Inside the small, dank wood-paneled pool hall on the south side of Chicago, Tom exhaled his Pall Mall. He leaned toward the bar, resting his paunch on the backside of his crumbling bar. The tall middle-aged barkeep poured a Hennessey for the young black man that had sat down as the blues band was finishing their last number of the night. Little plumes of smoke circled over the bar clearing way for the cloudy snifter as the old man set down the whiskey.
As the band wrapped up Sweet Home Chicago for the third time of the evening, Tom put the thought out of his mind that his customer looked distantly familiar. This kid was too young for him to have known from the good old days, yet when he looked at him, that’s where he was taken back. He contributed his misplaced recognition to the buzzing neon that dimly lit the bar. His mind quickly wandered down the path it had often stumbled upon before as he heard the watered down electric versions of old Delta Blues songs through the years in his bar. He didn’t know how much longer he could hold on to his aging dream.
“$6.50 for the whiskey and don’t plan on nursing it kid. The bar closes in ten minutes and I gotta get outta here before I miss the last L that rolls through.” Tom said. He didn’t think twice about letting the kid know he was on his way out. The band had already quickly filed out the back door before coming up to pay their tabs and no one was left in the Juke to hear their final set besides Tom until the young man walked in.
The young man lit a smoke of his own, drawing in long and slow through his nostrils as he leaned towards the bartender. “Whether or not you make that train tonight depends on you, old man.”
With this said, he made a gesture towards the register with the snub nose he had suddenly produced from his hip. “You can hand me over the money nice and easy or I can splatter your brains all over this shitty old bar.”
This was not the first time Tom had heard these words before. After all, he had kept this bar open through harder times then the present. After what had happened to his wife Ginny, it was almost as though Tom laid in wait for some shit heel to challenge him. Before Ginny’s death, he had managed to brag about the fact that he had stayed alive by trusting in what men told him when he was at the business end of the barrel. But tonight was different. In the past, other criminals had an easy time with Tom as their mark. But back then he had Ginny to think about. He realized then that he wouldn’t have been of much value to his wife if his brains were splattered anywhere, much less if they were painted across the only thing he would ever have had to leave for her, his life’s work, the Juke. Unfortunately, Tom didn’t have Ginny to worry about anymore.
“Take it easy now son. I work hard for my money and don’t plan on handing it over to any man that doesn’t work hard himself to earn it. I’ve been in this position before, but I don’t know if you have. I may be old but, my nerves have grown steady over the years and my fear has shrunk away with my pride. I see your nerves are as shaky as your pistol and your years don’t yet show on your face. You’re someone’s son but I have no one!” With this last phrase, Tom’s voice broke like a boy in middle school, except that he wasn’t nervous, only excited. He grew braver every second as he sized up the miscreant. He continued boisterous and bold. “I don’t know what happened to you that brought you here tonight with the idea of robbing me, but you should reconsider before something happens that we’re both sure to regret.”
Tom took a long last draw from his Pall Mall and slowly, steadily put the butt out under his long wrinkled fingertip into the glass ashtray. The young man became angry with Tom’s words and quickly considered his next move.
As the thief’s options ran through his mind and his pistol stayed fixed between Tom’s eyes, the proprietor stoically reflected on the times he had surrendered his till to other men. He thought of the old days. He thought of Ginny. He decided it was not going to be easy sailing for this kid. This thug was going to have to fight this old man, not only for his day’s takings, but for the sake of Tom’s crumbled pride.
Just as the hood began to utter another threat from his sweaty mouth, Tom successfully reached for the gun. This surprised the robber and caused him to engage the trigger as the barkeep wrenched the gun. The shot propelled from the barrel with a single, distinct cold blast. The blast surprised both men enough to recognize a split second in which they both stared at awe and then infuriation at one another. The thief managed to hold on to the pistol and quickly found his feet and drew back from the faded varnish of the bar. He gained control of the situation.
Tom ducked behind the bar with the intention of grabbing the bat he kept under the bar. He realized immediately he was caught as he chaotically groped the under shelves of his bar in vain to produce the bat.
