Third Law

“There she is, man,” Kenny said, nodding in the direction. I looked and saw her standing at a table in the corner of the bar, talking to some of her friends. My mouth went dry, my palms started to sweat. I was twelve again, trying to work up the guts to ask the pretty girl from homeroom to the Spring dance. He nudged me with his elbow, “You goin’ to actually speak to her this time?”

“Fuck off,” I said. I tried and failed to avert my eyes from her.

“Ooh, tender.” Despite his constant mocking, Kenny was my best friend. Not that he was much of a friend, for that matter; more like a partner in shared social isolation. “Come on man,” he said, “it’s not like she’ll spit acid in your face if you just offer to buy her a drink.”

“Dude, just let it go,” I said, “I’ll worry about me, you worry about you.”

“Dave… buddy… I’m telling you this as your friend: you’re a total pussy.”

I shook my head away from her and walked toward the bar. Kenny followed a half-step behind me. We sat down at the counter and waited for the bartender to find the time to take our order. Once he noticed us, he wrapped up his conversation with a giggly waitress and came over. “Yeah?” He asked, flat with indifference.

“Coffee with a double-shot of Bailey’s,” I said. He nodded.

“Jack & Coke,” Kenny said, “if it’s not too much trouble. I know you’re pretty busy…” His voice was heavy with implication. The bartender, seeming to have missed the jab, apathetically fetched our drinks and returned to ignoring his customers. “Fuckin’ asshole,” Kenny said once he was out of earshot.

I nodded and took a sip, “Yup.”

“Why do we always sit at the bar? This dickhead treats us like we’re lepers every time we come here. I’d rather be forced to tip than deal with this bullshit.” Kenny drained half his drink.

“Probably because this is one of the few places in town that hasn’t thrown you out at least once. Don’t you remember what happened at Penny’s?” I asked him, half-consciously glancing over my shoulder, feeling like I’d lost track of something.

“That was different,” he said, “that waitress was a bitch.”

“You started screaming at her in the middle of a crowded restaurant for not bringing you an extra tub of ranch. I’m honestly surprised they didn’t ask us to leave sooner.”

He grunted in typical cranky fashion and finished another quarter of his drink, “Whatever man.”

“It was a mistake, dude. You didn’t even give her a chance to fix it, either. You just started yelling, ‘You fucking hambeast!’ as soon as she brought our plates,” I reminded him.

“We ordered the ranch,” he said defensively. “She put it on the bill. As if sauces should even be fucking priced… If I’m paying for condiments, I will get my damn condiments… If people are going to be expected to tip, which is retarded anyway, they should be allowed to expect adequate service.” He kept talking but his voice faded into a muffled garble, barely audible over the jukebox.

I wasn’t paying attention to him anymore. I smirked and nodded and sipped my caffeinated cocktail, still looking around the bar. Kenny always shot off into tangential rants about anything and everything; it only took the smallest infraction to invoke his wrath. I’d once seen him berate an old man for taking too long at an ATM. I’d already heard his current tirade several times that month and each time it had gained more vitriol. He’d probably been snubbed after trying to flirt with his server somewhere. That was how he was: always bitter, always resentful, always blaming something or someone else; misanthrope was a euphemism.

As he was jabbering, I glanced over at the door, then back to the TV hanging over the bar, then back over to the corner where I’d seen her earlier. She wasn’t there. I looked back at Kenny and kept him going with a chuckle and a, “…right, yeah,” after he’d mentioned something about a certain football player looking like the type of person that might rape a horse.

My drink dwindled and disappeared and a new one was brought after much attention-grabbing, indication, and indignation. The same happened with Kenny’s Jack & Coke, but he’d also managed to coax two shots of tequila out of our high-and-mighty host. We each took one and knocked them back. I looked back at the corner again; she was still gone. This cycle continued into the wee hours.

By the time we were both feeling warm and seeing fuzzy, I began to notice something strange. There was a small mirror along the back of the bar. It was a fairly small place so they used the mirror to make it look bigger, I assumed. To the inebriated mind, it looked more like a window as long as it was seen from an angle. That was the effect it had on me then, even though I knew better. I could see the bartender behind and all the patrons along the counter from my angle, but the lights seemed different. They were a little softer than out in the bar. I closed my eyes and opened them, thinking I was just too drunk to be rational. Nothing changed.

“I gotta take a leak,” I said, hopping down off the stool.

“Don’ ffall in,” Kenny said, beginning to lose eloquence.

