Charlie Phelps staggered out of The Happy Hour, drunk again and ostracized by all those who had come to despise him. Because it had become a rather vile habit for Charlie to get rip roaring polluted and violent. Angry at the people who kept telling him he'd "had enough", and furious at the infringements they made on his passtime of choice. What right did they have to tell Him he couldn't drink?
Stumbling down the street toward his house, Charlie felt only bitterness toward the world and everyone in it. No one understood. Was there really anything so terribly wrong with drinking? It made him feel good. And his Dad always said, 'son, if it feels good, do it'. And Lord knew his Dad had always done it-AND HOW. True, sometimes Dad did bad things when he did it a lot, but most of the time he was just a big, jolly laughable drunk. A carefree spirit.
Dad. He smiled...and remembered.
Suddenly a flash toward his east and the crack of thunder. He looked up into the sky at the forks of light flickering through the thick overcast and saw it looked like angry weather. The deep gray storm clouds were moving in over the horizon.
He fumbled and pulled the tab of his zipper all the way up under his chin. He threw the hood of the windbreaker over his head, socked his hands in his pockets and quickened his faltering gait, looking something like a broken marionette as he scampered underneath the threatening sky.
Slivers of faint raindrops pierced down at him like tiny razors, the cold iciness of them stinging against his warm skin. It seemed to begin to downpour all at once. Hard water jetted from the sky like angry locusts and pelted the ground, bouncing off the pavement like beebees.
Mind soaked with booze and body drenched, he doddered off balance. His feet skidded on the slick pavement and he crumbled brokenly to the
ground, his head impacting sharply on the pavement. Things suddenly went black and then he...
Awoke to a tug. Or not so much a tug as a pull, as if someone were pulling him up from the ground-helping him up from when he'd fallen down. He felt himself standing on his own two feet and looked up. When he did he was eyeball to eyeball with a plump, jovial looking man wearing old fashioned round, wire rimmed spectacles and a handlebar mustache.
"Be careful, my friend. That be quite a spill you took," said the jolly, round-figured man with speckled gray hair and pleasant ruddy cheeks.
"Who are you?" asked Charlie, dumbfounded.
The happy fat man seemed to ignore his question and posed one of his own.
"Sakes alive, you really tied one on that time, didn't you?" he growled with a delightful ribbing.
The plump man promptly began dusting him down, brushing at his shoulders and then patting him gently at the side of either forearm.
"But you're okay now," said the man. "Good thing I was nearby, laddy." He turned and then strode away behind the bar at the front of the room.
Charlie looked around, incredulously. It must be a dream, he thought, reassuring himself.
As he looked around he realized that he was in an old fashioned saloon. The decor seemed to be something of around the time of circa late eighteen hundreds. Up front there was a full length bar mirror with twirling frosted designs in the corners and wooden shelves laden full of an assortment of glinting bottles. The bar itself seemed ornate, yet rustic with small intricacies carved into its heavy redwood. Finely polished brass bars ran along the foot of the bar, and what looked like red leather stools scored across the front of it.
Behind him there were low, heavy wooden tables with knurled claw feet and flanked around with antique looking lyre backed chairs. More mirrors and black and white pictures endowed the rear wall as well as oil burning lamps hanging above each of the tables and in all corners of the room. There was also a narrow high backed player piano in the corner and a small, velvet covered swivel stool tucked underneath it.
The whole place was alive with the roar of laughter, singing, talking and even some screaming. Clouds of smoke filled the room as well as the biting scent of gunpowder. The smoke stung Charlie's eyes somewhat before he got used to the wafting haze. He looked down at himself and was stunned to find that he was wearing clothes of the time period instead of the cheap K-Mart sport coat and windbreaker he had had before.
Still half delirious, he assumed it must be a dream. But it felt so-so real! He strode to the front of the room past grim looking card players smoking and chewing tobacco. He reached the jolly bespectacled bartender who was shining his cherub grin at him, but before he could open his mouth the barkeep dug into the throes of happy conversation again.
"Aye, Mr. Phelps. How may I help you, sir? I do hope you're all right from that little fall of yours."
