We knew that Dee-Dee was safe with Charlie. He loved her like a daughter and would have taken a bullet for her. He may have been a bantamweight, but he was plucky; he took shit from no man. He talked openly of prison life, but wouldn’t reveal the source of his expertise, no matter how altered his state became. It was no secret that he made occasional visits to a parole officer over in Garden City. I had even given him a lift a couple of times, although he always made me drop him off a few blocks away, lest I use my reporter’s wiles for financial gain.
Charlie knew all about the longstanding pool among patrons at McDonough’s, where the pot was in excess of $500. It awaited anyone who could offer proof of Charlie’s crime and details of his sentence. The pool’s very existence seemed to fortify Charlie’s will to defy it, even when all of his other systems were compromised, which was nightly.
Tim had tried working his departmental sources, but Charlie had apparently committed his crime in another jurisdiction. A few of our reporters had taken a shot, but came up empty, as well. We were pretty sure the owner of McDonough’s was privy to the details, but we were also pretty sure that he was Irish Mafia, so we didn’t delve too deeply. Had the Internet been available to us in the dusk of the 80s, we simply would have searched each state’s department of corrections database and made cursory work of the mystery. Then again, the Pony Express would have been a lot more efficient with cargo jets.
While Charlie was escorting Dee-Dee to her car, Tim was still in interrogation mode, more irritated than ever as the minutes ticked away in his pursuit of justice.
“Looks like you’re in the hot seat, Ayatollah,” he said as he transported his drink to Roshni’s end of the bar.
Roshni finally spoke up, albeit in broken English. “What you call me, SAVAK?”
The Iran Hostage Crisis had ended seven years earlier, but like most Americans who endured 444 days of in-your-face news coverage as it unfolded, we were well-acquainted with SAVAK, the goon police squads that operated with impunity under the CIA-backed Shah of Iran. Tim was outraged at the insult. He charged.
Roshni stood to defend himself. Momentum conquered inertia, and the two went crashing to the floor, where they commenced to grappling. Tim got the upper hand at first, pinning Roshni’s face to the floor with his forearm as he demanded an account of Roshni’s whereabouts while Dee-Dee was being accosted and relieved of her cash.
I was surprised at Tim’s scrappiness. Roshni, now that I could see him in the bright light of the jukebox, was a pretty well-built guy. His forearms were like cables, and Tim was having a hard time straddling his chest. I thought it best that I separated them before Tim found himself on the business end of an ass-kicking.
Charlie, who had returned from his escort duties, was of similar mind. He slurred a few largely indecipherable commands, but I was practiced enough in translating Charlie’s drunk-speak to understand the gist of it: “This shit needs to stop before something gets broken.”
He wasn’t referring to anybody’s bones. Charlie was interested only in protecting his jukebox and furnishings.
I grabbed Tim by the belt and yanked him off Roshni, pushing him in Charlie’s direction. Charlie slipped his arms under Tim’s armpits and thrust upward, then locked his hands behind Tim’s neck to gain leverage—an old bouncer’s move. I offered my hand to Roshni, who took hold as I helped him up from the floor.
He took a step toward Tim, but I simply wrapped an arm around his chest and swung him away from further confrontation. Not a thing had been broken. Yet.
Tim was trying to squirm out of Charlie’s disabling grip. Charlie was once again proving to be plucky. Maybe he had learned some moves in the big house.
“Not in my bar,” Charlie shouted, clamping down harder on his hold. Tim struggled for a few seconds, but Charlie’s grip was firm. Tim was acquainted enough with resistance to know that it was futile in this particular hold. “I’m cool, Charlie,” he said, relaxing.
I merely had my hand on Roshni’s chest to create distance while I kept my eyes on Tim and Charlie. As far as I was concerned, the details of the mugging had shined a light on Roshni’s disdain for confrontation. I wasn’t worried about him rejoining the fight.
That’s when I felt his hands on my throat.
I instinctively threw up my elbow to break the grip, but it didn’t work. As his frame suggested, Roshni had some strength in reserve. My windpipe felt like it was being crushed. I threw up a knee, but since I was facing in the opposite direction, I couldn’t see exactly where Roshni was positioned, and missed him entirely.
I couldn’t breathe, and Tim was still under Charlie’s leverage, so I knew I had to make good on the next attempt. I swung my elbow into Roshni’s chest. It worked. He loosened his grip enough for me gulp down some air. I repeated the strategy, this time knocking him backwards a few steps.
