Henry stopped before a scarred wooden stool capped with a worn out green naughahide seat.
A woman’s nasally voice resonated from somewhere back in the shadows. She sang a sorry song about wandering around alone in the middle of the night looking for a supposed lover who clearly didn’t want shit to do with her.
He groped his way up onto the seat and leaned heavily into the faded Formica bar counter.
The long wooden back bar looked like a refugee from a western movie set, complete with a warped mirror bearing a spider-web crack at one corner that looked unnervingly like a gunshot wound. A pair of Grecian-like pillars stood at opposing ends of the bar, each supported by a naked, portly woman with a cherub smile and breasts one size too small for her body. A clock with no crystal and a yellowing face listed languidly on a dusty shelf above the bottles. The second hand hobbled forward in palsied beats as it counted down his wait. It told Henry it was three forty-seven, but Henry was pretty sure it told everyone that.
The space running in between the front and back bar was devoid of life. Where the hell was the bartender? He needed his bloody medicine. He drummed his fingers on the scarred counter as he looked out into the tables. Maybe there was a barmaid around.
Cigarette smoke swirled the room, as thick and physical as water tainted by drops of milk. The ghosts of two old cowpokes haunted a table beneath a dusty ceiling lamp made from an old wagon wheel. They hunched under their sweaty cowboy hats, holding onto their sweatier beer cans like lifelines. Two more cowpunchers huddled in the back behind a pool table that’d been old when jukeboxes made their debut. They leaned languidly into their pool sticks with the remnants of cigarettes pasted to their lips. They looked like they were serving a sentence, like they’d been playing that very same game for years now and had no hope of finishing it anytime soon. The sight gave Henry pause.
He wondered for just an instant if maybe his outing had been a success after all. Maybe the alcohol had finally driven him into a tree somewhere in the emptiness of the Wild, Wild West, and this was some kind of divine intervention, punishment for a life so poorly executed. Maybe he was doomed to an eternity haunting the planks of a backcountry saloon, alone and forgotten, and listening to classically depressing old country western singers.
Yet, even as he considered such a sentence, he knew it was little more than wishful thinking. It could never go that easily, not for him. Dying now would be like declaring karmic bankruptcy. He still had a lifetime of penance to pay, a lifetime of regret and guilt to endure. He’d taken everything she had. He’d taken her heartbeat, for Christ’s sake! A mortal lifetime suffering in atonement for his deeds would barely pay the interest on a crime like that. The principle would start when hell claimed him.
“What are you drinking, boy?”
Henry nearly jumped off the stool. The bartender might as well have materialized from the smoke.
“Where the hell did you come from?” Henry snapped at the man.
“Chicago, originally. But I’ve lived mostly right here.”
Henry just looked at him. The bartender was like the comic relief in an otherwise serious John Wayne movie. He was a ninety-year-old version of Stan Laurel, complete with a shock of white hair and an expression of shrewd bewilderment. He wore a denim work shirt with matching yokes, and pearl snaps buttoned up to his Adam’s apple. The frayed collar was choked into compliance by a cheesy turquoise bola. It almost made him blend in.
“What are you drinking?” the bartender asked again. He didn’t sound like he cared.
Henry slid the rumpled twenty across the fossilized rings left by long extinct beer bottles. “Direct and straight to the point,” he said, “I admire that in a bartender.”
“No need to butter me up,” the bartender said, “I’m obligated to serve you unless you’re drunk or violent. What would you like?”
Henry looked down at the twenty pinned between his fingers. “Sadly, yes.”
“Judging by your smell and the telltale glow of an unhappy liver, I’d say water would be your wiser choice.”
Henry scowled at him. “Trying to poison me? Just be a good old cowpoke and bring me my medicine.”
The bartender shrugged, and and turned away.
“Water,” Henry said with a little laugh, “Plan’s too near to perfect to ruin now.”
He closed his eyes and rubbed his hands back across his scalp. He massaged his temples and brow and tried to coax the agony away. Chicago, he thought. Hilarious. The old prick was a real joker.
“Here you go, boy.”
Henry flinched again. He scowled up at the old man. “What the hell!” he said, “You know it’s rude to sneak up on people, right? I mean, that’s a true statement pretty much everywhere, even out here in purgatory.”
