by Michael Cuglietta
I live in a small apartment with a busted heater. It’s an outdated wall unit that spits an inadequate puff of hot air. In the morning, my bed sheets crack under me like a thin layer of ice. I run for the heater. I press my face against the vent and wait for my cold cheeks to turn warm.
Once I’m properly defrosted, I start a pot of coffee. I want to take a shower but there’s never enough hot water. Instead, I put on some extra deodorant and try and matt down my sleepy hair with wax.
While I sip my coffee I check my appointment book. It’s empty, which means I’ll spend the day on the phone, trying to book the rest of my week. By the time I finish my first cup of coffee, it’s just past 10:30am.
Everything moves slower in the cold.
I turn on my laptop, check my emails. There’s one client I’ve been working on, Mr. Rechowski. I got him on the hook – life insurance, an annuity and a disability policy. It’s the kind of sale that would set my whole month right.
There are a few emails in my box, nothing promising until I spot one from Mr. Rechowski. He apologizes for not getting back to me sooner. Tells me he’s still “very interested.”
I call him right away, visions of dollar signs dancing in my head. I get his machine. I leave a message asking him to call me back. I try and conceal the desperation in my voice.
I hang up the phone and notice my mug is empty. I walk to the kitchen for more coffee. I’m out of creamer but it’s okay. The coffee stays warmer longer without creamer.
I hear commotion outside my backdoor. I check the peephole. It’s my landlord. He’s jacking up his pickup. He’s always tinkering with that damn truck.
I grab my jeans from off the back of the kitchen chair and head out.
“Jack,” I call to him. He doesn’t hear at first. He’s listening to the morning zoo. They’re making prank calls. “Jack,” I say again. This time, he hears me. He reaches into the cab, turns off the radio.
“Roger,” he says. “Morning.”
“Can I talk to you for a minute?”
“Say, you got anymore of that coffee?” he asks, pointing to the mug in my hand. “I ran out this morning. I’m not the same without my coffee.”
“Sure,” I say. “Why don’t you come in?”
“I got a lot of work to do out here,” he says. “You wouldn’t mind bringing it out, would you?”
“Come in,” I say. I want him to come in and feel how cold it is in the apartment. “I think I got some Entenmann’s in there.”
“Damn, Roger.” He tries to wipe the grease off his hands with a dirty red rag. “You really know the way to a guy’s heart.” He pats his gut with both hands.
My apartment is tiny. Standing at the backdoor, you can see clear through to the front. There’s a small kitchen, with a junior size oven, a cabinet and a sink. In the corner, underneath the side window, sits a two-person table. It’s an old table. The chairs are covered in vinyl, which has yellowed over the years.
I pour Jack a mug of coffee, top mine off and invite him to have a seat. He makes a real show out of sitting down, eases into the chair as if it were a small Jacuzzi, bubbling under him.
Once seated, he rubs his hands on his kneecaps. “Don’t ever get old, Roger,” he says.
I pull the other chair out from under the table, take a seat.
“You forgetting something?” Jack says.
“Oh, right.” I get up and find the box of donuts. I set it down on the table, slide it Jack’s way. I get a couple napkins, bring them to the table too.
Jack grabs one, puts it in his mouth, then grabs another, places it on a napkin in front of him.
Sitting on the table, in an expensive looking frame I picked up at a garage sale, is a picture of my daughter, Angela. It’s from a few years back, when I took her to the Tampa Aquarium. She’s sitting in front of a tank full of grouper, eating an ice cream cone and smiling big.
Jack picks up the picture, dusts it off with his thumb. “Best thing about being divorced,” he speaks in-between bites, “I get to eat whatever the hell I want, whenever the hell I want to. Women,” he shakes his head, “nothing but nag-city.”
He takes a long sip from his coffee then reaches for his second donut.
“Listen, Jack,” I say. “Reason I invited you in. I wanted to talk about this heater.”
“You do like it cold, don’t you?” He crosses his arms in front of his chest. “What’s it, forty degrees in here?”
“Well, that’s the thing,” I say. “I don’t like it cold. But with this old heater, I don’t have any other option.”
