It was just another day in paradise. Ceiling fans swung lazily overhead, propelling a slight and stagnant breeze on the dry, thirsty mouths below them. Mouths parched from the burden of their day. Hard faces hidden behind various shapes of glass like masks. The stirred atmosphere stank of spilled beer and piss. The lights were dimmed low to provide an illusion of an ever encroaching night to help ease the minds of the day to day vagrant drunks into forgetfulness that light still dwelt outside.
The bar was littered with a few weary souls scattered about the floorboards and bar stools with light heads and heavy shoulders. 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.
An old man held a solitary position on a stool at the center of the bar while everything else seemed to orbit around him; a sun unto his own private universe. He hunched over the counter as if it were a crutch to support his aging body. If not for the gray mane upon his scalp and the wrinkles around his mouth, his age would have been indefinable for his eyes were extraordinarily youthful, brilliantly dark orbs that teemed wild with even darker imaginings inside of his skull.
He sat for hours on that stool, contemplating everything and nothing as he marveled at the cascading colors of the bottles in front of him. The come hither allure of the emerald greens found on the bottles of the Irish whiskeys, 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 or how long he had been haunting this place. To him it was all one long, blur of a seemingly infinitesimal night. One night covering the span of many years that saw no curtain drawing down on a sunset. 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 a title 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 thousand stories that housed millions 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 bar door opened and hot light flooded the cool dark 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 shadow walked in from off the streets outside where the sun seemed to be making its descent. As the creaking door slammed closed and darkness took the space again, he noticed the shadow was in fact a man, a man that with each passing step actually became more and more a boy. No older than twenty two if his hairless face was any indication. 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, until his glass was brought to him. When it was, the unsavory paleness of the beer he had ordered told the old man it was something cheap and tasteless. Like most young men he had observed, this boy had no taste. He decided not to bother with him.
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 had been years since the old man had heard it, but he knew it well. The boy took out his phone and stared blankly at the screen. The song went on, Robert Smith sang of a profound love, 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 sank and bubbled till 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 only black.
“Excuse me?” the boy asked. “Could I get another a beer? There seems to be something in my glass.”
A solitary chuckle escaped from the old man’s chapped lips but the bar tender did not share in the same amusement; the Boy was not brought another beer. The old man thought, no hoped, he would have left, but the boy remained at the stool, staring again at the counter with a face that seemed not simply expressionless, but rather a face that simply did not know what it was supposed to be expressing. The boy had an energy about him that made the old man uncomfortable (it was so familiar) and comfort was something he felt entitled to in his old age.
“What’s up yer ass, kid?” the Old Man asked loudly over the jukebox. Someone had put on a number he swore he used to know the name of, but the fact was washed away with the next sip of his drink before it could ever surface. The boy did not answer. He merely sat there, deaf to his neighbor’s inquisition. His eyes were now frozen towards what was now the corpse of his phone, as if it 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 to spill out into the gutters. 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 had tasted bittersweet abandonment for so long that whiskey seemed to be the only way to wash the taste from out of his mouth. It stirred in him an ancient anger he had carried with him as he long as he could carry himself. 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, bubbled and resurfaced to the front of his mind. It was there he saw his own eyes staring back at him in a mirror, though they were much younger. They wore barely a wrinkle then, but instead were filled with searing tears that flew down his face warm and unbidden. He recalled the pain he’d felt in his chest. Pain that throbbed like a knife he was helpless to pull out. He remembered shattering that mirror into pieces with the very same hand he’d slammed down in front of the boy. The way a dozen different sad, distorted manifestations of himself had stared back at him with that same broken gaze. The bleeding mirror, its glass shards embedded in his knuckles like so many diamonds, engaged as he was now to his despair. And yet, he couldn’t feel any of it. She is gone, she is gone…
He stared deep into the boy’s eyes. 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, for 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 whiskey doubles. Neat.”
The barmaid took her time walking over to the old man with a slight swagger in her stride. The curves of her body swayed together in one hypnotic motion that held the gaze of every patron in the room. Martha held, in what enigma remained of her form that she actually covered, that beautiful kind of ordinary whose personality made her extraordinary.
