I had expected that it would be just another agnostic night down at the tavern. The bartender was handing across my order, a quadruple-malt Scotch with bitters, when I noticed the man on my left.
He smelled like a five gallon bucket of moldering hops, but that wasn’t what caught my attention. It was the way he was wearing his grief, like a tee shirt that read ‘GRIEF’ across the front. “Jesus,” I said, “You look awful. Your first one’s on me, if you want.”
“I don’t deserve anything,” he moaned. “I fucked an armadillo and now I have leprosy!”
“It’s called ‘Hansen’s Disease’,” I replied, and turned so he could see my tee shirt, which read, ‘It’s called Hansen’s Disease’ across the front. “C’mon,” I said, “a little drinkeypoo couldn’t hurt.”
“All right,” he assented, looking up. “Gimme a whiskey and Drano.”
The bartender looked at him with contempt. “You screwed one of those big hairy pill bugs and now you want me to make you a drink? Make your own!” With that, he threw down the bar rag he’d been holding and stormed off as if he was leaving.
“Sun spots!” I shouted, and ran behind the bar. I grabbed the absinthe and a couple of thimbles. “Let’s drink!”
“O.K.,” he sighed, and sat down on a stool.
“Y’know, they can treat leprosy now,” I offered. The first dose of antifreeze slid down my throat with a hiss.
“It’s called ‘Hansen’s Disease’,” he said. “And no, goddamnit! I deserve this! I don’t want to be cured, I want to be redeemed!”
“Stop shouting!” I begged him. “That’s too many exclamation points for one quotation.”
“Sorry, pal.” He was contrite. “Cheers.” He tried lifting his drink, but he was clumsy, and when he accidentally struck his ear in the maneuver, it fell off.
“Oh, shit!” He was bellowing now. Patting at the bare side of his head, he seemed on the verge of tears.
“Hey, no crying here, either,” I admonished, and pointed to the sign on the wall that read, ‘Sorry, No Checks.’ I knew I had to say something helpful. “Geez,” I tried, “You must be almost famous. I think Van Gogh did the same thing!”
He turned to me and wailed, “At least his prostitute was human!’
I had a hunch his mood was worsening. “Hey,” I said, “tell me about the funniest thing you ever saw.”
He stopped poking at the bare spot behind his sideburn and brightened a little. “Well, I went to the dog track once,” he began. “Right after I got there, this total stranger came up to me and said, ‘Bet on “Seepage” in the fourth race.’ A little later, the greyhounds came into the chutes for Number Four, but Seepage turned out to be a dachshund with only three legs. Suddenly, I saw the stranger trackside, and he was yelling all kinds of perverted shit. Next thing I know, that dog popped a boner that was longer than all his legs put together, and he bounced on it like a pogo stick all the way to the finish line. He won, and I collected my eleven dollars!” Laughing maniacally, he kicked his feet until one of his shoes caught toe-first in the bar rail, causing everything below that ankle to snap off.
I sensed that this wasn’t the right opportunity to tell him about the time I drank a quart of deer bile and ended up stalking Tim Curry for a week. “Don’t worry,” I offered quickly, “it sounds like you’ll be faster now, anyway.” I wanted to reassure him before he became despondent again.
“Maybe you’re right,” he muttered. Reaching for the bottle, he poured himself another. It was his second, or maybe his fourteenth – I’d lost count. “Shit, it’s not like I was ever the picture of health anyway. Speaking of which, have you got a cigarette?”
“Sure,” I replied. I didn’t smoke myself, but I always carried a pack in case I ran into a five-year-old at the park. I handed him one and he took it, lighting up with the hiccupping candle on the counter.
He took a big drag. “You know,” he began, and pulled his forearm toward the bar, but his lips stuck as it went and tore away, dangling from the filter on its run toward the ash tray.
His exasperation was as evident as ‘Exhibit A,’ but I didn’t care. “Stop smiling at me like that,” I pleaded.
“I’m not smiling at you! I just lost my fucking lips!” His retort was as terse as a tense reply.
“Sorry,” I said weakly. “Say, do you mind facing the other way?”
“Whatever,” he replied, and turned around. There was a hag at the other end of the bar, looking haggard. She looked at him and shouted, “What are you grinning at, goat nuts?”
“Up your clavicle!” he screamed. At that moment, I looked past him and saw that she was rummaging through her purse for brass knuckles.
“Cool it!” I said. “You’re in no condition for a fight.”
“But that’s what bothers me!” He was fuming. “Now, whenever I want to brawl with any old grandma that takes my fancy, I can’t.”
“Hey, man,” I began, “whenever that leprosy gets cleared up, you can scrap with any octogenarian that bugs you.”
“But that’s just it,” he responded. “I don’t want a pill – I want to be purified.”
“Purified?” I asked.
“Cleansed!” he shouted. “When’s the second coming? Where’s the next messiah who will walk on lepers and heal the water?”
Well, I’d been taking Viagra for years and never managed a second coming, so I had to say, “I guess you’ll have to wait.”
“Fuck that! I don’t want to!” he exclaimed, and with that, he slammed his fist down on the bar. It fell off.
By then, my martyr complex was beginning to run in overdrive, and I said, “Here – lemme give you a hand.”