A Clean Well Lighted Planet

It was approaching last call and he was still there. Down at the end of the bar, quickly draining his bourbon so he could get in one more before the inevitable cut-off. The room was just the right amount of dark. Not so dark as to be oppressive, but just dark enough not to cheer up a patron that didn’t want cheering up. The jukebox was playing Roy Orbison, loud enough to bob a head to, but not so loud as to overtake the overall stillness of the room. “Only the Lonely” not withstanding, the bar was remarkably silent – silent as the sound of un-struck billiard balls on the empty pool table. The buzzing of neon signs was less intrusive than the man’s tinnitus. He was the only one left.

“Looks like he’s going to close us down again,” said the young bartender glancing at messages on her phone.

“Yep. That’s, what? Three? Four times this week?” The old bartender shook his head.

“Whatever.”

*****

There were eight planets to which he could have been exiled. He was young and hot-headed. Stood accused of heresy and treason. On earth, Amnesty International would call him a prisoner of conscience. But absent an Amnesty Galactical, he had no recourse, no due process. But as it turned out, he’d kind of hit the jackpot with Earth. It hardly seemed a punishment at all. The first twenty years or so of his exile had been an absolute blast. Earth had a few obvious advantages. For one, the liquor was far superior to liquor from his home planet. There, alcohol was purposely made to taste awful. You could get drunk if you wanted to. But you had to really, really want to. There was far less drunkenness at home, to be sure. Also, more dour people. Earth was chock full of folks  eager to have a good time.

But the real eye-opener had been Earth pussy. Not the cats, the body parts. Back home the female simply had a receptacle. Seriously, that’s what it was called. She lay perfectly still while the male fapped into it like a madman. The more ejaculate wound up in the receptacle, as opposed to her navel or thighs, the more she would smile and say things like, “That was incredible!” Distance mattered too, like a three-pointer is more impressive than a lay-up. Stupid really. Looking back, he couldn’t figure out why he ever felt compelled to do that. On Earth? Sex was unbelievable. The skin on skin, the movement, the sounds. Every one of his eight senses exploded every time. He had dived in like a kid in a ball pit.

*****

“You can tell he was hot once,” said the young bartender.

“Big deal. Everybody’s hot when they’re young. Now, he’s just an old drunk that keeps me at work for thirty extra minutes every goddam night..”

“Thirty minutes is nothing to you. It’s a long time for him. He counts on this half-hour. It’s important.”

“All I know is that I never get home before two-thirty anymore. More like Three. I got a family. Wife and kids.”

“So what? If you got home at two, you’d drag the kids out of bed and play catch with ’em? Lighten up.”

“It’s about tomorrow. I might want to play catch with them tomorrow, at a reasonable time. Without feeling like a zombie.”

“Still, you got somebody at home waiting for you. You’ve got it good. He’s got nobody. Come to think of it, I don’t either. I guess I can relate.” She walked to the other end of the bar where the man was. “Last call. One more?”

“Yes, please. Make it a double?”

“You got it.” She heard the old bartender sigh from the other side of the room.

*****

The second twenty years or so he still drank and fucked, to be sure. But he started going out of his way to experience every corporeal thrill the planet had to offer. He ran with bulls. He jumped out of airplanes. He climbed mountains. Bought a Harley. Picked fights with big dudes. He wound up with a broken finger once and a broken nose here and there. Whatever his physical ailments though, he had learned to take care of them himself. He couldn’t go to a doctor. Luckily he never was injured to the point where he might have been taken to an ER against his will. His physiology was pretty close to Earth-human, but just different enough that had a medical professional ever gotten a look at him he would have wound up in Area 51 faster than you could say “Roswell.”

*****

“I mean, why does he have to come here so often?” said the old bartender. “There’s a perfectly good dive bar around the corner. Or, he could just buy a fifth of bourbon at a liquor store and drink at home. Save him a ton of money.”

