The bar was littered with a few weary souls scattered about on stools supporting light heads and heavy shoulders. Ceiling fans swung lazily overhead, propelling a slight stagnant breeze onto the thirsty mouths below. Mouths on hard faces parched from the burden of their day, hidden behind various shapes of glass like distorted masks. The lights were dimmed, providing an illusion of perpetual dusk to help ease the minds of the vagrant drunks into forgetfulness that light still dwelt outside. The air randomly cackled from a thunderous break at the pool table. The ancient flickering jukebox stood lonely in the corner, playing whatever it pleased bereft of change.
An old man held a solitary position on a stool at the center of the bar. Everything else seemed to orbit around him; a sun unto his own frontier universe. He hunched over the counter as if it were a crutch to support his aging body. He sat for hours on that stool. Contemplating everything and nothing as he marveled at the cascading colors of bottles in front of him. The come hither allure of the emerald greens found in the bottles of whiskey, the warm fires that seemed to glow red hot inside of the imported rum, the cool refreshing blue hues of vodka; an aurora of flashing lights culling him into warm inebriation and blissful nothingness.
The bar was his home, or rather his haunt, and he played the role of its imperishable ghost to a silent applause. Few souls knew the name of this spirit of consumption, and fewer still knew how old he really was, let alone how long he had been haunting this place. To him, it was all one long blur of a seemingly infinitesimal night.
It didn’t matter to the old man what anyone thought of him. He had lived a long time, longer than he had probably ever cared to, and old age had purchased for him an air of great indifference. He was a fierce feline of the alleys that had all but used up nine of his lives. Nine lives fostering a hundred stories that housed thousands of memories. Memories, perhaps, he no longer felt the need to carry. His head was much too full of his past. It left little room for thoughts of a future.
The door opened and hot light flooded the atmosphere, breaking the spell of the man made dusk. The old man lifted his hand to shield his wrinkled eyes from the sudden sunburst as a silhouette of a man walked in. As the creaking door slowly closed and darkness took the space again, he noticed the figure walking in wasn’t actually yet a man, but also no longer a child; it was somewhere between that maleable transition where one undergoes their trials by fire and becomes transformed from the inevitable mistakes that scorch them so.
The boy sank into a seat a stool away from the old man. He ordered a beer in an almost inaudible voice and stared at the counter, his face devoid of all expression. When the beer arrived the unsavory paleness of it told the old man it was something cheap and tasteless. Like most young men he had observed, this boy had no taste. He decided right then and there not to bother with him and attended to his drink.
Before the boy could even wrap his hand around his glass a song began to play from within his pockets so loud it overpowered the bar’s own jukebox. It was “Friday, I am in Love” by the Cure. It’d been years since the old man had heard it, but he knew it well. The song transported his senses back to a time of neon and adrenaline fueled rails off the bathroom stall in this very bar.
The boy took out his phone and stared blankly at the screen. The song went on, Robert Smith sang of a profound love in D Major, and the boy did not answer. He just continued staring at it. Before the old man could voice his annoyance, the boy dropped his still ringing phone into his full glass of beer, where it bubbled and sank until it hit the bottom of the glass. The picture of a woman’s face flashed on the screen and her name was seen in brilliant white letters for a moment. Then there was nothing.
“Excuse me?” the boy asked. “Could I get another beer? There seems to be something in my glass.”
A solitary and involuntary chuckle escaped from the old man’s chapped lips but the bartender did not share in the same amusement; the boy was not brought another beer. The old man hoped that the boy would have had the good sense to leave, but apparently the boy seemed senseless. Gazing again at the counter with a face that seemed not just expressionless, but rather one that simply did not know what it was supposed to be expressing. He had an energy about him that made the old man uncomfortable, and comfort was something he felt entitled to in his old age.
“So what’s up yer ass?” the old man asked loudly. The boy did not answer. He merely sat there, playing deaf to his neighbor’s inquisition. His eyes were now frozen towards what was now the corpse of his phone, as if at any moment he expected it would come back to life. The old man had no more patience left in him to harbor an insult as heavy as being ignored and the drink was strong in his blood by now. You could say it was the whiskey that caused his hand to slam in front of the boy, as much as it was the old man himself.
