By Dylan Emmons
Just a Monday night, but the Sideline Bar and Grill was lively. Not jumping by any means—half the tables were empty and the average age of a patron that night had to be at least 40—but lively it was, in its own sort of way. I’d always thought that about the Line; I’d tried to pin down that air of intangibility that seems to seep from every crevice, but I never could, and I usually got bored trying. But tonight that feeling was especially potent, almost insistent upon itself, and impossible to ignore. This wasn’t a liveliness borne of liquor, lowered inhibitions, and shallow, sexy music like the clubs in the city. It wasn’t an atmosphere of luck, or possibility, or excitement, or SoCo, or Captain’s, or Jaggermeister, or Smirnoff. No, the line was different. Its life was driven by despair: by the janitors from the high school, gathering at the same table nearly every night to discuss the woes of cleaning up after “four hundred barn animals” as Manny would say. By Mr. Roberts, who sat alone at the end of the bar and only talked to Sal. By Mrs. Klinger, who was famous for trying to get with Sal after she was seven shots deep, and then crying after eight when he refused. By a nameless couple who only drank diet sodas and spoke to each other in depressed Russian. By the stereotypical Nam vets, and even Korea vets, of whom there was an absurdly high ratio for such a small town. By the Genesee and Bud and Barton’s that Sal rationalized buying in his typical fashion: “Ok, smartass. I’ll buy the expensive shit, then you make these people buy it. Sound fair?” By the dim, erratic lighting no amount of electricians seemed to be able to fix.
And by me, I thought. And it was true. Most nights I couldn’t pin down my place at the Line. I felt like some rich Brit in the African savannah being driven around by a tour guide in a Land Rover. I was safe in my little metal box, taking notes, and sipping on a strong drink. But the world was open to me, and if the engine stalled a lion could jump into the car at any time. That was most nights. Tonight was different. Tonight, I was one of the lions. Maybe even a hyena. Either way, I could feel a part of my life force slipping into my bar stool, adding to that reservoir of insomniac despair.
“God, you’re talking like a writer again Sam! Leave it in the pages for once! Explain how you feel like a normal person might. If you say one more word about lions, I’m leaving,” Nadine moaned. She had sat at the stool next to mine, trying to flip her short brown hair in an exasperated gesture and failing. “And stop playing around with that damn switchblade while you’re talking, I don’t want to get cut.”
“What do you want me to do, lie? You asked for this, remember? ‘Tell me what’s on your mind. How you really feel, no more bullshit,’ you said. Ring a bell?” I caught my breath, pocketing the knife.
Nadine dropped her eyes to her beer guiltily. I seized her hands.
“I am a writer—”
“A drunk writer.”
“I am a writer, and this is the way I feel, babe. I’m opening up to you here. My own mom doesn’t know about the Africa metaphor. Or the dreams.”
She sighed, and took her hands back, still analyzing her beer.
“I know, I know. But it’s a little too much for me, Sam, and I wish you’d told me a month ago. It would have explained a lot.”
“A month ago, yeah, that would have been grand. ‘Nadine, was it? I’m Sam! I’m a writer, college senior, all around good guy. But I think you should know, I feel disconnected with reality most of the time. Oh, yeah, and by the way, I dreamt the deaths of my two best friends. Before they happened, and on the same day, too. What are the odds? Haunts me every day. But no, please come out with me again. Saturday good? You know, you really do have beautiful eyes.’ ”
Nadine shot me a look. I just grinned back. What was I at, six beers? Yeah. That was when the boldness usually kicked in.
“Maybe you should have told me then. At least I would have known what I was getting into. You know, maybe you should see someone about this, you’re worrying me.”
“Yup, you’re right. It’s working out great for me now isn’t it? Explaining my problems. Fuck it. You know, I’ll just write an article about it! After all, why should you be the only one to know? Shit, let me just worry the whole world! Sal! Hey, Sal! Wanna know who I really am? Wanna be nice and worried tonight? I got some shit that will rock your fucking world.”
Sal was busy taking Mrs. Klinger off of his shoulder and hadn’t heard me. No one had heard me, in fact. Except for Nadine, who was sliding off her stool.
“Found out a lot tonight I guess. And I can’t believe I drove four hours into this hole to—”
“Hear that, Sal? The lady’s got a point! Maybe we should re-name this place. The Hole! Waddaya think?”
Sal still wasn’t listening. Years of tending a noisy bar had taken half of his hearing, and whatever was left was purely selective.
“Ok, Sam. I’m going back. Be damned if I’m going to stay here tonight. And don’t call me. Call a fucking shrink.” With that she had walked towards the door, turning her back on me and almost slipping in a puddle of beer or urine.
“Don’t call you? But it’s been such a nice chat, really!”
She stopped at hearing this, but didn’t turn around, and was shortly on her way again. I could feel the anger coming.
“No, you get the fuck back here! You wanted t’ know bout me, and you got it!”
She shook her head and struggled with the door. The reflection told me she was crying. Good.
“Yeah, fucking leave! Better hope I don’t dream about you, bitch!”
