The Assault on Tony’sby John O’Brien
“O’Brien’s singular voice . . . [takes] us deep into an alcoholic’s world that few others have described so well.” —The New York Times Book Review
The Assault on Tony’s is an unapologetic, unsentimental, and at time exuberant examination of the joys and sorrows of intoxication, combining the inimitable unflinching eye and grim wit unique to the novels of John O’Brien.
Barricaded in a bar called Tony’s while a race riot rages outside, the characters that people The Assault on Tony’s are united by their desire to drink to the end, no matter what the consequences. In this stark and darkly humorous novel, social alliances are forged and challenged as each member of this macabre party ignores his fears in favor of keeping his tumbler full to the brim. As time goes on and the liquor supply starts to dwindle, the novel reaches a gritty intensity as it exposes the highs and lows of the human spirit.
“O’Brien’s singular voice . . . [takes] us deep into an alcoholic’s world that few others have described so well.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Haunting.” —Chicago Tribune
“O’Brien’s essential voice—brave, riffingly brilliant, celebratory and doomed—comes through.” —Time Out New York
“Brilliant and twisted and as sad as an old waltz. This book is O’Brien’s bruised valentine to the whiskey that kissed him to death . . . . You’ll wish, oh how you’ll wish, that John O’Brien was still alive and writing.” —The Kansas City Star
“Metaphorically rich and remarkably smart.” —Cleveland Magazine
“How bad is it?” Langston wanted to know, and the truth was Rudd couldn’t tell him.
“Not so bad,” he lied.
“Then where’s Miles? Not so bad my ass! If it’s not so bad then where the hell is Miles? He’s down already, isn’t he? I should go down before Miles. You know that. So where is he?”
“Only shot,” Rudd told him. “Miles got hit last night during the bombing. That’s where he is.”
Langston eased slightly at this news. “Damn if this thing doesn’t have me feeling six ways of fucked. I’ll try to keep it together. Really, I will. Sorry, Rudd,” he mumbled.
It rattled Rudd to hear Langston cave in—the man had been through a lot without showing the strain that boiled under the rest of them—but he was right. He would have gone down before Miles. He would have been the one to go down first, before any of them. That’s why Rudd couldn’t tell him how bad it was. And it was bad. It was very bad.
Langston pulled a somber beat, said of his fallen comrade, “Shot. Who knows, maybe it’ll make it easier on him.”
“I don’t think so. He was only hit in the shoulder. I think he even managed to stop the bleeding.”
“The bleeding,” he echoed, and it seemed he would leave it at that.
But a chuckle rose from behind the perspiration glistening across his forehead, rose beyond the already moderate quaking of his chest. Langston stood up carefully, as if not to frighten off his skittish smile, and his chair fell away like maybe it was thinking now would be a good time to get the hell out of there. “Tell me you didn’t sterilize it,” he said, his trembling hand seeking out that awesome and feckless bar.
Rudd picked up the laughter, and that made it real laughter. Rudd knew this was part of it, this sort of hopeless mirth. So did Langston. Of course Langston knew. It made him laugh more, under Rudd’s painful gaze, now off, away, down.
For another look in what he ironically still referred to in his own head as dry-storage, he would best take along a witness. Who would be good he wasn’t yet sure. Not Jill, somebody else, one of the guys, and the dry in dry-storage was ironic now for obvious reasons, and originally ironic for insignificant reasons. Only that it was the first place he ever kissed a grown woman, so not Jill.
Not Tony’s dry-storage, not considering he was thirty-eight the first time he ever stepped into Tony’s much less Tony’s dry-storage. No, Rudd’s first kiss was in one of those godforsaken midwestern cities that last he heard was experiencing only pockets of unrest (would be the phrase) and keeping things more or less under control, one of those places that could provide one with a glimmer of hope provided one looked closely yet not close enough. Rudd was sixteen and bussing tables in a tony restaurant where even the dishwashers were Caucasian and the busboys were damn near transparent. So that was that place and it worked so sue him and fuck you if you don’t like it. Worked then and there, anyway.
