It was rather dark that evening at the bar. Despite the sun’s best efforts, that fall sunset prematurely ended a day deprived of color or warmth, as a tree outside greyed in the romance-less light that leaked outside. Only a few silvery beards persisted here past the average curfew, for yet another bronzed beer.
A bell timidly tinkled. The floorboards creaked a little under the weight of the old priest. His priestly garments had followed him into the small bar, and as he rested into the stool the smell of dust and sweat rose.
He addressed the slim figure behind the counter with a polite “darling” and asked for a drink. A finger pointing at the daunting rack of choices helped to clarify which. A large smile met a modest, and she turned to find his poison.
She was a slight woman. Not a single bit of weight showed on her, and her toned look implied weeks of work put into hiding any suggestion otherwise. She effortlessly floated around the small paper labels that all tried to hide the deep mahogany of the rack. The plaque that clung from this foreboding hulk declared, “Something new every week! We special a unique cocktail every Thursday! Come on Thursday to try a new flavor tax free!” This message had remained here for years, yet it seemed good tonight.
I ordered it, and tried to watch my hands, the clock, and not the bubbly spirit as she prepared it. The shook a little, yet it did not feel so cold inside.
“How old was she?” the aged priest suddenly asked. He had put on something of a worried face, but the edges sagged under wrinkles and eyelids.
“Eighty something,” I replied. Her life was stretched, death prolonged, funeral endless. It took her three eternities to reach the last. This was the man who had given a prayer at the end.
The slight woman poured the last of the spirit into the glass with practiced skill. Her left knee stood out stubbornly from the natural forward parallel most legs obey. A pretentious heel attempted to raise her midgety height to no avail. From my perspective the thing looked as if she’d topple over herself.
“Was it a hard funeral for you?” I silently suspected that he was watching my gaze, so I simply shifted sight and replied that it was, because long speeches are so. The papery hulk seemed to have a bend in the back, the way it was stocked with aged beverages.
He tried to look of good intentions. He offered to pick up the tab for a minute or to with him. Curious to see what his intentions really were, I consented.
“What is your job?”
“Doctor at a Blue Cross Clinic, Middleton.”
“Do they pay well?”
“Well, do you work weekends?”
“Yes, but I always get Sundays off.” He smiled a little. I despised a little. Perhaps a lot or none would have been more tolerable, because modesty is arrogant arrogance.
“Well that’s good.”
Before he could ask the hanging question, the slight lady had returned.
“So you’re in medicine?” I stared at the deep bronze of the cocktail. One could see his reflection in an unflattering stretched fatness. I said the obvious.
“Anything fix you faster than a hard drink?” She obviously shouldn’t make jokes being this late and this tired, but I wishing not to appear annoyed agreed that nothing does. The priest chuckled a little.
“Drink in moderation though-”
“-Or never drink at all,” I offered. “At least when not in peace.”
The evening wound on in a fashion as such. There were infrequent intervals of silence between her feverish exclamations, the priest’s smiles, and my contributions. The wind picked up outside, and the leaves threatened to depart from the tree at once. Some surrendered themselves to the storm outside.
I had only finished that first round throughout the course of two hours. For the whole time I could not help but to stare at that monstrous rack of choices that all appeared the same.
Hoping to break the silence again, I inquired the means that the weekly flavor was invented. Somewhere between the question and my forced smile afterwards it was revealed that they weren’t so new, and recycled every year.
“Which makes sense,” I offered.
“Of course. You know, between you and me, I really don’t see much difference between most drinks. just alcohol content really.”
The priest objected, “I’d say there’s a difference. In integrity and quality of each.”
I begged to differ.
“No son. Invest in lousy and it comes back out lousy. And there’s no way you can go for a second after a first lousy one.”
“Then tell me what’s good.”
And on and on the lecture went. Each life of each bottle was described in painstaking detail. The creaking floorboards groaned as he moved on to the next.I found myself staring into my empty glass as he spoke. Two ice cubes sat there cold and lifeless.
I could only help but to think of the funeral. Somewhere in between his descriptions I found the same pointing, assurances and set face that had accompanied the black clothed crowd.
What had gone into this casket was no longer anything but a point of study. A mockery, replete with clothes and makeup, of the temporal existence the watchers lived. Only appreciated by those who would join her.
Somehow the walls of the bar became a prison. The clock’s gusts swirled about the room and exited out the door, threatening to carry away. Temporal only I could understand.
The unflattering light made grey the edges of that slight lady’s hair. She had worked here her whole life.
“Father,” I asked. “Yes?”
“Have you been a priest for life?”
And then I knew the asnwer.
The ice cubes came to life as he forced a particularly stubborn bottle open and filled the glass full. He had full faith that I would come to appreciate the fullness of this brew’s flavor.
“It has a long story behind it, this one,” he said. He did too. I did too.
The ice cubes tinkled to life as the powerful liquid flooded over them.
“A story from long ago,” he repeated, as the ice cubes were reinvigorated. I did too. I watched that bloated reflection of myself again.
Somehow I could see myself washed over in that loamy, foamy brown as I struggled to see the top. I was swimming in a bronze sea, floating to the foam above. Life began again as I sought to find at the top what one can find at the bottom. I watched myself break through the surface, and there I was. Like a fish, I was gasping, choking, on a cold and substanceless medium that meant freedom to those above but was nothing to my species.
I had choked on my drink. Its potency had robbed me of the air for a minute. I stopped in time to see that giant rack totter as the slight lady had rushed to my aid. She barely had got herself out of the way when that mess occurred on the floor. A blue bottle (a Handyman’s Cure no less) had dashed itself to pieces upon the floor and forever unsalable. The rack had assumed its original state emotionlessly. I apologized for the bottle, and left the sum for the old man’s drinks, mine’s and the floor’s. And for that drink the priest gave, it sat on the counter half drank, because I didn’t know what to do with it anymore.