“Bring your beer over to that booth in the back, Bert,” said Bert’s old friend, Eddie.
Now, it was true that Eddie was an old friend of Bert’s. But up until he walked in the door, he was an old dead friend.
Bert had gone to high school with Eddie. During, and after high school, they partied with a group of friends on weekends through the late-sixties and into the early-seventies. Then they all became sorta responsible adults with houses and families and didn’t hang out together that much. It happens.
Eddie died of brain cancer about twenty years ago, so Bert was more than a little surprised when he showed up at the little neighborhood bar Bert had gone into to read and have a couple of pints. Bert was on vacation in Chicago and had wandered a few blocks from the Michigan Avenue hustle and bustle to this dark little hole-in-the-wall.
“Eddie, how can this be you?” Bert said, pointing at Eddie’s chest. “You look like you’re about twenty something.”
“Yeah, and you look like you’re about seventy something,” Eddie said with that infamous Eddie smirk. “Back booth.”
Actually, Bert had just turned sixty-nine the previous December, and while he now did more reading than running, he was in pretty good condition. For an old guy.
They sat at the booth with their beers and Bert just stared at Eddie. “You’re not really…you know, not really real, are you? I’m just havin’ some kinda psychological…”
Eddie put his elbow on the table in front of Bert, arm and hand raised in the air. “Arm wrestle?”
This was the Eddie Bert remembered. To him, every challenge was met with a challenge in response. Most often a physical challenge.
Eddie motioned for Bert to grab his hand. He did, of course, because Eddie was never to be denied. After a brief struggle, Eddie slammed Bert’s hand onto the table.
“That seem real to you?” he said, watching as Bert rubbed his sore knuckles.
“Okay, assuming I’m not gonna wake up in my bed in a few minutes puzzling over a weird dream, how are you here, Eddie?”
“Kinda Twilight Zone. Time travel and stuff like that.”
“Come on,” Bert said. “We were teenagers when we watched that show. It was a great show, but it was science fiction. What happened on that show was the product of some really fine imaginations, but it wasn’t real.”
“I’m gonna go see Inez. Heard she got married,” Eddie said ominously.
“You guys were divorced for ten years before you…died. Why shouldn’t she remarry?”
“You died, Eddie. But anyhow, back to what we were talkin’ about. You got here by using a time machine?”
“It’s not a machine, exactly. You have to use your mind. Think real hard, ya know?”
“No, Eddie, I don’t know. How could you use your mind to get to this bar now, at this time, twenty years after you died?”
Bert’s voice had gotten a little loud and the bartender looked over to see what was up. Bert gave him the thumbs up and figured that considering what they were discussing, he should keep it a little quieter.
“I’ve been back since the day I died, Bert. When I knew I was dyin’, I just wished really hard that I could be anywhere else than where I was. I just kept wishin’ it, over and over, and…”
“That’s impossible, Eddie. You can’t just wish you can be someplace else.”
“And yet, here I am.”
A young woman with multiple tats and piercings walked over to their booth from the bar. “I just got a call and have to leave. Would one of you like my beer?”
Bert looked at Eddie and Eddie looked at him.
“Sure, fine, we’ll take it,” Bert said.
“Well, I just got it and it’s almost full,” she said.
“Oh, right. Here ya go,” he said as he gave her a five.
“Thanks. May The Taker pass you by until you’re ready,” she said and walked out of the bar.
“Now that was odd,” said Bert.
“It’s Happy Hour,” said Eddie. “Beers are four bucks and that one’s only half full.”
“So, ya gonna drink that?”
The bartender came over and stood by their booth. “Ya gonna drink that?” he said.
“Nope,” Bert said again.
“That’s good. It probably has some other-worldly stuff on the rim. From her, ya know,” he said, furrowing his brow.
“No, I wouldn’t have guessed that,” Bert answered.
The bartender sighed, picked up the glass and walked back behind the bar where he made a little ceremony of dumping the pint down the drain.
“So, why’d ya give her five bucks if ya weren’t gonna drink it?” asked Eddie.
