Patrick Thomas Henry
An empty Lucky Strikes carton rests on the bar counter next to Ewan Walker’s elbow. Somebody has written “want to get” over the “Lucky” and “tonight” underneath it. Walker sidles his chair closer to the bar counter in Biddy Mulligan’s; the bar is a circular island occupying the center of the restaurant. From his seat he sees the chalkboard sign outside that advertises half a sandwich, a pint, and a bowl of pea soup for five pounds fifty. Walker traces his finger over the countertop along the tracks of dried residue from a cleaning rag, the swirls with water marks like tiny stepping stones. Outside rain slicks over Edinburgh’s medieval cobblestone streets, and from his seat at the bar he sees a young woman in an overcoat slip and drop her bags, a few shirts sloshing onto the wet stones. The girl bites her lip, flinches, clenches her fists as if damming her anger can stem the flood of expletives roiling in her mind. Or at least that is how Walker chooses to imagine her, the girl alone in the rain with her ruined garments.
Walker shakes his head, considers running to help her, but he sees her response: a quick shout to bugger off, hasn’t she had bad enough a night already, and if he wants to be of any help he ought to go inside, make a call, and hire her a car. So he takes the carton from the counter, rubs his thumb over the sticker informing smokers that “Cigarettes Kill,” and wonders about the stink outside, which drifts through the opened door. He has smelled it all over Edinburgh, now, and it reeks like pea soup left molding on a counter. The odor lifts with the fog, descends with the rain, and when he falls asleep back at Belford Hostel each night of his stay, the pea soup stink is there, permeating the room and his dreams. He pinches his nostrils shut so he can fall asleep in his bunk, and as his thoughts and body sink into oblivion, he feels himself buoyed on the mattress, the springs rippling against his spine. He reaches his hand out to the wall to steady himself, grabs a splintered railing, the shards needling into his skin. He sits up, rubs his eyes with the back of his hand. Pulling the splinters from his fingers, he gazes past the railing and finds himself on a skiff sailing through a stagnant ocean, the boat nosing through inches-thick algae. An oar at his feet is broken halfway up its shaft, the paddle bloodied a saturated pink. It’s the color of the wooden spoon he used to stir Kool-Aid as a child. Somehow he knows the stain has come from beating sharks away from the skiff. He pauses in his dream state, sees the ghost of his dream self’s memory, a Ewan Walker with tweed jacket tattered and flapping like a bird’s tail in the wind, a Ewan Walker bludgeoning sharks with a snapped oar. He sees himself take the oar and scrape jellyfish the size and color of watermelons from the skiff’s hull. The water glows iridescent before him, the skiff plowing through the waves, and these nights seem so very Hemingway to him, as if he ought to navigate to Africa and see the lions, but the skiff somehow strikes a sandbar, and Walker, after wading through the surf, discovers himself on the southern tip of South America, where families of orange-plumed penguins play Yahtzee. On evenings when his waking self has imbibed a few too many fingers of Glenlivet, the penguins wrap their wings like mittens around the dice tumbler, throw the dice, and when there is finally a winner, lift their wings as if to cheer and squawk in celebration, beaks pointed skyward. The flock surrounds the winning bird and claps it on the back. There is a rustling of feathers, a visible static burst, burning for only a second like a sparked lighter extinguished by the wind. If Walker, still dreaming, reaches for the tumbler and withdraws a small bottle of scotch from the jacket pocket where usually he keeps his notebook, the penguins flock around him, kicking at him. Their toes are clawed with daggers and the leather folds of their feet creak, creak, creak, like the springs in his mattress. He sits upright, awake again, and smells the Edinburgh air, pea soup burning off with the fog, through a cracked-open window. He takes his notebook from beside his hostel bunk and records the following note: Penguins throw some serious dice, and apparently plastic tumblers are not intended for the consumption of single-malt scotch whisky.
