The Little Things
by Nan Benjamin
Pound! Pound! Pound! The tankards frothed like waves on an agitated sea. The bar lit by cigarettes and dying neon, languished like a pustule on a pimple at the edge of the city.
From a puddle on the bar, George splashed beer into his face and then savored each finger's dew with his anxious tongue. More, cried his soul. More.
The Tick Tock Tavern was George's refuge. It wasn't a large place, only about eight hundred square feet with a bar on one side and five round pine tables with captains chairs on the other. At the end was a storeroom next to the one and only restroom.
A frazzled bar maid, her breasts a bouncy prerequisite for employment, swirled a rag under George's chin. Ah, if only I were a fiber upon that rag! He mused to his delight. To sop up the last vestiges of the brewer's toil. It wasn't thirst or habit, but a craving to satisfy an inexhaustible appetite he had created.
I only have ten cents, George confessed, How 'bout one more.
This ain't the March of Dimes. Louis, the bartender, said, blowing his nose on the same rag he used for wiping the shot glasses. George rested his head on his hands, looked up, and studied the man. He must have been one hundred pounds overweight with three chins and well on his way to a fourth. A well-chewed toothpick adhered itself to his dry lower lip. George imagined Louis woke up in the morning in damp pajamas, smelling of sweat, beer and bug spray, with that toothpick still on his lip. He probably greeted the day with a slap on his wife's butt and Earl Grey tea.
Hey, Hildie, no more for this one. Louis pointed to George and she nodded. The wobbly inebriate rose as he steadied himself by clutching the counter.
I will take my business elsewhere, George said as trod to the john. His exit just missed the front door of the establishment opening to a tremendous bang and harsh noon-day light. A man stood in the doorway, an imposing creature with his monolithic legs slightly apart and a black silk cloak, like the flag of a pirate ship, flapping in the wind.
I have come upon the entrails of society, the slime that oils the wheels of damnation, he boomed. One slow, giant step after the other, brought the stranger into the bar. The door closed and the Tick Tock Tavern returned to a murky stillness.
The bar's patrons paused in mid-swallow.
Look at him, Elizabeth swooned, wrapping a cobalt blue boa around her neck. She circled the newcomer slowly, swaying her spindly hips and fluttering her fake eyelashes like some femme fatale from the early fifties. George watched her and with a lump in his throat, took his place back at the bar.
I thought you were gonna take your business elsewhere, Louis snarled.
I did. I did my business in your john. By the way, your 2009 Soldier of Fortune magazine was missing.
Without warning, the newcomer's loud, baritone voice called out.
You! He pointed at George. You are nothing but a pawn in the devil's game. And this... He glared at the bartender. You are the knight of darkness.
Oh, Jeez, not another nutcase, Louis grumbled. Take a hike!
The caped crusader ignored the order. He reached into a satchel under his cloak and pulled out a bottle.
This will set you free, my decadent comrades, just one sip and the evil clutch of Lucifer will release you! Your passion for alcohol will have left your wretched souls. And it is only $8 a bottle.
Worse than a nutcase, he's a capitalist! George said. His interest waned, so he poked the smoke rings that sailed about his head.
God's capitalist! the stranger corrected him. He spun around to show the sparse crowd his flask of sobriety.
You! This time his glare fell upon Hildie. Your man is consumed by the desire for booze. He punches you and knocks the kids about because the evil spirits of drink have poisoned his mind! But he is a good, a true man, if it was not for the devil's intoxicant! Buy a bottle of my curative, give him one sip and he will be the honorable man you married.
Hildie reached into her apron pocket and counted out eight dollars.
Here, she cried, I don't know how you knew, but, my husband, Ron Don, is really a good guy.
He raised the money in the air and announced, A soul has been saved!
If I wanted to go to church, I would've stayed home, shouted a male at the end of the bar. George looked and recognized Squeaky, a former police officer. He almost never spoke. His high-pitched voice surprised the patrons who considered him just the melancholy man who insinuated the mood of the bar. George watched Squeaky sway, round and round, as if he were a carousel clown in slow motion. He stopped, hunched over and fell to the floor like a sack of fermented grapes, freeing the Soldier of Fortune magazine from his grasp.
No one moved.
Get up! Louis yelled. Squeaky did not move.
I used to be a stewardess! Elizabeth shouted. I got medical training! She bent over Squeaky and swooned. Oh, the altitude is too low! I'm gonna faint!
George shuffled to his fallen comrade and stared stared at Squeaky's shot glass, full of unrequited love. Louis placed his hand over the drink and shook his head.
George wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and knelt. He shoved Squeaky and the former policeman's head slumped to the side, lifeless.
Jesus Christ! he screamed. There's a friggin' bullet hole in his head!
Can't be! Louis said, leaning over the bar to watch a red-black ooze puddle around Squeaky's head. George's hair stood on the back of his neck. The cloaked stranger's cry interrupted the eerie calm.
I could have been shot, look! He pointed to the back of the Tick Tock Tavern to a tiny window on the wall. The perfect vantage point for Satan!
That's my storage room, Louis said. But it does lead to the outside.
He was aiming at me, Armistead Portmandeau! But he missed! The devil is an evil creature, but a poor shot. He wants to wipe out the Lord's angels here on earth. Armistead shook his fist at the window and scowled.
Did someone call the cops? George asked. Louis nodded.
I kinda feel bad that I didn't get to know Squeaky better, George said pointing to the full shot glass on the counter. He's not gonna need that.
Fingerprints, you asshole! Fingerprints! Don't you think about nothin' else but your next drink? Louis grumbled.
