It was late July, a dark green mood–ring of a night, and the drinks from Bee’s Jesus had finally killed a man.
The cocktails there had always been dangerous, but now they were poison. We got the call in at the precinct, and none of us were surprised. We all knew the place was no good, never mind that we’d also all spent some time there. These days we stayed away, or not, depending on how our marriages were going, and how much cash we had in the glove box. There were no trains nearby, and if you ended up out too long, you were staying out. The suburbs were a dream, and you weren’t sleeping.
There was nothing harder to get out of your clothes than Bee’s Jesus. We all knew that too. Dry cleaner around the corner. You’d go there, shame–faced and stubbled at dawn, late for your beat.
“Ah, it’s the Emperor of Regret,” the guy behind the counter would say to you. No matter which Emperor you were. All us boys from the precinct had the same title.
“Yeah,” you’d say, “Emperor of Regret.”
The guy could launder anything. Hand him your dirty shirt, and he’d hand you back a better life, no traces, no strings, no self–righteous speech.
I was trying to get clean, though, real clean, and the martinizer couldn’t do it. I knew better than to go anywhere near the Jesus, but I could hear the music from a mile away. Nobody wanted to let me in anymore. People doubted my integrity after what’d happened the last time. The last several times.
The cat at the door was notorious, and had strict guidelines, though lately he’d begun to slip. Things weren’t right at Bee’s. Hadn’t been for a while. They had to let me in tonight. This was legit police business.
“C’mon, Jimmy, you can afford to look sideways tonight,” yelled one of the girls on the block, the real girls, not the other kind.
“I’m here on the up and up,” I said, because if I came in on the down and down, the place wouldn’t show. But I’d seen it as I rolled past, lights spinning. Gutter full of glitter, and that was how you knew. Door was just beyond the edge of the streetlight, back of the shut–down bodega, and most people would’ve walked right on by.
But I knew what was going down. Somebody in that bar had called the police, and reported a body, male, mid–thirties, goner. I was here to find out the whohowwhy.
“You the police?” the caller had said. “It was an emergency three hours ago, sugarlump, but now it’s just a dead guy. They dumped him in the alley outside where Bee’s was, but Bee’s took a walk, every piece of fancy in there up working their getaway sticks like the sidewalk was a treadmill. So you gotta come get him, sweets. He’s a health hazard. Dead of drink if you know what I mean.”
We did know what she meant, most of us, and we crossed our hearts and needle–eyed, cause we weren’t the dead guy, but we could have been, easy. We were fleas and Bee’s Jesus was a dog’s ear.
Me and the boys duked it out for who was taking statements and who was caution–taping, and now it was me and my partner Gene, but Gene didn’t care about Bee’s like I did. The place was a problem I couldn’t stay away from. I kept trying to get out of town, but I ran out of gas every time.
“What’re you doing, Jimmy?” Gene said. “You’re trying to sail a cardboard catamaran to Cuba. Not in a million years, you’re not gonna get that broad back. Cease and desist. Boys are getting embarrassed for you.”
I was embarrassed for me, too. I wasn’t kidding myself, she was what I was looking to see. I was trying to put a nail in it.
Gloria was in that place somewhere, Gloria and the drink she’d taken to like a fish gill–wetting. Bee’s Jesus was Gloria’s bar now.
Ten years had passed since the night she sat on the sink, laughing as she straight–razored my stubble, and lipsticked my mouth.
“Poor boy,” she said, watching the way I twitched. “Good thing you’re pretty.”
Gloria was a skinny girl with bobbed black hair, acid green eyes, and a tiny apartment full of ripped–up party dresses. In her cold–water bathroom, she melted a cake of kohl with a match and drew me eyes better than my own. She’d told me she wouldn’t take me to her favorite bar until she’d dressed me in her clothes, top to tail, and I wanted to go to that bar, wanted to go there bad.
I woulda done anything back then to get her, even though my Londoner buddy Philip (he called himself K. Dick, straight–faced) kept looking at her glories and shaking his head.
“I don’t know what you see in her, bruv. She’s just a discount Venus with a nose ring.”
She was the kind of girl you can’t not attempt, already my ex–wife before I kissed her, but I knew I had to go forward or die in a ditch of longing. It was our first date.
