Yeah, I’d have to agree that that’s a pretty disturbing story. But not as creepy as what happened to Tommy, huh? Remember when…oh, you didn’t know about that? No, now that I think about it, I guess Tommy was gone before you started coming in here. I’m surprised the other guys never told you. On the other hand, maybe not.
As a matter of fact, Tommy—the guy I’m talking about—used to sit right where you’re sitting. Back here in the corner, away from the rest of the bar. Just looking things over. I should mention that I only know so much about what happened to him because I’ve got special hearing. I can tune into a conversation occurring anywhere in the bar, shut all other sounds out. They teach us that in Bartending School. Specialized Listening 101, I believe it was called, but don’t quote me. Not to be nosy, you understand. It’s just that it’s profitable for a barkeep to know everything that’s going on in his or her bar. Who’s going to run out on his tab, who is planning to kick whose ass, that sort of thing.
So, about Tommy. I don’t remember his last name. Hmmm—maybe I never knew it. Anyway, Tommy was just a regular guy. Chubby, red hair. Bud bottles. He was, as they say, down on his luck, lost his job probably, but so have half the guys that come in here, right? I mean, what are you doing here in the middle of a Thursday, not that it’s any of my business?
Okay. So, Tommy is sitting here, just like you on a Thursday late in the afternoon, and
this man walks into the bar. What’s that? Sounds like the beginning of a joke? Yeah, it does, doesn’t it? Anyway. This was an older guy, a gentleman, distinguished-looking, too well-dressed for this neighborhood. A beautiful black suit. Not my usual clientele, no offense. His first impression of the place—well, let’s face it, it’s a working-class bar. It’s narrow, dark. A little shabby. I mean, I think we just painted the bathrooms that year, but he wouldn’t have known that, would he?
He looks around. Who was here? Just your hardcore drinkers, I guess. Tommy, Pat, Carlos, Fred, Deke, the usual suspects.
His eyes stop on Tommy. Maybe he sensed something about him. A need, you know? Desperation, whatever. Some people give off a smell or something. Me, I’m immune. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The old gent gives me a nod, almost a bow, then sits down next to Tommy. “Hello,” he says. Tommy looks him up and down, says a quiet hello back. The old guy offers to buy him a drink. Tommy’s wary, but nods Yes. Down on his luck, as I say. “Barkeep!” the old guy says, and snaps his fingers. Now, I was only standing a foot away. And him snapping his fingers like I’m in the next county. Meanwhile this bar is what, twenty feet long? Anyway.
“What are you having?” the old guy asks Tommy. By the way, this gent had a beautiful speaking voice—a weird accent though, not from around here, that’s for sure. Not quite English, not quite American. Mid-Atlantic, I think they call it. Like in the old movies.
“Shot and a beer,” Tommy says.
Now, Tommy wasn’t drinking shots. Not in his budget. But he gives me a look out of the side of his eye and I don’t say anything. They teach us to shut up in Bartender School, too.
The old man’s eyes flicker to the bar in front of Tommy and back, and I could see by the old man’s face that he knew Tommy was lying. But the lie seemed to please him—he smiled, showing a beautiful set of teeth, too nice to be real—and he orders a shot of whiskey and a beer for Tommy and straight gin for himself. He slaps a hundred on the bar. I know what you’re thinking, but it was real. I checked it, held it up to the light right in front of him, even used one of those counterfeit detection pens. I had to walk away to make change—there was barely enough in the till—but I kept tuned in to the conversation. Truth is, I thought the old man might be a scam artist, or worse yet, an insurance salesman.
So, after the drinks are served, the old guy says to Tommy, “Your troubles show on your face, son.”
Tommy looks at him for a second then turns around to see if the other guys in the bar had heard—most of them were sitting at the tables over there. They didn’t seem to be listening, though. As I remember, they were re-hashing that old argument over who would win in a fight—Samantha from “Bewitched” or Jeannie from “I Dream of Jeannie.” I think Pat was saying that their powers were about equal, but that Jeannie would be quicker on the draw since it takes a person less time to blink than to wiggle her nose. Carlos disagreed, and he and Pat were blinking and twitching at each other like they were having a shootout. Looked like a Tourettes convention. Funny the things you remember, isn’t it? Anyway.