Charlie's words caught and lodged in his throat like wooden blocks. How did this guy know his name? He was getting spooked. Still he had to find out where he was and how he got here.
"Iya..." he stammered. "I don't quite know how to say this, but where am I? And who are you?"
The bartender was jolted a little by the way he jerked back noticeably at this statement.
"Why, Mr. Phelps if that isn't a ridiculous question then I don't know what."
"Never mind how ridiculous it is, just give me a straight answer!" said Charlie, his brittle ire fraying.
"Why, you're in O'Hare's friendly neighborhood saloon, and I'm Mickey O'Hare, your humble bar-keep. Don't you know me?"
"No," said Charlie, dubiously. "Should I?"
"Why yuv only been comin in for as long as I can remember."
"I've been coming in here?"
"Well, not at first. At first you were just an occasional, but in the recent past you've become a regular regular, if you'll pardon the redundancy."
Charlie thought a moment. It must be a joke. Yeah, some of his warped buddies thought this would be good for a hoot and...
His train of thought broke away.
"Look, tubby," said Charlie, snatching a bunch of O'Hare's button down shirt, "if this is some sort of a gag that those no account friends of mine set you up to I'm gonna get mighty unpleasant!"
"No-no-no!" insisted O'Hare, waving his hands in front of him alarmingly. "I swear it's no joke. I swear it!"
Charlie's stern hand went limp, letting the shirt unfurl away from his grip. Suddenly the anger seemed to drain out of him. It couldn't be a joke. No one would go to such elaborate lengths just for a gag. It had to be a dream-or a delusion. Maybe he rattled something upstairs when he struck his head on that pavement. Maybe this was all a delusion, if not a pleasant one. He always did have a penchant for the old west.
"I'm sorry," he said softly, not fully looking at O'Hare. "I lost my head a little there. It's just that I don't quite know what to make of this." He paused and rubbed the back of his head with his hand. "I think I got a headache, too."
"Quite all right, sir. How's about havin yee a little drink ta furget yer problems?" said O'Hare in a thick Irish brogue.
Charlie looked tempted at the bottle of whisky O'Hare had brought up from behind the bar.
"Yeah, that sounds good. Maybe it'll help get rid of this headache of mine."
O'Hare smiled genially, withdrew a shot glass and poured out a shot for Charlie. Handing it to him, he said, "Here's to many happy returns of the day and a quick convalescence of what ails ya!" Charlie snatched it from his hand like a greedy animal and eagerly swung it down his throat.. No coughs or fits. It went down smooth and felt good.
"That'll do ya, sir." said O'Hare.
"Tell me," said Charlie, setting the shot glass up on top of the bar. "What exactly do you do here?"
"Oh, clean up the bar, check the take for the day. But mostly I just serve the liquor."
"Folks do a lot of drinkin 'round here?"
"Aye, sir. They do a LOT of drinking. Sometimes I worry if I have enough supply to fill the demand. But things usually spread out okay."
"Anyone ever get thrown out for drinking too much?"
"Saints and angels no, lad," said O'Hare adamantly. "Why that's what the whole purpose of owning a saloon is for: so's folk can drink as much as they want!"
"No one even been kicked out for fighting-or rowdiness?"
"A little fight is good for the soul is what I always say, sir" said O'Hare, smiling pleasantly with a grin that seemed to grow broader by the minute.
"Good. I'm glad to hear that, Mick. I really am," he paused a moment to survey his surroundings. "Got any activities around here, Mick-besides drinking I mean."
"Of course. Now let's see," he said, rubbing thoughtfully at his chin. "We got a poker game running in the back, a chug a lug contest later this afternoon, followed up by Sallee Ann's piano singing-you won't want to miss that-and dancing girls tonight."
Charlie grinned wide and nodded slow.
"Well, that's quite a line up ya got there." He turned and shot a glance toward the gruffly hunching figures at the poker table and said, "Think I'll try my hand at a few hands-if YOU'LL pardon the redundancy."
O'Hare grinned and laughed lightly.
Charlie began away, but O'Hare's hand suddenly snatched at his wrist.
"One word of warning, sir. It might be a wee bit wise to steer clear of Lightening Sam Stoltz, if ya know what I mean. He don't like losin and as you could probably guess by his name, he's a pretty fair shot."
