Brothers Andre and Smoker were raised in a cauldron of their parents’ failed marriage and appetite for destruction, and find themselves in the same straits as adults—navigating not only their own marriages but also their parents’ frequent collisions with the law and each other. A powerful portrait of America’s harsh northwestern border, Bruce Holbert’s Whiskey burns pleasantly as it goes down.
This time, Claire did not depart all at once but after a series of diligent, daily efforts to prove her affection to Andre—notes in his lunch pail, fruity desserts he favored, VCR Mafia movies, bubble baths, a ferry cruise to Alaska, and a television the size of Rhode Island—all of which moved him tremendously, though he couldn’t escape what motivated her largesse. She would argue through the morning hours he was reason itself for her heart to beat, but the necessity for her to pursue her case proved more evidence against it. There was no last straw, no camel’s spine, no argument or slammed doors or broken saucers or vases, none of the theater one associates with a marriage’s dissolution. Instead, their home darkened until neither of them could light it alone or together. One weekend during which he’d scheduled a fishing trip, she, with his blessing, boxed his books and clothes and organized his papers in a suitcase and added a share of their photographs. Two high-school boys toted the lot to a pickup truck and transported it to an apartment Andre had rented a week earlier. She paid them ten dollars each.
After, Andre would encounter his brother, Smoker, at the tavern each evening. They drank beer—Andre was off whiskey once more—and dined on Smoker’s tab, which Smoker squared each sitting, an inclination Smoker entertained only recently.
Their last evening in the tavern commenced like any other: Andre entered the place and Crazy Eddie peered up from his novel and slapped the griddle with a burger for Andre and another for Eddie’s dog, Desdemona, a mixed basset with legs no taller than beer cans and a long fat tube of torso that serpentined as she tottered inside. Her head, though, was as square as a Labrador’s.
Grease popped and a meaty aroma rose from the grill and reminded Andre of his childhood; he had no fondness for his youth, but he appreciated the meals. Eddie spatulaed the patty onto a bun and extracted tomatoes, lettuce, and sliced pickles from a Tupperware box. With an ice-cream scoop, he plopped potato salad on a plate and added the sandwich. The dog took it bread and all but had no inclination for toppings or fries, so Eddie ladled her the chicken and noodles remaining from the lunch special so as not to short either of them.
The juke was full of quarters, which meant Andre must endure metal-clang and pop tunes that sounded like TV commercials before his Merle Haggard hit the spindle.
By then, the old-timers had yielded their booths to the pool players as the clientele’s volume had bested the TV’s. The juke was full of quarters, which meant Andre must endure metal-clang and pop tunes that sounded like TV commercials before his Merle Haggard hit the spindle. He poked his meal and glanced at the mirror while the evening regulars milled about the billiard table or piled behind a pair of upright video machines. He could have ordered to go and at home played tapes, but alone and off whiskey the songs just cooked him into a stew.
Desdemona, beneath the stool, feasted until she cleared her plate then harassed Andre until he surrendered the remnants of his hamburger.
“Goddamned communist,” Eddie scolded.
The dog retreated to the door and Eddie put her out. No more than a minute later, Darrell Reynolds, one of two lawyers who served the coulee, allowed the dog back inside. Reynolds rotated his head to scan the room, an act that appeared rehearsed, then ordered a beer. Eddie poured and placed the full glass on the bar. Reynolds chose a stool beside Andre, where Desdemona had curled beneath his stool.
“Is that your dog?” he asked.
Andre shook his head. The man wore pressed gray slacks and a blue polo shirt and leather loafers with wine-colored socks.
“Anything’s friendly if you feed it.”
Reynolds laughed and inspected a scar in the wooden bar.
“I’m Darrell Reynolds,” he said. He maintained a mustache to fit in, but trimmed it too carefully.
“I’ve seen your ad in the paper,” Andre said.
“I’ve been doing some work for your wife.”
Andre pointed at the bar then held up two fingers.
Eddie blinked. “You sure on that?”
“I am,” Andre said.
Eddie delivered a pair of jigger glasses along with the whiskey under the counter.
“Oh no,” Reynolds said.
“You work for free, Reynolds?”
“I charge a fee,” Reynolds said.
Andre poured whiskey into the shot glasses and shoved one toward Reynolds.
