“The Red Bulb”
It so happened one night two young men found themselves sitting together alone at the bar. The younger of the two stole a glance from the older who'd been staring at his drink.
“How much of the world that is have you seen?” he asked.
The older young man laughed an empty laugh, as dry as sherry, and picked at the basket of fries the bartender had set out in front of him.
“Not enough, I guess,” he said after another quiet chuckle. “Who are you?”
The younger of the two young men brushed his hands on his jacket, leaving marbled crumbs from his Reuben on the lapels.
“You can call me Anthony,” he said, sticking out his hand in greeting.
The older of the young men had better manners. He pulled a napkin back and forth and between his fingers before shaking Anthony’s hand.
“I’m John; what do other people call you?”
“Most guys call me Tony, and I just hope the girls call,” Anthony answered, his white teeth flashing in the bar's dim fog.
“Well, Tony,” John started.
“Anthony, for now,” Tony cut him off, wagging one finger.
“Anthony, sorry,” John paused, Tony waved a hand and shrugged. “How much of the world have you seen?”
Anthony took another bite of his sandwich, mumbling through the thick slices of meat and bread. “Enough of the world that is, and everything in the world that could be,” he replied; John couldn't claim to understand.
Anthony stood up, fishing his wallet from the hidden pocket in his jacket. Cracked, torn, an old leather checkbook like his great-grandfather would've carried. He left a hundred dollar bill folded up in the plastic basket that held the remains of his dinner. He signaled the bartender.
“I’ve got his,” he said, winking at John.
“You don’t need to,” John protested; Anthony was walking out the back door. John watched the bare red bulb blink behind the bar before the door shut and he was left alone with the bartender.
John ducked into the alley. He snuck under the awning behind the butcher shop to escape the rain. He told himself that he wasn’t crying, that his face was wet because of the storm. He shouldn’t have told her he didn’t want to talk. He hadn’t wanted to talk for weeks; ever since the rumors started. He knew he was going to be one of the unlucky ones. He had only been there for eighteen months and already his salary was too high. He should have known she was upset.
The bare red bulb burned his bloodshot eyes, so he walked around to the entrance of the bar. The heavy door crashed shut behind him, but the only ones inside were the bartender and a single patron who was nursing a tall amber beer with his head in his hands.
John noticed the man was missing the ring finger on his left hand. He remembered his sister telling him about their cousin who'd been mugged for the diamond she wore. He pulled up a stool and ordered a double of Wild Turkey. John nodded and raised his glass to the other man, who frowned but politely sipped from his beer.
When Elizabeth left, he hadn’t expected her to take Damascus with her. As he stared into the short glass of glittering tequila, he realized that he should have. She picked out the dog that day at the shelter. He looked around the bar. He was alone again, save for a couple huddled in one of the corner booths, taking turns pointing at a shared menu.
The girl was smiling and squeezing her lover’s hand. John wondered how long that would last. The shadows made it hard to see, so John almost dropped his glass when the boy came up to the counter to order. The poor kid had only a nub of scar-tissue where his right ear should have been. John sighed, wondering how he could spend so much time worry about his dog. At least he had found another job. Elizabeth might still come back.
“It didn’t hurt,” the boy said, startling John again. “I saw you.”
“I didn’t mean,” John trailed off.
“It’s okay,” the boy admitted, the words sliding together into two sibilant syllables. “I think it comes down to what you’re willing to lose.”
The boy took the beer and a plate of potato skins back to the girl, and John heard them lose themselves in laughter.
The door opened. Anthony walked in, folding his apron over one arm, holding up a finger to order a drink.
“How are you, John?” he asked, pulling up a seat next to him.
“Hmm,” John mused, “could be worse.” He had no reply when Anthony started laughing.
The bartender had a shot of whiskey ready for him when he sat down, setting his suit jacket on the stool. He put the funeral notice on top, face down, to avoid reading the letters again. He couldn’t afford to fly back, and his new boss had denied his vacation request. He hadn’t been working long enough.
He tossed the whiskey back and pushed the glass forward for another. There was a much older man sitting across from him. It looked like the stranger was trying to talk to him. John took his refill and walked over.
“It’s nice to know what might have been,” the old man said.
“I hadn’t talked to him in a while,” John said, sipping his drink. “My name’s John.” He held his hand out for the old man to introduce himself. Instead, he grunted and twisted in the stool, showing John the stump that had been his right arm.
“In the war?” John asked, remembering that his father had fought.
“No,” the old man said, pulling up his shirt so that John could see the long crescent shaped scar. “That was, though.”
“My dad never liked to talk about it.”
“Ah, my da was the same,” the old man whispered.
The bartender poured the old man a new drink, but John waved off another refill.
“So,” John asked.
“Your da and I might’ve something in common,” the old man said with a throaty cough. “Might you want to ask him though.” The old man pointed at where Anthony was walking out of the back door of the bar. John heard the bare red bulb sizzling in the black of the night beyond. By the time he got there, Anthony'd vanished. He turned back to see the old man leave out the front door.
After Elizabeth left, John’s apartment was almost empty. His new girlfriend hadn’t even bothered laying claim to the medicine cabinet. He assumed she didn’t think they were going anywhere. He picked up the remote. He was flipping through the few channels he still had when his phone rang.
“John,” he answered.
“I hope so, that wasn’t a question, was it?”
It took him a second to recognize the voice. “I don’t remember giving you my number,” he said, failing to not sound rude.
“After seven shots of Wild Turkey, I’m not surprised.”
John shrugged, pushing the mute button on his remote. He didn’t remember seven shots, either. “So, how are you, Anthony?”
“Hey, it’s Tony now. I was just calling to see if you made up your mind.”
John tried to recall the lost time at the bar, but his memory seemed fixated on the buzzing red bulb.
“I don’t know,” he admitted.
Tony scoffed. “You’ve only got one chance, you know.”
John wished he had a beer. He wanted to ask Rebecca to pick some up when she came over. “Sure,” John said, “Can I call you back?”
“Don’t worry about it, I’ll see you at the bar, you can tell me then.”
“Okay, later, Tony.”
Anthony hung up the phone. John pressed mute again and looked out the window at the stars.
When he woke up, the dog was barking and his phone's calender was buzzing, reminding him of a meeting later that day. John slipped out of bed and waddled to his bathroom. The water was hot and he was washing his hair when he felt her arms wrap around him. Her skin was wet and smooth when she pushed up against him. He felt himself stir as she purred in his ear.
“How about I take care of this,” Elizabeth said as she held him.
He felt the soap slip down his legs as she stroked his thighs. He could see Damascus’ shadow through the fog on the shower glass. He realized he had forgotten to ask how much time he had purchased. He touched her hand where it circled his knee, feeling his leg flex beneath her fingers.
“Long enough,” he managed.
It had to be.