The Trap is one of your old-fashioned bars, with a jukebox and booths and dimly-lit corners. Serena used to say it was one of the few bars left where you could get a decent hand job, and that saying (and the memories it conjured) was floating around in my mind as I sat alone at one of the tables, my head bent forward in the universal sign of drunken misery. I'd lost track of how many beers I'd had when I switched over to pitchers; nor could I remember how long ago that had been.
The point is, when he sat down opposite me, I didn't notice him at first. I was staring at the table, but seeing Serena. It sounds cheesy, and perhaps the country music coming from the far corner contributed, but I was trying to relive every moment of our time together, many of them spent in this same bar.
"Damn, Paul, what's the matter with you?"
I started. My back snapped straight up, colliding with the back of the booth; I almost spilled the glass of beer I was holding. There was a man sitting opposite me: thin and balding, perhaps in his late twenties or early thirties, wearing a polo shirt and a grin that suggested there wasn't anything the matter with me at all. His eyes were small--"beady" is the word they'd use in Serena's favorite horror novels--and set close together. He was a strange looking individual; he didn't at all have the face for a goatee, but he was wearing one. It was as black as what was left of his hair, and in the dim light it made him look like some comic book character.
I blinked and glanced around. Were we being stared at? Had one of my buddies come in without me seeing, and was now trying some sort of prank to lighten me up? Along those lines, I said, "Hey, man, just cut it out."
He winked. "Now that's the Paul I remember."
"You've got the wrong guy."
"It's only been a year. Things can't have changed that much."
"I mean, my name's not Paul."
"Of course it is." The man pulled out a carton of cigarettes and lit one. He offered one to me. I shook my head and he said, "I guess some things have changed after all." He put the cigarettes away.
I glanced towards the bar. "You can't smoke in here."
"Of course I can."
"It's illegal in this state."
"Relax, Paul. Maybe you shouldn't have quit."
"My name isn't Paul. And I'd like you to leave."
I was doing my best to be intimidating, which is hard enough for me sober; considering I had a fairly difficult time even focusing on him--jumping so suddenly had thrown everything out of balance--I'm sure I came off as comical. At any rate, he laughed and waved a hand at me, a slightly effeminate gesture that sent my thoughts on another track.
"If this is..."
"If this is...I mean...if you want me to..." I coughed. "Well, I don't go in for that. I don't care if you do, but I don't."
"You don't do what?"
"You're confusing me, Paul. Although I must admit, you've always had that effect on people. You're one mysterious bastard."
Was "Paul" some sort of code word? Had I given him some sort of unspoken signal? My buddy Frank had told me he'd seen a Dateline show about that kind of thing--guys getting propositioned in the bathroom because they'd ordered a drink with the wrong hand. I hadn't believed him--Frank was known to just say things, blurt stuff out that seemed halfway appropriate to the conversation at hand--but then, I'd never really thought about it.
This guy was acting with some sort of familiarity, though. He was nodding his head the way you do with someone you can communicate nonverbally with. He had a knowing smile on his face; at first I'd mistaken it for humor--that he'd been making fun of me--but now I decided that he thought he was sharing something with me.
"My name's not Paul," I told him. I spoke slowly, in case I'd misspoke the first time; my own voice seemed fuzzy to me. "You have the wrong guy. My name's Chris."
"Well, of course it is, Paul." He took a drag on the cigarette, blew smoke up in the air. I glanced at the bartender; I didn't want to get in trouble because of some guy I didn't know. "Your name can be whatever you want, I suppose."
"Listen." I leaned forward. "I don't know who you are or what you want. My name isn't Paul, I don't want to...do stuff with you, and if this is a joke, you can tell whoever it is that set you up that I'm not in the mood."
He stared at me for a moment. He opened his mouth but closed it; I guess I looked menacing enough to give him second thoughts. He leaned back and took another long drag on the cigarette. He flicked ash onto the table, then shoved it aside with the back of his hand. After a few seconds of looking at me, then looking around the bar, he said, "Why so cranky?"
I should've told him to go fuck himself. Instead, I relaxed a little and said, "My girlfriend and I just broke up."
"How long were you together?"
"No, I mean..." He calmed himself. "I just have trouble picturing you with one woman for that long. I'm sorry." Another drag, to calm himself. "She cheat on you?"
"How the hell is that your business?"
