(Warning, harsh language)
It was shortly after the dinner hour and I was sitting alone at the bar when he walked in.
“Hey, can I have a beer?” He sat down next to me.
“Show me the money,” the bartender said. His face was impassive, his voice humorless and flat.
The guy next to me took out a five and laid it on the counter. The bartender took the money then got him a draft.
“You doin’ OK here?” the guy asked.
“Sure, but you look like you’ve seen a better day.”
“Ya shoulda seen the other guy.” The man let out a short bark of a laugh.
The bartender didn’t laugh. “From what I can tell, the other ‘guy’ is no worse for the wear.”
“And what do you mean by that, huh? What do you mean? Ain’t nobody whose ass I can’t whoop.”
“I mean the beer you’ve been drinking hasn’t been effected nor the good food you haven’t been eating. You need to take care of yourself. I’ve told you that a million times, less booze, more veggies. And good sleep, you’ve got to sleep. Frankly, you look like shit.”
“Shut the fuck up!” the guy said. He watched his beer sullenly. I could see the red and anger drain as something worked through his mind. “You know, I’m scratching by on next to nothin’. How about my old job back?”
“If you came in here and ordered a Coke, yeah, I would have thought about it. You’re a good worker,” the bartender said. “At least when you’re sober.”
The guy turned on me, his face red; his eyes wild. “What in bloody hell are you looking at?” I could see his muscles tense. He was about to pounce.
“Sorry, I’m trying to get the bartender’s attention,” I said calmly. “Excuse me, can I get another beer?”
The bartender set a full mug in front of me. No money passed hands. It was never mentioned, but from the moment I walked in I was running a tab. This didn’t go unnoticed by the guy next to me.
“So, you’re sitting there so high and mighty, huh?” the guy said to me. “From the way I see it you’re worse than me, drinking alone while I chat with my old friend.” It was a taunt. I knew he just wanted me to react.
I shrugged my shoulders, took a small pull off of the new beer and said, “Maybe, maybe. We all have our reasons, our crosses to bear.” I shrugged again and concentrated on the beer.
“What the fucking hell do you know about my cross?” I wasn’t looking at him, but I could feel the angry glare like a hand pushing against me. After a tense moment it shifted as he turned away from me to the bartender. “Hey, watch my stuff, ‘K? Nature’s callen.”
After the guy walked away the bartender turned his attention towards me.
“You better watch yourself,” he said. I did a half shrug. “He’s edgy, confrontational and a bit paranoid when he’s sober. When drunk? We’ll, he needs to be left alone.”
“Violent?” I asked. I knew the answer.
“He once told me he knew 27 ways to kill a man with his bare hands, but liked the feel of a bare-knuckled punch better. When he’s sober he fears he might let go and actually kill someone. He doesn’t care when he’s drunk. He’s a sad case and I sometimes try to help.”
“So I should be kind and understanding?” I asked. I knew the answer.
“No! That’ll piss him off like nothing else. I’d say go sit at a table or finish your beer and leave. I mean, I know it’s none of my business, but he was right, it is funny that you’re here drinking alone at this hour.”
I laughed. “So, is this like some scene from a movie where people actually do tell the bartender all of their problems?” He shrugged. “Are you doing some type of clinical study on the American drunk here or something? Do you have a psychology degree or something?”
“Well, since you ask, yes,” he said. I knew that too, of course. “I was working on my doctorate when life happened. A BS in psychology can be a pretty useless waste of lambskin, you know. Some pretty lean years there.”
I nodded, then laughed. “Looks like it’s time for the bartender to get things off of his chest instead of the other way around.”
He smiled. “I think it’s pretty common knowledge. I worked as a bartender to stay alive, found I liked it and bought this place. At this point I couldn’t be happier to have never finished my doctorate. I would have just been spending my days with a bunch of miserable people.” I cocked my head at him and smiled. He laughed. “Yes, gentle irony, but here I am one of them. I can talk, perhaps help, and I’m not talking down to them from some mountain peak as they lay on an uncomfortable couch. That’s why I’m so interested in our friend there. As I was saying…”
The bartender looked up. Stopped talking, then walked away to clean some other corner of the bar. The guy came back from the men’s room and sat beside me.
“Let me guess, you were talking about me. It’s not hard to figure out, people always talk about me. Shit. What did he say? Call me a drunken loon? A head case? ”
“He said you were a major league bad ass,” I said. “He said you’d kill me if I talked to you and kill me if I ignored you. Said you’d kill me if I looked at you wrong and kill me if I looked away.”
“Ha! He knows me pretty well, doesn’t he?”
“I don’t know, you tell me…”
His face instantly flushed, his muscles tensed. Out of the corner of my eye I could see the bartender listening in with concern on his face.
“So, are you just studying me like some fucking insect? What’s up with that? Huh? You, in your expensive clothes and all, why are you sitting here, then, drinking on you own at seven fucking o’clock in the evening?”
