his jacket and put it in his shirt pocket, hung the jacket on the back of a yellow wooden chair and leaned back against the sink while Nikki put a pan of water on the stove. Frank could smell the gas from the burner as Nikki went to one of the cupboards and opened the nicely painted door. Reaching up high for a mug, her t-shirt climbed up over the curve of her butt, revealing frilly white panties. Frank’s breath caught in his lungs and he couldn’t help but stare, a vast and deep appreciation for the beauty of the universe’s creations taking him over.

Nikki brought down the mug, turned and caught him staring. She shook her head, smirking. “Looks like something is still in working order,” she said, gazing down at his crotch.

Frank felt his face heating up. “Yes, well, it’s hard to control oneself in the presence of beauty such as yours.” A touch of Irish brogue coming into his voice.

Nikki opened another cupboard and Frank saw the squatty jar of Maxim Instant on the middle shelf. He was hoping for another flash of ass.

“Stop staring, Frank,” Nikki said, turning to him, a wicked smile on her full lips and a glint in her big blue eyes. “I wanted men staring at my ass I’d be a stripper. Make the big money, remember?”

“Yeah, okay. Sorry. Guess I’m just weak in the face of such overwhelming greatness.”

“And full of shit, don’t you know.”

“Just the blarney, darlin.’ Can’t begrudge an Irishman a little blarney can you?”

“Certainly not,” she said, dropping a heaping teaspoon of freeze-dried crystals into the white mug.

“Aren’t you having any, Nik?”

She shook her head. “Nope. I was hoping to get back to sleep. My parents are coming into town today and I don’t want to be looking like Wendy Williams when they get here.”

“Understandable,” Frank said. “But you’ll always be better looking then Wendy.”

Nikki made a face.

Frank gazed around the kitchen at the quantity of empty beer cans and wine and liquor bottles on the table and the countertops. “You guys have a party last night?” he asked.

“Jenna and Laurie had a few friends over but it was pretty much done, by the time I got home. But, uh, what’s that you said about some super grass?”

The water on the stove was boiling now. Nikki lifted the pan and poured the hissing liquid in the mug, stirred it and brought it to Frank standing at the sink, set it on the counter next to him.

“Waverly gave me this joint of Jamaican. Said it would pull me right down from the acid, should I need such a thing. Turns out I did, and the shit worked like a charm. Might’ve added some embellishment to my reality as a bonus, but it was memorable, to say the least.” Frank took a sip of the Maxim, burned his lip and put the mug down next to the sink.

“You smoked it all?”

“No, sweetie; must be nearly two-thirds left. Waverly rolls fatties. Soon as I finish my coffee and use the facilities we can have at it.”

“When you’re in there, Frank, you might want to wash up a bit, you’re pretty ripe and colorful—to say the least.”

“Oh sure,” Frank said, feeling momentarily self-conscious and small.

Nikki walked out of the kitchen, lifted her T-shirt over her head and carried it with her, the skin on her back glowing like fine silk as she entered her bedroom. Hearing the door close, Frank had another sip of coffee, put the cup down and went to the small bathroom under the staircase in the front hall, hoping there was some deodorant in there didn’t smell like a cosmetics counter.

Holy shit, who’s that wild man in the mirror?

(To be continued)

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The sun was up over the lake by the time Frank walked down the small hill at the back of the big yellow frame house Nikki and two roommates called home. Frank scanned the surroundings. Everything seemed cool. Thinking about Nikki and her softness, her warmth, the nice way she smelled—well—it was getting him going, filling his body with that delightful syrupy longing. He moved quietly across the damp grass and went up to Nikki’s first floor bedroom window at the rear of the house. The window was shut, a shade pulled down behind it. He tapped on the glass. Didn’t hear anything so he tapped again and called softly, “Nikki, wake up, it’s Frank.”

No response.

He tapped again, louder this time. “Nikki, wake up. You in there?”

Christ, maybe she was pissed off because he didn’t call her last night after work. Maybe she went home with someone else. That goddamn Jimmy Carl. Maybe the sonofabitch was in there right now.

Frank began rapping the glass with his knuckles and speaking in a daytime volume. “Nikki, wake up, goddamnit. It’s Frank. Sorry I forgot to call you last night, but something came up. Let me in and I’ll get you high. We can talk.” And I hope something else. He gave the window another rap then heard the throaty, moist tone of someone just awakened. “Jesus Christ, Frank, hold your water, I’m coming.”

