The store on the corner of Mermaid Avenue and French isn’t large. A subway car stretched into a square could easily cover it. In front, there’s a single door with a worn bronze grip. Several signs in several sizes shove the nomenclature “Max’s Liquor” into the faces of bystanders. Max sits behind the counter on a tri-legged stool. After every sale he inhales a cap of Jameson. On slow days, he counts change easily until five. When it’s sunny, the store is closed by four.
He’s always happy to see people when he’s drunk. Sober, he treats them as potential suspects in the unsolved murder of JFK. Wednesday is cloudy and cool for south Florida. At nine, Max rolls up the steel mesh that guards the glass and unlocks two expensive deadbolts. He quietly steps into the naturally lit shop. The bottles rarely learn a shade of dust, he sells most of the liquor he stocks. The cheap wine doesn’t sell well but Max likes to keep it around for the winos. It’s mostly through luck that Max gets to drink behind a counter, not in parks and on benches.
“Come ‘ere, darling” Max says with a small grin, gingerly lifting a fifth of Jameson from the shelf. He walks behind the counter, using his right arm to close the gate behind him. Like a man who enjoys life he expertly edges the stool up against the wall. The register is directly to his left on the counter. To his right are the expensive liquors. He keeps the small bottles under the counter.
The well oiled door opens silent and easy as a man in his mid twenties steps in. Ray glances to his right and raises his eyebrows. He gives a confidential smile and wink to Max.
“Alright today Max?” Ray says it at a medium register that gets lost amongst the bottles. Not waiting for a reply, he confidently moves to a shelf at the back of the store.
“You know, if you were my kid, I would have raised you stay out of places like this.”
A chuckle comes out from behind the shelf. Seconds later a smiling face walks out. Ray has dark hair cut short. His feet are clad in black, questionable sneakers. A grey jacket zipped up three quarters keeps the vitals in check. An unexpected suggestion of wealth comes from his manicured white teeth.
“Hey take a drink. Your always happy to see me in the afternoon.” Quickly adding “Although Max, if I hadn’t been up without a hangover in three months, I might be grouchy too.” Ray sanguinely banters with the proprietor. It’s easy to foster a friendship when you see another person every day.
A deep resounding snort Max emits before grumbling “Twelve-fifty.” He speaks in a sharpened tone without looking at the bottle. Ray puts thirteen on the counter, waits for the fifty cents. He takes it from Max’s hand and quietly walks out the door without looking back.
Outside it feels cool. The temperature has adjusted from fifty to sixty but the sun is still hidden behind a solid mass of clouds. As he walks out the store Ray tucks the vodka into his jacket. Turning right he walks purposefully down the street. Picking his way home, Ray doesn’t pay attention to the faces he passes on the street. He is concerned with several things; the writing today, the girl from Tuesday, the vodka in his pocket. They are pleasant thoughts and they are relished.
Max’s Liquor is two blocks from the beach, five blocks from Ray’s house. On any given five block route, Ray passes at least two other liquor stores. He doesn’t give them a passing thought. He enjoys the walk and after years of business, he wouldn’t abandon Max. When they are both drunk they get along like sailors. Occasionally, Ray sits on the stool and Max buys sandwiches from the Cafe down the street.
South Beach Miami is an expensive place to live. Certain neighborhoods in New York cost more but not by much. Ray writes his rent check sober and delivers it to his landlord drunk. The soft, reassuring warmth that vodka imparts masks feelings of loss. $1,700 is a lot for a single room. It’s worth it to Ray. From his window the ocean is dominant. The breeze floats in carrying the smell of salt and baked sand. His favorite time of the year is winter. The windows remain open twenty-four hours. Ray feels infallible when he smells the ocean tinted wind coming through the screened openings.
Today, Ray would start off slow. One drink for every half hour. He likes to start off easy and become aggressive later on. He writes through the various stages of drunk. The effort it takes to write well distracts his mind. Drinking while writing, it’s easier to feel the cheap liquor as it’s pushed around by an obstinate heart. The studio apartment is sparingly filled. Scattered blankets on a futon matt in one corner. Another futon by the wall. The desk is pushed against the largest window. The laptop is on all day long. Surround sound speakers gently pulse house music as long as the sun is up.
Half a block from his front door, Ray glances right and recognizes his landlord sitting outside a cafe.
“Cheers mate” Ray says with a smile, pulling the bottle out from his pocket and mimicking a Russian chug.
“When are you going to stop drinking? You think it’s all fun and games but one day you’re going to wake up ugly, retarded and broke.”
His landlord means it, but an unconscious smile plays across his lips. Ray’s in love with life, his spirit is contagious. He drinks too much and pays rent early. The Sergeant is fond of the young writer. It bothers him that the kid wants to drink himself to death. He hopes that Ray will change, but feels that he won’t.
“Hey man, it’s Saturday lighten up! You know the door is always unlocked, come by for a pick-me-up.”
Ray dismisses the middle finger with an easy wave and covers the short distance to his front door. Upstairs, the music has changed but the atmosphere remains constant. Although sparsely populated with furniture, the room looks friendly. The sun comes in through the large front window. Clothes are put away and the dishes are clean. If his body was not already pickled by vodka, Ray would be described as promising. His writing is clear and observant. When drunk, it turns dark but it remains honest. Ray can’t figure out if anyone would still read his shit if he sobered up. His alcoholic habits are so ingrained, the writing and the drinking are one.
The vodka goes on the counter and the day begins. Wake up the laptop, throw the jacket on the futon. He pours a teaser of vodka into the glass and the bottle goes in the freezer. Two ice cubes into the glass and apple juice on top. Working under the notion that his writing improves with liquor, Ray opens a new word document and takes a sip of inspiration.
Eight fingers hover over the keys. Ray asks himself, how can I craft a story from what happened this week? That girl I brought back a few nights ago was beautiful but she’s back in Chicago. Christ, good thing she was still there in the morning. Wouldn’t remember her otherwise. A couple more ideas materialize, but they are quickly dispatched with. The drink is growing tired. Searching for inspiration, Ray covers his face with his hands.
A story about going to the liquor store. Describe Max, describe the shelves covered in bottles. Describe the route I take every day. Why do I walk past other stores in my quest for inebriation. Better still, why are my drinking habits so intense? Sitting in the chair and gazing out across the white-capped ocean, Ray decides to address the situation reflected back at him from the glass. A young man who has shown promise. A young man who is unsure the honest words will still come when the liquor runs out.