By Tom Mahony, Nov 06, 2008

Me and Smitty sat in a downtown bar on Wednesday at two in the afternoon. The place was dark and musty and littered with middle-aged men drinking in silence. Smitty quaffed three beers to my one.

I pushed away from the bar. “I’m gonna go.”

“Stay a while,” Smitty said.

“I need to get back to work.”

Smitty winced. Three months since he’d gotten laid off. He’d worked the job his entire adult life, a loyal employee, but when things got tight they dropped him like a brick. I felt bad for him but also a little jealous. I hated my job. Had bigger dreams.

“Okay,” I said, sitting back on the stool. “One more beer.”

We ordered another round and watched images flashing on the television. The sound was off. Everybody in the bar stared at the screen. The show involved a bunch of celebrities seated around a big table playing backgammon. Some kind of tournament. The celebrities were all smiles, really living it up. I couldn’t tell what they were saying. They laughed and played backgammon and mugged for the cameras.

“I’m taking a martial arts class,” Smitty said.


“Just looking for something...” He shrugged. “I don’t know. Something real. Got plenty of time these days.”

“How is it?”

“So far it’s been all about focus and breathing and stuff. And that’s okay, to a point. But the other day I asked the instructor, you know, when do we learn how to kick somebody’s ass?”

“And what did he say?”

“He just kind of stared at me. Then he walked away. I think he was trying to tell me something with that stare.”


“Beats me. I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Maybe he was showing that you can stare some guy down until he buckles. I think it was one of those Zen puzzles. A problem you chew on until you figure it out and achieve enlightenment.”

“Or maybe he just thought you were a jackass.”

“Yeah,” Smitty nodded absently and pulled from his beer. “Maybe.”

We watched the television. The celebrities looked like they were exchanging good-natured insults. Inside jokes. Hollywood stuff. There was no denying their charisma. No denying they were cooler than you.

“Not that I want to fight,” Smitty said. “I’ve never fought anyone. But if I was ever walking down the street with my kid and some guy started a scrape...” His voice grew edgy. “I’d want to know how to pummel him. I want to protect my kid. No matter what.”

He slammed his beer on the bar. The sound echoed through the room. Foam sloshed from the bottle and onto the counter. Fellow boozers eyed us warily and one by one turned back to the television.

“What was that about?” I said.

“I don’t know.”

The bar went quiet. Tense. Everyone drinking and watching the television and drinking some more. Screen images flashed like a strobe in the dim and windowless room. It felt like some weird dungeon we’d never escape.

I wanted to ask the bartender to turn up the volume. I needed to hear what the celebrities were saying. They seemed downright giddy. They seemed to know something about life. Something I wanted for myself and for Smitty.

But the show went to commercial. Some gorgeous woman hawking skin cream. My arm itched all of a sudden. I checked my watch, had to get back to my cubicle. The place I’d always dreaded, but now...not so much.

I turned to Smitty. “Maybe it’s time to start looking for another job.”

He grunted. “I toiled at that place for fifteen years. Not for the money but because it’s who I am.”

“You gotta suck it up and move on. That’s how you protect your kid.”

“I believed in the work. It was my identity.” He looked at me, pleading. “How do I just move on from that?”

I shrugged. Had no answer.

The bartender changed the channel. Cable news. Breathless coverage of some massive flood in India. Total devastation. Corpses stacked like sandbags. The reporters looked ecstatic.

I drained my beer and stood. I placed my hand on Smitty’s shoulder in an awkward man-condolence. I opened my mouth to speak, to offer some bit of wisdom or advice or comfort. But no words emerged. There was no comfort in here.

Nothing real.

I glanced once more at the flashing screen. The images raced on and the corpses stacked higher and the reporters cheered and in the bar the men tipped back their drinks and studied the television and ordered another round.

Then I turned and walked down the hall and through the door and out into the sunlight.

Tom Mahony is a biological consultant in central California with an MS degree from Humboldt State University. His fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared or is forthcoming in Flashquake, The Rose & Thorn, Pindeldyboz, In Posse Review, Boston Literary Magazine, VerbSap, 34th Parallel, Void Magazine, SFWP, Kurungabaa, The Flask Review, Foliate Oak, decomP, Long Story Short, Flash Forward, Six Sentences, Laughter Loaf, and Surfer Magazine. He is currently circulating a couple of novels for publication. Visit him at tommahony.net.