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Come As You Are

He tapped his wedding ring against the glass and pretended to check the time on his great-grandfather’s watch, which he received as a college graduation gift almost two decades ago, as he waited for the bartender to make his way back down. The bright light of mid-afternoon poured through the paneled windows opposite the long oak bar he was leaning against and danced across the melting ice cubes and whiskey-diluted water in his glass. He found the light display as comforting as watching a campfire slowly burn and he remained fixated on his glass as the bartender approached.

“Heya Pat, what do you think about pouring me another?” said the man, finishing the drink in his hand.

“Sure thing chief – and here’s our lunch menu. The kitchen is going to close in about 25 minutes to prep for dinner so let me know if you need anything,” said Pat.

The man nodded his head as he looked at the menu. Burger. Cheeseburger. Bacon Cheeseburger. Jalapeno Bacon Cheeseburger. Chili Jalapeno Bacon Cheeseburger. Tator Tots. And a Cobb Salad.

“Thanks, but no thanks, I think I’ll keep my calorie intake to the strictly liquid variety,” said the man.

He raised his glass in a silent salute to the handful of other drunks at the bar. None returned the gesture.

“Suit yourself,” said the bartender.

He poured the man his drink. Four jigs of bourbon whiskey, three ice cubes and a splash of water. The bartender wiped his hands on a dish towel as he moved away from the man, making a note on his order pad that the man had only one refill left before he would have to make him eat something or ask him to leave.

“You know they have a tomato soup on the dinner menu” said an old lay a few barstools down from the man. Her voice was a low rumble of gravel and mucus which had been earned from a lifetime of chain-smoking cheap cigarettes, evidenced by a half-a-pack of butts sticking out of a small mountain of ash in front of her. Her latest conquest still waving a smoky finger in the air.

“Excuse me?” said the man. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand after a long drink.

“Pat serves a tomato soup on his dinner menu, and I bet he could whip you up some now if you’re hungry…”

The man stared at her with a puzzled look on his face, the meaning of her words lost in the fog of his mind.

“…since you can’t eat solid food. Tomato soup would work” said the old lady, she pushed her shoulders up to finish her thought through body language instead of saying “I don’t know, just trying to help”.

The man raised his eyebrows in acknowledgement as he lowered the glass from his mouth after another sip.

“Oh no, thank you though. I can still eat solid food but I’m not hungry…just here to drink” he said.

“Well suit yourself – the tomato soup is pretty good, and I bet Pat already has some on the stove.”

“I’ll keep that in mind – thank you.”

The man swiveled his stool towards the liquor bottle-lined shelves behind the bar in order to escape the tomato soup sales pitch. He set down his glass and removed his half-way loosened tie. He stuffed the garment in his pants pocket but the leather band on his watch brought the skinny tail-end back out as he removed his hand. He grasped his half empty glass in both hands without picking it up, a few strands of his graying hair fell over his face. He made no attempt to comb them back in line.

He straightened his back and methodically looked over the various bottles spread out before him.

“I wonder if the bar makes the whiskey look nostalgic or do the bottles make the bar feel like home. Which is exacting its will on the other?” said the man to no one in particular.

The question hung in the air, loud enough that all had to take notice but not so loud that the other patrons could still hear themselves think. Pat had walked down the bar to pour a friend and long-time customer some more coffee. As a middle-aged man who had spent the better part for four decades either behind a bar or clearing tables in front of it, Pat could not let a question about the soul of a bar go unanswered.

“Walt – you want to handle this one?” said Pat with a half-smile.

“No no – all you, my friend. You have the unique perspective of being the only man alive that spends more time in a bar than I do…maybe” said Walt as he turned the page of the newspaper and sipped his coffee.

Pat put down the glass he was cleaning and turned to the man.

“Alright – well pal, I think it’s both honestly. If I had placed brands of fruity flavored vodka up there instead of the half-drunk whiskey bottles with “old-timey” names and designs, this place would lose its feeling of authenticity. Or “home-iness” like you said. This old worn-in oak bar top and brass-plated stool legs just scream that this place comes from a distant yet familiar past. And so, you have to display the alcohol that people would assume were available during that distant yet familiar past…. with that being said – I keep all that fruity shit underneath the bar because I can charge more for it and money spends all the same. Ha! – And what do you say to that Sally! Ha Ha Ha!” said Pat.

The tomato soup saleswoman let out what was supposed to be a laugh but was closer to a rake being drug across gravel.

“Hec Hec Hec. Those fancy ladies are subsidizing my lifestyle, so I won’t complain!” said Sally, tipping her drink back to drive home her point.

