by Jack Bates
Enjoy another never before published St. Patrick’s Day mystery short story.
A beer bottle smashed on the side of a guy’s head can kill him. I know from personal experience. TV and westerns will give a different impression but the night Johnny Webber got iced at our neighborhood bar proved Hollywood wrong. It happened on St. Patrick’s Day back in ’99. We were at the neighborhood bar tipping a few of the green beers and squeezing the cheeks of the girls serving us. Why not? The shorts were green and as short as the month before March. The curve of the cheek just begged for the cupping of our hands.
But don’t get me wrong. A little ass-grab wasn’t what got Johnny the bottle braining.
We called ourselves Detroiters but the truth of the matter was we grew up at 8 Mile and Kelly in a part of Macomb County that used to be called East Detroit. If anything, we were East Siders. Just so it’s understood, it’s pronounced Muh-comb County, not May-com County. Knowing that is the difference between walking in to a place like the Rainbow’s End and still being able to walk out at the end of the night.
The Rainbow’s End was our place. Yeah, sure. Detroit proper was just five lanes of surface street away but Wayne County stayed to the south side and left us in Muh-comb to stay in the north. The neighborhood across 8 Mile carried the affectionate name of Copper Alley due to the population consisting primarily of police officers and some firefighters. The homes were kept up even though there were party shops and strip clubs basically in their backyards. They were seedy little holes-in-the-wall except for one. Licks and Kisses. Big pair of pink neon lips puckered up to kiss and then a blink later, a long tongue darting out.
I’m not saying Johnny and me hadn’t ever been there. We’d been to them all. The clubs were different from the bars. The clubs were neutral grounds. People know this. People have always known this. Neighborhood bars are tribal, man. A guy just doesn’t cross the line and go in a rival bar unless he wants to get his head bashed in with a beer bottle.
It shouldn’t have been a big deal that we went over to Licks and Kisses that night. St. Paddy’s Specials scrolled on the sign over the door and beneath the animated lips.
Johnny and me were at our usual spot on the bar. Kelly, that hot little waitress with the double-d’s, was serving the drinks. She leaned over the bar and took a drag from the cigarette Johnny held out to her. She blew the smoke out of the corner of her mouth and set the two bottles of beer she’d just opened for us on the bar.
“To all the Michaels and Patricks,” I said. “And their lovely little wives.” We clinked the necks of the bottles together and drank.
“And to finally finding our pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,” Johnny said.
Megan, another of the Rainbow’s beauties, squeezed in between us to order. There was a temporary shamrock tat on her face. She stood on her toes to lean over the bar and yell her order to Kelly. The stem of a larger shamrock poked out beneath the frayed hem of her cut-off jean shorts. Johnny hooted.
“Is that a lucky four leaf clover?” he asked.
Megan looked over her shoulder, flipping back her long, brown hair. “If it was anyone else but you, Johnny, I’d take the bottle and beat your head in with it.”
Johnny laughed, his cigarette dancing in the corner of his mouth. He kept his hand on her. “I like your tattoo.”
“I like your button,” Megan said. It was the one he’d taken from the party store where we got our smokes. ‘Kiss me, I’m Irish’ was printed over top of a frog giving a peace sign. Johnny took it off his tee-shirt.
“You want this, Megan?” he asked. Megan held out her hand. Johnny smiled. He held it up in front of his face. “Gotta do what it says.”
“I don’t think my boyfriend would approve,” Megan said.
Johnny looked around. “Why don’t we ask him?”
“He’s on call. It’s St. Patrick’s Day. Donny calls it ‘amateur night’.”
“Bet he’ll be handing out a ton of tickets,” I said. I think they both had forgotten I was there. Johnny never said anything but I think before Megan started dating the cop from Detroit he and she had hooked up once or twice. Maybe more. At any rate, the spell was broken.
“Tickets and towing,” Megan said. “Lot of money being made tonight.”
