I took the discoloured towel and ran it around the inside of the glass, gazing into the bottom of it. My reflection stared back at me. The indentations of the design had made my face crooked. I listened to the denizens of the bar, sat on their stools, their elbows resting on the counter, as if they were about to pray.
‘Do you not own anything but that god awful polo shirt?’ spat Elliott, as he stared into the bottom of his empty glass. He was referring to Richard, who sat two stools down from him. Richard’s left leg shook restlessly as he chewed on the remains of his thumbnail.
‘And do you have to shake your fucking leg at all hours of the day?’ continued Elliott. Richard stared at him as he finished his White Russian. The strip of white that sat on his upper lip made him look even more ridiculous. His navy shorts rode high on his hairless thighs. His polo was bright orange to the point of nausea. It made the sweat stains stand out.
‘Wipe your lip, Richard,’ I said, as I handed him a napkin.
‘Drop the d,’ he replied bluntly.
‘Your parents christened you Richard. Not Richar, you prick,’ butted in Elliott.
‘Pipe down, Elliott,’ I commanded. Elliott continued to gaze into his glass, avoiding my eye.
I remember when Richard had first wandered in here. He told me he was a promising tennis player. When he got drunk, he’d talk to anyone who would listen. When everybody had grew tired of his stories they stopped sitting next to him. He responded by talking louder.
‘I had the potential to go pro, challenge for grand slams,’ he’d shout, ‘I coulda been the next McEnroe!’ Now all he does is teach bored housewives how to serve. I don’t know if these stories have a lick of truth in them or if Richard was just a tool in a fake Lacoste polo. His shirt didn’t even say Lacoste. It said Lacoast. It made me laugh how Richard didn’t even know what he was attempting to imitate or become. But this bar is a vast expanse and when you study it, you see that it’s littered with red giants, all clustered together, hurtling towards death. It’s as if God himself stuffed the universe into a ball and chucked it in through the open doorway. It’s unfurling now, but the creases are still there for all to see.
‘You know what, I don’t owe you anything, Elliott. If I want to call myself Richar, irrespective of my parents’ wishes, I’ll call myself Richar. I don’t ask you to drop one of the ‘Ls’ or one of the fucking ‘Ts’ in your name do I!’
Richard had dropped the ‘D’ of his name midway through this crumbling dream of his. Thought it made him sound European or something. With some of the characters in here, it just made him a target, and an easy one at that.
‘Here, you’re bleeding again,’ said Richard, as he handed me his napkin. The strip of white had been wiped from his lip. I wiped under my nose. My blood mingled with the milk from Richard’s lip to produce a soft pink. It helped to keep me alert in the later hours. My body is useless now. My mind is the only thing that registers any pain or feeling when another disappointment comes my way. The sting when I rubbed it on the underside of my lips and gums kept me numb like the sour sweets I chewed on when I was a kid. It helped me forget.
I don’t know what to make of Victor. His name alone. He sounds and looks like an American but in this day and age the composition of what it means to be ‘American’ is vastly different. His name makes him seem a little alien. He made small, sharp steps towards a stool as he scratched relentlessly at his knotted beard. He pulled his hood back. His eyes were a clear, natural blue. It’s a little startling when you heard some of the things that came out of his mouth. Sometimes I thought the only thing he was missing was the two-sided cardboard sign that said ‘The end is nigh’.
‘What will it be, Victor?’
‘You know…’ he responded, as his fingers swirled and prodded around a bowl of peanuts.
‘We play this game every day, Victor, I don’t know what you want. You have a different drink every time you come in here.’ I saw Richard and Elliott recoil like tortoises into their shells. But Victor just sat their grinning. I knew that I was fuelling his insanity.
‘You always let on less than you know, Gilly.’
‘You don’t know shit about me, Victor. And for the last time, my name’s Gilbert. Now what do you want to drink?’
‘Vodka. Put whatever you want in with it,’ said Victor, showing me his teeth. They were speckled with clumps of brown crust. I couldn’t tell if it was fresh or if it had been there a while. His eyes maintained that rich blue. I handed him his drink.
‘Here we go, a Moscow Mule for the jackass,’ I said with a false heartiness.
Elliott sniggered like a fat schoolchild.