Prince of that place, and fast, and everybody liked Rudd, especially this waitress. Gail, it was. Now Rudd’s good enough that he handles the whole place by himself and still has time to wolf down the occasional untouched order of scallops while washing it down with a stashed bottle of house wine rejected by some local goon who thought such a move might impress his date but didn’t know that you’ve lost your shot at impressing anybody the moment the phrase house wine crosses your lips. Well Rudd doesn’t mind one bit ’cause that wine tastes just fine back there behind the biggest stainless-steel sink this rich boy ever wants to get next to. Now Gail’s digging him and likely nipping at whatever gets her through her own particular night, so she grabs his hand and takes him into dry-storage, which is the storeroom in the back of the place for canned goods, rice, flour . . . hence the name. Close the door and this woman who has probably eight years on him which may not sound like much but is half again his age gives him a tonsil licking that would make an oral surgeon blush. Yet Rudd is less than impressed, like that wine guy’s date, so much so that when poor old wrong-side-of-the-tracks Gail grabs what she expects to be his hard-on she finds only a great big piece of humble pie. That was Gail. And Rudd knew for a fact, his dad used to fuck waitresses, maids.
That story he remembered the first time he walked into Tony’s dry-storage, which was some time after first walking into Tony’s (which, it turns out, was something of a seminal event in its own right). Sitting at the top of the steps, deciding whom to take back down for a second awful look, Rudd remembered the irony, the utter lack of anything dry in Tony’s dry-storage, which of course was filled strictly with liquor. Tony’s, a damn fine restaurant, was still primarily a bar, and what was originally bona fide dry-storage soon, Rudd later learned, turned out to be a more appropriate space for the rather formidable back stock of liquor. By then though the room was dry-storage, at least to the staff. And now, what with the shutters bolted down and him inside more or less permanently, wasn’t Rudd once again on staff at a restaurant? The battle outside raging, one might say, the storage down here much further from dry than it was yesterday, or less so, one might say if one had the courage, what was Rudd if not a de facto employee of Tony’s? Or even the boss. Or manager, Rudd thought, that’s what I am, Dad, a restaurant manager. And he’d fucked a waitress too. Now didn’t that beat all?
Rudd felt the anticipatory withdrawals nipping from inside his abdomen. Also at the back of his neck. And his arms, the backs of his upper arms. This was the sort of thing that kept a less experienced man mired deep in a couch-ridden binge, he knew. He’d been that man—most of them had, certainly Langston—back before Tony’s and his second marriage, back before he got better. In those days he would mistake this stuff for Big Trouble and hit the vodka bottle prematurely. Now he knew better; he had some time, the condition of dry-storage notwithstanding. Langston was closer though, by at least a day, maybe two.
He felt the ridges in the piece of aluminum that covered the edge of this top step. It was worn less on the sides, the ridges still discernible by eye or by buttock, sobering buttock. Even a screw, unless it was a piece of pocket lint, made its presence known, and this was really going too far, feeling far more than a man in his condition ought to be feeling, a portentous sign. The black steps down to dry-storage each had a worn, bone-colored center from where countless Nikes and Red Wing work shoes had made their marks, or, more accurately, erased another’s. Only the top and bottom steps bore aluminum armor, like: you’re there, this is as high as it gets, low as it gets, so don’t fuck with me ’cause I’ve seen it all. But Rudd once noticed the bottom piece of aluminum kicked out of place, exposing a bone-colored center like on all the rest of the steps, as if the bottom step had once seen service in the mediocracy, a more central location, the infantry above.
He rested his chin in his right hand, elbow to knee, and reached with his left hand for the handrail at his shoulder, not so much to give himself rise as to advance by just one frame, pause and examine the moment he was in. That rail wobbled when he clutched it, the brass-colored bracket that held it to the wall being fastened with a screw whose anchor was losing its grip. As he grasped round the diameter of the rail his fingers touched something wet and sticky on the bottom. Likely it had, whatever it was, been there for a while, discovered only now due to the odd angle of Rudd’s seated grasp. He wondered what it was, but he didn’t pull away though he realized that would be the correct response. It was a mere detail. Gross. Press harder: it oozed from beneath the pads of his fingers.
The brass-colored handrail bracket on the bottom didn’t wobble. This was the stairway from the back of Tony’s dining room to dry-storage. The paint was cracked and chipped in places. It was splattered with at least three different colors of liquids: grease, tomato sauce, and something yellow. There were more than seven steps; he knew because he and Fenton had made a bet on it some days before. The handrail was walnut stained but almost black in places. There used to be a bare bulb in a ceiling-mounted socket at the bottom of the steps, but now it was a fluorescent ring that was intended as a more economical screw-in replacement for the bulb. The fluorescent ring always took a bit too long to reach its maximum brightness, so the switch was set in the on position by a piece of masking tape, which was pretty much beat to shit because everyone kept trying to turn it off without looking. Writing on the masking tape said DO NOT TURN OFF; then in a darker black that must have been added later it demanded PLEASE!!! The light was always off now because all the lights were off because the power had gone out six days earlier. Nobody was holding their breath. There were flashlights. There were candles. In the daytime there was sunlight streaming through the cracks in the security shutters as well as through the few bullet holes in the roof.
