I sat at the bar, waiting on my beer and watching the college football game play out on the big, flatscreen TV. The bar was pretty much empty. Well, it was a Wednesday afternoon, after all, so you couldn’t really expect too many people. Most people would be headed home to rest before the next day’s work, unable to afford any of the heavy drinking that the majority of them came here to do. But me, I liked the clear atmosphere of a quiet bar. It was a good place to decompress after a hard day’s work at the construction site, and that happened to be what I needed on that particular afternoon.
Lou was just handing me my beer when the door opened and a young man slunk up to the bar and took the seat next to mine. His voice was quiet, so quiet I almost couldn’t hear it, as he ordered a whiskey on the rocks and stared off into space. A few husky fellas started a game of pool, crowding around the table with hearty laughter. Alabama scored a touchdown on the tube.
I gotta admit, I was a little miffed to have company. It had been a long, hard day, what with a newbie on the job who could barely hold a hammer properly much less operate any of the heavy machinery. All I really wanted to do was nurse my beer for half an hour before I had to head home to my wife. Not that she’s so bad, really, it’s just that our apartment is pretty damn small and it’s nice to have a little time to myself. A few moments to clear my head and quiet my own grumbling, otherwise I’d head home complaining. My wife, she hates that. Too much negativity, she’d say. So I had to get it out here, in the peace and quiet of my own thoughts. And when a guy sits right next to you at an empty bar like this, it means he wants to talk, and, quite frankly, I wasn’t feeling like it that day.
But as I sipped my beer and watched Alabama run the ball again, I took closer notice of the guy. He looked rough, real rough, like he’d just caught his wife in bed with the milkman. His face was haggard and pale. He kept running his hands through his brown hair, brown and a little long for my tastes. He stared down hard at the glossy wood counter. Most importantly, he was knocking his whiskey back as though it could save his life. One, two, three shots, all down the hatch. Bottoms up.
Now, truth be told, I’ve always been a bit of a lightweight. All the other guys in construction used to give me shit for it when we went out for drinks after work. It really sorta bugged me, you know? Tough as nails but a little bitch when it comes to holding my booze. So, you see, I couldn’t help but notice this guy chugging away his liquor without a second thought.
Despite my earlier reservations, I felt like I had to talk to this guy. I mean, he looked like he really needed it, like something was really eating away at him. And I like to think of myself as a personable fellow. Warm and engaging, that’s what my wife calls me. I felt like I had a responsibility to my fellow man or something. That was my trouble. So I opened my mouth. I opened my damn mouth.
“Rough day at work?”
“Yeah.” He was still staring down at the table, his hands playing nervously with his glass. Man, I hate that. Fidgeting, that is.
I should’ve just stopped right then and there, but he looked like he was gonna snap at any minute. I really felt sorry for the guy, couldn’t just leave him to sit and stew like that. “Well, everyone has days like that.”
“Not like this.”
I waited quietly for an explanation, but it became pretty clear that he wasn’t gonna give one to me. Well, screw him. I had a family to get home to. A little family, but it was mine all the same. I was about to give up for good and go home when he decided I was worth talking to again.
“There will be more.”
His tone was real strange, much calmer than the rest of him, which was shaking like a leaf. Suddenly, I wanted very much to finish my drink and head home. I bet if I asked, my wife, Sarah, would cook me my favorite food, spaghetti with thick sauce, homemade, not the shit you buy in a jar at the store. She’s good to me like that, always treating me to the little things. Things that I should appreciate more, I know. So, I tried to lead him around to the end of the conversation so I could leave without feeling too guilty. “Well, why don’t you just quit, then?”
“Not many people can do what I do.”
I felt a little stab of annoyance. I sized him up. He was wearing a black suit and tie, crisp undershirt and shined up shoes. Real expensive. Probably some fancy salaryman, calculating figures for a Fortune 500 company, too good for the likes of a manual laborer like me. Now I really wanted to get the hell out of there.
“Well, if it’s such an important job, then you must be an important man for doing it. Let me guess, something that takes a lot of schooling, a lot of preparation, not something your everyday chump like me can do, hm? Well, I don’t think you’d have gone through all that work to get where you are just to fail. A bad day is a bad day. Accept it and get on with your life.”
I don’t like to brag, of course, but I like to think that I know what to say. When someone’s upset, when someone’s looking for advice, I know what to say. This guy, he just needed someone to stroke his ego. Usually so confident, so sure of himself, but still sort of delicate. Not the sort of guy I try to spend a lot of time with. A stumbling block in his so carefully chosen career that’s made him question everything about himself for perhaps the first time. Preen over him for a while and he’ll be back to normal.
While I was thinking this, Mr. Important Salaryman started to nod to himself, his eyes growing wide. He stopped fidgeting with his glass – thank God – and his lips parted as he breathed heavily. He looked deep in thought, lost on the train tracks of his own mind. I caught Lou’s eye in the hopes of paying the tab and getting the hell out of there.
“For a beer? You’re fuckin’ kidding me, you bloodsucker.”
It was our usual banter but I could hear the edge in my own voice today. I handed over a fiver and stood up to go. As I turned away from the bar, Alabama fumbled the ball and the man grabbed me by my arm.
“Hey, for what it’s worth, thanks a lot. That really helped.”
He looked at me with such honest gratitude that I couldn’t help but feel my attitude soften towards him just a bit. Probably not such a bad guy after all, just a little different than me. And that was ok. The world needs people like him, too, after all.
I was about to go when I stopped and thought for a half a minute. I stared at that long brown hair, toying with something on the tip of my tongue. If I could’ve anticipated his answer, I never would have asked the question.
“Say, just out of curiosity… what is it that you do, anyway?”
He looked over at me with a sort of rueful smile that had just a touch of pride. He downed his last whiskey and I watched it drained measuredly into his mouth. The huskier of the fellas won the pool game. Alabama had the ball back.
“I’m a mortician. Today I embalmed my first child.