Mark took a long sip from his warm whiskey and dropped the glass a few inches from the bar, where it ungracefully made a loud clunk. The remaining whiskey stayed obediently inside, but just barely. The noise hit the dead, still air of the tavern and stopped, managing only to startle a cat sleeping under the bar, who went immediately back to pretending it hadn’t noticed. Rain dripped lazily down the windows and scattered the light from the neon signs that hung in them. Occasionally a pair of headlights went by and illuminated the bar just a bit too much for Mark’s liking, but at this time of night it didn’t happen enough to make him want to leave. His own beat up sedan sat patiently across the parking lot, beckoning him to drive home every time he looked that way, but home was the last place he wanted to be right now. Aside from that, the fuzziness behind his eyes told him he might get in trouble for driving in his condition.
Behind Mark, at a small table, a very drunk and fairly fat man slept leaning against the wall, a half finished beer sitting before him going flat along a forest of empty glasses. A trucker sat close to the front window, drinking spiked coffee and staring at a map like it was a Latin Math Book. He wore a puzzled expression that lapsed every few seconds into a blank stare, which coupled with his dark eyes did nothing to hide his exhaustion. Nor did his map and furtive glances do anything to hide the small tin of amphetamine pills he kept poking at in his shirt pocket. Squinting into the light from the half moon and a few street lights, he planned a route that would get him to Chicago in less than 30 hours, or so he hoped. He’d been awake for 4 days now and he tried not to go over a week.
The bartender sat on a stool near the rows of liquor bottles and sipped coffee himself while reading a newspaper. Mark’s hand sagged from where it held up his chin slowly down to the bar as he got lost in thought. Eventually it reached the ashtray next to him and the cold plastic brought him back to reality. The ash had stained the cuff of his faded blue uniform shirt with his name embroidered on it, but he didn’t care. He would’t need it anymore anyway. He reached for his glass and drained it, this time replacing it a little more quietly. It might have been the liquor or the rain or the silence in the bar, but his mind was clear at the moment and he relished the sensation that he knew was short lived. The bartender looked up at his empty glass.
“‘Nother?” he asked, placing his newspaper down on the bar. Mark nodded. He grabbed a bottle and poured out another three fingers of whiskey.
“What’s keeping ya out this late Mark?” the bartender asked, leaning his forearms on the bar. Mark just shook his head.
“C’mon, what’s got ya so down?” he tried again. His voice was warm and friendly, and it made Mark look up. He could see real worry in the old man’s eyes. He sighed.
“I don’t know, Ed.” he lied, looking deep into his glass. Ed didn’t move.
“Look, I’m alright man. Thanks, but I’m good.” he said, looking up. One corner of Ed’s mouth pulled back, but he didn’t move. Mark sighed again.
“I just…I don’t know if I can do it, ya know.” he said. Ed’s brow furrowed. “It’s…I just…” Mark tried. He sat up, ran him hand over his goatee, and took a deep breath. “It’s hard, you know? Have you ever felt helpless before, Ed?” Mark asked. He’d known Ed for years but never quite considered him a friend. But it was just late enough, he was just drunk enough, and the rain and beaten it’s way into his thoughts in just the right way for him to think it was a good idea to bare his soul to a stranger. He immediately felt like a fool and took a long draught of whiskey. He’d back out and leave, he’d clearly had too much. But Ed nodded, keeping him in his stool.
“You don’t know the half of it. When my niece got sick and I was taking care of her, I felt helpless. No worse kind of helpless either, watching her waste away day by day. Asking me to stop her hurting when it got bad and her mind started to go. Couldn’t do anything. She’d beg me to do something, anything…” Ed said, and a haunted look passed over his face. Mark was surprised and didn’t know how to react, and luckily he didn’t have to. Ed continued. “Feel helpless come time that rent’s due.” he said with a soft chuckle. Ed was surprised by his own confession, and the length he went through to keep Mark there. “And I got a couple regulars come in that drink too much a little too often, seems like they got a problem. But I can’t help them. Folks gotta want help ‘fore you can help them.” he said, shaking his head. He wasn’t sure where he was going with this, but Ed liked having something to talk about. It was rare to find someone to talk to a bartender nowadays, and he liked Mark. He was a good guy, though he’d fallen on some hard times recently.
“Yeah, I get you.” Mark replied with a fake smile. He appreciated Ed’s attempt, but that wasn’t what he meant. Mark felt more alone and sunk further into his whiskey.
