It was the sort of conversation that can only happen in a bar on Sunday night, surrounded by truly dedicated drinkers. These are the professional alcoholics who latch onto a place and dig deep, like ticks. They stay until they’re kicked out, steadily downing their drinks. Always straight liquor, too—if you’ve come to the point where drinking all day seems like the most productive use of your time, you’re not likely to be seen with a parade of empty cocktail glasses in front of you, twirling tiny umbrellas in your fingers.
I used to come to the bar and see these sad old fuckers and think “Jesus, I hope I can work up the nerve to kill myself before I get like that.” It only occurred to me later that the regulars were killing themselves. They were just taking the scenic route instead of the freeway. I had to admit, as I laid my head on a warm toilet seat in a public bathroom, that I wasn’t different just because I had self-awareness. I was killing myself, too, poisoning my liver and daring cirrhosis to set in. That was a dark time, but it passed, and now I don’t go to the bar to commit long, slow suicide drop by drop. Instead, I go to watch the people. They’re interesting, and they tell good stories. Drunks always have the funniest stories, I think. Stoners have the dumbest, tweakers have the craziest, but pound-for-pound, drunks have the best. Usually, they’re a combination of funny, crazy, and dumb, a triumvirate of depravity.
I was in there pretty steady. I liked the atmosphere, and the lady behind the bar was always nice to me, even in those times when I wasn’t nice to anyone. She didn’t even call the cops when I broke a bottle over Winston’s head and told him I was going to cut his fucking heart out with the rest of it. Don’t know if you know this, but it’s pretty hard to break a bottle over someone’s head. Took me three tries, in fact. Maybe it gets easier with practice. I don’t know. I definitely didn’t have beginner’s luck, but there’s a first time for everything, I guess.
But that’s a story of another life. The night I want to talk about, I finished my drink and was about to say “One more, please” when the stranger interrupted me.
“Give him one more, please, on me,” he said.
I meant to say something clever, but I couldn’t get my mouth to synchronize with my thoughts. It would have been nice to say “And to what do I owe the pleasure of such a refreshing gift?” or “I hope you’re not trying to ply me with liquor and take advantage of me at night’s end,” but my mouth was dulled and dumb that evening, and all I could say was “Thanks.”
“Don’t mention it. Happy to help a man in need.”
I felt like I was in need, but I didn’t think I looked like I did, so I found myself getting pissed. When this happens, my face flushes, and the tops of my ears burn hot, like I’ve spent all day in the sun without a hat.
“What makes you think,” I said, carefully pronouncing each word, “I need a drink? Or if I need for guys like you to buy me one?” I was proud of having come up with that second sentence on the fly, although the execution left something to be desired.
“Call it empathy. I see you, and I feel a connection. Or, maybe it’s just that it’s a bar on Sunday night, and if you’re here it can only be because you need a drink. Either way, please accept it in the manner it was given, which was in civility and good cheer.”
“Alright, then,” I said, a bit weirded out by the guy’s formality but nonetheless impressed by his generosity. I raised the glass and closed my eyes. This is the only way I can take a shot. I don’t know why. Maybe some of the magic is lost in seeing what I’m doing, or maybe I don’t want to squint in public. It’s embarrassing for an experienced drinker to squint, I think.
“To your health,” he said, stopping me from draining the shot.
“To a long life,” I said.
“Ah, well, I think I’d take health over that, but to each his own.”
Absurdly, I thought he was talking about the bourbon I was drinking. I was prepared to be offended at the slight the stranger made against the American saints of the Jim Beam distillery. My ears burned again, but the stranger spoke before I could muster up a defense on my drink’s behalf.
“I think a lot of people make that assumption, in fact. A long life is not necessarily a happy one. There’s no real congruity between how long something lasts and its quality.”
“I don’t think I made that assumption, actually,” I said. “Bit presumptuous on your part.”
“Well, maybe I just read too much into it, then.”
The stranger seemed dejected. Oddly, I felt moved by the sudden melancholy that came over him. He just looked so sad, as if he had been waiting for the opportunity to bring up the topic in conversation but had been consistently denied. Like I said, it was Sunday, which put me in a charitable mood, anyway, and since I didn’t want to contribute any more to the guy’s conversational blue balls than I already had, I gave him another opportunity.
