Climbing Up to the Bottom

Submitted into Contest #158 in response to: Write a story about a character who is trying to become a better person.... view prompt

2 comments

Fiction Drama

This story contains themes or mentions of physical violence, gore, or abuse.

NOTE: THIS STORY CONTAINS A COUPLE OF MENTIONS OF VIOLENT ACTS.

   Pat O’Grady had to do something. He’d worked for too many years and hurdled too many obstacles in getting his bar on Pittston Avenue in Scranton up and running only to lose customers now to some newcomer bar a block away. Paddy’s on Pittston was Pat’s dream come true. He had learned a lot about the beer and liquor wholesale business when he worked for a local distributorship during the six years he wasted his time and money trying to earn a college degree at Penn State University’s Worthington Scranton commuter campus in Dunmore. What Pat could not remotely grasp about business from textbooks and drowsy professors he soaked up from experience on his delivery route, observing how bars, restaurants, and a few private clubs did things with their settings and their promotional events and their booze. He thought he could someday do at least as well with his own retail setup if only he had the money to get established.

     After dropping out of college still three semesters shy of a degree, Pat set off on the kind of detour away from his dream that many people experience in their own lives, working at six different jobs over the next 15 years, learning a thing or two along the way, getting fired a couple of times, but always still dreaming about having his own bar. He’d talk about it nonstop with friends and co-workers, even when they would kid him with barbs like “Oh, Pat, I don’t think an Irishman should risk drinking away all his inventory, do you?” and “What would ya name the place, Pat’s Puke Pot or somethin’?” Most of these conversations were in Scranton-area bars that Pat would drag his friends along with him to see, and since Pat was almost always a very happy drunk, he didn’t mind the kidding.    

     Pat’s ship came in when his father shipped way, way out three days after Pat’s 39th birthday. Pat opened Paddy’s on Pittston four years ago, thanks to his father’s life insurance payout that Pat used to buy the property outright and remodel the building. He leased all the kitchen and refrigeration equipment; repaved the little parking lot himself with the help of two cousins, three friends, and some rented machinery; and had his girlfriend, Hannah, take care of bookkeeping and hiring a couple of part-time bartenders, a waitress, and a couple of kitchen workers. The kitchen workers were pretty steady and reliable, but Hannah had no shortage of hiring and rehiring practice in keeping the other positions staffed, especially the waitress job. Paddy’s on Pittston wasn’t the flashiest or biggest bar in Scranton by any means, but it was all Pat’s, and he couldn’t have been prouder or felt luckier if someone had pasted four-leaf clovers all over his face. He dived into the 70-hour work weeks and made mistakes here and there but kept things rolling through hard work and willpower.

     A regular clientele built up slowly but steadily at exactly the same pace as his relationship with Hannah died, ending three months ago when she cleared out her stuff one evening while Pat was at the bar. Hannah left only a letter that rambled on for the five-thousandth time about how lame it was that Pat spent the life insurance payout on that damned bar instead of a house, how she thought the past six years of living together in their dinky apartment without so much as a hint at marriage from him was bullshit, how she wasn’t going to turn 40 soon with a loser like him holding her down, and on and on and on. Pat would have fretted much more over this except he’d been expecting it for months and, besides, he had bigger worries at the moment. He had Bella Vita to worry about.

     Bella Vita opened just a block away one week before Hannah moved out, and Pat immediately felt the “Ooh, new, shiny, and bright!” impact on his bar’s sales. Some of the crowds and sales had rebounded in the past couple of weeks, but not to the level Paddy’s on Pittston enjoyed prior to when those invaders, Benny and Lucia Sarducci, decided Pittston Avenue needed yet another Italian joint of some kind. The Sarduccis were no strangers to this game, what with their Bella Mangia restaurant in Clarks Summit and their original establishment they opened in Dunmore 20 years ago, Bella Birra. Bella Birra was little more than a dive bar, frankly, but Benny Sarducci insisted on keeping it open out of nostalgia. This new bar, Bella Vita, was the Sarduccis’ long-planned arrival within Scranton proper, and it was bigger, cleaner, and a bit fancier than Paddy’s on Pittston. Within two weeks of opening, Bella Vita had drawn away (Pat O’Grady called it “stolen away”) the waitress and the best part-time bartender from Paddy’s on Pittston. Between that slap and Hannah’s departure, Pat’s mood darkened day by day. He decided he’d just better have a chat with the Sarduccis and explain some boundaries to them.

     The chat did not go well.

     Looking back now on that ugly scene, Pat could still feel the sting of how both Sarduccis spoke down to him in condescending tones, smiles frozen to their faces as they pleasantly, calmly said things like “O’Brady, O’Grady, whatever your name is, I really think you need to go screw yourself” and “Son, I don’t think you own Pittston Avenue; in fact, do you even own those clothes you’re wearing, or did you just rent them from Goodwill this morning?” and “Oh, your place is a bar? ’Scuse me, I thought it was maybe a car repair garage or pawn shop.” They never answered a single question or replied to anything he said in the same context. Pat left Bella Vita in under 15 minutes, bewildered and irritated.

