The lights to the Ambassador Bridge turn on and Reggie looks up.
“You know, that’s the busiest bridge in North America,” he says.
“Really?” I ask.
“Yup. It’s owned by some billionaire. Half of everything going in and out of Canada runs across that bridge. Government owns all the bridges except that one.”
He shifts his gaze to a barge slowly working its way through the brown water. Reggie and I are the only two people in his white gravel parking lot, both of us hovering over the trunk of my Cadillac. Across the street, in the park no one uses, an old homeless guy is laying in the grass moving his arms, trying to make snow angels in August.
Reggie turns to me and squints. “How did all this whiskey end up in the back of your car?”
I don’t say anything, just hold his gaze.
“You trying to scam me?”
“When you work for a distributor, sometimes there’s extra,” I say.
Reggie makes a clucking sound with his tongue.
I used to think I needed to talk more, but my sales were better the less I said. A small smile helps. Too big a smile makes you seem like you’re lying, or worse, like you want something. But a tight, half-smile with a little nod makes people feel like they’re in on something. Everyone wants to be in on something. People smile too much. They think it makes them look nice, but it only makes them look weak.
“If there’s anything wrong with this stuff, you know what I’ll do to you. Then I’ll buy all my booze from Winston. He’s cheaper.”
Reggie pays me the money in twenties and takes his time counting the soft bills into my hand. There’s something menacing about it, like he wants me to know that I may be holding the money now, but it’s still his. He probably thinks the booze is stolen, but it’s just regular inventory I put in my trunk. I figured a guy like Reggie would think liquor sold out of the back of a DeVille was a good deal and want in. I’m behind in my quota this month. If I miss again, they’ll fire me.
My boss Ed taught me the seven steps to the sales process when he hired me. He made me write them all down on the back of a Johnnie Walker promotional cocktail napkin.
“Product Knowledge, Prospecting, The Approach, Needs Assessment, Presentation, The Close, and Follow Up. When you’ve got ’em all memorized you come find me out on the floor, and I’ll tell you what they mean,” Ed said. He left me alone in his office at the distribution center outside the city limits, repeating the steps out loud like I was saying the rosary. Ed’s office had framed certificates all over it: Best Salesman, Great Lakes Liquor Distribution, Metro Detroit, ’59 all the way through ’69. I guess if you’re the best salesman, you end up here—a cramped office that smells of smoke and Pine-Sol.
Step two, prospecting, can seem simple, but it’s pretty hard. You have to read people quickly. You need to figure out what they want and know when to dig in. For most bar owners like Reggie, it’s about price. They want the best deal. But for others, it’s about being first with a new product, before the competition has it. Some guys want a younger version of themselves to talk to. Most are old men slaving away night after night in dark rooms and want word from the outside.
“You have to get in there, find out real quick who the buyer is or they’ll throw you out,” Ed said.
“Can’t tell you that. You’ve got to figure it out for yourself. That’s how you’ll know if you’re any good. If you’re going to last.”
“Quick. Then you be whoever they want you to be and move on to the next step. Or else.”
“Or else what?”
“Or else you leave. You got no prospects, you get your ass out of there. There’s always another bar.”
I set out shots on Reggie’s bar of the new blended whiskey Ed told me to move, laying down some product knowledge about how it’s made, not saying too much, when I see Gloria. She’s from downriver in Brownstone like me, and we went to St. Mary’s together. We didn’t know each other in school, she was a couple of years younger, but I saw her around. The way Gloria looked, it was a wonder she made it out of that school without getting pregnant. Reggie said she was his best waitress and I believed him. I could tell she knew what was up.
Gloria walks up to the bar, takes a shot out of my hand, and kicks it back. She doesn’t say anything, just wipes her mouth with her hand, like she’s daring me to do something, and gives me a little smile, not too big. That’s how it starts.
She tells me to pick her up after her shift and wait across the street by the park so no one will see us. Around midnight I pull my car up next to the park, and see that homeless guy that’s always there. He’s dressed in a tattered and muddy pinstripe suit, like a business man caught in a hurricane. I roll the window down to get some fresh air, but there isn’t any. The air is hot and damp and I start to sweat. The Detroit River runs all the way to the ocean, but we never get any sea air. All I smell is sulfur and ammonia coming from the old Fischer Body Plant upriver.
