Drink #1 — Moscow Mule
The bartender at the Downstairs Pub appeared automatically, the way bartenders, it would seem, are wont to do.
Edward McGuire—Eddie for short, if you want to start keeping score (although by the end of the night there isn’t a scorebook in the world that’s going to be worth half as much as the ink and paper it’s printed on)—draped his waxed lambskin leather jacket over the barstool seatback, ordered a Moscow Mule, and settled in for the long haul.
The polyurethane on the plank stool was reduced to a paper-thin coat. The raw plank was rough on his backside. The smooth bolts in each corner of the chair weren’t so smooth without the varnish, as it turned out, and it was the little things about this day—like the worn barstools at the Downstairs Pub—that slowly gnawed at Eddie’s usually cool resolve.
And it was the big things too. It’s just that, without all these little things peppered throughout the day, the big ones might be let off the hook without a proper scolding.
The bartender reappeared, one dirty hand towel tossed casually over his slack shoulder, carrying a cold, clinking drink in a faux-crystal glass. The smell of ginger and lime was strong.
The hard stuff underneath, not so much. Eddie McGuire had never judged a book by its cover, and he wasn’t about to start tonight. Hell, tonight wasn’t a good night to start anything.
Except maybe drink.
“Here you go, fella,” the man behind the counter said, stamping the glass on a stained coaster with the words TAKE YOUR TOP OFF and sliding the ensemble delicately between Eddie’s elbows on the bar.
The Cubs trailed Milwaukee 3–0 on the square-box television above the hutch at the back of the bar. It was the bottom of the fourth at Wrigley field.
Eddie examined his drink begrudgingly. He picked it up with a pinched grip the way you might scoop a pile of dog shit in the backyard before discarding it in the garage trash. He leaned forward, feeling the misty fizz of the ginger soda against the tip of his rounded nose. It really did smell nice. But again, it wasn’t the smell of the thing he wanted. In one single motion, Eddie listed his head to starboard, titled the glass sideways, and swallowed hard three times until all that was left in the cheap glassware (no offense to the Downstairs) were four, melting, two-by-two-inch king ice cubes circling the bottom.
The back of his throat burned sweetly.
It had been his first drink in twenty-six years. And Good God, was it glorious.
“I know that look,” the bartender was saying.
Eddie’s forehead was growing a lump. He had next to no tolerance. And while most people would be ill-advised to down a loaded cocktail the way he just had—the very first one in nearly three decades, to boot—Eddie didn’t give two squirts about most people. Not tonight. Not anymore.
“Friend, you look about as pleased as punch. If it were a Friday night, I’d say good on ya. But I’d also have to charge an extra two thirds on account of peak hours and all. Only, dontcha know it, it’s a Tuesday afternoon. So how about that second drink is on the house.”
Eddie burped aloud (also an impulse he wasn’t particularly known for) and gifted the bartender an ominous wink.
Tuesday night is Loser Night.
Eddie made no bones about it.
A free drink was a free drink.
Only nothing’s really free except for the grace of God, or so the saying goes.
“On one condition,” said the bartending man.
Eddie wasn’t really good at these things, but he pegged the gentlemen at maybe thirty-six. Definitely not forty. Probably not forty, he thought, second-guessing himself.
“I wanna hear it. Ain’t no one else in here but us. Most of my Tuesday night crowd don’t arrive until half-past happy hour. Which means,” he said, studying the gold-banded watch wrapped tightly on his left wrist, “we have a solid hour to ourselves. Bend my ear a little, what do you say, friend?”
The truth is Eddie hadn’t noticed he’d walked into an empty barroom. Thinking about it now, it sounded like the start of a bad joke. Guy walks into an empty bar on a Tuesday night, bartender says . . . He looked at the slight man on the opposite side of the counter quizzically. Eddie wasn’t necessarily in the mood for conversation. But if he was going to do this, maybe it was right to make an account while doing it. If the lad didn’t run out with his tail tucked between his dog legs before the story concluded, that is.
