Sunday, August 30, 2009
Short Story XII
"...as for regrets, he had discovered their uselessness a long time ago."
ONE FOR THE ROAD
By Roy L. Pickering Jr.
The old man drank his beer slowly, savoring every droplet of the liquid gold. His one good eye occasionally took in fellow patrons, though he did not wonder what their stories were, their presence mattering not in the least to him, except as objects to keep his retina engaged. He regarded the reflection of his mirrored image, examined the busy intersection of lines that obscured what had once been a handsome face. As usual, he kept the examination brief. A fly landed on the bar within striking distance. The old man raised his hand, but only to toast another living creature whose existence mattered as little as his own.
The old man excelled at drinking alone. It was perhaps his last remaining talent. He had no friends to speak of, having outlasted most, not being vigilant enough about keeping in touch with the others. The last person whose presence he had regularly tolerated was Jarvis Jones. Jarvis was an able chess partner who was kind enough to spring for the old man’s beer from time to time. Then he moved down to Florida to dwell amongst fellow retirees in a warmer climate. After that, the old man paid for his own beer and replaced chess with the solitary sport of pigeon feeding.
There had been a steady source of warmth in the old man’s bed once upon a time, back when he wasn’t quite so old, but old enough to have exchanged his most romantic notions for acceptance of human limitations. They were never wed, having met at too late a stage in their lives for such formalities to be of importance. The relationship was less an affair of the heart or loins than one of convenience. She tolerated the proximity of his decaying body and only read the parts of the newspaper that he ignored. This kept them together until breast cancer pried them apart.
The old man had a son from an encounter with a red headed woman who cursed like an angry sailor when she climaxed, yet made him turn his head as she undressed. She was a chain smoker and a rapid talker, and the old man still vividly recalled how steeply her hips sloped down into the valley of her waist. Five months after their night together she told him she was pregnant, informed him as a courtesy, not a threat or claim of expectation. The old man had never seen his son, not even a photograph. Perhaps his son was in actuality a daughter. No matter. Either way, the kid was better off knowing only that a father of some sort had to have existed. Rumors disappoint far less than reality.
The old man watched his favorite of the two waitresses pace back and forth for a few moments, appreciating the bounce of her ample bosom, though not especially aroused by it. In his list of priorities, pleasures of the flesh and delights of the senses had taken a back seat to matters of more lasting value. The clock on the wall informed him that the appointed time was close at hand. In a few minutes, everything would be different. Maybe not better, maybe not worse, but different.
He reached into his pocket to make certain that what he required was still there. Next he cleared the phlegm in his throat, a mostly useless action, since it did little to increase his level of comfort, and he had nothing in particular to say.
The old man pushed his right thumb between two buttons on his shirt. He caressed the old scar to be found there, etched by a knife blade wielded by a man he had offended in his reckless youth. Feeling the scar was a firmly established habit. The stretch of hairless flesh was appreciated, because most of the old man’s memories, whether good, bad or neutral, had failed to supply him with tangible evidence such as this one.
Two minutes to go. His beer was only half consumed, still cold. He wiped away the condensation on the bottle, certain that it would reappear. The old man was not someone who took certainties for granted.
Highlights of noteworthy plays in various baseball games showed on a television screen behind the bar. The old man had once loved baseball. He knew now what had taken far longer than it should have for him to realize. It was an honor to love, a privilege not to be taken for granted. What else had he loved in the lengthy toil that constituted his lifetime? A well worn fedora, a well played trumpet, a well turned double play, a non-obtrusive cat, and yes, there had once been a girl. Emily was her name. Eventually she married another man who was more seriously intentioned; more responsible about practical matters; as if reliance was what made the world turn round. The old man knew better. Living longer than most had made him too stubborn to unlearn his convictions, therefore convincing him that wisdom had been gained. What else is wisdom if not a series of beliefs that no one can discredit or disprove?
Another glance at the clock told him that his waiting was done. The old man was without fear, or uncertainty, or anxiety, or curiosity, or concern over his level of preparedness. And as for regrets, he had discovered their uselessness a long time ago.
The waitress he favored was pouring someone a glass of red wine. A man laughed louder than was necessary. A woman ordered a margarita, frozen, no salt. A middle aged woman coyly whispered into the ear of her more inebriated, less aged companion. A man in a blue pinstriped suit discreetly removed his wedding band. A bleached blonde showed off her pregnant belly for the entertainment of those interested in such affairs. Cigarette smoke floated gracefully over her head like a halo. A boy who was three months shy of 21 sipped his rum and coke with surreptitious pride. The song on the jukebox ended, there was a brief moment of sultry silence, then the opening chords of another melody. It sounded familiar. Maybe Sinatra, maybe Springsteen, maybe someone in between. The old man didn’t wait for recollection to remind him what the name of the tune was, or of which unsentimental memory he had attached to it. Instead, he removed the pill from his pocket, placed it on the center of his tongue, and swallowed it down along with a mouthful of still cold beer.
He pictured Emily’s smiling face, thought of what might have been, what might not have been, and if the difference was of consequence. Then he awaited the inevitable; surrendered his spirit to what was unknown, yet seemed so familiar; passively celebrated the end of too many years that had amounted to nothing much. Nothing much at all.
x x x x x