“Fucking Charlie!” escaped from his lips as he realized his part-time, half-brained bar-back had left the bat somewhere downstairs while battling the rats that infested the musty basement below. The acknowledgment of defeat washed over Tom’s countenance as his pale face slowly rose back above the bar. Seemingly defeated, Tom raised his now shaking hands in surrender as he became aware of his apparent demise.
“Come around the bar, old man. Bring the money from the register with you and get your wrinkled ass over here” the thief said.
Tom knew he was out of options and reached for the money in the register. As he did this, the thief pulled the tip jar from across the bar and laughed as he opened the crinkled singles into his palm.
“I see business aint exactly boomin”. With this, the kid shoved the wad into his pocket and shook his head as he chuckled.
Tom thought of saying that business looked slow for the both of them, but decided his ironic humor would probably not be appreciated. Instead, he carefully came around the bar with the small stack of neatly arranged bills from the register. As he approached the thief, Tom considered any last-ditch efforts he might be able to maneuver. But before he had the chance to weigh his options, the butt of the pistol came down hard on his temple. He fell to the ground with all the grace of a wet towel slipping from its hook and folding on the ground.
The young crook gave a swift kick to Tom’s jaw to assure his victim wasn’t going anywhere on his own accord. The force of the blow pushed Tom’s head into a position that made him appear to be gargling on the foamy blood and teeth that were slowly leaking from his dried, grey lips.
The lone gunman, or Jay as his friends knew him, raced towards the door to lock it. With a quick turn of the lock, Jay let out a heavy breath and reached into his pocket for a cigarette. He drew the blinds over the dirty front windows and sat down at the booth closest to the door to figure out his next move.
The way Jay saw things, the old man must be holding out on him. He figured there had to be more money in the place than the measly two hundred some dollars he had already managed to secure. He figured he could either rummage around the dive until he stumbled upon his treasure, or he could take advantage of the stocked bar and wait for the owner to wake up and lead him to the money.
So it was decided. Jay walked over Tom’s flaccid body and behind the bar to pour himself another Hennessey. As he grabbed a glass from the rack, he became aware of his surroundings. The old bar slowly began to take form as if fading in from the intermission of an old movie. Among the faint, stale smell of beer and the epileptic flicker of neon, he pretended he was a lone gunslinger in the old westerns he used to watch with his father Sonny. He imagined himself throwing back corn whiskey as he waited for the ignorant saloonkeeper to awake and give him the satisfaction he sought. He shook this fantasy from his mind as he realized that if this had been an old Spaghetti Western, he was not the deputized vigilante, but the fugitive that met a gruesome demise after a mythical shoot out with the nameless hero. The thought excited his intestines and made his stomach feel as though he was going to vomit or shit or both simultaneously.
In an effort to snap himself out of his destructive daydream, he gave Tom a light kick in his sprawled gut to see if he would stir so that they might put an end to this fucked up night. The only response he got from Tom was a gargle of red spittle.
Jay felt he had to make a move. Time was flying by and he was not any closer to claiming the prize he was after. He looked around the room for inspiration. He scanned the dingy bar from wall to wall. Nothing of use jumped out at him, but he did notice a hallway towards the back for the first time. He looked behind the bar at the clock to see that it was already nearly 4am. He was running out of time. The early summer dawn was quickly approaching. He had to make his move.
He decided to explore the hallway in the back. Surely, he would find an office with a locked drawer or a safe in some backroom. He made a dash for the hallway and hit the switch to his right. With the hall illuminated, he saw two doors to his left and two to his right separated by old photos stained yellow with nicotine and time. He glanced at the first picture on the right and had to fight to catch his breath. He was seeing a ghost. It was a picture of Tom with his father Sonny. Jay recognized Sonny from his earliest memories, before he disappeared. He walked towards the first door on the right. Just as he was turning the doorknob, Tom let out a low groan. This guttural rumble vibrated the slowly coagulating blood in his mouth which began to foam and boil up again like a half-ass baking soda volcano from junior high science class. Tom slowly turned his head and coughed a pile of frothy teeth onto his checkered tile floor.
Jay ran towards his victim to assess the situation. The old man didn’t pose a threat, but was also unable to be of any use to the thief. Tom appeared to be slowly attempting to shake away a bloody nightmare. Unfortunately for Tom, the nightmare was just beginning.
