“I know, yes, I’ve got to pay now. I’m still paying
Well, if I could walk on water…”
The old song made him smile. How many mea culpa’s like that did he offer in his life? Enough that his rye whiskey couldn’t make him forget. The silvery cube swirled around with the amber liquid, a vortex making him relive his regrets. Arguments, anger, flirtations, infidelities, lack of empathy, stubborn refusals. A smile crept in the corner of his mustached mouth. His watery eyes saw the blur of some sports on the screen. He sighed. Maybe tomorrow, he’d change his ways.
“Bartender! I’ll have what he’s having and set him up with another.” The tall blonde gentleman, short cropped hair slicked back, eyes so blue they almost shined white, sat next to Ford. The blonde man slapped Ford on the back and blinded the scruffy middle-aged man with the glare of his pearly whites. “Pleased to meet you!”
Ford didn’t say a word, raised his glass an inch off the bar, and tilted it toward the stranger. Then threw back the contents; the burn ran deeper than usual down his gullet. Ford dropped his hand and glass back on the bar. He turned his attention to the TV away from the uninvited guest.
The bartender put two rye whiskeys on ice in front of each man.
“I didn’t catch your name.” The intruding gentleman pressed Ford. Ford looked at him from the side of his eyes, raising the new glass of spirits to his lips. “That’s alright. You don’t have to tell me anything. Enjoy your drink, and I will enjoy mine.”
“Ford, a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
Ford grunted, curling his lip into a snarl. A glance around the room showed Ford plenty of empty seats. The Rainbow was a dive, been that way since it opened in the early seventies. Maybe, this guy had the wrong idea about the bar because of the name. “Likewise. Plenty of space. Maybe you could give me some.”
“I’m sorry. Are you worried about social distancing?”
“Something like that.”
The man moved down a seat. “Ford, tell me, what has you in this place on a Wednesday evening?”
“I’m not looking for love if that’s what you’re driving at.”
The lights flickered as the blonde stranger laughed. “Good one. No. I am not. Just curious, you seem a healthy, able-bodied fellow, so why are you drowning your sorrows here?”
“You want a story; find a Reader’s Digest.” Ford got up, stumbled a little, recalibrated his balance, and found a table near the jukebox that was now playing Ugly Kid Joe singing Harry Chapin.
The man followed. “Ford, I’m not trying to harass you. Just came in to make sure you stayed the course.”
Ford scrunched his brow and narrowed his eyes. He hoped squinting may bring this stranger into focus. His eyes darted across the features of the slender man across the table from him. No spark of recognition. No pang of recollection. He was a perfect stranger. Only one thing about his presence that resembled familiarity was the feeling in Ford’s gut. The half sick, half painful dull thrum of regret.
“Alright, mister. I had my fill of you. I don’t know you, and I don’t want to.” Ford pulled the glass up to his mouth and finished the drink, slamming back on the table. A screech of the chair legs against the wood floor announced the clumsy rise of Ford to his feet. “I’m done with all of this!”
The five other heads in the bar turned over their shoulders, away from their drinks, to look at the drunkard exclaiming. They returned to their drinks. “Sit down. Let me get you another drink, and we can talk this over.”
“No. I don’t want another drink. I drunk enough.”
“One more. What’s one more, hear me out and then go.” Calm, soothing tones made up the voice from the man’s mouth to Ford’s ear. Maybe, one more won’t hurt. Besides, where was he going to go anyway? Images of his dingy studio apartment had him back on his rear in front of the glass with only ice.
“Bartender, two more!” The man smiled again. “Ford, what has you here tonight?”
“Same as the rest of the bums.” Ford chuckled, forgetting the agitant across from him, “If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all.”
“I can help with luck. What kind of luck, love, money, friends?”
Ford’s gray teeth showed through the smile on his face as he imagined partying in a mansion with untold riches, surrounded by beautiful women and all his old buddies. The expression evaporated, as did the fog of fantasy, when his eyes focused on the man across the table. The stranger’s face was studious, twinkling eyes exploring the rapture of Ford’s imaginings. “Nah. I just need to dig my own way back to zero.”
The bartender slid a glass over to Ford and handed one to the stranger. “Either way is fine by me. Back to zero, seems like that’s where you are.”
The man smiled and sipped his drink. His face wrinkled in sour expression, and he placed the rye on the table. He pulled a kerchief from his shirt front pocket and wiped his hand. Tilting his head, ear toward Ford in anticipation.
Ford continued, “I’m nowhere near zero. Deep under zero is where you’d find me. You keep asking why I am here. It’s easier to drown than swim.”
Ford remembered the padded bench folding down from the seats in front of him and watching his father kneel and motion for him to do the same. Of clasping his hands, bowing his head, then stealing quick looks at his father’s face as his lips moved in silence. Then the anger and hurt as he told his father to go to hell after an argument about Ford’s run-ins with the law. His regret over allowing the gap between the two men to grow because he wasn’t going to let his dad have the satisfaction of being right. “But some debts don’t get paid. So here I am.”
The stranger smiled, “That is true. Some wrongs can never be forgiven. So why bother trying? I can drink to that.”
Glass raised to the air, the man waited for Ford to complete the ritual. Ford met the compulsion and clinked his glass. And swallowed more liquor. “You think that’s true?”
“That not all sins can be forgiven? If you can even sin. Really, who am I to say, but the whole sin and forgiveness thing seems a little trite. I don’t think it matters in the end. But then again, who am I?”
“Yeah, who are you?” Ford asked, realizing that the introduction still needed to happen. He knew Ford’s name, but Ford didn’t know his.
“A friend.” The man motioned for another drink and offered the bowl of pretzels to Ford to take from. Ford grabbed a few and plopped them in his mouth one at a time, waiting for some kind of further explanation. After a bit of time, Ford slowed his chewing.
“I’m going to go home. I need to do some reading.”
“Reading. Really? Don’t seem to be the literary type, and if I may, you don’t seem to be in a state for retaining and comprehending whatever text you fancy.” The man laughed. Ford felt something often saved for more egregious transgressions, like leaving money on some dresser on his way out. “Shame though, I’d like to spend more time getting to know you. Sure, you won’t stay for a few more drinks, at least one more.”
The drinks came and sat in front of the two men. Ford wanted to go home to pull the red faux leather-bound palm-sized book from under his twin XL mattress. But the gleam of the ice bobbing in the caramel-colored rye said stay, it’s only one more.
What’s one more drink?
What’s another moment?
What’s one more conversation with this generous stranger?