The Traveler called on Friday afternoon after talking to the rest of our party. We were going to meet at The Sub-Pope’s Flock in a couple of hours to resume our contest. I asked if The Drunkard was going to be resuming his tale, and The Traveler went silent for a moment before responding that, in the interests of not infuriating The Writer, The Drunkard would not be continuing his tale. (The Traveler did not elaborate, but I assume that his thought process went something like this: if The Drunkard continued, The Writer would throw a hissy fit about how we shouldn’t bow to the man’s wishes just because he was the most easily-antagonized out of the lot of us.) I said I would be there and hung up.
To waste some time, I decided that I would stroll around the city gardens before going to the pub. It was a windy day, so I put on my windbreaker, tossed on my baseball cap (the Houston Astros are one of the worst teams in baseball but they were my team, and we must always represent), and walked outside. These walks were a time that I valued immensely, but today, an exploding window shattered any hopes I had of a nice walk. A human form catapulted out of the first floor kitchen and landed on the pavement of the walkway.
I ran over and found, not entirely to my surprise, that it was The Writer sprawled nearly unconscious on the ground. I looked up and saw a Greek woman looking out the space where window had just been. She screamed “malacka!” before walking back into the kitchen. I shook my head; maybe The Writer couldn’t actually control himself and angered people simply by virtue of giving voice to his thought processes. Crouching, I slapped The Writer on the cheek a couple of times.
He blinked rapidly and sat up, then rubbed his head, checked his hand, and said, “Well, at least I’m not bleeding.” He looked up at me. “Oh hello, Narrator. Do I have any glass shards sticking out of me?”
I shook my head. “What happened?”
The Writer stood up with a grunt and dusted off his jeans, then his red button-up. “Stasia and I—Stasia’s the one who kicked me out of the window just then—were discussing relationships, as healthy, sane adults do from time to time, when she said that she hadn’t been in one in a while, and she was starting to feel very lonely.” We started walking. “She mentioned that, when she felt in such a way, it was mostly in the mornings when she woke up; so I said, joking of course, she could always come to my room and I’d keep her company.”
“Ah-huh. Did you mean that? Was your ‘joking’ comment a cop-out, Writer? I think it was.”
The Writer scratched his chin. “Maybe. I’ll have to get back to you. Anyway, I said that I’d keep her company and she started screaming in Greek. When she does that, I usually try to back towards the door, so I can open it up and flee to my room. Well, this time, she was at the door, so I made the mistake of backing towards the windows—thinking that she wouldn’t try anything with the risk of smashing them.” He sighed. “Turns out I was wrong.”
I smacked him on the back. “Well, buck up. You don’t have glass in you and we’re about to go hear another story. I was going to head into town, take a meander around the gardens for about half an hour before heading to the pub. Would you like to go?”
The Writer looked back at his block’s kitchen, at the glowering Greek woman who had reappeared at the window frame, and said, “I think it would do me some good, yeah.”
It was a cool afternoon in early October. The Writer and I walked down the footpath discussing who we thought would be the next person to give storytelling a shot.
“Personally,” I said, “I don’t really care who it is. I’m just having a good time sitting back and listening to what everyone has going on in their mind.”
“You are aware that you’ll have to take a turn as well.”
I nodded. “Of course, but until that time, I shall do what I do best: observe and report.”
The Writer cocked an eyebrow. “Report? To whom?”
“Why, my readers.”
The Writer scratched his head. “Sorry?”
“I’m writing a blog, you see.”
“Oh dear Lord. You’re writing a blog about this?”
“Of course,” I said. “It’s a rather monumental time in my life; people want to know what’s going on.”
“Your parents don’t count as people.”
“There are others reading.”
The Writer kept his eyebrow cocked. It was very disconcerting, seeing that a person could hold a position like that for so long. “Like,” I said, “my friends back home.”
“I guess you’re sure that you at least have a loyal readership. Tell me: who do you think will be the next to go?”
“Well, I think that—Dog!” We passed by a woman in her early thirties who was walking her cocker spaniel, who was, in turn, pulling at his leash trying to get to us from the other side of the path. I came just short of leaping at the dog, but managed to control myself and walked over, scratched it behind its ears and made vague growly sounds at it. After a few seconds, I collected myself, stood up, and said, “Sorry,” to the woman. “Missing my dog back home.”
She smiled and said, “Oh, no worries,” and pulled the dog away, its tail furiously wagging in the air.
“Are you going to do that every time you see a dog?” The Writer asked.
“Hopefully not,” I said.
“Good. They’re not worth it. Attention whores. Cats are much better. You have to earn their respect, not like those blasted mutts who will love anyone who feeds them.” The Writer then spat on the ground.
My guess is that dogs never liked The Writer.
“Anyway,” I said, “if I had to guess, then I’d say The Student. It’s between him, The Stalker, and myself, and I think we’re all a bit afraid of what The Stalker has to say, so he’ll go last in the first round. That leaves The Student and myself: Now, given the choice between the two, who would you pick?”
The Writer wrinkled up his nose. “Considering you said that your goal was to observe and report—which sounds just slightly less frightening than anything The Stalker has to say on a daily basis, might I add—then I would have to go with The Student. Personally, I’m not thrilled about any of you going.”
