Neal Smith runs a clean dish towel down the polished wood of his bar, wiping away the last remnants of the soapy water he just used to clean the beer and nut shells off the syrup-colored surface when the kid comes in the bar. Dressed in dark clothing, wearing a rolled stalking cap, dark eyes on a pale face, the kid saddles up to a seat closest to the door and orders a draft Bud Light.
Neal throws his towel down on the bar and grabs a glass. He yanks on the nearest handle, shooting frothy liquid into a clean glass, and uses the metal strip he keeps shoved in his back pocket to shave off the excess head. Neal roughly puts the beer down in front of the kid, and some foam spills out onto the freshly cleaned bar. The beer makes things sticky if he leaves it too long, but Neal doesn’t clean the spill right away, figuring he’ll leave the kid be for now and get to it later
Neal studies the kid in the bar’s mirrored backstop. The hoodie. The lanky body. Greasy hair sticking out at the edges from under the knitted cap..
Turning back to what he’s doing, he thinks with the minimal business tonight, he might be able to get to bed early. The night’s nearly over, it’s after Thanksgiving time, and the place hasn’t done much business tonight. It gave Neal some time to hang Christmas lights in the window, with some plastic garland here and there around the place ’cause Sheila, his barback and part-time bartender, was on him about making the place look festive. He even relented and against his better judgment put a little try on the bartop near the phone.
When he was done with the lights and garland and the other half-mangled decorations found somewhere deep in storage, Neal stood back toward the back bend in the bar, hands on his hip, and said, “Fuck festive.” He thought it was better the other way, without the plastic crap, and mumbled to Wilkie, at the bar next to him, hunched over a drink, “Next thing I know, she’ll have me putting that damn elf places, making comments about how she gets me confused with it.”
Wilkie burped, looked up in the glass, and slurred, “It’s ‘cause you’re short, right?”
Neal told Wilkie to shut up and get back to his drink.
After, he figured he’d get to cleaning, waiting for last call, which is now.
Neal tells the leftover groups now hanging around, Wilkie included, “you don’t have to go home”—reaching under the bar and pulling out the air horn that sits on a shelf next to an antique sawed-off shotgun. He depresses the top plunger, and the air horn belches a honk, making Wilkie jump and an old blue hair spill her drink down the front of her shirt. “It’s last call, and the place is closing soon, so unfurl your sails and ready yourself to find a new port someplace else. Come back tomorrow, where the lights will be on and the taps open.”
Neal shoves the air horn back under the bar, smiling at making the patrons jump.
He really wanted to say: “Get the fuck out.”
And, as usual, no one moves.
Those that came in tonight are the same that continually heed the siren call of comfort and familiarity his joint has to offer, seeking the right mixture of social interaction and inept solitude only found at one’s neighborhood watering hole. Most of these folks have been coming to the bar for nearly as long as Neal’s been working here. Most of these folks were around a helluva lot longer than Neal’s been around. And judging by the never aging old bodies, they may just outlast him.
He’s not a young man, though, and these long nights get the best of him in the winter months, which might be why he generally dislikes the holidays, because they signal cold, and cold signals pain. Pain in his joints. Pain in his scars. Pain elsewhere. For the most of it, he could have retired somewhere warm, but from where he came, what he did, they’d expect that and know just where to find him. So maybe his hate for the holiday season goes deeper. Maybe it’s the lack of family, but he’s never been one for relationships. Doesn’t have a family.
Neal leans against the counter, steadying himself with one hand as he picks up his right leg and bends it at the knee a few times, working out the kinks.
Neal’s a short, barrel-chested man with gray hair cut close to his skull to limit the damage to his receding hairline. Not a fat man, but not skinny either. His body is still strong despite his age. But still when he walks, old injuries lurking in his ankles and knees give him a distinctive gait and pronounced limp.
Neal can’t go to bed until the place clears out. He sleeps in the back on a cot. After a half-century of living the way he did, he’s not comfortable with anything else. He tried a nice twin bed once and hated it. Sleeping in his workplace saves him money and allows him to protect his investment. Neal came from out east and doesn’t talk about it much to others. His retirement wasn’t his choice. His name isn’t his name. The bar doesn’t belong to him; it’s where he works.
