Scotty sipped the first of two Jamesons while sitting at a cramped wooden booth inside O’Leary’s. The lighting was dim – as if the bar sat at the bottom of a lake. Shamrocks lined the brick walls despite it being weeks before Thanksgiving. This is where Scotty was told to wait.
These bars around Penn Station, Scotty thought. Too crowded with those clean-cut professionals too similar to those at his office on Forty-Fourth Street. Scotty watched them just as he watched the bar’s open entrance, though far enough away to avoid the damp, cool draft that whipped inside. Why not the bars around Seventy-Second Street, he thought. Quaint with fewer people and dependable space at the bar. He preferred those. He knew the specifics in their daily specials and the bartenders by name.
Scotty took another sip and decided to assign a backstory to each of the strangers at the bar. A game to pass the time. The balding man leaning on the bar, Scotty thought. Let’s start with him. Too young to be balding. Perhaps he’s attempting that interminable task of balancing a checkbook while providing for his wife and sixteen-year old daughter. Scrapbooking weekends and SAT tutors. Perhaps that explains his shoes, scuffed at the toes, and loose-fitting shirt. Too loose, as if he wore a checkered tarp. Go, Scotty wanted to tell him, to yell over everyone as if giving a sermon. He jerked his head toward the entrance as if the man watched, or even noticed him, and that’s when Tyler walked in.
Tyler waved as he lowered the hood of his windbreaker with his free hand, revealing curly brown hair tight to the scalp. Shorter than Scotty remembered. He traded his contacts for black-framed glasses and sported a thick, sprawling beard. Scotty finished his first drink as Tyler walked over.
“How are ya, buddy?” Tyler asked. He leaned over and hugged Scotty, who felt mildly embarrassed. Scotty wasn’t used to greeting men this way. He patted Tyler on the shoulder and felt the dampness of Tyler’s bright yellow windbreaker seep into his dress shirt.
“How long has it been, two/three years?” Tyler asked. He unzipped his windbreaker and tossed it on the bench opposite Scotty before sitting down.
“Something like that,” Scotty said. “Let me get you a whiskey or something.” He knew he always said “something” when feeling uneasy.
“No time, no time,” Tyler said, waving his hand. “My train leaves in forty, I can only hang a few minutes.”
From his flannel shirt pocket Tyler removed a cigarette – an e-cigarette – and inhaled. The exhaled cloud of vapor turned yellow like smog against the light from the hanging lamp.
Scotty reached for his second glass of Jameson. “Where are your things?” he asked before taking a sip.
“I rented a locker in Penn,” Tyler said. He then raised his e-cig and held it under the light.
“These are helping me quit. Seriously this time.”
“That’s great,” Scotty said. He recalled Tyler’s first drag. Eighth grade, on a dare. Tyler choked as the smoke left his mouth in gray, filthy puffs. The other boys laughed, Scotty included. Tyler caught his breath and laughed and took another.
“Say, why the single empty glass?” Tyler asked.
Scotty glanced to the young, balding man at the bar who was unfastening the second button down on his shirt. His lips were moving but appeared to be talking to no one in particular.
“I finished that drink before you got here,” Scotty said.
“Nope,” Tyler said, shaking his head. “I think you need to finish up. I can’t be at a table with a single empty glass. A single anything really. Don’t trust ‘em.”
Never heard that one before, Scotty thought. He studied Tyler’s grin, pushed into his right cheek, and decided he was serious. Not that it mattered, he thought as he picked up the glass, still quite full, and downed the rest.
“Now that’s better,” Tyler said.
Scotty set the glass firmly on the table and for the first time that day the whiskey burned and scrapped his throat like sandpaper. “Why are you going anyways?” he asked.
“You read my email,” Tyler said.
“‘Fuck Boston’ didn’t really tip me off.”
“I said ‘damn Boston,’ not ‘fuck.’”