I saw her rumpled bed and hoped I’d end up in it, but Gloria dragged me out the door without even a kiss, me stumbling because I was wearing her stockings with my own shoes.
Downtown, backroom of a bodega, through the boxes and rattraps, past the cat that glanced at me, laughed at the guy in the too tight, and asked if I could look more wrong.
Actual cat. I tried not to notice that it was. It seemed impolite. Black with a tuxedo. Cat was smoking a cigarette and stubbed it out on my shoe. It groomed itself as it checked me out and found me wanting.
“Come on, man, go easy,” Gloria said. “Jimmy’s with me.”
She was wearing a skin–tight yellow rubber dress and I was wearing a t–shirt made of eyelashes, rolling plastic eyeballs and fishnet. It didn’t work on me. It wanted her body beneath. She was a mermaid. I was trawled.
“You expect me to blind eye that kind of sadsack?” the cat said, and lifted its lip to show me some tooth. Its tail twisted and informed me of a couple of letters. NO, written in fur.
“Better than the last boy,” Gloria said, and laughed. The cat laughed too, an agreeing laugh that said he’d seen some things. I felt jealous. “I’ll give you a big tip,” she said to him.
I was a nineteen year old virgin. I’d never gotten this close to getting this close before.
Gloria picked the cat up, holding him to her latex and he sighed a long–suffering sigh as she tipped him backward into the air and stretched his spine.
“Don’t tell anyone I let the furball in. They’ll think I’m getting soft.”
“I owe you for this,” she said to the cat.
To me, she said “Time to get you three–sheeted.”
I was pretty deep at this point in clueless. Underworld, nightlife, and Gloria knew things I had no hope of knowing. She was the kind of girl who’d go into the subway tunnels for a party, and come out a week later, covered in mud and still wearing her lipstick. I’d been in love with her for a year or so. As far as I was concerned, the fact that she knew my name was a victory. She kept calling me Mister Nice Guy. Years later, after we’d been married and divorced, after Gloria had too much gin, and I had too many questions, I learned this was because she’d forgotten my name.
She tugged me around the corner, through a metal chute in the wall. For a second I smelled rotting vegetables and restaurant trash, cockroach spray, toilet brush, hairshirt, and then we were through, and that was over, and we were at the door that led to Bee’s.
Gloria looked at me. “You want a drink,” she said.
“Do they have beer?” I asked. I was nervous. “Could I have a Corona?”
The shirt was itchy, and she’d smeared something tarry into my hair. I felt like a newly paved road had melted into my skull and gumstuck my brain.
Gloria laughed. Her eyelids glittered like planetariums.
“Not really,” she said. “It’s a cocktail bar. You ever had a cocktail, Mister Nice Guy?”
“I’ve had Guinness,” I said.
She looked at me, pityingly. “Guinness is beer, and it’s Irish, and if we scared any of that up, it’d be interested in you, but I’m not sure you’d want it. It’s heavy and gloomy. You don’t want the Corona either. You don’t want what Corona brings you. It makes you really fucking noticeable at night.”
I liked Guinness. I liked Corona. I liked wine coolers. I wasn’t picky, and I knew nothing about drinking. Whatever anyone poured me, I was willing. I had never had a cocktail. I didn’t know what Gloria meant.
She opened a door, and we were in Bee’s. Bright lights, big city, speakeasy, oh my God. My face went into a trombone to the teeth, and the player looked out from behind the instrument and barked.
“Get your mug outta my bone,” he said. He was a dog. A bullhound. But I was cool with that. Dogs, cats, and us, and it was all completely normal and fine, because I was with Gloria, and I trusted her.
I didn’t trust her. I didn’t know her. She was a broad. She was a broad broader than the universe, and I wished, momentarily, for K. Dick and his encyclopedic wingman knowledge of bitters, bourbons, and cheap things with umbrellas. I wished for his accent which lady slayed, and which made the awful forgivable. Or so he swore. K. Dick was more talk than walk.
I did need a drink.
Full brass band. Wall–to–wall tight dresses and topless, girls and boys in high heels, everyone cooler than anything I’d seen before. There was one gay bar where I came from. I knew of its existence and looked longingly at it from across the street, but I couldn’t go in. I wasn’t gay, and I wasn’t legal, and anyone having fun inside it kept the fun there.