Wandering toward the back, I weaved through various mild displays of drunken buffoonery: a tense pool game, an argument over some recent sporting match, a long string of crude jokes from a guy that looked like a used car salesman. As I slipped into the men’s room door I glanced across the bar at the corner again. She’d returned. Her eyes caught mine as the door closed. I stared at the inner side of it for a second and sighed. I turned around and another guy slid past with an “excuse me.”

I said, “sorry,” and moved aside, shaking my head with momentary embarrassment. The bathroom was fairly standard fare for a hole-in-the-wall dive. The toilets were cramped together, there was a heavy smell of stale urine and beer, and almost everything looked like it would feel slimy. I released the pressure that had built up in my bladder as quickly as I could for fear of catching an airborne strain of gonorrhea. I zipped up and walked back over to the sink to wash my hands. Something shifted in the mirror.

The reflection wasn’t mine. It was me, for sure, but I was different. My clothes had changed. I was sporting a scraggly beard and long hair pulled back into a ponytail. I looked down at myself and everything was normal: same black shoes, same gray pants, same blue shirt, same brown blazer. The mirror insisted something else.

My jacket was leather. I wore a dirty t-shirt and ratty blue-jeans. I could only assume my boots were snakeskin. The door opened in the mirror and my reflection turned around to greet someone that looked like Kenny. He was motioning for me to come back out to the bar. I heard the jukebox get louder and felt a little rush behind me. I glanced to my left and saw someone turn into the stall next to the sink. I turned back to the mirror and I was there, in my own familiar skin. I rubbed my eyes and finished washing my hands, then left the bathroom.

As I left the bathroom, I noticed the lights were dimmer outside. The music had changed over from top-40 hits to classic rock and heavy metal. I could feel different textures over my skin; my face itched. Kenny, or someone that looked too much like him, slapped me on the shoulder. He brought his arm around me and pulled me closer under it- something he’d never done- whispering loud enough so that I could hear him, but no one else could: “Jesus Christ, man, try not make it look like you’re doin’ a fuckin’ line next time! Wipe up.”

My hand reflexively wiped my nose and my mouth sucked my hand clean. I was horrified with how natural this motion seemed. My eyes darted around the bar and I found familiar faces. She was standing in the corner, right where I’d left her, but she was different. Her features were sunken and she had a tattoo down her neck. Her hair looked greasy and tangled. She wore a halter top and short-shorts in place of a blouse and skirt. She winked and blew me a kiss. I couldn’t help but smile back.

“Alright, my turn,” Kenny said. “Go get us some drinks, man.”

I made my way back to the front of the bar while Kenny ducked into the bathroom. I leaned in on the counter and almost instinctively yelled, “Why if it isn’t Ol’ Johnny Ringo,” at the bartender. Surprised at my voice, I slunk down a little as some of the other tavern-goers looked my way.

The bartender turned and laughed and took my order without hesitation. “What are you hiding for,” he asked, “who gives a shit what these fuckin’ tourists think?”

I nodded and he kept up the chatter as he poured the two pitchers of beer I’d ordered.

“You guys comin’ to the party later?”

“What!? I am the fuckin’ party, man!” I said, hiding my confusion.

We laughed in alien ways at foreign jokes. He left his post to help me bring the load to my table. The group greeted us with glee, all of them staring at the beer. After pouring our glasses the bartender said, “When you need a refill just get my attention and I’ll bring out another pitcher.” He left us to our devices.

After we each drained half of our glasses, my dream girl welcomed me by shoving her tongue down my throat. The taste of cigarettes and regret made me want to vomit. She grabbed my ass and I was pulled back from the brink. “I love you, baby,” I said.

“Love you too, babe,” she replied.

Another person in our group, a face I half-remembered from my youth, called her name. “Hey Jen,” they said. I liked the sound of it. They chatted about the past and laughed about things I couldn’t quite recall. I was compelled to smirk at a few of them. I scanned along the mirror behind the bar as I waited for Kenny to come back from taking whatever drug was now coursing through my bloodstream.

I caught my reflection sitting at the end of the counter, looking about and quietly smiling while Kenny’s reflection threw out some self-righteous diatribe. All three of us took a drink. Beer swirled down into my stomach.

Kenny returned from the bathroom and gave me the same hard slap and one-armed hug he gave me earlier, but I didn’t shrink away this time. It was different, but it felt normal. He took his glass and chugged the whole thing, then poured another. Once the beer hit the brim, he tapped someone else on the shoulder and nodded them toward the bathroom, continuing the relay. I waved Johnny over for another pitcher. He poured it immediately. His reflection stared contemptuously in our direction with a towel over his shoulder, unflinching.