Kelly gave Megan her drinks and she carried them off to a table. Johnny downed his beer and set the bottle on the bar. He dug his hand into his jean’s pocket and dropped a twenty next to the bottle.
“We leaving?” I asked.
“Air is stale in here,” he said. “Let’s go.”
“Where we going? We just got here. It’s St. Patrick’s Day.”
“Come on. Let’s go find us that pot of gold.” He patted the chest pocket of his coat.
Kelly caught my arm. “Be careful you two,” she said.
“I know, I know,” I said. “Amateur Night.”
“I just hope you two don’t hear the banshee’s wail,” she said and winked.
I swallowed the rest of my beer and followed Johnny out the door. Outside he lit up a joint and passed it to me. The weed was harsh. The end of the blunt kept popping from the seeds that hadn’t been sifted out before he rolled it. It brought in a nice buzz to the night. I passed the joint back to Johnny. He took a hit, held it, and let it out.
“What was all that bullsmotch Kelly was saying about a banshee?” he asked.
I shook my head. “Just more Irish superstition.”
“Yeah. But what’s a banshee? Tell me. You’re Irish.”
“It’s a spirit. Female. If you hear her scream it means you’re about to die.”
There were a lot of cars on the road but we ran across the two west bound lanes of 8 Mile. Johnny and I practically leapt into the Suicide Lane as a pick-up truck shot by honking its horn. Johnny laughed, waved his middle finger in the air, and told the driver to enjoy his mother. The truck braked and tried to back up but the blare of horns from the traffic behind it stopped the backwards progression. The truck dropped back into drive and squealed away. I made out the word Towing on the tailgate before it turned right into Copper Alley.
Johnny laughed and grabbed my arm. We ran across the two east bound lanes and walked up to the doors of Licks and Kisses.
We went inside and took up space at the padded bar. On stage three girls did their best to imitate an Irish dance show. They wore sparkly green top hats, green bikini bottoms, tap shoes, and nothing else. Some crazy jig song played.
“Yeah, this is better,” I said. I held up my pint of green beer for a toast. Johnny did the same.
A hostess took us to a table near the horseshoe stage. No sooner had we sat down then a couple of girls made their way over and sat on our laps. “We’re your lucky leprechauns,” the one on my lap said. We talked a bit and then she asked if I wanted a private dance.
The VIP room is anything but private. There’s a bunch of padded booths with small stools in front of them for the dancers to use as part of the act. We passed a bald headed bouncer. The girl said something to him and he pointed to a booth in the middle. Dancers entertained “gentlemen” on either side of our space.
My girl slid her hands over my chest and gently pushed me back on the padded, vinyl, booth. “You out looking for fun?” she asked.
“Celebrating St. Paddy’s Day,” I said.
I took a pull from my beer and put my arms up along the back of the booth. Rules were she could touch me all she wanted but if I touched her, baldy would toss me.
“It’s ten bucks a dance,” she said. She lifted her short, blonde hair off the back of her neck and pressed into my face.
“I’m good for two.” I pulled out a twenty and held it up for the bald bouncer to see. He nodded and I shoved the bill into the brass slot at the head of the booth.
The first dance was over way too quick but I guess that’s how it goes in the VIP room. She was midway through the second dance when the music outside the room stopped. The bald guy peeked around the curtain and swore. One of the dancers next to us got up to see what the ruckus out front was all about.
“Fight. Bad one.”
I started to stand. The girl was about to fall off my lap. I caught her before she did and she recoiled at my touch. Trained to react if she thought she was in danger, the girl let out a shrill scream. I instantly took my hands away. She dropped bottom first onto the stool.
By the time I got to the curtain Johnny and the guy were rolling around on the floor. The punches had all been thrown now it was a wrestling match. A couple of the bouncers were trying to separate Johnny from some crew-cut farm boy with a bulldog face. Johnny had blood on his forehead. The farm boy looked like he could take a two-by-four to the head and come back for more. The bouncers pinned another guy against the bar. There was a tow truck embroidered on the back of his jacket. The pinned guy kept yelling for the bouncers to let him up but they didn’t budge. Took them a few minutes but the bouncers did their job and got the two out of the club.
