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American

The hiss and POP of the Yuengling’s cap is audible over the sounds of some teenager butchering Wonderwall at open mic night behind me and half-drunken stoners jockeying for the bartender’s attention. If the drunk kids bother her, though, Sherri never lets on. She just slides the bottle in front of me and moves to the next customer.

Finally

There’s not much to look forward these days, but that first sip after a long work week is about the closest thing to heaven. Given my self-imposed limitation of abstinence during the workweek, every day is another test of willpower to hold out until the end of the week. Obviously, I would’ve liked to have had this type of willpower sooner, but better late than never. Right, Kristyn?

I’ve been looking forward to this beer since, well, last Sunday night.

I just start to lift the bottle to my lips when I catch a young man with a 5 o’clock shadow staring at me, his brow scrunched and head tilted. Given that I’m old enough to be everyone’s dad in here, I can only presume that I’m the source of his confusion and concern. Or that maybe he recognizes me as his professor, though I wouldn’t be able to reciprocate the recognition if that’s the case. I can’t remember half of my students’ names, much less their faces.

It's obvious from his wrinkled tee and tangled mop top that he cares about everyone else thinking he doesn’t care. It’s a luxury only afforded to young kids who haven’t experienced a lifetime of that choice being taken away.  When I was his age, I did the same thing. At my age, though, I no longer care because there’s really nothing to care about. 

Instead of bringing the beer to my lips, I raise the bottle and tip it in his direction; he doesn’t react, though, or act as if he’s even seen the gesture. He’s not looking at me but rather past me. Following his gaze, I discover that not only am I not the source of his confusion, I’m also not the oldest person in here.  

Next to me is a man with wisps of white hair partially covering an otherwise shiny scalp and a windbreaker pulled over the top of a cotton flannel shirt. He’s staring up at the one working TV above the bar, watching the university’s basketball team losing yet another game.

I’m sure he’s seen me look; I feel obligated to at least say hello. “Oh, didn’t see you there, sir. I figured I was the only here old enough to legally drink.”

His eyes don’t move from the TV. “Nope, but I’m still positive I’m the only one here old enough to have my AARP…*cough*…my AARP card.” He tries to chuckle but is cut off again by another fit of coughing.

I could cut the conversation here and just not respond. It’s not like I was looking for a long chat. Still, it feels rude not to at least check on him. “You gonna be alright?” 

He waves me off. “Ah give it a rest, it ain’t like anyone really gives a shit.” He pulls a handkerchief from his shirt pocket, spitting a ball of phlegm into it before folding it and putting it back. 

No sense in pushing it. I turn back, looking up at the TV only to see it’s gone to commercials. My social obligations out of the way, I can turn my attention back to the only reason I’m even at this shithole of a bar. For some reason, I’m not in the mood to be here tonight; best to just hurry and finish my beer so I can get on the road… 

“What the hell you doing in a place like this anyway? Ain’t you a professor? What, you like the music here or something?”

The old man’s sudden questions catch me off guard just as the bottle meets my lip, startling me and causing the bottle to jerk and its contents to land in my lap. I doubt he’s planning on apologizing, though.

“It’s on the way to my apartment, and I just stop in every Friday to grab my first beer of the weekend.” Then after a pause, “I could say the same to you.”

“Been coming here since I was coming here to this school. Ain’t got nowhere else to be.”

I lift my bottle. “Cheers to that.”

He glances my direction, tilts his bottle a bit, and grunts as a response. Like the first clap of a slow clap, the grunt brings about a short cough, then a series of hacking coughs that take a bit longer to get under control. I almost ask if he’s going to be ok but think better of it. 

The hacking subsides, though it takes a bit longer than before. After his lungs get enough oxygen in them to talk again, he chastises me. “Don’t act like you give a damn. Hell, I don’t give a damn even. I ain’t long for this world no how, it don’t really matter if it’s tonight or a year from now, it’ll all be over soon. Ain’t shit I can do about it, so who cares.” He tries to take a swig of his Budweiser but discovers only a few drops remaining. He cusses at no one in particular then shouts for the bartender.

Looking away to avoid staring, I notice the same slacker from before staring again, though if its out of concern or curiosity, I can’t tell. There was a time when I was just like him, college student whose only concern was getting wasted on weekends. Not a care in the world. Now, he just reminds me of so many underachieving students, ones whose parents’ money affords them the freedom to not give a damn, to not pay attention, to not try. Back in my day, we were never…

Holy shit, have I hit the age where I’m saying “back in my day” already?