The bartender slid a drink across the counter. But instead of his bourbon, Henry found a sweating glass of water. A glob of stale looking ice floated miserably at the top of it. The old man held his bourbon back on the counter behind the poison.
“What’s this?” Henry asked him.
“You look like hell,” the man said as casually as if observing the weather.
“Well, of course I do, Slim. It’s perfectly keeping with the plan.”
“Gonna get yourself a kidney infection.” The man actually looked serious.
“I ordered bourbon,” Henry said seriously, “I didn’t ask for—”
Henry studied him a moment. The old man studied him back. Even for such a cartoonish morning-after, this was too surreal.
“Let me get this straight,” Henry said, “You’re holding my liquor hostage until I pay up by drinking the poison?”
“You’re a quick study, boy,” the old man said, “Direct and to the point. I like that in a customer.”
“You’re blackmailing me?”
The bartender shrugged and sniffed. “More like extortion, I expect.”
“It means getting something from a person through the abuse of one’s office or position of authority.”
“I know what extortion means! I mean, what gives you the right to hold back my drink?”
A wry grin pushed the old man’s thick wrinkles out of alignment. “I’m the bartender. You don’t like it, there’s another bar thirty miles due east of here. You could probably thumb it in about a week. Naturally, that would be depending on the traffic.”
Henry reached past the water for the bourbon, but the bartender quickly slid it out of reach. He moved like he’d had a lot of practice doing it.
“Are you kidding me?” Henry said, “You want to make a sale or not?”
The bartender’s cloudy eyes sank back into his creases like rocks disappearing into quicksand. “I hate to ruin your delusions,” he said, “But I’m only going to die a couple dimes richer or poorer based on whether or not I sell you a glass of whiskey this morning.”
Henry leaned back in his stool and dragged his hand down his face. The vice on his head was ratcheting tighter than he’d thought possible.
“I must be more hungover than I thought,” he said, “That or acid flashbacks really do happen.”
“Ain’t no flashback, boy. You’re awake. This is a real bar. This here’s a real glass of water. And that there’s a real, honest-to-goodness hangover you’re suffering. So you can drink that water or you can make for the other side of that door. Your choice.”
Henry wanted to scream. His head pounded, his pulse raced, and all he wanted was his bloody medicine and to be left alone.
Desperate now, he leaned into the bar and looked up at the old man. “Tell you what, pardner,” he said through a tight jaw, “This is absolutely the wrong day to be pushing me. I’m about one rude look from tearing this dump of a bar down. So, how about you just give me what I ordered, and I won’t climb over this bar and slap the stupid out of you?”
The bartender looked at him for a moment. And then he laughed.
Henry felt a peculiar pang of disappointment at the old man’s reaction. Then again, he was pretty sure a man with no socks or belt, and pretty much dipped in dried vomit, didn’t exactly represent a threatening figure.
“Think that’s pretty funny, do you?” he said for lack of anything sharper.
“Sure do,” the bartender said, “You don’t much look in shape to crawl around the bar, let alone climb over it.”
Henry couldn’t argue with that. He leaned back in his stool and mashed the butts of his palms against his eyes. Then he dropped his hands to his lap and watched the spots fade between them. He felt like he was careening down a wild river without a paddle. His only choices were to ride it out and see what happens at the end, or abandon ship. This outing could not possibly get any weirder.
“You know, I got me a sense about you, boy,” the bartender said.
It just got weirder.
Henry looked at him. “Do you, now?”
The old man was studying him like he was a worm struggling on a hot sidewalk, like he was trying to decide whether to move it to the grass, step on it and end its suffering, or just walk away and let it suffer the circumstances of its own stupidity.
“Yep,” the bartender said, “I had me a sense about you the second you crawled through that door over there.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Henry said, “Is that some kind of western code? I’m not gay or anything, if that’s what you’re thinking, so I wouldn’t be getting too excited about any tickle sessions in the bathroom later.”
The bartender threw a wet rag down on the bar. The cloth was pristine. It was so white, it seemed to glow of its own accord in the otherwise lifeless gloom of the bar.
