Gerry watched foam drip from his glass to the bartop at The Walnut. He’d lost count in the previous hour, each of his coworkers exiting to cellphone updates from loved ones. They’d stuck around long enough to bullshit, reassuring the fifty-year-old that he’d land on his feet. Rubal and Associates was but one of many law firms sacking long-term employees before the winter. Some said the cold made every subsequent decision sting less, although Owen could only argue the opposite.
“Man does this ever blow,” he sighed after a somewhat significant silence.
“You’re what, twenty-eight?” Gerry asked.
“Twenty-seven,” Owen replied.
“How many jobs have you had?”
“This was my third.”
“Well I can’t even remember how many I’d burned through by the time I was your age.”
“I flipped burgers, painted, drywall; high school janitor for a summer. Lifeguard for another,” Gerry smiled solemnly. “That was a good one.”
“Now you’re only reminding me of how little I’ve lived.”
“Well you’re from that generation where pressing buttons has become an effective substitute for living.”
“And you’re the type to pretend like the 90’s was your equivalent of the great depression.”
“Do I really sound like one of those assholes sometimes?” Gerry asked.
“No, of course not,” Owen replied.
“Because I’ve been trying to stay positive, despite what’s happened today and last month.”
“I’m only positive cause I’m drunk, and that’ll wear off.”
“It’s unfortunate, isn’t it?”
“That we can’t live this way all the time. I mean, maybe some people can.”
“Yeah, but they’re fucking useless, Gerry. You don’t wanna be one of those people.”
“No, I know that,” he nodded. “But I also know that you’re the last man standing tonight, which should mean a lot to me, except it really doesn’t.”
“I can leave whenever,” Owen said. “My only real obligation is to finish this beer and that won’t take long.”
“So you’re not here looking after me?” Gerry narrowed his glare. “Making sure I don’t do something stupid.”
“You’re an adult. Whatever goes down is all on you.”
“Yeah, you play as dumb as you want, kid. It’s not like I’m gonna bring any of it up anyway.”
“Do you wanna have one more?”
“On you?” Gerry proposed.
“Yeah, sure. Although I can almost guarantee your pension’s a lot higher than mine.”
“Too bad I can’t touch it unless I wanna get fucked over.”
“So why-ie-ie can’t I touch it?” Owen sang.
“What the hell is that?”
“What, you don’t know that song? It’s older than I am.”
“So automatically I should be an expert?”
“Here, get us two more,” Owen set a ten down on the bar. “I’ll take care of this.”
Gerry barely flinched as his co-worker walked to the jukebox. He only felt traces of each drink, an evening of words barely registering. The bartender was an easy tell; taking the money, filling up their mugs then pretending like he’d earned a tip. The same was true of his patrons, all lined up in a row, grinning in time with the studio audience. “Shouldn’t be too long now.” Owen returned to his stool, satisfied by another minor accomplishment.
“I don’t know where I’ll be after this one,” Gerry said, honestly.
“And here I thought you were the type to embrace whatever comes next.”
“Not always,” he stood, somewhat uneasy.
“You alright?” Owen asked.
“Just gotta pee. Don’t act like I’m some kind of burden.”
“Of course not. I just hope you don’t miss the song.”
“I’m sure it’s not as good as you think.” Gerry slogged towards the back past two cronies shooting eight ball. At the urinal, he tried to ignore their rhetoric through the walls. They weren’t getting laid anytime soon, but still spoke as if the expectation was worthy of each comment. He considered how much of a digression was required in order to charm anyone at his age. Boys competing for five minutes of drunken satisfaction weren’t on his level, although the great equalizer had ways of making even the sturdiest spin off into oblivion.
Back at the bar, Owen stood in front of a grinning redhead. Gerry’s approach was nearly invisible until he slid his drink closer and sat. “Well anyway,” Owen chuckled. “We’re only sticking around for this beer, so I’m not sure if there’s enough time.”
“Oh, that’s okay,” the girl replied. “I thought I’d just let you know. Have a good night.”
“Yeah, you too.”
Both watched her strut towards a table of friends. “Tight little number there,” Gerry finally said.
“Yeah, but I hear she’s a handful.”
“I can only imagine,” he downed some beer and sighed. “Do you have any idea how much porn I’ve been watching since Meg left?”
“I don’t wanna know,” Owen replied.
“But you do get the appeal for me at least, right? Like when I was in my teens there were tapes and magazines, but it was always awkward stealing them, or sometimes finding one in the middle of woods.”
“It’s even more awkward talking about this.”
“Sorry, but truthfully I haven’t really talked to anybody in weeks. At least not like how we are now.”
“That can’t be true.”
“I go to work. I come home. Dinner. TV. Porn sometimes, then bed.”
“Well what was the routine when you were married?”
“Work, dinner, help Riley with homework, or take her to dance practice. TV and then maybe sex with Meg at an ever-diminishing frequency.”
“Even after Riley went to college?”
“Meg took up Zumba, and I started making model planes. It was only a matter of time before shit completely fell apart,” Gerry wiped his brow. “You should really try and fuck that girl you were just talking to.”
Owen coughed. “You really shouldn’t be saying that to me right now.”
“Why the hell not? You’re still young enough to make it happen. She seemed to like you, at least from what I saw.”