Now it was my turn to arch an eyebrow. “Oh?”
“Yes. You see,” he said, taking a deep breath. “You see, it’s not that any of you are disreputable individuals—except for The Drunkard, who may be the most scandalous and crass man I have ever had the misfortune of meeting—it’s more that you are all, how shall I put it?” He paused. “Yes,” he said, “that’s it. None of you have any balls.”
I coughed. “What? What the Hell does that mean?”
“Oh,” he said, “not in the literal sense. Though you might not have testicles; I haven’t checked. It’s just that you all seem to be literary eunuchs. You don’t shock the listener to their core and make them question the society around them. Hearing the end of one of your stories is like listening to Beethoven’s Ninth more than once. It’s boring.”
I wanted to reach out and smack The Writer. I could take insults against my character; I could even embrace them, as they had the potential to have a kernel of truth. But to attack the Ninth! To attack any music! Music never did anything to The Writer! Music didn’t make him into the grade-A prick he was today. “How can you say that?” I asked.
“That horrible thing. Insinuating that the Ninth is boring! My God, man, people have been shot for saying less heinous things than that.”
“Oh come now,” he said. “Next you’ll tell me that you find Dvořák intellectually stimulating.”
I’d never sputtered before. It was an odd feeling. My mind came to a halt, started back up, then came to a halt again. I knew then how my old car must have felt in the mornings. “Yes,” I finally managed. “I do.”
“Pah!” responded The Writer.
“What do you like, then?”
“I only listen to true genius,” he said. “Like Philip Glass.”
I turned my head to one side. “The guy who made a soundtrack consisting of car honks and electrical wires buzzing?”
The Writer cleared his throat. “If you are referring to the tour de force that is Koyaanisqatsi, then yes. Beethoven is an ant compared to Glass.”
I seriously considered throwing The Writer into the River Stour—as we had made our way into the Westgate Gardens at this time—but I remembered what I read in a Zen Buddhist class about anger. I made a mental image of The Writer babbling on about Phillip Glass, stuck him in a Mason jar, and, instead of firing a gun at the jar—which is what the text recommended—I ordered a NAPALM strike on it. Then, back in reality, I sat down on a bench to catch my breath and calm down.
“Are you okay?” asked The Writer.
The Writer sat down next to me and said, “Excellent idea. It’s been a while since I relaxed in a park.”
Thankfully, he didn’t try to continue our conversation about music, and we sat in contemplative silence. This was the first time I had been in the Westgate Gardens, and the weather had changed its mind and become sunny. A British friend of mine once said that an Englishman’s garden is his castle; if you were to apply that to the Westgate Gardens, then you’d have a castle on par with Camelot. The Gardens were carefully and closely manicured; flowers seemed to be chosen to create an almost masterpiece of color to complement the natural pastoral beauty of the trees drooping over the River Stour, the green grass (I’d noticed that Kent’s grass was almost uniformly a deep, rich green, and that no one seemed to have to work to get the grass in such a condition), and the ducks floating along the river, quacking and flocking towards elderly people sitting on the banks. Being in that place and simply watching people go by made me almost thankful that The Writer had launched into one of the more pretentious tirades I was to hear that year. The Writer shifted in his seat, cleared his throat, and said, “Really, if you listen to ‘Pruit Igoe’ and compare it to the choral movement of the Ninth, then you’ll—”
“Shut up,” I said. A mallard and its mate floated along the river, quacking. A breeze rustled the trees. I didn’t want The Writer to pollute the moment with his yammering.
We made our way to The Sub-Pope’s Flock after a half hour spent in silence. On our way during the five-minute walk, the sky became dark with clouds and rain pelted the earth. I’ve heard that the Inuit have hundreds of words for snow, and I’m surprised that the English do not have thousands for rain. I’d been here less than a month and I’d already come up with thirty. This rain, the one with the heavy drops that seemed to hurl themselves from the sky like kamikaze pilots and only seemed to appear on days where the wind could knock over an old woman, was what I called “invictarain.” (So The Writer and I dashed through the High Street, through the invictarain, dodging French children left and right, and barreled into the pub in record time.
We shook ourselves to get rid of some of the rain, went to the bar, ordered, and joined The Stalker at the usual table. “Stalker,” said The Writer, “do you ever go places other than this corner?”
The Stalker slurped his customary cider. “Of course I do. Sometimes I go to the corner in the opposite side of the room. Wherever the wind takes me, you might say.” He took another slurp. “Judging from your presence, am I to assume that we are meeting for a story-telling session?”
“What?” I asked. “Did The Traveler not give you a call?”
“Yesterday, I received a call from an unknown number at half-past three—thirteen seconds into the minute, to be precise—and I threw the phone into the river,” he said. He followed up with a slurp.
“That…” I said.
“Odd of you to do, don’t you think?” asked The Writer.
“Not at all. There are individuals whom I do not wish to speak to. When receiving a call from an unknown number, I find myself in the precarious position of having to do away with that phone number, lest my enemies find me.”
