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Dark Tales from Gent's Pens

Ken Luer: No Going Back

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Art by Bernice Holtzman © 2022

No Going Back

By Ken Luer

 

Mickey Barnes 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.

The calendar 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. 

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…”

“Yes, you 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.

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 friend.

 Jake reached the table, looked down and said, with no inflection, as though they’d spoken just yesterday, “Hello, Mickey. Long time.”

“Nine years, 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, considered. “There’s 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 you got.”

          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 now.” 

          “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.

Now, looking 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.”

Dead silence 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.”

“I know. You were 100% stand-up.”

“All you 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 here.” 

“It’s 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.”

Mickey stared hard at his old friend, shook his head. “What am I supposed to do with that, Jake? What would you do, in my place?”

“Before you do anything, you need to see Kathleen.”

Mickey, stunned, 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.

“It’s 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 got.”

“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.”

#

Outside, Mickey 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?”

“Different things, whatever I can get. Last couple of years I been day clerk at the Circle K nearest our place.”

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?”

Jake, quiet, in a tone Mickey couldn’t place, said, “We had a house. But we had to sell it.”

“You had to sell it? Is one of you on the needle?”

Jake laughed, a bitter snort. “I wish. Stop asking. You’ll see.”

Inside, there 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.”

Mickey snapped 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?”

McGrory started 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 cruelty.

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.”

“Sorry,” 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.

McGrory took 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.”

“Yes, God, please,” Kathleen said. Looking down at the blanket covering her legs, the hard chair underneath, she murmured, “This is some sorry-ass shit, no?”

Mickey didn’t 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 trailed off.

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.”

He’d never 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.”

“Yes indeed,” 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 stopped.

Jake 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 Kathleen’s medicals.

“And that’s it? He’s out now, living his life like nothing happened?”

Dead silence. McGrory and Kathleen exchanged a look.

Mickey asked, “What?”

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 to you?”

“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.

So, 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. 

“Dinner 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.


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