Cheap liquor, greasy in the reflected light, splashed carelessly into a shot glass and pushed over scarred wood, through miniature pools of sloshed alcohol and tiny piles of cigarette ash.
The smell hits first. Even over the stink of body odor and sweat, even over the stench of cheap cigarette smoke and old vomit and ineffectual cleaning products. Even over the smell of urine that wafts through the room every time the bathroom door is shoved open.
It smells nothing like he would have ever imagined. He has seen the movies, of course, of people drinking their drinks in bars, smoking their cigarettes, basking in darkness and hiding in neon. In the movies, it never smells like real life.
He stopped being surprised at the scent of bars long ago.
He drinks his drink all at once, but slowly. Not savoring it, but taking it slow, letting it burn its way through his lips, over his tongue, down his throat. He breathes in through his nose as he drinks, and his stomach hops, like someone being startled.
Shot drained, he places the glass back down amidst the spent ashes and spilled fluids, and he holds up his finger without any enthusiasm. It’s not a quick motion, but it isn’t slow. It is emotionless and uncaring and reliant. He doesn’t look up to see if the bartender noticed. In a place like this, all the bartender needs to notice is how much is in one’s glass and how much is in one’s wallet.
People don’t come here for a good time. They come here for a drink.
He lights a cigarette, watching the match flare, watching it ignite the cigarette with a comfortable familiarity, the slight crackle as he inhales. He watches the match burn down, the smoke from his cigarette drifting around the fire as if trying to imitate the flame. When it reaches his fingers, he gives it a shake—not rushed or violent—just enough to extinguish the light.
He drops the smoking match into the ashtray. It lands on a cigarette butt and bounces onto the bar, into a pool of spilled something where it dies with a defeated hiss.
He thinks of nothing as he drains his glass, as he repeats the process of replacing it on the bar, lifting his finger.
He lines up the empty shot glasses, and they seem like corpses, drinks that once were. Buried now in wash from the Budweiser sign and the ash of generic cigarettes.
He knocks them over as he crushes his cigarette out in the ashtray. He can’t decide if it was an accident or not.
“You sure you’re ready for another?” the bartender asks, looking at the tipped shot glasses. Eight.
There’s a commotion from behind him, and the bartender looks up. Fight at the pool table, or at a regular table, or at the dart board. Doesn’t matter. He is left alone, looking at the tipped glasses, eight of them.
There was a time in his life, he wondered. He wondered about places like this, and about the people inside. Why? How?
He wondered what they did with their lives when they weren’t perched on their barstools, sipping glasses of cheap liquor. He wondered why they would waste money drinking in a bar when they could do the same thing at home.
He wondered that because he never imagined that he would someday be one of them.
He wondered because he thought he would never know.
And he still doesn’t. There are secrets that hide best in smoke-filtered neon, and he wouldn’t ask the others about the things they are here to forget any more than they would ask him.
He lights another cigarette, and waits for the bartender to come back and refill his glass. He almost wishes that the bartender would hurry, but that would require more, something like a spark, something that he lost long ago. Instead, he tips the empty shot glass back and forth between his hands, and waits.
The memories find him, the number was flashing like a beacon. His wife, his mother, his sister. The car smelled of beer and lake and watermelon and smoke. Fourth of July, and they had been at the park, watching the fireworks—setting off their own when the display had too long of a pause—cooking hotdogs on the grill, swimming in the lake. His two children, the first time neither of them had been afraid of the bright bursts or loud explosions.
He didn’t think that he had had too much to drink, but when his wife asked, he decided to hand over the keys, just to play it safe.
He wasn’t drunk. Just wanted to be on the safe side.
Squealing brakes, honking horns, metal crushing and crunching, and screaming and pain.
Burning rubber, black smoke, the scents burrow into his head as he struggles. Consumed hotdogs as his wife screams into his face. Peanut butter, ketchup, sparklers.
Singed hair, and then something like frying meat as his family cooked. Fresh cut grass and dirt, as he fought to crawl from the ditch and save them.
The other car: man wife, child. Daughter. Her name was Stacy. He didn’t remember about the parents. Jane? Anne? Something with an A and an N.
Three in one car, five in the other, it wasn’t his fault, and the logical part of him knows it. But that’s the weakest part of him.
The bartender is back, his question forgotten. He pours another shot, pushes it over, pulls away the bills.
“Make it two.” Have to wash away the number eight.
A solid ca-chunk as the ancient cash register opens, and another as it is slammed shut.
Thoughts, memories, dissipate. There is now. Cheap liquor, greasy in the reflected light, splashed carelessly into a shot glass and pushed over scarred wood, through miniature pools of sloshed alcohol and tiny piles of cigarette ash.
The smell hits first.