Last call

He sits at the bar. He takes a seat at the edge, the spot where the two sides of the bar’s high top come together, fellow patrons on the left and right.

“What are you having?”

“Got three IPAs, don’t you?”

The bartender looks down at the menu in front of the man. It lists half a dozen, but the man doesn’t seem to be aware of it.

“What are you having?”

“Three of your top IPAs. And fries.”

The bartender is running around, out of range of the man’s faint mumbling.

“Sorry, I’m not following you, man.” The bartender is visibly agitated, not interested in spending much time with the weird patron, the forty-something guy who doesn’t know how to read a menu. “OK, we’ll get fries going,” at least the man behind the counter heard that much, “… and an IPA for you, right?”

The man nods.

“I’ll pick one for you.”

In a minute, Hop 7 is standing in front of the man. He takes a sip and remarks that it’s mediocre at best.

I look down and go back to my reading. The man sits a moment and nods in my direction. I look up.

“We couldn’t be friends,” he says.

“Oh?” I look up from my book, idly wonder how long I’ll need to be social before getting back into the sci-fi story in front of me.

“Yeah. Not gonna happen. Because you don’t want it to.”

I look at the man and wonder how many beers he’s had before coming here.

“You can say it. You can say the truth. That we’ll never be friends, and that’s something that you’ve already decided and no one can challenge you on that, that conclusion you came to.”

“Nothing’s impossible,” I offer. Hoping that this will pacify the man, too late realizing that it is virtually a promise, to get involved with this man, to spend more than a minute talking with him tonight.

But I’m reading. And this stranger is not someone I wish to spend the night talking with. To. I know he is right. I am very unlikely to make friends with anyone new. Truly, finding a random person to call “friend” is not something I see myself doing.

A page is awkwardly turned. I focus on the characters, the dialog bubbles, sorting them out, figuring out who’s speaking first. The man is staring.

“I’m intruding. I know I am. Why don’t you say that? Huh? Why don’t you say what you’re thinking, that I’m making an ass of myself and intruding on you.”

He’s not unkind when he says these words. He’s honest.

“I’m reading,” I almost plead. The book in my hands, it’s almost an offer, a prop used to convince this human in front of me that I am too involved in my little world, this pile of pulped tree matter, to put it away and speak with you like another human being.

“Yeah, I’m intruding. I know it.”

I don’t think any of that. I’m not drunk, but I’m not thinking too clearly. It does not occur to me what an asshole I’m being. I go back to reading. I turn away from the man.

Ten or fifteen minutes pass.

“You know that you’re successful. You’re the best at whatever it is that you do. We all know that. So why do you fight this? Huh? Why fight it?”

“I’m not fighting anything,” I respond. This is lunacy, isn’t it?

The man drinks his beer intermittently, and when the fries come they are placed close to me, pushed in my direction as if an offering. I do not touch them. I do not know if he does.

He talks about a football game, speaks of trades and yards, looks at the television in the corner, the one that isn’t playing a football game. I keep reading, have another sip of the barleywine. It’s good. The man isn’t scary, he’s not making me uncomfortable, he’s a good guy. I read my book.

“What do you want to trade? Huh?”

I look up and he’s speaking to me again, the stranger to my left.

“I’m not trading anything,” I offer. What is the conversation that he is having? Who is he speaking to?

“You’re uncomfortable. You want to walk away right now. You’ve been wanting to do that for hours. You’ve been here three hours and want to run away, just like you always do.” The man turns to the bartender and asks loudly, “Hasn’t this guy been here three hours?”

The bartender knows me, sees me come in every so often, always finding a spot at the bar, book in tow, downing a barleywine or something similar. He looks at me, looks at the man.

“Nah, he’s been here an hour.” Bartender turns in my direction, points at the nearly empty flagon of barleywine, “Want another one?”

I nod. The bartender turned and walked away, muttering, “Sounds like you’ve been here three hours, old man…”

My second beer comes up and for a while I sit and read in peace.

“You’re not reading. You haven’t read single word of that in the past hour.”

I’m not fighting the guy. He says something ridiculous, I ignore it. Take a sip of beer, pop a tater in my mouth and concentrate on the alien with the gun. (It’s Saga. Of course there’s an alien with a gun.)

“You’re not reading that. You’re not, are you? What are you reading about?”

“Sci-fi. Aliens… and a war…” Finding it hard to summarize in a few words something that’s taken months of my life to live through, a story that’s unfolded over multiple in-universe years. Sputter something out, then I hold up the book, let the man see the colorful cover, flip over to a particularly impressive two-page scene. The man peers at the book, is lost in the incomprehensible nonsense.

“No, no, that’s not the right book. You’re not reading the right one.”

He’s more confused than angry by this, by the fact that I’ve got the wrong book.

“Come on, you’re not reading that trash. Why would you read that?”

“It’s all the same stories, but they’re fun stories.” I reply out of some deep-seated desperation. Why the fuck do I read stupid shit like this? Because it entertains me! Because it’s a movie that I’m running through my own brain, with appropriately-timed piss breaks, better food than at the theater, and usually no interruptions.

That’s why I do it, but I don’t say that to the man.

He’s wound up a bit too much by this point. He keeps on rambling something about me pretending, acting like I’m reading this book.

“Hey,” the man calls to the bartender.

“Yeah?”

“You’ve gotta be the dumbest motherfucking bartender in the world…” At this point the bartender reaches over and collects the man’s almost empty beer and plate of fries. “…if you think he’s sitting here and reading that book!”

“OK got it now you’ve gotta finish up here and head on out.” I don’t hear a pause in there. The bartender is all business.

“I gotta pay you, you served me and I gotta pay you for that.”

Works like magic. The bartender is off to the register and is printing a receipt out as fast as he can. The man is now engaged with a different patron, to the left. They’re talking loudly. I pretend to go back to reading.

“…what do you care what he reads?”

“Sign right there.”

“He’s not reading…”

“Just put down an x, buddy.”

“Tip tip tip…”

“That’s a good book you got there?”

I speak to a patron across a space. This space is occupied by the man, portion of the bar, and the bartender. I pretend this space is empty and tell another random person about the book I’m trying to read.

The man eventually walks out.

I go back to reading, cash out in another ten minutes. Didn’t end up reading that much.

The bartender offered me a free beer. Two was enough, I said. He took one off my bill. As if ignoring another human being is somehow praise-worthy.

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