“What’s this?” Reynolds asked.
“It’s the fee.” The glass had spilled a little. Andre hooked his finger across the puddle and dangled it for the dog, who showed no interest, then downed his glass.
The lawyer smiled and drained his whiskey too then wiped his mouth with the back of his wrist.
“Your wife wants to dissolve your marriage.”
“It matter what I want?”
“Of course, there are two sides to anything like this.”
“Good. I want to stay married. Tie score keeps the game on.” Andre replenished the glasses. His stomach fluttered awaiting more alcohol.
“I’m afraid the law doesn’t see it as such,” Reynolds said.
Andre hoisted his glass and indicated Reynolds do the same. They drank. Andre poured and lifted his glass again.
“Fee’s doubled,” he said. “After hours. Pick up your liquor.”
Reynolds relented and drank.
“I don’t want to see you in court, Mr. White,” Reynolds said.
“Well, you won’t want to encounter me out of it, I guarantee you.”
Eddie threw Andre a warning look. Andre ignored him. Reynolds unzipped a cowhide purse and carefully placed a blue envelope on the bar.
“You can sign these and avoid the courts or hire your own lawyer.”
Andre poured two more. “I’m hiring you,” he said. “Drink. That’s an order.”
“You can’t hire me. Your wife already has.”
“I’ll pay more.”
“It doesn’t work that way.”
“Goddamnit, how does it work then?”
Reynolds tapped the envelope with his index finger. “You sign the papers. That’s how it works. You save yourself some money. You get divorced.” He excused himself for the bathroom.
Andre plucked matches from a wicker basket between the salt and pepper shakers and set the envelope on his dinner plate. He struck a match then admired the flames. Only ashes remained when Reynolds returned. He clasped his hands before his chest to demonstrate his patience. “It cost money to draw up those papers,” he said. “The courts have to process them.”
“Guess she’ll have to pay for another time through.”
“You don’t understand. Once they’re processed, they belong to the court. I served them to you. They’re your responsibility now. You’ll have to pay for another summons.”
Reynolds smoothed his mustache with his thumb and forefinger. “There are witnesses. They will testify to what occurred. You,” he said to Eddie.
“We don’t do that here, mister.” Eddie opened the sink spigot.
“If I subpoena you, you damned sure will. I’ll be prepared with perjury or contempt charges, otherwise.”
Eddie withdrew a plate from the soapy water and rinsed it, then another. “You thought you were prepared when you walked in here, didn’t you?”
Reynolds switched his attention to Andre. “I’ll serve you at work, in front of your students.”
“It’s summer,” Andre said.
The lawyer drew a deep breath. “I can see why she’s leaving you.”
“So can I,” Andre said. “I just don’t want her to.”
“It’s my job,” Reynolds said. “Nothing personal.”
“No offense taken. A little more fee?”
“My wife’s going to shout bloody murder.”
“Better make it a double, then.”
Eddie let the dishes sit and paged through the phone book nailed to the wall. He punched some numbers.
“Mrs. Reynolds,” Eddie said. “This is Eddie at the tavern. Yeah, Crazy Eddie, though I’m not much crazy anymore. Your husband, he wanted me to inform you he’s with a client.”
Reynolds pleaded for the phone. Andre hushed him.
“No, I’m not covering for him,” Eddie said. “He’s a good man, now, everybody with any sense knows so. He’s with this hard drinker is all, and they’re working something out, so he’s indulging him to grease the skids. You’ll want to taxi him home when he finishes here. I won’t have an educated man arrested for drinking on my watch.” Eddie paused to listen. “No, ma’am. If there were women, why would he ask you to pick him up? He’d have one of us drop him off. That’s how it’s done. Thank you, ma’am. I’ll call you when he’s ready.”
“He don’t cost a hundred dollars an hour, either,” Andre told him.
They had put a significant dent in the bottle when Smoker arrived and sat on the opposite side of the lawyer. Eddie retrieved him a beer. Smoker nodded to the whiskey bottle and Andre slid it past the lawyer to his brother. Smoker hoisted the bottle and pulled.