Neal’s choice of clothes bothers Sheila. She’s always telling him to buy new clothes: “You know flannel is great in the winter and up north, but this is cowboy country; you should go for something monochromatic if you can’t invest in pearl snaps, boots, and a big ole hat.” Neal’s response is snaps, boots, and a hat isn’t his style
Tonight he wears a comfortable red and green piece with half the buttons undone to reveal the white wife beater and gold chain underneath. Curly white hair twists out from under the white cotton.
The kid at the end of the bar knocks the glass over, spilling beer all over the place, and causes Neal, as well as everyone else, to look in his direction. Neal’s eyes cut to the overturned glass and the expanding liquid before rising to the kid’s face as he exclaims, “Jesus Christ, boy, I just cleaned that—”
With a practiced indifference, grounded into him from a lifetime of always having to be right to survive and looking over his shoulder, Neal regards the long shiny revolver the kid’s holding, pointed right at him. “Give me the money.”
Neal raises one eyebrow, tilts his head to the side, and places his hands on his hips, taking a long moment to contemplate the situation, and the only response he can think of is, “are you stupid?”
The kid shakes his head once. “Money; now!”
“What money? You see any money here?”
The kid hesitates before shaking the gun to Neal’s left. “What’s in the register.”
“Did you hear the air horn? See anyone get up? That’s it, kid; there’s nothing left. What’s in there is fifty bucks in ones and change. Everything else’s been dropped in the safe.” Neal points toward the slot at the end of the counter. Underneath is a nice solid-looking gunmetal gray box, dial on the front. “Thing’s been there ever since I got here,” he says.
The kid considers his options, trying to work it out in his head. He didn’t expect this. That much is clear.
“Look,” Neal says, stepping to the register and popping the drawer open. Neal lifts one bill. “Fifty bucks, right here. It’s yours. No one has to get hurt.” He waves his hand over the cash, but he’s not planning to hand the kid the money.
The kid laughs, his eyes dark beads under the stalking cap. He jerks his head, rejecting the offer of easy money. Then he says the words that seal his fate. “Open the safe.”
Neal shakes his head a few times, disappointed in the kid. He should know better. This isn’t a place that gets robbed. Everyone knows there’s a safe and if they know it then they know who it belongs to and it sure as hell isn’t Neal.
“I’m not openin’ it.”
Gun heaves forward with a jerk. “I said open it!”
“I’m not opening the safe,” Neal says, crossing his arms. “You can accept that or not, shoot me or whatever it is you got in your mind with that pellet shooter of yours, but I’m telling you right now, I ain’t opening the thing.” He pauses. Uncrosses his arms, throwing a hand in the kid’s direction. “Tell you what, you don’t look like anyone that’s ever been in here before, so maybe you don’t know how the world works, ‘course you being young is plenty reason not to know, but this isn’t the type of place you rob if you get what I mean.”
“I know what this place is. I know what I want.”
The kid takes a two-handed stance with the gun, steadying himself.
Neal does his best not to concern himself with the muzzle. He’d rather it be pointed at him instead of Wilkie or any of the others. He’s got more experience but still a gun pointing at you ain’t all that much fun.
“That’s the thing about wants, kid. You have to be careful what you ask for. My barback Sheila wants Christmas decoration, but it’s like putting lipstick on a hog. Sure it’s colorful, but it isn’t exactly what I’d call festive.”
The kid shouts, “Don’t call me kid!”
Neal holds up both hands. “I don’t mean no offense. What’s your name? What do I call you?”
“Not kid,” he snaps, hands shaking, gun quaking.
“Okay, okay, not kid, gotcha,” Neal says, pushing calm into his voice. “How about Slim? You good with that? I don’t think Son works, but you’re skinny, and I mean that as a compliment. Usin’ a name helps us communicate. You want to communicate right?”
“We don’t need to co—municate; I need you to open the safe.”
“I told you, I ain’t openin’ it. Shoot me if you want, Slim, but no one else here knows the combination. So if you shoot me then you’re shit out of luck.” Neal lets the knowledge settle in before adding, “You know the name of this bar—Golds? Let me ask you something, since you are so determined to get this safe. You ever hear of or meet Langston Gold?”