Miles being shot the day before had something to do with these holes but Rudd hadn’t told Langston that part of it, nor had he been asked. It felt like cheating—Langston was blinded early on—but Langston knew he was blind. Rudd wondered if that meant Langston would be spared the visual if not the aural hallucinations of delirium tremens. The two men had discussed it and decided not, after all these were pictures of the mind. Still Rudd wasn’t sure. A chance to see again? They were indistinguishable from real sight. Surely Langston, whatever he was now seeing in his mind, wasn’t seeing anything like that. Rudd had said to him, “Maybe it’ll be a good thing,” and then they both had laughed.
So lost in his thoughts was Rudd that the sudden spray of automatic weapon fire against the west side of the building practically startled him off his step. He froze, listened, hoping that someone would handle it. A beat was followed by a second thirty-round clip, and Rudd could almost hear the release and click that filled that beat for the man who held the gun. Rudd didn’t know squat about fully automatic weapons or even where one would go to obtain one. He fingered his own Walther PPK/S tucked under his belt and was reassured by his command over it. He’d had this gun for over ten years, one of the German-made models purchased before Interarms acquired the license and began manufacturing them in the United States. That’s a fine gun, the Interarms Walther, but Rudd liked owning a German one, something about it, the history yet unaltered. A mouse gun, the other men derided it as, yet Rudd had taken out his share and more thirteen days ago when it counted most.
The shooting was over and still no return fire.
“What the hell’s going on!” he yelled, now worried.
In response came the bark of Fenton’s Glock twenty-two, forty-caliber for chrissake, all fifteen rounds. Rudd instinctively tapped his own Glock nineteen nine-mm holstered on his ankle. Though a larger and more powerful gun than the Walther, the Glock was carried and considered by Rudd as a backup piece.
“It’s about time. We can’t have them thinking we’re out of ammo, they’ll be in here in a second,” he added.
“Sorry Rudd. I don’t know where Jill is, and Osmond’s passed out,” explained Fenton from the other room. “I took care of it as soon as I could.”
“Yeah. Next time, don’t wait for anyone else, just shoot.” He waited for a response but none came. Fair enough, Rudd was being a prick and he knew it. Just the beginning, it would get worse for all of them; they would all turn into pricks. Except for Jill maybe, and Osmond since he seemed to be sleeping through his withdrawals. “Say Fenton, come help me take another look at dry-storage after you reload,” offered Rudd as a kind of overture.
“Right away, boss.”
Smart ass. Burned through his and his sister’s inheritance, Rudd had heard of Fenton; but then it was highly probable that Fenton had heard similar things of Rudd. And what the hell did Osmond find enough of to get passed out on? All seemed quiet outside the west wall. Fenton had made the right choice in returning fire with his Glock, perhaps less so in selecting a forty-caliber model. Worst case: Rudd would give his nine-mm to Fenton when the forty-caliber rounds were all gone. Fenton would appreciate that, and he was already familiar with the Glock so it only made sense. Besides, you had to respect a man who carried a plastic gun.
Fenton came fast around the corner and had to pull up short when he saw Rudd still sitting on the top step. He dithered for a moment as if finding it difficult to abandon his plan of bounding down the steps the way he normally would, but he shrugged off the excess energy and sat down next to Rudd, who frankly looked as if he could use a little cheering up.
“Miles is fine,” remarked Fenton to break the silence.
“I’d call that a pretty rosy picture,” said Rudd.
“I mean the wound, it’s nothing. Jill was able to.”
“Spare me the fucking romantic adventures of Nurse Jill and her patients. I’ve seen quite enough already.” Rudd had grown somewhat possessive of Jill, and it ate at him that he could be so easily conquered by this ” waitress.
“That’s neither fair nor kind, Rudd. She’s doing what she has to do, just like the rest of us.”
Fenton raised his eyes, looking straight at the other man as a way to underscore his defense of the woman. Rudd, though rankled by this declaration of loyalties (suddenly thinking: Jill plus Fenton? Jill plus Fenton?), knew that his friend was right. He decided to leave it alone, and that was something.
“Thanks for covering. You okay on ammo?”
“Box and a half, I’m fine.”
“You should say: ‘Seventy-five rounds,’” but this was given with a smile. Rudd’s nature.
Fenton sighed. “Let’s call it a box and a half,” he said, feeling that it was, after all, getting rather late in the game for this shit.
“Right,” said Rudd, rejoined, “right.”