Also, who am I kidding? I was no different; sure, I had a scholarship, but it still afforded me that same freedom. I didn’t start caring until Kristyn came along. Until the kids came along. And I didn’t stop caring… until Kristyn was gone. Until the kids were gone.

I really just want to drink this beer. Then I need to just get home and sleep off the week. As I grab the still-full bottle, I hear Kristyn’s voice telling me that I don’t need another beer. Haven’t you had enough already?  

The old man’s hacking coughs pull me back from the trip down memory lane. They seem to be getting worse. I want to check on him; I lean over to ask if he needs help, but he notices and brushes me off again. I get the feeling he’d cuss me out, but he can’t get a word in between the coughs. His face has turned a dark shade of red from the coughs blocking his lungs from doing their job. As the color in his face continues to deepen, the sound of his coughing pierces through the barroom noise. They seem almost amplified, or rather, the volume on the noise around us seems to have been turned down. I can hear every wheeze, every cough with crystal clarity. My focus is exclusive to this man who seems to be having a serious problem, everything else is tuned out.

Finally, I’ve heard enough and ask Sherri to bring him a glass of water. He’s trying to wave it off but has trouble doing anything but coughing and trying to catch his breath. It’s getting serious; his face is now a deep crimson color. His lips have started to turn a bluish tinge.  His torso is heaving up and down and he hacks and coughs. He’s pounding his own chest.

It looks like something is coming out of his mouth. Maybe he’s finally cleared the phlegm? Only, it’s too thin to be phlegm. There’s…

Oh no

My heart sinks as it hits me. 

That’s vomit.

“Someone call 9-1-1!” I stand and move to him, though I have no clue what to do.  In a similar manner to the sounds around us getting tuned out, everyone and everything around us slows to a crawl, the only perceptible movement being the man’s torso heaving up and down. 

Everything except movement at the edge of my periphery.

The figure is approaching fast, faster than I have time to turn to face them. Before I know what’s happening, the slacker from earlier has rushed past me and is shouting out orders to everyone around. Including me. It seems he knows what he’s doing.

It seems he does care.

As he takes charge of the situation, time slows again. My field of vision closes in, and all I can see are the two men: the young one, apathetic because life hasn’t provided him with anything to care about yet; the old one, apathetic because life has gone on so long there’s nothing left to care about. 

All at once, time stops. I’m neither in the bar nor am I anywhere else.  I can see my entire past all at once. Though… no, it’s not my past, not exactly. It’s close, but its… no, that’s the slacker. This is the slacker’s past. No, wait…

This is the slacker’s future. His future from now until he’s my age. Everything he’s going to go through, everything he will love, everything he will lose. How he’ll follow a similar path as mine, how his story will mirror mine in many ways. He’s going to end up like me, alone and disgruntled.

How am I seeing this?

I see my future as well. Somehow, I can see everything that will happen from now until… no, that’s not true. 

No, this is the old man’s story.  Why does it feel so close to mine? He was alone, for many years he drank alone. This same bar, the one I’ve always come to… how have we never met?

Years of drinking and smoking. His lungs are shot to shit, and his liver is just about gone. He was right; there wasn’t much time left for him. Even if the slacker kid somehow manages to save him tonight.

Even if… I manage to save him. To save… myself.

This is me. We are me. 

I blink. The world resumes, sounds no longer muffled. People are moving at normal speed. I look around, but the two men are nowhere to be seen. No one is acting as if a man just had a major medical issue.

I tap a college frat guy on the shoulder. 

“Yeah, bro?”

“Sorry, um, bro… but did you see where the old man went? The bald guy who was choking?”

He tilts his head, smirks out of the corner of his mouth. “You fuckin’ with me, bro?” He shakes his head and turns back to his frat brothers. I can hear him sharing the incredulous story as I turn to leave.

Before I get to the door, I hear Sherri shout over the crowd. “You haven’t touched your beer yet!”

I smile and turn. The kid on stage finally stopped butchering whatever was left of the corpse of Wonderwall.

I wave to Sherri for the final time then turn to leave the bar for the last time.

May 27, 2023 02:36

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