The bartender was angry. He was shouting and screaming at the patrons. He was like, go on, get out of here. Yawl didn’t come here to sleaze around did you?
They were laughing. Of course they did, that’s why the man had business. They were just lazy drunks and wanton homeless and those down on their luck and they all knew it. They knew the bartender knew it too. But the bartender wasn’t having any of it. He was saying get, git on now before I call the cops an’ get you all arrested for loitering.
A few took him seriously, the ones he’d called the cops on before, the ones with cop history in their genes. The others sat there and watched them leave, kept dealing out the cards and calling for more beer and booing at the half-blind old man in the corner with the saxophone.
The bartender stomped over and dashed the poker game to the ground, screeching git! I mean business! Git!
The men grumbled, picking up the gambled goods; stuffing a few coins and gold pocket watches into their greasy pockets like they thought no one was watching.
The drunks ambled out cockily, to show the bartender they weren’t obeying him, just gitting because they wanted to.
The more well-to-do patrons, the men with families who drunk the wife’s money away, sat back down and slumped over recklessly.
The bartender hoisted a tray full of brimming mugs of beer onto his shoulder and yelled at the too-skinny boy behind the counter to watch the business while he was gone. The bartender walked through the bar, slapping men on the heads to keep them awake and keep them buying his wares. Droplets from the tipping mugs splashed on the burnished saxophone in the corner.
The bartender squeezed his portly frame through a small door in the back of the bar, spilling ever more drops. Yelling behind him, shut the door, idiot!
The too-skinny boy scrambled to shut the front door of the bar.
The bartender waddled his way up a thin corridor, moving past sleeping drunks in the hallway and bumping up against the crooked paintings hung on the greased-streaked walls. He knocked on a wooden door shadowed in darkness, at the end of the corridor.
Excuse me, he calls in a nasally voice. Scuse me sirs your drinks be ready.
Enter, calls another voice, deep and melancholy.
The bartender opens the heavy wooden door, whimpering slightly as he tries to do it one armed.
Inside is a cluster of old creaky wooden chairs around a low coffeetable. There are bookshelves lined up like a library, behind the circle, not facing toward the door, so all the door could see was the sides. On the walls are plastered talismans and posters to fortune-tellers. Baubles line the shelves, stuffed next to the books. Necklaces out of mouse skulls, African beads and masks hang on the walls.
There is a group of men around the coffeetable, which is spread liberally with papers and needles and calculus instruments and paintbrushes.
Leave it here, the big bald one says, gesturing to the table.
The bartender scurries to the table and slaps the tray down onto it. Bowing obsequiously, he leaves the room. The big bald one rolls his eyes and laughs his church bell laugh.
A small, ratty man puts his feet up on the coffeetable, crushing a few instruments. A fat man, dressed in his nightdress, shoves the rat man’s feet off, yelling, Hey, you, you’re going to mess up the calculations! The rat man snarls back that he doesn’t care, it’s all the same to him.
The church bell man then says, Gilligan, if it’s all the same to you then, then leave. We don’t need your services here.
The rat man bows and does not leave.
I have called us here tonight, says a very handsome young man in a short beard and nice clothing, because we have had some recent development in the work. For you, Charleston—and he points to the youngest man here, a pale young college student named Charleston—you don’t know the purpose of this society. We are here to predict the future.
Outside, the weather complies with the drama, and a streak of lightning slaps the ground, and the ground starts crying and tattle-telling that the lightning did it first! The lightning slaps back a few more times, angrily yelling at the ground for tell-telling. The thunder shuts them both up by booming.
Charleston rubs his hands. Oh, goody, he says. I like fortune telling. Is it real?
How dare you say fortune telling says the church bell man. We are real predictors-of-the-future. We are not petty fortune-tellers.
Actually, says the handsome man, I am here because of a fortune teller. I visited one a year ago yesterday and she predicted that in a year’s time I would come to recognize the power of fortune telling by seeing double for three months. I am here to say that yesterday I have stopped seeing double, and now recognize the power of the weather. Fortune telling is real!
The men laugh at him.
Like that matters, says the fat one in the nightdress. Like that actually happened.
It did! Insists the young man.
Anyway, says the church bell man. Welcome Charleston to the monthly meeting of the Non-Royal Future Prediction Society. You may clap now.
We are responsible for predicting the rise of Nazis. You are welcome.
But did you do anything about it? Who did you tell?
That is irrelevant. What matters, young Charleston, is that our society ancestors predicted it, and they were right! We also predicted the Cold War, and that the Berlin Wall would fall on the date that it did. Aren’t we amazing?
We also predicted Brexit. We also predict that it won’t happen.
So. Would you like to join us?
There is, of course, a monthly fee.
Of a few dollars a month.
And to join us you have to predict one major thing that will actually happen.
But major things always take a long time. I’d be old or no longer interested in future-telling by the time whatever it is, happened.
You should care.
Hm. Okay. Predict if anything in this city will be burned by lightening.
Charleston’s thin eyebrows quirked. He is sitting with his back to the door, facing the single window in the room.
Okay. I predict that the church two houses down from this pub will be burned to the ground by morning.
Well then, says the fat man in the nightdress, all we have to do now is wait for morning! If it happens, you’re accepted. If not, you’re thrown out and probably fined a million dollars for fraud.
What did you all predict?
The fat man looks uncomfortable. I predicted the cutting down of a tree in my backyard, he says.
The church bell man says, I predicted that a fat man would join our club.
The rat man says, I predicted that we would meet here tonight. He adds sheepishly, I joined yesterday.
The handsome man says, I predicted that we would correctly predict the outcome of Brexit.
A quiet man who hasn’t said anything yet says, I predicted that my children would all be girls.
Do you have children?
Suddenly the tavernkeeper burst into the room. Help! He cries, The church two doors down from here is on fire! Evacuation! Quickly, my gentlemen!
The gentlemen, clapping Charleston on the back, rush out of the room.
Everyone on the street is watching the church burn.
Hm, says the quiet man to Charleston. Here’s a prediction. I predict that in the morning it will come to light when exactly the church burned in relation to your prediction.
Charleston replies, You are soon to be kicked out yourself.
Nah, says the other.
They both watch the church burn, and muse on realness and fakeness, on religion and drunks, on lies and on truth. Charleston smiles slightly, watching the sky above toss spears of lightening at itself and at the House of God beneath it.