STEPHANIE     HUGHES

Freelance Writer & Journalist

276 Huntington Street

     So, it started in a bar, like most odd stories seem to be told at. As a bartender, I've heard it all. They all begin with, “I have a confession to make”, and they all end with “don't tell a soul”. I keep my promises – I've always been one to keep my promises. It's a good habit to have when you're a bartender, I mean, you've got all sorts of people walking in and out. They come in for the sole purpose of getting in a drunken haze and forgetting whatever they left out there in the world. When that happens, God knows what they'll say.


     Yeah, you could say that I know what goes on. I know that Mr. Harrison's a flamer – no one else knows – not even Mrs. Harrison. I know that it was Duke who sent that Mustang reeling over the side of the 420 and wrapping it around a lamp post, and not Chris as was popular belief. I even know that Coccotti has some skeletons in his closet – literally.


     But no story could even compare to the one I heard last week. People tell me crazy things all the time, but no amount of crazy story-telling could ever even come close to preparing me for one like this.


     You listening? Alright, here it goes:

     So, I was standing alongside the bar about five days before Christmas day, cleaning the inside of a glass – something I do when no one's really ordering anything. Mr. Harrison was there, off in the corner talking to a younger flamer man – I guess it's what's expected now. Coccotti was there with a stone cold face that said that he had added another skeleton to his closet. Even Duke was there, but he was just about on his way out. This was shitty company for a shitty bar in a shitty part of town.


     In came a tall lanky man – borderline anorexic, it seemed. His hair was a feathery light brown deprived of saturation, and his eyes, a lighter shade of grey. His face was as blank as a white sheet, and just about as pale. Stiff as board, but seemingly light as a feather, he wobbled in. I’ve never seen this odd guy. Out of all the bars you could have from Stanley Avenue to Roberts Street and Nerwan Hill – the guy ends up at this joint.


     He took a seat, and stared off into space for a moment. He hadn't said a word. I debated whether or not I should take his order right away or hang back a few moments. As eagerly curious as I was, I stepped up towards him. His face no longer blank, he noted me standing there nearly in front of him. Still, he hadn't said a word.


     I wasn't much of a talker myself, which was why I was as silent as he was. I just wiped away at that glass, tempted to ask him what he wanted. I decided against it though.


     “An' I told that bitch she could walk home!” said Duke before he left.

     Good thing he left too, he was getting loud. Mr. Harrison left with the young flamer man that he was talking to, which was also expected. Coccotti sat at his table alone for twenty more minutes before taking off, presumably for gang-related activities. The place fell silent after the door had closed, only disturbed by the occasional cough and sound of glass thunking against the table. Everyone was gone now – nothing for my mind to race to besides the strange man in my bar.


     He nervously looked outside, and drew his crossed arms closer to his body. I decided that I really cleaned the hell out of the glass I was holding and put it down. I guess that was an invitation to open conversation, because he looked at me as soon as I did. I shyly returned the look, wondering whether or not it was welcome. I also guess it was welcome, but call me crazy, or just say that I had a crazy in my eye – but these guy's eyes seemed unusually wet – as if he were going to cry or something. I guess it's not crazy really, but I was still wondering whether or not he would tell me what was going on.


     “I'm going to die,” was the first thing he said, “tonight – I am.”

     I guess all I could say was that I was stunned. Not quite the conversation starter, if you know what I mean. I don't know what the hell he meant or why the hell he even said it. It just came out – and now that it was out there... I didn't know what to say. So I said nothing, but he sure did:

     “They'll get me right here,” he pointed between his eyes, “with a bullet.”

     Why? I asked myself.

     “I... wasn't the best guy... y'see...”

     He said this as if he were reading my mind – answering my question. This scared me something fierce. Made me not want to think – in case another question came to mind.

      “I told you... cause I've got no one else left... y'see...”

      He got quieter and quieter with everything he said. He glanced outside again. I was thinking that this guy was crazy – probably hyped up on drugs – paranoid because of it. But there was no other sign to say that he was. He seemed clear, without anything fogging up his perception of, well, anything. His eyes weren't bloodshot and his pupils were a normal size. He was probably just paranoid then. I didn't know what to do with he guy. Was it wrong just to send him out?

     “I'm pretty sure it'll happen in an alley not to far away from here... y'see...”

     I didn't know what he wanted me to do about it. Maybe nothing at all. Maybe he just wanted me to listen. Sure, we all need someone to listen to us sometimes. Well, a lot of people do, anyway. I don't often tell people things. Maybe I was just as alone in he world as this man before me – damn him for having me realize that.