Walt smiled out of the corner of his mouth and shook his head. He had known Sally for years and could tell his friend was drinking herself to an early grave.

“And what about the bar’s influence on the bottles,” said the man.

“Well, I think that’s pretty obvious – could you imagine these bottles in one of those new fancy clubs with the strobe lights and confetti and smoke machines? People go there to dream of a rosy future and forget the dirty past. Not to be drug back into old memories – to escape your reality you need something new and exciting. Exciting new drinks and exciting new alcohol brands with funny colors. This bottle of Jack Daniels may be displayed in a corner for men who stumble into one of those bars accidentally and want something that will tie them to the ground but putting it center stage like I have it would just remind people of the mortgage waiting for them at home when they went to that club to forget about it in the first place. The bar and the alcohol must work together to give off a cohesive message.”

Walt finished his coffee and moved a few barstools closer to the action, folding his newspaper and laying it on the bar in front of him.

“I believe what Pat is trying to say is that we are shaped by our environment and in turn – our environment is shaped by us. Which would naturally extend to inanimate objects as well. Though, only the future will know the nature of this symbiotic relationship.” Said Walt as he peered over his glasses.

“Say Pat, would you mind throwing on another pot of decaf for me and mixing in some Jameson as well?”

“Sure thing professor”

“So, I’m assuming the same rules apply to music?” said the man, pointing his finger to the ceiling and giving it twirl.

“It’s not that you actually like Bob Dylan, but you think it’ll convince me of the bar’s authenticity?”

“Ha! – that’s pretty good, but not exactly,” said Pat.

“I’ll take this one if you don’t mind?” said Walt.

“All you, I have to go get the kitchen ready for dinner anyways” said Pat, he walked to the opposite end of the bar and ducked under the TV that hung a little too low for a man of his size and slipped into the kitchen.

Walt took a sip of his Irish coffee.

“Mmm, Pat sure can brew a mean cup of joe,” said Walt.

The man nodded in agreement though he had never ordered a cup of coffee from Pat.

“Now music is the juggernaut in any situation, and I won’t pretend to act smart enough to know why. But the entire atmosphere or meaning of a room or a conversation or football game can be totally changed with just a few notes of a choice melody” Walt paused to push his glasses further up his hawkish nose.

“’The Times They Are A-Changing’” said Walt, holding out his hand as if he held the song in his palm.

“You play that song over the loudspeakers as little Johnny scores the game winning touchdown of his homecoming game and the entire spectacle of a high school sporting event comes about what is lost, what Johnny is metaphorically leaving behind as he crosses the goal line. He is grown up and thing s will never be as good as they once were.”

“But on the other hand,” switching hands to drive the point home “…. if you that awfully loud “Kickstart My Heart”, then little Johnny becomes invincible and eternally youthful. His domination on the football is just a taste of what is to come.”

“Music speaks to a very deep place within us, down in our core…so Pat has to be careful what he allows to be played on his jukebox. Any song has the power to shatter this little half-saloon half-speakeasy thing he has going on,” said Walt.

“Whatever you say, I need to go take a leak,” said the man. He was tired of hearing this old drunk rattle on about things that did not matter. He had not come to this bar to discuss the effects of music on his core. He pushed himself off the barstool and stumbled towards the bathroom at the back of the bar.

He stood over the urinal and pressed his forearm against the wall in front of him for balance. He was about to lean his head against his forearm on the wall for extra support but some writing in black sharpie caught his eye.

“With the lights out, it’s less dangerous…. I feel stupid and contagious.”

“I feel stupid and contagious…with the lights out, it’s less dangerous” said the man to himself.

He zipped up his pants and stumbled to the sink, splashed some water on his face and pulled out the snub nose .38 caliber pistol from his waistband.

“With the lights out, it’s less dangerous…. I feel stupid and contagious,” said the man. He put the pistol to his temple, starring himself in the eye through the smudges on the mirror in front of him. But he did not pull the trigger, he just wanted to see what it felt like.

“One more drink” said the man as he tucked the pistol into his waistband and exited the bathroom.

He stumbled back to his barstool to find Pat, Walt and Sally discussing the “right song” vs the “appropriate song”. He kept his head down as to not be drug into their discussion. His eyes scanned the little piece of bar top in front of him until they finally found the newspaper that Walt had brought with him.

Today was April 8th.

“April 8th. Today is April 8th. Can’t avoid it any longer.” said the man.

Walt looked at him perplexed.

“Well yes, seeing as yesterday was April 7th, I think it stands to reason that today, would in fact, be April 8th,” said Walt.