Shit, not the best of starts.

Frank saw fingers with green nail polish poke under the window shade. He watched the shade rise. Now she was looking at him, making a face, still groggy, short blond hair mussed. Cute. Standing there in a long green t-shirt, perfect nipples forming sweet little bumps. “What are you doing here this early, Frank? I’ve had maybe four hours sleep. And you look like shit. Oh my god, what happened to your head? There’s a knot the size of a golf ball on your forehead. And your clothes look like you crawled here. What the hell have you been doing?”

“I had an altercation with an unruly crustacean.”

He watched her face flick from quizzical to concerned to skeptical and then to disturbed. “What the hell is that supposed to mean, Frank? You wake me up for this?”

“Sorry, babe, that was supposed to be a joke. But the truth is a long and winding story, so let me in and I’ll explain. I’ve got some really good weed. Open the window and I’ll crawl in, we’ll get stoned. Everybody must get stoned.”

“Are you on something, Frank? Your eyes look wild.”

“Just a bit of the acid. But it’s fading a little. Reduced to a gentle whisper, it is.”

“God, I don’t believe this.”

“C’mon, Nikki, open the window before the cops come.”

“This isn’t Huckleberry Finn, Frank. There’s a screen on the inside of this window. Come to the back door and I’ll let you in. But be quiet, my roommates are asleep—like normal people.”

They’re missing all the fun then, Frank was thinking as he walked with contentment across the back of the house to the white wooden door on the east side. Waiting at the door he felt a stirring down low. But when Nikki opened it the look on her face wasn’t what he’d hoped for. “C’mon in, then,” she said in low tones. “I’ll make some coffee. Looks like you could use some.”

“Sounds good, Nik. I’ve got a bitchin’ roach Keith Waverly gave me. Said it was Jamaican.”

“You hanging out with Waverly now, Frank? That sort of explains the way you look. Trouble seems to follow that guy around.”

“I wasn’t hanging out with him. He was just at the bar last night. I was all fucked up after the funeral, so I thought a little of Keith’s acid might help me fly the prison walls. Way up high in the sky—that shit—you know.”

She was shaking her head. Frank saw her face change, looking older for an instant—more like the picture of her mother she kept on her bedside table—but then she shrugged and Frank sensed her mood lightening and he watched her face return to young and beautiful. “Come on then, Mr. Ford,” she said, “I’ll make you a cup of instant and you can tell me all the gory details.”

“Still got that Maxim stuff? Those freeze-dried crystals?”

“Yes, Frank.” She walked into the kitchen, a bright yellow room with tall white cupboards, old-but-clean appliances and a porcelain sink. Frank watched her rear end jiggling beneath the long green T-shirt, the delicious movement above her honey-sweet thighs dragging him along like a hound on a leash.

Let me be your dog.

(To be continued)

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A bit of gray light was showing above Lake Superior and the streetlights were still sending out vapor trails as Frank walked through the alley toward his little cracker box house. On his right, down a set of steps, was one of the federal government’s gifts to so-called blighted neighborhoods as part of the “Urban Renewal” program: an asphalt playground with swings, a slide, a jungle gym and a teeter-totter. Only ones using the facilities at this hour were a couple fat pigeons searching for leavings. Strangely though, the teeter-totter was slowly moving up and down—with no one on it.

More hallucinations, Frank thought, close to his tiny house now, claustrophobia starting to squeeze his head, the walls-closing-in sensation coming on strong.

And he was kicking himself just a little.

Great idea you had, Ford. Do some acid to escape your grief and confusion. Float off to la-la land where everything is flowers and sunshine and psychedelic-period Beatles…

Yeah, right.

Instead you got a life or death struggle played out in a remote landscape of monsters, spirits and giant crabs disguised as pickup trucks—some kind of weird Star Wars meets The Lord of the Rings hybrid. And because of all that, your car, your only source of transportation, is wrecked beyond repair, your knee and your back are all fucked up from the crab slamming, and you’ve got a vast longing inside for something you can’t identify.

Blame it on that crazy goddamn amusement-park-funhouse acid.

Waverly was right. Shit ripped you off the ground, spun you around in the ozone for a while then dropped you back down to earth—or whatever passed for it in your head. Not like the old days when the stuff would lay you on the ground for twelve hours, mouth open, head totally gone, nothing you could do but take the ride.

