The Stranger on the Stool
Short story by K.H.A. Wassing
The Stranger on the Stool
By: K.H.A. Wassing
Just one drink I think as I find myself pushing open the door to Overtime, the bar on the corner of West Seventh and St. Clair Ave. The patrons, already hiding in their drinks, turn to see me join their numbers. One man, plump and red faced, looks to have been over served already. Old yellow stains ran down the front of his once white V-neck undershirt, he sways on his stool, almost to the point of tipping off. I slip onto an open leather clad stool at the opposite end of the long skinny bar from the drunk man. I have just enough time to admire the shined finish on the cracked and well-worn mahogany slab when the bartender throws down a cocktail napkin.
“What’ll yah have?” asks the bartender, who I’d peg to be in his early forties. He’s a handsome man with chin length brunette hair, brown eyes so dark they almost appear black, a nose that was one break away from dominating his face, and the beginning stubble of a salt and pepper beard. The bartender is wearing, what I assume is the standard uniform at this bar, a black waistcoat over a white button up shirt and slacks. Not the flannel and jeans a guy like him is most likely more comfortable wearing.
I order a Beefeater neat. Before he was done pouring the clear spirit, I knew I had lied to myself about my one drink maximum. And it’s the earthy bitterness of my first sip that seals my fate.
“I’ll have another.” I say after wincing away the last gulp of my gin only then realizing the bartender had moved on and has just finished cracking the cap off a bottle of beer. With a flick of his head he swishes the shaggy brown hair from his eyes to glance at me and takes the time to acknowledge my interruption with a nod. I feel abashed at my outburst.
The tender pours another drink and places it on the cocktail napkin. I slide the spent tumbler towards him, which he grabs and washes immediately. Efficiency, lack of procrastination, he probably cannot stand things getting or being dirty. I relate to these features as I have my own weird quirks. Like that fucking clock ticking away at the opposite side of the pub from where I’m sitting. The average man wouldn’t give the dingy old clock a second glance let alone hear it over the cacophony of chatter in Overtime today. However for me the tick tock of that insufferable thing has been the only thing my brain can focus on.
The bartender clicks the dial on the television hanging behind the bar near the top shelf liquors. The squawking of the news anchor is what finally pulls my attention from the clock. The lady anchor, Cindy Scandello has a pretty face even if a little too old for my taste. Her mousy blonde hair and dull grey eyes sets her apart from the other women on the news extraordinarily little. At least she’s doing us viewers the favor of wearing a tight red sweater with a plunging neckline. “So expect roadways to be slick tomorrow Don.” She says and turns to the male anchor, Don Shay who puts on a smug inhumanly wide grin.
“Well Cindy that should be snow problem for us native Minnesotans.” I can’t help but roll my eyes at the painfully cringe worthy pun. Don swivels from his cohost, whose annoyance with his ridiculous attempt at humor reads plainly on her face. If there were a mold for male news anchors Don Shay would have been the first to emerge from it. His thinning golden hair, too tanned face and Cheshire smile catches the camera’s focus. “In other news, eighteen year old Megan Fuller is still missing,” a thumbnail of a young, attractive female with blonde hair and blue eyes appears on the screen adjacent to Don. Lines from the antenna’s poor reception glide periodically up and down the picture throughout the broadcast. “She was last seen Wednesday, November thirteenth.” A bar just under Megan’s picture appears. “We encourage anyone who may know anything about the disappearance of poor Megan Fuller to contact the number at the bottom of your screen.” The piece on Megan Fuller is more of the same, since she’d gone missing about two weeks ago. They don’t seem any closer to finding the beautiful young girl.
I fidget on my stool, for the first time since being at Overtime realizing just how uncomfortable the furniture is. This worn green leather barely provides any padding and there is a loose nut or bolt digging into my left ass cheek. Adjusting my posture, favoring my right side drives the soreness from my mind.
The coverage on “Missing Megan,” as the media had started to refer to her, concludes and Cindy takes back the reins of the newsroom. She begins covering some cutesy fluff piece about some child elected honorary mayor of some podunk town out in the sticks. It is either this non-news story or the fact my Beefeater needs replenishing that reverts my attention from the television.