“I asked you a question, boy?!”
His breath, as hot as his temper, stank like a bottle left out in summer. If it was one thing in this world he hated, it was not being acknowledged. He had suffered enough judgment at the hands of people who thought themselves his betters his whole nine lives and the cat had tasted rejection for so long that whiskey seemed to be the only way to wash the taste from out of its mouth. It stirred in him an ancient anger he had carried with him as he long as he could carry himself. It was certainly not the first fight he’d been in under this roof, nor would it be the last. But when the boy’s eyes finally met his, he withdrew his hand and his anger went with it.
Staring back at him now was a look he had seen once upon another life. A memory once thought drowned and forgotten, swam up resurfaced to the front of his mind like worms in the rain. He saw his own eyes staring back at him in a mirror. In that memory they wore barely a wrinkle and were filled with searing tears that flew down his face warm and unbidden. He recalled the pain he’d felt in his chest as he held her letter of farewell, hurt that throbbed like a knife in his back he was helpless to pull out. He remembered shattering that mirror into pieces and how after a dozen different sad, distorted manifestations of himself had stared back at him with that same broken gaze.
How could he have forgotten the bleeding mirror? The poetic irony he found in the way the glass shards embedded in his knuckles like so many diamonds, engaged as he was then to his despair. Had the medicine he’d long since sought finally accomplished what he set out to do? Had he finally managed to forget?
He stared deep into the boy’s eyes now. His eyes were as a green sea suffering a red tide. He’d been crying. He’d been crying for a long time. The old man studied the boy’s eyes for a second, then two, and looked away. He could not suffer the intensity in his gaze. Those eyes that seemed to shoot a challenge to the old man, or were they imploring him? Leave me be. His own eyes found the bartender then, “Martha, two Makers, doubles. Neat.”
The barmaid took her time walking over to the old man with a slight exaggerated swagger in her stride.
“You could at least say please, you old fuck.” she said with a chastising smile.
“I love you, Marty.”
She brought the drinks, and laid them out in front of them. Bending over far more than she actually needed to. The old man picked up a glass and raised it over his head towards the boy in a gesture of salutations and apology. The boy returned the gesture in kind. The old man threw the drink back and let it settle on his tongue. He savored the burn then swallowed the fire. The boy coughed.
“Thank you,” he said softly as he collected himself. Acknowledging the apology and cloaking, as best he could, his embarrassment.
A few moments went by in respective silence as the old man studied the boy he had accosted from a peripheral glance. He was handsome. Beautiful in a way he had never been. Completely unaware of the looks he was drawing to himself for, in his depression, he hid well what vanity he must have surely possessed. A thick head of auburn curls fell about his face to hide the current shame in his eyes.
The old man felt he should say something to him, but what could he say? What did men do in times like these but mend the pain from both sides in contemplative silence? He bought him a drink to nurse his wounds. It was more than most people had ever done for him. Wasn’t that enough?
“Heartsick, huh?” the old man asked with a forced laugh of congeniality. He didn’t know why he had opened his mouth and felt he was going to regret ever having done so to some baby boy fresh off the street. But then the boy laughed too. One of those sad, defeated kinds of laughs that ends with a sigh.
“I am sorry.” he answered once again in a quiet, soft spoken tone. One of those sensitive types, thought the old man. But there was still a bit of fight left to him, an edge that could still cut. “Forgive me for being so fucking obvious.”
The old man sneered then dramatically sniffed the air, “Oh, I know that smell. You reek of that love sting. Still, you smell better than most of us in here, pretty boy.”
Then came a real, honest good laugh. It erupted from the pit of the boy’s stomach, where the whiskey had no doubt made its impact. He had a surprisingly fantastic laugh; infectious and completely unrestrained. It shook the bar and sang high over the speakers as his hair fell into his face again. He brushed it back with one hand and took a drink with the other in one graceful, fluid motion. He had forgotten himself for a moment with that sudden outburst, until he opened his eyes again and remembered where he was. Upon this sobering realization his shoulders sunk and moved forward until he hung over what was now an empty glass.
His posture spoke louder than anything he could ever say, but still he spoke, “When does it stop?”
