“Will it hurt?” I asked, and instantly my mind dived back thirty years to my childhood, asking my father the same question in a doctor’s waiting room, awaiting an injection. His lie would sting worse than the needle.
I lurched forward in time, holding my son’s hand as he asked me the question. “Yes,” I answered (I do not lie, especially to children), “but only for a second and then it will make you strong so you won’t get sick when we’re in Africa.”
He nodded, and later told me that knowing was scary but it let him practice being brave like the heroes in his comic books. At the time, sat in the nurse’s office, he mumbled that he hated Africa. He loved that trip though — the sun and the open savannah a world away from our damp, claustrophobic city. Soon, I realised, that trip would never have happened.
“Yes, it’ll hurt,” the old man sniffed loudly, clearing his sinuses, and brought me crashing back to the present, “You understand this isn’t going to kill you — it’s going to unmake you, remove you from existence entirely.”
He was not looking at me as he spoke but stared ahead at the rows of spirits behind the bar. His white hair seemed brighter in the gloomy light, and his wrinkled skin deeper and darker.
“You’re the last,” he continued, “the last remaining vestige of my mistake. Once you’re gone, it’s over. I serve no further purpose. So I’ll be joining you.”
He had been right when he told me I had always known. The inescapable nagging sense that I do not belong here has haunted me for as long as I can remember. It was almost a relief to discover it was true. That it was not my fault but someone else’s. I wondered about each of the other people he had approached, explaining the situation, the very reason for their impermissible existence. I tried to picture them before realising that none of them existed any longer. Nevertheless, I wondered whether they had accepted his tale with the same sense of inevitability that I displayed, or whether they laughed at him, ignored him, pleaded with him for an alternative. I was simply grateful.
He ordered us two glasses of bourbon. The bartender poured the drinks and left the bottle on the bar as she retreated to the back room leaving us alone. I suspected this was a kindness from her and that she knew what lay ahead for me. Perhaps this bar is where he brought each of us for our final moments.
We drank in silence which seemed to suit us both. Men of the world. Men soon to be outside of the world. He refilled the glasses before they were dry, as if the finality of an empty vessel would force action.
“No one you got to say anything to before you go?” he asked eventually, nodding towards an ancient payphone in a corner of the bar, coated in layers of grime and dust. The cleaner spots on the receiver and the coin vault door suggested it probably still worked.
“Not really. I mean I try not to leave things unsaid — if people need to know, they know already or else it can’t have been that important. Besides, once we’re done, there will be nothing for them to know anyway.”
“True enough,” he coughed, “but a lot of them seem to want to talk to someone anyway. Though I respect a man who has nothing more to say.”
“I think people just like to hear talking. They mistake it for communication.”
“Monkey chatter,” the old man mumbled gruffly.
“Right,” he said, draining his glass, “on that note: shall we?”
I didn’t answer immediately, gazing thoughtfully at the mixed light refracting through the bottom of my own glass before nodding and dropping it next to his with a clink.
“Yes, I think so. Time we weren’t.”