“So anyway,” Kenny said, having left in the middle of a conversation, “we’re fuckin’ with the dude pretty hard at this point. We figure it’s the easiest way to weed out the rats, you know: make ‘em piss themselves. I’m hoverin’ real close over the guy, watchin’ Dave play with his knife while he tells him some bullshit about the last dude that stole from us. You know, the same old crap we used to hear about the mafia: balls cut off, tongues cut out, houses burned down, family members kidnapped…” he took another drink midsentence, “all that shit…” He belched. Johnny sat the pitcher down and trotted back behind the counter.

I was enthralled by what I heard, smiling, laughing, or nodding on cue to every reference. As he talked, the thoughts came flooding in. I remembered myself, but not myself, committing almost every petty crime in the book. I was a thief and a thug. I had manufactured, smuggled, dealt, and used every drug I had ever heard of and some I hadn’t. I’d cheated, lied, and stolen my way through the underbelly of society since I was born. And Kenny was right there with me the whole time.

The most terrifying aspect of this sudden rush of memory was that I only felt the slightest tinges of regret and remorse. I looked back over at the mirror while Kenny kept relaying stories and the girls left the table to powder their noses. My image stared in my direction and turned around sharply as another group came into the reflection. It was the girls I’d been leering at the whole night. Kenny’s image nudged my arm and I shook him off again, just as I’d done when we arrived.

I turned back to the table, drank the rest of my beer and poured another glass from the new pitcher. I didn’t look at the mirror again until Johnny belted out the last call. By this time, Jen- apparently my girlfriend- had returned with her flock of companions. I’d learned through the conversation that we’d been dating for about a year, having met when she and her friends wanted to buy cocaine from Kenny and me. My reflection had first seen hers at an art show last year during my final semester of college; she’d just been hired as an adjunct professor there. They’d never spoken.

I glanced back at the mirror and found an unfamiliar scene. Johnny’s pompous doppleganger was pouring a round of shots for my reflection, Kenny’s, and the entire group of girls sitting to our right at the counter. I’d taken the seat between my friend and the girl I’d been ogling and made my move: one last round, on me, for her consideration.

She willingly accepted the token and we toasted our fortune. I formally introduced myself and she almost immediately stopped paying attention to me. Kenny’s reflection noticed this. Jen grabbed my focus back by running her hand up my leg and groping my crotch. “Hey, baby, I’m horny,” she said in a lurid whisper. “Let’s go fuck in the bathroom.”

She took my hand and led me to the back. I watched the mirror as we walked; Johnny smiled knowingly as we passed by. I nodded back to him and saw the image of Kenny scream at Jen’s reflection, flailing his arms around like a rabid ape. As the bathroom door opened, she started crying and my fist hit Kenny’s jaw. He went down as the door closed.

I stared into the mirror while I bent Jen over the sink. I was conflicted. While we writhed against each other in the dirty restroom, I could only think about what was happening back out there, in the reality reverberating through the silvered glass behind the counter. At first I could only see the inner side of the door. Soon, it opened and Kenny’s reflection stumbled through, crazed. He rammed himself into the stalls and ripped the paper towel dispenser from the wall. Water gushed up from below the frame where he destroyed the sink.

The door opened again and the bartender and my reflection burst through. We grabbed him by the arms and pulled him out of the room, kicking like a toddler. The door closed and I let go; Jen moaned loud enough to let the whole place know what we were doing. We each cut and snorted a line, then straightened ourselves up and left the scene. My vision blurred along with the rest of the night.

My eyes opened to the sound of someone else breathing and a soft glow filtering in through the curtains. I turned over in my familiar bed and saw the back of her head. Her hair was clean, albeit a little messy from a night of what I hoped was a lack of sleep. She snoozed peacefully as I sat up and grabbed my phone from the nightstand: ten a.m., seven new voicemail messages, thirty new texts; almost everything from Kenny, only a single text from Jen.

I looked at the bruised knuckles on my right hand. They were aching. I thought back to the night before; there was the punch and having to drag Kenny out of the bar; things seemed to have gone exceedingly well with Jen; the drive home, or maybe it was a cab ride. Things were still fuzzy. I tossed the phone aside and Jen stirred behind me. “Where you goin’,” she asked as I stood up.

“Takin’ a leak,” I said.

She yawned, “Don’t fall in…”

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