The Want - The Bartender
By J. A. Stapleton
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It was one of those forgotten blocks over on Selma Avenue.
Hollywood Division Detective Jake Lacey had been knocking on doors and had just come out of a three-chair barbershop. A nutjob known as ‘Demon Dog’ Don Dafoe had hijacked a Pacific Electric streetcar and crashed it into the offices of Wilder’s Travel Agency – just a block down from the KNX building. The interview process was a pain in the ass. The Captain wanted a crystal-clear picture of the events so a jury could unanimously convict Dafoe of attempted murder.
Lacey had amassed a Technicolor scrap album by the end of the day, but Dafoe would take the big sleep on a Central Receiving hospital bed a few hours later. Without the responding officers knowing, hours of legwork had all been for nothing.
It was a hot day, August 15, V-J Day, and Lacey stood outside Barbieri’s Barberie looking at the jutting neon sign of a two-floor old Hollywood place called The Maharajah’s Café. Nobody had seen it. His partner, Carruthers, had drifted off in the direction of Hollywood Boulevard looking for uniforms to assist. Lacey figured he’d just gone to watch the parade.
This wasn’t Detective-grade work.
Plainclothesmen combed the streets both sides, moving past the dusty ground-floor windows like it was invisible.
For a moment Lacey wondered if only he could see it.
The Maharajah’s Café was a quarter-block down from Wilder’s. They probably hadn’t seen a thing. He walked over to the double doors and stood in front of them. It looked deserted. It wasn’t his business. So he pushed them open and went inside.
The room was very square and very cheerless. The chairs were upended on linen dust drops and the bandstand was nothing but a bunch of disassembled microphones waiting to be carted away. The rest was boxed-up. The Maharajah’s Café was in the process of closing its doors forever it seemed. Wooden crates full of booze were stacked on trolleys – a bunch had been loaded by the kitchen doors. You could see that the place had been some kind of an attraction back in the day – tangled-up swings dangled from the ceiling with chandelier mounts and other fixtures, eighty-dollar vintage cabinet radios in all four corners – the works. A pure Prohibition palaver if he’d ever seen one. Though Lacey had only caught some pix in the Tribune, the place bore a striking resemblance to the infamous Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Bay Village, Boston.
Lacey hovered in the doorway like a question mark.
Standing behind the bar was a man in a bowtie and white jacket. He was in his mid-thirties and dark: hair, expression, and around the eyes. He looked how all bartenders look, presentably shabby. Hours on one’s feet does that to you, but there was something different about this one. Something peculiar. ‘Please,’ the man said. ‘Come in. A drink? Highball? Martini?’
Lacey smiled and removed his hat: ‘Thank-you, no. I don’t drink, sir.’
He crossed the glass-bricked dancefloor to the bar. A pair of chinoiserie curtains were drawn either side of the liquor shelf. He pulled up a stool and set his hat down on the counter.
‘Whiskey it is then. We got an unopened Canadian Club,’ the bartender said, a loose alcoholic overtone in his voice. ‘On the house.’
Before Lacey could refuse him again, a frosty cold glass was thrust into his hand. Three fingers of whiskey over a boulder of rocks. He let go and eyed it: ‘Lacey, LAPD,’ he said. ‘I’m here regarding the incident that took place earlier this afternoon, you hear about it?’
The man raised his eyebrows – he looked almost familiar. Lacey pushed the glass away and interloped his fingers: ‘A runaway sidecar crashed just a few feet from your front-door.’
The bartender’s face gave away nothing: ‘I’m sorry, sir. Afraid I can’t help you with that.’
One of the speakers crackled and popped. Cole Porter’s ‘Let’s Misbehave’ sputtered out dust. Lacey’s head snapped ‘round – nobody was by that radio. ‘Who else is here?’ he said at once.
‘Staff or guests, sir?’ said the bartender.
‘A few out-back,’ he said, producing a wet cloth and rubbing the counter down. ‘I apologize, Detective.’
I don’t know where everyone is, but I’m sure it’ll pick up.’
‘With removal guys?’ Lacey said sarcastically.
The bartender smiled.
The smile was something Lacey could never forget, one that he hadn’t seen in person since he was twelve years old. It was a smile that he occasionally bore himself, mischievous, unsettling. It made his voice grow icicles.
Lacey knew him all-right.
He felt his pupils dilate and his pulse quicken. Words fell out of his mouth into well-formed sentences. He had no idea how he was doing it: ‘You used to drink this slop,’ he said, gesturing to the glass. ‘I used to see bottles around the house. Mom used to hide them in all the cupboards, didn’t want me thinking how much you drank was normal.’
The bartender made a face like he’d swallowed a bee. ‘I’m afraid you’ve confused me with someone else, the name’s Abner.’
‘If you don’t mind me saying, sir, you seem . . . unsettled.’
Yeah, unsettled’s a word for it. Lacey didn’t know what the hell he was dealing with, but he carried on: ‘We stayed in the house, Aunt Evie and I.’
He offered a meaningless smile: ‘I really don’t know what you mean, sir.’
‘We couldn’t afford to move so we had the house redecorated. All the colors you hated. Had it all done up in pinks, purples, and blues. We wanted to leave, to get out of this goddamn city for good but we didn’t, we turned your cesspit of a house into a home. It’s comfortable now and we’re happy,’ Lacey’s hand began to shake, he plucked out a cigarette and bit the filter. ‘She’s been struggling, but I think she’s over it now. The same affliction as you - alcoholism. Guess all the bad things run in families, right?’