A Second Chance
Tom gave a slight grunt and began to awake. He was now tending to the nightmare that was his past. Inside his smashed mind, old memories came back to life. He found himself back in the Juke. But things didn’t look the way he was used to seeing them. As he came to his feet, Tom noticed the Juke was shining. The smell of fresh paint held strong in spite of the tobacco smoke that lingered at eye-level. Everything in his bar was in place, but it all somehow seemed brighter. Tom was standing in the middle of a crowd he had not seen at his bar in at least ten years. He turned to his left and what he saw choked his breath. Sonny was behind the bar. Sonny, who had disappeared after Ginny’s murder, was holding down bar service! Talk about a ghost from the past.
Tom watched as the lean black barkeep poured two drinks at a time and still managed to sweet talk the light-skinned honey at the end of the bar, all while tending to the Camel clamped between his dark fingers.
“Sonny, what the hell you doin here?” is all that Tom could bring himself to say.
“What’s that boss?” Sonny replied.
Tom furrowed his brow as he stared at Sonny like a drunken man trying to secure his keys into the backdoor. “What are you doing here Sonny?” Tom grumbled.
“Whatcha mean Tom? You need me to go down to the basement, check on the rats, boss?” Sonny replied.
Sonny and Tom stared each other down, each as confused as the other. “NO. That’s alright Sonny” Tom said. “Just make sure you don’t pour the drinks too light.”
“Aright boss” Sonny replied with a devious smile.
“Jesus Christ, what the hell is going on?” Tom asked himself. He knew he was at the Juke, but it wasn’t the crumbling shithole he had known for the past decade or so. Sonny disappeared ten years ago, the same time Ginny died. He searched around the bar for anything that might put him back into his correct state of mind. Nothing gave him this comfort. The bar’s paint and varnish was fresh. The windows were clean. Sonny was behind the bar and the Juke was packed. He realized he must have been thrown right back into the past.
Tom walked behind the bar and poured himself a large shot of whiskey.
“Sonny, what’s the date?” Tom asked.
“It’s the fourteenth Tom, just like every other Valentine’s Day” Sonny replied.
“What ya get the missus, boss?” Sonny was always inappropriate in his inquiring of Tom’s wife.
Tom didn’t have an answer for Sonny. His only reply was the intense cramp that gripped his stomach when he heard Sonny say that it was Valentine’s Day. His perplexed expression led Sonny to believe that Tom had not gotten Ginny anything. “Tom, you need to run out to Monkey Wards to grab somethin’ fo’ Ginny ‘fore the store closes? If you do, I can handle the bar while you’re gone. I’ll make sure Junior don’t take no more gin till you come back.” Sonny offered.
“Yeah, Sonny. Good idea. I’ll be back in an hour. Valentine’s must have slipped my mind.” Tom was embarrassed by his confusion at his apparent trip back into time.
. Tom, are you sure you’re OK?” Sonny replied.
“Yeah, I’m fine. I’ll see you in a little bit” Tom said. With that, Tom walked out of the Juke and down the road to catch some air. Old Studebakers and Buicks crept past him in the cold February evening. Tom walked for a quarter hour trying to gather his thoughts and make sense of what had brought him back in time. He slowly began to recall the encounter he had with Jay. He remembered that he had been held up and that the assailant had taken him for the register and the tip jar; but what stuck out the most, was the young man’s vaguely familiar face. And now, he was back somewhere in his god forsaken past. He walked on trying to place the young man’s face. “I couldn’t have known that kid.” Tom thought to himself, “And he didn’t seem to know me”.
As he meandered down the road with no real sense of what he should do, he passed a newsstand. The stand had been closed for hours already, but he spotted a newspaper on top of a trashcan. Tom pulled the paper from the can. His estimation of what year it was had been correct. It was Valentine’s Day, 1960. His worst fear was confirmed; He was reliving the very day Ginny had been murdered in cold blood.
Tom dropped the paper and leaned against the newsstand. He felt a crushing weight on his chest and for a moment, he began to believe he was having a heart attack. He managed to catch his breath and then everything about that cursed night began to rush back into his mind.