This time the bartender doesn’t use a new glass but pours the gin directly into my spent tumbler. “So, whatcha hiding from stranger?” the comment, though harmless, cuts deep. How does this man know I think but oh yeah, that’s right he’s a bartender. It’s probably less likely that someone in a bar consuming gin at the rate I am on a Tuesday afternoon isn’t hiding from his or her past. He must’ve read the emotion on my face because he says “meaning no offence of course” as he fills my glass further than a standard pour.
“No,” I say “none taken.” I force the betrayal of emotions from my face. To further convince this stranger I wasn’t bothered by his words I decide to share. “Not hiding, but building the courage to go home.” He shows the weight of my words on his face but with understanding, where I was expecting a hint of disgust. And now I kind of want it because I deserve it. There is no reason this man should think I am anything but the piece of trash, in a bar during the work week, slugging down gin that I am. But it never came. The man stares deep into my eyes with nothing but sympathy in the depths of his own.
“Listen friend,” He began “I’ve seen a lot worse than you before and I’ll probably see a lot worse after. But if you don’t want to talk about it?” I gulp my gin greedily and feel the satisfying burn in the back of my throat. He takes a different approach “Wife and kids?”
“Wife, no kids.” I answer him being short even though I don’t mean to. “She….” I pause because I’m not quite sure I know how to phrase it or if I’m ready to tell a complete stranger. “I’ve been lying to her about my drinking.” It’s out there now and much to my disappointment, admitting it didn’t help any. I don’t know why I expected it to help but I did.
“Ah, been there.” He says still with the annoying kindness in his eyes. “I’m Darryl Fitzgerald by the way, friends call me Darry. So I don’t see why you shouldn’t.”
“All right Darry,” I say, then I take the last swig from my tumbler. No sooner did my glass touch the bar then Darry splash more gin into it. “So tell me, do you have a wife and kids?” It is my best attempt at deflecting from further discussion of my issues. And it seems to have worked.
“As a matter of fact I have three kids,” He starts “but my wife left me last year.”
“For drinking?” I can’t stop myself from blurting out. What was that? I think but before I could revel too long on it he answers.
“It’s fine friend,” he could obviously see the discomfort in my action. “And yes, I lost her because of my drinking. Similar to what you’re doing now. When my first kid was born, sixteen years ago, I wasn’t ready to be a father. Instead of talking to anyone about it I crawled into a bottle. I stayed there for fourteen years and two more children. After a while I wasn’t drinking because of my unprepared paternity; I was drinking because I couldn’t face my family due to my previous actions. That’s when it got worse, not going home until bar close every night, waking up in random alleys nearly frozen to death. Eventually I lost my job and for whatever reason I was okay to go home that day. Part of me wishes I hadn’t,” he sighs and steels his reserve. “That was the same day my wife filed for divorce.”
“And your kids?” I ask forgetting my own pain. Darry’s eyes well slightly at the mention of his children but then an overwhelming sense of pride washes over him. He straightens up and refreshes the drink I just now realize I’d finished.
“My oldest Erica forgave me almost the same day it happened. She’s always been very forgiving and to be honest a bit of a daddy’s girl,” he could not hide the smile that shot across his face. “My son Dan however, doesn’t want anything to do with me. He’s thirteen, he’s of an age where he understands my blunders but hasn’t mastered the forgiveness part yet. I can’t say I blame him.” The smile Erica provided was now wiped clean off by Dan. “And my youngest daughter Stevie is only eight. She’s confused through all of this and too young to fully grasp it.”
“Shit man. I’m sorry to hear that.” I couldn’t think of anything else to say as Darry waves this off as if it is no longer any concern. The tingling sensation shooting down my right side tells me I need to adjust again. Barstool technology hasn’t progressed at all since the beginning of stools. I shift uncomfortably. The stool groans mirroring how my ass feels.
“It’s in the past man, but thanks.” He says. The chimes from the TV indicate that Cindy is done with her fluff piece and the local news has concluded. Without missing a beat the national news preview begins. Tonight’s coverage is going to be heavy on Missing Megan Fuller. “Damn shame.” This confuses me at first until I notice Darry’s attention has turned to the television. He leans against the inside of the bar, back to me, facing the news. Darry looks over his shoulder at me, “You know my daughter Erica was in the same science class as that Megan girl last year. She was a senior at the time and my Erica was a junior but still.” He shakes his head and rotates his body to face me properly.