"Is that so?" said Charlie.
"Drop a man dead as a doornail at five hundred paces."
"I'll bear that in mind."
He began away again and was halted again.
"And sir." said O'Hare with a definitively serious look upon his face. "A respectable gambler wouldn't be caught dead at a poker table without a drink."
Charlie smiled and leaned over the bar.
"A nice cold beer," said O'Hare, filling a mug with fresh draft and a healthy head of froth. With perfect graciousness he handed the foam dripping mug to Charlie who blew off the froth, winked and said, "You think of everything, dontcha, Mick?"
"Aye, sir," O'Hare nodded, pleased to serve.
Charlie sauntered away from the bar and over to the poker table where the rough looking men gladly greeted him into their game. O'Hare began wiping down the bar, his smile growing suddenly wan as he muttered to himself: "Tubby indeed!"
He was having one hell of a time, and he could hardly believe it. No nagging wife or idiots like at The Happy Hour. O'Hare's joint was a first class operation all the way. He'd been at the poker table, winning a little and losing a lot, and getting slowly but surely smashed out of his skull. By the time he was done he had lost nearly all of what he had. It had all been in gold coins that seemed to magically appear in his pocket. He had forgotten about the way money used to be. He'd blown a lot, but was still having fun.
An elder gentleman with stalks of long gray bristly hair and a sandpapery shadow of a beard sat across from him, delightedly counting up his winnings while he whistled through gapped front teeth.
"Heh-eh-eh, pleasure doin business with ya, sonny," rasped the old timer merrily as he raked in his chips.
"WHY YOU CHEATIN LITTLE SNAKE IN THE GRASS, I'LL FIX YOU TO SCREW WITH ME!" came a braying eruption from the end of the room.
Throngs of heads shot up at attention.
It was Lightening Sam Stoltz, rocketing out of his seat so fast that the chair he sat upon toppled over in back of him with a wooden thud to the floor. Deadly rage shot from his protruding eyes as he pulled his six shooter out of his holster and proceeded to shoot the man he was directing his anger at.
BANG! came the sound of the gun, like a loudly popping party balloon. And the force of the shot thrust the man back, knocking him out of his chair and crumbling him to the floor, like a tired rag doll. His face constricted in tight agony as he grappled at the profusely bleeding wound in his shoulder where Lightening had shot him.
"Yuh-ooo shot me," groaned the man in a weak, strangled voice.
"Consider yerself lucky I didn't KILL ya!" snarled Lightening as he blew the smoke off the end of his gun, twirled it around his finger a few times and then promptly replaced it into its holster.
"Done reckon old Lightening lost again," said the elder man who had cleaned out Charlie. The other men around him smiled and then they all let out a rush of crazy, twisted cackling and obscene snorting.
"My God," said Charlie with a shock that sent a sobering chill down his spine. "How can you guys laugh? A man's just been shot!"
"Awe, it's just a flesh wound," grunted the elder man dismissingly. "'E'll be awl right."
Stun solidified in Charlie's features for a while. When he looked up again he saw O'Hare walking towards the table, brimming glowingly and holding a tray of fresh beers.
Eight arms, including Charlie's, shot out from around the table like a greedy octopus and snapped up the mugs with contented growls.
"How goes the game, Mr. Phelps," asked O'Hare to his favorite customer.
"Not too good, Mick. They done cleaned me out."
O'Hare raised a skeptical eyebrow and said, "You sure about that? Perhaps you'd better check again."
"I'm tellin ya they got all of it," he said letting his hands slide down to his pants. One hand fell upon his pocket and he heard a jingle, like the sound of coins. He hurriedly thrust his hands into his pockets and found that they were filled to the brim with a new supply of gold coins. He took the money out and looked at it perplexedly. How in the world did that happen?
"It seems you haven't lost quite all of it just yet, Mr. Phelps," said O'Hare with an odd twinkle in his eye that suggested he knew something more. He tucked the empty tray under his arm and looked about the table. "Well, gentleman, drink up. And just give a holler when you want more." He turned and ambled away.
