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.
He scoped 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 mug.
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
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.
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,
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
Jake 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
Jake reached the table, looked down and said,
with no inflection, as though they’d spoken just yesterday, “Hello, Mickey.
Jake.” Nodding to the
empty chair, Mickey said, “Sit down. Let’s talk.”
There was a bottle of
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.”
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
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
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.”
“When I left? You mean
when I went to jail for the
both of us, you and me? That what you mean?”
“Yeah, 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.”
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
Jake sat back,
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%
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 around
not how you think.”
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
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.”
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.”
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,
truth in McGrory’s eyes. He’d have to play it smart, wait for his chance. “OK, let’s hear what you
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.”
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 our
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.
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 it.”
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.
creaked to a stop
at the fourth floor. McGrory pulled the grate open, said, “This is it,” and
headed down the hall.
Mickey. This place reminded him of jail.
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.”
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
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
are you?” And, as the words slipped out, regretted their stupid, unintended
But she 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.”
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,
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.”
back. Had to say
something. “I’m so sorry,” was all he had.
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
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
Kathleen lifted hers,
at Mickey, said, “Sláinte.”
Mickey answered, looking
if in time, “Sláinte.”
The liquor was harsh,
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.”
In the silence
Mickey thought back to what Kathleen had said. He asked, “The guy who hit you.
He got caught, right? What happened?”
to answer, then
Jake leaned forward,
“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.”
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
it? He’s out now,
living his life like nothing happened?”
Kathleen exchanged a look.
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.
it. “Cops talk
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
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.
Bernice Holtzman’s paintings and collages have appeared in shows at various
venues in Manhattan, including the Back Fence in Greenwich
Village, the Producer’s Club, the Black Door Gallery on W. 26th St., and
one other place she can’t remember, but it was in a basement, and she was well received.