“So,” said Fenton, “I’m guessing we’ve got some bad news waiting for us down there.” He indicated the steps below them, the dry-storage cellar that lay beyond.
“I’d call that a pretty good guess,” said Rudd, and he thought, This is nice, how we can be friends here and make small talk, how no matter how bad it gets Fenton and I can still smile at each other. “I think it’s starting to hit me,” he added. “I’m getting pricky.”
Fenton put his arm around Rudd’s shoulder, said, “It’s okay, I know, I understand.” And he thought, I’m scared, “cause if Rudd goes down then it’ll be me, last, left alone.
The streets outside remained quiet as the two men descended the steps. Of course something must have been happening somewhere in the city, but outside of Tony’s, at least for now, it was quiet. Perhaps the distant rumble of a self-serve gas station in flames, its mini-mart long since looted, responding firemen, if any, coming under sporadic fire, kid stuff, perhaps these sounds would reach the ears of someone standing outside of Tony’s at that moment. But at that moment no one was.
Dry-storage was a place in which each of the men had spent some time alone, some more than others. The busboy and maybe Jill would have spent time alone there too, but one hardly thought about that as it would have constituted more of a professional obligation than the more spiritual endeavors of the others. Rudd was the last man to be down here alone or so he thought, and what he saw was enough for him to make sure no one ever came down here alone again. But then why would they.
There was a little light down here, but there was also quite a lot to see. Rudd took two flashlights from the first shelf to his left, where they’d always been kept, even before they were needed. He turned to hand one to Fenton only to find him waiting at the foot of the stairs a few steps back.
“What?” Rudd demanded.
“I’m afraid to look. I can smell it from out here; I can’t believe we don’t smell it upstairs.”
“Jesus, Fenton, you are a lightweight. You may recall that our senses may not be operating at peak efficiency. When’s the last time you smelled a vodka martini without holding it under your nose? Where you been for the last two weeks?”
“Sixteen days, and pretty close to you is where I’ve been.”
Rudd clicked on his flashlight and turned it on Fenton’s face. Fenton glared back, his eyes, Rudd noticed for the first time, as bloodshot as everybody else’s.
He turned around the flashlight into his own bloodshot eyes, like a kid playing monster under the sheets. “I know. I’ll never forget that. The rest of us, well, we were pretty much stuck with this. But you could’ve gone another route. We all appreciate how you stood by us.”
“Standing. I’m standing by you. And it’s mostly you, Rudd. Those other guys aren’t anything to me. I’d never even met Miles and Osmond until that first day.”
Rudd retraced the few steps to where Fenton stood, handed him the lit flashlight while turning on the one in his other hand. “Give me some moral support here,” he said, leading with an arm around Fenton’s shoulders, and the two men cast their beams into the once dry storage.
The floor was mostly damp, the bulk of the fluid long gone down the drain that lay in a depressed area in the center of the room. That was perhaps the biggest tragedy, that no one had thought to block that drain, and for an insane moment Rudd wondered if there wouldn’t be a way to still chase the liquor lost down it, a siphon, the first few inches. Crazy. Some small accumulation remained in the form of stray ounces left in the irregular shapes inevitable among so much broken glass. But really, the room was a total loss, almost as if it had been deliberately wrecked bottle by bottle. Yet no one from the outside could have been in here, and no one from the inside could have done this. That was a literal fact: no one inside could have done this. Rudd was certain of that, and Rudd was a realist; they all were, men like them everywhere.
No, dry-storage was ruined by the shock absorbed during the previous night’s bombings. They all suspected it would be bad, but the shock of the bombings—almost military in their intensity yet obviously nothing more than a highly crafted street offensive—shook the building and likely many buildings for close to a half hour. Plaster crumbled and there were a few minor injuries, but the most terrible part for all of them was the distant sound of breaking glass.
“One of us should have come down . . .” tried Fenton.
But if he intended to say more Rudd cut him short. “That was my call and now it’s made!” he said; then more softly, to himself really: “I thought . . . I mean to say, I kept thinking that it wouldn’t be so bad. This late in the game . . . it seems so late, close to the end, I thought maybe better a few less bottles than one less guy.” Despondently, he slipped down along the wall until he was sitting in the dampness, which slowly steamed into the backside of his pants. “God, let it be blood,” he said, chuckling to himself sadly.
“What was that, Rudd?” asked Fenton gently.
“Oh it’s an old joke. A wino falls down in the alley with his last pint in his back pocket. “God, let it be blood” is what he says when he feels his pocket get wet.”
“You did the right thing. I promise. Let’s take it from here, okay?” Fenton was scared, but Fenton was also a friend.
