"Thirty eight," said another.
"Fifty," said a third.
"How about you, Earl?" I said. "What was his tab here?"
"Two hundred, thirty six and fifty nine cents," said Earl. "Approximately."
"Well, we got you all beat," I said. "Three thousand, five hundred. Approximately."
There was a moment of stunned quiet and then someone, barely suppressing his glee, said, "Oh man, you got hosed," and then a wave of nervous laughter hit the bar.
"What were you, his bookies?" someone said.
"Worse," I said. "We were his lawyers."
The entire tap then collapsed into laughter, loud belly-grabbing laughter. Even Charlie at the end of the bar turned his sour gape of a mouth around. "His lawyers," he said in rasp. "What a pair of saps."
"It would have been quicker you just let him burn your money," said another.
"Joey's lawyers. What a perfect pair of saps," said Charlie.
"Hey, Joey's lawyer," said a man, "how'd it feel to be getting it up the bum instead of giving it for a change."
As the laughter spiraled and swelled, I joined in and then I said loudly, "You know what we need to soothe our empty wallets?"
"We need to have ourselves a proper wake for our debts. But not on wits, no more wits for me."
"What yous got in mind?" said Earl Ganz.
"Why don't you send someone to the Wawa for some juice," I said, "and then, Earl, let me teach you how to make a seabreeze."
It didn't end with a conga line, but it came close.
The first taste Earl took of a seabreeze made his lips twist. You could tell he didn't take to it right off.
"Close your eyes this time," I said.
Earl's eyes blinked shut, the crowd came closer.
"You're on a tropical island. Beyond your lounge chair, the ocean is lapping. A cabana girl, tawny and lean, wearing a lot of nothing" -- catcalls, whistles -- "has handed you your drink. She leans over, her breath is sweet, redolent of coconut, conch."
"Conch?" said Earl, eyes still closed.
"Conch. And she leans ever closer and her warm breath now is in your ear and she whispers, her voice smooth as the white sand beneath her bare feet, 'How is the drink, Earl?. Is it okay? Is it, Earl? Is it okay?'"
Earl took another sip, swilled like a swell, considered carefully. "Better than a stick in the eye," he said, finally, and a cheer went up and we were off and running.
The jukebox with its smashed plastic was plugged in and the volume jacked, Sinatra bypassed for a few novelty numbers from the bottom of the list. I was behind the bar, jacket off, tie loose, shirtsleeves rolled, making up the seabreezes as fast as Earl could take the orders and get me the glasses filled with ice. Two jiggers cranberry juice, one jigger grapefruit juice, one jigger house vodka, a slice of lime. Maybe not perfect but close enough, and they were going as fast as we could set them up. An empty peanut basket had replaced the till, two dollars a pop for the drinks, all cash, all of it earmarked for the Joey Cheaps bar tab memorial fund. The kid we had sent to Wawa to buy the juices and the lime was sent out two times more.
Glasses clinking, shouts called out. "Hey mambo," sang Rosemary Clooney, "don't want to tarantella. Hey mambo, no more mozzarella. Hey mambo, mambo Italiano," and then the guys shouted out the refrain along with her, "All you Callebreze do the mambo like-a crazy."
Beth sat on the bar, legs crossed, leading the singing, her pink drink sloshing over the sides of her glass. "Hey, Earl," she said, "turn up the heat."
"Let's make like Jamaica."
He did, and soon the jackets came off, and then some shirts, which would have been better left on, and the drink orders came in even faster than before. Guys were hogging the phone, calling their wives and girlfriends, sometimes both, telling them to come on down to the party. Guys were stopping in, drawn by the noise leaking through the steadily opening door, asking what the hell was going on.
The foregoing is excerpted from Past Due by William Lashner. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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