"Spirits" by Nate Lippens
From the sidewalk, the dirty windows made the bar look like a cloudy aquarium. An old man walked by, guiding a broken bicycle like a wounded horse. Plastic bags dangled from its handlebars and a metal basket was clotted with possessions. A small white flag poked out from the mess: I surrender.
As I walked in the door and my eyes adjusted to the low light, the bartender said, “The usual?” I nodded. The Usual.
I looked at the wide line of his shoulders as he turned away. This person understood me better than anyone else ever had. A bowl of mixed nuts and a bowl of popcorn sat on the bar top. The thought of the food made my stomach lurch. I hadn’t eaten much in three days and I liked the emptiness, the sharpness of moving on my own momentum.
The bartender set my drink down. The cash was on the bar and the glass was in my hand. It was my most meaningful interaction of the day.
I settled into a booth. Liquid touched my lips and my shoulders settled. After a few sips, I started to feel something, not hope exactly, but numbness that was good.
A drink in the afternoon––was there anything so lovely? At night the anticipation something might happen tricked the brain with a mirage of possibilities. People wrangled for places to sit and they prowled for fun. In the afternoon I was left alone, content to sit in a high-backed booth reading, with music shuffling through the decades. Time went slack and I disappeared.
I remembered seeing John Huston on TV being interviewed shortly before his death. He was in a wheelchair with tubes in his nose. Things weren’t looking good. The interviewer asked him if he had any regrets and Huston said, “I would have drunk wine instead of whiskey. I wouldn’t have smoked when I had pneumonia. And I wouldn’t have married my fifth wife. She was a crocodile.”
I played through the scenes: my mother shrunken and skeletal; the long days of sitting and waiting for death; the meaningless ceremonies.
I drank steadily until the room softened and sound dropped out. I stared into the murk and saw my mother when she was healthy, when she and I could afford our distance. Her voice was strong and she moved with ease. But that quickly gave way to her faint voice and her frail body.
A small buzz penetrated the air. The bar had gotten darker and louder. People greeted each other with broad smiles and wide eyes as if they’d survived some catastrophe rather than another day. Someone was playing pool. Stripes and solids clicked together like giant teeth and scattered. A woman at the bar stood to leave. She wobbled and I saw my mother as I’d helped her from bed. My hand had pressed to hers as I’d moved backwards to keep her from pitching forward. I had been like Ginger Rogers, waltzing as we went.
I looked again at the table and at my hands. I tried to establish a few things, projecting myself onto the shifting from life to afterlife. Right now, all I had to do was organize myself and cross this room. I drained my drink and stood up a little less steadily than I’d hoped. I avoided looking at the clock. Moving to the door, I glided. I waved awkwardly to the bartender, almost a salute.
Outside it was dark. The clouds were moving fast. I walked instinctively, with tunneled, concentrated vision, moving like a tiny figure under the plastic dome of a table hockey game. My stride was regimented, sliding in my preordained slots. The blocks accordioned, expanding and contracting as passing streetlights and traffic signals blurred into indistinct streamers. I stopped at the corner and look at the cables. The patterns and crossings broke the huge night sky into little pieces, darkness in manageable sections.