‘Ah good, I can still taste the Communism,’ said Victor with a dark laugh. I studied those eyes again whilst I dried some glasses. He finished his drink in one, before letting out an overzealous gasp of pleasure. Richard edged his stool further away from Victor.
‘Victor, how do your eyes stay so clear whilst the rest of you looks like it’s dying?’ I asked. A silence fell over the bar. I saw several pairs of ears prick up at my question. Victor was a regular but nobody in here knew much about him. He had the sense of a spiritual hipster crossbreed about him. Sometimes I thought that he may be magical or otherworldly. Other days I thought that he had just seen too much.
‘The eyes are portals, Gilbert. Portals to the soul. I see what I want to see and I see things for what they are, not what they want to be or what they aspire to be. Poison the eyes and you corrupt the soul.’ His words lingered in the air for a couple of seconds. The faces I could see around the room were taken aback. Either that or they were too drunk to comprehend what Victor was talking about.
‘What if my appearance is a disguise, Victor?’ I retorted playfully.
‘You should know more than most that you can see through an appearance. Richar may dress like a tennis player but we all know he’s full of shit. Elliott has been talking about how he goes to the gym all the time since the New Year. It’s July now and he’s still as fat as he was then,’ Victor cackled. Richard echoed his laugh nervously. ‘But you, Gilbert,’ said Victor, pointing at me, ‘You are the biggest fake of them all. I know you want to escape this bar but you tether yourself to these degenerates. You watch yourself get dragged below the surface until you run out of air.’
‘I’ve lost thirty pounds since January, Victor,’ chimed in Elliott.
Victor replied with a patronising applause. ‘Well, you still look the same to me, Elliott.’
Victor’s stay was short-lived. He hastily swallowed five of my random concoctions before stumbling out of the bar’s doorway.
‘I wouldn’t take any notice of him, Gilbert,’ said Elliott. He mustered a forced, but supportive smile. He had one foot on the floor, probably nervous that his entire weight would be too much for his stool. His stomach bulged over his khakis like an over-burdened shopping bag. ‘We should go out and score again after your shift,’ he suggested, ‘It’ll cheer you up. I can see Sammy in one of the booths.’ Sammy set us up with some gear last time. I looked over at his booth. When he laughed, his teeth seemed to double in size and his eyes would be swallowed up by the folds of skin that gathered around his temples and eyebrows. I decided to take Elliott up on his offer.
Sammy met us in the alley behind the bar. We exchanged our respective goods and Sammy forced his hands into his pockets. His hands seemed to be constantly searching for something in those pockets. The whites of his eyes were jaundiced. He stared hard at us as if he was expecting us to sample the gear right there and then. A car whizzed by the alley entrance and I half-expected Sammy to pull a gun on us like some twisted mutiny.
‘So where are you guys off to now?’ Sammy asked. His eyes disappeared into his folds again as he grinned.
‘We’re both going home. We’ll probably try this stuff tomorrow night,’ interrupted Elliott.
‘Alright guys, I’m glad we could come to an, agreement.’ Sammy smiled as he said this but it was tinged with disappointment. Sammy lingered uncomfortably after every deal we made but he was the only dealer we knew or trusted enough so we couldn’t go elsewhere. We waited until Sammy had left and I let us back into the bar. I had the keys to the owner’s office. It was dusty, papers scattered everywhere. A trio of balloons hung limply from a corner of the ceiling, all wrinkled and deflated. Elliott hurriedly wiped the dust away with the sleeve of his jacket. He separated the coke into even lines like soldiers marching in formation. We did one each before he sank into a swivelling chair. I sat on the desk. The blend of cocaine and dust danced in the light of the streetlamp that peered in vicariously through the window.
‘I noticed you snapped a little at Victor earlier. What was that about? You usually just ignore him,’ enquired Elliott.
It must be because he’s jacked; he doesn’t normally care. Maybe I should tell him.
‘I don’t know, I guess I was just tired of his whole act,’ I said, prodding at a broken tile on the floor with my toe.
‘We’re all tired of it, Gil, but you don’t ever snap like that,’ Elliott insisted. I pressed my fingers into the bridge of my nose until it almost hurt.
‘Gilbert, Elliott. Not Gil, not Gilly, Gilbert.’ I stormed out of that office, out of the bar, leaving Elliott, sunk deeply into that chair, confused but a little more enlightened to my position.