Frank stuffed his hands in his jacket pockets and kept on going past his little house. Nobody home. All dark. Touching the roach in his pocket, he got an idea, Nikki’s house was only three blocks away and sometimes Nikki liked to get high in the morning. He could tap on her window and wake her up. Feel so good to crawl into her bed. The thought, the idea, seemed to take away the pain in his knee and back and he felt a smile bending his lips. And miracles, man, now he could actually feel the air warming up around him. Seemed like it might be one of those rare sunny spring days in Zenith. Christ, might hit fifty degrees. Sixty even.

His faith in life temporarily restored, his body tired but relaxed and sensual, his weird nocturnal adventures fading into the background and his need for resolution about brother Ray reduced to a distant murmur, Frank walked down the hill to Fourth Street and headed east. Positively Fourth Street, man.

Maybe the acid wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

(To be continued)           

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For lack of a better option, Frank limped back toward the Black Cow, his knee and back hurting and his head throbbing like a Paul McCartney bass line. Feeling a need to get off Garfield Avenue he walked around to the back of the brick restaurant, saw a light on inside the building. And the sky was full of twinkling stars now but they didn’t give a shit about Frank Ford.

Is anybody up there?

Feeling like the last man on earth, he squeezed the tire iron for security. His little sword, just like that hobbit in the Lord of the Rings, Frank having finished the final book in the trilogy back in March.

And it was a long way across Mordor from here.

And where were those goddamn orcs?

Then, as if the stars were listening and sending him an answer, Frank saw licks of white light coming down the short street alongside the Black Cow. Hustling across the back of the restaurant, he jumped behind the wall and pressed against it, edging back along until he could peer around the corner. Now the street was flooded with light and a beaten down Checker was idling in the middle of it, Blue and White Taxi on the door. Frank heard the back door of the restaurant opening. Heard voices and laughter and saw two men coming out the back door inside a ball of yellow light, their faces flushed. They were soused. But wait a minute, he knew the guys. Had served them a lot of drinks. You had your Christian Brothers and water for the skinny guy and a Miller and a shot of Petri for the fat guy, the cook. Chef. Skinny one was Larry Seline and the cook was Bruce Munkwitz. Both of them at the Metropole nearly every Tuesday, the one night a week the Black Cow was closed.

Frank dropped the tire iron to the damp grass and tried to make himself presentable, running his fingers back through his black hair and wincing as his hand bumped against a large lump on his forehead, the pain reverberating back to the beginning of time. As the two men were getting in the taxi, he came out from behind the wall and crossed through the cab’s headlight beams. The cab’s interior light was on and he saw the looks of disbelief on the faces. The grizzled, gray-haired cabbie was trying for a pissed-off, authoritative stare but not quite making it.

Arriving at the still open back door of the cab, Frank put his hand on the roof and leaned in. “Hey guys,” he said. “Care to share the cab? I’ll pay the fare.” He pulled a fistful of ones from his pants pocket— tonight’s tip money—and showed it. “Afraid I had some car trouble.”

“It’s Frank fuckin’ Ford,” Bruce Munkwitz said, grinning like he knew something special, his head cocked to the side. “Sure, Frank, come on in. You okay, man, you look a little under the weather?”

“Been a long night,” Frank said, folding himself into the faded red vinyl seat of the Checker hoping he could hold it together just a little while longer, any control he might’ve had over his mind now dissipating like air in an old balloon.

“How ya doin’, Frank?” Larry Seline said.

“Hey, Larry,” Frank said, shutting the cab door and wishing everybody would stop with the gawking looks.

The cabbie turned to the back seat. “Where we goin’, gentlemen?” Voice like a foghorn with gravel in it; face tired and filled with resignation.

“Fifth Avenue East and Sixth Street for us two,” Munkwitz said, gesturing at Seline. “You’re somewhere in that general direction, aren’t you, Frank?”

“Close enough.”

His adrenaline ebbing slightly, the acid currently on a downswing and the belief that the two orcs would be arriving soon turning him cold, Frank flipped up the collar on his jacket and slumped down in the seat as the cabbie pulled the shifter down, hung a U-turn, drove out to Garfield and turned right.

Passing by what was left of Frank’s Pontiac, the derelict wagon wrinkled like an industrial-sized lasagna noodle in blue, Bruce Munkwitz said, “That your sled there, Frank? Somebody plow into you, man?”

“Needs a battery,” Frank said, scrunching down behind the collar of his jacket and staring out the window, not wanting any one to know what he was seeing out there in the vast wasteland.

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