The old man said nothing at first. He instead gestured for another round, feeling that more of this medicine would be the best remedy for the boy’s palpable sickness. He watched Martha come and go with their prizes with weary, sunken eyes. His head was somewhere else now; far from sex and his drink and the dull pulse of the bar’s slow tempo heart. He wondered what to say to the boy, if anything. He knew the boy was still soft clay and impressionable. He could lead him astray with but a few wrong words. For men in dire straits seemed always quick to grab hold any word that might validate their current positions. And what the hell did he know about anything anyway?
“I don’t know, kid. Some hurts, they just stay with ya. Most of life is learning how to carry that.” the old man said as he handed the boy another drink. “Pain, it’s always gonna be there. Waiting to walk in through the same door that love walks out of. I think it was Cormac McCarthy who once wrote, ‘The shadow of the axe hangs over every joy.’ As if to say, eventually, joy will be stripped by sorrow. To that I say, ‘Well fuck you, Cormac!’ Learn how to block the blow, man.”
He looked at the boy then, expecting to see that his antics might have purchased a smile. Instead he saw those green oceans in his eyes had begun to swell, and the old man did not care to see them overflow. As a man whose form was sculpted by far rougher times than the boy would likely ever see, he felt ashamed for him and his presumed weakness. Even a hint of disgust at his audacity to shed his pain in such a public fashion. But as a human being who contained within himself far more empathy then he would ever admit, he could not help but watch in some twisted sense of fascination as a solitary tear fell from the boy’s face and onto the bar, mixing in with a pool of water acummulating below a perspiring glass.
“Some hurts just stay with ya?” the boy repeated as he made no move to wipe away the tears from his face. As if he were not ashamed at all for conveying what he, as a man, was conditioned to feel shamed for doing. His hands stayed true to his glass. “I don’t see this one going anywhere…Fuck it!” he spat and took a drink from his glass. “At least I found out she was capable of fucking around on me before I did something real stupid.”
The boy did not sob. Nor did his voice betray his convictions with the slightest quiver. His only course now seemed to be to reinforce his beliefs with words he did not really seem to believe. He had been running over the scenarios of his recent love’s denouement no doubt a thousand times already. Traveling absent of mind miles in any given direction. Far from the scene of the crime till the street brought him here to this place to self medicate the wound. A subconscious, yet conditioned, response yearning for anything to fill the empty space within him that, until recently, had housed an extraordinary kind of love. Now he searched the barest of vacancies to fill the void.
The old man had heard these kinds of stories in the corner of this bar alone dozens, perhaps even hundreds of times. He knew what the boy was going to say before he could even say it. But for some reason, he was still listening. He hung on the boy’s every word, though he couldn’t understand why he even gave a damn. They shared camaraderie in heartbreak and nothing more. They were men born from different times who lived entirely different lives. The only bond connecting them now was the bottle their whiskey came from.
The boy was still very naive in his youth, where the old man was a grizzled veteran of a long fought campaign. The lad was pretty and soft, whereas he was calloused and the years had been anything but kind to him. But in spite of the tremendous amount of evidence that brought to light the boy’s foolishness, the old man decided he would keep listening. For had he too not been a great fool once himself?
The boy heaved a great and heavy sigh, “I give up. I just fucking give up.”
“What are you giving up?” asked the old man, gently challenging him.
“People!” barked the boy. “Ya give ’em what they say they want and then they just want more! It’s never enough. People just want to take. I am running out of things to give…”
“We are all wired that way, it’s human nature. You can’t give up on people. After that, it’s only a matter of time before you give up on yourself.”
“I just don’t understand–how could she do that?” the boy’s voice quivered again. “The more I try to understand the less I know. It just doesn’t make sense…”
“You should be goddamn grateful it doesn’t.” said the old man thumbing the rim of his glass. “Be thankful you aren’t like those people; that even the notion of commiting such an act is utterly alien to you. But you should know by now, no one makes it this far in one piece, kid. You gotta give people the space to be…human. We all have our demons. Some of them we don’t even want to exorcise. They can become a part of you, or you them if you carry them too long. With people you let inside, you gotta let in their demons too. All or nothin’, brother. See if their devils dance with yours. Otherwise, you ain’t really in love you’re just, well, you’re dressing up and playin’ house.”