“I’d like to make you a proposition, son,” the man says. Uh oh, I thought, listening with my special hearing. Here we go. “I’d like you to sell me something you own, but don’t consider valuable,” he says.
Tommy raises an eyebrow. “Oh, yeah? What’s that?” he says.
Now, the bar gets considerably quieter. I guess the other guys were listening. In fact, I guess it was the definition of what you’d call a kind of “stunned silence.” For a few seconds, only. Tommy is the first to laugh. Then everybody else joins in, including me. Even the old man laughed a little, I think.
“C’mon,” says Tommy, like he knows his leg’s being pulled. He sips his beer. The others are still laughing.
“I understand your reluctance,” the old man says. “But I am willing to pay cash.”
He pulls out a wad of bills. Hundreds. Now, there’s no better way to call attention to yourself in a bar like this than to pull out a pile of money, and all the other guys come rushing over and surround Tommy. I decide it’s time to intervene. “Whoa,” I say. “Put your money away, Mister. These guys are villains and cutthroats. Why, Pat here”—I reach across the bar and grab Pat by the neck— “once killed a convent full of nuns for seven cents.”
Pat plays along. “Yeah,” he says (after I let go of his neck), “they deserved it. Wouldn’t come across. Had to use my machete.”
But the old man is still holding his money in front of him. And Tommy is eyeing it. “Thank you for your interest,” the old man says, “but this is a simple, private business transaction. It should not be of interest to anyone else here.”
Now a few seconds pass during which nobody says anything. Finally, Tommy says, “How much?”
Before the old man can answer, Fred steps forward. He’s our local wise man, you know. Okay, stop laughing. This time he had a good idea. He pulls Tommy aside and he says, “Look here, Tom. Probably this old guy has got lots of money and he obviously wants to give it away to people in need, like you. No offense. I could use a little help myself. He knows some people won’t take charity on account of their pride, am I right? So—he has them sell him something that doesn’t cost anything. That way they can keep their dignity, get it?”
Tommy thinks it over. He turns back to the old man. “Hey, I appreciate the offer, Mister, but—”
“It is not charity, Son,” the old man says. “I intend to keep your reflection for my permanent use.”
“My reflection, like a reflection in a mirror, right?” Tommy says. “You can’t take someone else’s reflection. They’re not—what’s the word? — transferable.” He laughs.
“Let me worry about that. One thousand dollars is the price. It’s non-negotiable, I’m afraid.”
He peels off ten bills and puts them in front of Tommy. Okay, so now the whole bar is involved. Everyone is looking at Tommy looking at the money. “Take it,” says Pat. “Take it,” says Carlos. “Take it,” says everyone else. Except me. I don’t say anything.
“Okay, Mister, if you want to give your money away,” says Tommy, and he grabs it.
The old man smiles. “Very well,” he says. “Please take my hand.” He and Tommy shake hands. The old man chugs back his remaining gin with everybody’s eyes on him. Then he climbs down off his stool and looks at his watch. “Let’s say that the transaction will officially occur at—half past nine then, shall we?” he says. We all look at our watches. Those of us that have watches. It’s a little after six.
“Sure,” says Tommy. “Is that it?”
“Yes. Our business is concluded,” says the old man. He makes his way toward the door.
“Wait a minute!” says Pat. “I want to sell my reflection, too!”
The old man stops, looks Pat up and down. “No thank you,” he says, and walks out. Everybody laughs. Pat’s sort of insulted, you know, but he laughs, too. He looks like he’s about to follow the old guy out, but just then Tommy throws a hundred on the bar and says, “Drinks for the house!” and Pat stops in his tracks. A cheer goes up. Tommy is slapped on the back, and everybody is shouting orders.
“Tommy, I don’t have change for this,” I say.
