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Contemporary Fiction African American

My mouth had been dry, and I couldn’t tell when last I’d a tipple. In fact, a long time ago, all the bartenders in all the bars along the strip knew who I was. They knew me so much that even a drink was named after me: Top Me Up, a mixture of rum, coke, orange juice with a splash of gin and a lemon wedge on the glass’s rim. Talk about blowing one’s head off. My concoction was something I’d been introduced to while away. I’d made all the bars notorious because of that one drink and partygoers from far and wide would visit the strip and ask for TMP, rather than TMU, since TMP rolled off the tongue. I don’t know who made up the name but TMP it was, and I became the TMP Man. A moniker I took with pride every time I returned home.

When I’d ventured from my apartment, everywhere looked new. New apartment blocks stretched high above my head, with black and white patched windows. Some residents home, some still yet to make it home or were out like myself, trawling the strip. Heavy traffic had slouched beside me. It was cold. I’d checked my watch. I’d been early. Vehicle horns had blared as if that would get the drivers nearer to their destination or rendezvous. A dark sky had introduced slanting rain and it had me slouched deeper into my winter coat. The city’s noises had me on edge and I’d shivered and tugged at the scarf around my neck. Thinking back, that had been an unconscious action. Maybe I wanted to keep myself safe.  

I was taken aback when I saw my usual haunt’s new façade, it was different to when I last saw it. I’d stood outside staring at the large picture window with its new sign in big, bright orange letters: Mingles. A number of tall metal fire columns with orange-red blaze atop, warmed the area and a canvas awning covered ornate metal chairs and tables with seated patrons still in their jackets and coats - laughing and drinking – looking as cold as me. I’d wondered if they were consuming TMP. It was a new kind of crowd. Young, trendy, stylish. I’d felt out of place, why I hesitated outside staring at a new reality. Like most, change was hard to digest, especially when it came to your regular drinking hole. My oasis.

It was Bob who saw me. He’d stood in the doorway as large as I remembered him but older.

He’d said: ‘Nigel! That you? Long time man! What are you doing in the rain, staring at the place? Come in!’

I faltered. I didn’t like the look of the place or the people. It made me feel old and they made me feel out of place. One of my coat pockets had a hole. Nonetheless, it was Bob who came out into the rain, grabbed my arm and hauled me into my one-time drinking haunt with its new face.

Bob had threaded through the contemporary tables and chairs. They were new. Dim lighting was strategically placed on the walls and ceiling, and a hardwood floor looked polished and modern. At the far end, a long polished wooden counter. I knew nothing of wood and wondered if it was mahogany, cedar or pine. I smelt a rose aroma – incense. The high bar stools in front had padded seats with metal stands. All new. No rustic décor like before. If being outside I’d felt out of place, it was worse inside and if it hadn’t been for Bob, I would’ve made quick my escape.

Instead, he’d plopped me onto one of the high stools, went behind the bar and said: ‘We no longer sell alcohol.’

I stared at him. For sure, he was older. Dark skin, medium height, crow’s feet meandered from his eye corners and a salt and pepper beard and hair with his portly stature, made him look much older than I knew him to be. He looked like a sage. I wondered how I looked to him.

He shook his head, a sad look in his hazel eyes. ‘Yeah, my friend, new regulations and law, we can no longer serve alcohol.’

I said, ‘Bob, that’s crazy. What can I drink that’s close to alcohol? I really need something strong. What do the people do now if they want a drink of alcohol? That’s mad. Has this country gone to the dogs?’

He glanced over his shoulder and shrugged. ‘You don’t know?’ I shook my head. ‘All the bars are now monitored. A central computer system is in all the bars that we must use and is controlled by the authorities. If we try to bypass the system in anyway, it can be picked up since all inventory needs to be accounted for. So, when I scan in a barcode for the drink purchased, it is crosschecked. Every single bar, drink and transaction are matched in this database. If I step out of line, just once. That’s it, Mingles will be no more.’

I swore.

‘You haven’t been around Nigel? Where have you been?’

‘What’s your strongest drink, then?’ I asked, deflecting his question.

‘We’ve natural beer. Straight from hops, no added stuff to make it alcohol. Pretty good, I say.’ He walked to a low fridge filled with bottles, opened the door and extracted a dark-coloured one.

‘Ok,’ I said, ‘what happened Bob? When did all of this happen? We live in a dictatorship now?’

He screwed off the bottle stopper, handed me my drink. ‘Where have you been Nige? How have you been? How long as it been?’

I’d a rapid swallow. It tasted like beer. It was good. I sighed and recalled when I started drinking. It was on my first rest and recuperation from the front. There was only so many tears, blood and death one could take, and a good, stiff drink helped to ease the pain and memories. But they never actually went anywhere and were always there, lurking in the background.