“You still ain’t said what’s gettin’ at you though.” Ed continued, though Mark wished he hadn’t. Mark sipped from his glass.
“Just been feeling small, you know.” Mark tried again with no hope of making him understand. “Like I can’t change nothing, it’s all just happening around me, and too me. Like it’s all a part of somethin’ bigger.” Mark said, motioning with his arms. “And I’m not privy to it. Seems like everyone else is, most everyone else at least. They seem like they know what they’re doin’, know how it all works. I’m not keen on the feeling.” The hair on Mark’s neck stood on end. Briefly he was angry, intensely angry, at Ed’s simpleminded inability to grasp the scope of his problem, but it fizzled out quickly.
“Seems to me like a mid-life crisis. I’ve been there.” said Ed as he stood up and poured himself a drink. “There comes a time when you start thinking about the end. Makes you feel all kinds of things, real hard to describe. Can’t really know unless you’ve been there, right?” Ed said with a light nudge of the back of his hand. Mark had been there, but got the feeling that Ed hadn’t been where he was.
“Yeah, yeah…” said Mark, spinning his freshly emptied glass in his hand. “I’m think I’m gonna get going Ed, ‘fore I can’t drive anymore.”
“Sure you can drive now?” Ed asked with a smile as Mark stood up. Mark smiled back.
“Yeah, I’ll be fine.” he convincingly lied. Ed went to collect the fat man’s empty beer glasses. Mark was putting on his jacket when Ed patted him on the back.
“Listen Mark, I know it’s tough for you right now, but I got a feelin’ things are gonna turn around for you real soon. You just don’t know it yet.” Ed said. He held his hand out and Mark shook it, feeling strangely close to tears.
“Thanks Ed, I hope you’re right.” he replied. He turned to leave.
“One more thing.” Ed said, and Mark turned around.
“Before you make any decisions…” Ed paused, staring right into Mark’s eyes. “…before you do anything tonight, you sleep on it. You got a little time, don’t do anything without sleepin’ on it. Especially drunk.” he added with a comical wagging finger. Mark feigned a chuckle.
“I won’t.” he replied as he walked.
“I’ma hold you to that!” Ed called after him, and Mark waved. Ed’s shout woke the fat man and Ed told him it was closing time.
Mark pulled out onto the road and headed home. This late there was no traffic to worry about, or, luckily for him, cops. He couldn’t find anything on the radio and turned it off. Mark kept spiraling down, and the lonely, quiet town didn’t help. He thought about how he’d never escape this place, everything he could have done with his life, and then that no matter what he did, it wouldn’t have meant anything anyway. Not really. An existential weight came bearing down on Mark’s shoulders. His thoughts turned to the morbid and morose. Nihilistic despair began to eat away at him, his troubles grew in his mind, feeding off of his recent sorrow and strife.
Tears leaked from his eyes and his chest seemed to fill with a black sludge that wouldn’t let him breathe or speak. He didn’t sob, he didn’t have the energy. He just aimed his car with deft movements and followed the too familiar route back home while his mind cast itself into the void and sunk for an eternity. He didn’t even try and fight against himself anymore, he didn’t have the will. Some days he would try to force himself to cheer up, but though he might be able to pull hard enough to stop the descent, he couldn’t drag himself back up. Tonight he couldn’t do anything. His car rolled into the driveway. Mark spent 10 minutes in it with the engine off because he couldn’t bring himself to go inside.
He eventually pushed through the front door and made his was to his bedroom. He pulled out a .357 revolver and popped the cylinder out. With slow, trembling hands he slid two rounds into the empty holes and clicked it all back into place. As he stood there, grappling with himself, he thought about what Ed had said. He stared. He thought. He fought against himself and was at a draw. He stood there next to the nightstand forever. Then he thought about Ed again. Ed was an old man, standing alone on the shore of a tiny island with darkness drawing in all around him. But he stood there, waiting, smiling, always ready to help someone else amidst his own tribulations. In the bar, Mark had seen him, really seen him, another human being separated by an infinity of space. There could never be a connection, there weren’t enough words to build a bridge that long, but he was a friendly light in the distance. “Sleep on it” Mark thought. He dropped the gun back at his nightstand next to the phone and sat on the edge of his bed. He light a cigarette, smoked half of it, put it out. He turned and laid in bed staring at the ceiling.
Eventually, he woke. He didn’t remember falling asleep. He sat up and finished his cigarette, letting everything from last night run through his mind. All of that loneliness came rushing back. He reached for his nightstand again. He picked up the phone. He felt better. He felt like he could do one more day.