The brothers were heads and tails on the same coin. Andre had trouble meeting another’s gaze. His eyes drifted about a room, measuring occupants uneasily. His rounded shoulders folded forward over his chest like he expected a blow, though his reputation made the event unlikely. He cut his black hair short to disguise a stubborn cowlick. As an adolescent, he’d suffered acne. He still washed his face three times a day, but his skin shone with oil in any light. His brow shadowed his eyes and a bent Roman nose. He had straight teeth; still he rarely smiled; he appeared at times pensive and at others bilious. Living alone had left him with intuition like a woman. Sometimes it served him well. Others it hardly mattered.
Smoker shared the same black hair, though not the cowlick. He wore it nearly to his shoulders. In certain lights it appeared purple. Stronger lines than Andre’s delineated his face, as did a genial countenance. He was as tall as his brother, but he carried his shoulders more horizontally. Though Andre was a capable high-school basketball player, Smoker was the one who looked the athlete. He walked like his limbs were half air, and if he decided to leap it appeared he could decide when to come down.
“Seen my good-for-nothing woman?” Smoker asked.
“Not since the last time you asked,” Andre told him.
“Check with Eddie,” the lawyer suggested.
Smoker lifted an eyebrow. “How’s he know about Eddie?”
Eddie wiped the counter under his glass. “Every sinner finds the Lord sooner or later.”
“What about it, Edward?”
“Haven’t seen her since Flag Day,” Eddie told him.
“She’s probably just making a wide loop,” Andre said. He reached across the lawyer and confiscated the whiskey.
“I ain’t finished with that,” Smoker complained.
Andre paused. “You stop to wonder why a lawyer is my drinking partner tonight?”
“You stop to wonder why a lawyer is my drinking partner tonight?”
Smoker stared at the french fries in ketchup and the lettuce leaf blackened with the letter’s ashes. He didn’t reply. They listened to the beer lights tick.
“Who’s watching Bird?” Andre asked. Smoker’s twelve-year-old daughter was named Raven, but Smoker called her simply Bird.
“Dede’s got her.”
“You never said nothing about that up till now.”
Smoker shrugged. “Didn’t know till this afternoon. I thought Vera was watching her.”
Andre glanced at Smoker. “Where you looked?”
“At that biker she used to shack with and Vera’s, like I said.”
“Neither’s seen her?”
“That or ain’t saying.”
“There’s a child missing?” Reynolds asked.
“Damned straight,” Smoker told him.
“Is there something I can do?”
Smoker pursed his lips. “Might be good to have a member of the bar in our corner. We could roust Vera and Biker Bump again.”
Smoker bummed Eddie’s cigarettes, lit one, and put it between Reynolds’s fingers. “It’ll make you look meaner.” He hooked the lawyer’s arm and steered him to the door. Andre followed. Outside, Andre paused at his rig for a .38 pistol. In Smoker’s pickup cab, Smoker unholstered a snub-nosed Luger then tossed Reynolds a twelve-gauge from the window rack.
“Don’t shoot it,” Andre said.
“But if you do, get close,” Smoker added.
The lawyer crawled into the pickup bed and propped himself on the wheel well. Andre joined him.
Their first stop was Smoker’s live-in’s sister. Vera was as husky as Dede was thin. She looked like a legged ham. Twice she’d whipped her husband into the emergency room. Finally he countered by half scalping her with a posthole digger then lit out for Ephrata and the county hoosegow where he awaited the morning turnkey. But Vera declined to charge him and they had lived amicably since.
Smoker pounded the door and Vera answered.
“You should keep an eye on them better if you want a family, Smoker.” Vera was loud enough for the neighbors to come to their windows.
“She’s got the child.”
“Girl’s as much hers as yours.”
“And if you were God above, who’d you want looking out for her, Vera?”
“Neither of you.”
She shoved by Smoker and marched to the truck. She inflicted a curt look upon Andre then bored her eyes into Reynolds. The lawyer opened and closed the breach of the double-barrel.
“That don’t scare me,” Vera said.
“I wasn’t trying to,” the lawyer told her.
“Good, because I’m sure armed threats are against the bar.”
She turned and found Smoker. “I don’t know where she is,” Vera said. “I’d get the girl myself if I did.”
“You see her, that’s what I want you to do,” Smoker said.
“It would be for the child’s sake,” Vera told him.
“I don’t care why,” Smoker said.
Smoker turned for the pickup.
Vera raised her voice. “You know our mother’s place?”