“Hec Hec Hec” said Sally.

“What’s so important about April 8th friend?” said Pat.

The man looked up and realized that the bartender was talking to him.

“Hmm?”

“You said you couldn’t avoid April 8th any longer, what’s so special about April 8th?”

The man took another drink and breathed deeply.

“April 8th is the day that my life ended.”

Pat, Walt and Sally let the silence hang around, waiting for the man to continue. They watched the very last drop of joy pinch in the corner of his eye and start its journey down his cheek before he brushed it away.

“Before, we get into that – mind topping me off?” said the man.

Pat, intrigued, decided that he could let the man have another drink or two if his story has good enough.

“So…. I’m talking to a ghost right now?” said Walt.

“Not yet…the short story is that my wife was on life support for 364 days, 8 hours and 13 minutes until this morning at 11:30 am. And now she’s not on anything,” said the man.

Pat finished pouring the man’s drink and took a step back.

“Well, where is she then?” said Sally.

Walt and Pat both whipped their heads around to Sally as she took another drag.

“Oh lord…” said Sally, she put out her half-smoked cigarette as a peace offering to the man.

“No no its okay, it’s a question I need to start getting use to I guess…”

“Well, here’s to the goodbyes that came to soon and to the loved ones who never really leave us!” said Walt as he raised his glass.

Pat, Walt and Sally raised their glasses and waited for the man to raise his.

“…. what about the goodbyes that never came at all? Want to know the last time I spoke to or even saw my wife? Exactly 364 days, 11 hours and 7 minutes ago as she helped me out of this bar and into the passenger seat of our car.”

The three glasses slowly lowered.

“Her folks, who never liked me much anyways, barred me from coming to see her as they had the power of the attorney or whatever its called” said the man, with a little more than half of his words slurred together.

He had opened the flood gates and as he preached from his barstool pulpit to his congregation of ice cubes and alcohol his words took on more venom.

“Nope, they blamed me for their only daughter’s injuries. I was the bastard who walked away without a scratch while her side of the car was totally smashed. Didn’t matter that I wasn’t driving either car – I guess since I was the only involved who was still breathing unassisted, they had to place their anger with me……They even hired a lawyer and checked the security cameras to see if I forced her to drive after drinking! Of course, I didn’t! I wouldn’t do that!” said the man.

Pat remembered the man in front of him now and he remembered the lawyers asking for his security tapes. They had even come after him for a bit for potentially over serving but thankfully he had not given the woman a drop as her husband was already falling off his barstool when she showed up.

He had not seen him in a year, but it looked like he had aged a decade since he saw him last.

“Hey jimmy, we’re real sorry to hear about your wife.” said Pat.

Jimmy nodded his head as there was nothing to say.

“365 days. April 8th. The day that my wife’s will dictated she be taken off life support…and they wouldn’t even let me see her this morning. Not even a second” said Jimmy as he broke down crying.

Walt put a hand on Jimmy’s shoulder as Sally dug out her half-smoked cigarette and lit it up. Pat moved some glasses around behind the bar to try and drown out Jimmy’s crying. While his back was turned, he noticed a news report playing on the TV. Wheeling around Pat turned the volume up as fast as he could.

“…. was found dead in his home in Seattle, Washington by Gary. T Smith, a local electrician. While details around his death are still unclear, sources are saying there was a 20-guage shotgun found lying on his chest. This has caused many to speculate that he took his own life. The lead singer was 27 years old.”

“Holy shit, I can’t believe it,” said Pat.

“Well, there were always those rumors that he had tried to kill himself before. And you know how volatile those heroin guys can be,” said Walt.

“Jesus’ man, have a little heart,” said Pat.

“Just saying” said Walt, his hand slipped from Jimmy’s shoulder.

“Yeah, well whatever demons he had inside – I hope he’s at peace now,” said Pat.

Pat and Walt were glued to the news report, only Sally saw Jimmy finish his drink, place his great-grandfather’s watch on the bar and walk towards the bathroom as he pulled something out of his waist band.

“Well, I think it is only appropriate that you pour us a shot on the house and turn on a tribute song, right?” said Walt.

Pat gave a half smile, flipped the jukebox to the right disc and turned the volume up. As everyone took a moment of silence for the late lead singer…… Jimmy squeezed the trigger on the the snub-nosed .38 in his mouth in the bathroom stall at Pat O’Sullivan’s Bar and Grille and blew a hole the size of a man’s fist in the back of his head. With the lights out, it’s less dangerous…. I feel stupid and contagious.

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