He had left Ginny at their small home on the West side around 5pm in order to get to the bar by 6 after stopping to pick up some flowers and some French lingerie he had special ordered for his wife. A faint smile appeared on his face as he recollected the confusion and slight shock Ginny had expressed when she had caught him looking through her underwear drawer the week before. Tom was only looking for Ginny’s correct bra and pantie size. He was special ordering silk underwear after all, and from France no less. He had to make sure they were going to fit after shelling out the small fortune he was expecting to pay. But he wanted the gift to be a surprise, so when Ginny caught him seemingly sniffing her panties, Tom threw the drawer shut and walked past her ignoring the fact that she had just caught him holding out her favorite unmentionables. Nothing was ever said of the incident. Tom then realized that Ginny had died not ever knowing why he was handling her underwear. He imagined her last thought as she lie with a .30 caliber sized hole in her neck spewing blood that this was all her panty-sniffing husband’s fault.
He shook the disturbing thought from his mind, and decided to head back to the Juke. There was no reason to go shopping. The idea of perusing a store for a gift seemed ridiculous for many reasons; the least not being that he was somehow reliving the worst night of his life. Besides, if he really was reliving that terrible night, he didn’t have to worry about buying a gift. He either had the French underwear in the bottom drawer of his desk at the bar, or Ginny would not live to open her gift.
Tom was suddenly struck with an uncanny idea. Maybe he could save Ginny. He remembered a movie he had seen late one night after coming home from the bar, drunk as usual. The movie was about a man who traveled back in time to prevent his son from being murdered. The character was successful and came back with his son grown up and they lived happily ever after. At the time, Tom remembered thinking what a pile of bull shit the story had been. He thought it ridiculous that a man could go back in time. But here he stood, in 1960. He began to bring to light a plan he believed could bring his wife back and set things the way they should have been; happily ever after.
Tom made his way back to the Juke with quick decisive steps on the cold Chicago walkways. He had to make it back to work before Ginny came in to surprise him with a special Valentines quickie in the office. He remembered she must have snuck in the back that fateful night to give him his present. That is where he found her body, between the back door and his office. She always was known for bad timing and that night was no exception.
Tom walked in the front door of the Juke brushing off all the drunks patting him on the back and offering him a shot of whiskey. He forcefully made his way through the heavy crowd to the back hall and towards the back door. Just as he was unlocking the backdoor to wait for Ginny, he heard the sound of his safe in the office pop open.
Sonny had already set his plan in motion. Tom froze with fear and insecurity. A cold sweat exploded from his hot body. He was standing in the middle of the murder of his wife. He had always known that his wife’s murder was committed by Sonny. However, Sonny had been sly enough to avoid arrest and had never been seen in Chicago after the murder. Tom was now in position to change this. It was now clear to Tom that Ginny had been killed for catching Sonny red handed in the safe. Tom’s chance to save Ginny was now. He ran to the bar and jumped right over the side. He grabbed the bat he kept under the bar. This time he felt the smooth varnished wood as soon as he reached for it. Sonny always remembered to put things back where they belonged. He ran to the corner between the backdoor and the hall way and waited for Sonny to emerge from the office with his life savings. Time moved in slow motion. He stood there in the dark for what felt like an eternity trying to control his excited bowels. He heard Sonny’s hand on the doorknob. He saw the handle slowly turn as the click of the lock resonated in his ears. The door slowly creaked open and Tom met Sonny’s eyes before he had a clear swing at the thief. Sonny tried to pull the door shut, but Tom was able to stick his foot in the doorway before it closed. A shot went off and Tom’s foot exploded like a water balloon. He knew he was shot but he was too determined to feel any pain. With all of his force, he shouldered the door open and beat Sonny’s head like a piñata. Sonny fell with the first blast of the Louisville Slugger. Tom put his boot on Sonny’s chest and continued to bring the bat down on his head with supernatural force. He bashed the man’s head until his whole office looked like the front row of a Gallagher concert. Tom didn’t stop until he couldn’t raise the bat again. He turned around panting deep and heavy with crazed eyes gleaming through the mask of blood dripping off his chin. He looked up to find Ginny gasping at the scene she had just witnessed. He reached to hug Ginny but his vision grew narrow and pixelated. He fell to the ground at Ginny’s feet.