“Roger,” he looks me in the eye, “I’m not one to burden people with my problems. But you know as well as I do, divorce ain’t cheap.” He taps his finger on the picture frame. “You know what happens if you don’t pay your child support?” he asks but doesn’t allow me time to answer. I reach over, grab my daughter’s picture and place it on my lap where he can’t see. “They put your ass in jail, throw away the key.”
“I understand but …”
He grabs another donut and stands up. “I got to be getting back to my truck,” he says as he walks out the back door.
I grab the last donut and take it to my desk. I hit refresh on my email box. No new messages. Sitting next to my computer is Mr. Rechowski’s file. I grab my calculator, type in some numbers and hit print. It spits out the total commission for the Rechowski case. A commission like that, I remind myself, would set my whole month straight.
I look over at the second file sitting on my desk. It’s a thick file, maybe 4-5 inches. Across the front, in big black marker, it says – Leads.
I open it up, thumb through the first couple. I grab my phone and start dialing. There’s rhythm in my work. I press the numbers without looking, my fingers blindly moving with precision and speed. Nobody ever picks up, but, if they’re interested, they’ll call back. Even if they’re not interested, they’ll call back, if I’m persistent.
After a couple hours of leaving messages I close the file. I stretch my back, then head to the kitchen. There’s one more cup of coffee left in the pot. I refill my mug and sit down at the kitchen table. Outside, I can hear Jack, still working on his truck.
I reach for Angela’s picture, prop it up in front of me. I think of how fast she’s growing up. She looks different now, less like a girl, more like a woman.
When I first divorced her mother, she used to come stay with me on weekends. But my place is no place for a young girl. My front door is a few feet from a congested highway. When you walk out my backdoor you are treated to a view of Pub Chug-a-Lug, a rough biker bar, almost as run down as my apartment.
All the coffee is rotting my stomach. I can feel it. I walk into the bathroom, chew a couple spearmint flavored antacid tablets. My hands are shaking from the caffeine. I need to put something in my belly. In my fridge, I have half a carton of eggs, a shriveled bell pepper and a large brick of cheddar, extra sharp.
I break off a big chunk of the cheese, chew it slowly. It’s just past 1:30pm. The lunch rush at La Teresita should be over. I could go for a Cuban sandwich, maybe a side of sweet plantains, some black beans with raw onion on top, a can of guava nectar.
I check my email before heading out. There’s nothing from Mr. Rechowski.
On my way to the car, Jack stops me.
“Roger,” he calls to me from under his truck. “Do me a quick favor?”
“I’m actually on my way to get some lunch,” I say.
“Okay, but real quick,” I say.
“Grab the flashlight sitting on the driver’s seat,” he says. “Shine that thing down here, through the hood.”
I grab the flashlight, turn it on, but there’s barely any light. “I think you’re low on batteries,” I say.
He slides out from under the truck. “Damnit,” he says. He snatches the flashlight from me, turns it on. “Shit, you’re right.” He stares off into space for a moment. I can tell he’s working real hard in his head. I can hear my stomach growl. “Say,” he brightens with an idea, “you wouldn’t happen to have four D batteries, would you?”
“Well,” he throws up his hands, “I guess that’s all she wrote. I’ll have to walk to the store later.”
“Alright then,” I say as I head towards my car, “I’ll see you later.”
I get the key in the ignition, about to turn it, when Jack stops me. What now, I think to myself.
The plan is, Jack will treat me to lunch and I will stop off at the drug store on the way back, so he can buy his batteries. But, when we get to La Teresita Jack realizes he forgot his wallet.
“I feel terrible,” he says, turning his pockets inside out.
“Don’t worry,” I say, trying to mask the hostility in my voice.
“If you want, we can drive back, pick up my wallet.”
“No, I got it.” I reach into my pocket.
We don’t talk much while we eat. The sandwiches are stuffed with tender pork and salty ham. The bread is crisp and soft and brushed with a thin layer of butter. The plantains are sautéed in sweet syrup. The black beans are soaked in Latin spices and laid out on a bed of yellow rice. It’s all delicious. I eat mine too fast. When I’m done, it feels like there’s a heavy brick making its way through my body.
“That,” Jack says, pushing his tray away, “was some good eating. Best thing about Tampa, has to be the Cuban food. Should we get one of those tiny coffees, with all the sugar in it?”