Now, though, I’d lucked into Bee’s, and Gloria shoved me up to the bartender, through the dancers and the looks. First curious, then envious as they saw the girl I was with. I tried to get taller. My shoes were a flat–footed liability. Gloria was wearing steel–toed platforms that made her six inches my senior. I looked like I lived in a lesser latitude.
“What you drinking tonight, Glo?” the bartender asked.
“Something with gin,” Gloria said.
“You sure?” he asked. “Last time wasn’t what you’d call a pretty situation.”
The bartender had an elaborate mustache, and was wearing a pith helmet covered in gold glitter. I could see a whip protruding from over his shoulder. Around his wrist, a leather cuff with a lot of strings attached. I looked at them, and saw that they connected to the bottles behind the bar.
Gimmicky motherfucker, I thought, imagining myself as K. Dick, cool, collected, suave. I’d be a Man of Mystery. No more Mister Nice Guy.
“The lady will have a gin martini,” I said, and the bartender looked at me. I wasn’t sure if gin went into martinis, but I looked back, gave him a glare, and he snorted.
“Dirty?” he asked, sneering at me. I didn’t know what dirty was. It sounded bad.
“Clean,” I said, and Gloria grinned.
“And what about you, Jimmy?” asked Gloria. “What are you drinking?”
The bartender held out his hand to her and she spit her gum out into it. My tongue crawled backward like an impounded vehicle.
“I’ll order for the boy,” she said.
“You always do,” said the bartender, and flicked his wrist. A bottle of gin somersaulted off the shelf and onto the bar.
“You sound like you got a beef with me, Such & Such,” said Gloria, uncurling one half of his mustache with her fingertip.
“Not a beef,” he said, his mustache snapping back into place, and nodded at me. “But you bruise the merchandise. And that shit is not my name.”
“George,” Gloria said, and rolled her eyes. “Make him an Old Fashioned for starters.”
He moved his wrist and the bourbon slid over like a girl on a bench, the way I wished Gloria would slide over to me.
The music was louder than it had been, and the cat from the door was onstage now, walking the perimeter, eyeballing everyone and occasionally laying down the claw on an out–of–hand.
The bartender turned around and made my drink, and I heard a noise, a kind of coo. Then another noise like nails on a chalkboard.
Such & Such handed me a heavy glass full of dark amber liquid, cherry in the bottom. Gloria had a martini glass full of a silver–white slipperiness that looked like it might at any moment become a tsunami.
The bartender pushed them across the bar.
“Cheers,” he said. “Or not, depending on your tolerance, Nice Guy. Should I call you Mister?”
“Yes,” I said. Then I didn’t know what to say, so I said. “Call me Lucky.”
“You’re not a Lucky,” the bartender said. “You think you know a damn about a dame, but you don’t know dick about this one.”
I hardly heard him.
Gloria ran her finger around the edge of her glass like she was playing a symphony, and her drink unfolded out of it, elbow by elbow until a skinny guy in a white and silver pinstriped suit was sitting on the bar, looking straight into Gloria’s eyes, and grinning. Pinkie diamond. Earrings. Hair in a pompadour, face like James Dean.
I heard the bartender snort, and followed the chain on his wrist to the vest pocket of Gloria’s gin martini.
My drink was already out by the time I stopped staring at hers. For a moment, I didn’t know if she was a drink or not, but then I saw her wringing the wet hem of her amber–colored cocktail dress. She looked at me, and pulled a cherry stem from between her teeth. Her bracelet, a thin gold ribbon with a heart–shaped padlock connected her to the bartender’s chains.
“You lovely So & So,” said my Old Fashioned, her accent Southern belle. “Ask a girl to dance.”
Gloria was already gone, in the arms of her white–suited martini, and I caught a glimpse of her on the dance floor, her black bobbed head thrown back as she laughed. I could see his arms around her.
I’d misunderstood the nature of our evening.
Resigned, I took the Old Fashioned’s hand. She hopped off the bar and into my arms, her red curls bouncing.
“You can call me Sweetheart,” she said, and lit a cigarette off the candle on a table we passed. “But I don’t think I’ll call you Lucky. You came with Gloria, didn’t you?”
