As long as there are winners, there will be the rest of us, the losers
| The Lost Souls Club
The bar was dark and full of smoke and it was cold outside. It was past midnight on an early Wednesday morning, so only the die-hard drunkards lingered in this basement watering hole.
The hours were dragging on towards closing time when a tall gangly man stumbled in from the January blizzard. He straightened his thick glasses so he could peer into the darkest corners of the room, where sat two of his oldest and closest friends. They waved to him as he pealed off his woolen gloves and unbuttoned his heavy jacket, then held up his finger, gesturing for his companions to wait, while he paid the bartender a visit.
The large, well-built man wore a football jersey and had an earring dangling from the side of his shaved head. He didn’t look up from the beer steins he was polishing and it was a few moments before he met the newcomer’s eyes with a hard, even glare.
“We don’t serve fags here. “ he growled.
“Well, if I see one, I’ll let him know.” was his deadpan reply, “ I need change for cigarettes please.”
He then snatched the five-dollar bill from his customer’s trembling hand and made the change as requested. He then intentionally dropped it all on the floor where his patron stood. The shiny coins scattered everywhere, sending poor old Charles scrambling on his hands and knees to collect them all.
The bartender looked down with a sneer, and then returned to his work. Charles always had a way with people. He was a regular there, and wasn’t always welcome.
The two others watched as Charles staggered to the cigarette machine beside the washroom doors to deposit the requisite coins. He selected his brand, and then the device disgorged a package of smokes, which he carried to his seat.
The search for his lighter involved emptying the contents of his pockets on the table and desperately sorting through them all, there was a worn and battered notebook and several wadded up pieces of tissue paper.
“Man, Charles, you look like something the cat dragged in.” The man who spoke was Frank; one of the group gathered there that evening.
Charles grunted rudely as he lit up the smoke, then choked and let out a dry, rasping cough, then he spit out the results into one of the waded tisues.
In a voice slurred by six too many drinks, Frank pressed on, “Don’t you have anything to say to your two best buddies?”
“Hello.” Charles answered curtly, and then broke into another coughing fit.
The third member of the group chuckled to himself.
“Those things will kill you yet, bud”
He was the only member of the threesome who had bathed recently, and who wore expensive clothes. In sharp contrast, the other two wore second hand, threadbare rags. His name was Edward, and life was treating him well.
The three of them met in high school. They would party together to all hours of the night. They were young and they had their dreams. Charles was certain he would become a renowned journalist. Frank was on the fast track to a career in boxing. Of the three, only Frank seemed to have no ambition and would always live in the moment.
They parted their ways after a wild, roller coaster summer, each of them going to separate schools. On their last evening together they swore an oath that they would gather together in ten years in a home town pub.
Now, a decade later, they all proved true to their word.
They sat in an uncomfortable silence for a long while, when Charles spoke up.
“Looks like we have some catching up to do.”
“Okay, lets start up the violins” said Edward, “Why don’t you start, Charles?”
He butted his cigarette, lit up another, choked, and then spoke. “As you all know, I breezed through high school.”
Edward snickered, Frank coughed nervously.
“Okay, maybe not math and physics, but those weren’t really important.”
“Like, journalists don’t know how to add.” Edward muttered ironically. Nobody laughed.
“May I go on?”
Edward assumed a mockingly attentive pose “By all means.”
“Thank you. Anyway, I got to a good start in college. The classes were interesting and I was getting good grades. Then, after a while everything began to seem strange. I thought there was something wrong with the way the other students talked to me, the way they looked at me. It obsessed me. It would keep me awake night after night as my grades dropped and my health suffered. I didn’t even notice I was chain smoking until the money ran out, then so did my smokes. Before I knew it, I was thrown out of my dorm in the middle of the term. There was a fire at the school library that year, and there were stories circulating among my other students that I was the one responsible. Some of them said I had done it accidentally, with a carelessly discarded cigarette, others said I had done it deliberately. None of that was true, and I didn’t even know about the rumors until much later, and had no idea why I was being treated so harshly
By then, whenever I had to write an essay, or even a letter, I would end up staring for hours at an empty page. My mind was racing so fast that I wouldn’t even know how to start. My natural talents had deserted me, and I was left without a place to live, making it next to impossible to continue my studies.
I sort of fell between the cracks then, I didn’t return for the second semester, at the request of the collage. I found myself out on the street, standing at an intersection begging cigarettes from strangers. I’ve had a few run-ins with the law, been in and out of the nuthouse and now live in a rooming house with twenty other lost souls.”
Charles then fell silent, he had nothing more to add. The group sat in silence for a while. Then one of the other patrons staggered past the trio on his way to the washroom. He stumbled and accidentally bumped into Frank, spilling his rum and coke all over his lap.
“Why you asshole!” Frank yelled as he rose to his feet.
“Fuck you!” the stranger snapped back.
He was twice Franks size and at least five years younger, but Frank had never let common sense keep him from a good fight. He threw a quick left hook at his fellow drunk. It missed its target by a mile, throwing him off balance as he followed through, and causing him to lose his balance and fall flat on his face.
The bartender, who doubled as the bouncer, approached the scene as Edward was helping Frank to his feet.
“Okay, you boys had better clear out!” he barked.
Edward then took the huge man aside and apologized for his friends while slipping him a fifty-dollar bill. Then, miraculously it was Frank, but his opponent that was shown to the door.
The bar was empty now, save for them.
“What’s happened to you?” Charles asked Frank in amazement, “You should have floored that guy.”
He grinned. “Actually, I thought there were two of him.”
Frank had always had a self-effacing, humble sense of humor, but that didn’t stop Edward from snickering and saying “Man, you are pathetic.”