Gloria opens the door to the car and slides into the front seat. I can still picture her in her St. Mary’s uniform even though the skirts she wears waitressing are a lot shorter. Neither one of us says anything. I can hear a dull boat horn on the river. We stare at each other for a minute, the motor vibrating, the radio and instrument panel lighting our faces from below, both of us trying to figure out what the other one wants. She turns her head away and tells me about her fiancé Greg. He goes to med school at Wayne State, likes to golf, and proposed at a park with his parents watching. She’s doesn’t want anything to mess up their relationship.
“He’s a good guy,” she says.
“No, he is. He’s really nice.”
I don’t say anything, but I’m sure she’s right. Greg sounds like a perfect name for him. He probably has no idea who Gloria really is. I’ve seen her at Reggie’s talking to her tables, hustling for tips, laughing loud with one, kind of shy with another, becoming whoever they want her to be.
“When’s the wedding?”
“Spring. Let’s go to your place.”
I put the car in drive. We’ve got until spring. Six months. After that, one of us will move on.
“Everyone is out there hustling to survive,” Marco says.
He’s pouring from a bottle labeled Mellow Corn, a brand I’ve never heard of, which means it’s cheap. Marco, my new friend, is one of those old pros who speaks in cliches and likes to make a show out of commiserating with his patrons, which means he’s been doing this awhile, which means he can probably make purchases. There’s a sign behind the bar that reads “No Solicitors,” so I know I’ve got to take my time. Nobody likes to be sold. It’s right below a sign that says “Rathskeller Special: 2 drinks for the price of 2 drinks.”
The Rathskeller is dark as mud, there are no windows, and I can barely make out the people sitting at the far side of the bar. All that’s visible are the glowing orange embers of cigarettes, floating in the dark. I can’t read Marco’s face clearly in this light, but I notice a big gold ring on his finger and think that maybe he wants to complain about his wife. If that doesn’t work, I’ll try talking about the Tigers, ask him if he thinks Billy Martin is screwing up the team. I don’t even like sports, it’s purely something to talk about when you’ve already talked about the weather.
After this drink, I’ll order something top shelf and see what Marco pulls; then I’ll start planting the seeds about our product and wait for the right moment.
We sell mostly Canadian Whisky and that means it’s blended, on the light side, and good for mixing drinks that bars can charge more for, or at least that’s my pitch. I never have to break out any real fancy words for the places I sell to along the river. They only want to know this one’s smooth and mixes well and this one has some real heat and you can serve it to someone who’s had a bad day, someone like me.
The phone rings and I look at the clock. It’s a little after three a.m. and it’s her.
“I got home and my cat was gone. I left one of the windows open and she got out.” Gloria says, her voice sounding far away.
“You couldn’t ask Greg for help?”
“He’s out of town.”
Gloria and I started seeing each other only when Greg was out of town, or was swamped at school, but lately we’re together almost every night.
I drive over and she’s waiting on the front steps for me. She slides into the car, still wearing clothes from her shift, smelling of smoke and beer.
“There was a union meeting tonight. Some riveters spilled a pitcher of High Life all over me.”
“Did he tip well?” I ask.
“The teamsters always tip me well.”
We drive around the block a couple times, but I don’t see any cats, only some teenagers sitting on a rickety porch, laughing and drinking beers, something I haven’t seen for a while. After the riots there was a curfew, and no one was out this late.
We drive past a dog stopped in the middle of the street, its eyes glowing white from my headlights.
“Drive up to Eastern Market,” she says, “I want to show you something.”
She has me park across the street from one of the produce stalls. Some guys are unloading cases of what look like beefsteak tomatoes, in front of a giant silver sliding door.
“What are we doing here?”
“Hang on,” she says, taking a drag off my cigarette, forgetting to give it back.
After a couple minutes the huge door rolls open with a loud clack clack clack and a thunk when it hits the top, the sound echoing throughout the empty stalls. A middle aged guy, shirt sleeves rolled up, little clipboard in his hand, walks out and says something to the other guys. Even from this distance, his forearms look huge—you can tell he lifts a lot of tomatoes.
