So this guy walks into a bar, right?
Sorry about that. Oldest line in the book.
But really, that’s how it starts. This guy walks into Rick’s Corner Bar, and pauses just inside. He’s backlit by the afternoon sun coming through the door, just a silhouette, but already I can tell he’s got problems.
I’ve been tending bar for a long time, and I can tell at a glance when a fella’s got something to unload, or forget about, or drown. Sometimes it’s the posture. Downcast eyes. Sloppy dress or a three-day beard. The set of the shoulders, the way they walk. Nervous twitches.
Sometimes it’s some subliminal tip-off that even I don’t understand.
Yeah, I used that word. I might be just a bartender and an electrician, but that doesn’t mean I don’t read, okay?
Anyway, this guy’s one of the subliminal ones. I can’t tell you how I know he’s got issues, I just know that I know.
Nothing unusual about the way he stopped just inside the door. A lot of people do that, to get their bearings and pick out a seat. In daylight, almost everyone does, to let their eyes adjust to the darkness in here.
Not that Rick’s Corner Bar is a cave or anything. We have two windows, one on the south wall and one on the east. Depending on the time of year, we might draw the curtains on them, or we might not, but either way at least a little light dribbles in. We even have light fixtures in the ceiling that we turn on sometimes. We are a thoroughly modern establishment. But it’s dark in here compared to outside on a sunny afternoon like this one. The walls are painted a dark shade of grayish-tan, something my wife calls “taupe.” She refuses to talk about normal colors like gray, tan, red, green. Everything is taupe or chartreuse or magenta or teal. What are you gonna do? You marry an artist, it comes with the territory.
The floor, the bar, and the furniture are all wood, stained a color just a shade lighter than chocolate. Rick Tolliver, the current owner, had it redone when he bought it, a couple of years ago. He said the dark colors and the wood give it an air of refinement. And I think he’s right.
So the guy makes his decision, I guess, and starts moving through the room toward the bar. Now I can see him better. Tall guy, forty-ish—I’m guessing a lawyer or a banker, from the way he’s dressed. We used to get mostly blue-collar types in here, but after the renovation, a few suits started showing up. We get all types now.
This guy isn’t one of our regulars, though. I have a good memory for faces, and I can tell you for sure that this is the first time I’ve laid eyes on his.
This early in the afternoon, the bar’s not very crowded. Three plumbers sitting at the bar talking shop, a twenty-something couple sitting at a window table, wrapped up in their own little world. Plenty of empty seats to choose from.
The new guy grabs a stool and plops down onto it, rests his arms on the edge of the bar. Brown eyes, great hair, face like a movie star. At this point I’m thinkin’, Can’t be women problems.
Top three things guys complain about in a bar: women, jobs, and money. All three are closely interrelated, of course. This guy’s problem must be his job or his finances, or both.
“How’s it going?” I say to him.
“Not so bad. Can I get Jack on the rocks?”
“Sure thing.” Gotta admit, I’m a little surprised. I almost had the idea he was gonna order some kind of foo-foo drink, like a pina colada or a daiquiri. I like him already. So I make him the drink and I make sure he sees me put a little extra Jack in there, and I put it in front of him. “Don’t tell anybody,” I say. “You look like you could use it.”
“Pffft,” the guy says. “You have no idea.”
I laugh. “Try me. I’ve heard it all in here.”
He takes a pull off his drink and says, “What’s your name?”
He sighs, and says, “Let me ask you something, Matt.”
During the pause that follows, I notice that he hasn’t offered his own name. A little odd, but guys with problems aren’t always quite themselves, so I don’t take offense.
“How old are you?” he says.
“Forty-two,” I say, a bit taken aback. “Just last week.”
“Happy belated,” he says.
“Two. Nineteen and sixteen. Both boys.”
He lifts his eyebrows and says, “You supporting two teenagers as a bartender?”
“Hell, no. This is my second job. I work nights as an electrician. Matter of fact, I’m getting ready to clock out of here in about an hour, and go to my ‘day job.’” I always get a kick out of dropping that line. My main job, my “day job,” is a night job, and my second job is tending bar, in the daytime. Some people get it, and some don’t. I glance at him to see if he’s one of the ones that gets it.
