After having just moved to a new city, I was too weary to prepare dinner after having unpacked for the last eight hours, so I walked down the street to the nearest bar, and upon entering, heard roaring laughter, and an old man yell “it was his sister!” There was a smattering of applause and the large group broke up. The old man remained at the table, and it wasn’t long before a new group surrounded him for another story. I sat alone across the bar from him the entire night. I watched him as he related story after story. Although his words told the story, his eyes communicated it, communicated the humor, passion, and love lingering beneath each story. Like a transfusion of blood, memories, feelings, and thoughts passed through his eyes into the heart of the listener.
The bartender raised his voice calling in a friendly way, “last call,” and everyone began to leave. The old man, who had been the heart and soul of the bar was the last one to leave, but he left alone. For all the friends he had made through the night, his journey home was one of solitude.
The next day passed slowly, and I decided to call it an early day and headed back down to the bar. Once again, I entered the bar to uproarious laughter, and once again the old man was at the center of it. I took the same seat I had last night directly across from this congenial old man and his patrons. When the bartender brought out my food and drink, I asked who the old man was.
“To be honest, no one knows. He’s been here every night for the last week. Gets here at seven leaves at two.”
“You don’t even know his first name?”
“Nope, he’s never bought a drink from me.”
“So, he just comes in every night and talks, and you let him?”
“Oh no, he drinks – too much if you ask me – but everyone who comes in buys him a drink, besides running a bar, you’re bound to get a vagabond or two.”
As the bartender left, I turned my full attention to this enigma of a man. Who was he? Where did he come from? Why did he spend night after night in the same bar? My reverie was broken by some patron yelling “tell the story of the woman who turned you down!”
“Fine, fine but I need a shot to numb my shame,” he said in a sadly playful manner. Before he had finished his declaration he had three shots in front of him, and he downed them all in succession. “It was about thirty five years ago, and I was with some old buddies at a bar, just like this one actually. And . . . in walks this beauty, now boys sometimes a woman can walk in who is so beautiful, you lose control of your body, but sometimes – and these are the rare times – a woman walks in and you lose control of your soul. Her gait was slow and steady, and her arms lightly waved back and forth as she walked, and those eyes . . . oh those eyes. She looked over at our table and I felt a pin needle prick my heart; she looked right at me.” The women surrounding him swooned, and the men shook their head in disbelief.
He continued on, “she sat down, and my friends and I bickered back and forth who would get to go up there and talk to the pretty lady. Haha,” he gazed at the ceiling thoughtfully, “we made some ridiculous promises, but I told the boys, I said ‘you let me talk to this girl, I’ll do everyone’s laundry for a month, pay for dinner and the drinks tonight, and concede any other girl that may ever walk through this bar to one of you gents, if only you let me talk to her.’” He paused for a moment, pondering that night, “I don’t know why they gave into me, maybe it was because they wouldn’t have to do their laundry for a month, but I think it was because they saw that look in my eye, the kind of look that is so intense it shoots shivers down your spine.” I may have been mistaken, but I thought as spine dribbled off his tongue, he looked me directly in the eye before continuing with the story.
“So I walked up, I said ‘excuse me ma’am, but can I buy you a drink and maybe offer some company?’ She nodded her head in agreement, and right as I was about to sit down, she said, ‘I meant you can buy me a drink.’”
“Woah, that’s cold, what did you do?”
“He won’t tell, he never tells that part of the story.”
While his avid listeners bickered among themselves and pleaded with him to tell the rest of the story, I thought I saw his eyes began to water up and one lonely tear trickle down his face. He quickly wiped it away, downed a shot of whiskey, muttered something to himself and said “okay, okay, if everyone promises to be quiet, I’ll finish the story.”
Silence filled the entire bar, and every single listener drew in as close as possible, stepping on each other’s toes, and breathing down each other’s necks. I listened from afar clutching my beer in rapture while my food silently cooled.