It was my day off so I decided to visit the retirement home. When I entered the car park all I could think about was how false it all was. The vibrant green grass, the pastel-coloured walls that are supposed to resemble some sort of Spanish villa. These dried-up geriatrics stagger blindly through this phony paradise, pass out in a pool of their own excrement before the great man himself beckons them towards the blinding light with a bony finger.
‘Can I see Mr Knoxfield?’ I asked the nurse. She was attractive, saintly in all white.
‘Sure, I’ll let him know you’re here, Mr…’
‘Knoxfield. Gilbert Knoxfield. Don’t tell him it’s me. Just say he has a guest,’ I answered. Her smile was reassuring. I sat amongst the other residents. That stale, old person smell hung heavily in the air. I stared at the wall and wondered if the shuddering click of that ticking clock bothered them. I looked across the room. The nurse was wheeling him towards me.
‘Who are you?’ he spat. He sounded weaker than before. I hesitated for a second. I didn’t know whether to be me or not today.
‘It’s Gilbert, Dad. Your son.’ My voice trembled. He looked confused initially, but his face soon twisted into an anger. He didn’t remember me anymore.
‘Gil who? What do you mean? I don’t remember a son. Who are you really?’ He got angrier as he spoke. I know it wasn’t his fault, but those words burned a hole in my skin. They seeped into my bloodstream and swam uneasily around the canals of my brain. You really lose a sense of who you are when the one man you admire doesn’t recognise you anymore.
‘Sorry, Mr Knoxfield, I was just kidding around. I’m from the, uh, trust. I’m just running a survey to make sure our patients are receiving the highest quality care.’ I saved the situation and forced a smile. I held that illusion until my cheeks began to hurt. I thought of the folds of skin gathering around Sammy’s eyes and I felt a little sicker about this whole situation.
‘You don’t look like someone from a trust, kid. I mean where’s your suit? Where’s your self-pride? You look like a mess.’ He raised a greying hand into the air as he ranted at me. I can’t remember the last time someone called me kid.
‘Well, I guess some people aren’t what they seem,’ I retorted dejectedly.
‘You got that right. I still feel like a stallion but I’m trapped in this sagging shell.’
‘How about I wheel you outside, Mr Knoxfield? I think we both need some fresh air,’ I offered with a more genuine smile. I wheeled my Dad out onto the grass and sat beside him. The sun was just sinking behind the trees.
‘So how are they treating you here?’ I asked. He rested his hands on his knees and studied the sun.
‘I guess it’s as good as it could be. I’m lonely and a little helpless, but that nurse keeps my heart beating at a steady pace.’ A dirty laugh escaped his dry, receding lips. I laughed a little too.
‘But it’s as good as it could be here, right?’ I asked caringly. He looked at me more seriously, like he’d caught on to my illusion.
‘Yeah… yeah I guess this is as good as it’s going to get for me now,’ he smiled.
‘Do you want me to wheel you back inside, Mr Knoxfield?’ I asked.
‘Yes, but call me Leonard. Not Lenny though, I hate being called Lenny.’
I returned to work and nothing much had changed. Elliott was still fat and bitter and Richard’s navy shorts still strangled his hairless thighs. I watched the faces staring into the bottom of their glasses and thought about how they’re all looking for different answers. A stranger pulled a stool up to the bar.
‘A whiskey please. Could you put a drop of water in with it? My stomach can’t handle the heat anymore,’ he said with a pained smile.
‘How come?’ I asked. He looked surprised as if he didn’t expect a reply.
‘I guess I’ve just had too much too soon. My organs always seem to be screaming “slow down, man!”‘ he laughed, ‘But the whiskey keeps me warm and content at the same time.’ I watched him swallow the whiskey in one. He hissed and looked into the bottom of the glass. I poured him another and poured myself one too. We raised our glasses.
‘What are we toasting?’ the stranger asked.
‘What do you wanna toast?’ I replied.
‘What’s your name, bartender?’
‘Gilbert. I’m Gilbert Knoxfield.’
‘Well then, a toast to Gilbert Knoxfield. To good health, honesty and new beginnings.’
I finished my drink and looked into the bottom of the glass, hoping to find an answer. I smiled. All I could see was myself.