“Electrician, huh? Pay well?”
Now this is getting a little personal, but again, I cut the guy some slack, ’cause I got a feeling this is his way of getting around to what he really wants to talk about. “It’s okay, I guess. I do a few side jobs. Put all these lights in here for the new owner. But it’s still not enough to put a kid through college, not by itself. You do what you gotta do, right? Hell, I’d take a third job if I could fit it in.”
“How’s things with the wife? Hunky dory?”
Hmm. All these questions about my personal life are startin’ to make me think maybe it’s woman problems after all. I shouldn’t’ve jumped to conclusions just ’cause he looks like a movie star. If anybody should know, it’s me: sometimes good-lookin’ people have the most messed up love lives. It’s the ordinary-lookin’ folks that have the best relationships.
Take me, for instance. I ain’t ugly, but you’d never mistake me for a movie star, that’s for sure. And I got no complaints about my marriage. My wife happens to be an angel in disguise, and normally I don’t mind talking about our relationship, but in this case I think it’s about time the flow of information should start running the other direction, so I give him the short version.
“Well, I don’t see her as much as I’d like, but yeah, we’re fine,” I say.
He sighs again, looks out the window. “Why?” he says, sort of to himself. “Why does it have to be like this?”
“Hm?" I say. "Be like what?”
He turns back to me. “Nothing. Just hoping for some different answers.”
“Hey, don’t hold it against me just ’cause I got a good marriage.” I smile at him to show I’m just kiddin’, that we’re comrades, two fellas with a common understanding. “Believe me, the rough times come and go. Me and the wife, we been through a few. They pass. Yours’ll pass too.”
He blinks at this, shakes his head, and says, “No, no, that’s not it. I’m not married.”
“No. No. You don’t get it. It’s, um … It’s my job.”
Damn, I’m really slippin’ here. I can’t seem to get a read on this fella. “Oh, okay,” I say. “What line are you in?”
He looks at me for a good five seconds before he says, “I have the world’s dirtiest job.”
At this I just have to laugh. “I never would’ve guessed that, the way you’re dressed.”
“It’s true,” he says, and takes another drink. “You ever seen that Mike Rowe show, Dirty Jobs?”
“Yeah,” I say. “Makes me feel better about mine.”
“Mine is dirtier than any you’ve ever seen on that show.”
I look at his nails. Not a trace of black under ’em. Look like they might’ve been manicured, for Christ’s sake. How dirty could his job be? “Okay,” I say. “What is it, then?”
He doesn’t answer, but turns away from me and stares out the window again. I let him have his moment to get hold of himself, and when he finally turns back, I could swear I see tears in his eyes.
“I really hate this,” he says.
“Friend,” I say, “You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to. But I can see you’re really sufferin’. Don’t know if I’ve ever seen anybody get so worked up over a job. Is it that important? Maybe it’s time to move on.”
“Can’t do that. I wish I could. Really, I do.”
“It’s that important. It has to be done. It’s cliché as hell, but somebody’s gotta do it. And I’m elected, I’m the lucky guy. I wish I could get out of it, but if I quit … you just can’t imagine the chaos.” He pauses. “Hell, I better just shut up.”
I nod my head, finally beginning to understand. “Government?”
He takes a drink, looks up at me. “Sort of.”
“I know, you’re not allowed to say. But I get it. There’s different kinds of dirt. Workin’ for just about any of those outfits with a three-letter acronym can be pretty dirty, I guess.”
He nods. “It gets to you after a while.”
“I can see how it might.” I start takin’ glasses out of the sink and dryin’ ’em off, hangin’ ’em up, just to have something for my hands to do while I’m thinkin’ about this guy. If I wasn’t such a nobody, I’d’ve been wonderin’ by now if he was here for me, for some reason. But I don’t gamble, I don’t do drugs, never slept with anybody's wife, never had any problems with the law. I’m just a dad and a husband, an electrician and a part-time bartender. Hell, I'm even honest on my tax returns. Can’t think of a single person that I would call an enemy, and not a single reason anybody would want to hurt me, or send a suit to bring me bad news.