“So,” I said, “you sound like you might be, what?—an expert on the subject, I guess. Penny for your thoughts?”
“Save the penny. My thoughts are free. All they will cost you is time, if you have it to spare.”
“Well, it’s like you said. It’s Sunday night, and I’m at a bar. I can’t say I have any pressing engagements.”
The stranger laughed. He did it often that night, as if constantly amused.
I didn’t know at the time I was talking to someone who would be dead in less than an hour. If I had, I might have thought of something profound to say, something about how life is a brief flicker of light in a dark and empty tunnel that ignites into existence without cause or purpose, declaring itself to no applause or fanfare before flaming out, with no one and nothing paying much notice. At the very least, I would’ve tried to think of something funny, maybe a dirty limerick.
I’ve got a dirty knock knock joke that kills, though men seem to enjoy it more than women.
Although, perhaps I wouldn’t, since the stranger told me he had died countless times and was fated to live an infinite number of lives. I imagine that sort of thing, if true, would strip all the novelty out of my philosophy of life. He died before, but hadn’t in awhile—180 years, to be precise—and he was beginning to wonder if old age could or would bring him down.
Despite claiming to be a decaoctogenarian, he didn’t look much older than mid-forties. He was cleanly shaved, and in fact it looked as if his face had never even seen a razor. If it had, it surely wasn’t the cheap-ass disposables my face is used to. I’ve been jacked up by disposable razors in my time, but I won’t buy anything else. You buy an electric shaver and the goddamn thing doesn’t work. You buy a razor, you have to replace the heads after nine or ten shaves. The other alternative is a straight razor, but it’s unseemly to use one of those for anything other than killing yourself or someone else. I told him this, and he laughed.
“I’ve had it both ways, actually,” he said. “In the early 1800s, I was in a fight with 30 men. One of them managed to run a razor over my neck. Kind of surprised, when I woke up twenty-seven years later, that it hadn’t happened before. I could have sworn my throat was slit before then. The other time I hit a low point. I was a bit bored with the way things were going, and there were a few—well, problems—that required me to go away for a while. You can only remain young so long before people begin to wonder why you’re not aging. Pretty soon you’ve got people searching your attic for covered portraits.”
“Pictures, you mean,” I said.
“It was a picture, not a portrait.”
“Yes. Lots of people make that mistake, though.”
“Anyway, I took the razor to my wrists, which solved several problems. After that, no one was looking for me, and, of course, I couldn’t die from slashed wrists ever again.”
I think I may have forgot to mention a few things. The first was that the guy had, during his lives, been male and female, short and tall, thin and fat, and every skin color imaginable. The second was that when he died, he always woke up twenty seven years later, as good as new, not a mark on him. The third thing was that when he died of something, it could never kill him again.
“So now I don’t even flinch when some dickhead flicks a razor at me,” he said, and knocked back a shot of bourbon.
“Like another?” I said.
“Yes, I would. You want one?”
“Well, I was going to buy yours, old timer.”
“No, you won’t. When it comes to drinking, I have two rules. First, never drink alone. That one’s always been, well—elastic—depending on circumstances, but the second rule is inviolable.”
“When you drink with friends, always pay. It’s a small thing, but it leaves an impact.”
“It’s nice, but you can’t always do that. Drinks can be expensive,” I said, quietly calculating how much of my own limited funds I’d have to use to get drunk enough to face the coming Monday. My wallet was lighter than usual. I had been mugged the day before by a collection agent looking to get me to pay off a debt. Never mind for what. If the stranger wanted to keep buying me drinks to listen to his bullshit story, I wasn’t going to stop him.
“If you insist,” I said.
“Give him one more, please” the stranger told the bartender, motioning to my empty glass.
Speaking of the bartender, I’ve had a crush on her for as long as I’ve known her. I imagined the two of us settling down and running the bar together, in there every night smiling wide (our teeth a bit worse for the wear, yellow and stained, where we have them—between us we have a complete set: she has the tops and I have the bottoms) as we give the people what they need. I never bothered to let her know of our plans, though. It seemed wrong to intrude on her reality with my pathetic fantasies. I didn’t want her to think I was weird, so I never said anything more to her than “One more, please.”
