No Going Back
was back for his money. He banged through the heavy wooden door and stopped, eyes adjusting
from a late afternoon sun to this dim room. Faces at the bar looked up, malevolent,
resenting the interruption to their gloomy silence. It was Friday at The Last Call, a haven
for sullen losers even in Akron’s prime time. In 1982, the city was well past that.
the room, long bar to the right, dark wood scraped but
solid, fronting the same line of draft spigots he remembered – Bud, Miller, Old Milwaukee
and that godawful piss, Stroh’s. On the wall behind were shelves of liquor bottles,
with a space carved out for the grey steel cash register.
above that had a photo of Ronald Reagan with an American flag background. When Mickey had
gone in, Nixon was President. After that, the dumb guy from Michigan, then the
Georgia peanut farmer, and now this has-been actor.
Mickey was not a big man, but
solid and sure of himself. He crossed the room moving with aggressive challenge and found
an open space at the bar. On his right, an old-timer shrunken inside a threadbare denim
jacket. On his left, a stocky guy, black hair cut close to the scalp, hunched over a beer
Mickey spotted a barmaid
at the far end, jawing with customers. He stared a hole into her left temple until she
turned to look.
The woman sashayed down
the length of the bar, long legs strapped into tight jeans. A white T-Shirt bore
the words “RUBBER CITY” stretched in black ink across her chest, a leering
nod to Akron’s old nickname. Back when Goodrich and Goodyear and Firestone filled
wallets and ruled the town.
She stopped, leaned over the
bar, half-snarled, half-purred, “What can I get you?”
“Jameson’s neat. None
of that fancy shit,” nodding his head at the rows of vodka and scotch on the back
wall, with high-style labels that weren’t around when he’d gone away.
A smile leaked
from the corners of her mouth. “My pleasure.”
She turned and
stretched for the familiar green bottle on an upper shelf, pulling the denim even tighter
over her butt. Nine years since Mickey had held a woman. He thought of Kathleen, an
early summer day, the two of them lying in the grass alongside the river, her body sculpted
to his, hands and lips speaking without words.
The barmaid returned, set a glass
down, poured. He lifted it, felt the amber liquid slide over his tongue and down his throat.
Smooth enough, with that familiar sting of the first swallow. He put the empty glass on
the bar. “Another.”
She poured, turned to leave, was
stopped by his voice. “Wait. Tell Jake McGrory that Mickey Barnes is here.”
She looked back,
started to say, “I don’t know any…”
do. This was our drinking hole. I know he lives nearby. If you can’t reach him, find
someone who can. Get word. Tell him Mickey’s waiting.”
It took nearly
an hour, but Jake showed. Mickey saw him come in, go straight for the bar, looking down
the line of drinkers. The barmaid nodded her head towards a small table in the far
corner. Where Mickey now sat, sizing up this man who’d once been his friend and partner.
was older now, of course, a little slower in step, filled
out around the middle, hairline just starting to recede. But as he came closer, the ironic
twist of his lips into an almost smile, the wary squint of his eyes, revealed what remained
the same. This was a man not to be trusted. Mickey knew that, even back when he considered
McGrory a friend.
the table, looked down and said, with no inflection, as though they’d spoken just
yesterday, “Hello, Mickey. Long time.”
Jake.” Nodding to the empty chair, Mickey said, “Sit down. Let’s talk.”
There was a bottle of
Jameson’s on the table, still mostly full. Without asking, Mickey unscrewed the top
and poured a long measure into the empty glass across from him. He lifted his own,
waited for McGrory to do the same, said, “Sláinte.”
“Still old school
with that Gaelic shit, eh Mickey? Even though you were born here, never set foot on the
auld sod. Well, here’s to you.”
They sat quiet for some
long moments, finding communion in the whiskey. “So,” McGrory said, inclining his head
towards the room behind him. “Our old hang-out seem any different?”
Mickey looked around,
a woman behind the bar. That’s new. Different guys slouched over their drinks. Guess
the ones I knew are married, sitting home remembering the good old days. Or dead. Probably
not much difference there. But otherwise, the place looks pretty much the same. For
better or worse.”
McGrory looked back. Mickey could see Jake had
something to say, didn’t know how to start. Decided to push it. “OK, old friend, let’s hear what
McGrory said, “I’m sorry about me and Kathleen.
But you must’ve known it was bound to happen. I always fancied her, you knew that.
You got there first. Fair play to you, and I never thought different. But when you left,
she was only twenty-three. You couldn’t have thought she’d wait forever. It
was only natural, her and me.”
I left? You mean when I went to jail for the
both of us, you and me? That what you mean?”
you did the time. And I’d have done the same. But
the witness fingered you, not me. I couldn’t help that then. Can’t change it
“Yeah, well. I’m not so
sure you’d have taken the years, passed up the chance to bargain down for throwing
in your partner.”
McGrory bristled, but Mickey
held up his hand to shut that off.
