Mondays were the hardest nights. Dead evenings when the bar hummed to traffic’s lonely rhythm. Every so often, headlights flooded through the windows, silhouetting empty chairs, solemn bottles. Sam leaned on the gleaming wood, the ballgame’s blue light cascading down his face. The reception froze intermittently, capturing a catcher in mid-signal, a ball rocketing into the black sky.
Sam toyed with an ashtray, spun it away. He could close up now, if he wanted. Go home with just his thoughts. The floors were swept. The bar was polished. But the lines hadn’t been cleaned from the weekend, and a cobweb swung from the lights. He sighed, bending to his new task.
The door coughed open, surprising him with a tangle of engines and streetlights. A thin man with stripes of gray hair followed. He dropped on a stool in front of Sam and nodded a greeting. ”Where’s George?”
”He doesn’t work Mondays.”
”Goddamn sign says George’s bar. I came to talk to George. Who are you?”
Sam laughed. “I’m Sam. He just brought me on.”
”Well, evening Sam.” The older man half-smiled, showing a swollen lip above a tooth stained copper. “Have a drink with me. Whiskey if you got it. We’re celebrating.”
Sam smiled and dug into his ice bin. Lights flashed the windows, lit the bar in shifting blocks of color.
”What are we celebrating?”
”My daughter’s birthday.” The whiskey whispered into the rocks glasses, brown crystal refracting the bottom.
”Congratulations! How old?”
The bottle slipped back into its rack. ”So how do you know George?” Sam asked.
The man brought a finger to the side of his nose. “I’m his partner.”
”Yup. George don’t have a bar if I don’t give him the money.” He scratched at a bandage in the crook of his arm, glanced at the game. “I came to talk to him tonight.”
”You can try me.”
His customer cocked his head. “How old are you kid?”
”Just twenty-two and you don’t mind dying,” the man laughed. “You like Thorogood?”
”I’m not sure I know…”
”It doesn’t matter. Where’s that whiskey?” The older man slipped forward, caught himself, then hiccupped.
Sam hesitated, the drinks sweating in his hand. His customer licked his lips, eyes locked on the glasses. ”Maybe you’ve done enough celebrating tonight, you think? What’s your name?”
”Oh you think so? You’d like my daughter. You come back home, there are relatives, cake, a little wine. Not for her, she can’t drink, but Margaret let me break some out…”
Sam emptied the drinks, poured a water and set it on the bar. ”Shouldn’t you be back with them?”
The other man rubbed his eyes. They were red, sunk deep into their grizzled sockets. “No. No I don’t think so.” He gripped his water glass, tested the weight, then slapped it back against the bar. “Whiskey. Goes good with water.”
A crooked puddle spread gleaming across the bar. “What happened to your lip?” Sam asked, watching the pattern.
The man’s fingers rose to his mouth, came away with brown spots. “I fell on the way. Isn’t George supposed to be here?”
”Why do you keep asking about George?”
”Because I didn’t want a goddamn birthday party, ok? Would you pour me a whiskey.”
”I think you’ve had enough.”
”I haven’t had any.”
“Go home, enjoy the party. Maybe apologize.”
“I need some whiskey. In me. A drink.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
”George would give it to me.”
”And I’m Sam.”
The smaller man laughed, suddenly, a sound like retching. “What the hell good are you kid? I didn’t come here to not drink. What does George pay you to do behind that bar other than pull your pud?”
Sam swallowed. The ballgame floated behind them, ghostly in the dim lights. He imagined his small, clean, apartment.
”You want to get out of my bar?” he said slowly, staring at his feet. “Maybe go home to your daughter on her birthday?”
A bat cracked, showering the pitcher with splinters. The crowd’s tinny roar skipped through the bar’s dim lighting. His customer trembled, his tongue working at his swollen lip.
”You know what they do?” the man said suddenly. His voice rasped, the words thick and heavy in his mouth. “They take this big needle. A thing like a gun, with a plunger on it. And they jam it into your hip, until it cracks into your pelvis. Then they suck out the marrow. They say you can feel the pressure drop in your bones, like you’re collapsing.” He pulled off his bandage, threw it on the bar. A tiny hole in his vein wept a drop of blood.
”And she wants to have a birthday party. I don’t have the right stuff in me. And if I don’t, nobody does. I can’t fix my own goddamn daughter.” He choked off, dropped his hands on the bar. “I don’t have a whiskey.”
”No you don’t,” Sam said.
Shadows settled in the corners around them. Outside the occasional light flashed through the barred windows. The lines swept up and around the man’s face, reversed themselves.
”What’s your name?” Sam asked him. He could go home, if he wanted. Feel the city’s heart beating around him, circulating the dead in the night. The old man rubbed his raw face with cracked, broken fingers. The nights alone, they were always the hardest.
”My name’s Paul.”
Sam poured Paul his drink, set it in front of him. The older man stared down, raised a hand and slapped it into the darkness.