“There ya go. First one’s on the house … you look like you could use it”.
The haggard man blinked and shook his head, as if coming up for air from somewhere deep within himself. After looking at the beer for a long time as if it was the most welcome thing he’d ever seen, he looked up at Earl.
Earl was an innocuous sight at a little under five feet, though weighing in at nearly three hundred pounds. Santa Clause hair spilled out of his face and ran up to hide under a worn, woolen beanie. Like jolly old Saint Nick, Earl also had a kind twinkle in his eye.
“What’s the problem, stranger?”
The haggard man leaned back on his stool as if to get his brain around just why this man was being so kind to him. After all that had happened to him lately, he wondered what possible interest the bartender could have in …
… but then he managed a half-hearted smile and realized he was in the place to talk about his problems. Hell, the man behind the bar probably did nothing but listen to people’s problems, day in, day out; strangers pouring out their sorry tales to him.
It maybe even helped a little.
So the haggard man began, thankful the bar was empty, with the exception of himself and Earl; thankful it was so far off the main road that nobody was likely to come in while he let it all out, for that matter.
During it all, Earl merely listened, nodding occasionally as if he had, indeed, heard it all before. The haggard man took solace in this: If his problems weren’t as unique as he thought, he didn’t feel quite so alone with ‘em.
The beer flowed for a good hour or so, and the haggard man – though still haggard – felt at least a little less burdened, having unloaded his woes; no closer to a solution, but a little better.
The beer was obviously going some way towards that. And it awoke a hunger in the haggard man.
“Say, Earl”, for they were now on a first-name basis, “you got anything stronger than beer?”
The corner of Earl’s mouth moved towards the twinkle in his eye, and he began nodding again.
“Yep … I reckon there’s something stronger out the back …
… you wanna come out and help me look for it?”
As if it were the best offer he’d had in a long while, the haggard man climbed down none-too-steadily from his stool and headed for the doorway Earl was gesturing towards.
Earl just nodded, moving towards the door himself, though pausing until the haggard man had gone through.
The room was dark – a pokey little storeroom – and Earl made no effort to find a light switch. What little light fell through from the bar illuminated only kegs of beer, shelves of something in glass bottles and wooden boxes …
… wooden boxes of something possibly better than beer … ?
“Look over the back there”.
Earl’s voice seemed close.
“What am I looking for?”
In a movie, the haggard man would have heard Earl say something like, “You’ll know it when you see it”, before he saw what he saw. Truth be told, even if Earl had shouted something like that at him, the haggard man wouldn’t have heard it: Blood was pounding in his ears in time to his heartbeat like some sort of wet bass drum.
A sudden inhalation stopped the tattoo as something stabbed into the space between the haggard man’s third and fourth vertebrae. An instant later, he was on the floor.
Knowing nobody would be by, Earl set to work. As he began cutting away, he looked up at the bottles, to the last thing the haggard man had seen …
… and spoke.
“Yep … another Sad Sack tonight. Whining to me like he’s the only one in the world with problems. As if I’m supposed to listen to everyone else’s problems when there’s nobody to listen to mine … ”
As he settled in for a long night of talking about his problems to the only ones who would listen, Earl finished his grisly job and rinsed his trophies under the sink, before adding the haggard man’s ears to his collection.
Copyright © 2008 by David Scott Aubrey
All Rights Reserved
This short story is a work of fiction. Any and all names, characters and/or incidents are either products of my imagination or are used fictitiously. Where any such resemblance may exist to actual persons (living or dead), actual events or locales, it is purely coincidental.
Please don’t assume that my characters speak for me or carry my own opinions on various matters in any way, shape or form (though some might – you never can tell).