Ten years back, the two of them had
hit a string of banks in small cities scattered around Ohio. They planned to stop at two
hundred grand, one apiece, and were damn close when Mickey’s mask slipped at the
Union Bank in Kettering, three hours away, south of Columbus. A teller helped the police
artist do a sketch, which got sent around the state. When it reached the cops in Akron,
one recognized Mickey from some minor scrapes he’d been in.
across the table, Mickey said, “None of that matters anymore. What’s done is
done. I’m here for my money.”
Jake sat back,
considered Mickey with a long, sad look. “Yeah. I know. Thing is, it’s gone.”
hung between them - heavy, ominous. Mickey leaned back, felt the hard metal of the .38
wedged against the small of his back.
Finally, he said,
“I did nine years. And seventeen days, to be exact. Cops knew there were two of us,
knew you and I were tight. But they couldn’t pin you, not unless they got me to crack.
They offered a damn good deal. When I refused, the Judge gave me a stiff sentence, made
his point. Meanwhile, you’re out here free. With Kathleen.”
You were 100% stand-up.”
had to do in return, hold up your end, was keep my half of the money safe. I get out, pick
it up, you never see me again. Everybody’s happy. Or at least what passes for that
not how you think.”
“I don’t want to hear any
goddamn reason. I’m thirty-four, a felon, no education, no job history, dead broke.
I need that money. I’m not leaving without it. End of fucking story.”
“I’m sorry Mickey.
Really. You more than earned it. But I don’t have it. No bullshit. Just cold truth.”
hard at his old friend, shook his head. “What am I supposed to do with that, Jake?
What would you do, in my place?”
you do anything, you need to see Kathleen.”
barked a hard laugh. “You got no fucking shame, that it? You gonna have my
woman, the girl you stole from me, beg for your miserable life.” It’d
been nine years. Maybe Mickey should’ve moved on. But he was frozen in place, fixed
on the last girl he’d held, the girl he’d loved.
not what you think.”
“I don’t give a shit what it is.
She was my girl, but she’s your woman now. Has been for a long time. Her words won’t
mean nothing to me.”
McGrory looked back, hard now,
no glimmer of guilt. “Here’s how it is Mickey. I’m out of the game, but I still
got friends. I gave that girl behind the bar a phone number. I nod to her, you don’t
make it five blocks out the door.”
Mickey looked back, saw the
truth in McGrory’s eyes. He’d have to play it smart, wait for his chance. “OK, let’s hear what you
“You come with me. See Kathleen.
She’s not gonna beg. Christ’s sake, you not remember her at all? You ever know
her to beg? We’re going there so I can set some things straight. After that, you
do what you need to. We’ll see what happens.”
followed McGrory down the street, was surprised when they stopped next to a beat-up Dodge,
faded green with the rear bumper tied to the underbody by rope. Thought, ‘What the
fuck?’, but held his tongue and climbed into the passenger side. Had to ask, “You
say you’re out of the life. What’ve you been doing?”
things, whatever I can get. Last couple of years I been day clerk at the Circle K nearest
None of it made sense to Mickey.
He decided to wait and see how this played out.
After that, they rode in silence
for maybe ten minutes before the car slowed, then pulled to the curb alongside an apartment
building. Narrow, five stories of brick that years of grime had turned muddy grey, flanked
by buildings just as sad.
Mickey climbed from the car and
stared at the surroundings. Nine years ago, he’d left Jake holding near two hundred
grand. And Jake must’ve kept on earning till he went straight. Where did it all go?
Before he could stop himself, Mickey said, “This is what you spent my money on?”
in a tone Mickey couldn’t place, said, “We had a house. But we had to sell
had to sell it? Is one of you on the needle?”
a bitter snort. “I wish. Stop asking. You’ll see.”
was a wall of dented mailboxes to the left, a narrow passage of worn floorboard ahead,
doors on either side with their fading unit numbers. Past the last set of doors was a
small elevator, the old-fashioned kind with a hinged gate. McGrory pulled the gate open,
let Mickey pass and followed him in.
The elevator creaked to a stop
at the fourth floor. McGrory pulled the grate open, said, “This is it,” and
headed down the hall.
‘Christ almighty,’ thought
Mickey. This place reminded him of jail.
McGrory stopped in front of a
door with ‘408’ stenciled onto its wood, turned his key, then stopped. Said over
his shoulder, “Here’s the thing. It’s going to be different than what you
think. Don’t act shocked. She knows I’m bringing you back here, but she’s
afraid what you’ll say, how you’ll look at her.”
back, “No worries. I’ll be all grins and no hard feelings. That what you want?
Fuck’s sake, why did you even bring me here?”
to answer, then shook his head and pushed the door open. Mickey followed him inside.
The light was
dim, coming from a lamp in the far corner. It took Mickey a moment before he saw her. Same
red hair, pulled back tight, same green eyes shining out at the world. But her body
shrunken, propped up in a bare metal wheelchair, a thick brown blanket over her legs.
“Hello Mickey.” Her voice was
strained, uncertain. But her voice, no mistaking that faint Irish lilt that had
always curled down his ear straight to his heart.
He managed, “Hello Kathleen.