Scotty wiped his mouth with his hand and leaned in. “Fine, but why Montana?”
“Relax, relax. I’ve got it all figured out.” Tyler took another drag of the e-cigarette. “A buddy of mine, we met on our last tour, he lives in Bozeman. He said he’d set me up with a job at his family’s diner until I got settled. He’s like a brother.”
We were like brothers too, Scotty thought, and reached for the nearest glass. He knew he always reached for glasses when feeling uneasy. Another sip perhaps, only it was empty. The other glass, too.
“Not that you aren’t. Damn, I’m sorry,” Tyler said. “You were my best buddy growing up. I’m just so damn excited. I’ve been back for almost five months, and it’s finally happening. Which reminds me, I’m sorry about Rachel.”
Scotty began tapping the side of the closest glass. “How did you find out?”
Tyler took another drag. “Jeez, I guess I shouldn’t have said that. You know, your Dad talks to mine. How’s he liking New York?”
“He likes it,” Scotty said, though he wasn’t quite sure. Yes, he helped his father move out of their colonial house in Waltham, Massachusetts. Yes, on the drive to New York, Scotty asked if he could stay at the new apartment for a while. Eighty-Sixth Street; far enough. “Of course,” his father said. “But get yourself together,” he added. Scotty hardly saw him. Scotty only showed up for six or seven hours a night. Restless, inconsistent sleep on a leather couch that stuck to his skin.
Tyler leaned back and stroked his chin. “Retirement. Damn, how did our old men get so old?” He then laughed and threw his e-cigarette on the table with a flick of his wrist.
Scotty looked again for the young, balding man but couldn’t find him. The crowd had doubled around the bar. Thursday night football. Scotty always told himself his not caring for sports was the true reason he never met his co-workers for happy hours. Again he picked up the nearest glass.
“Anyways, the reason why I wanted to see you – I haven’t in years, there’s that of course – but there’s something else,” Tyler said. “A request, and I had to ask you in person.”
Scotty looked back at Tyler, who picked up the e-cigarette and replaced it in his pocket.
“Come along with me.”
The glass in Scotty’s hand slammed down as if it slipped through his fingers; it did, almost. “What are you talking about?” Scotty asked.
“I’ve been considering it for a while,” Tyler said.
Scotty volleyed the glass in between his thumb and middle finger in a fast motion, so that the glass appeared to be vibrating.
“I know you don’t think I’m serious,” Tyler said. He reached over and placed his hand on the vibrating glass. “Think about it. Especially now, after the episode with Rachel.”
Now he’s really fucking with me, Scotty thought. After all, he sent an email several weeks before, when he learned of Tyler’s return to the States and heard nothing. He even felt a bit foolish for sending the message. After all, high school was six or seven years ago (already?). Their fathers were the best friends, Scotty thought. All this, only to have Tyler write back the day before, saying he’d be passing through New York. “Just enough time to check on you, old buddy.”
“This is ridiculous,” Scotty said.
Tyler removed his hand and brought it above his head as if stretching. “Of course! But that doesn’t mean I’m not serious. Never have I been so serious. Except, perhaps, about moving to Bozeman.”
Two girls walked past their booth, both in slim blue jeans and loose blouses. Pale blue on one, hot pink on the other. Scotty missed their faces, but Tyler gave them a wink-and-nod they didn’t seem to notice.
“See those girls? You know what their problem is?” Tyler asked, pointing his finger as if scolding a toddler. “They’re cute, but they’re also not real. In the sense that they’re dolled up. Their jeans, they probably paid ninety, over a hundred dollars each.”
Scotty reached into the pocket of his black weather coat folded next to him, and removed his phone. “Rachel liked wearing nice jeans. Express or something.”
“Jeez, I need to know when to shut up,” Tyler said.
Scotty stared at the phone screen for several seconds, as if it told him what to say, before sliding it back into its pocket. “Forget it, tell me more about Montana.”
