Jeff Tsuruoka’s Picture Choice: 1
Title: Lawyers, Guns, and Money - Part One
Nobody ever walked into Antonio's cantina who didn't set out to go there.
There was no sign out on the road, no lights out front. You couldn't even see the place from the street.
Passersby did just that. Passed by.
To get to the bar you had to climb over a rusted out chain-link gate, cross a patchy mud and weed field, and then follow a winding trail through the trees-- about sixty yards-- until you arrived at Antonio's shack.
Once upon a time Antonio's clapboard shack was white. Decades of humidity, tropical rains, and general indifference dulled the paint right off, leaving Antonio with a warped two-story structure held together with hemp rope and dried mud from the edge of the canal out back.
The front porch hadn't yet fallen off and if you were very brave you could climb up what was left of the steps and go in through what was left of the door.
Those of us who knew better, meaning everyone who'd been to Antonio's more than once, walked around back and used the dockside entrance.
On your way in you might think you were at one of those places that's much better inside than it looks from the outside.
You'd be wrong.
Antonio's l-shaped bar lurched every time somebody leaned on it and most people stood and held their drinks rather than park their asses on his uncomfortable rattan stools. The dirt floor was more mud than dirt. Walls stained the same gray as the outside of the shack cried out for decoration. Anything would've been an improvement.
The television set, an old one with rabbit ears and a screen coated with enough tar to make everyone who appeared on it look like they're in black-face, got one channel. It ran soccer matches or news programs. Nothing else.
Antonio had no taps on the bar. Want a beer? You got it in a bottle from a small fridge beneath the counter. Tequila and rum were the other offerings. Hungry? You're shit out of luck. Antonio served liquid refreshment only.
The air inside the cantina wasn't conducive to eating anyway. The humidity gave it texture and held the smells of cheap smokes, spilled beer, and drunk sweat the way flypaper caught flies. In the summer months the stink of the canal made its way into the bar as well. The two fans, one placed at each end of the bar, didn't stand a chance.
Just another day in paradise. A sticky, smelly day in paradise.
I knocked back another shot of Antonio's rum and wiped some sweat off of my face with an already soaked sleeve.
It stung my cheeks.
The rough muslin shirt, like Antonio's cantina, used to be white but frequent washings in water of questionable character combined with constant wear turned it butternut gray.
A woman I'd gotten friendly with made it for me to celebrate my first month in her country. The woman was long gone but I still lived in that shirt, even though the thing rubbed me raw every time I had to mop my face. There's value beyond the intrinsic in a thing somebody made for you with their own hands.
It didn't hurt that I looked like everyone else around me when I had it on.
I slammed my shot glass down on the bar.
“Uno mas, Antonio,” I barked.
I'd been in country for two years and my Spanish still wasn't good but I knew how to order a drink.
Antonio, a wide, white-haired man in an unbuttoned canvas shirt and a pair of Buddy Holly eyeglasses, shambled over to me and stood there with his arms crossed in front of him.
I smiled and shook my head.
“All right, Antonio. All right.”
I dug deep into my pants pocket and came up with a handful of crumpled notes and some coins. It represented a healthy percentage of what I had left.
Antonio didn't break eye contact as he reached down to retrieve a grimy bottle and poured my shot.
I raised it in salute and set it down untasted.
He snorted and returned to his newspaper at the other end of the bar.
None of the handful of other drinkers took any note of the transaction.
Antonio's day customers were old, broken, or both. They were not watching TV and paid me no more mind than they did anyone else, even though I was the only gringo in town. They noticed me but they didn't see me. Big difference.
When I emptied my glass Antonio came back over and filled me up without my asking him to.
He put the bottle down on the bar and leaned forward.
“What you doing here, man?” he asked for the fourth time since I hit town.
His English was better than my Spanish.
I drank the rum and, for the fourth time, gave him the sob story I'd concocted.
Family dead in a plane crash. Major depressive episode. Left my home country to start over in a new land. Fallen on hard times since.
I don't know how much Antonio understood but he nodded along with my narration and then put a meaty paw on my shoulder.
“You need work?”
I had to think about that.
Working in the bar would keep me in booze and put a little cash in my pocket.
It would also put me front and center for anyone who walked through that door to see.
I could feel Antonio watching me. He knew. The son-of-a-bitch knew. I'd underestimated the man. The eyes behind those ridiculous glasses didn't miss a thing.
I looked at him across the bar.
“Days or nights?”
“Nights. I'm an old man. Need to sleep at night.”
I could have worked every hour for the rest of my life at the rate he named and not earn as much as I would have in a year back in Manhattan.
I extended my hand and we shook.
“When do I start?”
“Ahorita, cabron. Right now.”
I got up and climbed around the bar so he could show me what was what.
There wasn't much to show I hadn't already seen.
The rum and tequila lived on shelves built beneath the rickety counter. Antonio also kept some kind of home-brewed concoction in earthenware jars down there. The stuff had both the consistency and color of fresh mucus. I'd only seen it served to one person since began frequenting the cantina.
I knew about the beer fridge.
An old-fashioned cash register sat near one end of the bar. The only key that still worked was the one that opened the drawer. That key got a lot of use. Antonio ran a cash establishment. No credit. No tabs.
It took me about ten minutes to get it all down. I told Antonio that I was ready to roll but he insisted on staying with me for the rest of the night to watch me at work.
The evening custom started coming in just after sunset.
They looked a lot like the day drunks only not as far gone. They were more animated and much louder. Almost fun.
They worried me more than the day crowd but as long as I was pouring the booze- and had Antonio's backing- they didn't waste time looking at me.
Antonio stood and leaned against the bar, laughing as I ran around like a crazy man. After half an hour he nodded his approval and went to finish his newspaper while I ran his bar for him.
At the end of the night he handed me a bottle of beer and small handful of bills.
“Night's pay for a night's work,” he said.
I pocketed the cash and started picking up empty bottles and glasses.
“Before you go tell me something, cabron.”
I put the bottles in the trash bin and looked up at him.
“Did you do it?” he asked.
“Does it matter?”
“It matters to me, cabron.”
“Would you believe me if I told you I didn't?”
Antonio chuckled and folded up his newspaper.
“Just shut the door behind you when you're done. Buenos noches.”
Jeff Tsuruoka is an author in search of a writing career. He has found a home in the Flash Fiction circuit and is grateful to the blog hosts that give him the opportunity to get his work out there. You can follow him on Twitter @JTsuruoka and be sure to keep tabs on his weekly contributions to Daily Picspiration.