At the bar he takes a sip of his scotch while the bartender, a girl with a half-moon of piercings in each ear and a shock of purple bangs, talks to another customer about the penguin enclosure at the Edinburgh Zoo. Walker turns the cigarette carton in his fingers, studying the words, imagining the hand that must have written the message. His eyes follow the lines of the letters back to a man in a wine-colored shirt scribbling the words and blushing as he glides the carton over the counter, his reflection warbling over the bottles shelved behind the circular bar. The woman—she is a brunette, a butterfly barrette clipping back her hair, the wristband of her watch studded with rhinestones—laughs and flips the carton over. The man leaves Biddy Mulligan’s with the carton still on the counter, the woman taking her mobile from her purse and calling her friends, who laugh about the man in the wine-colored shirt. Outside the man lights a cigarette, his lighter sparking against the flint of twilight, and he hires a taxi.
Walker returns the Lucky Strikes carton to the counter and with one finger slides it across to the bartender. He tips back his cap and then scratches his beard. “This could possibly be the worst attempt at a pickup line I’ve ever seen.”
“Think that’s bad?” she asks Walker. She puts a hand on her hips and cocks her head toward the carton, her blonde hair with its purple-dyed shocks waving. “The guy she used that on? Went with her.”
“A woman? That desperate?” He edits in his mind the story he has told himself. The woman, having called her friends and told them about the man in the wine-colored shirt, takes the box, hides it in her purse, and waits for a man she might fancy more.
“Nah.” The bartender laughs. “Just another American wanker. Like you. Bored. But that guy, he says to me, ‘I just attract crazy like flies to potato salad.’”
“I thought the cliché was ‘like flies to honey.’” Walker loosens the knot of his tie and unbuttons his collar.
“No wonder you ain’t got a mate.”
“Now that’s not fair.”
“Listen, you, if you had a proper mate you wouldn’t be sitting here, elbows on my counter, on a Wednesday. You ain’t part of the after work crowd. So where’s your mates?”
“I’m here alone,” he says.
“I’ve noticed,” she replies. “But you ain’t got a mate?”
“No,” Walker says. “Not here. Not a ‘proper one,’ as I imagine you would phrase it. At least, not here.”
Shaking her head, she takes his tumbler and offers to get him another drink. Walker initially refuses, but the bartender talons her fingers around his wrist and informs him: “We’ve got no tolerance for a bloke who ain’t got no mates. We’re obliged to make you happy, so take the drink or feck off.” Walker nods in acquiescence and lifts the tumbler by the lip of the glass, tilts it against his lips. “Ain’t got any mates,” the bartender mutters to herself, and Walker sighs to his scotch—well, you’re certainly not going anywhere.
Outside a small group gathers under the eaves of Biddy Mulligan’s, away from the misting rain and across from the clapboard advert. They slouch, hands in the pockets of their hoodies, and they lean toward each other, whisper, offer cigarettes from rumpled packages, click their thumbs on Bic lighters. Smoke curls in front of their faces. Proper mates, the lot of them, and Walker rides the tendrils of their smoke into their conversation: Late arriving for a show in a Rose Street pub, they instead hike through the rain until they find another pub, an empty one, and they plan to drink themselves silly off electric-colored drinks; they plot to stump their bartender by ordering beverages with made-up names that suggest vibrancy, that spark of alcoholic lightning that quickened their thoughts, yet numbed their limbs, slowed their movements. A round of Clockwork Oranges or Purple Rains for everybody, while Walker drinks scotch and listens to the bartender bantering with customers. A woman approaches the counter and complains that there is not enough salt on the rim of her margarita; the bartender screws the cap off a saltshaker and dumps it in the drink, like a snowdrift falling from a rooftop.