Tyler smiled and leaned back in. “Jacob, my buddy, he’s been telling me about the night skies out there. You can see our galaxy, plain as day. Or plain as night in this case.”
Scotty felt nauseous as the whiskey swirled in his stomach. “You could always go to Vermont or Maine for that.”
Tyler slammed his fist. “But that’s out here and I don’t want to be out here!”
The couple passing the booth jumped. Likely leaving for some dinner at the Breslin, Scott thought. The man stared Scotty down while tugging at the lapel of his coat. Drunk, madman, Scotty imagined him thinking. “Idiots,” was all he said and grabbed his girl’s shoulder to push her along.
Tyler rose and turned around, “Sorry about that,” he called to the door, but the couple was already gone. He then dropped into the bench. “All I’m saying is that I think you’d appreciate the change too. Of course, if you can’t, or rather, you think you can’t, then I’ll have to respect that.”
Scotty squeezed his hands together in his lap until they hurt. “I really can’t.”
“You really can’t or you think you really can’t?”
Tyler laughed and folded his arms. “You think you still have a shot with her.”
Now that’s a cheap shot, Scotty thought. Things weren’t over at all. A break, some space, that’s all. That’s how Rachel put it. But the way he sat with his arms folded and that grin – that grin – fixed on his face. Scotty wanted to swear, to grab a glass and slam it hard so it would shatter, to prove something, though he wasn’t sure what.
“Alright, alright, I have to be going now anyways,” Tyler finally said. He grabbed his windbreaker and stood up. “Take care of yourself. I’ll reach out once I get settled. And
remember, never trust an empty glass.”
Scotty watched as Tyler slid from the booth and maneuvered the crowd and nodded to the bouncer before disappearing into the pouring rain.
Scotty felt as if he held his breath for their entire exchange. The nerve, the goddamn nerve, Scotty thought. He needed something. Another drink. He reached for a glass and remembered both were empty. Promptly he rose, coat in hand and worked his way to the bar. He waited several minutes for the bartender to notice him.
“You know you can never see any stars around here?” Scotty asked the bartender. The man rolled his eyes as he flipped a tap and poured a beer. “You gonna order something? It’s busy. And it’s raining, of course there’s no stars out tonight.”
“Jameson, neat. Double.”
Scotty turned to face the crowd and through the narrow, changing spaces in between the moving bodies he could see the wooden booth. Why not a bar like McHenry’s, Scotty thought.
Three-dollar drafts, served by Don with the distinguishing lisp. Tyler said it was too far out of the way, that’s why.
“Your drink,” the bartender said.
Scotty turned around and noticed, to his side, the young balding man. Only well-defined wrinkles ran across his face and gray had invaded his stubble. Late thirties, Scotty thought. This would explain the baldness.
There you are, Scotty imagined himself saying. Only the man looked to him.
“What did you say?” he asked.
“How are the Jets doing?” Scotty asked, raising his glass.
“The Giants are playing.”
“Good for them, good for them,” Scotty said, and then took a sip.
The man’s face went rigid. “They’re getting destroyed. You’re not even paying attention.” He scoffed and refocused on the television. Scotty then downed the rest of his drink. “I guess the glare from your bald spot was distracting me.” The man slammed down his beer and leaned off the table. Saying nothing, he shoved Scotty to the ground. Scotty reached for the bar’s edge but missed and instead knocked his glass over. The people around jumped as he and the glass hit the floor. Scotty stood up and found himself in a circle of uncertain faces. They want a fight, he thought. That’s what he would have hoped for. Scotty inspected the sleeves of his shirt and coat when he felt a hand on his shoulder.
“It’s time for you to go home,” the bouncer said. Scotty knew the drill. He opened his wallet and dropped a ten and twenty on the counter. “Thank you,” he said to the bouncer and left.