“Do you want to hear my story or what?” Frank asked
“Go ahead, I’m all ears.”
“Shortly after we parted, I started hitting the booze.”
“You were always a drunk, buddy.” Edward interrupted.
Frank ignored him and continued.
“Despite my addiction, I managed to win a few prize fights For a while there I felt invincible, like I could do no wrong. But soon I was drinking constantly. It made me numb to life. It left me free to become a real jerk. My career took a nose dive. I can’t remember all the details, and those I still remember hurt so bad they have me running for a bottle.
I remember how it all came to a head the night of the regional championship. I was in the locker room and my coach was chewing me out for showing up drunk. My manager had quit earlier that day. I treated him like garbage, and said something so hurtful that he has never spoken to me again. This had my coach furious, and when he didn’t shut up when I told him to, I hauled off and decked him. That was destined to be my last knockout.
I went to the fight anyway, and as soon as I climbed in the ring it was clear that I could barely stand. I staggered around like a drunken master through the entire first round somehow without being hit. When the bell rang for the second round, the arena started spinning around me and I passed out at the feet of my opponent, with taking a single punch.
“After that the only joy I had left was in a bottle. I became a homeless nobody, wandering the streets looking for a dry place to sleep, or a dark place to shit, begging money from strangers to pay for every bottle and maybe a bit of food. After a very messy incident, one that I can’t remember for the life of me, a judge ordered me to go to de-tox. I managed to dry out there, and later found a job as a janitor. It isn’t an easy life, but it’s the only one I have.”
“I see you’re drinking now.” Charles observed, pointing to Frank’s seventh bar shot of cheap whiskey.
“I’ll always be an alcoholic,” he said, quoting chapter and verse, “As soon as I set foot in a bar, it’s too late. I all I can do is drag myself out of bed tomorrow and try again.”
Charles started to say something, but Edward interrupted.
“Okay, you are both losers, no surprise there.”
“All right,” Frank asked, “What’s your story then?”
“It’s a success story, fellas, listen and weep.” Edward gloated, “ When I was very young, I was no good at anything, what came easily to you two was very difficult for me. While you were breezing through exams, “ he nodded to Frank, “ I had to work damn hard just to pass. I turned into a late bloomer though. As soon as I managed to get accepted at a university, things started to go my way. My first year English professor recommended journalism, which I took to like a fish to water. I also was winning medals in track and field. With a bit of effort I graduated and found a job as a sports columnist for a national newspaper. Since then I married a famous fashion model and have won awards for my writing, and all the while I was earning a tidy sum of money for myself.”
Frank felt like crying, but instead he laughed. “ So here we are, two losers and Superman.”
Charles chuckled at this. “I have a name for him, and its not Superman.”
Frank started to mount a comeback but instead he suddenly choked. He leapt from his seat and ran to the bathroom with his hand covering his mouth. Charles ran after him, Frank had done this many times before and the job of cleaning him up and getting him safely home had always fallen to him.
When he entered the dimly lit, filthy washroom, he found Frank leaning over a urinal, emptying the last dregs into the fixture. I a few noisy moments he was done, then he fell on his back choking on the smell and the bitter taste.
Charles squatted next to him and politely pointed out, “ Most people use the toilet, you know.”
“Just wanted to be original I guess.” He weakly joked.
He painfully rose and propped himself up on one elbow, thoughtfully stroking his unshaven chin.
“Something set this off, something has always set this off. You see, I have these moments of clarity, forgotten bits of my past that are completely forgotten until some cue brings them up. All the pieces fall together, and I painfully realize how much of a fool I’ve been. Just now, I started to remember that last party, where the three of us parted ways.
The place was packed, wall-to-wall people, and I was in the kitchen by them my mouth was already dry but I still needed more booze. There were some beer bottles in the fridge, but they weren’t mine. I decided to take one anyway. As I was committing the dirty deed, I heard Edward clearing his throat behind me.
I turned and he said ‘Those are my beer you know.’ ‘Come on man, this is a party.’ I whined ‘Yeah, this is a party and you want to get stinking drunk, make an ass of yourself, and start a fight.” He shot back. I got angry with him then, told him that he was the one who gave him his first beer, just like he encouraged you to start smoking. Then he got this evil look in his eyes and with a grim smile he asked ‘What would you do for a beer, would you do anything?’ ‘Do you want me on my knees?’ I pleaded.
‘No. I just want your soul.’ He answered as he picked up a bottle and twisted off the cap.
I thought he was kidding, I laughed and agreed to the deal. In return he handed me the beer and I ran off to join the fun.”
“Are you sure that really happened?” Charles asked in an astonished tone, “ I mean you don’t think he really has your soul?”
“Well, he’s an athlete now, isn’t he?”
“Yes, and a journalist too.” He paused for a moment, and said. “ Now I remember something, too.”
Charles thought back to the night of the party. He was all out of cigarettes, so he was circling the room asking the other party-goers for cigarettes. They would insult him in response. Finally he snuck into the coatroom and was rooting through pockets, when Edward caught him in the act. It was essentially the same routine as with Frank, his soul for a cigarette, and just like Frank, he accepted.
“I guess I always thought there was an inherit fairness in the universe. That this sort of thing only happens to bad people, and only for a good reason.” Charles said thoughtfully.
God triumphs over evil, and love conquers all, or something like that?”
“We could ask Edward.” He suggested sarcastically, helping Frank struggle to his feet. Charles leaned on him as they left the washroom and returned to their table.
There was a fifty dollar bill wedged under the ketchup bottle and Edward was nowhere in sight.