Charlie stared at O'Hare for a moment as he watched him depart. Was he going off his rocker? That money hadn't been there a minute ago, he was sure. Someone had put it there-somehow. But how could they have gotten into his pockets without him knowing? He could conclude only one thing: someone wanted him to stay.
He awoke in his bed, the sickening nausea of a hangover raging like an angry sea in his stomach. He had a faint recollection of his journey home last night, but nothing more. There was a note on the nightstand, pinned to the cap of a large bottle of Pepto-Bismol.
Take this and go to work! it read in his wife Laura's astringently slanted handwriting. You could almost see the marriage breaking apart in her penmanship. Divorce wasn't far away, he could see it in her eyes every time she looked at him with disdain of him-his drinking.
Eventually he got up, coated his stomach with the pink gook and took off for work, chewing on aspirin as he slumped out of the house. Bitter, he noted as he crunched the chalky tablets. Somehow it seemed appropriate.
The work day had gone neither good nor bad. It had simply gone, and he was glad it was over. The hangover that had claimed him this morning had finally disappeared, accompanied once again by the fervent desire to drink.
He'd kept thinking about O'Hare's saloon and supposed that it was nothing more than a wishful dream in his mind. He supposed O'Hare's was just a figment his mind had conjured up for him. Still, he wanted very BADLY to be there.
He got to the front door of his house and fumbled with his keys. His emotions were deadened by the dull hopelessness he felt. He put the key in and turned it, the bolt clicked in the tumbler and he drearily opened the door. When he looked up though he could not believe what he saw. For what spread out before him was not the foyer and hallway of his little house, but the familiar and welcomed sight of O'Hare's saloon. O'Hare himself wiping down the bar to a buffing shine. He looked up at Charlie and a gleam of white pearly teeth stretched across his rounded face.
"Aye, hello there, Mr. Phelps. I be waiting for ya," lauded O'Hare with brimming cheer. He came around the bar to greet Charlie.
Dismayed at his downtrodden complexion, O'Hare said, "God's sake, my boy, ya be lookin like a man done lost his soul.!"
Charlie scuffed slowly over the floor. He looked about and a warmth seemed to fill him as he absorbed the atmosphere with all its shining magnificence.
"Not lost, Mick. Simply misplaced. But now it's found and I couldn't be happier."
"Ah, I'm glad to hear ya say so, sir. Ya had me worried there for a spell."
"No need to worry, Mick. Just pour me a brew," he said and looked contentedly over his shoulder as he mounted a barstool.
"I see the same old gang's here tonight," said Charlie, pleasantly.
"Aye yes, sir. The regulars."
"They're a sight for sore eyes, Mick."
O'Hare smiled and handed him his beer.
"And what are your plans for t'nite if I may ask?" inquired O'Hare.
"Oh, play a little cards, drink a little beer-maybe a lot of beer and-"
A dancing girl with long coiled locks of golden hair strutted past him. Without much thought Charlie reached down and pinched her ass, grinning ludely back at her like a dirty old man.
"Oooh," squealed the girl as she whirled around. "Mr. Phelps! Shame shame shame."
He chuckled a low, grungy laugh and continued: "Whatever else comes to mind, if ya know what I mean." he said and fluttered his eyebrows. They both exchanged mischievous grins.
"Ah, I think I know what you mean," said O'Hare with a filthy smile.
"Catcha later, Mick," said Charlie, lifting his mug and smiling. O'Hare nodded and continued on polishing down the large, redwood bar. For the next countless hours he would supply Charlie with a steady influx of booze until he would finally pass out on the floor in the middle of a banjo and piano sing-a-long, to the uproarious laughter of many a drunken patrons. "There goes, Mr. Phelps again!" they would say with amusement as Charlie laid splayed out, face down in a pool of his own vomit.
"That Mr. Phelps, he's always the life of the party!" they would all agree. Even though it wasn't much of a way to live.
He had realized his knack right after the second time he had visited O'Hare. It seemed as though if he simply wished hard enough, if his desire were strong enough he could make himself appear at O'Hare's whenever he wanted to. And he was right. He'd been going to the saloon steadily for the past six months and having a great time, but now things seemed to be changing somehow. It was different now than it had been before. It was different because for the first time in the somewhat wasted life of Charlie Phelps he was beginning to tire of even drinking. These last few months it had become evident that the fun had gone out of his visits. Often he appeared there out of sheer boredom.