“On the house?” Eddie asked, drawing in breath between his front teeth. A small whistle produced from between the gap in the top front two. Trust but verify. Thomas Herrington, his old supervisor at the bank between 2005 and 2008 had taught him that one. Herrington had retired and moved down to Florida in ’08. Two years later he kicked the bucket in a very big way, choked on a piece of undercooked baked potato at a steak house in Orlando. The Disney princess broads—Cinderella, Snow White, Ariel and the others—were having dinner and catching up that night. They saw the whole thing go down (or not go down, depending on how you look at it).
“That’s right, mister . . .”
“McGuire. Another mule?”
Eddie had no need to consider the question. He’d done all his considering on the ride over from downtown. Having zero tolerance, it was safe to assume he wouldn’t survive more than four drinks. Especially if the bartender was a generous pour. So he decided he wasn’t about to go four-for-four spanking the mule. “Let’s call the next one a Jack and Coke, mister . . . ?”
“Everyone just calls me Bub.” He smiled a noncommittal crooked smile, like it was part of his costume, no different from the Disney princess variety in Orlando. But he wore it well, nonetheless. “Coming right up.”
Drink #2 — Jack and Coke
Eddie sipped his drink with meek appreciation. It was well with his soul.
Bub stepped out from behind the bar and hustled across the room to one of two open street-level windows in the joint. It would seem a gray veil had crept up on them from out of nowhere. A warm summer rain advanced on the cracked concrete windowsill, turning it a damp, achromatic shade. He quickly slammed the window shut, immediately erasing half the street noise from littering the barroom. Then Bub whipped the hand towel from his shoulder and swiped at the small ledge like he’d done it a million times. As for the remaining window, rinse and repeat.
Eddie waited patiently. Sip. Sip. Repeat.
“Looks nasty out there,” Bub said, returning to his rightful place between the back bar and the sticky, mahogany counter.
Eddie set his half empty glass on the anointed coaster.
“Before I start, I think it’s only fair you should know . . .” His voice trailed off.
Bub wiped a phantom stain. If you’ve got time to lean, you’ve got time to clean. Another worthless adage. In his increasingly older age, Eddie had subscribed to the camp that agreed sometimes it’s better to do nothing at all.
“What’s that, boss?”
Glassy orbs of carbonated Coke rocketed to the top of the drink and then disappeared into oblivion. “You seem like a straight shooter, Bub, so I’m just going to be straight with you. I haven’t had a drink in twenty-six years. The last drink I had was a beer with my old man. The year was 1995. We were in Chicago for a finance seminar in the West Loop. Dad and I went out for dinner that night, and we both had a cold beer. Nothing strange. Something on draft. A Coors each, I believe. That was also the start of a very serious heat wave that melted the city and terrified the people. And that was only one drink.”
Bub cleared his throat. “I’m not following.” Then, same perfectly crooked grin, maybe a little bent of disconcertion beginning to appear at the corner of his mouth. “Should I be?”
“I’m rambling.” Eddie put his hands in the air, gave them a sudden shake, and said simply, “When I drink, bad things happen.”
“The devil’s elixir,” Bub said, seeming to relax a little. “Many a man’s vice.”
“That’s not what I mean,” Eddie told him. He grabbed his Jack and touched it to his plump lips. Swallowed. The sting was beautiful. Made him almost want to cry. But that was ridiculous. About as ridiculous as what he was about to say to the Tuesday night bartender. Only, if he was going to go down swinging, and he had no reason to believe otherwise, then it was only fair he gave the man forewarning. “What I mean is, when I drink alcohol, seriously bad things happen. Like a heat wave in Chicago after just a single beer. Or maybe it starts to rain after a Moscow Mule.” Eddie tilted his ear toward the entrance.