The Writer and I nodded. There was a silence filled only by the music playing from the jukebox and The Stalker’s slurp. I thought about bringing this up with The Traveler, that we should perhaps meet at a time when there are other people in the pub. Not that I was afraid of The Stalker, but there were times when I thought that I should be spending my time with someone else.
The door opened and there was a thump. The Writer and I turned around and saw The Student laying face-up on the floorboards at the foot of the door. He was giggling to himself and, even from across the room, I could tell that he smelled like a distillery. “Oh Hell,” I said, getting up and walking towards him. “Hey Student, hard day?”
“It’s been a hard day’s night,” he crooned, “and I’ve been driiiiiiiinkin like a drunk!” He then burst into another fit of the giggles.
I sighed and dragged him to the floor next to our table.
“Hey, mate,” said the bartender, “I know you guys come in here a lot, but you have to take care of that one if you want to stay in. I won’t have anyone getting sick on the rug.”
The Student continued humming away to himself on the floor, and I walked over to the bar. “No worries,” I said, “we shall. Do you have any green tea or juice?”
“We’ve got orange juice.”
“Splendid. I’ll take four bottles of orange juice.”
The bartender put the bottles on the counter. I paid and brought them to The Student. I put one next to him and said, “It’s rum.”
He drank the bottle in ten seconds and let out a mighty belch.
I nodded and turned to The Writer. “Give him a minute or two and then give him the second bottle.”
The Writer sighed. “Must we take care of this imbecile? Really, it’s his fault for indulging too much. A wise man would know their limits and not surpass them—especially at two in the afternoon when—”
“Shut up and do it,” I said.
The Drunkard entered and asked the bartender what time it was. The bartender answered and The Drunkard said, “Fuck it, it’s past noon. I’ll have a whiskey.” He walked to the table. Today, he wore a very interesting shirt that had a picture of a hammer smashing a typewriter. On it were the words, “Fuck Writing.” “What’s up with him?” he asked.
“Dunno,” I said. “He walked in and—”
“Fell in, more like it,” said The Writer.
“Fell in. He fell in the pub like this, reeking to high heaven and shouting Beatles lyrics.”
“Son of a bitch,” said The Drunkard. His face fell and you could see some speck of sympathy on his face—both eyebrows went up, he shook his head just a little bit from side to side, and his mouth went downturned for a moment. He bent down next to The Student and said, “Hey, buddy.”
“She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah,” responded The Student.
The Drunkard nodded and patted The Student on the head. “Fuckin women, right, man?”
“Damn straight, chum,” said The Student. “Buddy ole pal o’ mine.”
The Drunkard noted the bottles of orange juice and nodded. He grabbed the one The Writer was holding and said, “Here, man. This’ll help.”
The Student grabbed the juice and downed it.
The Drunkard stood up, took his whiskey, and sat down next to me. “Poor bastard. You know, Writer, if The Student ever decided to write poetry, you’d find yourself vastly outclassed.”
“Oh?” Asked The Writer. “Oh? And how, pray tell, do you figure—do you reckon—that?” He grew redder and redder.
“First off: Your stories are crap. People want to read about the time it all works out in the end instead of when it all falls apart—”
“But that’s not real!”
“Bullshit. People need hope and happiness wherever they can get it. And The Student there, he’s probably got enough of the romantic in him to blow you out of the fucking water. My bet is that, after the first story, we’ll see a bit of that.”
The Writer snorted. “My ass.”
“Not your ass,” said The Drunkard. “My ass. You couldn’t write a happy ending if you had to.”
“That sounds like a challenge.”
“Might be. Might be.”
The two stared at each other as if they were Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef in a spaghetti western.
The Traveler walked in, ordered a stout, saw The Student and asked, “What’s up with him?”
“Women,” responded The Drunkard.
“Ah.” The Traveler nudged The Student—who gurgled in response—with his foot. “Chin up, buddy.”
“Chin up. Why? Why be happy if you’re so fucking lonely?”
“No, really, chin up. If you puke like that, then you’ll probably choke and die on your own vomit. You’re a pretty cool dude, but the only people who can do that are rock stars; and you’re no rock star.”
The Student scooted his way back against the wall and managed to prop himself up to a slouched sitting position. “There,” he said.
“Good man,” said The Traveler. He sat down at one of the remaining chairs, took off his ball cap, and said, “Okay. Who’s next?”
“I will go,” said The Stalker.
A collective shiver went down everyone’s collective spine. The Traveler, who had been taking off his jacket, put it back on. The Drunkard downed his whiskey and went to ask for another one. The Student belched. The Writer, after handing The Student another juice, muttered a prayer in Hebrew. It was as I feared: With The Student out of commission, the only person ready to tell a story was The Stalker. (True, I could have easily said something like, “Nonsense, my good man, I shall be the one who goes today; for I have a story of such thrilling, swashbuckling adventure that” etc. etc. etc. until someone stopped me. I could have said that, but I really, really wanted to be the last one to take his turn this round.)
“Ah,” said The Traveler, once The Drunkard had returned to the table with three glasses of whiskey. “Well, do you have anything to say before we start?”
The Stalker looked at us for a few seconds before he spoke. “No.”