And every time it would be the same thing. The same songs sung to on the piano; the same fist fights; the same card game's with the same outcome; the same Lightening Sam Stoltz shooting the same guy in the arm time after time to the point that it was both predictable and mundane. It was as if life there was like a record that just skipped on the same groove instead of playing all the way through. It was getting to be a tiresome tune.
This last time he came out of sheer loneliness. He walked in with a face so long he may have tripped over it..
"What seems to be the trouble, Mr. Phelps," asked O'Hare upon his arrival. "Ya seem to be a wee bit down in the mouth."
"The divorce is final today, Mick. She took all her stuff-leaves tonight."
"Tuh-tuh-tuh," clicked O'Hare with his tongue as he shook his head. "So sorry to hear it, sir. But maybe she wasn't for you, anyway."
"Maybe," said Charlie, though not really believing it.
"Well, what can I get you tonight? Scotch on the rocks, Bourbon, Tequila, or just a nice cold beer?"
"Nothing," said Charlie to his own shock as well as to O'Hare's.
"What?" piped O'Hare and drew himself close to Charlie. "Mr. Phelps, sir. It don't look good for business if ya don't order something!" His hand was clutched firmly on Charlie's shoulder and for the first time Charlie had a sense of distaste for O'Hare.
"All right. Gimme a beer."
O'Hare promptly produced a glass mug, filled it, and set it down in front of Charlie.
"Say," said Charlie, not going for the beer as he usually would. "Doesn't anyone different ever come in here?"
"Just the usual ones you always see."
"You know it may be a change of pace to mix things up a little," said Charlie.
"Exactly what do you mean?" asked O'Hare with a worrying voice that seemed to grow perturbed.
"I mean this place-it's all so pat; so routine. I mean the same people the same things!"
O'Hare's face went pale and his smile sunk away.
From the end of the room: "WHY YOU CHEATING LITTLE SNAKE IN THE GRASS! I'LL TEACH YOU TO SCREW WITH ME!" came the familiar war cry from Lightening Sam Stoltz, the same way it did every visit shortly after he arrived. Then came the inevitable gun shot and the "Yuh-ooo shot me" intermingled in the rough wails of pain. After that was the shattering glass of someone being thrown out a window in a bar brawl that had happened countless times before. The girl in the rear sang a song off key and a drunken man tried desperately to play the player piano. It was pathetic. These people never did anything but these same things. Never did anything but get drunk. And he was suddenly jolted by the shocking revelation he had just made that there was more to life than drinking.
"I'm sorry if the atmosphere displeases you, Mr. Phelps. But it's always been this way."
"Yeah, but can't we just change it around a little. I mean...I dunno. Can't we have Lightening Stoltz shoot somebody else for a change?"
O'Hare only sucked up his lower lip. "No, I'm sorry. Now why don't you just enjoy your beer," he said, and pushed it insistently toward him.
Charlie ignored the gesture and continued on.
"Well then why don't we turn on the TV and watch a football game or something?"
O'Hare's face got thickly riddled now.
"Why what in the devil is TV?" he asked. "And what in the blazes of Hades is football?"
Charlie had forgotten. It was before his time. TV and football wouldn't emerge until the next century.
"W-well then," Charlie stuttered "what about these people? I mean every time I come here-they're here. And they never ever leave! I mean you have to close some time, dontcha?"
"We never close!" snapped O'Hare, anger beginning to ripple under his skin and in his face.
"But...what about them?" said Charlie, panning a hand over the length of the room.
"They've always been here. And they always will."
"But how can that..." his thoughts broke off and he fell into numb muteness. As he looked about at the people around him he felt nausea and sickness, not from anything he had drunk, but from the dread realization that this is what he had been turning into. It was as if someone were throwing a mirror up to him and showing him a reflection of what he was. Suddenly he didn't like it. He wanted out; out of this dream-this nightmare. Whatever it was that had cost him his friends, his wife and may even cause him his life if he kept on. But it was going to stop. It had to stop-here and now.
"Drink your beer," said O'Hare in an almost tight lipped order.