I was still gasping for oxygen as I squared to face my Persian foe, still bewildered as to why I had become the focus of his wrath. I wanted nothing more than for the madness to cease and for normal programming to resume —that is, Charlie doling out drinks and forgetting to record the transactions in the ledger. “Everybody stand down,” I said, rasping.
Nobody stood down. Charlie still had Tim in an arm lock. Like the Energizer Bunny, Roshni just kept coming at me.
So I hit him, a right cross that landed squarely on his nose. He fell backwards into a table, breaking a couple of chairs on the way down. There was blood everywhere, including a splatter pattern on my K-Mart designer button-down shirt, which I had purchased just a day earlier.
Until that point, I had merely been defending myself. Now I was pissed. “Dammit” I said as I unbuttoned the shirt and folded it neatly over the jukebox. “You’re going to pay for that, Ayatollah! Get up so I can hit you again!”
Then I heard the click.
With Tim’s arms hiked above his head in Charlie’s death grip, his shirt had risen to reveal the .38 he kept tucked in his waistline. When Charlie saw the chairs splinter, he simply reached down and grabbed the revolver, then threw Tim backwards over his outstretched leg, knocking him to the floor. As I was finishing removing my shirt to prevent any further breach of fashion, Charlie walked up behind me, stuck the gun to my temple and cocked the trigger.
Time stopped. But Charlie’s slurry voice cut through the haze like a foghorn.
“You want to destroy my barroom,” he said. “Then let’s see what this bullet does to your brain.”
Charlie’s breath smelled like a dog’s ass. But I understood every syllable.
“What the fuck, Charlie,” I heard Tim yell from the floor, “I’ll pay for the chairs, man. That’s Brian! He’s your friend, you fucking nutjob!”
Although I deemed this an inopportune moment for Tim to be insulting Charlie, I was glad to have an ally at my execution. I reiterated Tim’s theme.
“Charlie, it’s me … Brian!” I said. “I drove you to your parole officer last month! We stopped for ice cream!”
Charlie failed to react. His eyes were glazed and evil lurked within. I had a chilling thought: Charlie wanted to go back to prison. And I would be his conduit.
I closed my eyes, determined to make my peace in the moments I had remaining. Instead, I became fixated on the fact that I was about to die without a shirt. Charlie would probably kill Tim, too, and frame him, posthumously, with his own gun. There we’d lie, side by side, me half-clothed, at 4 a.m. The detectives would surely brand it a murder-suicide between lovers.
Considering Tim’s profession and my flirtation with fame, it would be national news. I could see the tabloid headlines: “Romeo and Julius” or “Til Death Do Them Part.” My parents would be devastated. “Surely there was some mistake—he always seemed so into women,” they’d say as their friends nodded in sympathy and whispered among themselves. “Come to think of it, he always did seem preoccupied,” my former girlfriends would say. And on and on, until I was right up there with Noel Coward or T.S. Elliott in my allegiance to the cause.
Why couldn’t my life just flash before me, like a normally wired human?
I wasn’t sure how much time had passed, but I didn’t seem to be dead. I opened one eye. There, filling up the view, was Roshni’s face. He had decided to seize the moment— by seizing my throat once again.
To put it mildly, I wasn’t very excited about my options: death by choking or by lead poisoning of the cerebral cortex. I decided to take one last stab at diplomatic intervention.
“Charlie,” I pleaded, my voice hoarse from the larynx abuse, “tell him to back off or I’m gonna hit him again.”
At last, I elicited a response from Charlie. “Go ahead,” he said as he nuzzled the gun a bit more firmly into my temple. “Throw another punch.”
With all roads leading to nowhere, I decided to take Charlie’s advice. I punched Roshni with all the strength I could muster. Then I closed my eyes for my reckoning.
I heard a lot of crashing. I was pretty sure the Pearly Gates wouldn’t be that noisy. Hell, on the other hand …
I opened my eyes to find both Roshni and Charlie on the floor. Roshni was lying prone on the same table he had broken moments earlier. Charlie was looking up at the .38 that was now pointed at him, trying to figure out how Tim had turned the tables so quickly.
“Freeze, assholes,” Tim said with a smirk.
It took about 15 minutes to get things sorted out. Tim directed Charlie to a barstool and handcuffed one of his wrists to the arched brass fixture that delineated the waitress station from the rest of the bar. But he took mercy and poured a scotch, which Charlie tossed back with his free hand.
Tim walked over and pointed the gun at Roshni. “Clean it up” he said, throwing a bar rag at his head. Roshni set to work mopping up his blood, which was splattered on the walls and had, in places, pooled on the floor.