Rudd rose back to his full height. “I may have done the right thing,” he said, “but that’s hardly what was called for.”
As one the men shone their flashlights into dry-storage, played the beams across the fallen shelves and cracked and splattered walls so that it briefly became a game of beam chase beam and stopped just short of a giggle or a glance, and the beams were brightest at their centers. This was difficult, this inspection, but it had to be done because it had to be over so the new reality of their situation could begin writing its definition.
“You start on the left,” said Fenton, surprising Rudd, not unpleasantly in this time of weakness, by his initiative, “combing your light up and down along the walls. I’ll start on the right and we’ll pass in the middle for double coverage. Save the floor for last. Forget the ceiling,” he added awkwardly. Then after a pause: “If that sounds good to you.”
Rudd nodded. “Stop if you see anything, anything at all.”
So they began systematically, proceeding just as Fenton had suggested. The shelves in dry-storage were wooden, supported separately at three-foot intervals, short due to the liquid weight they were expected to bear. The shelves were stacked seven high floor to ceiling and held the various bottles three deep—had held—the bottles unpacked and kept in stock out of their cases due to Tony’s insistence long ago that breakage be done on a bottle-by-bottle basis (now that was funny) during the course of an evening. Hal was a minimalist and liked to keep the bar sparse, only two bottles of well liquor in place and a dedicated bar-back to make sure it stayed that way. Too bad: had the bottles been left in their corrugated cardboard cartons, the way they were in most places, some of them might have survived the drop. But none did. And they all dropped because no shelf, it quickly became apparent, had held; except for the bottom ones, and it was here that Rudd paused his flashlight and said, “Wait a minute!”
Fenton immediately whipped his own beam to the same spot. “What?” he demanded.
“In the back, here.” Rudd stepped forward to the shelf, but the crunch of glass under his foot stopped him cold. He turned back to Fenton. “I just thought of something. We may be able to salvage some of these little puddles held in the broken pieces.” Fenton nodded and Rudd proceeded more carefully.
He squatted down and reached gingerly behind the second-lowest shelf, which had fallen only in the front so that it hung at something close to a forty-five-degree angle to the wall, crushing the bottles on the front of the lowest shelf, but actually being borne up by some of the bottles at the rear of the lowest shelf. It was these bottles, a precious few of them, that remained unbroken. Rudd extracted a fifth of J&B scotch and held it forth to Fenton as gleefully as any schoolboy showing his mother a gold-starred piece of homework.
“Well done!” cried Fenton.
“You bet your ass!” added Rudd, and they were both momentarily reassured by the sight of a virgin fifth with an unbroken seal.
“Any more? How many?”
And as Rudd handed the bottle to his friend their eyes met over their prize. These were two boys discovering back issues of Playboy in a father’s closet, though these men had never been boys together.
Rudd probed further with his flashlight then his hand. He pulled out another J&B, held it out for Fenton to take. “Twooo,” he said thoughtfully, hopefully, now the accountant. “I think ” yeah, three.”
Now Fenton stood sentry over three full fifths of J&B scotch, which really, for these men at least, was a good thing to have three bottles of. Miles of course would drink anything—for that matter they all would soon enough—but the traditional drink of choice at Tony’s was scotch.
“One more, something different,” reported Rudd.
It turned out to be a bottle of Malinowa Raspberry Cordial Austrian Liqueur (seventy-six proof). The men stared at the bottle as if it were a copy of Good Housekeeping mixed in with the pornography.
“What is it?”
“Seventy-six proof, looks like,” answered Rudd as he puzzled over the label. “I don’t know what the hell it’s doing down here on the scotch shelf.”
It seemed they couldn’t make up their minds whether to be angry over not finding another bottle of J&B or pleased over finding another bottle of anything, especially something sporting a reasonable proof such as this. There had been something of a liqueur orgy on the seventh day, the stranger stuff being kept to single orders, mostly for the visual appeal of the unusual bottles, and hence not back-stocked down here. They’d burned through it all that night and it wasn’t pretty, but it did save them one night’s worth of real booze, which now of course was lost.
“I think we should give Osmond his share out of this stuff,” said Rudd. “By the way, what the hell is he passed out on?”
“I don’t know, but he’s out cold in his booth, been that way all morning.”
“Son of a bitch. Think he had a bottle hidden?”
“Don’t know. Maybe, could’ve, I suppose.”
“Son of a bitch. Well he definitely gets his share from this shit. Passed out. Son of a bitch.”
They nodded as one, in evident agreement over the son-of-a-bitchedness of Osmond.