“That’s my Dad,” Gloria says. “He left us when I was seven. I haven’t spoken to him since.”
She tells me how she comes up here sometimes to watch him, how in the year after he left, her Mom started taking them to Mass every single day, how they lost their house, how she hasn’t taken anyone here before, not even Greg.
“The worst part of it is, we have no idea why he left. There was no drinking, no other women, none of the normal stuff. Mom thinks he had a nervous breakdown, but we don’t know.”
“Have you ever thought about asking him?”
She doesn’t answer. Just keeps watching him as he starts to move some of the cases inside.
“Let’s go back to your place,” she says after he goes inside.
I put the car in drive and head south to my apartment.
“Do you even have a cat?” I ask.
“Do you even care?” she asks.
“Not one bit.”
“No,” She giggles, “I hate cats. Cats are terrible pets. You can’t trust them.”
“You should buy me a Cadillac every year on your birthday for what I did for you,” Mom says.
“Thanks, Mom,” I say, knowing it’s what she wants to hear.
She’s talking about the draft and how I got out of it by two days, as though that was something planned, as though I should be grateful that she waited forty-eight hours to go into labor. I think about the life she gave me, the cramped apartments and the boyfriends who liked to drink until they broke things. The kitchen has pea-green linoleum everywhere, and it matches the fuzzy polyester sweater she’s wearing. Her husband Steve is in the living room watching some nature show about lions. I can see two female lions eyeing their prey while the narrator calls them “near perfect predators at the apex of the food chain.”
“Barb,” Steve yells, “can you get me another Stroh’s?”
Steve never turns around or moves, just keeps watching the lions. He won’t come in here or even talk to me. He hasn’t since I hit him with a two-by-four when I was sixteen.
“You didn’t even have to go to college to get out of the draft. You didn’t have to escape to Canada.”
“That’s right Mom,” I say.
She swirls her tumbler around while she talks, ice cubes clinking, smelling of lime and tonic.
“Remember Cheryl’s son? He was one of those hippies who left for Canada. Drove right across the bridge one night and never came back. Started a brand-new life. Cheryl says he’s happy over there.”
“Sounds nice. I’ve never been to Canada.”
“You wouldn’t do that. Not my boy. Soon you’ll meet a girl and have a family.”
“Barb!” Steve yells again. “Is there any more Stroh’s?”
The clock on the stove shows that it’s eight o’clock. I’ve been here two hours, and I can go.
“They don’t want my bar. They want the land it sits on,” Reggie says. “They want to build the biggest skyscraper in Detroit, hell the whole state. Hotel, offices, restaurants, the works. I might sell. Their offer was good. If Berry Gordy and Motown can leave, maybe I should too.”
Across the bar, Gloria’s closing out her tickets and having a cigarette. When Reggie goes into the kitchen, I walk over to her. She doesn’t look up, just keeps counting.
“Can I bum one?”
She doesn’t answer. I take a Parliament out of the pack anyway and light it with one of those little red candles that decorate the tables. I inhale and hold the smoke in my lungs for a beat, not sure why, and then exhale long and deep. We sit there smoking for a minute before she speaks.
I freeze, not sure what to say. Gloria keeps counting her money, saying nothing more, not looking at me. There’s a couple over by the jukebox, playing that Chi-Lites song “Oh Girl.” I hate that song. It’s too slow, and there’s something about the harmonica that reminds me of country music, which always reminds me of my stepfather Steve.
“It’s yours,” Gloria says.
I can feel my heart beating faster. I don’t mean to sound scared or defensive, but I do. If I seem upset, then she’ll get upset, and then there are a million ways this can go.
“I thought maybe Greg and you—”
“It’s not his. We haven’t… not yet.”
I look at the jukebox, not wanting her to read my reaction, never figuring her for the waiting-for-marriage type. Greg must be a saint. I take a long final drag on my cigarette and put it out in a ceramic ashtray shaped like the Chevy logo.
“What do you want to do?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” she says, “I really don’t.”