     “So what’re you gonna do, Pat?” asked Kevin Carrigan, Pat’s best friend since high school. “I mean, they got that live music on Saturdays, and they got that neon roof trim, and their Bella Vita shirts aren’t just tee shirts like you have here. What’re you gonna do?”

     “I don’t know, Kev,” said Pat, staring into the beer he’d poured himself from the tap. It was only 11:30 in the morning on a Wednesday, but then again, it was only beer and not vodka, so Pat poured both himself and Kevin one. “I mean, if I thought it’d do any good to approach the Sarduccis again, I would, but they’re just nuts. I’d like to make a deal with them, y’know, where maybe they close on Saint Patrick’s Day and we close on Fat Tuesday and maybe we all make a living, y’know? But they’re plain crazy, y’know? Something’s gotta give, though. It’s not like I have a mortgage on this place, but the equipment leases and the inventory, the labor, the licensing and constant upkeep, it all adds up, y’know?”

     Pat and Kevin sat there a couple of minutes in silence punctuated only by Kevin’s “Mm-mm” every 20 seconds or so as he shook his head.

     “I could call Q-Squared if you want, Pat.”

     Pat blinked, furrowed his brow, and said, “I thought Q-Squared moved away last year after that mistrial. I heard he moved to Pittsburgh or Ohio or somewhere.”

     Kevin nodded, saying, “Yeah, he did, but he’s back. I saw him just yesterday. He didn’t say exactly where he’s been this past year or what he’s been doing, and I damned sure didn’t ask. He said he’s job hunting.”

     “Better job hunting than breaking legs, I guess,” said Pat. He and Kevin had known Q-Squared even before he was Q-Squared, back when he was just Quinn Ryan Quinn, a boy so named by parents with little common sense but tons of fealty to family names. The mother’s father was Quinn Murphy and the father’s father was Ryan Quinn, so lending the lad both grandfathers’ first names made him Quinn Ryan Quinn. Until seventh grade, kids teased young Quinn, calling him Quim Quim and Queer Queer and Echo Boy, and sometimes saying stuff like “Quinn Quinn wants wants to to answer answer that that question question, teacher teacher.”

     When seventh grade rolled around, though, young Quinn started growing. That maternal grandfather, Quinn Murphy, had been a large man, a man many in the coal mines called Mountain Murphy. If the grandfather was a mountain, then this kid was a whole mountain range. By the time young Quinn reached tenth grade, he was about six feet and five inches tall, 250 pounds, and favorite heavyweight wrestler and first-string strong-side tackle of the high school’s wrestling and football coaches, respectively. The nickname Q-Squared came along to displace all the teasing names before he even got to high school. By the end of high school, Q-Squared stood six feet, ten inches tall and weighed just over 320 pounds. He was strong, really very, very strong, but he was also a big kind of mean and angry to match his big body and big strength. Q-Squared’s family had no idea where in the family tree his characteristic malevolence came from, but at least sports gave him a marginally healthy outlet for his angry tendencies and his brute strength. Pat and Kevin never got on Q-Squared’s bad side in high school, or they’d never even consider contacting him now.

     Q-Squared’s high-school years eventually ended, unfortunately, and he soon found a new outlet for his temper. He started working at a casino down in Wilkes-Barre, first as a porter and general laborer, humping guests’ bags and incoming supplies and anything else bulky and heavy. When he turned 21, the management put him in a blazer and tie and anointed him the casino security staff’s muscle. Q-Squared found particular pleasure in beating the hell out of unruly guests, trespassers, and just about anyone else his bosses pointed him toward. When Q-Squared was on duty, things stayed pretty calm around the casino complex.

     When Q-Squared was not on duty, he took odd jobs given him by some of the casino’s shadiest, wealthiest regulars. Sometimes he collected rent and various debts from people who had defied his bosses but who found that complying with Q-Squared’s requests was the decidedly safer thing to do. Sometimes he paid his respects to a boss’s son-in-law or nosy neighbor who needed an attitude adjustment and a little time reflecting on a gurney in a hospital emergency room. When not working this way or at the casino, Q-Squared worked out in a gym, pumping iron and jumping rope and staying amazingly fit even as the years wore on. The physical fitness and good money he earned did nothing to take the edge off his typical temper, though. Q-Squared was just plain mean. Huge, strong, mean, and pissed off at everything always.

     Kevin nudged Pat with his elbow. “Well? You want me to call Q-Squared? He could go see the Sarduccis for you. He gave me his cell phone number in case I hear about anyone hiring. The casino won’t take him back.”

     Pat thought about it for far too few seconds and said, “Yeah, call him. I gotta do something, y’know?”

     When Q-Squared walked into Paddy’s on Pittston around 1:30, the three or four male customers at the bar and a couple at one of the tables along the wall fell silent and stared. They knew who he was, if only from local television news and social media reports last year during the murder and arson trial that ended in a mistrial. One thing Q-Squared obviously did not quit doing while away from Scranton was working out. He was more heavily muscled than ever, and naturally he wore a tight-fitting tee shirt under his windbreaker that trumpeted his physique when he took off the windbreaker and sat down at the bar next to Kevin and facing Pat. Pat took some comfort having the bar between himself and Q-Squared, so unsettling was the big man’s appearance. Q-Squared did not smile and did not extend a hand to shake. He locked his blue eyes on Pat’s and stared.