“Somebody’s going to pay for all that damage,” Charlie slurred from the bar.
Tim walked over to the bar and turned the gun around, grabbing it by the barrel. In a violent motion, he slammed the grip down on Charlie’s scotch glass, shattering it. “That’s your face, the next time you open your mouth,” said Tim, who had reclaimed his identity as a cop— and a rightfully outraged one at that.
The diversion was all that Roshni needed. He bolted for the door, never to be seen again. Tim took a few indecisive steps, as if he was considering giving chase, but I cut him off. “Let him go,” I pleaded, having been drained of all the adrenaline that further confrontation would have required. “We’re never going to find the guy who mugged Dee-Dee.”
Tim returned to the bar. I walked into the kitchen, flicked on the light and looked in the mirror. My neck was already discolored from Roshni’s strangulation attempts – bruises would form in the next day or so. Fuck. I hated wearing turtlenecks. I wasn’t even sure that one had made the trip with me from Ohio.
I found the mop bucket. Rooting around, I located some bleach and a pair of rubber gloves. I filled the bucket and wheeled it into the bar.
The mood had drastically changed. Charlie and Tim were sharing a laugh as Tim reeled off a list of holy grievances that would have befallen him at the office had Charlie killed me with a police-issue firearm. “I’d have been buried up to my ass in paperwork,” Tim said out of the side of his mouth, neglecting to note that I would have been buried up to my ass in cemetery dirt. A bottle of Glenlivet sat between them. Charlie’s eyes were bloodshot, as if he’d been crying. Charlie poured Tim a drink with his free hand. I stared in disbelief as Tim reached into his pocket and produced the key to the handcuffs, setting Charlie free.
Charlie rubbed his wrist and took another swig. Then he stood up and headed in my direction. Instinctively, I threw up my hands. “Back off, Charlie, you psychopath.”
“Awww, come on,” Charlie said, his arms open wide and his eyes filling with tears. He threw his arms wildly around my neck, as if he was trying to gather in the greased pig at the county fair.
“Brian, my friend,” he said, his dog’s ass breath making me nauseous. “I am so sorry. Can you forgive your buddy, Charlie? I get a little crazy-wazy sometimes.”
I knew it was the alcohol talking. Charlie probably wouldn’t remember a single detail the next day. I felt badly for him. His had been a hard road.
“No worries, Charlie,” I said, returning a half-assed, one-armed hug, as much compassion as I could muster for my would-be assassin. “But the rounds are on you until hell freezes over.”
Charlie laughed, baring his rotting teeth and giving me another whiff of the bowels of his intestines. “Thatta boy,” he said, patting me on my ass. “Jack Sandwiches on the house!”
Charlie grabbed my shirt from the jukebox and took it behind the bar with him. He dropped it in a bus tub, then grabbed the soda gun and began filling it with club soda. “Here’s a little housekeeping tip from your ol’ buddy Charlie” he said with a rot-tooth grin.
Sure enough, all the blood eventually leeched out of my shirt. Remarkably, Charlie had been transformed from Charles Manson to Martha Stewart. Now, if we could just find some industrial-strength mouthwash …
As my shirt was soaking, I set about putting the room in order. I gathered the broken pieces of table and chair and swept them into the pile. I bleached down the floor and mopped up the blood that Roshni had missed, then wiped the walls clean of the DNA evidence of our little soiree. I dragged the biggest pieces of wood to the dumpster and piled the rest in boxes, which I also transported out back. I even rearranged the garbage to make sure the evidence wasn’t hovering in plain sight at the top of the dumpster when the bar’s owner pulled into his parking space around lunchtime.
By the time I finished, the sun was casting its first rays over the horizon.
Charlie was asleep at a corner table when I returned. Tim was on the pay phone with his stationhouse, checking to see if anyone had been apprehended in the historic district with $800 or so. He hung up, disappointed.
It was fully morning when we collected our things to leave. We roused Charlie so he could lock up. The three of us decided to walk. Tim and Charlie lived close, and although I was several miles away, I decided that some Georgia sunshine would do my club soda-drenched shirt a world of good.
As we were walking out the door, we passed the conspicuously empty spot near the jukebox where the now-decimated table and chairs had stood.
“Listen, Charlie,” I said, reaching into my pocket for any stray cash. “I don’t want you to take heat for the furniture I broke. How much to replace everything?”
He waved me off.
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” he said as he filed through his voluminous key chain in an attempt to lock up. “We’re re-doing the whole place next week with new tables and chairs.”