“I think I’ve had enough caffeine today.”
“I know,” he grins, “let’s get a couple cans of beer.”
“I’m alright,” I say. “I’m trying to budget myself.” I look at the menu, specifically at the price of beer.
“Not here. These foreign beers, they cost too much,” he says. “Come on, I owe you one. Beers on me.”
I’ve lived next to the Chug-a-Lug for three years, but I’ve never been inside. Just before I moved in, there was a shooting outside the bar, a few feet from my apartment. The guy who got shot was a regular, drank at Chug-a-Lug seven days a week. I don’t remember his name but they had a picture of him in the paper. He was a big guy. He had a greasy ponytail, a long beard and his neck was covered in tattoos.
According to the article, he was forty-five, but he looked much older, had a worn out quality about him. What happened was, he said something insulting to the bartender, who just happened to be the owner’s wife.
He was well into his day of drinking, belligerent and combative. When the owner told him it was time to leave, he put up a fight. He was tossed out the front door with a broken nose, a fat lip and a puffy eye that would’ve been black the next morning, had he made it to the next morning.
“We’re only taking cash, up front,” the bartender says to Jack. “No more tabs for you.” She’s a big girl, misshapen. She smells of peppermint candy and cigarettes.
“Lucinda, what do I look like, some kind of bum?” Jack says, real innocent.
“If the shoe fits,” she says, without a smile.
Jack lays some money down on the bar. “When you’re done embarrassing me in front of my tenant, why don’t you get me a pitcher of whatever’s cheapest and two mugs.”
“I didn’t hear you say please,” she says, still without a smile.
“Pretty please.” Jack flashes his yellow teeth.
We take our pitcher and our mugs to a corner table in back, next to the dartboards. Jack makes a detour at the jukebox, puts in a few dollars and takes his time selecting his songs.
It’s just past 2:30 p.m. on a Monday afternoon. There are about a dozen people at the Chug-a-Lug, all bikers, all sitting on the back patio, smoking and drinking and carrying on. When we first sit down a couple of tough looking girls wearing jeans and matching denim jackets approach us.
“Ya’ll cops?” one of them asks.
“No,” I say, “we’re not cops.”
“Ya’ll want to party?” She signals to her breast pocket.
“No thanks,” Jack says. “We’re fine with these beers. You girls go on and have fun without us.”
“Your loss,” one of them says as they head for the patio.
We make our way through the first pitcher as we listen to Jack’s selections, two Lynyrd Skynyrd tracks and a Bon Jovi song from back in the ’80s. I offer to buy the second pitcher, but Jack won’t let me.
“I owe you,” he says. He goes to the bar, talks with Lucinda some more, comes back with another pitcher.
“Last time I drank pitchers of beer, I was in college,” I say.
“I always forget you went to college,” he says. “What’s a college man doing living in this shitty part of town?”
“We’ll, you know, divorce is expensive. Business isn’t what it used to be.” I take a big sip from my mug.
“How’s your little girl doing?” he asks.
“She’s not so little anymore. She gets her learner’s permit next month.”
“Damn, they really do grow up fast.” He takes a sip of beer then reaches for the pitcher, tops us both off.
“What about you?” I ask. “You got two boys, right?”
“Ahh,” he throws his hands up in defeat, “they don’t want nothing to do with their daddy.”
“Here’s to divorce.” I hold up my mug for a toast.
“It is a bitch.” He clinks his mug against mine. We sit quietly for a while. I can’t get my mind off the Rechowski case. I’m so close. I can taste it. I want to get back and check my emails but Jack insists I stay for one more pitcher.
“Just one more,” he says.
“This will be the last one,” I check the time on my phone. “I got to be getting back to work.”
“Last one, I promise.” He gets up, starts to walk towards the bar. When he’s most of the way there he stops himself and makes a gesture like a light just went off somewhere in his head. He turns, walks back to the table. “Say, Jack,” he looks down at his loafers, “I hate to ask but you got any cash?”
I hand him a few bucks. He gets the third pitcher, comes back without any change.