He takes another sip from his drink, then puts it, half-empty, back on the bar. “I shouldn’t be putting this on you, Matt. But it’s so hard, this job. It’s killing me. And I can’t talk to anybody else about it. You’re the one guy that it’s okay for me to talk to.”
“Because … listen, I’m sorry. This is so wrong of me. Just because I can talk to you doesn’t make it right.”
“I don’t mind, really. Believe me, I get this all the time. Sometimes I can even help people, and then I can go home, you know, feeling a little better about myself, too.”
He stares at me for a second. “I appreciate your trying,” he says, “but you can’t help me. The only thing you can do is make it worse.”
Ohhh-kay, I think I got this guy figured out. Some people have just made up their minds to be miserable. There ain’t a damn thing you can do for ’em, and if you try, all you end up doin’ is bringin’ yourself down. Best thing to do is cut and run.
“Listen. I gotta go check on these fellas over here,” I say, rolling my eyeballs toward the plumbers, “and I’ll be right back.” Yeah, like in about fifteen minutes.
“Don’t bother,” he says. “I have to go, anyway.” He gets up from his stool, throws a few bills on the bar. “Been nice talking to you.”
“Same. You take care, now.” I gotta admit, I’m kind of glad to be getting rid of this wet blanket. I just hope he doesn’t walk out in front of a bus.
“And I’m sorry,” he says.
“Not a problem.”
He holds his hand out for me to shake. Most guys don’t shake their bartender’s hand, but hell, I already know he’s an odd one. My hand is wet with dishwater, so I wipe it off on a bar rag, and when I’m done, his hand is still out there, waiting for mine. What the hell, maybe a shake is all it’ll take to make this sad sack feel like he’s not alone. One last try.
He’s got a nice firm grip. His mouth is set in a straight line, and in his eyes I see pain, and regret. I’ve seen that look in the eyes of a lot of folks, and I know what it means. Whatever burden this human wreck is carrying, it’s got him on the brink of a complete breakdown. He almost makes me want to cry.
I wish I could help him.
Then he turns and walks out the door without another word. For a second, I see his silhouette again as he passes through the doorway, and I swear it doesn’t look like the silhouette of a guy in a business suit. It looks like …
Ah, never mind. My eyes must be playin’ tricks on me.
Whew. Weird dude. Like I said, we get all types in here.
He never did tell me his name.
I pick up his glass, pour what’s left of his drink into the drain, and drop the glass into soapy water. I scoop his money off the bar and run the rag over the condensation ring his glass left.
On my way to the register, I feel a sharp pain in my chest, and it makes me make a sound, something like “Gurkk!”
I freeze in place. Oh, man, this hurts. In a few seconds, the pain goes shooting down my left arm. I break out in a sweat, and all of a sudden I feel like I need to throw up. I can’t breathe. Oh, shit, this ain’t good. This ain’t good at all.
I’ve heard that your life flashes before your eyes, but that ain’t true, not true at all, at least not for me. What flashes before my eyes is all the stuff I didn’t do. Things I left hanging, loose ends my wife’ll have to tie up, places I never got to see, family events I missed ’cause I was working, times I didn’t tell my wife and kids I loved ’em when I should have, important things I never got to tell my boys, things they need to know to survive in this world, dammit!
Panic sets in. I can’t go now. There’s so much left to do. Besides, I’m too young. It’s not fair!
I drop the money. It feels like somebody’s sitting on my chest. Oh, God, it hurts so bad. I go down to my knees, thinking about my wife and my boys, wondering if they’ll be okay.
I don’t remember it happening, but somehow I’m face down on the floor now. I see people’s feet coming toward me, and I hear voices, but they sound like they’re underwater. It’s hard to understand ’em, and even harder to care. It would be so easy to just … slip away.
As my vision starts to go black, I realize it doesn’t hurt anymore. The panic is gone, and a calm settles over me like a warm blanket on a cold January night. I feel … peaceful. It’s okay. I accept it.
The last thing I think about is the look in that guy’s eyes as he shook my hand, and I feel his pain. He was right. There’s no dirtier job than his.