“So what will it be?” Joe asked. He wiped down the grungy bar with a grungier rag. The restaurant stank of beer and buffalo-wings, stale.
“Eh?” the old man asked. He was hunched over his paunch, slouching on the bar, staring at a stain on the wood.
“To drink. It’s a bar…”
“Oh. Give me whatever. Not like it matters.”
Since all the cold mugs were being used, Joe grabbed a mug straight from the wash rack, while the mug was warm, Joe had a feeling the old man couldn’t care less.
“Light?” Joe asked.
The old man frowned.
“Porter it is then.” After setting the beer down, Joe noticed the crown of the man’s head, balding, covered in liver spots.
Joe shook his head and went to check his tables. At one of his tables, a few men chatted while tipping back on their chairs. They wore uniforms and an ambulance had been parked out front.
“You EMTs?” Joe asked. He brought them their second pitcher of beer.
“You a rocket scientist,” one of them said, before asking loudly, “Then bring us our hot wings already.”
“You’ll get them when kitchen sends them out,” Joe said, while withholding the rest of his thought: And not a fucking second sooner, douchebag. Joe’s stomach churned. Beer and hot wings and morons combined to make him sick
.”Can’t they rush?” the EMT douche asked.
“You want raw wings?” Joe scoffed as he went back to the bar.
A cell-phone rang, from the old man’s pocket. He pulled it out, checked the call, and hit ignore. The old man never touched the black porter, the beer that Joe had gone through the trouble of pouring.
Joe looked back out at his tables. The EMTs glared at him and tried waving him over. Joe shook his head and stayed behind the bar a bit longer.
“So what’s your story?” Joe washed dishes behind the counter while chatting up the old man. “Your woman left? Your dog got run over?” Joe smiled to himself, he sounded like a dumb country song.
“Does it matter? Any of this?” The old man asked. He finally looked up from the bar and Joe saw his tired eyes, bloodshot, framed with bags of loose skin.
“Well sure.” Joe scratched his head. “I mean, it must right?”
“It is meaningless, and so am I. Pointless.”
“Everyone has a purpose,” Joe said, glad for a self-help book he had skimmed through a few years back. “God made everyone for a reason…” Pfft—God.
“Heh. Funny you bring her up.”
“Her?” Joe repeated dumbly. “Oh.” He’s one of those ‘new-age’ types.
“Look. I appreciate the drink. But just let me be. No one wants me—everyone hates me. Do you know how that feels? To be always hated? It sucks.”
Joe rolled his eyes and went back to his tables. The regulars had been changing lately, and the new regulars were cheap. Of course, another one of his tables had stiffed. Fuckers.
A table came in and Joe brought them their menus. Four men in a booth, wearing blue scrubs.
“You doctors?” Joe asked. “Kind of late, isn’t it? Rough night at the ER?”
“A boring night,” one of them said. “A buzz helps pass the monotony.”
“Nothing is going on. The hospital is even talking about downsizing. So no one cares if we come in buzzed…We might not even go in at all.” The doctor put a small pager on the banged up table.
Joe had misgivings pouring them their martinis, but who was Joe to judge? He just hoped the doctors tipped better.
By the time the doctors reached their third round, the EMTs had left, and they had fucking stiffed. The old man still hadn’t touched his beer.
“You want something else?”
“Do I really matter?” the old man asked.
Joe groaned. His stomach still twisted, but he sucked it up and answered. “Sure…Everyone does. You got a family?”
The old man shook his head.
“I know a gal, but she’s so aloof…beautiful though. And then there is Her…Bossy jerk.”
So no you don’t, Joe thought.
“What’s your job then?”
The old man didn’t answer.
“Come on,” Joe said. I am trying to help here! “How do your bills get paid? Social Security? Disability?”
Still no answer.
Joe shook his head and went to check his tables. The doctor’s ordered another round. When Joe got back, the old man answered.
“My job is a nightmare—I hate it.”
“Can’t you change?”
“No. She won’t let me.”
“Your lady-friend?” Joe asked, not at all interested, but just passing time and hoping for a better tip.
“That’s her daughter.”
“Woah!” Joe smirked. “You have game!” Who in their right mind would sleep with the old man?
“Well, your job must be important to someone at least, so you do have that—meaning.”
“I guess…” the old man answered with a slow shrug.
Joe took back the warm porter and dumped it. “What you need, my friend, is a special drink called ‘Liquid Cocaine’.” He pulled out the vodka, the fireball whiskey, the red bull, and threw all that into a metal mixer with ice. The caffeine powder he put in last, just a pinch. He scooped in some ice, covered, and shook. The drink poured cold and bronze, right into a tumbler before the old man. Joe wiped the fizz off the top.
“Drink this, and all your problems will be solved.” Joe nudged the drink closer to the old man.
Joe left to check his tables. The EMTs were back, probably on the clock, their ambulance still parked out front. They smelled like cheap cigarettes. The doctors ordered another round.
“Don’t you have to work?” Joe asked.
“They’ll buzz us if they needs ush…”
Joe went to make their martinis. They better tip.
The old man put his empty tumbler back on the bar and smiled, his eyes wider, brighter. “Another, please!”
“Sure…” Joe made a second and poured the man another tumbler. “…But don’t overdo it.” Other bartenders recommended no more than one Liquid-Cocaine per customer, Because of health issues, but the other bartenders got even lousier tips.
When Joe came back, the old man sat straighter, and his skin had a soft and warm glow.
“Another, if you would,” the old man said.
Joe checked his watch, no more than a half hour had passed since the first. “You know, if you drink too many of these, your heart might explode…”
The old man chuckled, infectiously, and Joe couldn’t help but smile along. Another drink poured. The old man guzzled it down. And then another. And the old man seemed to shine—no, he did shine, brighter than the dimmed lights mounted to the brick wall. The old man radiated—
A cellphone rang. The old man answered. A smart phone. Joe would not have guessed that, given the man’s age—except…Joe looked at the old man. Smooth skin. Black hair, full and thick. Deep brown eyes. He was speaking to a woman on the phone. She screamed and the speaker crackled. He smiled. His teeth, pure white, glistening.
“I have to go,” he said. He put a few coins down. Joe counted. Just enough to cover the drinks. No tip.
Joe couldn’t take it, not anymore. He’d been walked over all day, and he burst, “I really helped you out! Come’on!”
The man smiled and nodded. “And I am eternally grateful.”
“Then fucking tip.”
“Very well,” the old man said. He pointed a golden finger at Joe, at Joe’s stomach, which still twisted and knotted in pain. “That is colon cancer. Terminal. I look forward to seeing you again in two months and seventeen days and five hours…”
The man walked past the table of doctors, waved as if he knew them, and then left the restaurant. Joe’s mouth hung open.’
And the doctors’ pager buzzed.