Friday, March 1, 2013

the drinker's ghost

He came over and leaned against the bar a few feet away from me – in the regulars’ corner, only there were no regulars there. He introduced himself as John but said they called him “Shithead.” I demurred.

He was a lanky man with a gaunt look and a dark beard, silver in spots. He looked like a diminutive Captain Ahab, although he was not short. But he did not project maniacal power like the obsessed whaling captain. Rather, John seemed more like a castaway, amazement in his eyes for the desert isle that had received him, even as his shipwrecked body succumbed.

You could tell he had been drinking although it would only be evident to a veteran observer of boozehounds. He didn’t reek of alcohol, well, perhaps a bit. He didn’t slur, well, perhaps a tad. But it was clear just the same that the man’s life raft was a glass bottle.

John had a tale to tell. His brother-in-law, who was like a real brother to him, he said, had died three days earlier, only hours before John was to visit him in Michigan, west of Grand Rapids.

The brother-in-law had served in Vietnam and died of cancer caused by Agent Orange, John claimed. The cancer was only diagnosed in 2011, two years earlier. The brother-in-law had been a big man, 6’4” and close to 300 lbs. But the cancer had emaciated him. He was the second man left alive from his wartime platoon, John said. I thought the story reminiscent of the opening scenes of “Rambo: First Blood” and interrupted John to point out the similarities. He seemed not to like my inference and halted his narration. He began to examine a handful of scratch-off lottery tickets he was holding, looking down at them with the same graven expression.

When the young barmaid came over, John offered her one of the tickets. She brought back a fin and a bottle of Bud. John took a swig from the longneck and set it back on the bar. He picked up the fiver and rubbed it between his thumb and fingers. His hands appeared darkened and coarse. The nails were long and blackened underneath. John let the bill fall back on the bar. He clutched his beer bottle and tilted it but did not raise it to his lips.

Instead he looked at me, his eyes weary but streaked with stubbornness. He raised the bottle and poured beer into his mouth. He set the bottle back on the bar. I couldn’t see him swallow. He told me he had a tent and complete camping gear in his car. He asked me if I liked to fish.

Sure, I replied.

After that we talked about fishing and John finished his beer in a quick series of mouthfuls. Then he was gone. I never noticed him leave.

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