“I was shocked to say the least, but part of me knew I would be shut down. She was a proud woman, she wouldn’t become some man’s wife. A man would become her husband. So, I left, I went home, picked up my Jackie DeShannon record and record player, picked up some sunflowers, came back to the bar, put the record on and serenaded her in front of the whole bar . . . including her boyfriend.”
There was an eruption of laughter. “Her boyfriend?”
“Well, it seems she rejected me because she was already involved, but when I walked up to her sunflowers in hand and looked her dead in the eye, everyone else disappeared. One of those moments that last for hours, you know?” Even the stalwart men wiped their misty eyes as he concluded his story. However, unlike his natural custom, he took off after his story instead of staying until close.
As I lay in my bed that night, I was baffled by this romantic old man. Why had he refused to tell that story? Why did the telling of that story make him leave? A man, loved by all, was brought to the edge by a simple story.
After tossing and turning, all night – I started my first day at the new accounting firm. I was introduced to a couple of the partners, shown to my seat, and put directly to work. Crunching numbers incessantly, my mind continued to wander to that old man so filled with passion. When my lunch break finally came, I realized that I had spent too much time daydreaming and not enough time working, so I resolved that I would push this man out of my head for the rest of the day, and I would return to the bar tonight and figure out his story.
I entered the bar and took my normal seat, but the laughter was missing, and after looking around for a few minutes I realized that the old man who had been plaguing my mind all day was nowhere to be found. When the bartender brought over my beer, I asked him whether or not the man had been in – he hadn’t. I solemnly sipped a couple beers, and he still hadn’t arrived. The bar was crowded as ever, but there wasn’t as much laughter and the bar felt colder in the man’s absence. I walked to the bar to pay my tab when I noticed a beautiful girl sitting at the counter. Her sleek blonde hair played off her dark blue eyes in a way that made her eyes seem deep, penetrating almost, like behind those eyes led some secret – a secret you could spend eternity swimming in to figure out. She playfully flipped back her hair and smiled as the bartender brought her a dry martini.
A man came up to her and began flirting with her. I couldn’t hear what they said, but I could tell she was not the man for her. His recitation of zodiac routines was too childish for her, a woman like that could only be won over with a spontaneous overflow of emotion coursing directly from your heart.
“Hey . . . hey . . . yo buddy, you cashin’ out?”
“Oh yeah, sorry.”
I paid my tab and started my short walk home. It wasn’t long before the old man crept back into my mind. Where was he tonight? Did he get hurt? Since his secret story had been told had he found a new bar? Was he still alive? This last thought unsettled me, my body shivered against the thought. The involuntary motion broke me from my daze, and I noticed the decaying trees around. Not a leaf left, instead the trees were adorned with mounds of soft snow. I felt a soft pat on my nose and looked it up; it had begun to snow. As I trudged home, it occurred to me that in a couple of hours my tracks would disappear into the fresh-falling snow and the proof I had made this march home would disappear – like the old man, not a trace left behind.
I stepped to my apartment, turned the key, and went in. I took off my shoes and started a fire. The fire melted away the feelings of morbidity the weather had brought on, but I was unable to shake the nagging idea of what had happened to the old man. Thinking about the old man, I began getting ready for bed and flipped on the TV.
“What is it you want, Mary? What do you want? You-you want the moon? Just say the word and I’ll throw a lasso around it and pull it down. Hey, that’s a pretty good idea. I’ll give you the moon…Well, then you could swallow it. And it’ll all dissolve, see. And the moon beams that shoot out of your fingers and your toes and the ends of your hair…”
It’s a Wonderful Life, in the rush of the move I had lost track of time. It was December 23. The old man was probably home with his family; his wife, his children, and his grandchildren . . . with this my mind was finally put at rest and drifted off into a restful sleep.
Preparing for work, I tried to think of what I would do for Christmas Eve. I hadn’t had time to become friends with anyone to spend the holiday with and there was no going back home. Home, what an idea. Sleeping on a cot every night with other unwanted strangers every night, sharing a bathroom with hundreds of other kids.