“You could at least say please, you old fuck.” She said more with a grin than a chastising smile.
“I love you, Marty.”
She brought the drinks, and laid them out in front of them; making sure to bend over a little more than she actually needed to. She was a good woman. Den mother to the sorry souls who inhabited the world in front of her oak counter. She had nursed the old man to near death and back to life enough times for him to know at least that much. 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, luckily for him ( for the old man would not have suffered another offence), 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 as it were water. 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 periphery glance. He was handsome. Beautiful in a way the old man had never been. Completely unaware of the looks he was drawing to himself for, in his depression, he hid well what vanity he surely possessed. A thick head of brown hair fell about his face to hide the current shame in his eyes. He was tall and his body was strong, though it seemed like he was sinking into himself, as if there was some force at work pulling him from the inside out.
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?
“How are ya feelin?” The old man asked in a half sort of laugh that was followed quickly by immense surprise. 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 from off the street. But the boy laughed too. One of those sad, defeated kind of laughs spoken more with a sagging of shoulders than with the mouth.
“Oh, you know, I am fucking swell.” He answered once again in 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 obvious,” the boy added deliciously sarcastic.
The old man sneered, “Oh, I know that smell on you. You reek of that love sting. Still, you smell better than most of us in here, pretty boy.”
Then there came suddenly a real, honest good laugh. It erupted from the pit of his 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 and saw where he was. Then he found his chest again, or rather, his chest had found him and he remembered. His shoulders sunk and moved forward until he hung over what was now an empty glass. And his posture spoke louder than anything he could ever say. But still he spoke, “Does it ever stop?”
“Does what stop?”
“This…”, he said pointing a solitary finger towards his chest. “Does it ever go away?”
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 obvious and immense sickness. He watched Martha come and go with their prizes with indifferent 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 that he could lead him astray with a string of careless words. He could widen the hole if he wasn’t careful. For men in dire straits seemed always quick to grab hold any word that might validate their current positions. What the hell did he know about anything anyway?
“Were it so easy to just will it away…You can’t ever really escape that pain.” The Old Man said as he handed the Boy another drink. “So long as you love, then much can you lose. It’s a risk, but what isn’t worth having? I don’t know you. But pain I do know. Pain, it’s always gonna be there. Waiting to walk in through the same door that love walks out of. Cormac McCarthy 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, learn how to block the blow. The hardest part of this life, it isn’t learning how to deal with the pain. It’s trying to find a way to make love stay.”
He looked to the boy then and saw those 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 tougher times than the boy would ever see, he felt ashamed for the him and his obvious 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 onto the bar, mixing in with a pool of water below a perspiring glass.
“How to make love stay?” The boy made no move to wipe away the tears from his face. As if he were not ashamed at all of conveying what he as a man was conditioned to feel shamed for doing. His hands stayed true to his glass. “It can’t stay if someone doesn’t want it to. No matter how badly you want it to. If someone feels or tells themselves they don’t deserve it…Fuck it!” He spat and took a drink from his glass. “Better I found out she could cheat on me before I did something really stupid, right?”
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 believe, for he could harbor nothing else but the bottle and his own self doubt. He had been running over the scenarios of his recent love’s denouement no doubt a thousand times all ready. Probably 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. Looking for anything to fill the empty space within him that, until recently, had housed an extraordinary kind of love.
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 still, he was listening. For some reason, he was 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 was coming 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 not too been a fool, once upon a time? Perhaps he was still a fool for even wanting to give this love sick pup an audience. Fool or not, he decided then to give what wisdom his old year’s provided him to ease this troubled youth’s passing into one of life’s harshest realities.
The boy heaved a great and heavy sigh, “I give up. I fucking give up.”
“What are you giving up?” asked the old man.
“People!” barked the boy, as if the answer should have been obvious. “Women, they want it all in life but can’t for the life of them tell you all they want. You 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…”
“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. The more I try to understand the less I feel a part of anything or anyone. It doesn’t make sense. How could people be so cruel?”