Bub appeared to follow, planting his curious attention in the same direction. The sound of something new—tiny beads pelting the windowpanes. A proper storm brewing, perhaps? “Sounds like hail out there.”
He picked up his drink, took another lucrative sip, and said, “Not yet but soon.” Eddie chanced a glance at the television screen. The Cubs still trailed, but they’d earned a run and had two on. Rizzo was up to bat. The count was 2-1.
Bub took a step back about six inches, closer to the vodka and the bourbon and the rum and all the other choice bottles. A deep concern flashed across the man’s face.
Maybe this was his real face, the pretend empathy required in his trade momentarily gone, removed for the time being, like slipping off a gold-banded watch only to put it back on in the morning before work and after a warm shower. Right here, upon this varnished (but diminishing) counter, Eddie thought, the blood of a thousand bleeding hearts had been slowly spilled and washed by the hands of Bub the Bartender. His was the bent ear. But behind the charade, after all the play-acting and forward leanings, Bub was just another fallible man.
Then his dumbfounded face cleared. Replaced by the same mask that had greeted Eddie upon entering the Downstairs Pub almost two drinks ago.
The hail became more obnoxious against the front façade of the building, as the wind dialed it up a notch or two, but Bub didn’t seem to hear either escalation take place, because just then he barked a shrill laugh indeed. He bent over right then and there, slapped his hands against his knees like they do in the funny pages, and just went on laughing up a storm.
Eddie reclined in his stool. The hard edges of the seat cut into the small of his back. But he didn’t mind any of that at the moment. It wasn’t every day you got to witness a real McCoy knee-slapper unfold before your very eyes. Maybe there really was a butt to this joke after all. Lord knows Eddie could use a joke today of all days.
“Buddy,” the bartender started, wiping a dab of saliva before it rolled off his bottom lip, “be honest with me. Did you pre-game or somethin’? Is that it? You pre-gamed, didn’t you?”
“Nope. It’s like I said.” He held up his glass as if to give a toast. “Twenty-six years down the hatch.” The drink was empty.
Bub composed himself. He rubbed his neck. The embarrassed redness in his cleanly shaved cheeks, however, remained. “You gotta be drunker than Cooter Brown if you think I’mma fall for that story, bub.” He about-faced, spent about fifteen seconds with his back to the barroom, and about-faced again, this time with a shot glass of something the color of lake water in his bony fingers. “How’s about you tell me the real story?” he asked, and then like a whisp of steam, the lake water evaporated down the man’s long throat.
Silence followed. It wasn’t awkward or anything like that. Quite the opposite, actually. Which is maybe another gift bartenders acquire at some point in their careers: the art of comfortable silence. They listened to the rain as it crashed into the building. Jesus, if it didn’t sound like an all-out hurricane out there. Eddie just hoped the storm drains weren’t clogged up. And if they were clogged with leaves and gunk and discarded fast-food bags, and if the overflow came bulldozing in on the two of them as Eddie told his requested story, then that would be okay too.
He’d even take it as a sign to shut up and go home.
But until then, until someone (or something) stopped him, he’d just keep on keepin’ on.
“I want a glass of your most expensive wine,” he said, his tongue fat, dry, and starting to slur.
Drink #3 — Red Wine
George Rechin was the kind of man who if his brain had been made of dynamite, there wouldn’t be enough to blow his hat off. But he was most certainly the kind of man Edward McGuire wouldn’t mind to stuff into a hat and make disappear. Vada bing vada boom.
“Rechin was my supervisor at the bank,” Eddie said as the bartender poured him half a dozen ounces of mildly expensive wine. Mild, because even though the bottle it had been poured from had resided upon the top shelf, as they say, Eddie’s wallet ran considerably deep. True, most of his wealth he’d earned from a fair salary at the First Merchants over the last fifteen years, but a considerable amount was also due to a very time-consuming day-trading hobby he’d picked up in 2013 when Green Energy flanked the NYSE. To be blunt, he’d paid a lot more for a lot less. And besides, he knew next to nothing about the alcoholics’ club, so really who was he to say whether or not the price was fair.