I did. I felt like a lion—drinking from the watering hole of despair like all the others, or maybe pissing in it. Ten beers now and the wheels were turning like never before. I was thinking, yes, that was an understatement. I thought of Nadine, of course. I’d liked her, but how much? Liked her enough to bring her up here to my town, but not enough to take her to see my mother. Liked her enough to open up to her, but not enough to go after her. Why the hell was that? If the mind is a weird thing, mine should be on exhibit somewhere, mom had told me once. I couldn’t disagree.
As usual, I couldn’t tell how I felt. Was I glad it was over? That I would never have to hide the troubled, thoughtful look from her anymore? That I would never have to sneak to the bathroom to write on a napkin the thoughts I didn’t dare say out loud? But I would, and I knew it, probably even then, as the beer soaked into my brain. I would have to hide it again, just not from her. I would have to hide it from everyone—from my mom, my professors, my friends, my co-workers. It was better to keep some things in. Like the way I hadn’t cried at Tom’s funeral. At least I had written to him. Sent my letter all the way to Baghdad. A simple letter, and nothing to let him know he was doomed. Just a “Hi, how are you, be careful out there, we miss you.” But I had signed it “goodbye.” It just seemed right. But I hadn’t cried at Tom’s funeral. I like to tell myself that it was out of respect of his family, that I would stay strong for them. But I knew it was because of my lack of guilt. I couldn’t do anything about war. But I had cried at Keith’s funeral. I cried rivers. But not for everyone else’s reasons: Not for the shock of it all, and not over the tragedy of a wasted life. I cried because I had literally seen it coming, and hadn’t done a thing about it. I continuously saw the GTO slam into the tree, saw Keith get out, saw the look in his eyes when he pulled the pistol out, saw the look in the officer’s eyes when he gunned Keith down, and heard Keith’s head hit the street. Yeah, I’d seen it. So why hadn’t I done anything? Because no man should have to know about his own death, I’d always told myself. Wasn’t it bad enough that I knew? But the truth of the matter was that doing something about it hadn’t even crossed my mind, like it had been out of the question the whole time. And why was that? Why? All I had were question marks, enough to make the Riddler a new suit.
My glass was empty, I realized, and trying to fill it up with thoughts wouldn’t work. Thick as the air was with despair, that watering hole was only in my head. I would have to drink beer.
“Sal, ’nother beer!”
Sal waddled over, and his bulldog jowls said it even before he did.
“No chance, Sam. Never seen you drink like this, and I don’ like it. I ain’t gonna give you no speech, I ain’t much for that. But I will tell you I lost plenty of girlfriends, but here I am. I’ll also say I lost two good pals on July 15th, just like you did, and I ain’t gonna lose one on November 15.”
The statement struck me somehow. Sal certainly wasn’t much at speeches, but he didn’t have to be. The date rang in my mind like a church bell.
“It can’t already be the 15th Sal, can it? Holy shit.”
“Yes it is, and I’m callin you a cab.”
“Thank ya, Sal. I’m sorry.”
Sal picked up the phone and dialed. He put his hand over the receiver.
“Don’t be sorry, just get home safe.”
I stood up to go to the bathroom, and the room was spinning. All for the best, I suppose. Miss the marry-go-rounds anyway I thought. The Line had emptied out considerably: as far as I could tell, only me and the depressed Russians remained.
I ambled into the men’s room and realized Mr. Roberts had beaten me to the good urinal. Grumpily, I walked over to the shitty one and unzipped. At least it would be a quiet piss, me not being Sal, and Mr. Roberts being a practical mute.
“Dreamt about you the other night.” His voice was high and slightly raspy, but careful and deliberate.
Thank God I’m already pissing.
“Yup, it is. And you’re one of us, Sam.”
I looked cautiously over to the man next to me. He smiled, his whiskers seeming to crawl up his face as he did.
“One of…who?” I trembled. I can remember no feeling akin to this one—having been figured out down to a freckle by the most non-descript regular at the Line.
“You know what I mean Sam. Your colors are giving it away. You’re a Firefly.”
I’m a man taking a piss in a bar, I told myself. Roberts gave me a look and chuckled deeply.
“Oh , don’t kid yourself, pal. You’re a Firefly, as we call them. You illuminate the night—just a flash here and there, like all men. Only difference is with you” he pointed a bent finger over the divider “those flashes mean something.”
I zipped my pants and took a deep breath. “Mean what?”
“You’re a Firefly and you know it.” Roberts’ tone turned serious and he avoided my question.
“Alright, man listen. So I dream once in a while. Fine. But I have more pressing issues at the moment. Namely, how to—”
“How to get Nadine back?” His smile widened, revealing stained teeth. “She moved on a long time ago. You can’t see that, but it’s ok. That’s something we can help with. The seeing.”
“God damn it, how—”
Take this, a deep voice exploded into my head. I searched frantically for the speaker – twisted my head around so fast it nearly came off – only to find Roberts holding out a business card.
I snatched it, and retreated to the damp tiled wall behind me. When I was sure Roberts wasn’t going to advance, I stole a glance down at the card. “FIREFLIES” it boasted in bright red and yellow raised letters. There was a firefly directly below, glowing ass and all. I turned the card over. On the back, written neatly in ink, was “We’ll be in contact”.
Suddenly, the bathroom door slammed, sending memories of gunshots wailing through my head. And echoing off the walls.