All You Can Drink $5.00
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.
door," Bull said. And when I didn't move he emphasized, "Open
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.
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.
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
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
I didn't and he
stepped aside to let me pass. "Back there," he echoed the bartender,
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."
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
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?"
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
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.
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.
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.
all right?" I asked.
Gus said, slurring the word. "My own damn fault. Shoulda never tried to
you like that. For five bucks."
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.
"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.
up the bill. "You want a freebie, it's on Fred."
just the usual." The woman said and slid into the open seat beside me.
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.
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.
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,
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
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.
'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
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
His laugh was
sloppy. He pounded on the bar at his own amusement, spittle flying with each
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."
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?"
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."
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
"That's what I
gave you, honey," Unlike before, Gwendolyn's voice was sugary, with an
assuredness to it. "Taste it, you'll see."
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.
Gwendolyn said, and Bull jumped to his feet, freeing the stool.
bad," I said.
"Best bourbon I've ever had. Hit me again."
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
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.
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.
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?"
You were here the last time I was in," Idella said, "Guess you're a
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.
Shirey’s writing appears in 40 publications,
including Confingo, Page & Spine,
Zetetic, and Every Day
Ann Marie Rhiel is
the Assistant Art Director for Yellow Mama Webzine. She was
born and raised in Bronx, New York, presently living in New Jersey. She
reconnected with her passion for art in 2016 and has had her work exhibited in art
galleries around northern New Jersey ever since. She is a commissioned painting
artist, who also enjoys photography. Her work has also appeared in Black Petals
and Megazine Official.