*Addiction & Profanity*
The man walked into the dimly lit bar. Daylight pushed its way through the front windows, illuminating the front half of the room. Of the few pairs of eyes inside, most met his own before returning to their drinks. He made his way to a stool void of surrounding patrons for at least three seats. He sat on the cracked pleather cushion, pushing out its stuffing as he did. His unkempt beard was overgrown and the hair on one side of his head had been pushed flat by a pillow. The feeling of his arms on a wooden bar was familiar, yet foreign. Circles of stripped lacquer dotted the bar where cold wet glasses had settled, but their mark was more plentiful than he remembered. He stared at the ball game on the television ahead of him, though he wasn’t watching. He wouldn’t have known the score, teams, or the inning if someone had asked him.
The bar was shaped like a large U. Those seated outside the U sucked down their 3:00 pm drinks, while those inside the U were paid to serve them. Standing inside the U but on the opposite side of the bar was the tender who had been cleaning the same rocks glass since the man had entered. The two had yet to lock eyes, yet they were both aware of the other. After some time, the bartender walked over to the disheveled man and handed him a lunch menu.
“Can I get you something to eat, Owen?” asked the bartender.
“Suppose I’ll look for a minute.”
“Holler if you need something, friend.”
He flipped through the menu, not paying much attention to the food on the page. His eyes kept jumping up from the menu to the wooden post the television had been mounted on. At the bottom of the post were stickers of various beer and liquor brands, but at the top was what caught his eye. There was a small handmade wooden shelf around head height. It had a slot cut out to hang a hammer and on top sat a glass jar full of nails. He had seen this when he was younger, but it wouldn’t have been until more recent years that he understood the evil of what he was looking at. Hammered into the wooden post were bent and deformed sobriety tokens. They were so tightly packed together that it was nearly impossible to see the wood underneath. The sight made his jaw clench and his blood boil, but he couldn’t help that he was, at that moment, choking his own coin in his hand. His grip loosened when Frank approached again.
“What’ll it be?”
“Uh… I’ll take some potato skins.”
Owen took a second to think, noticing how sweaty his hands had become. “Diet coke I guess.”
Frank filled a glass with the soda gun and placed it in front of Owen. “I know it’s been a while since we’ve talked, but I wanted to say I’m sorry about Mindy. If there’s anything you need, let me know.”
Owen didn’t reply but held up his drink with a fake smile as if to say “Salut”.
Frank drummed his knuckles on the wood before tending to the other customers around the bar. Soon after, a young waiter came out with a plate of potato skins topped with cheese and bacon. They looked delicious, though Owen wasn’t that hungry. He stared at the food, then at the TV, and then at the wooden post. He repeated this cycle multiple times as time ticked by, gripping his token as he did. After some time, he took a few nibbles of the appetizer, which was indeed delicious, though it had turned cold. He had just finished the last bite when he heard the chime of the electric bell that signified the front door of the bar had been opened. He turned to see a young man of less than average height making his way to the opposite end of the bar. His hair was immaculate and his beard was neatly trimmed. His right arm was in a sling and his left, sporting a steel Submariner. A chill ran through Owen’s body and his teeth clenched harder than he thought possible. He tried to remain level-headed, though this proved to be more difficult than expected as every instinct in his body was telling him to cave that piece of shit’s head in with a barstool. He was positive the man hadn’t seen him and watched as he made his way around the bar and sat directly across from Owen. The sinister wooden pole ensured they couldn’t see each other. He heard him laughing with his buddies and wanted so much to silence them. The hatred he had for this random guy was familiar. It had reared its face more often in recent weeks. He felt it each night in his empty bed and each morning when he looked in the mirror. This man at the bar likely had little in common with himself, but Owen hated them both. They both killed his wife.
Three Weeks Prior
Owen sat in his living room with an open book on his lap. The aroma of his wife’s homemade pizza had taken over the house.
“Babe, I’m sorry but I forgot to stop at Redbox on the way home from work,” said Mindy.
“Uh well, do you think you could go to the one at the supermarket before we eat?”
“You don’t think we can skip the movie tonight?” Her shoulders fell with fatigue and the kitchen light reflected off her sweaty forehead.
“I guess that’s fine. One night won’t hurt.”
Owen was snapped out of his daydreaming by Frank. He had unknowingly migrated his hand back to his token and his eyes had begun to moisten. That daydream forced itself into Owen’s brain daily, telling him the preferable lie of how that night had gone.
“Owen cut the shit. What ya doing here?”
“What do you mean?”
“What do I mean?! You haven't been here in years and out of the blue, you show up at 3:00 on a Tuesday for some potato skins?”
“Wanted out of the house for a bit. To get some fresh air,” Owen said defensively.
“Oh yeah? Is that why there’s a vein popping out of your face and you look like you could shatter your own teeth if you clenched them any harder?”
“Knock it off, Frank. Leave me be.”
“Let me help you, man”
“You want to help me?” Owen slammed his coin on the table. “Bourbon. Neat.”
