Alex shuffled home from a disappointing job interview. Another disappointing job interview as it were.
“Get a college degree, they said. It’ll be fun, they said.” Alex shook his head and shoved his hands deeper into his empty pockets, cursing a student loan he’d once thought he’d be able to work off, quickly. It was a damn carrot fed to the naïve and blind.
He’d set out to change the world. And what did he get? What did he end up being? Not exactly what they were looking for.
His damn toothbrush was made from bamboo—how much more enthusiastic an employee with a Ph.D. in Environmental Science could they ask for? Okay, his focus had always been oceanic research, but that didn’t mean he didn’t like trees. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t have moved back to fucking Colorado to lick his wounds at striking out at his top three choices for employment after finishing his Ph.D.
With less than fifty bucks to his name and half a month left before a meager pay from the local shelf-stacking job, Alex once again seriously contemplated leaving town for somewhere more environmentally conscious. But he wasn’t ready to give up on his dream of sailing out and finding a way to save the ocean from pollution.
Still, oil was the thang, and people were too wrapped up in their cozy lives to want to live through the hassle of putting a candy wrapper in their pocket and taking it home instead of just throwing it in the street.
For the umpteenth time that day, Alex bent down to pick up a piece of trash, take five steps, and shove it in a trash container. Seriously! Sometimes, he could still second-guess whether or not he could even make a difference. That question had been asked many times when people saw him do that. His only response was that if everybody thought the way they did, then nothing would ever happen, but if everybody thought they made a difference, they would, collectively.
Changing the world was a slow process, and he knew that. But his answer to people came from experience. He’d seen it happen at a young age, and he’d been the initiative-taking party back then. He wasn’t giving up. He couldn’t give up simply because he knew that he could make a difference.
But that didn’t mean he didn’t have days where he barely believed it himself.
That Friday, he was close to leaving that piece of trash on the street, yet he picked it up. Where he stopped allowed for a bad idea to formulate—he’d stopped in front of a bar. Yet, he needed it. Something strong to make him forget.
Fuck it. He was broke anyway, so he went inside, flagged down the girl with the look at me tight T-shirt, and ordered a stiff shot of something he probably wouldn’t like anyway.
While he waited, he looked around the joint. He’d passed it many times having grown up in that city, yet he’d never actually been inside the establishment. It was the place for the blue-collars and not prep-boys. It wasn’t a place to go to hook up, but probably a place to forget. Everything looked worn, yet every nick and scratch had a story that most of the patrons probably knew or had experienced in the making. There was the line of stools at the bar, a few booths, a few tables for two, the—he guessed for a place like that—mandatory dart board, and a pool table.
It wasn’t crowded, and the girl didn’t look like she knew how to mix the majority of drinks. She could serve a draft, a straight up whiskey, and probably put together an Irish Coffee.
“Hello, new face. Pull one up,” a guy said, patting the bar. He then turned his back on Alex and focused on his draft.
The girl placed Alex’s drink on the bar where the guy had indicated, gave him a friendly smile, and nodded him to the stool next to the nameless patron. Apparently, he was okay, so Alex took a seat.
“Your day looks like mine. And those’s.” Nameless nodded down the bar.
“Don’t worry, not gonna pry, just…” He held up his glass. “Get ‘em tomorrow.”
Alex picked up his shot and clanked it against nameless’ glass. “Just got out from a job interview that I’m actually over-qualified for. There’s nothing matching.”
“If it matches, then someone else gets it,” the guy said, taking another swig of his beer.
“Yeah.” That’s what had happened with his top three choices. He’d had above average grades. The top three were the top of the cake, though, so they plucked from the top of the scoreboard. Remaining an optimist was difficult after the months he’d had, and the ambiance of the bar wasn’t exactly promising a step up. He even thought he understood how someone could walk through that door and end up another pessimist stuck on a stool.
The guy flagged down the girl and pointed to Alex’s empty glass. “Give him one on me.”
“Okay.” She walked off before Alex had the chance to decline. He wasn’t much of a drinker, and especially not something as strong as what he’d first asked for. After this one, he’d switch to beer. Actually, he’d go home, but…to what?
“Do you like Chuck Berry?” nameless asked.
“I’m Berry, no relation, but…” He turned and held his hand up. “Marie, Chuck, please?”
The girl snorted, grinning and shaking her head, as she turned to face a screen and plot something in.
“I love this song,” Berry continued. “It’s a real pick-me-upper.”
Roll over Beethoven started up a minute later, and Alex couldn’t help but smile and tap his foot to the good old rock and roll song. He had to agree with Berry. It was a pick-me-upper song.
“See? Nothing stays bad for long.” Berry raised his glass, and Alex held his up high in salute to a star.
