Saints and Sinners - A Christmas Fable (Part One of Two)
Saints and Sinners - A Christmas Fable (Part One of Two)
Bill Doherty rocked gently on a bar stool, squinting at bright, neon lights and staring at tables of happy revellers seated around wooden tables. The long, rectangular glass on the wall behind the counter provided a view of those present without having to actually turn around. This made life easier when all you wanted to do was to mind your own business. In the main window a sign flashed with the words “O’Malley’s Restaurant and Bar”. Around it was a string of flashing, fairy lights and a small, plastic Christmas tree adorned with ornaments. The bar was on Bedford Avenue, the longest street in Brooklyn. It stretched from Manhattan Avenue in Greenpoint south to Emmons Avenue in Sheepshead Bay; home to people from all walks of life.
Bill stared into space, looking down occasionally at his half-empty glass. The only bar-tender working filled a tankard with a cloth and ran it around the insides with his hand whilst glancing at the punters in tonight. The place itself was busy but there was just Bill actually seated on the row of stools at the bar looking like a refugee from “Cheers”. The barman looked him up and down – short, cropped hair, square jaw and cobalt blue eyes. This guy was a looker. The stubble around his chin, bags under his eyes and forlorn expression probably aged the man. He tried to guess the occupation of the loner. This was a game he often played internally to interrupt the tedium of his job. Sharp blue suit, creases in trousers, white shirt and wearing a yellow tie. A rain mac was slumped over the next stool. This was a city slicker of some description. Probably in management or something.
“Another?” He asked in his clipped, New York accent. The incessant chatter from Christmas gatherings hummed in the background.
The solitary drinker checked his glass and looked up. He noted for the second time tonight the youth that came with the voice. The young man was wearing a white tee shirt and blue jeans that hugged a tight, muscular body. His face had brown eyes that sat underneath tidy eyebrows, a thin nose and a mouth that was generous in proportion. This kid was probably late teens and had a friendly disposition. He glanced down again and stared at the whorls of wood in the bar counter. Circular impressions left by drinks glasses made an ad hoc trail.
“If you insist. Play it again, Sam.” Sam sounded more like “Sham” as Bill did his impression of Humphrey Bogart.
The barman reached for a clean glass from the ones hanging on hooks and held it under a pump to pour another beer.
“Do you know, I don’t think those are the actual words from the movie? And the name is Ted.” The now named man behind the optics continued pouring the drink, tilting the content towards him to get a decent head of foam.
Bill turned, twisting on his seat, to watch with stoicism the multitude of people at various tables making merry. His gaze took in men wearing Christmas jumpers, women coated in fake snow and excited children of all ages talking, smiling, drunk on the season. It was Christmas Eve, after all. Waiters took orders on tablets and brought meals back to diners in an incessant flow, to and from an unseen kitchen. Seasonal songs played on loop; Michael Buble was schmoozing something about it beginning to look a lot like Christmas.
“I haven’t seen “Casablanca” in a while. I’ll take your word for it. Ted.” The name at the end of his sentence was emphasised to stress he remembered what he had just been told. The banker finished the remaining dregs and ceremoniously placed the empty stein down on the counter.
“The name’s Bill.” He added in a slow drawl. The tone suggested a mild Texan accent; his gentle swaying indicated that this wasn’t his first drink of the day.
“So where ya from, Ted?” This was a standard greeting in the Big Apple although the question was asked in a mildly disinterested way on this occasion.
“I live here in Brooklyn. Yourself?” Ted remained chirpy.
“From Texas originally, moved to Carolina and, of recent, living in an apartment in Little Italy.” Bill shuffled around on his seat as he spoke as though remembering a painful dream. He sounded like a latter day John Wayne.
“Why on your lonesome? Tonight of all nights. You just passing through? Maybe have a party to go to or family to see?” Ted felt concerned. Everyone else in the restaurant was in big groups. It didn’t seem right to be alone so close to Christmas Day.
“Oh thanks for your interest. No it’s not been the best of times of late. My good friend Bud likes to listen.” He smiled thinly at the glass of Budweiser in his hand; the gentle sarcasm not lost at his potential confessional.
“Wanna talk about it?” Ted placed the now clean glass back onto a hasp. Wooden pillars segregated the bar area at regular intervals.
A mother and child hurried past on their way to the toilet.
“I’m not sure you would want to hear my lamentations, my friend.” Bill raised an eyebrow as he took a swig of his drink.