Rudd stood up. “That’s it for that shelf,” he said.
They silently resumed their scanning, but no other backs of bottom shelves had survived the damage. In less than three minutes they knew and ten minutes after that they admitted: no other unbroken bottles were present in dry-storage. Out of forty-some bottles four had survived. Fenton almost proclaimed this but thought better of it and stopped himself in time, waited.
“That’s it,” Rudd told him. “Run upstairs and get ” oh, I don’t know, two I suppose, juice containers. We’ll pour what we can from these broken bottles into them.”
“There are plenty of juice containers. We could have one for scotch and another for vodka, one for whiskey, like that.”
“Umm, no. It won’t be worth it. We’ll end up with five or six almost empty containers: too depressing. Best we just mix it. Believe me, by the time we need it we won’t care at all.”
Fenton went upstairs, where later he, Rudd, and the others inspected what was salvaged from dry-storage. Balanced on the bar, three fifths of J&B, one of Malinowa Raspberry Cordial Austrian Liqueur (seventy-six proof), one and two-thirds juice containers of Amalgamash, stood the attention of Rudd, Fenton, Miles, Langston, somewhat fortified by the very odor of alcohol, Jill, as sort of a disinterested de facto supervisor or lady principal, and the busboy, who stood passive, cognizant, and secretly resentful of mostly himself. Absent was only Osmond, who remained passed out in his booth and that was frankly just as well because anybody who managed to pass himself out for that long must have had something stashed and though if somebody was gonna do that it would’ve been Osmond it didn’t change the fact that it was wrong at the very least and way outside the conduct agreed upon by this group at the very worst, which it was, the very worst.
One of the juice containers, the one with the lesser volume, was darker than the other. Different colors, even through the translucent plastic, they were, like amber and chestnut.
“How’d that happen?” asked Miles, pointing very closely at but not quite touching the chestnut-colored bottle. This in keeping with the demeanor that prevailed among the men present, one of chemistry students surrounding a rack of fuming test tubes.
And in the role of white-coated professor, Rudd started to answer but was momentarily interrupted by gunfire on the street out front. Everyone paused, as was their custom, bowing their heads as if in prayer. But no one felt threatened, and the attitude of their lips, the way they were mostly, slightly cocked, made the group look like they were merely waiting for someone to finish a coughing fit.
When the shooting stopped, Rudd said, “How’s the shoulder, Miles?”
Miles dropped his eyes. “Fine,” he muttered, not looking at anybody. “I asked about the bottle.”
“Just different puddles as we went along. I don’t really see any need to mix it further.”
At this Langston fell away from the table in a violent spasm of trembling. “It’s okay,” he offered, making for his booth. “An early one, it’ll pass. But I don’t think I should be near the breakables right now.”
“Jill, better pour him off a solid double from one of these scotch bottles.” He scanned the others for any sign of dissension, knowing that it was unlikely, especially with Osmond not present. “Triage, guys,” added Rudd anyway. “We knew it would come to this.”
“I’m not the bartender,” said Jill right to Rudd, and he thought, you sleep with them and it isn’t long before they start giving you this kind of lip.
But he also thought about her breasts. They were on the largish side and Rudd liked that in a woman. He also liked her auburn hair and pert little nose, the way that she gave head and was pretty smart. “Bartender’s dead, Jill. He is in the freezer, been there for weeks, but I wouldn’t open the door now that the power’s out. I was fairly certain that you were aware of this development.”
“You can be such an asshole,” she said, picking up the scotch bottle, cracking the seal, and pouring off the dosage for Langston.
“I’m a drunk, Jill, it goes with the territory.”
Well he’s part right, she thought, as she silently crossed the room to Langston’s booth. But the territory had more to do with being male than it did with being a drunk. These men, these hopeless desperate men that she was stuck here with, she’d pour their drinks and suck their dicks because as bad as they could be at times they were still better than the men on the outside of that door, because there was a certain nobility in their consistency and pathos, because they’d done what they had to do despite the fact that every one of them was on a greased slide to hell and knew it, and because to leave would be to expose them to a reality that might just break them: she really didn’t like them touching her.
“You’ll have to hold his head and give it to him,” Rudd told her from the bar.
“I know, I know.” And she did more or less pour the scotch into Langston’s mouth, only missing a drop and that was a good score. The man was trembling but calmed at her touch and again with the liquor. “Not much, I’m afraid,” she whispered. “But there isn’t much left.” That was cold, she thought, and felt bad. This man was really sick. This was serious, like cancer or something. He could die from this.
At the bar Fenton wanted to know, “What did you mean about what was called for?”