“You should be thankful it doesn’t.” said the old man as he thumbed the rim of his glass. “Be thankful you aren’t like those people. But you should know by now, we are all fucked. No one makes it this far in one piece, kid. 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 can only be aware of what they are capable of. And hope they DON’T do what you know they CAN do. It’s insanity really. You can call it faith, or hope, but really, its insanity: doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result.”
“Then why? Why do we keep looking for this?” The boy implored, looking for an answer more from within himself than anyone else. “It is insane! Why do we keep hurting each other when all we are looking for is love?”
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 the question? Had he ever even be close to the answer the boy had a mighty and desperate hunger for. But, suddenly his tongue ran away with him.
“We go off of blueprints handed down to us from somewhere. We base our love off the love we have seen. Some people didn’t get shown too much love and some got none at all. Others couldn’t have possibly gotten anymore. But that’s life, and it’s never fair. We get older and we formulate our theories from these things we have seen. Then we go out to prove them, to find, ‘It’. We look and keep looking because, goddammit, we have to! It’s what we are. Humans were made to come together. It’s that simple: it’s instinctual. Even if you are not looking, you are. Even if you are not playing their game–those stupid fucking games, you will still get played. We hurt each other because, that’s what people do. What if we are all just puzzle pieces of a greater picture? We all can’t possibly come together seamlessly. That pain a lot of people feel, I think that’s us trying to force ourselves upon another. Upon something that we just won’t ever align with–like putting square pegs in circular holes. Or it’s us leaving those pieces we just simply cannot fit into. People will get hurt because how can you possibly consider all the people you touch with every action you make? You just can’t–It’s maddening! We are too selfish to think like that. 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. Because you are insane! We are all insane! Driven mad just looking for ‘It’! You think you have found ‘It’ in someone, and ‘It’s’ there. Somewhere. And sometimes, it really is. And sometimes, you’ll find it was never there. You just wanted it to be…”
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. The poets have killed us. The writers have damned us all. Filling our heads with dreams we try endlessly to recreate in our own stories.”
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.
The old man’s words broke upon the boy’s ears like fists, but in a fit of marvelous masochism, the boy only seemed to want more. “How do we know that any of that is even real?! Let alone even survives time?” The boy almost yelled, surprising the old man as he shattered the comfortable silence that had grown between them. The boy turned around in his stool in a flurry of hair and excitement and faced the old man, his eyes now lit up with something new. The old man had sparked something in him and he wanted desperately to keep the fire burning. The boy had altogether forgotten the pain he had walked in with and now seemed only interested in finding out from this old barfly, this new found source of all truths, if the love he had always searched for, the love he had gone through hell for, was something that even existed. Let alone could be attained.
The boy took the stool that was separating them to be closer to his sage. “How do we know they aren’t selling us something unattainable? Advertising to us the impossible! We buy it! We eat it up! And we compare our love to their love and how can it possibly compare to those fucking fantasies? You can’t fit in two people’s quest for love into a two hour film! Or a goddamn novel! We aren’t that simple! Life and heart and limb are so much more complex! What happens between the reels or the moments separating the panels? Where are those words the author deleted? Those are the stories—the real stories they never tell! You know what I am saying, right?! Where is the reality of life in it all? Where are the harsher truths of love? Who is writing that story that won’t make us all feel crazy or even impossible to love?” He touched the old man’s shoulder with a sympathetic hand. “You have been in love before, haven’t you? You know what I–”
The old man shrugged off the Boy’s hand with a sudden jolt that wounded the boy profoundly. In the space of the new found distance between them, the boy learned quickly that he had perhaps gone too far. The whiskey was in his blood and his blood was the drink and it was all he could do now but forget why he had ever come to this place. He was in shambles. He felt as if he were in a fever. The drink was the only thing now holding him together, but the medicine was fast becoming a poison. To keep his composure in front of this old soul he knew held some secret truth inside of him, only now to find he was holding it back, was almost more than he could bear.