At some point the bar emptied out without me noticing. I assume Darry knew this was going to be the case because he hasn’t been giving the best service to anyone but me for the past ten minutes.
“My wife told me she’s taking it really hard.”
“Huh,” I’m confused for a second as my attention from the empty bar is snatched back by Darry talking. “Oh yeah, I suppose being that close to that girl in age must be tough.”
“I know it’s tough for me to have a daughter close to the age of the victim, I can’t imagine being a classmate.” During my time in Overtime I’ve noticed Darry Fitzgerald has a tendency to physically shake off his feelings. He finishes shedding his emotions and asks, “Anyway enough about me, what’s going on at home man? Talking about it might help.”
I think for a second so I can choose my words carefully. “I didn’t always drink like this. Speaking of which.” I tap my glass and Darry complies, splashing the spirit I crave into the tumbler. “Thanks, anyway she drove me to drinking. I know that’s wrong to say but I gave Heather everything. I work all day long to provide for us. I try my hardest to give her everything she might need to be happy. But when I get home from work I can tell she hasn’t gotten out of bed since I left in the morning. She lays about all day long. To make matters worse, when I try to talk to her about it she barely says anything to me. And when she does talk to me, she only talks about her family. But what about our family, the family we’ve tried to build together? Her depression must be contagious or something because this has been my evenings the past week and a half. I’ve crawled into a bottle every night since she became inconsolable.” I try his trick and shake the depression out of my head. It doesn’t help me the way it does Darry.
A lot like I was when confronted with his issues, he is momentarily speechless when I hit him over the head with mine. “Oh man. What can you even do, if she won’t communicate with you?” he manages after some face scrunching. I raise the gin to his word and take a healthy slug. “If there is one thing I wish I would’ve done different, it would be talking to my ex-wife more. I forced her to resent me because she never truly knew what was rattling around in my head until it was too late.”
Sufficiently numb and done with this conversation, I stand from the stool with a bit of a stumble. I hope Darry didn’t notice that. I nod an understanding to the bartender’s last words, though I don’t know how they’ll be a help to me at the moment. I have a lot to consider and I suddenly want to be nowhere else but home. “Well Darryl, thanks for the chat.” I shake his hand and leave a generous tip.
I reach the door and swing it open. The sun, though starting to set, blinds me. I forgot I’d left work early to get here quicker so I am not expecting it. I stumble again because the biting briskness of this late November evening also catches me unawares. Maybe I got too far into my cups after all. But I steel myself and step out among the other town’s people, who are doing more mundane tasks than I.
“Hey friend, I never caught your name.” Darryl Fitzgerald, the bartender calls after me. I let the door close behind me leaving him curious.
Adjusting to the light I find my truck right where I left it. I crawl in the cab and crank the ignition over until a roar from the exhaust alerts me that the old truck has started. I suck in a breath and try to clear the fog from my brain. Unsuccessfully. The belt of the truck cries out with an awful squeal as I pull away from the curb.
Much to my surprise I encounter no issues on the drive home as I am far too drunk to be driving. Ghosts of the conversation with Darry join the pre-existing ones I was trying to rid with liquor in the first place. Of all the things discussed at Overtime, my mind keeps wandering to Darry’s eldest daughter. Erica was it? Even though I just met the guy I cannot understand why anyone would forgive him the way Erica does. He’s her father, he had a drinking problem and yet she still forgave him. The concept of forgiveness seems foreign to me. I try the Darry trick again, to my surprise this time I successfully shake the thoughts out.
I slip the truck into park and kill the ignition but lean back in the seat. I ready myself to face the hardship inside my home. The truck door creaks to a close as I walk towards the front door. I fumble with my keys in my pocket. Why did I even put them back into my pocket after I got out of the pickup? The locks click one at a time as I first turn the deadbolt, then the knob. A cloud of smell hits me as the door opens. I close it quickly behind me to keep it in. Instantly my olfactory memory center is flooded with great memories as the sweet pungent cloud over takes my senses.