“What?” said Rudd.
“Down in dry-storage you said something like, “I did the right thing but it wasn’t called for.” What did you mean by that?”
“I may have done the right thing, but that’s hardly what was called for.”
“Yeah, right, yeah.”
This room was fairly large with a simple slate-topped bar running L on the right side and tables and booths that service the restaurant filling the left side. The bar held a clutch of blond wood stools and it was on two of these that Rudd and Fenton were seated talking, all the remaining liquor in Tony’s beheld before them. These two men were members of the Hollydale Country Club and that was how they met. Rudd had been a member longer and met Fenton on the latter’s first visit after being invited to join. This fact gave Rudd an edge of seniority that had long since touched all aspects of their acquaintance and friendship. Hollydale was no more—they could guess as much—but they would always be members. They had this over the other men.
The men had been bunking on the black leather benches of the booths and had taken to thinking of them as rooms and being every bit as possessive of them as a bunch of teenage boys. Langston lay in his booth and Jill sat across from him, watching him grope for what little peace could be found in a single swallow of scotch. Before the riots Jill had had little experience with alcohol and way too much experience with sex. By now though she had seen enough evidence in this room to know just how grave the danger was that these men faced. She suspected that they had all hoped to be shot dead before having to face the end of the supply, though Langston, the man quivering on his back before her, was the only one to ever actually confess this to her.
Two stools down from the corner of the bar where Rudd and Fenton sat, that is on the short part of the L and near the door, Miles nursed his shoulder and stared into space. At the far end of the bar from Miles stood the busboy, leaning against the wall. He’d been outside once, days ago, and he was starting to realize that these men would inevitably send him out again. He could, it was true, move around out there, being Latino and thus resembling the average rioter far better than any of the white men of Tony’s. No one ever referred to him as anything but busboy; they didn’t even know his name and he liked it that way. Only the woman, Jill, once pushed him so hard for a name that he made one up just to get her out of his face. She still whispered it sometimes to him, only when they were alone, as if understanding it was a secret, or perhaps a bond.
Osmond lay face down in his own booth. The most significant fact about Osmond right now was that he was dead, though nobody at Tony’s had discovered this yet. He died of alcohol poisoning hours ago. Osmond had always suspected he could pull this off when the time came, and he was right. He had appropriated a fifth of one-hundred-and-fifty-one-proof rum for just this purpose when the end started to feel close. Plan was to simply shoot himself if he failed and remained alive, or vomited, after drinking down the bottle. He did neither. The bottle was now under his chest, incredibly not broken by his enormous girth, his obesity, ironically giving him the appearance of being in mid breath. The others were angry. They knew he had cheated and it pissed them off that he should be sleeping so soundly while someone like Langston who played by the rules was going through hell. They ignored him. Well, that was Osmond.
A good shot normally but no help at all when Langston began screaming so loud and suddenly that Jill started to fly out of the other side of that booth even before a mighty spastic thrust of Langston’s chest sent him bolt upright and the table tore up at the bolts as his right shoulder hit it. Everyone froze at the crack of Langston’s shoulder as it popped out of its socket. There was a split second before the table teetered to a precarious rest against the bench where a moment ago Jill had been seated. Langston fell to his convulsions, groaning on the loose bolts and crud of the floor of his booth, and everyone knew then that Langston had always been right: he was the first of them to go down.
“DTs comin”!” hollered Miles from his seat at the bar. But his voice held more fear than mockery.
“Shut up, Miles,” snapped Rudd anyway. He rose from his seat, grabbing the bottle of J&B from which Langston had just been poured a drink. “Jill! Let’s go. I’ll hold him down and you get some more of this into him. Try half the bottle”
He was interrupted by some heavy work on the front door. Not the simple random wall gunfire that they were accustomed to, no this was a very real attempt to enter Tony’s. Dents-and some holes-were appearing at an alarming rate on the interior security shutter. No way to tell if there was even anything left of the outside shutter, though Rudd had long since ceased to count on it.
“Fuck!” yelled Miles, whose back was pretty much to and near the shooting. He dove across the bar, western movie style, forgetting about his shoulder until his head-first landing reminded him. “Fuck!” he added through real tears. But this late in the game they had all learned a lot, and it wasn’t long before Miles was returning fire from behind the bar.
Langston screamed, thrashed. It was impossible to determine if he knew what was happening. Rudd was close enough to Jill to push her back into Langston’s booth. He crouched low and handed her the bottle which he had not for one second forgotten was in his hand.