“Why dress up at all?” the boy implored. “Why are we so afraid of being real?”
The old man froze with his glass just before his lips as they quivered slightly in anticipation. He didn’t know how to answer him. Had he ever even asked himself that question? But, suddenly his tongue ran away with him.
“To be real is to be seen. For most of us, we have gotten so used to hiding maybe we don’t even know what part of us is real anymore? We go off of blueprints handed down to us from somewhere. We base our love off the love we have seen and how we should act to get that love. And some people didn’t get shown too much love, some got none at all, and others couldn’t have possibly gotten anymore. That’s life, and it’s never fair. But we have to look for this. We look and keep looking because, goddammit, it’s what we are.”
“That pain a lot of people feel, I think that’s us trying to force ourselves when we don’t fit. Two different puzzles that spilled out onto the same floor. Or it’s us leaving those pieces we just simply cannot fit into. We hurt each other when we hold on too tight. We hurt each other when we lessen the grip. It’s too much and then, it’s not enough. You want it. You get it. Then, it turns out it’s not what you wanted, so you let it go. Then, you want it back because it’s gone…”
The old man still held the drink before his face. Stirring it in his hand, fascinated by the way the liquid caught the light and distorted the world around him. ”We all just want what we have seen in the movies, really. What we have been conditioned by art to feel. We want to be spouting that poetry to beautiful, perfectly imperfect souls like we see on that magical silver screen. Those goddamn films have killed us with their impossible walking contradictions. The poets handed us loaded guns and the writers are holding queue cards to pull the trigger. Filling our heads with dreams we try endlessly to recreate.”
He took a long, hard drink from his patient glass and waited for his words to really hit the boy while the whiskey hit him. He felt then, in that moment of silent reflection, as though he had become a conduit. As if someone else was speaking through him, for his words did not seem his own. The spirit of the bottle, perhaps? He couldn’t remember the last time he had talked so much to anyone. It wasn’t so bad. His throat was beginning to become sore and the whiskey was making his voice sound harsher than he meant for it to sound. It masked his sympathy and hid his sincerity.
“Have you ever been in love with someone?” asked the boy.
“Of course I have loved someone. Many someones!” the old man laughed. They came and went; transient affections. How long is forever anyway, really? A few months, a couple years? Eternity is surprisingly short, in my experience. Then again, it can happen…who knows? For me, most of them turned out to be no more than passing seasons. And now, in the winter of my years I see that all those eternities I was promised, all of those forever and infinities, however much time they really gave me, they were all worth it in their own way. I harbor no real regrets, who has the fucking time? Hell, I don’t even regret the bad ones–especially the bad ones!”
“Those bad ones show you how good those good ones really were that you let go of so you can hold on next time around–if you are that lucky.” He paused to gather his thoughts, though the words flowed out of him in one long river as if he were a dam burst.
“So many girls but ah, so few women! So few real women who know when to stoke the flame and when to douse it. I guess you could say that about men too. How many girls lost their faith in men because of some boy’s false religion? It’s as if people have forgotten how to be–how to be happy, how to be loved. There is no real soul to anything it seems anymore. It’s all made on the cheap. All this knowledge and no wisdom. It’s all just sex, instinct without passion. You’re all in heat, but that ain’t fire. Those embers won’t keep you warm the way a soul’s gotta stay warm. You’ll find bodies, sure. But you gotta dig for that kind of real fire kid, really dig. And you’ll know when you find it because then, you won’t even have to ask yourself. Then, you are going to burn something awful.”
Somewhere behind them a man cursed aloud and threw his pool cue on the table. The boy looked back and glanced around the place as the old man attended to what was left of his drink. He saw men and women smiling at each other in the darkness, betrayed by the whites of their smiles and the glaze in their narrowed eyes. He overheard their conversations out of sheer curiosity and then laughed softly to himself, but he didn’t really know why.
It was then that Martha came back around with two fresh glasses, “These are on the house boys!”
“See,” said the old man, “Now this is a good woman! I can try and set you guys up if you like?!” And for the first time in the entirety of their evening together the boy heard the old man laugh. He was glad to have been an audience to it.