The rain continued to fall in heavy drops. Scotty crossed Eighth Avenue – stepping ankle deep in a puddle next to a corner drain while throwing on his coat – and into Penn Station. He followed the signs to the ACE, through the wide halls lit by bright fluorescent lighting. Every image – the shops selling clothes of dubious quality, the cheap fast-food joints and tasteless cafés – passed him in disjointed moments like scrolling through a lousy flipbook.
The platform was cold and damp. Like the bar, Scotty thought. Only the platform was near empty. He walked up to the edge, peered into the tunnel and saw nothing. From his coat pocket Scotty removed his phone. The passing of unseen trains shook the platform and rattled the beams above. He scrolled to his recent calls and dialed despite the weak signal.
“Rachel? Rachel? Listen there’s something I need to ask –”
“You’re drunk Scotty.”
“No I’m not. Maybe a bit, but only a bit.”
“Where were you?”
“Listen, the bar was so crowded, goddamn football, and those Shamrocks –” “O’Leary’s.” “I’ll explain but first I need to ask –” “I thought you’d learn after last time.”
“Tonight was something different.”
“I was so embarrassed.”
“Just listen to me –”
“You’re not moving back until you get control over yourself.”
“I wasn’t going to ask you –”
“Then what do you want?” Scotty looked around him. He noticed a man, leaning on the next pillar down, reading on his phone. His beige trench coat was wrapped tight around his large stomach and accentuated his small facial features. White handlebar moustache and thick glasses.
“Let’s move. Let’s get outta here. Somewhere out West, what do ya say?”
“This is ridiculous.”
“I mean it too. Tyler, my buddy, the one from the army –”
“Wait, are you near a window? Can you see any stars? Any at all?”
“It’s pouring outside and no I’m not near a window.”
“How do you know it’s pouring then? You only think it’s pouring.”
“I’m calling your father, you need to get to his place now.”
Scotty hung up and stared at the floor for several seconds. He looked out to the tracks and watched drops of water fall from a leak above. An announcement blared over the intercom –“Now arriving: the A train” – and Scotty again leaned over the platform. He saw the tracks, golden from the light of the approaching train. He wondered how far the train could take him. Inwood or the Bronx, though he wasn’t sure. From there, another train, perhaps to Albany or Boston. New England falls.
Scotty’s phone vibrated and he answered.
“Where are you?”
“No you’re not. Rachel said you’re near Penn Station.”
“Why did you sell our home?”
“Now’s not the time. I’m calling for a cab.”
“You knew I wanted to move back someday.”
“Dammit, be outside of Penn on Eighth and Thirty-Second.”
“That really bothered me!”
Scotty hung up looked around. The few people on the platform stared at him hesitantly, as if he shouted “fire”. Scotty looked to the man against the pillar, who lowered his phone at Scotty’s soaked leg.
“Where does the A train end?” Scotty wanted to ask. The man would answer, he was sure of it. “And good luck, son,” the man would add. A rush of relief and a clarity in his senses overwhelmed him. Scotty imagined himself riding to the last stop – wherever that was – and only then decide where to next.
“Where does the A train end?” Scotty asked.
The man dropped the phone into his pocket and folded his arms. He studied Scotty –brows scrunched and lips pursed – as if he understood the heaviness of this question.
“What has happened to you?” the man asked.
“I stepped in a puddle,” Scotty said, before running up the staircase and out to Eighth Avenue, where he waited on the corner of Thirty-Second for a cab to arrive and carry him away.
Carlo Burriesci is a recent transplant to Colorado. He grew up on the Jersey Shore and worked in New York City for two years before deciding to move to Boulder. After college, he discovered he could use writing to help convey what it means to be a young adult in the twenty-first century. Apart from writing, his interests include discovering new music and playing retro video games. He is a member of the Boulder Writer’s Workshop and volunteers for the Flatirons Literary Review. Follow his blog at dudeslife.wordpress.com, where he writes flash fiction under the name Cole Thomas.