“He wants to drink where he’s comfortable. It’s clean here. We’ve got a nice vibe. It’s a nice neighborhood bar. Not a dive, not a restaurant. You can’t get drunk in a dive with any degree of self-respect. Drink in a restaurant by yourself? You’re just a loser. Alone at home? Well, that’s just a whole other kind of drinking. No, he drinks here because this is a nice place. And he’s a nice guy. And we’re close. You know he lives right down the street? In the apartments above the Walgreen’s.” She looked at her co-worker to see if he was even paying attention. He was. “And we’re nice people. He’s not given up. He’s not a loser. He’s just alone. Wants to be comfortable. Instead of bitching about it, you should be happy we can do that for him.”

“How do you know where he lives?”

“I see him around.”

*****

The last ten years, maybe fifteen, he had just run out of gas. His interest in his adoptive home waned. He began to feel like the proverbial stranger in a strange land. In earth years he was around ninety but looked, and felt, like an earthling in his mid-fifties. So his slowing down had little to do with physical limitations and everything to do with the weight of his exile. He had grown used to the one Sun and the one moon. But still, it became more and more real to him that he would never see the two suns and three moons of home. Or the green sky. Not that he had ever given a shit about that kind of postcard moment before. It was just something he couldn’t seem to stop thinking about.

He had tried establishing genuine relationships, both with women he dated and men he became friends with. But concealing his true nature from them made long term interactions problematic. He figured out that he had to move towns every ten years or so in order to avoid people noticing that he aged at a different rate from anyone else. Getting close to people had become more work than it was worth. Besides, in a venn diagram of people he found interesting enough to want to spend time with, and people who found him interesting enough to spend time with, the overlap was rapidly shrinking. He became increasingly reclusive. Drank too much and lived too little.

*****

Sometimes the man got drunk enough to contest the bill at the end of the night. To prevent that, the bartenders had taken to leaving the empty glasses in front of him. When it was time to settle up they’d simply count the glasses. The old bartender always made sure the math was on the nose. The young bartender often let the man slide on a round or two. She’d leave it to him to count his own glasses. Sometimes he got it right; sometimes he didn’t. Whatever.

“How many you got there?” she asked.

“Looks like seven. No, eight. The last one was a double.”

“Tell you what, I’ll buy that last one. That makes it six. So, forty-eight bucks.”

“Thanks. I appreciate it.” He dug deep into his heyday for a smile and a wink. Wasn’t sure if he’d pulled it off. Probably not.

“Look, the cops just went by. They won’t be back around for a while. This is a good time for you to get home.” Once or twice the police had hassled the man as he staggered home – even though it was less than a block.

“Yeah, good idea. Thanks again.” He handed her three twenties. “Here you go. Keep the change.” Then, mustering his resolve he stood tall, willed himself not to sway or slur, and said, “See you soon then.”

*****

He liked the young bartender. He wasn’t stupid, he knew she was just being nice, nothing more. But that was something – something to look forward to. Maybe this planet had a few good years left in it after all. Maybe tomorrow he would get out and go for a walk down by the beach. With a steadiness belying his level of inebriation, he walked home.

The young bartender wiped down the counter as the old one counted out and locked up the cash drawer. They went around the room turning off the neon signs before locking up. He saw her to her car before heading for his.

She sang to herself during the short drive home.

Only the lonely, Know the way I feel . . . whatever. Only the lonely, Know . . . whatever ain’t right

There goes my baby, There goes my heart. They’re gone . . . whatever, So far apart

But only . . . whatever, Know why I cry. Whatever . . . the Lonely

Maybe tomorrow, A new . . . whatever. No more . . . whatever, But that’s the chance

You gotta . . . whatever, If you’re lonely heart breaks. Only the lonely

*****

The young bartender got home. She fed her cat and thought to herself, “Next time he comes in, maybe I’ll ask his name. Or whatever.”

© 2016 Whiskey Leavins

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