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 it."
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.
"No, back 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 before.
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 quarters, man?"
I didn't and he
stepped aside to let me pass. "Back there," he echoed the bartender, "Fred's buying."
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 black T-shirt.
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?"
"Vodka 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 beer."
Gwendolyn nodded 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.
"First one's 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
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.
"Everything all right?" I asked.
Gus said, slurring the word. "My own damn fault. Shoulda never tried to skip out."
you like that. For five bucks."
"Gotta settle 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
Gus continued, "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.
Gwendolyn plucked 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.
Gwendolyn shouted 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
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
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
"Gwen and 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
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, miss..."
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
She straightened 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 rent it."
His laugh was
sloppy. He pounded on the bar at his own amusement, spittle flying with each fresh cackle.
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."
"Family 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?"
Gwendolyn grabbed 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 syrupy.
"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.
Gus agreed, "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
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.
"Welcome 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 regular
Gwendolyn refilled 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
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.
DL Shirey’s writing appears in 40 publications, including
Confingo, Page & Spine,
Zetetic, and Every