He was getting drunk, wasn’t he?
He continued. “That is, he was my supervisor until about fifteen minutes after nine this morning.”
“Tough break,” Bub said apologetically. “Gotta say I’m not surprised, though. I knew you got canned.” He shrugged. “It’s a Tuesday afternoon—although it might not look it now—and you placed your coat over your chair like you had no better place to be than right here talkin’ with me. If that doesn’t say shit-canned, then I don’t know my people half as well as I think I do. And I know my Tuesday night crowd, friend. Let me tell you. So what’s the deal?”
“You mean why’d I get ‘canned’?”
Eddie gently seized the stem of the wineglass. Bub observed him closely. Even before he’d put the rim of the goblet within shot of his nose, he inhaled a waft of sweet, fermented grapefruit. The scent grabbed his nose hairs and lingered. He knew from a paperback he’d once read that he was supposed to inhale the wine through pursed lips as opposed to sipping like he had his Mule (not so much his Jack and Coke). So, he did just that. As if he were drinking through a very narrow straw, say a cocktail straw, perhaps.
He was floating.
Could Bub tell? he wondered happily. Of course, he could tell. That was a little like asking if a gym teacher could tell when his students were sweating. A needless question.
Needless like George Rechin.
But that wasn’t the way First Merchant saw the matter, now was it?
Nope. Edward McGuire had been the needless one. He’d been the one to get the boot right where the sun don’t shine. Right where the Good Lord split him. Exactly there.
Sip, sip. Repeat.
“I got canned,” Eddie started, “because Rechin is a real sonofabitch. A serious ne’er-do-well scummy kowtower. You can take that to the bank and . . . and exchange it for a bona fide cashier’s check good as money, Bub. Any First Merchant’s teller would be happy to assist.” He tipped the glass, but instead of puckering his lips to kiss the rim, he opened as wide as a trout and let the whole thing choke down his increasingly tipsy throat. A dwarble of red juice raced down his chin and dripped onto the collar of his ironed, Old Navy button-up. Annie, Edward’s wife going on twelve years this summer, had picked it up for him during one of her weekend day-trips to the Greenwood Park Mall with her sister, Brittany.
Eddie remembered the first time he and Annie accompanied Brittany and her ex-husband, Johnathan (now four-years removed, and oh boy, wasn’t that a hoot), on a weeklong skiing trip to Leadville, Colorado. They hadn’t skied, as it so happened, but they’d done a fair share of hiking up the mountains. They’d even managed to lumber up a fourteener. Over the years, that was something Eddie took much pride in having accomplished, but something Annie had said then, something that didn’t make sense at the time, that hadn’t even set off any internal alarms, made a good deal of sense now—
Bub made a popping noise with his mouth. “This Rechin,” he said offhandedly, placing his palms on the edge of the back bar and hoisting himself up, “sounds like a real one-upper. Let me guess, he’s half your age and wears a tie. Probably one of those skinny ties the kids were wearing at the turn of the century. Fancies himself a wunderkind or something?”
“Exactly!” Eddie burst, accidentally slapping his empty glass. It rolled in a semi-circle.
Bub snapped to attention, much quicker than Eddie’s eyeballs seemed capable of following, and rescued it before it could fall to a shattered death. No harm, no foul.
“Ahuh.” He set the glass safely on a shelf out of Eddie’s reach. He also, Eddie noticed glumly, failed to ask the identity of his fourth and (probably) final drink. “What is it you do, exactly? At the bank, I mean.”
Just then thunder whipped outside, the double-paned windows shaking in their frames. The glass bottles on the display shelves vibrated excitedly. Eddie expected one of them to fall, but none did.
“I’m a security analyst.” His tongue felt oddly heavy in his mouth. It didn’t quite fit between his flossed teeth. Hey, maybe the wine was top-shelf material after all. A real heady blend.