     After a few seconds of awkward silence, Q-Squared gestured with his wide palms up and said, “Well? What’s up, guys? You called, I’m here, Kevin. Speak.”

     Pat quickly revealed his problem to Q-Squared. Q-Squared listened closely, asking no questions while Pat spoke and showing no emotion or reaction at all. When Pat finished, Q-Square asked, “So you want…what, exactly?”

     “Well,” Pat said, keeping his voice low so no one except Kevin could overhear his conversation with the big man, “I want you, y’know, to talk to the Sarduccis. Convince them to back off on poaching my workers. Maybe convince them to close a couple hours before we do. Let them know I’m not happy with things, y’know.”

     “And how exactly do you expect me to do that?”

     Pat squirmed inside and gripped the bar. “Talk to them…convince them however it takes, Q-Squared. Do what you do, man. You know how to make people change their ways, right?”

     Q-Squared stared at Pat a moment. Then he turned his head and stared at Kevin for a moment. Then he sighed and said, “Fellas, I’ve been trying to get out of that kind of work. I spent a ton of time while I was gone thinking about stuff, looking at my life. Last year I kind of realized how deep in a shit hole I had sunk and how, for me, it’s an upward climb just to get to the bottom of that shit hole, that’s how deep I’d gone. Ya hear me? I’m lower than the bottom. I’ve been looking for plain, honest work since I got back here, but Scranton isn’t exactly hopping with jobs, especially for guys with my reputation, it seems. I even considered asking again down at the casino, but they’ve made it pretty clear I’m too much damaged goods for their tastes. I can maybe get warehouse work, I don’t know. I’d probably screw that up the first time some jerkwad pissed me off, though. I don’t know.”

     Q-Squared fell silent and stared at the wall somewhere above Pat’s head, lost in his thoughts, his big hands clasped as he leaned forward on the bar. Pat and Kevin sat quietly, too scared to say anything.

     “I do need money, though,” Q-Squared finally said, sighing again. “Gotta have money to tide me over until I get a proper job.” He locked his eyes on Pat again.

     Pat said, “I’d really appreciate it, Q-Squared. So would my employees. What would you say would cover your time and effort in paying the Sarduccis a little visit? They’re always there at Bella Vita whenever it’s open.”

     “Just talking with them, right? Chat and convince them, right?”

     “Yeah, that’s all I’m wanting. Yeah.”

     Q-Squared glanced at Kevin, who immediately nodded and said, “Yeah, just talk with ’em.”

     More silence. More direct staring.

     Pat cleared his throat and murmured, “Say, a thousand bucks?”

     A muscle by Q-Squared’s eye twitched. More silence.

     “How about two thousand?” asked Pat quietly.

     “That’ll work,” said Q-Squared, rising, putting on his windbreaker, and saying as he headed for the door, “I’ll be back shortly.”

     Pat and Kevin heaved nervous sighs of relief. Kevin asked, “Do you suppose he’ll just talk with them? I mean, he won’t…do anything crazy, do you suppose?”

     Pat shrugged his shoulders and said, “Well, I hope it’ll be something minimal, just talk, just a warning. I mean, the guy’s trying to get his act together and stop doing like he did before, so he’s not wanting to hurt those people, y’know?”

     “Yeah, right. He’s changed from the old Q-Squared.”

     “Right.”

     “Right.”

     “Well, I have to get back to work, Pat. I’ve been gone too long already. Text me if you hear anything. We still on for Sunday at the barbecue?”

     “Yep, we’re still on. I’ll be there. And I’ll text you as soon as I know anything.”

Pat calmed down over the next hour. He was sure it was going to work out fine and the $2,000 to Q-Squared would be money very well spent. He was sure of that right up until he heard the first siren screaming by on Pittston Avenue. It was a police car headed down the street toward Bella Vita. Then another police car. And then two more plus a fire truck. Then an ambulance. All with sirens screaming, all with lights flashing, all coming to a stop down the way, right in Bella Vita’s parking lot. Pat slowly nodded his head, rolled his eyes, and reached for the vodka bottle, saying quietly to himself, "At least I didn't have to pay in advance."


August 06, 2022 05:49

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2 comments

John Jenkins
17:29 Aug 19, 2022

Very sophisticated. This is probably the highest-quality story I've read on this website so far. I found myself wanting to know more about Hannah. She seemed like an interesting character. Anyway, great job.

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Jim Wilkerson
18:20 Aug 19, 2022

Yes, John, couldn't you just see Hannah's story as a nice complement to this story? We really know little about her. She was clearly ready to move on in her life, but what drew her to Pat--or more generally, to a guy like Pat--in the first place? Can we credit her with particularly good judgment? Maybe not. Also, what becomes of her? Does she go forward to better days without a backward glance, or does her life meander, stall, maybe even regress? Does she ever escape the dial-tone vibe of Scranton? Does she really want to? Thanks for readin...

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