“And you don’t think it matters that I’m currently in a relationship?”
“Nothing lasts. Hell, even this beer’s almost gone.” Gerry checked the level then finished.
“So I think I’m gonna drive you home,” Owen suggested.
“You’re no better than I am.”
“Then maybe we should sober up. Get food or something.”
“Do they have food here?”
“I don’t think.”
“Then let’s go.”
Owen gave Gerry his space as they both put on hats and gloves. Outside The Walnut, their individual breaths dispersed into the black sky. Downtown was a graveyard, slushy sidewalks leading them toward the faint glimmer of neon pizzeria lights. Owen approached the counter first, one lone staff member looking up from his cellphone just long enough to wipe the grease away. They sat in a vinyl red booth and drunkenly watched individual flakes descend before the reheated slices arrived.
It was only chewing for a good five minutes, slurping of soda pop in-between bites. Owen was still weary of subject matter, their last month of work ridden with hot topics and hidden triggers. Talk of bad movies would quickly lead Gerry towards his inevitable failures with Meg, unpolished dashes of a life spent without her randomly leaping forth. Owen humored these broken sentiments either out of obligations or boredom. They’d both fallen victim to the chopping block, although one couldn’t help but hold the other somewhat responsible.
Gerry cleared his throat. “You know I was just messing with you about that girl,” he said.
“Yeah, I figured.”
“It’s just sometimes when I think about the chances I didn’t take, it almost becomes too much, ya know?”
“This is starting to sound a lot like an after-school special. Does the quarterback have cancer or something?” Owen smirked.
“You make fun all you want, but it’s really true, and if I could go back, I’d change a lot of things.”
“Everyone always says that, but it’s not like having regrets makes you a stronger person. If anything, we just become more numb with age, and that’s why it’s easier or at least acceptable to say I would’ve done this, but then let’s say you had done it, would a single act change your life all that much?”
“Maybe I’m not talking about my life.”
“Then whose, Gerry?”
“There was somebody, before Meg. She could’ve been the one, but I didn’t get to her fast enough.”
“I could say the same thing about any number of women I’ve met in the last five years.”
“No, listen you little shit,” Gerry’s voice rose. “This one I could’ve had a life with. She was beautiful, and for some reason thought I was funny and attractive, but do you know what I did?”
“No, what?” Owen asked.
“I pretended like I wasn’t in love with her, until she eventually called me out on it, and instead of accepting all of this, I went off on her, like a fucking asshole.”
“These things happen. How long ago was this?”
“Twenty-five years. Jesus… half my life.”
“Yeah, but you’re shitting your pants for those first few years, so do they even count?”
Gerry took a deep breath. “I think I’m sober enough to go home now.”
“I suppose I am too,” Owen replied.
The wind picked up on their hike back; both huddled and voiceless past the clamor. Gerry walked fast, Owen feeling his stomach after a block of rushed steps. He was uncertain of what to say, their individual minds far from adjusting to whatever unfortunate transitions lied ahead. Available jobs were sparse while the concept of a career barely remedied open wounds.
“I can’t remember the last time I updated my resume,” Owen said, unlocking his car.
“Everybody does all that shit online now, huh?”
“Yeah, pretty much.”
“I guess I’ll look into it.”
“Ya know, everyone you’ve ever known is online now too, so if you were looking for the one that got away, she just might be out there.”
“So you’ve already checked?” Owen asked.
“No. She got hit by a bus right after college,” Gerry replied.
“Yeah, that’s why I was saying: take those chances when you can.”
“So you think I should go back inside?”
“Hell no, that place is dead,” Gerry smiled, before hopping into his car. “See ya in the unemployment line.”
“All that’s online now too.”
“Well I still like the expression.”
Owen followed his co-worker for a few blocks before they split at the light. He couldn’t determine if there’d be any lasting value in their conversation. It was different when both were looking for ways to kill time in-between various filing duties. Now the rest of the world impatiently waited in the wings, unscathed and with very little to say. Gerry would likely rub a few the wrong way; his despair losing its charm somewhere in the vast unsteadiness of human interaction.
Pulling into his driveway, Owen knew why he’d stomached the gloom for so long; still uncertain if its absence would at all affect an already rocky foundation. Riley sat sprawled on their dark green sofa, flipping through available choices with absolutely no idea what to watch. The pockmark on her forehead was just starting to heal as Owen stood askew with his coat on.
“What took you so long?” she asked.
“Gerry and I both got laid off.”
“No.” As the word left his mouth, a hefty current hit the house making the lights flicker.
“It’s been doing that all night,” Riley sighed.
“Well let’s just hope things hold out a little longer.”
Owen eventually joined her on the sofa, discussing the night as if it were his only vice. Riley considered how she’d learn anything about Gerry now that they weren’t working together. Her stepfather had severed all communication following the divorce, Owen’s daily reports often a luxury she took for granted. These minor comforts would eventually disperse, leaving only confetti and dust in their place; the road to recovery tragically ridden with clichés.
Christopher S. Bell is a writer and musician. His sound projects include Emmett and Mary, Technological Epidemic, C. Scott and the Beltones and Fine Wives. Christopher’s fiction has recently appeared in Big Echo, The Fiction Pool, Maudlin House, Midway Journal and Other People’s Flowers among others.