     “They say you live once, eh? But... I think that's a fucking joke... I don't feel like I'm living at all. I played by all the rules – I went with all the flows and the traditions an' shit that everyone else goes through. I learned how to ride a bike, I made the mistake of stealing from a store once, I had a highschool lover and damn near her knocked up, I got hitched to a darlin' of a girl, I had kids – I still don't feel like I'm living at all... y'see...?

It hurt me to think of these things. He's made some major mistakes if he's in a position like this. And by the look on his face, he knew he had also. Now it was my turn to look out the window. The snow coming down slowly, putting me in somewhat of a trance. I didn't have a family myself – still don't. Bartending doesn't get you a lot of meanful relationships, just one-night stands from scraping the bottom of the barrel in terms of women that come through the door. A good night is any night that isn't followed by a morning with some chick vomiting up a storm in my only bathroom.

     “And...” he laughed, “Had I only know that last year would've been my last Christmas with my family!”

     He got choked up near the end of the sentence, but I still caught what he said. He let loose one tear, and he looked outside again. He then thought better of the tear and wiped it away. I turned to the spouts and got him a Molson Canadian. I figured he deserved that much on this shitty night. Wind whistled by as I handed it to him. It was awfully dark in the room – then again it always was. There's only one light at every table that sucks at lighting even it's own designated area – I'd be out of my mind to expect it to light the rest of the joint. No, I had neon lights by the bar to do that. A large “Budweiser” sign humming next to a “Molson Canadian” sign, which was the drink that had been cold and perspiring in my hand as I slid it towards him.


      He reluctantly gripped it in one scrawny, pale hand – which looked a lot like a dead bird's talon from where I was standing. He gripped the glass so tight that his knuckles turned as white as snow. You could see the bone through the skin. He took a drink – which was really all I wanted the poor guy to do. He needed it. I started cleaning a second glass as he downed half of it before something else came to mind – something else that he decided he would tell me. He pointed at me with the glass.


     “You're a really great guy, y'know? You're a great bartender...” he must have read my name tag, “Ritch – you're great.”

     I was flattered by it, though it didn't mean much from a dead man walking. It meant something to me at the time. These were his last moments, and he decided to spend them with some asshole like me. He began wagging that glass at me now, the beer sloshing around inside. He grinned, almost devilishly.

     “Ya the best bartender around!”

     I smirked too, and I finished cleaning my second glass – then threw the towel over my shoulder to hear what he had to say next:

     “My last drink... my last fucking drink...”

     I must have worn a look that asked him if it was a good drink or not. It's what I was thinking, that's for sure. Sure enough, mind-reader man spoke his own mind:

     “It's great.”

     His voice cracked, and I was getting the feeling that he was getting choked up again. He clumsily wiped a hand across his face to wipe the tears from his eyes, or the beer from his mouth, or both. He then lifted the glass, and became serious – not that he wasn't serious before – but he wasn't in hysterics. He lifted that glass – and with it, he said:

     “To Ritch... the best bartender around. And that's something I'll take to the grave sayin'...”

     He downed the rest of it before slamming the glass on the bar. It didn't break or anything, these glasses were almost designed for abuse. I know they've taken a beating from Duke from time to time. He leaned back, but not so much so that he'd fall off his stool. More like, he stood up straight.

     “Do somethin' for me, will ya, Ritch?”

     I nodded.

     He pulled out a pen and paper, began scribbling something down.

     “I want you to go to this address, there's a little boy – 'bout six years old. And a woman. There's a woman there too. Tell 'em I love 'em... ah – fuck... ya don't even know my name... watch the news, they'll tell ya. My name is the last one I wanna say right now.”

     Silence for a bit, he was thinking.

     He lifted the piece of paper.

     “Promise me you'll do this, Ritch.”

     I nodded as I took the paper.

     He grinned.

     “You're a good man, Ritch.”

     He stood up and walked out of my bar, leaving me in a dark silence for the rest of that sleepless night.


     I hadn't seen the guy again after that, but what I did see was a news broadcast the next day about a man who was shot in the forehead. The picture they showed of the victim resembled the man who walked in last night. But I didn't need a picture to know that it was him. Sure enough, the murder took place in an alley – one that wasn't too far from here. His name was Ronnie, Ronnie Whitman to be exact. Not such a bad name, if you ask me. I felt sick to my stomach as I leaned against the bar and watched the little screen.

      I reached into my back pocket, and I felt that piece of paper I stuck there last night. I pulled it out and looked at the writing. Now, this was the first time I'd actually seen what was written on this sheet of paper. “276 Huntington Street” was what it said. I didn't know where the fuck that was, and I didn't know what the hell I would say to the six-year-old boy and the woman to lived there.

     But I promised that I would go speak to them – I promised I would tell them that he loved them. And take a bartender's word for it, I always keep my promises.


Stephanie Hughes

Written 2011