‘I was away. In the army. On tour,’ I said. ‘I say it’s been about eight years. It looks like a lot has happened here in that time too.

‘Tour? You went to fight in the war?’ He was thinking about the last Gulf War. There’d been three and a fourth was about to begin.

‘Yes,’ I answered. Bob remained silent. ‘I was in prison too.’

He recoiled. ‘What?!’

‘Military prison. Striking an officer.’ I gulped my natural hops. I really liked it. And as far as I was concerned the officer deserved what he got. Mind you, to me, his busted jaw and smashed nose was much better than me pulling out my sidearm from its holster. Word-for-word, my psyche evaluation, before I was sentenced, stated I was ‘a volcano with bubbling magma just below the surface, ready to erupt’. Apparently, my childhood traumas eventually had an outlet. By being recruited into Uncle Sam’s Military and once I was in his organisation, it helped to unleash that concealed part of me. I’d been a rebellious child and resorting to violence when forced to go against my will, was natural for me. Especially when going against my own morals. I was a damn good soldier for the good old US of A. Had it been eight years, two of which I was jailed? Why had I lashed out when I was ordered to shoot a prisoner I’d captured? Was there something else?

Mouth agape, Bob gazed at me. ‘Really? I never knew you to be that way. I thought you to be a gentle kind of person. You were always quiet.’

‘Maybe. War changes people.’ I signalled and gesticulated. ‘Why the change Bob? There are no old faces or places anymore? What happened?’

He shrugged. ‘Progress.’

‘I don’t like it.’

He shrugged again. ‘Not a lot you, I or anyone else can do. Times change. And those wars changed everything; the old faces you knew, ended up in some armed service. You’re the first I’ve seen come back. And those who remained, made the best of it.’

I nodded. ‘I’m here to meet someone, anyway.’

‘You want a table? Food? It’ll be on the house.’

‘Ah thanks Bob, you always looked out for me.’

‘I have to, you became a part of the furniture here. I agree too, everything around here has lost its character for sure. It’s sad. New developments. New communities. New people. Those who came before made it what it was but, what to do now...’ He motioned: palms out, shoulder hunched and went to ready a table. I told him what kind of table I preferred.

Suddenly, I was nervous and tried to remember the old Mingle faces to distract myself from my inevitable meeting. Instead of being honourably discharged with a bag of medals on my chest, my one indiscretion wiped the backstory of those awards completely clean. My bravery hadn’t mattered after that mad act. Still, I found justification in what I’d done. I’d saved a life. I’d saved a prisoner of war. But I needed to explore that room where that little child was locked away. I needed to see him again. I needed the room door to be opened. It was just a matter of having the right key.

I fidgeted, rubbing my clammy palms on my jeans. I finished my bottle and a second suddenly appeared. I hadn’t seen when Bob removed the empty and replaced it with another filled one. Something caught my eye which I didn’t seen before; the oval-orange label actually said: Hops Beer. Sipping, I wondered how best to approach what needed to be said and the more I thought about it, the more I struggled with formulating my words.

I checked my watch; thirty minutes had elapsed. I’d been real early, now they were late by ten minutes. I sat with the main door in full view and the kitchen to my left but in my periphery. I hated surprises.

By the time my beer was halfway through, I caught sight of them by the doorway, surveying the tables, then landing on me. Our eyes locked. My heart leapt. They nodded and with long, meaningful strides, strolled over, worming through the tables. I rounded the table and dragged out their seat and returned to mine. Within a few seconds they stood in front of me. I nodded. They sat.

‘They don’t serve alcohol here,’ I said to my father.

January 13, 2024 04:18

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3 comments

Jaymi McClusky
18:10 Jan 20, 2024

nice story! i'm wondering the significance of his father showing up a the end and him referring to his father as "they"? Love that he just showed back up in vegas and didn't know alcohol was now illegal to sell!

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20:31 Jan 20, 2024

Thank you Jaymi, loved your feedback. Throughout the story, the protagonist had childhood issues. So, for e.g. him lashing out is a reflection of his relationship with his own father and thus authority issues. He'd trouble with change, even PTSD. And the reason for the "they" was to mislead the reader really since I didn't want to do the reveal who he was to meet and nervous about it, was his father - as there is more to tell about that relationship. Interesting that you thought it was Vegas...lol! It is a big city but wasn't Vegas.

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Jaymi McClusky
23:19 Jan 20, 2024

Oh that’s funny! I looked back to see why I thought it was Vegas and it was the line “trawling the strip.” Usually when I hear of the strip I think of Vegas! But I’m from SoCal and spent a lot of time there so that’s just where my mind went. And makes sense about the father. Great story!

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