The kid shakes his head.
“He was an associate of Siriano; you hear of him?”
The kid nods.
“Of course you have, so I’m figuring you’re thinking if the big man is in prison then his drop bars are out there for the taking. No one’s standing guard. I have that about right?”
Kid doesn’t indicate right or wrong.
Doesn’t matter, Neal’s right.
He steps forward as he says, “You ever watch The Godfather? I’d ask about reading the book, but I’m going to take a shot and say you don’t read.”
“I’ve seen the movie. What of it?”
“I want to tell you about the man, the namesake.”
Neal continues. “Langston Gold was the Luca Brasi of Siriano and his associates out east.”
The kid doesn’t understand the implication. That’s okay. Neal used the time to close the distance, taking slow even steps as he talked, hands out and showing.
He says, “Siriano gave the bar to Gold as a thank you.”
“So, this is a drop bar, you understand? Understand why I can’t open that safe. The bar’s my responsibility but what’s in the safe ain’t my money. And this has been my responsibility for a long time, like since this place open, you goin’ where I’m takin’ you?”
Neal’s just a few feet away. The gun pointed at him the whole time. Arms length.
The kid understands some of what Neal’s said but not enough to make a difference; more to himself he says, “Siriano’s not around no longer.”
“That’s true, but we already established that, but Langston Gold is,” Neal says. He lunges forward, the movement a flash, grabbing the long shiny barrel with his left hand, twisting the gun back into the kid’s body, shoving with all his might to push the kid off balance. He strikes the bridge of the kid’s nose with his off-hand while ripping the gun out of the kid’s grasp, breaking a finger. He turns the barrel on the kid in one swift motion.
The whole thing took less than a second.
The kid’s dark beady eyes widen with the dim realization of what’s about to happen. His understanding begins to ripple across the kid’s sluggish features.
Kid has his chance. Neal tried.
So the realization that he’s fucked is cut short when Neal shoots him three times in the chest. The bullets are in a tight grouping around the heart.
The kid crumples to the floor. Neal knows he’s dead before the body hits the ground. This isn’t the first time he’s killed, won’t be the last in spite of his best efforts. Retirement should have put a stop to this sort of thing but things change.
When the kid’s down, and it’s clear he’s not breathing, Neal places the revolver on the bar.
“Wilkie,” Neal says, waiting just long enough for Wilkie to snap out of his drunken stupor. “You’re closest; pick up the phone, call the cops.”
Neal retrieves his towel, soaks it in water, and starts wiping up the spilled beer, telling the patrons left over he’s sorry for the disturbance and offering whatever they have on the house, saying, “Help yourself.”
Thinking about what’s going to happen next: the cops, the questions, the major hassle. All rub Neal the wrong way but he can’t focus on that at the moment. There’s the immediate to worry about, the barflies. What will they say? They see it his way? A different way? Will they go along with what just happened? Or will they try to jam him up?
Neal, still wiping the bar, not turning around, says, “You all saw how that went down?”
No one says a word.
He adds, “I’ll let you drink free until the new year.”
Most of these people haven’t paid their tabs in weeks. What’s one more?
In response, he gets a hardy cheer around the place. Congratulations, a few whistles, and someone shouts, “He really dead?”
Neal turns to tell the room the kid’s dead.
With the lights from the little tree twinkling on his face, Wilkie, phone half way up to his ear, says as if to hammer home a point, “He was going to rob you.”
Neal nods once, with that settled he can focus on the delayed, the cops, the explaining, the cleaning—God, the blood’s going to be a bitch to get out of the floor if they let it dry.
Staring at the red and green lights in the window, Neal mutters, “Fucking holidays.”
He thought he’d get to bed early. Shows him. He’ll be lucky to be done before this place opens tonight.
Neal works his leg again at the joint, lifting and lowering it. “Holidays, nothing but pain.”
— Mark Atley is the author of The Olympian, American Standard, Too Late To Say Goodbye, Trouble Weighs a Ton, and the forthcoming A Bright Young Man, as well as a handful of short fiction. Mark works as a detective for a suburb of Tulsa, OK, and has dedicated his life to crime. Check out markatley.com for more information or follow him on Twitter: @mark_atley.