His face bears the gnarled countenance of a wrinkled catcher’s mitt. Permanently tanned, and showing signs of his vacant love for strong drinks and endlessly sparked cigars. He always projects the image of a jolly old man, his lips stretched taut in an unrealistically broad smile. A ghastly caricature. Every morning he wakes, eats a simple breakfast of two eggs over easy and black coffee, waiting patiently to make the same journey to the same red barstool where he is expected.
He climbs into his dented truck and drives automatically through the winding streets to his predetermined parking spot, the one in the far left corner, found in a still-empty lot. He wonders briefly if the sky looks like rain; but as the dark clouds roll in, he remains unconcerned, knowing his day will unfold predictably regardless of the forecast. Entering the building, he passes unnoticed through the dim foyer and into the bar. He has started to blend in with the random junk spread like historic graffiti on the dark wood paneled walls: an old rusting tuba here, a splintered boat oar there, a glossy white and black photo of a now assassinated president. All blurring together into the background.
The man is greeted, like he is an old friend, by the bartender, who plays his role perfectly-- quickly repressing his annoyance toward the man’s omnipresence. As the man heaves his body up onto his waiting barstool, the bartender musters up the energy to hold a conversation, although he is clearly hung over. The distinct scent of booze lingers on his breath; his bloodshot eyes avert their gaze toward the tidy row of bottles lined up and ready for a new day of work. Without command he grabs the bottle of bourbon and without hesitation produces a Manhattan. The first of many he will serve to the man, and as the day trickles into the afternoon the man’s pain becomes dull and hazy like the clouds of filthy smoke that billow from his fat cigar. It is in the late afternoon that the man allows his cloudy mind to drift to thoughts of her. The bartender has listened to the man’s stories countless times before, and his annoyance at the man’s predictability causes him a twinge of guilt. The man predictably starts telling the bartender a story halfway through his fourth Manhattan. All the while he continues smiling a tight lipped grin.
Tracing a line on his calloused palm with his fingertip, the man tries to remember a time before this became his routine. A time when his mind was consumed and enchanted with the sheer possibility of life. He remembers how surreal it felt to be in college, being first in his family to attend. Sometimes, in the fall, he would wander the campus appreciating the crimson, gold, orange, and yellows dying the trees and making a cool autumn canopy overhead. He remembers the day he had been walking and carelessly bumped right into her. She was a petite woman and had nearly fallen over. But then she had laughed. He remembered her sweet, tender laugh, her insistence on peach taffeta and calla lilies for their wedding the following spring, and their lean years together when money was tight, he had started his own contracting business, and they had both lived on bologna sandwiches for a month because they couldn’t afford anything else....it all returns in bittersweet flashes, like tiny electrical zaps to his brain, causing him to wince slightly. His business had flourished and grown, and he was ready to retire, they had even started looking for a getaway home in Colorado, but now it all feels like scenes from an incomprehensible movie watched years ago, slipping away into the abyss of what once was.
This barstool had been his refuge from the bleak sterility of the hospital room where his wife had been chained to a slew of calculating machines, her diagnosis bleak. Pancreatic Cancer. Terminal. One day, her body finally gave up and the man was left alone in the world. After she died, he needed his barstool in a way, it gave him a place to sit that was far away from the house they had built together, where her scent, the smell of soap and lilies, still lingered.
Sometimes when the man is sitting on his red barstool, he looks at all the people bustling around him. He wonders if anyone will miss him when he no longer sits on his perch blending into the décor. He wonders if anyone will tell his stories. The man often talks to the bartender, a young kid finishing grad school, kind of reminds the old man of himself in his youth. He wonders if one day the kid will take his place on the barstool.
Sometimes when the bartender is laying in bed staring up into nothingness,
he pictures the man’s inflexible grin and worries the same thing.