“Stay down and do what you can for him with this,” he told her, for Langston was still the priority; his condition was what they all feared the most, what they would all be most likely to unite against. Rudd took up a position in a forward booth. “Fenton!” he cried over the relentless pounding. “Get that scotch under cover before you do anything else!”
“Is that what’s called for, Rudd?” said Fenton, currently too pinned down by his proximity to the door to rise even to a crouch.
Rudd, his Walther locked open just that fast, pulled out his Glock and emptied it at the door. There was a brief lull in the outside fire and Fenton, who like all these men had seen enough to recognize an opportunity, stood straight up and gathered the three remaining glass bottles-two scotch and one liqueur-leaving the less breakable juice containers to stand the next round of fire.
Rudd, reloading, caught sight of him going the long way around the bar. “Good,” he said, “Don’t risk the jump. Put ’em in the sink. Gently—”
Again he was cut short by a spate of shooting, but Fenton had safely made his position behind the bar. He set the bottles in the sink and unholstered his own Glock. Miles was glad for the support on his flank and took the opportunity to snap another clip into his Colt Gold Cup. He turned, nodded at Fenton, slid down a few feet and was able to retrieve the two plastic juice containers from the top of the bar. Jill was doing her best with Langston, who now cognizant of the bottle being placed at his lips was calming somewhat. He made a feeble motion to sit up, but Jill pushed his arm back down and hushed him. The busboy was standing in dry-storage, not so much afraid as uninvolved. No one had heard from either of Osmond’s two forty-four-magnum Smith & Wesson model twenty-nines, though the shooting showed no sign of letting up.
“Somebody’s knockin’!” screamed Langston from the floor of his booth, using a southern drawl, which nobody present had ever heard him use before.
The shooting stopped, as if just as surprised as the rest of them at this half-assed speaking in tongues.
“Hah!” yelled Langston, claiming credit of sorts but more likely too delirious to know or care.
It only seemed to precipitate more shooting, and perhaps it really did. More than anything it broke Rudd-temporarily, it had happened before when things went spinning far beyond his control-broke his temper.
“Jill! You either shut him the fuck up or I’ll put a round in him myself!” With that Rudd, in disregard of the continuing gunfire, stood like some driven demigod, a Patton or a Robert Duvall, a pop-culture icon impervious to harm but one whose legend would never leave this room. He walked so straight and sure to the booths that Jill covered the oblivious Langston with her own body, fearing for a moment that he might have meant it, might now be on his way to shoot this man, her charge, through the head.
But Rudd only walked by, a strained “I mean it” issuing like steam from between his clenched teeth. “Osmond!” he bellowed. And again upon arriving at that man’s booth, his still inert body so drunk, so very passed out, “Osmond!” A bullet pierced Rudd’s thigh, clean through the flesh, harmlessly if such an occurrence can be described in such a manner. Nobody noticed, not even Rudd, so intent was he on righting this wrong, on awaking the passed-out-on-a-cheat Osmond and bringing him to this battle. Not that its course would have been altered by Osmond, but the fearsome bark of his twin forty-fours would have been a welcome voice in its sporadic refrain.
Even as he approached the booth and squatted with his left hand contacting his own fresh wound Rudd failed to notice either pain or blood. Not until he placed his hand, now covered in his own blood, on Osmond’s back, shaking him violently in an effort to revive him, did Rudd see the blood. And because what he saw first was blood on Osmond he assumed then that the blood on him came from Osmond and this was his first, both true and false, sign that something was wrong with this large man beyond being dead drunk.
Rudd stared at his hand. He stared at the blood on Osmond’s back. He even stared at his thigh, saw the wound or at least the hole in his pants, and thought for a perverse moment that if he was destined to stain his pants with Osmond’s blood then wasn’t it propitious to have done so in the same spot where they’d been torn anyway.
Then Jill was behind him. Langston had fallen silent and there was a lull in the shooting. In fact the shooting had stopped, Jill was sure of it. “You’re hurt,” she said to Rudd.
“No, it’s Osmond,” Rudd said, placing his hand on the man again and shaking gently. “I think he’s dead.”
With that they heard a muffled crunch as the bottle Osmond had drunk himself to death with and was lying on finally gave way to Rudd’s gentle nudging. The dead man’s huge chest lowered a bit, as if in final exhale.
A single gunshot cracked from the front of Tony’s. Outside. After the Hollywood ping of a ricochet they all heard the shattering collapse of one of the two bottles of J&B that Fenton had placed in the sink behind the bar.
“Well that sure didn’t sound like Malinowa Raspberry Cordial Austrian Liqueur!” lilted Langston, and then he began snoring.