*** you know the drill; This story is very nearly fictional. If you think my fiction is about someone you or someone you know, you’re a liar ***
Jake sat quietly in the bar in the middle of the afternoon. Drinking a Shiner Bock and chain smoking Marlboro Reds. He had recently separated from the Air Force and was currently unemployed.
It was a hole-in-the-wall bar. The kind you can find in any town if you know where to look. Dark and dirty. The smoke just kind of hangs in the air because they can’t afford one of those specialized fans that sucks the smoke out. People always seem more real in these places. Outside, on the streets, everyone wears a figurative mask to hide from each other. Smiling and waving at each other while mumbling casual up beat slogans at one another. It just feels fake out there.
‘I like these hole-in-the-wall bars’, he thought to himself. The perfect place to go and watch people. Jake didn’t care much for people, especially today. He didn’t want to be alone either. He didn’t trust himself when he was by himself for too long. So he would walk across the street from his motel room and wind up in this small hole-in-the-wall bar. It was one of those small establishments with a witty name that most of these places tended to have. Names like “That Bar” or “The Office” or “The Other Place”. People always seem more honest with themselves and each other in these kinds of bars. It’s where people go to drop their masks and just be themselves. He blew on the end of his cigarette to heat it up a little more. He wanted to keep it hot.
Every morning for the past five months, Jake would wake up at exactly 0615. It was important to wake up at 0615, because otherwise the trash truck would wake him up at around 0625. The trash truck would cause the lid on the dumpster outside to slam shut with a loud bang. He didn’t handle sudden loud bangs very well anymore, so he’d turn the TV on and be in the shower when the trash truck came. It didn’t come everyday, but Jake could never remember which day of the week it was, so he felt better off just waking up every day at 0615.
When he woke up in the mornings, he’d briefly curse the fact he was breathing before thinking that he might as well do something since he was still here. Then he’d get up, take his shower and then get online to post his résumé to countless companies that would never respond. They all say they want to hire veterans, but they usually fail to mention that they only want veterans with 5-8 years of business experience. ‘They don’t want veterans, they want civilians that happened to have been in the military before,’ Jake spat to himself.
Jake crushed an empty pack of cigarettes before pulling a full pack out of where it was tucked into one of his socks. He forcefully packed it five times, flipped it longitudinally and packed it five more times, before flipping it back again and packing it a final five times. It felt good to have some semblance of order in his life. He opened the pack and grabbed a fresh cigarette.
Jake was an artist, it was important to him to find pain and understand it. Embracing the darkness was almost a hobby for him. People used to warn him, ‘How long can you seek out darkness before it swallows you, Jake?’. Jake enjoyed the darkness. It helped give him inspiration to create. Music, drawings, bad poetry… it was fun and cathartic. Some people used to call Jake ‘goth’, but he never really felt like a label was warranted. He was simply Jake, nothing more and nothing less. ‘Maybe a little more less than more at the moment,’ Jake thought and almost cracked a smile. ‘Can’t believe that fu..,’ Jake stopped himself mid-thought and ordered a shot of Jäger.
Jake remembered the guy in Montana that was covered in scarring from burns. He had won some gigantic settlement over however he had gotten the burns, at least that’s what Jake had heard. He had some crazy tricked out mansion, no job and a devoted wife. The wife always followed the guy around like an abused dog. Someone had pointed out to Jake that she had some scars on her forehead that looked a lot like her husband’s rings. Jake couldn’t understand why people stayed in relationships like that. He wondered how badly the burns had hurt. Jake had read that 3rd degree burns weren’t usually too painful because they had a tendency to cause nerve damage. ‘Physical pain would be better than this..,’ Jake thought. He ordered another round and lit a fresh cigarette.
He felt his pocket vibrating. He pulled out his phone and looked at the caller ID. It was his mother again. Jake hit the silence button and put the phone back in his pocket. Jake remembered that base he had been stationed at eight years ago, and the hole-in-the-wall bar he had found there. It was in Dover, Delaware. There was one local that would be in that bar at any given time of the day or night. It didn’t matter when you showed up, this old man would already be there. Jake can’t remember ever seeing the guy not shit-faced. Jake almost cracked a smile. Then he remembered the darkness that followed that guy. The old man was always there and always so drunk that no one could understand him. He would catch someone’s attention and proceed to tell them something that must have seemed important, but all that would come out of his mouth was a string of unintelligibly slurred syllables. The guy must have been hiding from something. Trying to stay drunk enough to quiet his brain. Jake could relate. Jake never found out what the story was behind that guy, but he always liked to imagine it was something horrible.
