I jumped up and applauded when The Traveler finished his story. I’m not sure what it was about it—perhaps it was the fact that, like everyone in my generation, I’d grown up with Mario—but it really struck a chord with me. The Drunkard rose his glass to The Traveler. The Student looked at his watch and said, “Good story, my friend. However, I’ve got to go.”
“It’s three,” said The Drunkard.
“Yeah,” said The Student. “But, well, you know how the busses are. What with their not-quite stable schedules and propensities for being late. I figured that—”
The Drunkard reached up and gripped The Student by the shoulder, pushing him down. “Have a seat,” he said. “I insist. You can walk up to campus if needs be. The weather’s not that bad.”
“I saw a rabbit fling against the city walls, propelled by the wind, as I was riding the bus earlier,” said The Stalker.
The Drunkard shrugged. “Well, you know, tough shit on the rabbit, I guess. Anyway, I enjoyed the story, Traveler.”
The Writer cleared his throat and drummed his fingers on the table. It was clear he had something pressing to say. “If I may interject,” he said, “with a comment upon your story—for that is why we are here, is it not?”
“I thought we were here to while away the time,” said The Drunkard, “but I guess not.”
The Student snorted.
The Stalker slurped at his cider and said, “I consider your methods of interjecting when you did barbarous, Writer. Karma, as they say, remembers all.”
“Who says that?” I asked.
The Stalker turned to me. “People of note.”
“Anyway,” said The Writer, “it pains me ever so much to see you once again not sticking to real life. Why, oh why, must we all—except for me, of course, avoid real life? Why must we all cling to falsities like folklore, and, ah, characters from video games? The world is a place of enough existential confusion that a wealth of philosophically-charged stories may be produced. Enough to fill a library—and, by my reckoning, that’s only by one person.”
For all the pretension in that statement, there was a valid point. It was true that life threw enough challenges in the way of the average person that anyone had the potential to become a philosopher. And, for the record, I was never one of those people who believed that writing things of, to use a term that may be horribly vague, “literary merit” was a waste of time because such projects did not sell. I don’t think anyone in our circle was a subscriber to that train of thought.
“Do you know what you’re doing?” asked The Student to The Writer.
The latter raised his eyebrows. “Pray tell, what?”
“You’re being an intellectual fascist.”
The Traveler grunted. “You don’t change your mind often, do you?”
“A constantly changing mind,” said The Writer, “is the sign of a weak mind. We must hold to our convictions if we are to have any effect on the world’s ways.”
“However,” said The Stalker, “what you’re failing to grasp in your infantile, posturing mind, is that when faced with the possibility that you’re wrong, it is perfectly acceptable to admit you’re wrong.” He slurped from his cider. “For example: When The Drunkard’s flatmates dragged me out to Madame Guillotine, I realized that skinning and hanging a rabbit from his door frame was the wrong way to take criticism. And, thus, I have not done it again.”
The Writer cleared his throat. “There’s a slight difference between skinning a rabbit and refusing to change your mind.”
The Drunkard returned to the table. “Is fuckface talking again?”
The Writer sighed. “And the crass voice of the day returns to the table. Please, Drunkard, find your way out of conversations that are above your comprehension. Perhaps you should find your Cloyd friend and talk to him about NASCAR.”
The Drunkard responded in a quite civil way, I felt: He threw his whiskey in The Writer’s face. (I wondered just how much money The Drunkard had to be able to afford literally throwing it all away on drinks. The man must have been walking into some serious debt when he finished here.) Then he stood up to order another one. The Writer nodded and said, “I may have deserved that.”
“Do you not agree,” said The Student, “that dipping into pop culture in order to illustrate a point might just be the way some people think? I’m not saying that’s the way The Traveler thinks, but—”
“Some times it is. I thought having a piranha plant pop into a story would be hilarious.”
“Ha!” said The Writer. “You see? He didn’t even go into it with any sort of thought of having a deeper meaning! There was no commentary intended on the purposelessness of the modern middle class life. No wise message about—”
“I really, really wish you would shut the fuck up,” said The Stalker.
“—the way society chews people up and spits them out,” continued The Writer.
The Stalker dragged a palm down his face. “Really, I wish you would stop talking. You’re giving me a headache.”
“In short,” continued The Writer, “your tale, Traveler, was mindless entertainment, worthless to the point of vapidity. Void of substance. Lacking any value. You have wasted the time of everyone at this table.”
The Traveler took all of this with one eyebrow raised.
The Stalker, however, was clenching and unclenching his fists. “One more word from you,” he said, “attacking this man’s story, and I swear to God I will hit you.” There was something different about his voice. The undercurrent of terror was gone. Now, I think, there was only the voice of a normal man tired of hearing someone who’d—and I’m going to lapse into a bizarre phrase here, one that I wouldn’t normally use but seems to be the only apt thing to say—gotten too big for his britches. “You’re prattling on, mimicking things your instructors have probably said in workshops to students trying to write things for fun.”
“Ha,” said The Writer, leaning back in his chair with a triumphant grin on his face. “That’s where you’re wrong. I haven’t been in a single workshop this year.”
“That’s fucking it,” said The Stalker. He leaped out of his chair, about to dive for The Writer when The Traveler blocked him and walked him out to the beer garden.
“Um,” said The Student. “Right. Well, look, Writer, perhaps you should take his story as a commentary on the tropes of folklore. Something to poke fun at the inherent pessimism of a story about a being that possesses people to fulfill a purpose.”
The Writer snorted. “Oh, good. A spoof.”
“Your mom’s a spoof,” said The Drunkard, returning to the table.
The Writer’s head drooped. He took off his glasses, folded up the end bits, and laid them, gently, as if his spectacles were a flag being put to rest upon a coffin, on the table and said, “Drunkard, your method of argument is infantile.”
“So’s your face,” said The Drunkard.
The Writer placed his glasses back on his head, nodded, and got up from the table and left the pub.
A Cheshire cat’s grin spread over The Drunkard’s face and he took a triumphant sip from his glass of whiskey. “The day is mine, huh?”
“I guess,” I said. “Student, should we head out? I haven’t started packing.”
“Woah,” said The Drunkard. “Where are you two going?”
“Lille,” said The Student, standing up, “in France.”
“And I wasn’t invited?” asked The Drunkard.
“Er,” I said.
“Well,” said The Student.
“Nah,” said The Drunkard with a laugh, “don’t worry about it. The French don’t really have the best of beer, and I can’t drink wine to get drunk. Feels like blasphemy.”
We said to say goodbye to The Traveler and The Stalker (if both of them came back in considering they had been out there for a bit, it was not beyond the realm of possibility that The Stalker had cut The Traveler’s throat for getting a glimpse of... I don’t know, the dual nature of his being.) Then, we left.