Alex downed the vile drink, yet strangely enough, it soothed something in him and made him enjoy the music even more. So did Berry by the looks of it, and Alex felt…grateful. This stranger offered an ear, a drink, good music, and no questions asked. Alex even understood the place. At least he thought he did. He looked around again, and people were so…different. At the bars he’d frequented, everyone was the same, or they’d be…in tribes of social statuses. Maybe it was because so many in here were the same?
Looking at Berry, he didn’t look like he had more than Alex had in his pocket, yet he’d bought him a drink. So Alex waved down the girl and ordered two drafts.
Berry smiled, still nodding to Chuck Berry.
It wasn’t difficult to shoot the breeze with Berry. He could talk about anything.
A man entered the bar, looking out of his element. Then again, so did Alex, and he’d been welcomed with open arms. The man looked lost, too, and took a seat at the end of the bar, so Alex figured he’d pay it forward like Berry had.
“Marie, something on me.”
“I need your credit card then. Don’t know you, and only Jesus gets a tab here.” She pointed to a sign behind the bar stating just that.
“Here.” He placed the change he’d gotten from the drafts on the bar. “When it’s gone, throw me out.”
She smiled, took the money, and placed it under a shot glass on the counter behind her. She then went to the guy in the suit and pointed to Alex, who gave a not too drunken wave.
The guy moved to occupy the seat next to Alex. “Why?”
“Because this is Berry.” Alex leaned back, draping his arm around Berry’s shoulder. The weathered blue-collar worker merely gave a nod and a smile to the newcomer, still tapping his foot to the next in line Chuck Berry number. “He recognized me in need of kindness, and you look like me when I walked through those doors an hour ago.”
“Really? Hope your luck isn’t that bad.”
“Job interview turned out no good. The tenth this month.”
“Ugh. Well, wife split with everything but the car, and all my shit fits in the trunk.”
“You win. Or lose…I’m not sure.”
The man snorted. “Me neither.” He picked up his shot and raised it, then downed it. He’d only sat the glass down when he raised his hand for Marie to come over. “Next one on me.” He then placed a hundred-dollar bill on the bar. “I’m Sam.”
“Alex.” They shook hands and drank whatever Marie put in front of them next. Sam even included Berry in the round.
From then on, the world went out of focus, and their conversation deepened as the hours passed.
Sam sighed. “You know what I was thinking? Just getting in my car, my trusty old car, and drive far, far away.”
“What’s holding you back? You have a car. If I had a car, I’d split, immediately!”
Sam stared at Alex. “Yeah?”
“Then let’s go. We’ll stop by your miniature apartment and see what fits in the back of mine. And we just go.”
“Not when you’re drunk.”
“I’m not. You’ve had way more than I have. I’ve had two. We can go. Right now?”
Alex looked at the man. “Why would you do that for me?”
“I’m not. I’m roping you into going with me so that I won’t have to endure that trip alone.” Sam grinned and pushed his last shot to Alex.
Alex felt bold. Or maybe it was the alcohol. He didn’t care—he’d had enough of that city, and he needed an escape. And here was the opportunity.
Alex downed the drink, shook Berry’s hand, and left with Sam.
He had a big car. A station wagon, so there was enough room for Alex’s stuff, too. Not that he owned a lot. Standing with Sam in his tiny apartment, Alex even decided he’d leave most of it. It was just crap that had accumulated and was only used for practical stuff. He wasn’t going to bring coffee mugs or anything. He didn’t need that.
So he packed up his clothes, a few toiletries, a few objects with affectional value, and a photo album. Standing in the door, he stared at what he was leaving behind, smiling. He then closed the door and left the key in the lock.
And he didn’t look back.
They got into the car, and Sam started it.
It was a strange sensation as they drove through the city, and Sam must have sensed that Alex needed a bit of time to process the decision he’d just made because he stayed quiet, leaving Alex to his thoughts as they drove past everything Alex had known since childhood. When the city sign was in the rearview mirror, Alex took a deep, shaky breath.
“And there’s the future, buddy.” Sam pointed to the open road ahead.
Alex laughed. “Yeah.”
Sam reached behind his seat and rummaged around for a moment. He then handed Alex a bottle of water. “I’m not having you lose your alcohol in the car.”
“Sober up. I get it. Thanks.” Alex took the bottle and drank about a quarter of it. “Going on a road trip, one important question should be answered early on.”
“Oh?” Sam asked.
“Yeah, road music. What are you into?”
Sam laughed. “Nothing new. Classic rock!”
“Oh, I hear you.” Alex’s mind grew increasingly fuzzy. “I…don’t feel well.”
“Drink some more water. I’ll pull over up here.”
Alex drank more, but it just got worse.
“Yeah, not all roofies color the drinks green. I can still get the good stuff.”
Alex stared at Sam in shock.
Then he dropped the bottle.