“How does George Rechin get a fifteen-year security analyst blazed?”
“Not as difficult as you might think,” Eddie told him sourly. “You automate him. Even a good analyst—and I wasn’t half bad, you know—can go by way of obsoletion. It’s a dog-eat-dog world. Even in banking. Except in my world, it’s the latest software that does the eating. Especially in banking. You know the real kicker?”
“Tell me,” Bub goaded.
“The guy that took me off the map—not Rechin, he’s just the one that pulled the trigger—the person who built the gun, his name’s Hugh Murphy. I went to grade school with that guy. Up north in Lafayette, we played Little League together. Hungry Hugh, we called him. I think he’s dead now. Fell down a flight of stairs at one of the airports, O’Hare or Midway, one of those. Murphy was the chief architect behind SolarPHP. It was actually quite genius. It resolves ambiguous malware code quicker than anything else on the market. About a year back they did a demo at the bank using dummy code I configured, I’m talking thousands of layers of obfuscated code, and damned if SolarPHP didn’t eat that shit up. Of course, Rechin came behind with his shit-eating grin and overtly perky confidence, and twelve months later . . . well, here we are.”
Whether or not the bartender understood half of what Eddie had just told him was certainly questionable. Not because it had been unduly technical—he’d learned to dumb himself down when explaining his work over the years—but because, to put it poetically, Eddie was lap-legged drunk. He was lit like a firecracker. Plotzted, as they say up north in Wisconsin. Gone like yesterday and never coming back.
Boy was that truer than anyone knew.
Other than Eddie, that was. Oh, he knew all too well how this was going to end.
Maybe it would get really hot, or very cold, or perhaps the earth would simply split in two right down the equator. Eddie didn’t know by what condition the apocalypse would render humanity null; all he knew is that it was fast approaching.
Eddie struggled to meet the bartender’s eye-line. He seemed to swim away every time Eddie managed to get close. Finally, the room stopped spinning long enough for him to see his new friend’s quizzical countenance (if you can’t call the guy you’ve chosen to spend your last minutes with a friend, then it really is a sad world, to be sure).
Then Bub said two words he seemed unable to square away: “It’s snowing.” A moment later, except here he phrased it as a question: “In July?”
Eddie found it difficult to keep his head up. A tiny part of him even felt an inkling of indignation for the fella. Hadn’t he told him what this was all about? He hadn’t told a single lie. He’d been upfront from the get-go. To be fair, the silence was eerily all consuming. The only noise, aside from a little bubbly indigestion flaring up in Eddie’s belly, was the strange crackle of ice sheeting the windows and the sub-street level door to the Downstairs Pub.
“Say, Bub. What about some music? Does that karaoke machine in the corner work?” Eddie’s breath materialized in front of his face.
The color in Bub’s face drained stark white. Goose pimples sprouted on his lanky arms. He shook his head absently. “It’s broke.”
All the while Eddie and Bub had been bantering, the Brewers had been beating up on Chicago’s Cubs. Eddie didn’t follow baseball as closely as he had when he was just a young buck in his father’s man cave above the garage. That part of his life seemed so long ago it might as well have never happened. But whatever had been in the air in 2016 when the Cubbies broke their 108-year drought, it most assuredly was gone tonight.
The game was interrupted by an emergency weather alert. Bub turned to face the screen reluctantly.
Eddie just listened with his forehead planted firmly in his folded forearms, dreaming about that fourth drink. Whatever would it be?
Drink #4 — Coors
The weatherman had never seen anything like it. He fidgeted with both boyish excitement and apprehension as he described the oncoming storm. On the green screen, radar showed a giant plume of red moving sporadically. It stretched from Toronto to Cleveland. Those in the Midwest—Ohio, Michigan, Indiana—were being advised to take shelter immediately. The eastern seaboard was unresponsive. In a span of twenty minutes, an army of tsunami waves had swallowed the great city of Boston. South Boston and Mid-Dorchester had taken it the worst. The rest of the coast, including New York City and Baltimore, had suffered similar fates. A slew of tornadoes had leveled the hillsides of Pittsburg. Thousands were thought to be dead. Hundreds of thousands displaced.