"She did. Christ. Women, man." He glanced at my pitcher. "That looks like a good idea, right there. Hold on."
He got up and went to the bar. I would've left--moved to the other side of the room--but there weren't any empty tables. I'd gotten a lot of dirty looks for hogging this one for myself; the Trap isn't the most popular bar, but like all college towns, it sees action on a Saturday night.
The man came back and sat down. He had a couple pitchers; he moved one in front of me, took one for himself. It was the first time I'd seen him move so much, and I noticed an awkwardness to him. Drunk? I couldn't tell.
"Thought you could use it," he said. "A man's girl cheats on him, he deserves to drown himself."
"Thanks." Free booze was free booze. The thought crossed my mind that he'd done something to it, but I'd read somewhere--or maybe Frank had told me--that beer wasn't the best drink for that sort of thing. You could taste it clearer, or it didn't work well.
I poured the second pitcher into the first. It tasted all right. The man was sipping at his first glass, slowly, looking around the bar suspiciously.
"Couldn't find any ashtrays," he said. "Had to use an abandoned drink. Something red."
"Smoking's illegal in here," I said again. "No need for ashtrays. You're lucky you didn't get caught."
"Let's press my luck then, Paul." He lit up another cigarette. "Bet you miss these bad boys, don't you?"
"No one would blame you if you had one." He offered me the pack. I waved it off. He shook his head and put it back in his shirt pocket. "Ah well. Guess that's one vice that's left you behind."
"I never smoked."
"Right. You just inhaled whenever a cigarette was in your mouth."
The song changed; a fiddle cut the air. The man winced. "Damn. What the hell is that?"
"Let me guess: I'm not supposed to like country music, either."
"No one is supposed to like country music." He shook his head. "I suppose they don't have any Radiohead on there."
"Funny, Paul. Your life may have gone to shit, but you don't have to drag the rest of us down with you."
"You're welcome to leave whenever you want, and with all due haste."
"Big words, coming from the man who can't even read Where's Waldo? without a fucking dictionary."
I knelt my head down again and stared at the table. At least I wasn't thinking of Serena anymore. I was thinking about the scuffs on the table, and I was thinking about the man sitting opposite me. Was he drunk or crazy? Or did I really look like some guy named Paul? I'd been told I looked like certain people--someone's cousin, this guy someone saw at a party a couple weeks ago--but I figured that happened to everyone at some point. Had I finally found someone who made the connection, who actually mistook one for the other? Or is it true that, when you see someone you know, you know it's them? Surely he would've figured, after talking to me. I couldn't sound like Paul, could I? Even he admitted I didn't act like him.
"What's her name?"
I looked up. His eyes were on the jukebox, a look of contempt on his face. He turned to me slowly and repeated the question.
I shook my head. "Jesus," I said. "Okay. Look, if I'm gonna spill my life story to you, at least give me a name."
"I mean your name."
"Are we playing that game again, Paul? Or, wait..." He jabbed a finger at me. "Chris. Right. 'Christ' minus the cross. I like it."
It took me a moment to get it; and when I did, I felt guilty for chuckling. "Come on," I said. "Seriously, your name, all right? If I'm gonna talk about Serena, I need your name."
"Serena. Pretty name."
"Yeah, well, give me yours."
"Jake. Not as pretty, but it gets the job done."
"Well, Jake, yes, Serena cheated on me. And then she broke up with me two days ago."
"Put you in your coffin and hammered in the nails. Sounds like my kind of woman. She hot?"
"Shit." He stubbed out the last of his cigarette on the table. "A man calls a woman beautiful, and it ain't to her face, he's in love. Never pegged you for the type. But of course, you quit smoking, changed your name to something gayer, and like music that plays acupuncture with your eardrums. Maybe love is part of that equation."
"I was being facetious, Paul." He squinted his eyes at me. "That wasn't your first pitcher, was it?"
"I don't know."
He laughed, slapped a hand on the table. "Now that's what I'm talking about!"
A couple people looked over. Help me, I tried to tell them. I don't know this guy. If you're his friend, for Christ's sake, help me! But either no one knew him, or no one took responsibility for him, because everyone eventually looked away, though it took some longer than others. The bartender, for one. The bouncer by the door, for another.
But no; they hadn't seen it, or they'd already be over here telling him to take it outside. They were just viewing him as a loud drunk, not as a man doing something technically illegal.