“Still summer,” Vera said. “The roads are manageable.” The place had been Dede’s parents’. The old days, their father skidded logs the warm months and winters tugged green chain at the mill, and their mother cooked in the school kitchen. Both passed some time ago; they left the place to Dede and Vera and a brother who manned a Louisiana oil rig and pronounced no word to the sisters even for the funerals.
Smoker reversed the truck from her driveway.
“You think bikers are tougher than fire?” he asked Andre.
“Tough ain’t the question. Stupid is,” Andre said.
“Let’s hope this Bump is a lot of one and not much of the other,” Smoker replied.
“You could drop me at home,” Reynolds shouted from the truck bed.
Smoker opened the back slider. “Not yet.”
At the trailer court, the biker’s porch light glowed. Smoker dropped from the truck cab and clubbed the front door. Bump Rasker opened it.
Smoker put the gun muzzle to his forehead.
“I ain’t seen her, goddamnit.”
Andre fished a gas can from behind the seat and soaked the skirting beneath the manufactured home. Smoker tossed him a matchbook.
“I’ll call the law,” the biker shouted.
“We brought us a lawyer.” Smoker aimed his flashlight at Reynolds. “I guess we’ll do as we please.”
Bump approached the pickup bed. “You a real shyster?”
The biker scratched his goatee. “I got to tell?”
Under the streetlight, Reynolds appeared white and holy. “It seems prudent,” the lawyer said.
“You won’t burn me down?”
“Not if I’m satisfied with your answers,” Smoker told him.
“Last I seen either Dede or the girl was three weeks at least. They was with Harold the Preacher and his whacked-out son.”
“I recognize that Harold’s name,” Andre said.
“First I heard of them was when they knocked on the door.”
Andre lit a match, which threw a watery light on the grass and low shrubs. “Seems to me a long way from answering my question.”
“Give me a minute, goddamnit,” Bump said. “They were hunting Peg.”
“I told them. But they kept around. They had cocaine and money, so I didn’t argue.”
“So how do we find them?” Smoker asked.
Bump shrugged. “I don’t know. The boy’s drugs dried up and so did his money, but he claimed he had more. Harold read his good book and watched TV news the whole time. Drank a beer or two but didn’t put out spending money or partake in the cocaine. Dede decided to follow the son and took the kid. I wasn’t invited.”
“You’re not telling me anything useful,” Smoker said.
Bump eyed Reynolds.
“In Spokane. A place off Wellesley. Heroy, I think. Twenty something’s the address.”
“How do you come to know this?”
“Dede wanted her unemployment forwarded.”
“He spilled it all, you think?” Smoker asked Reynolds.
Reynolds said he sounded genuine.
Andre extinguished the match and pocketed the rest.
• • •
They returned to the tavern where Eddie phoned Reynolds’s wife.
When Reynolds’s wife arrived, she wore white, which left her tanned skin darker. She was fully aware of the effect. Her short hair was practical. She did little with it, maybe because she wasn’t required to. Reynolds kissed her hand like a sailor long at sea might. She laughed. A man could go a hundred years without hearing a sound so pleasant.
She laughed. A man could go a hundred years without hearing a sound so pleasant.
Smoker and Andre watched their lights go. A grassy strip lay between the curb and sidewalk. He walked to it and sat. The cool of the earth swirled around him like water. He wanted to slump into it and sleep. Smoker kicked him in the shin, hard. Andre rolled but Smoker booted him once more, then grabbed Desdemona and lobbed her at him. The dog yipped and her claws drew blood through Andre’s shirt. Smoker dodged backward but Andre caught his shoulder and thrust him to the pavement.
Smoker glared up at him. Andre punched his belly.
“That hurt?” Andre asked.
“Not as much as you want it to.”
Andre rose and kicked Smoker between the shoulders.
Smoker grunted. “Want to go for a ride?” he asked.
“Sure, why in hell not?” Andre replied.
Bruce Holbert is a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His work has appeared in The Iowa Review, Hotel Amerika, Other Voices, The Antioch Review, Crab Creek Review, and The New York Times. He grew up on the Columbia River and in the shadow of the Grand Coulee Dam. His great-grandfather was an Indian scout and among the first settlers of the Grand Coulee. Holbert is the author of The Hour of Lead, winner of the Washington State Book Award, and Lonesome Animals.