by M. S. Bird
Nameless protagonist appears at a nondescript dive bar with memories of another life.
You always knew you were back when the neon washed over you. It was like cool water-- pinks and sky blues and greens, smoky streaks of color. An atmosphere so charged, so familiar, you couldn’t help but remember. Place always smelled the same, too. Like piss and beer. And there he was behind the bar, with a rag in his hands, polishing a glass. Or leaning over the counter, giving someone his ear. Same solemn expression. Once in a while he’d flash a grin, but these were rare occasions; little cracks in the facade. Which was not to say he was emotionless. You just had to know how to read him.
“Hey fella,” he said when I blew in. “Back again.”
His eyes followed me as I approached the bar. All the while his hands worked, polishing the glass to a fine sheen. It was a small wonder, how often he cleaned, and how dingy the place was. But it wasn’t that bad, really. It was the kind of dinge you wouldn’t mind calling home.
“Hey bartender,” I said, grabbing a stool.
“Usual?” he asked.
“Don’t remember what it is, to tell you the truth.”
“Hmm.” He stood under a pink neon sign. I glanced up at it, but couldn’t make out the words or logo. “Went deep this time, huh?”
“Who were ya?”
He already knew. He always knew. But he liked to ask anyway. It was part of the act. For all his stoicism, the guy was big on theatre. Maybe there was something about going through the motions, some necessary component of putting the experience to words, that made the process more real for him. Who really knew. When it came to the bartender, it was all speculation. Most things were speculation, when you got right down to it. Sometimes you forgot how little you understood when you were on the other side. But the bar had a way of bringing you back.
“Leah,” I said, rubbing my chin. “That was her name. She was a florist until-- well, you know.” I glanced at a cigarette still smoldering in the nearby ashtray. “This time was the same as the last. They killed the bees again. Always goes to hell after that.”
He set down the glass.
“Let me fix you the usual. Then you can tell me a little more about it, if you want to.”
“Alright. Would you mind if I got a pack of smokes, while you’re at it?”
“Sure thing, fella.”
I glanced around the bar. Slow night, considering. Only a handful of solitary figures warming the stools. A few of the booths were occupied on the far side- two couples and a party of four. One of the couples was holding hands, not saying much-- just staring at each other intently. It was a lovely sight, to tell you the truth. The other pair was getting shitcanned. Their raucous laughter pierced the otherwise quiet bar. You could expect to see a broad range of reactions here, when people were lucky enough to bump into a loved one.
It’d been a while since I’d seen anyone I knew, though. Not for the last ten turns or so. Ah well. What could you do? Wires got crossed.
But as it happened, there was a familiar face here tonight after all. I caught him out of the corner of my eye, over by the pool table. His partner was lining up a shot, intent on the game. But this guy was just leaning on his cue, looking straight at me.
The bartender reappeared, set a glass in front of me. I studied it. Amber liquid, poured near to the brim. Rocks. I held it up, gave a whiff. Rye whiskey.
I raised the glass, then tipped it back. Before I set it down, the bartender tossed over a coaster and a pack of smokes. No label on the carton-- just a blue star.
“So,” he said, empty wine glass and rag in his hands once more. “How was it this time?”
I shrugged. “Coulda been a little less lonely.” I took a breath. “She grew up in a rough home. Distant parents, manipulative sister. Had a hard time trusting people. But things didn’t go on for too long after the inciting incident. War started in ‘31. She was caught in a firefight. Trying to find clean water.”
I tugged a cigarette out of the pack, then nodded in the direction of the guy playing pool. I could still feel his eyes on the back of my head.
“Coulda done without him being here tonight,” I said. “Sometimes I wonder if you arrange these sorts of things on purpose. Then I wonder what you’d get outta something like that.”
“It’s not really a matter of arranging. The things that need to happen have a way of arranging themselves.” The bartender’s eyes were fixed on me as he spoke, gray and unwavering. “Sorry it’s not the night you were hoping for.”
I was about to ask for a light when he sparked one up. I leaned forward.
“So why is him being here one of those things that needs to happen?” I took a drag, exhaled. “He’s a monster, you know. Seems like he revels in it, when shit falls apart.”
“Maybe tonight you’ll talk,” he said. Nothing in his eyes suggested a personal feeling about it, one way or the other.
I glanced over my shoulder. Sure enough, Pool Cue was still staring. And there was that uneasy feeling in my gut-- part hate, part fear. But he wouldn’t try anything. Nobody tried anything here. The bartender wouldn’t stand for it. This was his place. We all knew what would happen if we stepped out of line. Not that anyone had ever seen it. We just knew, as implicitly as we knew how to breathe. You didn’t fuck around here.
“Maybe we will talk, me and him,” I answered. I took another swallow. “Stranger things have happened. Can I ask you something, bartender?”
“Go ahead, son.”
“How many times do we have to keep doing this?”
He didn’t miss a beat: “As many as it takes.”
I sighed. “I’m just starting to think we’ll never figure it out. Nothing ever changes. It seems like it’s destined to fall apart, one way or another. Just too many people, wanting too many different things. They don’t feel the pain they cause.”
“Maybe you’re right,” said the bartender. He looked a little tired as he took down another glass to polish. “But we’ll keep at it, huh?”
I went to take another sip from my glass. It was empty.
“Another?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said.
“Wanna keep a tab open?”
“Yeah. I’ll stick around.”
“As long as you like, fella.”
But we both knew how it was. A short respite; that was all you got. Then back to it, as the bartender liked to say. He was a treasure trove of earthy wisdom. Implacable patience. Push that boulder up the hill, watch it roll on down. Maybe one beautiful evening it would stay perched on top. What would that look like? What would happen then? Thinking about it made me want to cry.
I sniffed, looking out the windows by the front door. A primordial stew of colored lights churned in the dark, just beyond the frosted glass.