“Keep them coming till it’s all used up,” he says.
Okay, I’m gonna try and finish this story before it gets too busy. Remind me of where I was. Oh, yeah. Right. Well, it was quite an evening. Those guys were half in the tank already, and now free drinks are flowing. Pat was standing on a table at one point, I remember, exhorting his brother union members to kidnap the CEO’s of all the Fortune 500 companies and give the ransom money to animal rights groups. And Carlos was singing the Honduran national anthem. I always thought he was from Mexico, didn’t you? Anyway.
Everybody is drunk, and I’m trying to keep the place under control. Still, in a way I was glad to see them having a good time. I can’t stand mopey drunks—they make me want to shoot myself. Tommy had switched to brandy, which I didn’t even know he drank, and he looked happy and all, but he wasn’t really joining in.
Before you know it, it’s nine-thirty. Fred is the one who notices. He taps his glass. “Gentlemen,” he says, “I believe it is time.” He says it with a weird accent, and I realize he’s trying to sound like the old gent who bought Tommy’s reflection. A whoop goes up. All the guys run over to Tommy, who’s still at the bar. Now, you see that wall over there? The one with the poster of the girls in bikinis posed in front of an igloo? Well, there used to be a big mirror there that covered practically that whole wall. A fancy gold—well, gold-colored—frame. A mirror makes a small place like this look bigger, more open. That’s a little decorating tip for you. But, it’s beside the point.
So, they pull Tommy right off his stool and drag him over there to see if he still reflects. He’s struggling a little, not too much. Everybody’s laughing. I yell for them to take it easy, but they ignore me. Who was there? Well, Pat, Deke, Carlos and Fred for sure. A couple of other guys too, probably. I was watching Tommy, making sure they didn’t hurt him. So, here’s what happens. They drag him over, like I said, and hold him in front of the mirror. Of course, they’re all looking in the mirror as they do it. And they can see Tommy’s reflection fine, of course, what did you expect? Then, in a second, they all notice the look on his face—in the reflection—and they turn, one by one, to see if it’s there in real life. Which it is.
Well, how can I say this? I did two tours in Afghanistan. I was a cop for twelve years. I never saw any man with a look like that. He is astounded. No, I don’t know—appalled? But mostly, yeah, mostly he is afraid. Extraordinarily afraid. And then his face, well, it sort of—crumples in on itself. He makes a little noise. Like a peep. And then he dies.
Yeah, we all knew it right away. There was no mistake. Nobody says anything. The guys, they lay him down on the floor in front of the mirror, like they want to let go of him as soon as possible. We call the ambulance. And Fred is trying CPR, but we know it’s too late. I put a towel—a clean towel—over Tommy’s face. I couldn’t stand to look at it. After the ambulance takes him away—I think Carlos went with him—the rest of us stand around looking at each other for a while. Then Pat goes to the bar and picks up something, a bottle or something, and heaves it at the mirror, which explodes in a million pieces. After that, I tell everyone to get the hell out. Which they do. Without protest. I clean up and go home. What else was there I could have done?
The next day, the theories are flying. The consensus is that the old guy had hypnotized Tommy to see something horrible when he looked at himself in the mirror, and that Tommy couldn’t take it, that he had a bad heart or something that nobody knew about. Me, I kept my own counsel, as they say. But just between us—well, let’s put it this way: I think I actually know what Tommy saw when he looked in the mirror. He saw the worst thing a person could possibly see when looking at themselves—nothing.
You know, I’m not a philosopher, but it seems to me that being alive is more than just breathing and eating and stuff. There’s an element of willpower. The will to keep living. In other words, you have to believe in the fact of your existence. When Tommy looked in that mirror, he had just a little bit of doubt, and the nothingness rushed in.
Okay. Anyway. That’s it. You want another drink, or what?
James W. Morris has published dozens of short stories, humor pieces, essays, and poems in various literary magazines, and worked for a time as a joke writer for Jay Leno. His first novel, RUDE BABY, was recently published, and is available worldwide. More info at www.jameswmorris.com.