One of the boys outside extinguishes his cigarette as he turns to jab his finger toward the pub’s advert; one of his friends takes the lighter from his hoodie pocket and cups his hand around it, striking the switch with his thumb. The flicker of the lighter sparks like the fireflies blinking against the evening, now a summer ago, when Walker and his friend Marion sat on the wooden benches in the pillar garden. They read the poems of Walt Whitman in the company of others, the wind whispering through the branches as if reciting Whitman’s lines in airy sighs. From the garden they watched the sunset, the fireflies flashing as two Labradors chased each other through the woods. The kiss of Walt Whitman’s lines: Still upon Walker’s lips as he props his elbows on the bar at Biddy Mulligan’s, even still—seven days in the future—when he sits cross-legged on the Amtrak train bound from Philadelphia to Lewistown, the station where Marion awaits his arrival. The rain slashes at the window in torrents. He uncrosses his legs, his ankles pop, and the train mumbles through the storm; Walker imagines the train’s collapsible exit stairs folding down and then his walk along the platform with his grandfather’s seabag hefted atop his shoulder and then dropping the bag to the platform to embrace his friend. But there is the rain, always the rain, and consequently Marion, waiting, will sit in her car while Walker rides the train to Lewistown. The overhead reading light will blink as if conveying a message to him in Morse code, its reflection pulsing on the glass. Behind him will be Edinburgh, somewhere in the rain.
The rain quickens outside Biddy Mulligan’s; the misty spritz becomes heavy drops, splattering on the cobblestones. The hoodie-wearers across from the chalkboard struggle with the lighter. And Walker has the fresh tumbler that the bartender gave to him, water rings condensing on the wooden bar. He pushes off from his elbows and straightens his back before taking the scotch glass by the lip, tilting it to his mouth, and savoring a small sip, a ghost of flavor.
“Ain’t that better?” the bartender asks, pushing her bangs from her face.
Walker smiles and salutes her with a touch of two fingers to the brim of his cap.
The hoodie-wearers have decided on a spot of supper, and as a flock they migrate into Biddy Mulligan’s, their sweatshirts soaked an oily, crow black from the rain. Walker removes his wallet and selects a ten-pound note, which he leaves for the bartender. He calls her attention to it with a rap of his knuckles on the counter. “Excuse me, Miss—”
“No, mate, we dinnae need any of that.”
“You have a crew of ‘proper mates’ to look after now. I suggest you do so.”
“I ain’t taking your money. You, sitting there so glum?"
Walker pushes his stool back from the counter. “Then take yourself to see the penguins. You should. I imagine they’re not an unpleasant bunch.”
“You ain’t bad, you know? Stop again.”
“I might,” he says, and he steps into the heavy rain, which saturates his tweed jacket and his cap. He slides his hands into his pockets. The stink of cigarettes lingers in the air like a memory caught in the awning overhead, the story of the hoodie-wearers struggling with their lighters against the wind. Walker splays his fingers out in front of him, imagines the residual nicotine in the air dying his skin a dirty, dry yellow like aged, disintegrating parchment. A cryptic photo child for British caution stickers—“Cigarettes Kill.” And then a taxi rushes over the cobblestone street, its tires slicing through the rainwater, the headlights skating over the slicked stones. Ewan Walker follows its taillights into the night.
Patrick Thomas Henry is the Associate Editor for Fiction and Poetry at Modern Language Studies. His short fiction and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in Fiction
Southeast, Duende, Green Briar Review, Northville Review, Necessary Fiction, and Sugar House Review, amongst other publications. He teaches creative writing at the University of North Dakota, and he lives in Grand Forks, ND, with his wife and their cat. You can find him on Twitter (@Patrick_T_Henry) or at patrickthomashenry.com.
On the windowsill by my desk, I keep a red brick, with a corner smashed off. Most of
the brick’s surface is still covered with mortar. It’s an unlikely memento: heavy, rugged, damaged. When I was an undergraduate at Susquehanna, a drunk driver plowed his car into the university’s ceremonial entryway. A few of us heard the crash, followed almost instantly by the whoop of police sirens; we ran outside to see what happened. The car’s undercarriage was torn out and its front end was jammed into the wall. Debris was flung across the road. We could hear the engine continue to rev; the driver thought he could still get away, drunk enough to think the totaled car wouldn’t hinder him. By dawn, first responders had cleared the scene. I walked to the broken gate and picked up a brick—the one now on my windowsill. By noon, a maintenance crew was repairing the gate, creating the illusion that nothing had happened. Like the best souvenirs, it’s a reminder of a vanishing present.