“What happened?” I asked.
Johnny shook his head, winced. “I don’t know, man. I was just sitting here getting a lap dance and Jethro over there sucker punched me in the side of the head.”
I looked at the farm boy. “Who is he?”
“Beats me, bro.” Johnny gave me his full-of-the-devil grin. “But what was going on back there?”
“I was enjoying a dance.”
“Right. I heard the scream, dude.” He rubbed the side of his head where farm boy punched him.
“You okay?” I asked.
“Yeah. Just getting a little headache. Come on, man. Let’s go back to the End.”
We took our time going back to our bar. The cars were still crazy but we weren’t the daredevils we’d been crossing over. We waited for traffic to clear while we stood in the left turn lane.
“You doing okay?” I asked him.
Johnny rubbed his temple. “Yeah. Just feeling a little melancholy.”
“That’s a big word,” I said. “Remember, we’re going back to Macomb County.”
“Maybe I don’t plan on going back there forever.”
“Come on, man. You’re bringing me down.”
“You know what I mean, dude. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the future.”
“You want to know if there’s something better for you out there.”
“Yeah. I do.”
“Well let me tell you something, buddy. There ain’t. You can go chasing all the rainbows you want but the only pot you’re ever going to find is one we grow. We barely made it out of high school, John. We work dead end jobs and say we’re going to go to the community college but you and I know we’ll take a couple of classes and get bored and go back to doing what we do.”
“Which is what?”
“Dodging speeding cars.” I broke a grin. “Come on!” I broke across the lanes.
Johnny yelled behind me. “This is the life!”
Johnny thought he could drink away his growing headache. We had a couple of beers and laughed with Megan and Kelly and some of the other regulars. Other customers came and went. We were getting pretty hammered. I got to the point where I thought I started recognizing people I didn’t actually know. Johnny headed off to the bathroom still carrying the bottle.
“That’s not what they mean by recycle,” I said.
Johnny turned. “There’s a pot behind that door I’m going to fill with gold.” Everyone around us laughed. Johnny wound his way through the crowd. He drank down the rest of his beer and set the bottle down on a table where a guy in red, nylon jacket sat playing the bar trivia game. The guy looked up at Johnny but didn’t say anything. I gave the guy a hard stare, the kind you do when you want your drunk eyes to clear enough it will de-fog your brain.
A bagpiper came in. He blew threw a couple of songs. The crowd and I tried to sing along to an Irish Rover’s song but most of barely knew the words past the chorus about the chimpanzees. Made us all laugh. The bagpiper picked up some tips from the customers and headed on out to the next bar. The guy in the red nylon jacket followed the bagpiper out the door. There was a tow truck on the back.
Megan sidled up to the bar. “Hey. What happened to Johnny? He missed the bagpiper.”
I didn’t need to do any hard staring to understand what had happened. What Megan said made everything all too clear all at once. Johnny gone to the bathroom before the bagpiper came in. He’d set his bottle down on that guy’s table. The guy had been wearing a jacket with a tow truck on it. It was the guy the bouncers had been pinning against the bar at the Licks and Kisses. He was the guy with the farm boy. He was the driver of the pickup Johnny had flipped off.
And then the fast-forward button got pushed and all the events played back in my head at 4x the normal speed. When the images stopped, Johnny still lay on the dirty tiled floor of the bathroom.
Johnny was still alive when they wheeled him out of the End. He died before they got him to the hospital. Megan’s boyfriend, the cop, speculated Johnny might have suffered a closed head injury from a blow to the side of the head. He might have been hemorrhaging all along. It wouldn’t have taken much to finish him off, like a beer bottle swung at him from the side by someone who stood behind him while he pulled up his zipper.
Johnny wanted to find a pot of gold, a way out of the world where we lived, but at the end of the rainbow, all Johnny found was death.