Empire Liquors by Craig W. Colbrook

My father always told me that the most important thing in owning your own business is inventory. He opened up this liquor store, and I swear to god, he could tell you exactly how many cases of Miller Lite he had, how many bottles of vermouth he’d ordered, and how well gin sold on Bears’ game days. If he were here today, he’d tell you that you’ve got to know what you got and where you got it. That’s the only way to know what you need.

Dad was only talking business when he said that, but I think it’s most helpful in a crisis. That’s when you really need to take a minute, breathe deep, and literally take stock. Look, maybe it isn’t really going to help me with the fact that my landlord is dead in my parking lot, and the gun that killed him is smoking on my counter. But I don’t know what else to do, so I’m taking inventory.

Listen: I run the liquor store now, and that landlord had jacked up the rent the last three years in a row. The last time, I flat out told him I couldn’t keep up, and he didn’t care. I told him it would put me out of business, and he acted like was being the pain in hisass. And all of that is just whatever, because I swear, I wouldn’t kill a guy just for screwing me in business. But he came by to collect with some fucking beaner thugs from south of Lawrence Avenue, and I knew they were there to trash my store…

…and it still got out of hand. Okay, I admit that. I just wanted to threaten them, to scare them off. And the thugs did run. But the landlord stayed and started yelling. I yelled back, and Jesus, I don’t even remember what we said to each other. I just remember the straw breaking, and the arm raising, and the finger squeezing.

And the body falling.

I start down the third aisle. That’s where we keep whiskey. This used to be the aisle. Dad always thought you couldn’t have enough whiskey in an Irish neighborhood. But now, the bottles in this aisle have a fine layer of dust, and we have way too many more of them in the back.

It all started when the Mexicans moved in. Dad fucking warned us, so I can’t say I was taken by surprise. But it all happened so slowly, you know? Just a family or two on a street or two. Who could object to that? I mean, I didn’t much like them. God knows they could have had the common fucking courtesy of learning English. But this ain’t Russia, I didn’t want to say they just couldn’t live here.

Now, it’s 20 years later, and I wish I would have listened to dad when he told me they were going take it all away from us. I grew up on these streets, and I thought I knew them like the back of my hand. Not anymore. It’s all haciendas and tapas bars. All they want to drink is Tecate and tequila. 

I hear sirens now. I’m only about two blocks away from the police station, so this won’t take long. I’m sure one of the neighbors called it in. The cops probably heard it themselves, but it’s all Mexicans in uniform now. They’re too lazy to move until someone calls it in.

That new alderman, Abe Garcia pushed for more Mexicans on the force. I swear, he’s turning this precinct into his own little Gestapo. He’s had it in for me ever since I put up that “This Store Speaks English Only!” sign. But what the fuck was I supposed to do? I don’t speak Spanish. And if they were going to come into my place, wasn’t it the least they could do to speak my language?

I know Garcia put the screws to my landlord. You can’t own any land in this town without some fucking alderman putting his hand in your pocket. Dad and the last one, Marino, they could just meet at the County Cork Tap and work it out. And if someone didn’t know about the deal they worked out, Marino would call some of his guys on the force to straighten them out. But Garcia blows all that smoke up our asses about being a “reformer”, so he won’t actually sit down and make a deal.

And just for the record, I’m not saying I was perfect. I did some crooked things. I had some under-the-table arrangements with some distributors. I gave some guys downtown some unmarked envelopes to keep my license up to date. I know this. I take responsibility for this. And I say this: I did it all to protect what my dad and I built in this neighborhood. Don’t act like you’d do anything different if everything your family had ever done was on the line.

The red and blue flashers are flooding in from the front windows. They’re bright enough to sting my eyes. 

I’m living off of borrowed time, but I’ve been doing that ever sense Garcia announced he was running. I knew that if he won, he’d cost me my business, and like I said, I had to protect that. I started going to some meetings. Some weird fuckin’ meetings, with guys talking about “fourteen words” and “eighty-eight”. I thought they were just trying to do that “eighty-three” bit from sports radio, but I guess it’s some Hitler thing.

I got into helping out Monkman’s campaign. And when they asked if anyone was willing to get their hands a little dirty– and it was most definitely a “they”, I didn’t even know the guy’s name– I volunteered. I wasn’t proud. But I saw Garcia and his fucking people marching up Milwaukee Avenue, tearing down everything we’ve built, and I got scared.

So, I threw a brick through his campaign office’s window. And it looked like it might work at first! Monkman’s people spun it that maybe Garcia had done it himself, and everyone turned on him. The cops tightened security on him- guys like O’Malley and Bertram hadn’t retired yet, and they knew the score- so he couldn’t get out and campaign as much. Monkman thumped his chest about being falsely accused and raised some money off of that. But the beaners stick together, and there’s just too many of them in this ward now. So, Garcia won anyway, and since then, he’s been coming for me.

I feel a little bad about that girl, though. She was pretty and blonde. I heard she’ll never walk again after the brick hit her. I didn’t mean for that to happen. But she wouldn’t have been there if she hadn’t decided to make phone calls for Garcia. That was her choice. We all have to live with our choices.

I put the last tally mark down on the clipboard. I slam the clipboard down on the counter. Honestly, the thing I’m most pissed about is that I lost control, and now I’m going to give Garcia what he wants. I can’t stand the fact that I’m giving him that satisfaction.

I take a quick swig of Old Style. I stare down at the gun. Maybe I should charge out there. Go down in a blaze of glory. But that’s just suicide, as surely as if I put the gun to my own head. That’s not how Dad raised me.

They’re getting out of their cars. They’re using the bullhorns. “Come out with your hands on your head.”  I could do that. Go out there, tell my side, give the system one last chance to work. But what is working at this point? I fucked up, I know it. And even if I had good reason to fuck up, even if any honest man would have done it in my place, that’s not going to matter to a judge. Even the courthouse sits in a Mexican neighborhood now, down there at 26th and California.

I just stand there, slowly sipping my beer- until they pull out the battering ram and knock in my door. They swarm around me. They grab my arms, jerk them behind my back, and cuff me. They haul me out of the store- I doubt my feet even touched the ground- and shove me into one of their squad cars. I think I grunt here and there when they bump me, but I don’t say anything. I just let it all wash over me. That’s what I did up to now, anyway, right? I let the Mexicans and the liars and the politicians wash over my neighborhood.

I glance out the window of the squad car as they take me downtown, and I see the big neon sign for the Tres Hermanas Bonitas salon. I realize this isn’t my home anymore, anyway. Might as well leave.

Craig W. Colbrook is an attorney and political activist. He lives in Springfield, Illinois with his wife Caitlin and three children, Amelia, Theodore, and Nathaniel.

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