“Don’t fucking ‘Owen’ me and just pour the goddamn drink.” Owen wasn’t quite yelling but he saw some heads turn.
“Not a chance. I don’t do that stuff,” he said pointing at the wooden post.
“You don’t have a choice. Take the coin and give me my free drink.”
Frank stared at Owen for a solid minute. Not with anger but with sympathy.
“Please,” said Frank softly. “Fifteen years, man.”
Owen didn’t reply, looked away from his once-regular bartender, and pushed the coin toward him. Frank pocketed the coin and pulled out the rocks glass he had been cleaning. The caramel-colored liquid shot from the narrow bottle pourer to the cup, filling up to two fingers. For a second he hesitated, then put the drink down in front of his once-regular drinker.
Once Frank was gone, Owen picked up the cup and touched the glass to his lips. Before he could feel the liquid he set it down. The thing he had avoided for so long was staring at him, and he at it. He watched as swirls of alcohol danced around the viscous liquid, unable to sit still. Hours that felt like minutes passed. He’d touch his lips to the glass every time he heard that asshole across from him laugh or talk but he never took a sip. It was as though he felt his wife’s hand on his should each time he lifted the glass. He could hear the guy’s voice above all others in the bar which was now quite busy. It was as if it were just the two of them there. He raised the glass again but it was as if his arm wouldn’t let him tip it far enough back. His frustration began to boil over with a mixture of hatred and unending sadness. He tested the strength of the decorative rocks glass with his fingers and once again felt as though he could bite through his own jaw. At this point, he wasn’t fighting the drink, but the desire to kill the man with the nice hair.
He stood and made his way around the U to the boy who he so hated. Owen grabbed the man by the collar of his leather jacket and slammed him against the wood-paneled wall, nose to nose. He could smell the beer on the man’s breath and see the confusion and fear in his eyes. The bar went quiet and Owen just stared at the scared crumbling man in his hands. At first, the man tried to squeeze out of his grip but Owen’s vice-like arms proved that would be impossible. Owen looked at him, staring into his pupils.
“Do you know me?” asked Owen with a shaky but stern voice.
“Yes! Yes! I do!”
“So then you know…” Owen choked on his words and his eyes filled with tears. “So then you know why I want to hate you.”
The man didn’t reply. Just stood on the tips of his toes, motionless.
“I want to hate you with everything I have. I want you to hurt like I’m hunting right now. Like my son is hurting.”
“Fuck your sorry!” Owen stopped trying to hold back his tears. There was no hiding them anymore. He wanted to hurt him and he felt his muscles prepare for such a thing, but before he could he felt that hand on his shoulder again. He paused. Every eye in the bar was on him. He really was just a kid. Couldn’t have been much older than his own son. Maybe twenty-four or twenty-five. He looked back at the kid whose eyes moistened as well.
“Did you know her?” asked Owen in a calm voice.
“I never had her as a teacher but kids liked her,” he said with panic.
Owen opened his mouth but words wouldn’t follow. He choked on the sounds but nothing coherent. His hands relaxed and his head fell. The boy settled back down on his feet and let out a sigh.
“I forgive you, kid,” Owen said under his breath.
“I said I forgive you.”
The boy might have said something back but Owen didn’t hear it over Frank’s booming voice. “Bar’s closed! Everyone out!”
People scattered quickly but Owen stood motionless, head still hanging. Once the bar was clear he walked back over to his seat and grabbed the glass. Before he could move it, Frank snatched it from him and traded him the token. The two locked eyes for a while before Owen spoke.
“It was my fault.”
“What? No, it wa…”
“I made her go out that night. I made her go out for a fucking movie.”
“You could have never known, Owen.”
“What if I said ‘We can skip one movie night. No biggie!’ or ‘I’ll go grab it. Don’t worry!’? She’d still be here and my son would have a mother. Instead, she was t-boned by that kid who walked away with a bruise.”
Frank reached out and closed Owen’s fingers around the token. “There’s always going to be ‘what ifs’ in life.
“Don’t interrupt me,” he said with a finger raised. “They’re always going to be there so what if some of them are good? What if you raise a great boy who does amazing things? What if the worst is behind you and the best is yet to come? What if one day you can be truly happy again?”
Owen sat silent, tears rolling down his cheeks.
“It’s gonna sting like hell for a long while and it’ll never go away completely but in a world of ‘what ifs’, there’s going to be some good ones too.”
Owen helped Frank close up and they walked to the parking lot together.
“You gonna be okay tonight?” asked Frank.
“Yeah, I’ll be fine. Thanks, man.”
“No problem. What if you call me once and a while? We can catch up outside of this shithole,” he said pointing toward the town’s only bar.
Owen got home not much later. His son was still awake, watching a movie in the living room.
“Hi, dad,” his son replied with as much enthusiasm as he could muster.
“I was thinking. What if we went on a trip together? Got out of this town for a bit?” asked Owen.
His son smiled at him. He thought it could have been the first genuine smile in weeks. “That sounds great!” He gestured to the screen. “ Just started. Wanna watch?” He scooted over on the couch, opening a spot.
“‘Course I do.”