“Thank you,” I said to the stranger.
“Your thanks are assumed. From here on, you don’t need to bother vocalizing them.”
“Ok, well…” the only way I could think to end that sentence was with “thanks,” but I stopped myself. “Good, then,” I said.
“I’ve got to tell you,” the stranger said, “you’re either taking all this with a serious grain of salt, or you’re the most relaxed person I’ve ever met.”
“Well, you know,” I said, “first time for everything. How long you been around?”
“Longer than the seas have had names.”
I smiled. It made me happy to think so ancient a man never yet encountered the likes of me.
“So, how does this normally go, then?” I asked.
“The way it normally goes, once I’ve either been able to convince someone I’m serious or they’re just inclined to play along, is that they usually ask me a series of very specific questions.”
“They go in order?”
“Almost without fail. The predictability of it is almost enough to make you believe in God.”
“Is there a god?”
“Have you ever met him?”
“Strictly speaking, it’s not a ‘he.’ God has no gender. But, I’ve been in the Presence. Everyone has. You just didn’t know it at the time.”
“Is that one of the questions you normally get asked?”
“Yes, but you’re haphazard with the order. One more, please,” he said to the bartender.
“No, that’s my limit,” I said, trying to remember how many drinks I’d had.
“You’ll have more than that. It takes at least six before you think about calling it a night.”
“What, have you been following me or something?”
“No, I’m just observant. It’s something you pick up over the centuries. It barely takes me much time at all anymore. I’ve been in here twice before, and I’ve seen everything there is to see. I can see there’s a crack in the floor near the right side of the bar where water has fallen in and has begun to rot away the foundation. If you like, I can tell you which of the people here tonight have a drink first thing in the morning. I could also tell you, with something like ninety percent accuracy, what everyone in here does for a living. I could tell you which of the men like men. I could tell you, if you’re interested, that the bartender you stare at has an indentation on the ring finger of her left hand that comes from putting on an old wedding ring before she goes to bed at night. She takes it off before she showers every morning and has a special place she puts it during the day. I can tell you which of the people in here have done jail time and which ones should have but weren’t caught. I can tell you that most of the people in here are Christians although half don’t believe in God anymore. I can see the majority of people in here love country music and hate their spouses. I can tell you what it is like to live and die, to be born again. I can tell you there are things in this world that are beyond your imagination, that there are forces that walk among you like men but very much are not. I’ve run afoul of them before, and will again, shortly. If you like, I can get more personal. I can tell that, like me, you’re exactly six feet tall. I can see just by looking at you that you’ve fathered children but haven’t met all of them and probably never will. I can tell there’s something you’ve done in your past—it looks to be within the last decade—that you regret doing but can’t see another way it could have happened. I can see there’s something you did when you were a teenager that makes you wake up at night in a cold sweat. Sometimes, it makes you piss the bed because you’re waiting for the reckoning to come. It will. I can see by the way you carry yourself that your parents are dead….”
“How can you tell that?” I asked. I did not then, and still don’t, have any idea why this was the one thing I chose to question.
“Your movements are fluid,” he said. “You’re free, unconstrained. I’ll admit I just guessed it was both parents that’re dead—with men, you become freer with your movements when your father dies. For women, it’s their mothers.”
The stranger brought his glass to his lips, then stopped. He tilted his head, real slight, like he was trying to think of something. He sat the glass down, then picked it back up, swirled it twice, and drank it in two swallows.
“I can tell you it’s not your liver that’s eventually going to kill you,” he said.
“Comforting. Look, thanks, er—appreciate the story, but it’s getting late, and I should….”
“It’s even later than you think,” the stranger said. “But that doesn’t change the fact that we have nothing better to do, am I right? Listen, forgive me for getting personal. I got carried away. You asked earlier about the questions people usually ask me. What do you say we get back to them?”
“One more, please,” I said to the bartender, “and one more for him, too.”
“No,” he said. “You’re not paying for me.”
“Well, seems to me that rule applies to the kind of people you’ve encountered before, and since I’m very much not one of them, you can break your rule just once, right?”
The stranger tilted his head again, in consideration.
“First time for everything,” I said. The bartender poured another shot and sat it in front of the stranger. Turning to face him, I said “So, what are some of those normal questions?”