“Yeah,” I said. “She’s great.”
“She’s trouble,” the Old Fashioned said. “She likes her drink too much.”
I looked onto the dance floor to see Gloria but all I saw was a flash of yellow, a stockinged thigh, and Gloria’s acid–green eyes, wide open, staring into the silver eyes of the martini.
I spun my drink out into the room. The music was loud. The brass band was all hound dogs. I found that I could dance with my Old Fashioned, dance like I couldn’t dance, swing like I couldn’t swing. Her dress stayed wet at the hem, beads of bourbon dropping on the floor as the cat from the front door scatted with the band. I leaned over to kiss her shoulder, and tasted sugar.
“Oh, So & So, you’re such a gentleman,” she said, and spun me hard to the left, suddenly taking the lead. I kissed her mouth then, and her lips were bitter, a sharp taste of zest, the lipstick bright as orange peel.
She bent me backward and I could see her laughing, looking over me and at another girl on the floor, tight, sequined gold–brown dress, same kind of red curls. “Want another drink?”
“No,” I said, overwhelmed. The room was spinning away from me, and there was Gloria out of the corner of my eye, now dancing with three guys and one girl, all in matching silver–white suits.
By morning, I was being led around the dance floor by five redheads, and my mouth tasted bitter. I had sugar all over my clothes, and I was wet with bourbon. I opened my mouth and spat out a cherry, but I hadn’t even tasted it. I couldn’t walk.
The cat pranced along the bar, his tuxedo front suddenly white as a near–death, and said, in an imperative tone, “Time to catch the early bird.”
All of Bee’s Jesus moaned.
The cat leapt up, clawing the light cord, and fluorescents hit us hard. The bartender hopped over the bar, and raised his wrist, tugging each chain, and in a moment, all the beautiful people in Bee’s Jesus were gone.
Blast of light. I blinked.
I looked down. Broken glass and ice all over the floor, and a few people like me, in the middle of them, eyes sagging, stockings laddered. One of them in a bright yellow rubber dress. She looked over at me, and waved, her hand shaking.
“Wanna get some eggs?” Gloria said, and I nodded, weak–kneed.
Glo and I got married and then we got divorced.
We spent too much time at Bee’s Jesus. I got to know the regulars, the margaritas and the Manhattans, the Sazeracs and the Bloody Marys, but I kept ordering the Old Fashioned, and Gloria kept ordering the gin martini, as I eventually figured out she always would. She fell hard for her drink, and I fell hard for mine.
Eventually, we started taking them back to our place, the four of us, him sitting at our table in his white and silver suit, and her there in her sequins, lipstick on her cigarettes.
We moved out to the suburbs, but the gin martini didn’t like it there. He’d stand outside, looking down the tree–lined, holding a shaker in his hands, and complaining about the quality of the ice. The two drinks sat in the car, in the afternoons, and sometimes Glo sat with them. Eventually, the martini took off, but the Old Fashioned stayed. After a while, Gloria went back to the city too, breaking my heart, and all the tumblers at the same time.
She bought the bar, and moved into the apartment upstairs with him.
Every night, or so I heard, she could be found dancing in the middle of the floor with five or six guys in silver, the band blasting. She hired some pit bulls, and they kept the door down while she danced. Gloria had fucked a German at Bee’s Jesus one time, she’d told me at some point in our marriage. At first, this wasn’t worrying. It was when she added Shepherd to the mix. She said it like it was no thing. It seemed like a thing to me.
Now the dog seemed like a better option than the martini. She turned to drink, and then she turned again and wrapped herself in his silver arms. He spun down into her, his diamond shining.
I kept waiting for her to come home, but she’d never really loved me, and so she never really did.
The redhead put herself on ice, and now when I tried to dance with her, sugar cubes crushed under our feet, and everything got sticky and sour. Her skin was cold and hard, and she kept her mouth full of cherry stems, but never any cherries.
“I miss the martini, So & So,” she said at last, her dress falling off her shoulder, sequins dripping from her hem. “And I miss Such & Such. I miss the way he tended.”
I tried to kiss her. She turned her head. I tasted a new spirit.
“What’s that?” I asked her, and she looked away.