My house is covered in a thick layer of dust and grime. Cleaning has never been Heather or my strong suit. “Heather,” I call out while I throw my coat onto a pile of women’s clothing in the foyer. “I’m home. You up?” There is no answer. I spill into the kitchen where rotten fruit sits in a bowl on the counter. Moldy bread is on top of the refrigerator that I open, looking for another drink. In the near empty fridge there is no gin, which I would prefer, but behind the three month old milk I find a six pack of beer standing like centurion soldiers. I’m hoping that’ll be enough for me. I grab them and crack the cap off of the first bottle on the grease stained stove top with a satisfying hiss. The cold beer has skunked but I have no other option if I want to get proper drunk before I go speak with Heather. Communication right?
I can hear moaning and whimpering coming from the bedroom. That’ll be Heather, so she’s awake anyway, I think as I greedily take a pull of my fourth beer since being home. I grab the necks of the last two beers between the fingers of my left hand and hurl the spent bottle I just finished. The glass shatters against the backsplash as I stand up from my seat at the kitchen table.
I amble down the hall towards the bedroom I heard Heather in, the floor creaks with every step I take. I swing the door on its hinges to reveal the most disheveled room yet. Used up sheets soiled with piss and rust colored stains lay in a heap under the window I was forced to board up. Plates full of uneaten food in various stages of decomposition are stacked on the bureau. There’s a young women sprawled in an uncomfortable looking position on top of the bed, sporting sheets that rival the others. Her hair once long, blonde and as soft as down is now knotted, tangled and matted with dried blood, grime and is clinging to one side of her face. What remains of her clothing is torn to ribbons and does next to nothing to conceal her nakedness. Grease, grime or blood smears next to every inch of her young tight skin, she’s in desperate need of a wash. But she hasn’t earned a bath has she? I think when I look at her.
Her left hand is tied to the bedpost above her head. She looks up at me, terror in her dirty face. Her cold blue eyes, well the one remaining eye anyway, pierces into me. I had to remove the other one with an ice cream scoop. Through trial and error I’ve learned a slightly sharpened ice cream scoop with the proper amount of pressure cups the eyeball, perfectly resulting in a clean removal. Her stifled whimpers through the gag and the eye making the satisfying noise of hungry mud attempting to steal a boot were all I needed to tell me she had learned the lesson that day. She attempted to use my phone after I specifically told her she was not allowed. Luckily I haven’t paid my phone bill in some time. Spin as she might on the dingy rotatory dial her efforts were in vain. A test I now leave for all of my Heathers after I learned that phones can bring unwanted headaches.
“Heather.” I say with great enthusiasm.
“That. Is. Not. My. Name.” she croaks back at me. “My name is Megan.” Was that anger in her voice? How dare she? “Please Mr. just let me go, I won’t tell anyone.” Why do they always say that? As if not telling anyone is the only reason I’m not letting them go. Either way I’m just glad she decided to drop this whole ‘not my name’ nonsense. My brain is still swimming from the gin and beer so my hand isn’t feeling steady enough for a lesson at the moment. I’ve attempted to teach lessons in the pass and finished a Heather before I was ready.
I had come home from a bender not unlike today’s and Heather escaped her restraints, broke the window that’s now boarded and was screaming for help. To my relief she hadn’t managed to disturb any of my neighbors. The disloyalty of her actions forced me to see red and in an alcohol fueled rage I tore into the house to stop her. I wasn’t thinking and grabbed the first thing I saw without even looking at what it was. It wasn’t until I spun Heather around and buried the carving knife to the hilt into her chest that I realized what I had done. The knife was supposed to be one of the various bludgeoning instruments I keep within reach but in my drunken haste I lost that Heather in the blink of an eye. I had to start over. And that’s reason enough that lessons are best left to the days that I am sober.
“Didn’t I warn you about that temper, Heather?” I say to her whimper of a response “You’re lucky I’m in a forgiving mood tonight.” Thinking better of the situation I close the door to Heather’s room behind me with thoughts of Erica, Darry’s daughter and the potential she holds. The excitement floods through me and for the first time tonight a sober thought washes over. My body begins to tremble with the possibilities of what lies ahead for us.