How are you?” And, as the words slipped out, regretted their stupid, unintended
laughed, a smile opening her lips in a way that swept
back the years, if only for a moment. “Ah Mickey, always the one with the hard questions.”
he mumbled. Stood there, trying to take this in.
From a small
boombox on the side table came a song he’d first heard playing in the bar. In ’73,
before Mickey went to prison, Marvin Gaye was crooning Let’s Get It On, against a
rich R & B background. This new sound was different, a man’s high voice riding
an insistent beat, imploring ‘don’t you want me, baby?’ That echoing
phrase amplified the awkwardness filling the room.
three steps to the side table and killed the music. He said, “Sit down,” pointing
to a lumpy chair opposite Kathleen. Opposite the wheelchair. “I’ll fix us drinks.”
please,” Kathleen said. Looking down at the blanket covering her legs, the hard chair
underneath, she murmured, “This is some sorry-ass shit, no?”
know what to say. Said, “I don’t know what to say.”
She looked up,
her eyes damp. “But you always had the words. One of things I liked best. I must
really look awful, to shock you into silence.”
His heart, frozen
for so long, cracked open enough to hurt, an instinctive response he’d meant to steel
himself against. “No, you look fine. I just wasn’t expecting…” His voice
She rescued him, said, “It
happened five years ago. I met some friends for a drink, had a good time, was crossing
the street to drive home. Got hit by a car that came straight through a stop sign, kept
going. They caught him later. College kid, twenty-one, drunk to the gills. Denied he ran
me over. Said he’d have felt it. Thing is, my blood and skin were all over the grill
of his shitty little Firebird.”
Mickey looked back. Had to say
something. “I’m so sorry,” was all he had.
“Yeah, well, everyone’s
sorry. But here I am. Dragging Jake down with me. He must’ve told you he’s
out of the game, right? Well, this is why,” she said, nodding down at the blanket
draped over her dead legs. “Says he can’t risk getting caught and sent away,
leave me alone. So here we are, stuck in time. Be glad you weren’t around.”
known Kathleen to feel sorry for herself. She was feisty, resilient. But some things conquer
even the resilient.
McGrory came back, big hands
around three short glasses, each half-filled, no ice. He handed one to Mickey, one to Kathleen,
took the chair next to her. Lifted his glass, said, “Cheers then.”
Kathleen lifted hers,
looked straight at Mickey, said, “Sláinte.”
Mickey answered, looking
back, as if in time, “Sláinte.”
The liquor was harsh,
several leagues down from Jameson’s. Jake must’ve seen this in Mickey’s
face, said, “Sorry, not exactly top shelf, but it gets the job done.”
Kathleen near whispered.
In the silence that followed,
Mickey thought back to what Kathleen had said. He asked, “The guy who hit you. He
got caught, right? What happened?”
Kathleen started to answer, then
leaned forward, said, “Charged with aggravated
vehicular assault. And leaving the scene. But his parents got him a good lawyer. Pled it
down to four years, got out in two.”
Mickey, stunned, said, “Two
fucking years? In what, some minimum-security joint?”
“Yeah, Level 1 at Marion.
We sued, but all he had was state minimum insurance. Didn’t come close to
“And that’s it? He’s
out now, living his life like nothing happened?”
McGrory and Kathleen exchanged a look.
Kathleen straightened herself in
the wheelchair. “No, he’s dead now.” She looked at McGrory.
Who looked hard
at Mickey, said, “About a year after he got out, the guy was in a bad car wreck.
Someone T-boned his Firebird, knocked the body of his car half off its frame. Even with
that, cops think he might’ve survived. But the car caught on fire. No one’s
sure why. Lots of gas inside, so the fuel line must’ve been shattered, leaked through
the floorboard. Tragic really.” All this deadpan, with a bitter smile.
Mickey digested it. “Cops talk
“Yup, came to see us. Guy’s parents
claiming I must’ve done it, a revenge thing. But I had an airtight alibi. Here all
night with Kathleen. Cops interviewed us both, but I don’t think their hearts were
in it. When they were leaving, one of them shook my hand, said, ‘Well, things have
a way of working out.’ What do you suppose he meant by that?”
Mickey stared back, saw McGrory
and Kathleen look at one another, exchange grim, satisfied smiles.
And Mickey saw
how it was, where the cash had gone. Medical bills, therapy, survival. He’d come
for his half of the bank money, for apologies he’d spit back at them. But now, none
of that mattered. The .38 digging into his back was just uncomfortable.
he’d finish his drink, make his excuses, leave. What could he say? What could they
say back? It was all laid out there, front and center, nothing more to talk about. Mickey
should’ve known. There’s no going back.
Ken Luer was born
in Columbus, spirited away to North Jersey, then escaped to college & beyond in
Virginia. He later followed the Donner Trail to California (well, maybe flew
over it), where he's been ever since. His story
"Whiskey and Rain" is in Vol. 2, Issue 2 of Down and Out Magazine.
for Two” appears in the July 2022 “Summer
Bludgeon: An Anthology of Summer Crime" from Unsettled Reads. He's now
working on his first novel.