“Cuz I had the five bucks and I didn’t want to embarrass her.”
“People who come up to people they don’t know in strange bars with strange requests deserve to get embarrassed,” said Eddie. “And, ya know, the bartender seemed to know something about her.”
“Yeah, they both sounded like a characters out of a horror story, didn’t they.”
Why were they talking about the bartender and that weird young woman? Why weren’t they talking about Eddie not being dead anymore? Bert thought they seemed to be having trouble keeping the conversation on track. It seemed to bounce from one thing to another without ever really finishing one line of thought.
He no longer thought he might wake up from a puzzling dream. The situation was certainly dreamlike, but there was too much detail. He was pretty sure he was having some sort of hallucination. Maybe a mental breakdown.
“So, back to you not bein’ dead. If you “came back” at the time you died, where’ve ya been?”
“I wished I could be anywhere but where I was and I wound up thirteen years old in a reform school out East. Except for three or four escapes, I was there until I turned eighteen and then they cut me loose.”
“Was it three or four escapes?”
“Well, one of them I was only gone for about ten minutes, so I don’t count it as a solid one.”
Bert was thinking about how that was perfect “Eddie” logic and he was also thinking that they were about to wander off track again. He would have to steer them back on.
“What about records like birth certificates, Social Security numbers, and hey, what about death records? You must have left a dead body in the hospital.”
“I died, you haven’t seen me in twenty years, I show up at a bar you chose randomly, and you want to talk about paperwork?” said Eddie, raising his eyebrows.
Bert thought about that for a bit. Was it Eddie who kept sending the conversation in different directions, or was he doing it himself? He thought about using the excuse of going to the restroom and maybe sneaking out the backdoor, assuming there was a back door in this place.
Eddie smiled at Bert like he had just read his mind. “I’m gonna go see a man about a horse.”
He got up and headed for the restroom. Now Bert had a choice to make. Should he just get up and leave? Try and pretend like the whole thing never happened?
“He won’t be back, if that’s what you’re wondering,” said the bartender. He had come up silently to the booth while Bert was considering his next move.
“What do you mean?” asked Bert. “Why wouldn’t he come back?”
“He’s like the nymph who gave you the beer. He’s not entirely…here.”
“I’m guessing by ‘here’ you don’t mean in this bar, but like he’s not really real.”
“Oh, he’s as real as I am,” said the bartender. “He’s just not where he should be. He’s lost. His kind pass through here quite often. This is kind of a combination portal and safe house.”
Bert looked around and saw that since the weird woman and Eddie had gone, he and the bartender where the only ones in the place.
The bartender brought out a large kitchen butcher knife from behind his back and held it in front of Bert in a ceremonial sort of fashion.
“In order to continue to exist in this realm, I must from time to time provide a sacrifice. Nothing personal, you understand.”
Bert was trapped in the booth. He crossed his arms over his face in a defensive manner and wished he could be someplace else–any place else. He shut his eyes and wished it even harder as the bartender plunged the knife into the top of his skull.
“Did ya hear the news? Eddie escaped again. Come on, some of the guys are gonna see if there’s any chance we can sneak out in the confusion. Ya game?”
Bert looked at the drab, institutional green colored walls and the rows of tables and folding chairs making up what appeared to be a lunchroom. He looked at his hands and saw that the liver spots were gone from them and his loose wrinkly skin was firm again. He felt better than he had in years.
“Hell ya, I’m up for it,” he said, youthful adrenaline coursing through his body. “Let’s see if we can blow this pop stand.”
Roy Dorman is retired from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Benefits Office and has been a voracious reader for over 60 years. At the prompting of an old high school friend, himself a retired English teacher, Roy is now a voracious writer. He has had fiction and poetry published in Black Petals, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, Yellow Mama, Flash Fiction Press, Theme of Absence, Shotgun Honey, Near To The Knuckle, One Sentence Poems, and a number of other online and print journals. Roy is currently the submissions editor at Yahara Prairie Lights.