“It was a few years ago,” he says, “when my boys stopped coming around. I know I’m a deadbeat, never was able to keep up with the child support.” He stares into his mug, looking for an answer. “I think it was the Darrel incident that scared them away. After their mom read about it in the paper, they weren’t allowed to come over and visit anymore.”
“Darrel?” I ask.
“That’s right, you never met Darrel, you moved in just before the shooting. It was a real tragedy.” He shakes his head. “I’m not saying Darrel didn’t deserve what he got. But, still, that don’t make it any less of a tragedy.”
“I didn’t know you knew that guy.”
“Say,” Jack brightens, “what do you say to a shot of whiskey? My treat.”
“No, really, I couldn’t. I still got some emails to get to.”
“Forget your emails,” he says. “Life is short. Let’s have one for Darrel.”
I try to resist but he won’t let me. He runs off to the bar, returns with another pitcher and two shots.
I check the time on my phone once again. It’s way too early for me to be drunk.
“You see these condos they’re building over in Carrollwood?” I ask Jack.
“Damn condos are taking over the whole city,” he says. “It’s getting to the point where us poor people ain’t going to have any place to live.”
“They are nice condos. Perfect location. Right near my daughter’s school.”
“What are you trying to say, Roger?” he asks. “You looking to move out? No hard feelings here. If you need to better yourself, I understand.”
“I wish.” I take a long pull from my beer. “I went and looked at them the other day. Too rich for my blood.”
It’s just after five when we stumble back home. Jack lives in a house in back of the apartment building. He’s got a couple acres of land back there. He inherited it when his father passed, a few years back.
It’s a shitty lot. It’s overgrown and there isn’t much you can do with it. Jack built a fire pit back there last winter. I’ve never seen him use it. I help him fill the pit with wood and newspapers. It takes a good bit of lighter fluid but, eventually, we manage to spark a decent flame.
Jack brings out a small cooler full of beer. We sit in front of the fire and we drink till long after it gets dark. The more he drinks the more he talks about Darrel. He was in the bar that day, witnessed the whole thing.
Darrel came back after being beat up. He was carrying his .22 rifle, looking for revenge. He kicked the front door open.
“Knocked the damn thing off its hinges,” Jack says. “When I saw him, all beat up, carrying his rifle, I just about shit my pants.”
The owner was behind the bar, restocking the coolers. Darrel was drunk. His aim was off. The first two shots shattered the glass doors of the cooler. The third shot clipped the owner’s shoulder.
He kept a .38 with a laser sight behind the bar. Jack said the bar was so smoky you could clearly make out the red line of the laser, pointed at Darrel’s chest. It only took one shot.
“Dead before he even hit the ground,” Jack says. “Stupid son of a bitch.”
When I make it back to my apartment by head is spinning. I haven’t drunk like this in a long time. I open my laptop, pull up my email. No new messages. I hit refresh a few dozen times. I smash the button on my keyboard so hard I nearly dislocate my finger. Of course, it does no good.
I walk into the kitchen, grab Angela’s picture from off the table. I prop it up in the medicine cabinet, look at it as I brush my teeth.
She’s getting her learner’s permit in a month. I can’t wrap my mind around it. I remember teaching her to ride a bike. I used to hold onto the back of the seat, keep her steady as she tried to find her balance.
She took to it in no time. We practiced for a couple of weeks and then I let go and she was doing it. All on her own, she was riding her bike.
She was so damn excited, pedaling without looking back, not afraid of anything.
I rinse my mouth with a couple handfuls of cold water. I place my toothbrush back in the medicine cabinet. I take off my jeans and climb into bed. The sheets are freezing. It feels like they’ll never warm up.
In my hand, I have the picture of Angela. I place it on the nightstand next to the lamp. I think of her that afternoon, riding her bike all on her own, without any help from her daddy. I switch off the lamp, close my eyes, and try and fall asleep.
Michael Cuglietta lives in Florida, which he has heard referred to as “the South of the South.” His work has been published in The Gettysburg Review, The Hawaii Review, Word Riot, Opium Magazine, The Chiron Review and other literary journals. This story takes place in Tampa. “Down here we have a breed called Florida Crackers,” Cuglietta explains. “I believe some of the characters in ‘Pub Chug-a-Lug,’ may fit that description.”