He’s as good a conversationalist as any. He’s oblivious to mercy and in no mood to talk. Well-dressed. Wearing a fedora and pulling it off. A Bogart kind of guy. Eyes forward, reading bottle labels or remembering heartbreak. He orders two shots and a beer.
“Put it on my tab,” you say.
“I’m not going home with you tonight, friend,” he says.
“Too bad. I could use some love.”
“You could use a shower.”
You laugh, finish your drink and extend your hand. He doesn’t shake it.
“Why do I get a free round while that poor bastard spends his daughter’s college funds on swampwater?” you ask, nodding toward a guy sitting a few stools over.
The guy is sweating discounted whiskey. Stubble beaded with liquor. Lazy violence peering from a fat face.
“You got a fuckin prollem?” fatass calls over.
“Oh, you heard me?” the stranger says.
“Yeah, n I axed if you got a fuckin prollem!”
“Only ninety-nine of them.”
Fatass wobbles to his feet. The bartender wipes a glass and watches with passive interest.
“You wanna take this outside, mister?”
The stranger continues staring ahead, reading symbols in space. Downs his first shot. Hisses quietly. “Don’t go home all bruised up again. Your wife might work up the guts to divorce your flabby ass. Here,” he pulls out a 20, waves it at fatass. “Take this. Get out of my sight, you sack of shit.”
Fatass wrenches his features into a wet pink ball of fury. “No one talks to me like that.”
“Yes they do. Everyone talks to you like that. That’s why you’re here alone, drinking whatever they wipe off the bar. Now go buy some toothpaste and a new shirt. A 20 should meet your standards.”
Fatass sways, damp and defeated, for an endless minute. Finally, he takes the money and nods hard. He waddles out the door. The stranger takes his other shot and drinks half his beer. For a moment you wish you’d taken your conversation elsewhere.
Then you reconsider. You imprint bravery on this stranger’s face. He tells it like it is. A real James Cagney. Classic Hollywood. The kind of man they don’t make anymore.
“That guy’s tail is so far between his legs, it’s tickling his stomach,” you say with a laugh.
“With that much stomach hanging down, the tail wouldn’t have to go up very far.”
You laugh again. “So do I get to know your name now?”
“No, you do not get to know my name. If you buy me another shot, you get to know my secret.”
“Heavy shit, brother. You ever read The Catcher in the Rye?”
“Suck my dick, friend.”
You both chuckle, a social performance.
“Get him another shot of that,” you tell the bartender.
The shot comes. He slugs it back.
“Okay, you got the shot. Now I get the secret.”
“I think they call that a compromise. I’m not very good with those.”
“It’s called a deal. Any man who’s not good with those isn’t worth shit to me.”
His gaze peels from space and drifts to you. There’s danger in those eyes. “Here’s my secret: after you’ve been down there—down there, I mean, where all of them come from—you are free to do anything.”
“The demons, that’s who. I’m not talking Scripture here. I’m talking about the whiskey in that shitbag’s guts. I’m talking about your need for conversation. I’m talking about the rotten, diseased whore that some corporate lawyer is fucking somewhere in this city right now. I’m talking about the thing that kills us. Once you come to want something enough, it comes so you need it. And once you need something enough, well shit… Once that happens, you might as well say sayonara to everything else. And I mean everything else.”
“You’re talking about addiction.”
“It’s more than that. Monomania. Demons. The Captain Ahab condition.”
“Obsession. The danger of dreams. I’m not just saying I’ve looked death in the face. I’m saying I’ve ripped the curtain away and I can laugh at the screaming girl in the shower. Because I’ve done it. It’s not just that I’ve pressed a hot fire poker into a man’s arm until he screamed. It’s the fact that I didn’t pull it away. No matter how much he screamed and begged and pissed himself, I kept that thing scorching until it touched his bones. Until it burned his insides.”
“What do you do?”
“I talk with the demons. I learn their names.”