“Tell your boyfriend to come back when he has some hair on his damn chest!” said Martha as she left the boy with a wink.
The boy joined in on the laughter and together their sudden uproar drew the attention of everyone in the bar. They were both dismissed as drunken fools and were convicted on both counts. He felt much lighter than before, stronger somehow. As if the great weight of his despair had been suddenly lifted by the laughter of his transient companion. That illusion of invincibility found in the drink was coursing through his veins now, pumping out the sickness that had sought to claim him. It was too early to even consider a retreat. Instead, he would surrender himself again to the old man and leave himself at the mercy of his words. The boy smiled another one of those sad smiles from beneath his hair, “The writers really have damned us all, haven’t they?”
“Who knows?” the old man shrugged. “Maybe they haven’t damned us at all. Maybe they have just been trying to save us?”
“From what?” asked the boy with a tilt of his head.
“Life…The life we find now in front of us. They are trying to save us, help us escape. Maybe in their scenes and pages they are just giving us a map–”
“–to get out of where we feel the need to escape from.”
“To lead us home, precisely! To save us and help us forget!” The old man stood up straighter in his stool, levitating almost, on sheer excitement alone. He felt something then, something he refused to call faith. More like bravery, a kind of greater hope. “Forget about our debts and dead ends! Death and taxes and the state and our goddamn religions! The wives and ex wives and their lousy head and their lousier, stinking husbands! Advertising, television, the pigs and the threat of cages…they want us to forget all of that. How could we damn them for wanting to paint a better picture for us that we didn’t have the balls to paint ourselves?”
The old man hunched down and leaned in close and the boy couldn’t help but think there was a fire in his eyes. “Let’s not damn the movies or the writers. What if all they are trying to give us is hope? Hope that there is more to this life than all this phony bullshit we have built for ourselves. Just because you haven’t found it yet, doesn’t mean it isn’t real. I will drink to that. I will believe in that, if nothing else.”
The boy smiled, “You’ll believe in fiction then?”
“And who is to say we can’t make fiction real? I think people could use a bit more imagination and magic in their lives. Let them succumb be allowed to believe again. Let em’ fuckin’ burn! I feel for those poor souls who never even start; afraid of the fire. I did my dance. And I danced with some lovely creatures. But your song is just starting.”
The old man’s drunkenness was reigned in for a moment. “This thing you are going through, hell you know it’s temporary. Time is the dog that licks all wounds. You’ll mend this like you’ve sutured a thousand other wounds you’ve already forgotten about and go on. That’s the thing about life, son; it goes on.”
The boy had never felt so foolish and yet so wise in all of his waxing years. His soul was made lighter by all the spirits he’d imbibed. His heart was still wounded, but that wound would soon bring to him a new kind of strength. This old soul had truly saved him, if only for a night. The boy stood up for the first time in what felt like days to him. Almost forgetting he even had legs, he wondered if he had always been this tall, as he found the floor to be quite problematic at first. He took out some crumpled bills from his pocket and threw them on the table. It was far more than what the bill would have been, but in his mind he was paying for a priceless lesson.
“Thanks.” said the boy as he placed his hand gently with a reassuring pat on the old man’s shoulder. He let it linger there for a while.
The old man made no motion to remove himself, even placing his own wrinkled hand gently upon the boy’s fingers and squeezed them softly. No more words from him. He had given all he could spare.
The boy finally found his feet, possessing once again the body that now felt so foreign to him, and walked back out to the street from which he came. Outside the night had come as quickly as the day had gone. The door closed behind him shutting out all the sounds of the atmosphere he flew out of, leaving him to suffer the silence of the night alone. And what a lonely night it was. The streets were empty and their lights flickered like so many fireflies.
He was fantastically drunk but still fully aware of himself. It hurt a little less now, though the wound was still fresh. It would take time. Time is the dog that licks all wounds. A cold breeze caught his face and filled his nose with a sweet nocturnal perfume. He looked up from the cracks in the sidewalk and found a tilted crescent moon shining bright above him in an almost starless sky. He smiled, and the night seemed to smile with him.
ian gallows ©