“I-I am sorry,” the boy said as he stumbled drunkenly over his apology.
The old man dwelt on the boy’s foolish sincerity. “No, it’s fine. It’s fine…” He did not know why he had shoved him off. The boy had meant no harm. He was only drunk and frenzied in an excitement that he himself had stirred up. But who touched him anymore? Who caused him to remember? Unfortunately for the pup, the old dog was all out of apologies. After a few moments of careful and inebriated deliberation, he decided, as he so often did in his life, to move past it all as if it never happened.
“Of course I have loved someone. Many someones, heh heh. 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, somehow. I harbor no real regrets. Hell, even the bad ones–especially the bad ones!” He exclaimed with a raised finger for that whiskey spirit was beginning to take over his limbs. “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. Take it from an old fool; our mistakes are not without their own worth. In truth, they have been my greatest instructors.” 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. 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 human, 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, sex, sex everywhere all the time. 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 to 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 found most of them, while talking incessantly, weren’t really saying much of anything at all. Talks of sports, sexual frustrations, and outlandishly embellished personal conflicts echoed in his skull. He laughed 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 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 they were correct on both accounts, as the whiskey was getting to the boy more than he had previously thought. 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 (for where could he retreat to?). Instead, he would surrender himself again to the old man and leave himself at the mercy of his words.
“Tell me about a someone you really loved.” The boy asked, placing his chin upon his palm like an inquisitive child.
The old man smiled. He couldn’t refuse this child anymore. One of his truths, a tale or two; might save him from all this day had done to him. “…there was a woman, once. Oh, I loved her. Loved her like you love a place you have never been. That special kind of place you only see in photographs or postcards. You dream of going to this place: to her bed, held in her arms and lost in her eyes. You tell yourself over and over, ‘Someday. Someday’ you’ll make the great voyage to that glorious destination! But you know, that day won’t ever come. ‘Someday’…It’s a lie you tell yourself to sleep at night. Almost like a prayer. It’s the sweetest lie you’ve ever told, and you tell it to yourself until it becomes a truth. Someday…”
The boy saw the old man was no longer in the bar with him but somewhere far away, reliving another life. “Who was she?” he asked.
The old man’s joy suddenly withered away with a heavy sigh, “A woman I saw nearly every day but really, she was a rose in a garden I could never trespass. And that was just fine with me, leaving her there where she belonged. She was the most beautiful flower among a bed of weeds; a real divine kind of woman. I knew I wanted her for my own for all the wrong reasons. I’d grab her and ask her to come out of her world when I knew she had no business being in mine. And there we would be, two pieces struggling to align. And I’d keep her all to myself. Allowing no one else to even try; depriving her of that something that would fit. I knew, she’d only wilt away. Her beauty lost to the time we stole together. So I kept my filthy hands to myself. I left her in her garden to be tended to by someone else. Because I loved her, I never touched her.”
The boy lingered on the passing words, his face contorted and confused. “How was that love? You didn’t love her! That’s just cowardice! How can you love someone like that and not tell them? You see it ending before it even begins. You are a hundred steps ahead! Steps she could have walked with you if you let her! How could you know she wouldn’t fit—“
In spite of the boys frustrations, the old man answered him calmly, “You don’t understand, kid. I didn’t want her, not who she really was. I didn’t even know her, not truly. And there was no way in hell that woman would have ever lived up to my impossible expectations of who I wanted her to be.”
Those words seemed to grab the boy’s heart and drag it back down into the pit of his stomach. Had he not been guilty of the same act, half a dozen times? Creating these impossible dreams from his ideals that no one could ever hope to completely fulfill? Desiring only what he wanted to find in a woman, and not coming to appreciate the women themselves. Had he himself driven the woman who had hurt him so into the arms of another man out of a frustration she felt having unfulfilled him? Was anyone ever innocent in requited loves demise, truly? He could only lower his head as it became burdened with his own revelation, “God…”
The old man did not need telepathy or any sort of magic to know the thoughts that raced in the boy’s mind. “You leave him out of this!” he hiccoughed and smiled at his obvious drunkenness. “We all do it. We have an idea of what we want in someone else and try and hold out for it. Some of us just dream a little bigger than other’s is all–too big, sometimes. We concoct these contradictions and personalities that couldn’t possibly inhabit one body on this planet! Sorry,” he turned to face the Boy, “we can’t all fit inside of your desired categories. People are individuals, not mere projections of your desires. What can you really ask for in anyone anymore but to be someone who will love you for you and be authentically themselves for you to love in return? Just someone genuine you can digest in this belly of time with?”