“Dry vermouth,” she said, and looked at me, with her liquid eyes. “He gave it to me.” Something had changed in her. She wasn’t an Old Fashioned anymore. She’d been mixing.
She swizzled out the door one morning early, and I knew she’d returned to Bee’s.
I cleaned out the cupboards. I quit drinking, cold turkey. I became a cop and tried to forget.
But soon the bar was back on my radar again. Trouble there all the time. It was a blood–on–the–tiles known failure point, and the boys at the precinct knew it well.
And now, the call, the murder. I had a feeling I knew who it might be, but I didn’t know for sure.
“Pull over,” I said to Gene. Glitter, shining in the headlights.
“You sure you wanna do this?” he asked. “I know you got a soft spot for Gloria, but we gotta arrest that broad, we gotta do it, no matter your old flames.”
“That fire’s out,” I said. It was.
I saw the cat then, his tuxedo shining. I saw his tail, the letters reading NO. I saw him run out the door of Bee’s Jesus, and into the street, and then I saw Glo, right behind him. She shook her shoulders back, and looked at the cruiser, like she didn’t care. She walked over to the window and looked at it until I gave up and rolled down.
“You got no business here, Jimmy,” she said. “Somebody called in a false alarm.”
She looked at me with those same acid eyes, and I felt etched. Nothing like a long ago love to bring back the broken.
“Stay here,” I said to Gene. “Do me a favor. One.”
Gene sighed and set a timer, but he stayed in the car.
I walked down the alley behind Gloria, and Gloria held out her fingers to me for a second. Just one. We were the old days.
I saw him shining, his white and silver leg, dumped in the alley like the caller had told me he would be. I knew who the caller had been. I knew her voice. I knew her muddles. She couldn’t let a guy stay in the street. She wasn’t all bitter, and she had a soft spot for martinis.
I saw the cat, and I saw the band. All of them out in the street, like I’d never seen them. The pit bulls and the bull hounds.
The cat looked up from what he was doing, his teeth covered in blood. Red all over the white front of his tuxedo shirt.
“Sadsack,” he said. “You knew this place, but it’s gone.”
I could hear his purr from where I stood, appalled, as he bit into the gin. The dogs and the cats. All of them on top of the martini, making it go away. There was a pool on the cobbles, and I could smell juniper berries.
“Another one back in the shaker,” said the cat, then shook his head, gnashing. “Hair of the dog,” he said, and spat.
Something caught the light at the end of the alley. Golden–brown sequins. I tasted ice. I could see her mouth, cherry red, shining out of the shadows, and then she stalked away.
Gloria looked up at me, and shrugged. The whites of her eyes were red. Her hands shook. The sun was rising.
“He used to be clean,” she said. “You remember, Jimmy, you remember how he was. You remember how he was. But he got dirty. I’m getting away from this town. This bar. I shut things down in there.”
A cocktail walked out the door of Bee’s Jesus, and I watched her come. All in crimson, her perfume spiced and salty. She knelt beside the remains of the gin martini, and stretched her long green–painted fingernails over his face. She lay down on top of the corpse, and as I watched, the gin dissolved into the Bloody Mary.
“No chaser,” said Gloria, and smiled sadly. “She’ll take him away.”
The Bloody Mary stood up in her stilettos, wiping her hands on her dress, and took Gloria’s hand in hers.
“See you, Mister Nice Guy,” said Gloria. “Bar’s closed. I have a plane to catch. Somewhere sunny. Somewhere I can get a drink with an umbrella.”
I watched Gloria and her new drink walk away. As she went, I saw her unfasten something from her wrist. A leather cuff decked in long chains. She dropped it in the gutter. I watched her turn the corner, away from the glitter, and then I watched the sun rise, shining on the mountain of ice outside the former door of Bee’s Jesus.
“No dead body,” I said to Gene. “Just ice and glass. What can you do?”
I took myself to the cleaners. Blood all over my shirt front, hair of the dog on my knees. I smelled bourbon and cherries, juniper and regret. Gloria and her gin.
“Ah, it’s Such & Such,” said the martinizer. I was no longer an Emperor, if I’d ever really been. “I cleaned your dirty laundry,” he said. “But some stains don’t come out.”
He handed me a white shirt not mine. He waved me out the door and back into the brittle light of the morning.