This story first appeared in the Spring 2009 issue of the ezine River Poets Journal.

I needed a break. After six straight days at the keyboard, seven to ten hours each day, I hit a wall. The story was coming along, but I needed fresh faces, new people to populate some scenes. As I had occasionally done in the past, I decided to head downtown and find a small out of the way bar to look for inspiration.

I parked my car on Pearl Street and strolled with the crowd toward the customary hangouts, the sports bars, after theater restaurants and the exclusive establishments with exotic drinks and equally exotic prices. The evening was still warm at nine o’clock, a treat in upstate New York, so many in the crowd of much-younger-than-I revelers were in shorts and short sleeves. The sky was clear, although you couldn’t see the stars because of the streetlamps. But it was a mild, pleasant evening. I myself had on my favorite jeans, sneakers, and a dark blue tee shirt. I clearly was not dressed for the high-end spots where the in crowd goes to overspend on ordinary food and watered down drinks. I didn’t want to mingle with the college crowd at places like Jillian’s, or with the well-off politicians or businesspeople sitting in padded booths engaging in quiet conversations.

No, I wanted the neighborhood dives where, like Cheers, everybody knows your name. They wouldn’t know mine though; I would be an observer, inconspicuous, a fly on the wall eavesdropping on conversations taking note of speech patterns, facial expressions, hand gestures, whatever I could glean from the patrons to include in my book.

After straying far from the popular nightspots, I turned off the main drag and two streets over found a local joint called, simply enough, Joe’s. As I opened the door the sound of laughter hit me. The place wasn’t overcrowded, but well attended. This was the kind of place where in the smoking days a blue haze would fill the air. There was actually filminess to the place, although it wasn’t the smell of cigarette smoke that hit you, but the smell of grease from the chicken wings, French fries and onion rings cooking in the small kitchen in the back.

The place was decorated with sports posters and pictures, and dark wood was everywhere. The wooden floor was covered with a combination of sawdust and peanut shells. There were five or six small tables and a couple of booths. There was a TV at each end of the bar tuned to a baseball game that no one paid attention to.

I sat at one end of the curved mahogany bar next to a man who had evidently been there for a while. He had some bills sitting in front of him along with an empty beer bottle and one half full. I ordered a Corona from the bartender, presumably the titular Joe, and proceeded to look around the room at the customers in search of any interesting possibilities.

“Looking for someone?” the man next to me said.

“No,” I replied, “I’m looking for anyone.”

“What?” he said, giving me a look like I was an escaped mental patient.

“Sorry,” I said, “I was just trying to be clever. I’m a writer, and I’m out scouting for interesting people that I might want to base a character on in my next book.”

“Really,” he said, not overly impressed. “How about me?”

“What about you?” I replied, looking him up and down.

“What can you tell about me that might be a basis for a character?” he said.

I thought for a minute as I took a sip of beer letting the cool bitter brew slide down my throat. “Well,” I said, “you’re not a regular here.”

“What makes you say that?”

“That group at the other end of the bar hanging out together, the bartender clearly knows them, calling them by name, knowing what they drink before they order when one of them comes in, those are the regulars. If you were a regular you’d be sitting down there with them.”

“Not bad,” he said, taking a swig from his bottle of beer. “Well then maybe I’m with the mafia and want to be alone while I think of how I’m going to whack my next victim.”

“I don’t think so,” I said taking another sip from my own bottle.

“Why not, don’t I look tough enough?” he said, staring into my eyes. For the first time I noticed his size and the coldness of his blue eyes as they bore into mine.

“Nah, nothing like that,” I responded. “If you were a Mafioso you wouldn’t be sitting with your back to the main bar area and the door. You’d be sitting here where I am so you can see who comes in and keep your eye on the customers in case any of them is a threat.”

He nodded appreciatively as he downed the remainder of his beer and motioned to the bartender for another. “Okay, so why am I here?” he said challenging me.

“Well, you’re from out of town, probably traveling here on business, or passing through on the way to somewhere else.” He gave me a “prove it” look. “You’re overdressed for this place,” I said looking at his slacks, dress shoes and casual, but dressy shirt. “Looks like you packed casual clothes for relaxation after your ‘suit and tie’ meeting, but didn’t bring the real casual stuff like jeans and shorts.”

“Okay,” he said, “but why am I here alone in this dive?”

“Well now you’re getting into motive, and that’s a little harder to figure out from observation.”

“So use your writer’s imagination then. What would a guy like me be doing here?”

“Alright then, let’s see,” I said thinking about the possibilities. “You could have had a bad meeting today and didn’t want to be with your colleagues as they went for a night on the town, so separated yourself from them and looked for a place where you wouldn’t run into them.”

“Pretty weak,” he said tilting his head to give me a pitiful look.

“How about this, you’re on the verge of losing your job and came here to drown your sorrows.”

“Why come here, I could do that at one of the classier places.”

“Because you wanted to be among other losers,” I said in a soft voice so no one else could hear.”

“That doesn’t sound very interesting to me, does it to you?”

“No,” I admitted, “it doesn’t.” Hitting the wall again, I thought to myself. “Okay, how about this, your wife left you and you’re searching for her. You had a tip that she might be headed toward this area and you want to find her.”

His back stiffened almost imperceptivly, and I sensed I was closer to the truth than I imagined I could be.

“If I’m looking for her, what am I doing sitting here drinking?”

“Maybe you found where she is and are trying to build up the courage to confront her.”

“To do her harm?”

“I don’t know, I haven’t gotten that far yet. I guess it depends on why she left, what the nature of their relationship was, what kind of personality he has, stuff like that,” I said trying to steer the discussion in a more objective direction.

“Do you think I could hurt someone?” There was that cold stare again.

“I don’t really know you, so can’t answer that. I don’t even know the character I’d be creating, so I don’t know if he could either.”

“Well take a guess.”

I didn’t like where this was going. “I don’t think he would,” I said trying to protect whoever this guy was looking for, his wife or girlfriend or whoever. “I think he’s drinking alone out of sadness, not revenge. I think he’ll try to talk her into coming back with him, but no, he wouldn’t hurt her.”

“Yeah?” he said. “Think he’ll be successful?”

“Well, for dramatic effect, I’d say no. That would be too neat and tidy. I’d say he goes to her drunk, maybe that was even the problem between them in the past, and she totally rejects him.”

“Then what?”

“Well, I would say he would become despondent and do something dramatic.”

“Like?”

“I don’t know, go on a drinking binge, start doing drugs, get involved with a prostitute, something like that.”

“How about suicide?”

“Suicide? But that would remove the character from the story.”

“So. He’s not a main character anyway. You could focus on her reaction, how sorry she becomes, distraught, how much she misses him. Maybe her life turns to shit.”

“Nah, seems like that’s been done too many times before. No, I’d keep him alive, maybe he could be a recovery project for one of my main characters. You know, get him back on the right path, rediscover himself, maybe even fall in love again.”

“So you’re into fairy tales?”

“Well I’d have to work on it, but I could see it going that way.”

“Yeah, you do that,” he said pushing his empty beer bottle away as he stepped off his bar stool. “Good luck with your book and I hope you find what you’re looking for. I’m sure there’s folks here who are a lot more interesting than I am.”

“Let me buy you another drink,” I said, not liking his body language as he started to walk away. Head lowered, slow shuffling steps.

“Thanks, but gotta go, gotta date.”

“Can I ask with who?”

He paused and turned, giving me that icy stare again. A slight smile crossed his lips as he said, “Destiny.”

The End

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