Jake liked finding out why people were the way they were. He liked to try to understand the damage that had shaped people. He remembered picking up a hitchhiker in Kansas on his way to a new base one year. He carried the guy a few hours and wound up dropping him off in Amarillo. The man had told him that his wife had died a couple of years prior. Since that point, the man would just hitchhike around the country, stopping at various relatives’ houses. Jake assumed the guy typically left a place after the relatives kicked him out at some point. The man hadn’t said that part, but sometimes what people don’t say is just as telling as what they say. Jake had given the guy a $20 and a pack of cigarettes when he dropped him off. It was less out of sympathy and more because he had enjoyed the dark story.
The hitchhiker had been in a state of loss without his wife, and was now doing his best to be physically lost to mirror the feeling. At least that’s what Jake imagined. ‘I wish that could have been my st…,’ Jake started to think. He didn’t want to think about this right now, so he flagged down the girl who was tending the bar and ordered another shot of Jäger. Jake was tipping better than he probably should have, but the severance pay had been enough that he wasn’t worried yet. Besides, the bartender tended to be more responsive this way. He tipped the girl and downed the shot. He blew on the end of his cigarette to heat it up again. It was important to keep it hot.
Jake was thinking too much. In the back of his mind he could feel thoughts he didn’t want, creeping to the surface around the corner of every memory. ‘… and while I was in Afghanistan…’. Jake ordered another beer with a double shot of Jäger. Jake wished he was still in Afghanistan. It was simpler there and everything made sense. The CONUS had felt different ever since he came back. Everything and everyone just seemed hollow.
People came and went throughout the afternoon and evening. Jake just sat on his barstool and drank, only stopping for an occasional trip to the restroom. Most regular bars would have cut Jake off hours ago, but hole-in-the-wall bars need the money more than they need to protect people from their own decisions. Jake liked hole-in-the-wall bars. He gradually eased into what he liked to call, “the void”. He was physically in the bar, but it was arguable if he was really there at this point. He didn’t really focus on anything around him and everything sounded like it was blurry and coming from a distance. It felt like falling. It felt like slowly going numb. It felt nice. Jake lit another cigarette, took a few drags and blew on the end to help it burn hotter. He briefly emerged from the void to order another shot before drifting back into his free-fall.
Jake had stopped running through old memories about other people’s pain and other people’s tragedy. He stopped having to fight his brain to mute the negative thoughts he was trying to hide from. This was what he had been working on achieving all night. He was in a state of inversed Zen. Him and his thousand yard stare into the abyss. Him and his Shiner Bock, his pack of Marlboro Reds and an ashtray full of cigarette butts. Sitting in a room by himself with some strangers at a hole-in-the-wall bar. Society didn’t want him anymore. His soon to be ex-wife didn’t want him anymore. The Air Force didn’t want him anymore. Jake wasn’t so sure he wanted himself anymore. But, ‘you might as well do something while you wait to die’. At least that’s what Jake typically told himself in the mornings.
Jake ran out of beer again. He briefly came out of his death-like trance to order another beer and another shot. He had spent the last hour or so zoned out and just drinking and smoking from pure muscle memory. As the bartender came back, Jake noticed a few people caddy cornered to him at the bar staring at him in a mixture of disgust and shock. Jake didn’t understand why. He tipped the bartender, took the shot and resumed casually and slowly burning the tattoo of a ring off his left ring finger with his cigarette. He had already tried this a couple of months ago, but the ink had been too deep, and the burns had been too shallow. The tattoo remained after the blisters had healed. He wanted to make sure he got it right this time. His finger had a deep ravine going around it from hours of burning. He wondered if it would fall off. He kind of hoped it would. Jake wondered what kind of damage the customers that were staring at him had as he started to drift back towards the void.