Don't make me feel bad, George said. One of my best friends is dead.
A man with a ponytail, busy buckling his pants and zipping up his fly exited the Tick Tock's restroom.
What's goin' on? he shouted, looking up.
Someone shot Squeaky. George told him.
Can't I friggin' take a crap without someone gettin' killed? The man with the ponytail scowled.
The bar's door opened. The sun had been tamed by time and only a hazy, orange glow swept in. Two men stood in the entrance way. George just knew they were the police. One stood over six feet, he had a gray buzz cut and wore a blue suit and a yellow silk tie. The other man, much younger and in uniform, scratched his neck and shifted his weight from one leg to the other.
Detective Drago and Office Ortez, the older one shouted. There was a report about a shooting?
Louis wiped his hands on his apron, lifted the bar's hinged counter and approached the police officers.
I'm Louis Karpondinis, owner. He pointed to Squeaky's body, a bundle of tattered once-was lying on the floor. Detective Drago inspected him for a moment and then his eyebrows jumped.
That's Milt Simpson! He and I were at the police academy together!
No kidding, Ortez responded, walking over to Squeaky. His eyes fixated on the corpse.
Damn, he doesn't look like a cop.
Use to be, Detective Drago said with a frown. Got suspended for statutory rape.
That's not good, Ortez said.
But he married her. She was just 14! Her mama hated his guts. Can't blame her, though, Detective Drago said. Well, he won't be fornicating 14 year olds any more. The senior sleuth carefully pulled a pad from his suit pocket and began to write, shaking his head. Milt Simpson, doesn't that just get all.
Can I leave? I got an appointment. I didn't see nothin', I was takin' a crap the whole time an' I got witnesses...right? The pony-tailed man looked man around for affirmation.
I didn't see you take a shit, dude, George said.
Nobody's going anywhere, Detective Drago grumbled. Officer Ortez and I are going to question everyone in this establishment. So just sit tight.
But I got a' appointment with my parole officer. Be a sport, Detective, the former occupant of the lavatory pleaded.
What's your name, fella?
Egbert Nickel, but my friends call me Plug. Get it Plug Nickel. He was a small man, who sported a slicked-back pompadour with a ponytail and baggy jeans. His stained, white t-shirt had a pack of cigarettes rolled up the sleeve. Try as he may, his lackluster eyes betrayed any intensity, absolving James Dean of any connection.
George had seen Plug a few times before, strutting his small frame, with a dare-you attitude. Today, the wanna-be was French-kissing Detective Drago's ass.
Go check the john, Ortez, Detective Drago commanded. The younger office scrambled to the restroom and exited, holding his nose.
There is a distinct odor. I believe someone did have a bowel movement, Sir, Ortez said.
Did you check for weapons?
Ortez held his breath and returned to the lavatory.
George's need for a drink intensified. He couldn't leave, he couldn't beg for the couple of dollars he required to scratch the ravenous itch. It was though his blood had been corrupted with cayenne pepper, forcing his body into involuntary tics and spasms.
Detective Drago stared.
What's wrong with you?
It's the beginnings of the D.T.s, Louis offered.
Give him a drink, Detective Drago said.
Give him a drink? I'm not...
George peered at the detective with love in his eyes.
Here, He slapped $20 down on the bar. Just shut up and give him a drink.
A symphony of angels, strumming their harps engulfed the hapless alcoholic. George grabbed the glass and savored the moment. The soothing potion calmed him and he shook no more.
Thank you, Detective, George said.
That was so nice of you, Sir, Elizabeth said. Most people think we're soulless shells. I bet your wife (?) would be proud...
I would never think ill of the lowlifes that inhabit this sad saloon, Armistead Portmandeau said, his cape limp at his back. You are creatures of God's love. And Officer, I should point out that I was the target of that errant bullet. Yes, the devil is after me because I hold the remedy to their salvation right here at only $8 a bottle.
Do you have a license for that? Detective Drago inquired.
A license? But I have been anointed by the highest power there is.
The Feds? Detective Drago said, smiling.
Ortez approached his boss.
Find anything? his superior asked.
Ortez nodded. You better go see for yourself. Looks like a 22 pistol in the empty soap dispenser.
Hey, you, Plug! Come here!
Plug Nickel obeyed the order and approached the two police officers with his hands shoved deep in his pockets, his eyes skirting the bar.
You took a shit like that and didn't wash your hands? Detective Drago asked.
Plug released a long sigh. I got some sanitary problems.
You've got more problems than that. Arrest him Ortez.
The younger police officer grabbed Plug, turned him around, slapped the handcuffs on and read him his rights.
I swear to God, I'll wash next time! But there was no soap!
Armistead Portmandeau shook his finger in Plug's face.
Cleanliness is next to Godliness, my son.
He's being arrested for the murder of Milt Simpson. Detective Drago said.
This little guy, almost an invisible fixture at the Tick Tock Tavern, killed Squeaky? George wondered as he took another sip. The amber liquid coursed through a very welcoming body.
Why, Plug, why? Squeaky was nothing to you, George asked.
We'll do the questioning.
George did not dispute his benefactor.
Plug wrestled with his cuffs and growled.
Hey man, I got hemorrhoids and that asshole stole the only reading material in the john.
Come on, Detective Drago said as he lead Plug out of the Tick Tock Tavern, passing a flurry of medical technicians.
Sorry, one of the team explained, but we went to the wrong bar and had to attend to another shooting victim.
No biggie. Just bag him, Detective Drago said.