When I tell the story of what happened, I’m a hero, defending my single mother from her abusive boyfriend. But that’s not how it happened. I was home alone sneaking sips of vodka out of a giant jug of Smirnoff. It was making me dizzy. I liked the feeling. Then Steve came home and started yelling at me. He was drunk. I was drunk. He hadn’t hit her that night, but he beat her plenty. He marched up and pushed me hard in the chest, yelling something, I don’t remember what, and then I went out to the ripped-up porch he’d spent six months trying to rebuild, picked up a two-by-four, walked back inside, and smashed him in the face. I didn’t even think about it. Hit him as hard as I could. There was an old nail that got stuck in his cheek, and when I pulled it back, he screamed. I could feel something tugging against the nail. It had lodged in the meat under his eye, and when he yelled, I got scared and pulled hard and almost ripped his cheek off. It was hanging there, like a piece of chicken that hadn’t been cleaned. There was blood everywhere, and he was screaming and grabbing his face. I’d like to say that I felt terrible about it. Or that I would have done it differently, but that’s not true. All I wanted was to get out of that house and away from Mom and away from him. I still can’t believe they got married after that. I got sent to juvie for the rest of my junior year.
My bunkmate Carl used to dream about getting placed in foster care. He was six feet two, had a horrible scar across his forehead from when his father had thrown him through a window, and all he wanted was to get placed with some rich family in the suburbs. He never shut up about it.
“Maybe they’ll have a pool and a dog,” Carl said.
I could tell him to stop talking, but it never did any good.
“Maybe the dad would be a lawyer or an architect or something.”
“Shut up!” someone yelled from across the room. Usually, people let Carl go on and on because of his size and because we were all secretly wishing the same thing. A bunch of hardened criminals we were. All we wanted was a house in the suburbs and a puppy. That was the year of the riots, and all I could think of was that juvie was maybe the safest place in all of Detroit.
Gloria comes over to my place. She’s barely said two words to me. We’re in bed listening to Al Green sing about love and happiness, totally pretending she’s not pregnant with my baby and that we still haven’t talked about what to do. She puts her head on my chest and dangles her bare feet over the side without saying a word, and it feels right somehow, everything feels OK. Is this what love is? Ease? Comfort? I start to wonder if maybe we should keep the baby. Maybe we could be good together. I run through the steps in my head. Where are we? Needs Assessment? The Close? Do the steps even apply here?
“Hey,” I say, “how was work?”
“Long,” she says. “Reggie, in his infinite wisdom, scheduled me solo right as the shift change happened, so I was dealing with a bunch of drunk welders all night long. One of them was waiting for me in the parking lot, but that crazy homeless guy from the park showed up out of nowhere and the guy took off.”
“I’m going to pick you up next time. You shouldn’t have to deal with that,” I say.
She sits up, a slow, crooked smile building across her face.
“Is that because you want to protect your woman?”
I can’t help it, I smile back at her, brushing the red hair off her face so I can kiss her. She kisses me back. She smells of strawberries and cigarettes.
Afterward, it’s almost four in the morning, and without thinking, I put my hand on her stomach.
“I want to get rid of it,” she says sitting up, and my hand falls off her belly.
“OK,” I say.
“I know we can’t do it here, but I have a friend who did it in Canada. It’s legal there,” she says.
“I’ll take you.”
“Next week maybe?”
“Sure,” I say.
And that’s it. I probably won’t ever see her again after we do this.
I’m supposed to do a deal with Reggie and then wait for Gloria and we’ll go see the Canadian doctor over the bridge in Windsor. The back door of the bar slams open and Reggie and that big bartender he hired, the one who got kicked out of the service, walk across the parking lot to my DeVille. I try to forget about Gloria and the last thing Ed said before I came here.
“If I have to let you go, there are other distributors. You can sell other things. Copiers, whatever. You could get a job for Seagram’s up in Waterloo—they’re always hiring good-looking kids like you to handle their corporate accounts. Start fresh. I’d vouch for you. It’s a good job. A lot of those bars you handle on the water aren’t going to be there in a couple of years. You’ve got to think about the future.”
Ed has never had a problem telling me what to think.
I open the trunk and Reggie looks in. I give him a full smile which is more than I mean to, but there’s something about the way they’re looking at me that’s making me nervous.
“Same price?” Reggie asks.