Outside the bar, the brilliant shriek of sirens echoed up the cold, empty streets.
Eddie did feel some remorse. He wasn’t a complete monster. And for the majority of his life, he’d even been a pretty decent man. He paid his taxes. He voted every four years. Even donated a small sum to a local women’s shelter during the holidays. But all the good parts of a person’s life can’t hold a flame to the bad ones. When it comes to the bad days, the truly awful ones, it’s like two steps forward and fifty steps back. But Eddie would never know just how far back he would go. Because at some point all things crash to a bitter end.
Eddie had an idea just then. “How’s about you pick the last one,” he said cheerfully to the bartender.
Bub was shaking. He looked smaller than he had when Eddie walked into the bar . . . how long ago had it been? The way time often feels and the way it actually is can be two different realities. To Eddie, he’d been in this barroom all day. But that wasn’t possible. More than likely he’d been there for an hour or less.
“Maybe you’ve had enough to drink tonight,” Bub told him nervously. His teeth were chattering.
Eddie’s heart might have broken for the idiot if it hadn’t already been broken. Eddie fumbled for his wallet in his right pocket. He tossed it on the counter where it flipped open to reveal a slew of plastic cards: Visa, MasterCard, all the big banks. On the top was his First Merchants debit card. “Almost,” he said. It hit him then how sickeningly tired he felt. But Lord if his head wouldn’t stop spinning. It felt like a heavy, metal spinning top moving perilously close to the edge of a very high table.
Bub said, “All this because you got fired? Lots of people get fired. Big deal. You ever thought to look at this as a fresh start? Fifteen years’ experience, I’m sure you could land a job with one of those outfits downtown no problem.”
Eddie was shaking his head like a madman. “You don’t get it,” he told the bartender. “You aren’t listening. It’s not just about George Rechin or SolorPHP, you dimwit. It’s about all of it packaged together. It’s about Annie. It’s about Johnathan. Colorado. The lot of it.”
“You’re not making sense,” Bub was saying. He was also reaching under the counter. When he came back up, a sweatshirt and transparent umbrella in his quivering hand, he said, “I have a wife and daughter. I need to get home.”
Eddie ignored this. It was almost time now. “I came home early this morning,” he said, his eyes wet and mouth dry. “She didn’t expect that, but what does it matter what we expect? Huh?”
“I’m sorry,” Bub said. He hustled down the bar and came out the other side. He opened his mouth to say something but seemed to think otherwise. Then he went to the front door, placed his hand on the brass handle, and winced. He grabbed it again, pulled it open, and entered the storm. The volume of the emergency sirens escalated as the door swung open. Six feet of snow spilled into the bar, restraining the door from fully closing.
Eddie was alone now.
He rolled off the hard barstool, traced Bub’s path back behind the counter, and found himself an empty beer glass. The kegerator provided an impressive assortment of craft beers, many of them local brands Eddie was familiar with, although he’d never tried any himself. He pulled the silver Coors handle and deposited the foamy amber drink into his frosted glass.
He’d overheard Brittany and Johnathan in the cabin in Colorado, but it’d taken four years for it to finally click home that it hadn’t been Brittany at all, but his own wife. And it had been the two of them this morning, too. Except instead of the rickety wire bed frame and instead of the mountains of Leadville, it had been in his own bed in his own house.
Eddie tilted his head back and had his fourth drink.
Outside it stormed. And stormed. And stormed.
Elliott Scott is the author of RADIO HIGHWAYS, published in serial format exclusively on Wattpad. He lives in Martinsville, Indiana with his wife and three children. When he's not writing, he's usually reading Stephen King novels or watching scary movies.