"I miss seeing you drunk, Paul." The man finished his glass and refilled it, as if to emphasize his point. "Though I admit, I hate it being under such circumstances. And, you know, I really am sorry to hear about your girl. I just have a hard time putting two and two together." He belched.
"She kept the dog, too," I said.
"What the fuck is a woman gonna do with a Rottweiler?"
"What was his name? Don't tell me Christie. I'll shit myself."
"You're shitting me."
"No. Gary. We named him after one of her exes."
"'Cause he liked to bite?"
"'Cause he had a big black dick."
He laughed again, slapping the table twice. I saw the bouncer shift on his stool; the bartender scowled. I smiled apologetically at both, and said, "Jake, you don't want them seeing that cigarette butt."
"What the fuck's the matter with you and cigarettes? The rest of us can smoke, can't we?"
"I told you--"
"It's illegal. Yeah, you don't write the fucking laws yet, Paul. Gotta get into the Senate for that first."
"Why the hell do you think I'm this Paul guy?"
He shrugged the question off. "Lotta young girls here, man. Yet, you're sitting here by yourself. Some of those girls aren't too young. I mean, you're no spring chicken yourself, but you aren't exactly Grandpa Jones, are you? You didn't mysteriously age on me too, did you? Because I'm having a hard enough time with the cigarettes. Not sure if I could take any of that Marty McFly shit."
"I can see your taste in cinema still hasn't improved."
He was confusing me. "You're confusing me," I said.
"Never mind." He gestured at the jukebox. "If it ain't got Chuck Norris, I reckon you aren't interested, are you?"
"That's not Chuck Norris. It's..." I hesitated. "Hell, I don't know. I recognize that riff, though."
We drank for a couple minutes in silence. I watched him from the corner of my eye, never looking directly at him--partly because I didn't want to seem too obvious, and partly because I was drunk. He was good humored enough, but I didn't think I'd ever seen him here before--or anywhere, for that matter. He wasn't a townie, and he was too old--or, rather, too bald--to be a student. Nor did he have the professorial air about him; perhaps he was just passing through. But surely he didn't think he'd run into someone he knew in a rural Illinois town?
"Where you from?" I asked.
"Where you from? You're not from here."
"'Course not, Paul. If I was from here, I would've shot myself years ago."
"So where you from?"
He smiled. His teeth were white; I hadn't noticed before. "Where you think I'm from? I'm not sure I've ever seen you this drunk." He laughed and shook his head. "Chris. Jesus."
"Come on, Jake--"
"If I didn't know any better, I'd say you really think that's my name."
"Well...you seem to think my name's Paul."
"Yeah, but the difference is, I'm right."
"So your name isn't Jake?"
"Christ. You suffer amnesia or something, Paul? Or did this Selena girl really get to you?"
"Serena. And yes, she got to me. Jesus, of course she did. I was gonna...I mean, I was gonna ask her to marry me, you know? Not now, of course, not for a few more months...but yeah, someday. And my name's not Paul. Stop calling me that. I don't like it."
"I never really liked it either. I mean, you know, it fits you. But it just doesn't pop, you know? Too many Pauls in this world. Awful lot of Pauls. Of course, you got quite a few Chrises, too. Maybe you should've changed your name to Enrico. You and your girlfriend could've matched."
"She's not Spanish."
"Selena isn't Spanish?"
"Serena. And no, it isn't. I think she's Irish."
"Really? I would've thought you were, all the drinking you done."
"Big words won't make you any less drunk."
I tried to think of a retort but came up empty. I poured myself another glass--and poured the rest of the second pitcher into the first--and decided to stop when I was done. I'd had enough; I could tell, because a part of me, far back in there, was telling me to leave. It was saying that this guy was up to no good, that he hadn't even told me his name yet. He was fucking with me, or trying to fuck me, or just fucking crazy. Get out, the voice said, like in one of Serena's horror novels.
"She liked horror stories," I said. "You know. Stephen King and that stuff. She really liked a book called...um..." I shrugged. "Well, there was a movie, and she really liked it, too."
"Nothing wrong with Stephen King." The man shrugged and pulled out the cigarette pack. He offered it to me again, but checked himself before I could shake my head. "That's right." He lit another cigarette and blew the smoke in my direction. I coughed and he laughed.
"I didn't say there was. I just said she liked it."