Reggie says something I can’t hear to the big bartender who walks up to me fast, grabs me from behind and pins my arms so I can’t move.
“I sold this place two days ago. I’m finally moving to Florida to retire, so you lying to me doesn’t really matter much anymore. But it’s the principle.”
I start to protest, but the big guy throws me forward. I turn back, and he smashes his elbow in my face. I hear a crack and feel my nose catch fire, the blood pouring out, warm on my face.
“You told me it was a good deal, but Winston tells me it’s what every other loser pays!” Reggie screams.
I’m holding my jacket against my nose to stop the blood. They turn and walk back across the parking lot to the bar, white gravel crunching beneath their feet. When they’re gone, I drive over to the park across the street to wait for Gloria, get out of the car and take a seat on an old park bench with half its green paint chipped off. That homeless guy who’s always there sits down next to me. He’s missing most of his teeth, and his pinstripe suit looks dirtier than normal. I get up, walk to my car, grab two bottles of whiskey from the trunk, head back to the bench and offer him one. He gives me a huge toothless smile. We both take swigs, sitting there quietly, watching boats float down the river, loons flying overhead, crying out to one another.
Gloria was supposed to show up two hours ago. The lights to the bridge turn on and I’m starting to feel a little drunk. My toothless friend has finished his bottle and lies down on the grass to sleep when I see Gloria walking across the lot towards me.
“Is that blood?” she asks.
“Yeah,” I say.
“Are you drunk?”
She looks at me for a second as though she’s trying to figure out if I’m OK, then she says: “We’re going to keep it.”
I’m not sure why, but I force myself to not react. Seems like a big decision she’s made for us, but I need to hear her out.
“OK,” I say.
She shuffles back and forth and looks down at her feet. This is not the story I want to tell my son about how we decided to keep him. Bleeding on a bench, drinking whiskey from a bottle, about to lose my job, a homeless man passed out next to me. Maybe someday it’ll be funny, a story Gloria and I will tell at Thanksgiving to our grandchildren.
Gloria stops me mid-reverie. “I told Greg. I told him it was his and he wants to have it, and so do I.”
“But I thought you guys hadn’t—.”
“We have now,” she says. “We’re moving in together. Tommy, we can’t see each other anymore, OK?”
Now I look down at my feet, not able to say anything.
“I’m a Catholic girl at heart. I love him. I didn’t know what else to do.”
She turns and starts walking across the street. By the time she gets back to Reggie’s she’ll have forgotten all about me.
There’s a breeze coming off the water from the north. It doesn’t smell like it usually does, all that sulfur and ammonia, but maybe that’s because I have a busted nose and am breathing through my mouth. I take another sip of whiskey and think about what’s next. Ed always said to picture the future you want.
I take a case of whiskey out of my trunk and set it next to the homeless guy, curled up like a little kid, using his ripped suit jacket as a blanket. I can picture the huge smile he’ll have on his face when he wakes up. I get into my car and start to head home, but instead take the exit for the Ambassador Bridge. I’ve never been over the bridge before, never been to Canada, even though it was right there my whole life. The water doesn’t look so brown up here—all I can see are the lights from the bridge, and their reflections in the dark-blue water. On the other side, on the roof of a warehouse, there’s a huge Crown Royal sign I’ve never seen before. The sign is beautiful, with neon purple script and a yellow crown shining in the blackness.
At the bottom of the bridge is the customs gate. A woman taps on my window to roll it down. She’s about my mom’s age and has a big Mountie hat on her head as though she’s patrolling in the mountains on a horse, not guarding the border to Detroit.
“What’s your business?” she asks.
“I’m heading to Seagram’s up in Waterloo. I have some potential work with them.”
“That’s great,” she says, “Nice car. Get that nose looked at.”
A sign for Waterloo says it’s 291 km away, however far that is. I turn the DeVille onto the 401 freeway and start heading east.
DH Singh was born in Texas, raised in Michigan and currently lives in California. He’s been, and sometimes still is, a paperboy, waiter, cologne salesman, telemarketer, local news videographer, movie trailer editor, copywriter, creative director, executive, t‑shirt distributor, writer, husband and father. This is his first major publication.