Tom awoke with his cheek sticking to the old scuffed floor. His head pounded as he rose up slowly. The crowd was no longer at the bar. Ginny was not leaning over him. He looked around the deserted Juke and realized he was back from the nightmare. But where was his assailant? Jay was not at the bar. Tom figured he had taken off after taking the till. But Tom didn’t care about the money any more. He knew he had saved Ginny. He limped over to the bathroom to wash off his face. When he looked into the mirror to assess the damage to his face, he saw someone behind him. At first, he thought it was Sonny, but as he pivoted around to confront him, he saw it was Jay. Tom froze with fear, but saw a relaxed expression on Jay’s face. It then became clear to Tom that Jay was Sonny’s boy. It was remarkable how much he resembled his father.
“You’re Tom, aint ya?” Jay asked as he held out the old picture he had pulled from the wall.
“That’s right.” Tom replied. “And you are Sonny’s boy.”
“That’s what people tell me.” Jay said. “But I aint seen him for ten years. You know that already though, don’t ya Tom?
Tom sat silent, collecting his thoughts. He wanted to see Ginny. He wanted to make sure he had saved her. He had nothing to say to the boy.
“Why’d ya do it?” Jay continued. “You took my dad away from me. Do you know what that’s like? Huh, to lose someone you love? You killed my dad right here. I didn’t realize it when I came in here tonight until I saw this picture. Why’d you do it Tom?” Jay broke down and clenched the picture with fists of sadness and rage.
Tom thought carefully about what to say. “I did and I do. I did kill your father, that is, and I do know what it’s like to lose love. You’re father killed my wife, or he was going to… I’m still not sure which.” Tom grew confused and wished that he could just see Ginny. He began to take his shoe off to confirm the gunshot he thought had occurred was real.
Jay quickly pulled his gun as Tom reached towards his shoe. “Hold on kid!” Tom said. “I want to show you where Sonny shot me.” Tom saw this as the moment of truth. If the scar from the bullet was there, then he would be confident that he had saved Ginny. If not, he would look like a liar and probably, in his estimate, be shot. He didn’t care either way. He slowly pulled back his old sock to reveal a large white scar on the top of his foot. The scar looked old, but at the same time had a tiny drop of bright red blood slowly trickling down towards his toe. He let out a huge sigh of relief.
“You see, son, I caught your father robbing me ten years ago and he shot me. When I killed him, it was in self-defense. You gotta believe that I did it to save my wife, he was going to kill her!” Tom grew frustrated and confused. Then he became nervous. He knew he could not really explain what had happened. This kid had spent his whole life knowing his father was dead. There is no way he would believe Tom’s impossible story.
“Bullshit!” Jay yelled. He was in a rage, panting like a mad dog. “My dad was a bartender, not a fucking murderer! I know you owed him money, my uncle told me the whole story. You didn’t want to pay up, so you fuckin killed him!” Jay pulled at his forehead, shaking his head and sweating profusely. Then as if a switch had been flipped, he looked up into Tom’s eyes and all emotion and nervous movement left his body.
The pistol pushed against Tom’s wrinkled forehead. They both knew what would happen next.
The phone rang at the Morrison’s small home on the South side as a warm early morning breeze swept in through the half-opened window of Tom and Ginny’s bedroom. The sun was just beginning to peak over the rooftops and the birds were chirping a symphony of discordant melody.
“Get the phone, will ya Tom?” Ginny’s voice cracked as it always did first thing in the morning. She rolled over to poke Tom, but Tom was not in the bed. “Ugh. I guess I’ll get it.” Ginny sighed to no one. “Hello?” Her voice cracked again.
“Is this Virginia Morrison?” A man’s voice asked from the other side of the line.
“Yes it is. Can I help you?” Ginny replied.
“Ma’am, this is detective Blake with the Chicago homicide department…”
The rest of the conversation is like a blurry dream when Ginny thinks back to that phone call. She never wanted Tom to buy that shithole bar. She never liked the crowd that was attracted to a place called the Juke. After Tom’s funeral she sold the place for pennies on the dollar to be rid of it. She sleeps alone now with nightmares of her own.
© Copyright 2016 Kyle Stead. All rights reserved.