"Yeah, but your tone implied that it was something to be ashamed of. Like saying somebody likes kiddy porn. 'Derek, you know, likes kiddy porn.' Your tone suggested that I would automatically disapprove, when in fact it sounds like Selena--Serena--is someone I could get definitely get with."
"Don't talk about her like that." I stabbed my finger at him, or at least in his general direction. "She's a good person. You don't get with people like her."
"If you don't mind my saying so, Paul, it sounds like some guy did get with her."
I just stared at him for a moment. The guy didn't know me, and there he was, talking about Serena like that. Of course, he thought he knew me, or at least acted like he did. And though I'd been thinking similar thoughts about Serena all night--the past two nights, actually--I straightened myself up and put down my glass. I put my hands together so they wouldn't shake and said, "I don't want you talking about her like that. Who the hell are you, and what the hell do you want?"
He sighed. "Touched a nerve, didn't I?"
"Yes, you did."
"Relax, Paul." He glanced at his pitcher--still half-full--and sighed again. "Well, truth be told, I'm here because I gotta tell you something. I thought some beer might loosen me up, but I can see you're getting fed up with me, and I don't wanna add any more burdens to you, man, but I gotta, because I came all the way out here to do it."
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"I'm here because someone said they saw you here frequently. I've got some news for you."
"Who said they saw me here?"
"I don't know anybody named Larry Howe."
"Color me surprised. Listen, Paul--"
"I'm not Paul."
"--I gotta tell you, and I'm sorry I didn't at first, but you know how it is with bad news..." He finished his glass and took a long drag on the cigarette. He let the smoke out slowly, his shoulders falling in on themselves. He seemed to lose several inches in height before my eyes.
"Oscar Peters. Remember him?"
"He's dead, Paul. You remember him now?"
"Christ. You know how hard it was to come here and tell you?" For the first time, his agitation seemed real; I shrank away from him as much as I could. "I had to work up the courage to come see you again, after a year, after everything that happened, to tell you that your best friend was fucking killed in a hit-and-run, and you don't even remember him."
"Okay, okay." I held up my hands. "I remember him. I remember...Ollie. Oscar. I remember Oscar."
"You'd better." He took another hit from the cigarette, shorter, like a gunshot. "Yeah, well, he's dead. I had to ID the body. Not fun, Paul, not fun. They say the odds of getting the guy who did it are slim. So...so there. I've told you. Now I can get out of this shit hole and do some real drinking."
More silence. As much as the guy made me uncomfortable talking, his silences were worse. He was the kind of guy who knew how to use a silence to, to say more with it than with words. I tried to think of something to break it, but I couldn't. How to tell someone, after they've already unloaded their burden, that they have to put it back on again? Even sober, I'm not that tactful; all I could do was tune in to the jukebox--Chris Ledoux--and nod my head along to the melody.
"I'd better be going, then," the man said. He stood.
Normally, I would've stood too. Old habits from childhood. Instead, I remained seated, feeling too heavy to fight gravity. "Hey, Jake--"
"Not my name, Paul."
"Listen, I'm not Paul. I'm sorry to hear about your friend...I am, really...I know it's rough, I've been there myself...but I'm not Paul."
He stared at me for several seconds. I thought he was going to leave without another word. I thought he was going to hit me. Instead, he frowned and said, "No, I guess you aren't." Then he turned and made for the door. I watched him closely as he left. He was still moving in that awkward, jerky manner, as though trying to appear sober. At the door, the bouncer didn't say anything about the cigarette; the man opened the door and stepped out, and no one did anything. The door closed behind him, and he was gone.
I'm not sure how much longer I stayed there. However, I was still drunk when I decided to leave; as soon as I stood, the booth was flooded with a group who had been waiting for more than an hour. They didn't even wait to see if I was just going to the rest room, and I thought about saying something to them, but then I meandered over to the bar, using tables to keep my balance. I fell against the counter, and the bartender scowled at me and said, with a compassion I only earned by being a regular, "You're cut off."
"I know," I told him. "Paying my tab." I smiled.
He nodded and rang everything through. He handed me my receipt. I signed, then happened to glance down at my signature. I stared at it for a few seconds before I realized what was wrong with it; then I laughed, crossed it out, and re-wrote it. The bartender eyed the receipt, but he didn't say anything, just nodded towards the door. I thanked him, left him a cash tip, and went outside. The man was there, waiting.
Daniel Davis is an editor for The Prompt Literary Magazine. His work has appeared in various online and print journals.Ê