Things had been difficult. His fiancé – Jenny – had left him recently for another woman. He hadn’t seen that one coming. He had known something wasn’t quite right for some time but never thought he would be ousted for a member of the opposite sex. It made him question his manhood, his place in the male order of things. It made him feel loathed and rejected. Little of what he stood for now seemed to have any meaning. If that wasn’t enough, he had messed up spectacularly on a futures transaction in his job at the Bank. He had made the mistake of chasing losses which made the metaphorical hole bigger and bigger. He was now facing disciplinary procedures for operating outside of his mandate. He imagined a scene with himself on one side of a desk and investigators sitting on the other as they tortured him by slowly spelling out the sanctions process and what next steps would follow. He was thoroughly humiliated in the important aspects of his life. And all of this before he had turned thirty years of age.
The night sky was as black as ebony. Snow fell as stars struggled for air time amongst the clouds. Two lights glinted on the horizon. Ancient beings made their way to Earth to either save a man’s soul or watch him extinguish his own life using the paraffin of self-pity. They had played this game for untold millennia. The ongoing struggle of right over wrong, light over darkness and good prevailing over evil. Things were rarely, if ever, so clear cut.
Bill watched as the bar tender glided across to attend to another thirsty patron. He thought about the casual offer of bearing his soul. His life, up until now, had been a mix of highs and lows like most people. He pondered his upbringing; his devout parents who believed in the Bible. He could see their faces, the lectures, the strict moral code, the love they had given him amongst their interpretation of right and wrong. He had loved them; adored them at times. He had left home with an apathetic approach to religion; his aversion a form of railing against the overwhelming overtures of domestic theocracy.
College had provided the grounding he needed to go on and qualify to become an investment banker. He had met his girlfriend at a meeting in work. Jenny was beautiful with her brunette hair, eyes of emerald green and diminutive stature that accentuated her best features. They had started chatted during one of the intervals which led to a date at a coffee house and things went from there. He hadn’t seen the break-up coming; the colder body language in the evenings and the secretive exchanging of text messages with another.
It was late at night, sitting in the darkness at his apartment that Bill had found time to process recent events. He thought about the values he had been taught growing up and he reflected on the fragility of life. Just how long did everyone get before finally shuffling off this mortal coil? How many years? How many days? What if you only had a few hours left? What if you decided to circumvent that remaining span? Would that intervention make much of a difference? What If you literally lost just a day as your name was already written in blood on a one-way ticket to oblivion? All of these thoughts had swished around the bottom of a cut class tumbler of Jack Daniels. Dark ruminations driven by despair. The neurons in Bill’s brain fired, one after the other, making lurid sense out of a desperate situation. And as he sunk lower into the funk, his mind was made up.
The office worker blinked and realised he was back in the present. The offer of talking about what was on his mind was hardly a psychiatrist asking him to lie down on a couch whilst the therapist readied his pencil and notepad. It was just a part of the barkeeper’s code; the one that comes with an obligation to talk to customers and then forget everything that’s been discussed as soon as they leave work. Does anyone really care about the life of a stranger?
“So what are you thinking?” A being emanating light was now floating above the stool to the banker’s left. The voice was soft and light, lyrical in its cadence.
“It’s hard to tell but I think I might be onto a winner tonight.” A demon hovered above the chair to Bill’s right. In contrast, its words came out raspy, gravelly, low and sinister. It was the kind of whispering that came with foreboding, with intention of torment and cruelty. The creature had a dark red, naked torso. Its lower half was woollen legs with cloven hooves. Its head was that of a goat, wispy beard and all, with two small horns protruding from its forehead.
“This man knows kindness. He will repent. He’s not ready to leave this world.” The entity talking to the imp was dressed in a white, night gown. Bare feet poked out from underneath exposed ankles at the limit of the robe worn. It smiled in a gentle way, its face that of an old man with pinched cheeks, vaporous grey hair and kind eyes. It looked a bit like Alastair Sim playing Ebenezer Scrooge in an old black and white movie.
Bill felt a gust of cold air as though someone had just walked in and left a door open. There was nobody there apart from himself and Ted the barman. The man who had come to the bar had been served and promptly re-joined his group. The banker felt something; like he was no longer alone. He now thought he understood the phrase “…like walking over someone’s grave.”
Ted returned and loomed over his only customer.
“So what have you got to tell me? The barman bent forward conspiratorially, grinning.
Bill considered this. He had been drinking for most of the day although he didn’t feel inebriated. He put it down to adopting a constant pace rather than getting carried away.
“Do you ever get to the point where you realise none of it is worth it, Ted? Get to that part of your life where everything’s turned into a shitfest and nothing is a better option than something?” Bill looked Ted straight in the eyes. Ted hadn’t expected that. “All roads run out eventually. Mine has arrived at a terminus. I really should call it a day.” The banker glanced disconsolately at the man opposite. Taking another gulp of beer, he had a look of resignation on his face.
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