“I know your type,” the old man said as he wiped the counter, “Think you’re one of a kind, ain’t that right? Special, maybe? The one-eyed man wandering through the land of the blind.” He chuckled at that.
Henry was lost for words. This situation just kept inching its way out past the bounds of sanity. If his body hadn’t ached so convincingly, he might’ve actually enjoyed it. He looked at the whiskey glass locked in the old man’s boney hand just north of the sweating glass of poison. He needed that medicine more than he needed to breathe. Maybe the best way to deal with hallucinations is just to play them out.
“All right,” he said at last, “I give. What kind of sense do you got about me?”
“You’re one of them sorry bastards likes to go the hard way.”
“The hard way,” Henry grumbled back, “And just what the hell is that supposed to mean exactly?”
“You like to go the hard way, but I suspect you don’t really have it in you,” the bartender said as he scrubbed the counter, “I suspect you just like the drama is all. You like the drama because it makes you feel important, gives you a sense of purpose, a reason for not being dead.”
Henry pinched at the flesh between his eyes. His heart clapped against his ears. He needed to get past this charade so he could get his medicine.
“You’re like a mouse wearing a cat mask,” the old man pressed, “You like to think you’re tough, and you like the folks you meet to think it, too, but it’s just a lie. You’re just good and angry is all. You’re just mad and you want the whole world mad with you. Am I getting close?”
Much to Henry’s shock, the words actually stung. But it was impossible! There was no truth in anything the man said. What did this old prick know about him anyway? Nothing. It was just the hangover jacking with his head again. It had to be. It was some bizarre, post-drunk delirium. All he needed was his medicine, then everything would begin to merge back into the normal lane again.
“Look, here’s the money,” Henry said, tapping a finger on the rumpled twenty, “Now be a good bartender and just give me the damned drink. Please. I’m not looking for trouble.”
“No, you go ahead and drink up that water first,” the bartender said, nodding at the poison, “Then you can have your whiskey. Don’t worry, you’ll still be plenty mad after you drink it, I promise.”
Henry’s head felt ready to explode. In spite of his misery, in spite of the vice slowly crushing his skull, he just couldn’t resist his darker impulses.
“What are you, the local shrink?” he said as harshly as he could manage, “Maybe this bar is the local crisis clinic. Is that it? Maybe you’re just trying to keep up on your practice?”
The old man studied him through his creases.
“That’s just about spot on, isn’t it?” Henry pressed, “You like to figger out folks when they come in here, yeah? It’s like your sideline here in the bar. Maybe folks come in plumb-dang full of problems and you git ’em all patched up? Maybe you help the local cowpokes wrangle their way out of getting divorced for tapping the local sluts? Or maybe you help the local sluts wrangle their way out of being married to the local cowpokes? Maybe when strangers come in, you like to get the drop on them with a little Hee-Haw psychoanalysis just to keep it entertaining? Maybe pick up a few more nickels in tips, kind of like a monkey dancing for the organ grinder’s cup? Feel free to nod or wink if I’m close.”
The old man just looked at him as he wiped his hands in that obscenely white rag. At least, Henry thought he was looking at him; his eyes seemed to have disappeared completely into that mire of wrinkles.
After a moment, the man carefully folded up the rag and laid it before the well. “Nope,” he said, at last, “Just a bartender, I expect.”
“Just a bartender,” Henry said back. He eyed the whiskey locked in the old man’s unrelenting grip. Then he looked at tower of water blocking it. “Just a bartender with the power of God,” he whispered as he hoisted the clammy glass, “What is it you cowboy philosophers like to say? When you find yourself in a hole, it’s time to stop digging?”
“I don’t believe I’m familiar with that one, but it sounds like good advice. Maybe you should write that down and keep it in your wallet.”
“Yeah, I’ll do that,” Henry said back, “Just as soon as I find my wallet.” A moment later, he slid the empty tumbler down the bar. “Happy?” he said, dragging a ripped sleeve across his mouth.
The bartender’s eyes re-emerged, and then he brandished what Henry supposed was a grin. “Not as happy as your liver will be.” Then, as he pushed the medicine across the bar, he said, “By the way, you smell like shit.”
“Ironically,” Henry said as he lifted the glass, “Shit’s the only thing I don’t smell like.” And then he punished the bourbon.