As soon as I walk in, I recognize the man I’m looking for, even though we’ve never met. He’s seated at the bar, elbows propped up, with one hand around a rocks glass and the other around a nearly empty bottle. His head is sunk down below his slouched shoulders. He looks like any one of a hundred desolate drunks that blow in and out of Sally’s every week; but this one is definitely my mark.
“Rough day?” I ask as I take a seat on a bar stool a couple spaces down from him. He looks at me with red eyes, bleary from crying or drinking, it’s hard to tell. He nods, finishes the glass and fills it up again with the most of the bottle’s remaining contents.
I order a bottle of something I can’t pronounce. The bartender raises an eyebrow at me and disappears for a few moments. When she comes back, she leaves a dusty glass and an equally dusty bottle of dark liquor that pours like smoke.
“To women,” I say, raising my glass in a toast. The man makes a sound between a grunt and a cough, then drinks down a portion of his liquor.
“To hell with em,” he says, topping off his glass. “Always taking, never satisfied, taking, taking, taking,” he says as the honey-colored liquor spills over the rim. “Taking til there’s nothing left.” He slams the empty bottle on the counter as if making his point. I already know his situation better than he thinks.
“Can’t live with em, I guess,” I say.
“Sure as hell can’t live without em either,” he replies. “Wouldn’t want to.” He heaves a heavy sigh and pounds his drink down again. He nudges the empty vessel towards the bartender, but she shakes her head and walks away.
“Here, allow me,” I say, taking his glass and pouring a pair of smoky shots. He’s drank enough to get flagged, but not so much that he could turn down a free drink outright. He eyes the smoking liquid suspiciously.
“The hell’s this stuff?” he asks, taking a sniff.
“You seem awfully young to be so distraught over women already,” I say, pretending not to hear his question. A stretching of the truth, that. This man is 36 years, eight months and two days old, to the minute. Long past his due.
“Mister, you don’t know the half of it,” he says. “I’ve only ever wanted one, just that perfect one. No matter how close I get, they always seem to just slip away.”
“Alas, the tenderness of youth feels the sting of heartache most acutely,” I say absentmindedly. He looks at me sideways for a moment.
“You a poet or something?” he asks, still not sure he wants the drink I’ve offered him. I’ve forgotten the language of this particular time and place. Casualty of the job.
“No, no. Just an errand boy. My boss is, something of a collector,” I say with a hint of a smile.
“My boss is something of an asshole,” the man says, laughing heartily for the first time during our conversation. I take the opportunity to raise my glass in a mock toast.
“To our bosses then!”
He raises his glass, but something in the mirror catches his attention before he drinks.
“See that girl back there, standing by the door? She looks like El, first love of my life,” he says. A chestnut-haired college girl stands near the front door of Sally’s, waiting for a table, a friend, a boyfriend. It doesn’t matter. I know it isn’t El.
“El was the one, Mister,” he continues. “You ever have the one? The one that got away?”
I grunt and nod to him, suggesting that, like any other man, of course I had.
“She was perfect, through and through. It was like someone had made her just for me, ya know? Like we each knew what the other was thinking. Made conversations great, made fights short. There is no one on this Earth quite like her,” he says, swirling the smoking contents of his glass. “And you know, I don’t mind saying it, but when she left, I really feel like she took a big piece of me with her.” And he gets to it at last.
“Surely there were others?” I ask, urging him on.
“Oh sure, sure. None of em quite like El, though. They were bits and pieces; she was the whole package. Only thing they had in common with her was they all up and left eventually.” He keeps swirling the glass. A strange grin parts his lips.
“Had some good times, all right. There was this Japanese girl, used to work a sushi bar by day and a Go-Go club at night,” he says. His grin widens as he recalls their private moments. “Then there was this bookish little thing, all shy and reserved on the outside. But turn the lights out and,” he snaps his fingers, “watch her go wild.” He leans back away from the bar, feeling better now, reliving his glory days.
“There was the pixie-haired girl I met during an airport layover; oh, and I spent a drunken night with a friend of mine from college, though both of us pretend that never happened; can’t forget my best friend’s sister either, not that he knows about it,” he says, laughing to himself. He seems to have almost forgotten that I’m even there.
“Funny thing, though,” he says, all the happiness in his expression ebbing away, “no matter how much or how little time I spent with them, I feel like each one of them took a piece of me with them, a piece I can’t get back.” His body slouches forward again and his hands curl around the smoking glass. He turns his deflated face toward me once more.
“Mister, do you think I can ever get those pieces back?” he asks. I smile my own smile at last and raise my own glass.
“To the next one,” I say. To my relief, he finally picks up his own drink.
“To the next one,” he says, barely smiling. We down our Plutonian shots. He shudders.
“Colder than I expected,” he says, smacking his lips. “Like I can feel it all-”
His eyes shock wide open. He stares at my reflection in the mirror behind the bar, at something strange that only he can see.
I change. A friend’s sister. A college companion. A traveling pixie. A bookworm. A Go-Go dancer. A chestnut-haired vision of perfection.
When he looks back at me, I’m as he saw me before, as everyone around us sees me.
“You’re spent, Larry,” I tell him, putting money down on the bar. “And even though I’ve arrived a bit late, I’m here to collect what’s owed.”
I stand. A shiver runs the length of Larry’s body. His hands are shaking. I touch his shoulder and he is calm, recognition dawning in his eyes.
“The next time you offer up your soul for the perfect woman,” I tell him, “be sure to be a little more specific. Come on, it’s time.”
I lead him away from the bar. I’ve found that reclamation is best done by leaving a bar or restaurant; no one inside expects you to return, no one outside expects you at all.
“Will it hurt?” Larry asks me as I reach for the door. It opens and reveals nothing beyond it but unbroken light. I keep my hand on his shoulder.
“Not half as much as your life has.”
I guide him through the door and we pass into a place where no man desires to go, but all men must.