I took another sip, then looked at him square in the eye. “Have you ever had those voices in your head? You know the ones. They drown everything out with their constant babble, their constant going on. You can’t shut your ears to them because they’re inside of your head, never stopping. They go on and on. Everything bad that’s ever happened, everything, it’s all laid bare and made to sound worse than it is. It’s constant, constant, constant, on and on. Sometimes a beer or two is like putting a cotton ball in the inner ear of your mind. It doesn’t cut all of the chatter, but for a moment you get a little relief. Have you ever listened to those voices?”
“What do you know about that shit?” he asked. He was still tense, waiting for a wrong move to justify hitting me, but he was also being drawn into himself.
“We all get that, Bob, every human,” I said. He flinched as I said his name. I could tell he was wondering if the bartender had said it or perhaps used it while he was in the bathroom. “For some it’s worse. Money problems, legal issues, family problems, maybe something that happened in the war, perhaps a bad relationship or, worse yet, the inability to keep a healthy relationship going. Anything sound familiar, Bobby?” I knew they all did. I knew what his inner voices told him.
“Who are you, what do you fucking know about anything?” I didn’t say anything, just calmly watched him. He looked down at his beer but didn’t drink any. “The problem is, you put that alcoholic cotton in your mind’s ears and cover your mind’s eye, but you wake up the next morning, still stinking of the bar. You walk down the street and there’s a loud noise so you dive to the ground and roll. Some people look at you horrified, others look and laugh. ‘Stupid drunk,’ they say. ‘Why do they let people like that walk the streets?’ Then the voices and visions come back louder than ever, so another night of wiping them out, another night lost. Another night another fight, hey!”
I continued to watch, unblinking.
‘“The voices and the visions. Seeing my best fucking friend ripped apart by an IED. Being laid up for two months when another one took two more of my buddies and rattled my brain cage. No one knows or understands. I go to these group talks and they’re just a bunch of pussies who can’t get a grip. They don’t know anything, don’t understand, they talk about it, but what do they know? And, god, the whole world is in cahoots to see that I can’t raise. Everywhere I go they already have that message. Everyone. I’m sure you’ve seen the memo, that’s why you started all of this.”
He looked back up at me, his face turning red again, his muscles tensing.
“That’s life,” I said, “but it’s the only game in town. I know, I’ll stop with this clichéd crap soon. But it is true, you do have choices, and one is to live or not. And many do chose ‘not’ and yet their bodies refuse to die, just their minds and spirits. Seems a waste of space and resources, but you know what? Sometimes these people do decide to live again. Yeah, I know it isn’t that easy, but life is hard, living is harder.”
I took a sip of my beer. I could see his face contort.
“Yes Oprah, don’t go telling me how to run my life!” he said. “I live plenty. I can tell you there is nothing that makes you feel more alive than hearing face bones crunch under your fists. Shit.” He turned away. I knew better.
“Maybe you’re right in your way, maybe not,” I said. “You know, sometimes living means letting go, even if you think they deserves it. And I know that you’re not fooling yourself. Hurting others doesn’t make your hurt go away, at least not for long. No, it makes it even worse, much worse. But there is something deep inside, that anger. Anger that your friends died, but also angry that you were made to kill. Anger at looking into a dead child’s eyes and seeing your sister in them, though they were ten thousand miles away. Anger knowing that the child and her little brother, those children, yes, little more than babies, had their futures cut short because of your gun, because of you. Anger watching Maurice being ripped in half when you thought you should have been there, taking the lead. Anger that you were used and then thrown away when you were broken. And yeah, it’s easy for me to say ‘let it go’, but you know better. Yeah, you know better.”
“What do you want with me?” he asked.
“Why, nothing Bobby. It’s just that as I sit here drinking my beer, I think about your pain,” I said. “I mean, I can dig. Yeah, an old word from another brutal war, but I dig it, I understand. When I meet my customers they usually don’t have a choice, but I have to do it. Back in Iraq, little Shatha and Mohamed had no choice, nor did Maurice, nor Warren nor Craig. But sometimes I get to a job early, have a beer to kill the voices in my head, and think about choices. Pretty much everyone has choices, even up to the end. No matter what some think about destiny or such, humans have free will. They can do funny things, even make a last second choice that will finish them or give them a new beginning. Why, you never know, it’s possible that tonight you’ll pick a fight with the wrong person and he’ll put a bullet between your eyes, but it’s also possible you’ll decide to leave well enough alone. It is your choice, everyone can change.
“Speaking of change,” I laid a 50 on the bar and, including the bartender into the conversation, said, “keep the change.”
I got up and pulled the black hoodie over my face. Bob gasped. I knew he was the only one who saw me at this point, the only one who saw the flesh melt away.
“I don’t like my job,” I said, “but it is needed. Anyway, Bobby, I’ll see you around. In fact, perhaps later tonight.”
I walked out of the bar, but I kept an eye and an ear in there.
Bob watched his beer for several minutes, then pushed the still full mug away.
“Hey Carlos, can you get me a Coke?” He asked. “A Coke and an application.”
“I still have your old one on file. That’ll do,” the bartender, Carlos, said. “If you clean yourself up a little and come by sober, you can start tomorrow. And between now and then, let me know if you need anything, a place to crash or whatever.”
Carlos set the Coke in front of Bob along with the five dollar bill. “This one’s on me, my friend, this one’s on me.”