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The $18 drink had three dollars worth of ingredients, Randy learned. The owner of the speakeasy, Michael, taught him how to make it one night. A shot of rye, simple syrup, and bitters dumped into a copper mug overflowing with ice. Garnish with an orange slice. $18, please.
“Started with name brand, worked my way down to rail. Nobody noticed,” the owner confessed.
And how they ordered them, round after round, these people his own age crammed together at little tables in the basement, as their tabs soared into the triple digits and beyond.
“It’s a speakeasy,” Michael corrected him, when he referred to the bar as a basement.
“Speakeasy,” Randy replied, before hustling to a table, copper mugs clutched in both hands.
How their eyes lit up when he put the drinks down in front of them. Here they were in a hidden bar off U Street. No sign outside. Just a door. So exclusive! Then the iPhones came out to capture the moment, the warm glow of burnished copper in candlelight.
Michael brought in a TV and rented out the entire bar to a group of young Democrats. They were having a victory party, for the long arc of history was on their side. The men were already a little drunk, their ties askew, while the women wobbled on the flagstone floor, all staring up at the big screen, waiting for the returns.
“You excited?” Michael asked.
“Sure,” Randy nodded. He didn’t vote. Couldn’t vote, a secret he kept from Michael, who wouldn’t pry too deeply into his past.
The kitchen was run by Salvadorans, as most are. One of the cooks was deep-frying tater tots. They would be placed in a cereal bowl and drenched in reheated cheese. Eight dollars. As Randy picked up an order the Salvadoran asked, “She win?”
The kitchen staff was for Trump. A great country like the United States could not have a woman as President. Like Randy, they could produce documentation that appeared proper, at least upon first glance, which was all Michael wanted.
Leaving the bright kitchen for the dim bar, there was always a moment of blindness. Things went dark for a second, then slowly lit up. Randy saw silhouettes slumped at tables. Women nervously chewing their fingers. One man standing, running a hand through his hair.
“Florida! Fucking Florida!” Michael shouted.
Randy put down the tater tots. One of the girls at the table grabbed his hand.
“Do you believe this?” Her eyes were bloodshot, her grasp sweaty and pawing.
On the screen, the map had turned red, from the inside out, as if an organism was ripping apart a host. Randy watched as states went for Trump, including his home of Kentucky. He was sure his mom had voted for the man, out of desperation, a mad hope that someone could change their cursed little town and their cursed little lives.
But Randy had enough experience with the federal government, through the penal system, to know that it was nothing but a big, blind beast, stumbling across the American landscape, more likely to crush you than help you.
“They’re leaving,” Michael said, pointing him in the direction of one of the tables.
He collected a stack of credit cards – red, green, silver. Bank of America. Citibank. PNC. At least $100k in purchasing power, given to him by people who barely looked up. Randy had a bank account with $27 and a couple hundred in tips stashed in the group house.
Behind the bar, Michael was mesmerized by the TV. To his left was the front door. Three steps up. Disappear into the U Street crowds. Go on a spree.
Instead, Randy ferried the cards to Michael.
“They want to split the bill.”
“Of course they do.”
After, one of the credit card owners couldn’t be located. The one who had held his hand. She had disappeared. Every night, someone left a card at the bar. Michael kept a stack of misplaced cards in the safe. People left them behind at tables, dropped them in the bathroom, and even handed them to errant busboys.
“They have more money than sense,” Randy had said to Michael.
“And that’s what keeps me in business,” the owner replied, with a smile.
The girl was located. She was outside, sitting on the curb, crying. All her hopes were gone. For if a woman as qualified as Hillary couldn’t make it, then how could she?
Randy handed her the platinum card. She tossed it blithely into her purse.
“You’ll be okay,” he said, sitting next to her.
“Help,” the girl slurred, attempting to summon an Uber.
Randy took her iPhone and pressed the right buttons.
“Aziz. Two minutes,” he said, handing it back to her.
The girl leaned in for a kiss, her lips sloppy with whiskey and simple syrup. Randy turned away, her mouth mashing against his cheek.
The Uber arrived and he gently slid the girl into the backseat. He made sure to make eye contact with the driver. “Take her home, Aziz,” he said.
Inside was a shocking sight. A big, orange face dominating the speakeasy. Massive on the TV, sending a sickly mandarin glow across the tables, illuminating overturned copper mugs and scattered tater tots. President Trump.
The remaining patrons were standing, launching invective against the image on the screen.
“Fuck!” Michael exclaimed, slamming his fists down on the bar.
Randy was smiling, a broad and unexpected grin that overtook his face, a few seconds of happy disbelief, a triumphal joy. It was the joy of winning, victory over these careless people and their easy lives. He knew it wouldn’t last.
Joe Flood is a writer from Washington, D.C., and the author of Murder on U Street, a murder-mystery set in the District.
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