The bartender said nothing.
Lacey struck a match with his thumb and blew rings at him – trying to provoke some sort of reaction. De nada. ‘After the crash, she saw a lot of you in me. Especially that famous temper of yours. But don’t worry, she stamped that right out. Says I’m like Grandma, though I never met her.’
A pause. Then the bartender’s voice, supercilious and scheming: ‘I’m sorry to hear that, Detective. Something warm to get rid of the sadness?’
He pushed the glass closer to him.
‘Don’t you want to hear about it? I am your son.’
‘You’ve mistaken me for someone else, I’m just the bartender.’
‘I heard you, Abner,’ Lacey leered. He sat forward and examined the bartender’s face. Up close, he looked like any other drunk. Fresh off the wagon. Blood-red noses and rumpled hair and stubbly cheeks. A walking cliché. ‘Know what? I don’t care about you, I never did.’
The bartender glared.
‘You killed my Mom, for heaven’s sake!’
Lacey put the whiskey down his throat like an aspirin tablet. With his right hand, he shot the glass down the bar at speed. It slid down the counter like a bowling ball and exploded on the floor – strike!
The bartender coiled like a snake. ‘Goodness me,’ he said. ‘Sorry about that, sir. I can be often clumsy at times. Here, let me get that cleared up for you.’ He went to go after it.
Lacey grabbed his wrist and held it.
His head snapped ‘round.
‘Admit it, Dad.’
He watched his pupils dilate but the glare was as steady as a toad’s. The bartender said: ‘You think you’re better than me, Peanut? Think that goddamn whore of an Aunt’ll protect you? Wrong. I provided – me. You’ll get it, son. You’ll get it just as I did. The thirst’ll catch up with you, dry you up like the Sahara. You’ll be left helpless and alone. And when that moment comes, you’ll drive yourself right off a bridge and right back to me.’
Lacey lost his grip.
The bartender straightened: ‘Now if you’ll excuse me, sir. I ought to fetch the mop.’
Lacey watched the shape disappear through the kitchen doors. After a while, the speaker quietened, and general background noise returned. The bong-bong sound of the traffic lights switching. The zoom of gears shorting from first into third. That general hubbub murmur of the busy world.
He was just sitting there, gathering dust.
As seconds turned to minutes, it seemed to grow lighter.
Lacey drew on his cigarette demurely – he said and he did nothing. What the hell have I just seen?
If he had been more observant, he would have felt the presence of someone standing behind him. Instead, he remained perched over the bar, gazing into space.
‘Hey, can I help you?’
Lacey turned slowly.
A bald-headed baboon with a toupee and built like a coffer-dam appeared from a partition in a bookshelf. He looked tough.
‘Where’d you come from?’ Lacey asked.
‘The rotgut room, goes all the way back to the twenties. Louis Armstrong smoked reefer in it Christmas Eve, 1931. Performed ‘Ain’t Got Nobody’ up on that stage there, you heard that one?’
‘Can’t say I have.’
‘Fine. Anything I can help you with, officer?’
‘That obvious is it?’
‘As obvious as a don’t drink the water sign in a toilet.’
‘Wow,’ Lacey said. ‘That’s real obvious.’
The man marched over tugging on his shirt braces. He probably figured it made him look intimidating. He was two-hundred and sixty-four pounds of mean. But Lacey wouldn’t hesitate to put him on his ass if it boiled down to it, especially after who or what he’d just encountered. The man repeated himself.
Lacey said: ‘Are you the owner of this establishment?’
‘Did you hear the streetcar collision?’
‘Can you tell me something about it?’
‘No soap,’ he said. ‘LAPD and me don’t jive.’
‘Okey,’ said Lacey, putting a foot on the floor and listening to the slap echo in the room. ‘Thanks for the talk. It was a good one.’ He got up and tucked the stool in and moved toward the door.
‘Hey, you gonna pay for that?’
Lacey turned back.
The golden bottle of Canadian Club on the counter glistened.
‘Bartender said it’s on the house.’
The man gestured: ‘What bartender?’
Lacey smirked, ‘Police protection costs you less than four cents a day in Los Angeles. So, how’s about it?’
The man threw his hands up the way tough guys do.
‘You have a pleasant day, sir.’
Lacey turned on his heel and quit the building.
Detective Carruthers sat on the hood of his K-Car and puffed on a Nutman. It was much staler than he imagined. He saw the figure of Lacey striding toward him. ‘What gives?’ he said.
As Lacey moved closer, he saw that his partner looked paler in the face than he normally did. Lacey walked ‘round and got in the passenger seat.
Carruthers tossed the Nutman in the gutter and got inside: ‘You okey?’
‘I guess, you’d never believe me if I told you.’
‘Another time,’ Lacey said.
Carruthers started her up, flashed his indicator, and peeled off, heading in the direction of Sunset – nothing but elation and jubilation.
Rolling through West Hollywood, examining the faces that occupied the length of it, Lacey laughed.
‘You know what?’ he said. ‘The first drink’s on you.’
Carruthers smiled: ‘We’re talking now, Daddy-O.’
Out the corner of his eye, Carruthers caught him staring into the side mirror. Watching his reflection with complete disdain.
Carruthers wondered what the night had in store for them both as he drove. The sky was cotton candy pink, soon to discolor.
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I really enjoyed this hard
I really enjoyed this hard-boiled tale.
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Black and white and noir all
Black and white and noir all over. Love this sort of writing. Nicely done.
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