Charlie, finally boiling over with a rage he could no longer suppress, picked up the mug and heaved it violently into the glass mirror in back of the bar, creating a spider web crack with pie wedges of mirror that smashed belatedly to the floor.
"That's what you can do with your damn beer!" shrieked Charlie with mad, shimmering eyes.
"What in the hell are you doing? Are you trying to ruin my business? I run a respectable business here. People come here for a good time! To be happy, that's all."
By the silence that suddenly eclipsed the room Charlie knew that he had gotten their attention. He could feel the crowds of eyeballs burning into his back and knew that he had an audience. And that was just fine, because he was going to give them a show. One they'd never forget.
"But don't you understand," beseeched Charlie in a hungry tirade. "You don't have to drink to have a good time. You can't find happiness at the bottom of a bottle! I know. I've tried. Can't you understand it! Drinking just isn't the answer to our problems. I've learned that!"
"Well everybody be havin a drink in their hand when they're down here at O'Hare's!" griped O'Hare, vehemently.
"Yeah, well not me. Not anymore!"
"Well then maybe ya best not stay here no more," scoffed O'Hare and then gestured his thick neck above him. "Maybe ya best be payin heed to that sign!"
Charlie looked up and saw a sign printed in large, scrolled letters that read: IF YOU AIN'T DRINKIN-YOU'RE LEAVIN!
"Maybe that ain't a bad idea," boomed Charlie in a raspy voice as he leaped down from the stool. He stormed through the bat-wing doors violently and was suddenly gone.
O'Hare let the fake anger drain from his face and moved to the end of the bar, peering out at the departed remnants of Charlie as the bat-wing doors swung back and forth in a sickish creaking. He was exhausted from the effort, but it was worth it. And as he watched the doors settle to stillness he said to himself, in the faintest of whispers: "There goes a brave man."
O'Hare knew how it was to be a slave to the bottle. He himself had been an alcoholic before he had died-they all had. But what they were doing now seemed to make up for all they had lost then. It was their job to steer people back onto the right path when they wandered off. But they knew that you could not force them. You could only do your best to show them what they were really like, to subtly get the message across that this was not the way to live. That was all he or any of them could EVER do.
Thankfully, though it seemed that they had succeeded. Hopefully Charlie would realize his mistake and take actions to rectify it. It had to be done of his own will. That was most important.
"All right, gang. Time to close up shop!" bellowed O'Hare as he gathered his motley crew of rag-tag spirits together and funneled them out the door; himself bringing up the end. One of the men turned around and said, "Hey, boss. We gonna hafta open up again?"
"I hope not," said O'Hare with rigid hopefulness firming his face. "I fervently hope not."
As O'Hare left the saloon the lights began to dim, and the saloon faded and disappeared-back into the nothingness from which it came.
He had spoken at the meeting upon receiving his six month sobriety chip. He was very proud. Laura was too. She was right there beside him, strengthening him and giving him courage through the whole ordeal. They had even begun talking about the possibility of getting back together.
"Charlie, I'm so proud of you," she said, hugging him hard.
"Yeah," he said smiling and flipping the white chip in his hand, gazing at it as if it were the Hope diamond. "This is probably one of the best things I've ever done in my life. And I couldna done it without you."
She smiled and took his hand as they walked.
They passed a bench and Charlie looked down. Sitting solemnly on the bench with a pale, sallow complexion was a kid Charlie had seen during meeting; a new comer judging by the dazed and bloodshot eyes. A look Charlie was well familiar with. As they passed the kid the boy called to him.
"Hey, mister. Can ya come here a minute," he said in a shy, weak voice. Charlie unlaced his hand from Laura's and went over to the kid.
The kid looked up at him, admiringly and whispered: "Hey, mister. How do you manage to keep off drinking. You got a secret?"
"No, kid. No secret. Let's just say I took a good look at myself and didn't like what I saw. Have courage, kid. You'll make it."
He rumpled the kid's greasy hair and the boy gave him a weak little smile that curled at the corners of his mouth. Charlie hadn't told him the real reason, only part of it. He had seen himself in other people back at a place called O'Hare's. A place he didn't want to go to ever again.