You’re sitting at the bar and you’re tired. You’re so tired that, for once in your life, you really don’t want to talk to anyone. All you want is beer and silence, and for a moment, as you watch the beginning of the UNC/Duke game in a dull, half-attentive sense of regional duty, there are hints that you might get it. But then you smell it: the perfume of sad desperation from the other end of the bar, wafting from the slumped figure of a man already several beers in at exactly five o’clock. You recognize the overeager interest in any and all conversation, the drunken enthusiasm for a stranger’s opinion, and the sudden expertise in esoterica of all kinds. You do not know this man, but you are certain he has not had culinary opinions about elk until today. And he is hungry, oh, so hungry, and he wants a meal. Bad.
You’re a natural mark for these kinds of people, the lonely, the castaways, the neglected and the grasping, but you don’t worry because there are other people here, the goodnatured bartender and a hemp farmer fresh from a business meeting. They are your line of defense, so you drink and pray that Duke loses, because you believe in justice and there’s no point shaking the indoctrination of a North Carolina childhood after this many years.
The bartender is the first to fall. He’s attentive–he nods at the right time and knows just when to say “that sucks, man,” or “oh, shit”–but behind his eyes he’s already gone. He’s just a body now, twitching like Sonny Corleone under a hail of bullets. All movement is an illusion; what life you see is nothing more than reflex. The hemp farmer with a taste for elk goes next: he entertains a clumsy monologue about gun rights, explains the benefits of hemp plastics, declares his eternal hatred for moles, voles, and ground squirrels, and sips his pluot jerkum until his pizza and bread sticks arrive. He begins to wilt when the man offers to “help” on the hemp farm with high-pitched eagerness, because they’re buddies, pals, the best of friends now. The hemp farmer sighs. You start to think about Chester and Spike and drink faster: you’ve dodged the bullet so far, but you can’t stay lucky forever. The hemp farmer finishes his jerkum, mumbles something about how it was nice to meet the man, and leaves. The man drones on about his job and he raises his voice. He glances over at you, but you suddenly discover a water stain on the copper bar and stare at it. You pray. A couple walks in and you exhale in relief: one of them is a beautiful woman–you are saved. You drink to Jesus, Thor, Vishnu, and Vonnegut.
The man turns to the couple and begins to ask questions. The woman is with her boyfriend, but he’s invisible. The man’s loneliness, stoked by beer, has mistaken itself for confidence. “What do you do,” he asks. She answers, and so does her boyfriend. The dual stimulus is confusing and the man speaks for a moment with the boyfriend until he remembers that his girlfriend has breasts. He likes breasts. “Do you have a sister,” he asks. You almost choke. You turn around, but there’s no fourth wall, no camera or gawking audience: this is real.”Yes,” she says, “but she’s pregnant.” A strange reply, but potentially effective in its unusualness. “She’s resisting,” you think. “Good. Resistance means time, and time means freedom.” The man is undeterred. “Pregnant and single,” he asks. And just like that, you feel shame.
You try to shake it off, because it’s not yours, but homeless shame must find somewhere to go. The man can’t feel it, so it’s found you. You take a sip and wait for it pass. Some of it must have hit the girlfriend, because she musters a fake laugh and says: “you’re terrible!” The man doesn’t know what those words means anymore, so he leans in and begins to ask more questions. The boyfriend runs interference and he takes one in the shoulder. He laughs and begins to talk about his job. It’s boring, but the man loves it and they talk some more. You are still free. When their pizza comes, the couple moves to a table as far away from the man as they can get and begins to eat. The man, cast once again into the horizonless expanse of his aloneness, looks at you again. You focus on the TV and pray. A man walks in with a growler and you drink to Vonnegut again, because clearly he is the only god listening to this.
The man’s here for a growler fill. This is the merchant marine of the bar, pulling into port for fresh water before leaving again. He’s not here to stay, but the sudden appearance of a new target, however brief, brightens the man’s face. He assails the sailor with a few questions about what kind of beer he’s getting, pretends to have an opinion about it–“oh, yeah! That’s…a good one. Yeah. I like it.”–and strings together some words about growler technology, but the sailor is polite and noncommittal. He gets his beer and he leaves.
You’re alone now. The man glances over at you and begins to fidget. The bartender is out of the running–whatever they to say to each other has been said–and the hemp farmer has left with his pizza. The hot woman doesn’t have a hot pregnant single sister, and her boyfriend still exists despite trying to ignore him out of existence. It’s just you and him. You know what’s coming, so you pour the rest of your beer into your face as fast as you can and wander over to the fridges to find a beer to go. Staying here only invites awkwardness and the kind of forced conversation you came here to avoid in the first place. After a few minutes you find what you were looking for and head back to the bar.
The man has left his chair and plotted an intercept course. He catches you near your stool and looks at you in the eye. His face is on fire in that way only a drunk’s can be: it’s flushed and elastic and the eyes are wide, transformed from the dull cotton dryness of initial intoxication to manic whirlpools. He’s on the edge of a crash and holding on for dear life. “What’d you get,” he asks as he stands well inside your personal space. You hold up the can. “This,” you say. “Never had it before, but it’s supposed to be good. “Oh, yeah” he says blankly, “yeah.” With contact made, it’s only a matter of time now, so you stand at the bar screaming inside your head and raise your hand to get the bartender’s attention. The man makes his move. He leaves his seat and slides his beer along the bar over to the stool next to yours. The bartender takes the beer and moves to open it. “No,” you say, “to go.” The bartender looks at you with a flat expression and his words come out like sighs: “to go.” The bartender’s a nice guy, a friendly stoner with thick twisted locks and a lazy laugh, and he doesn’t deserve to be left with a gravity pit of sadness, but you have yourself to think about. This is not a time for altruism. You pay, wave to the bartender and leave. The man and the bartender watch with empty expressions as the door closes. You were their last line of defense and now you’re gone. And UNC is behind.
At the crosswalk you run into your neighbors walking their two Shetland ponies on leashes. You coo at the horses as they pass and your neighbors scowl and bark a greeting. Lingering only invites awkwardness and the kind of forced conversation they came here to avoid in the first place. They’re a mark for this kind of person, the lonely, the castaway, the neglected and the grasping, but they don’t worry because they have each other and the light is short. This is not a time for altruism. On the other side of the street you catch the smell of meat from an open bar door and wonder if that’s what elk smells like. And just like that, you’re hungry. Oh, so hungry.