After work, I decided I would go to the bar for dinner. There would be people there – the bars are always filled on holidays with those trying to fill the natural abyss created by the absence of love. I got home, showered, and left the apartment. The sun was resting near the edge of the horizon and the faint orange glow against the desolate white background created an emotional dichotomy I was unequipped to solve.
Still battling with the effects of the sunset, I entered the bar and walked to my normal seat.
“Surprised to see you here tonight, do you want the usual? If not, we got a turkey sandwhich special goin’ on, for the holidays you know?”
“That’ll be fine.”
My head sunk into my hands, and tried to think of time when I wasn’t alone on Christmas when all of sudden I heard a familiar jovial voice. It was the old man. How come he wasn’t home with his family? As much as I wanted to know the answer to the question, it was impossible to ask, he was on a roll tonight.
“So three guys are stranded out in the middle of the ocean when they see this golden lamp floating in the water. One of the guys picks it up and says ‘hey I think that’s a Genie lamp,” so he rubs it and out comes a genie who says, ‘I will grant you each one wish,’ so the first guy says ‘I want to be in New York City eating a beautiful Christmas Eve dinner with wife,’ poof he’s gone, the second guy says ‘I want to be in Las Vegas with a couple of ho, ho, hoes poof he’s gone, and the third guy starts to cry and says ‘It’s gettin’ kind of lonely here, I wish those guys would come back.”
Amid the laughter he ran to the grand piano, dusted it off and broke into song. Soon the whole bar was caroling along with old man. As I sat at the table and watched, I noticed how this old man brought Christmas to all of these lonely souls. It all made sense, he left his family for the night to bring Christmas to the less fortunate and who could hold it against him to have some free eggnog.
After last call, I didn’t want to go home, so I followed the old man out of the bar. I walked far enough behind, so that he couldn’t see me in the pale moonlight, but close enough that I could follow him. He turned to the left, traveled fifteen blocks turned left again, and walked another fifteen blocks. After the second left turn he began speaking to himself in a slurred tongue.
“The curfoo tolls the knell of parting day, the low, low, lowing herd winds slowly over the lea, the ploffman homeward plods his worry way, and leaves the werld to darkness and to me!”
He staggered into a graveyard. For all his wavering, his path was deliberate – he knew exactly where he was going.
“The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power, and all that booty, all that wealth ever gave, awaitsss like the inebitable hour: the pass of glory lead but to the grave.”
Swaying in the moonlight, his body silhouetted a midnight wanderer. He peered down to one grave.
“Perhaps in thisss neglated spot is laid some heart once pregnant with celessstial fire; handsss, that the rod of empire might have swayed, or waked to ecstasy the living lyre.”
Bobbing up and down playfully, he continued through the graveyard. At this time, his behavior was beginning to frighten me, and I was about to step out of the shadows and address this lost, weary old man; he came to an abrupt stop in front of two graves side by side. Gently kneeling down in the silent night, his knees cracked, and tears flew from his face like an uncontrollable flood. Laying down, he fingered each of the gravestones and let out a tearful lament, “some village-Hampden, that with dauntlesssss bweast the little tywent of his fields withstood, some mewt inglorioussss Milton here may rest, some Cromwell, guiltlesssss of hiss country’ssss blood. Here restsss his head upon the lap of Earth a youth to Fortune and to Fame unknown.”
The pain of the last syllable echoed on his face. The pain was so powerful his face collapsed in between the two headstones. I slowly walked up to the old man, and bent down placing two fingers on his neck, but I knew before I checked – there was no pulse. In the old man’s fall a black wallet loosened from his pocket – inside was a driver’s license. The man’s name was Walter Quinn. After rifting through his wallet some more, I found a few movie tickets from over ten years ago and pictures of the most beautiful woman I had ever seen, holding a boy of no more than twelve.
Almost pained to look, I read the names on gravestones: Helen Quinn and Will Quinn.