“It depends if it’s a man or woman asking. Women almost always ask if I’ve had kids.”
“Yes, sometimes as mother, other times as father.”
“If you say so,” the stranger said. He stared at me, not saying anything.
“What do men ask you?”
“They want to know what it’s like for a woman when she has sex with a man. Women never ask the reverse.”
“What, they’re not interested?”
“I think it’s more like they get the picture, already.”
I drank my shot. “One more, please,” I said, slurring my words. I did not move my head to look at the bartender because the bar, which was normally stationary, had recently become mobile. If I moved my head, I knew images would come to me slowly from the right, then shuffle back to the start like a skipping record. I squinted to lessen the effect. I must have looked like a rookie. The bartender set my drink down, and I reached for it without looking and brought it to my lips.
“You gonna be alright?” the stranger asked.
“Don’t worry,” I said, then downed the bourbon all at once. “I’ve done this before.” That last bit came out sounding more like “Hive dun-dish a-four,” but the stranger seemed to understand my meaning.
“I don’t doubt it, friend,” he said.
I sat in thought for what seemed like a long time, brilliant questions rising to the edge of perception that receded before I could verbalize them. Eventually, I asked the only question that mattered.
“Why can’t you die?”
The stranger looked down at his drink, swirled it twice in small but vigorous circles, then downed it.
“I never said I couldn’t die. I told you, I’ve died a number of times. I’m no different from you in that regard. We’re on different schedules—you’ll die five years from now to the day, and I’ll be going much sooner than that, it feels like. The difference is that I won’t stay that way.”
“You’re just kidding about the five years thing, right?” I wanted to say. At the time, I was unable to produce anything coherent. I remember trying to talk but feeling more like I was vomiting up a lot of vowels, short –Os and long –As. If the stranger noticed, he didn’t show it.
“One more, please,” he said. The bartender sat the stranger’s drink down. She touched my arm, gently. I could feel her through the fabric of my jacket. She felt warm.
“You ok, hon?” she asked. I smiled, I think.
The stranger swirled his drink again, two quick circles, then downed the shot. When the bartender left to attend to another sad old fucker, the stranger stood up. He put his hand on my shoulder. The bar stopped spinning for a moment, and all was clear. I turned my head to look at him.
“You know,” he said, “the next five won’t be so bad. She’ll tell you about the ring sometime, close to the end. Yours will eventually replace that one. The two of you are going to be happy together. It won’t be long, but it will be good. Do you need anything more than that?”
The stranger looked toward the door as he spoke. I wasn’t sure if his question was aimed at me, or God, or something in between. He walked to the door and opened it.
The bar had gone swirly again, and being drunk it’s hard to trust your own sight, but I swear I saw it take him. From the right of my broken record vision I saw something huge lay hands on the stranger. It was big, much bigger than he was—by at least two feet—then the door closed.
I got up as quickly as I could, and fell just as fast. I crawled for a bit, which I’ve discovered is the only reliable way to travel when you’ve had too many. I made it to the door and grabbed the handle with both hands and pulled myself up.
“Gene,” the bartender said, “what’s wrong?”
I smiled. I didn’t even know she knew my name. I opened the door and stepped outside.
I tell our customers about it sometimes. They all want to know the story. They want to know why someone would bother to plant a tree in the middle of a parking lot. I always tell them the tree came with the place, which usually gets a laugh. Then I tell them he was lying there on the pavement, most of his insides on the outside, right where that tree is now. I tell them how I held the guy while Linda called the police. I tell them I never got the stranger’s name, that he just gurgled.
What I don’t tell them is the truth. I’ve told Linda some of it, but not all. I don’t think she’d like to hear we’ve only got a year left together. Still, I told her what the stranger’s last words were as he died in my arms, looking at the ruin of his lower body.
“Huh,” he said. “First time for everything.”
Zachary Davis is a professional writer and editor. His work has appeared in print and online in The Fertile Source, Bartleby Snopes, Forty Ounce Bachelors, the Anthology of Appalachian Writers, The First Line and Carve. He is a three time finalist for the WV Fiction Award, the 2nd place winner for the 2013 WV Fiction Award, and is currently the Fiction Editor of Fluent Magazine.