“Is it really that simple?” the boy asked.
“Why can’t it be? People, we are all afraid to show ourselves, even to ourselves sometimes. We can become those people our desires want us to be, just to claim them. Then, who are they really loving? An illusion? A manifested parody of their dreams? That isn’t love. That’s people being in love with the sheer damnable idea of it. Love isn’t as selfish as that. Love–that kind of real, genuine, heart sick love–its desiring nothing but the best sort of happiness for the one you adore. Even if that happiness isn’t you…no matter how much you wish it could be. The pictures, the stories, they rarely ever tell you that…that’s what happens between the reels.”
The boy smiled another one of those sad smiles from beneath his hair, “The writers really have damned us all, haven’t they?”
The old man shrugged, “Who knows? 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 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 sat 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 poets. Let us call them saviors! What if it isn’t an escape? What if they are showing us not only how it can be, but how it should be? What if the love–NO! The life they are selling is real?! More real than this glass, or you or me? 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 in their lives. Let them succumb to the fever. Let em’ burn! Who is to say if there is anything after this life, kid? All I know is I am here and I am only going around once. And I feel for those poor souls who never even start; afraid of the fire or complacent in their preserved state, afraid to even be touched. I did my dance. And I danced with some lovely creatures. But your song is just starting. 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. Go on to dig for that love you lost or a new love or–you know what? Don’t even look! Live and it’ll find you somewhere, halfway between the gutter and the stars. Just don’t let life find you like some of these other guys in here, at a stool in some dive years from now with an empty glass in your hand having never really tried.”
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.
Then the boy remembered the old man’s last words, “Did you try?”
“Yeah…Yeah, I did. But not as hard as you will, I think.”
“I think you just saved a few people tonight.” said the boy.
“You don’t try to really save anyone until you have been damned yourself.” said the old man and then he blinked in confusion, “Who else have I saved?”
“The people I dare to touch.”
The old man’s smile grew wider, “God help them all.”
“I never got your name”, the boy asked.
“I never gave it.”
“Fair enough”, the boy laughed, rising from his stool. The old man looked up at him with red, watery eyes and smiled. “Thank you then, old man.”
“Take care, boy.”
“Are you going to be alright, hun?” asked Martha from down the bar. “Do you want me to call you a cab?”
“No thank you, sweetheart!” the boy cheered. “I think I am gonna be just fine. Take care of my friend for me.”
The boy stood up for the first time in what felt like days to him. Almost forgetting he even had legs, 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 lesson that one could never even hope to buy.
He placed his hand again on the old man’s shoulder, only this time in farewell. He let it linger there for a while, almost as a sort of test. The old man made no motion to remove himself this time. Instead he placed his own wrinkled and calloused hand gently upon his fingers and squeezed softly. No more words from him. He had given all he could spare. There would be no goodbyes. The boy had had enough of those tonight.
He 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 shops of the sleepy town had all closed. Their lights long flickered out, leaving only the comforting buzz of the street lights to guide his crooked feet. People were all off warm inside of their homes with their families. The streets were empty and dogs barked at things unseen in the darkness. He would not go home tonight, for home now fostered the very pain he had managed to escape tonight. He decided he would walk, surrendering himself to an unknown street to carry him where it may.
He was fantastically drunk but still fully aware of himself. It hurt a little less now, but his wounds were still fresh. It would take time. Time is the dog that licks all wounds. A cool southern 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 crescent moon shining bright above him in an almost starless sky. He smiled, and the night smiled with him.