A New Friend
Tim was a rather small man, beaten down by the world on his shoulders and knees in particular. If the brittle 39-year-old had one secret talent, besides blending in like faded wall paper, it was that he somehow managed to make everything else look larger in the room by comparison.
“Thank you for meeting with me.”
The bar had a feeling of tired regret. A poker machine beeped between the lulls of glasses stamping on the bar and foamy draft pours.
“I figured we could just have a chat, get to know each other. See if there’s anything there.”
Tim’s clean-shaven face frowned a bit, realizing he had broken the first cardinal rule of social interaction: never say your intention.
“Not to make it awkward.”
This time Tim winced.
“Right, yeah. Cool to meet you too,” Ryan responded.
It was a slow night for the Crown and Anchor, a Tuesday between big games. Football season posters of past glory and present mediocrity lined the walls next to polaroids of costumed revelers and local musicians.
“I’ve never been here before, nice place.”
“Yeah, I try to come out here once or twice a week. Neil! Can we get a Chimay and a …”
“An amber! Just realized I should have asked if you drink. Sometimes people don’t, would have been a little awkward to offer you liquor if you’re an alcoholic right?”
Tim forced a grin with his forced joke.
“Sure, sure. So you following the season at all?”
“You know, sometimes I would say that I am a huge football enthusiast and I would rattle off names that I’ve memorized, but it feels like this is a chance to to be honest. To know somebody, right? Thank you Neil.”
“Are you sure you want the Chim…”
Neil the bartender trailed off, though his voice had an air of easy authority and warmth, underlined by ruddy cheeks and pear shaped middle age.
“Of course! Special occasion, special occasion. I don’t usually indulge in the Belgian ales, bit of a tricky stomach, but tonight is cause for celebration! The beginnings of a new friendship, Ryan, to friendship!”
Ryan’s hesitation to meet his high spirited acquaintance was perceptible to the entire bar, though Neil was back to polishing glasses and the local drunk was comfortably napping against the video poker machine. Ryan had misgivings about the whole thing, unquestionably. But finding friends in a new town isn’t easy work, especially when medical supply sales take you out almost every weekend to places like Philadelphia, Chicago, Orlando and Indianapolis. For all his new found financial stability, he was a social beggar that couldn’t afford to be choosy just yet. He clinked his pint against the chalice glass.
“I have always felt like we’ve been programmed, conditioned to like something that celebrates a complete lack of progress. A complete lack of progress, Ryan!”
The conversation lurched back and forth, Tim providing enthusiasm and Ryan unsuccessfully convincing himself the friendship could work. Behind the bar, Neil attempted to look anywhere but the one table with customers. The whole thing reminded him of awkward prom fumbling. He muttered under his breath about men these days, technology and society, how disconnected things were. If this conversation were a horse, Neil would have shot it.
“Second round? What do you say Ryan, another Amber?”
“Oh, uh, I actually have to get up pretty early tomorrow for a flight.”
“A flight! Sure, sure, traveling somewhere exotic?”
Tim’s nasal inflection had turned into the hurried lilt of defeat. He took out his cell phone, tapping keys to mask the disappointment in his eyes.
“No, not really, just back to Pittsburgh, Medical Center.”
“Well, I have to say it was a pleasure to meet you Ryan. A real pleasure.”
A handshake, a classy finish.
“Same, thank you for the drink and telling me about the city.”
“Oh, I’m a regular. I could show you around when you get back if you want.”
The handshake was still occurring. Ryan could tell Tim was trying to assert himself past his
inborn limp-fish demeanor.
“Sure, sure, I’ve got your number,” Ryan concluded.
“YOU DON’T WANT TO DO THIS.”
Ryan’s eyes darted to the bartender, who now had both hands extended and widened eyes facing a hooded figure.
The fear gurgled out of Tim, unintentional and thick.
“Just shut up and give me whatever money you have.”
The voice was sharp, harsh. In his hands was the molded steel and aluminum of a pistol. Ryan tried to guess his height and age. 5’ 10”, mid-twenties? No visible skin and no clear ethnic tone. Why did he think there would be an ethnic tone? What does that matter? People shouldn’t profile. The internal self-recrimination went on just long enough to jolt Ryan back with the remembrance that he was now in a new town, in a new bar, and was witnessing a robbery. The crime his sister had warned him about was apparently as bad as she thought.
“Oh God oh God,” Tim gasped.
“HEY YOU SHUT UP OVER THERE!”
“Tim, it’s ok, just breathe.”
“I’m gonna be sick Ryan. Oh God.”
“LOOK, I TOLD YOU…”
Probably closer to six foot. Face covered with some kinda ski mask, must be hot in there with the summer heat. Ryan wondered at how calm he was in the moment, a small confidence rising in him.
“He’s not feeling well, alright? We aren’t going to do anything, he’s just feeling sick.”
“I’m gonna make him sick if he doesn’t shut the hell ….”
Glass smashed. It happened so fast, Ryan and Tim processed it as a gun shot. Tim jumped up to tackle his new friend Ryan, and the two collapsed into a nearby dartboard.
“Stay down Ryan!”
Silence, breathing and heartbeats.
“It’s ok, I think Pat knocked him out.”
“I heard the yelling, saw like you needed some help.”
Pat the video poker drunk was wobbling a bit, holding the bar for support in one hand and the shattered end of a bottle in the other.
Ryan swore softly.
Tim raced to the bathroom, bouncing off of chairs in his rushed half-trot.
“Tim are you ok?”
“He’s got a tricky stomach. Goddamn Pat, you are one hell of a…”
Ryan pushed through the bathroom door to hear retching over the sound of hurried flushing, Old Navy khakis and white New Balance sneakers genuflecting on the tile floor. Ryan walked up to the partition stall door.
“You ok Tim?”
“Ryan? Is that you?”
“Oh, um, I’m alright. How are you?”
“Did you just jump in front of a bullet for me?”
A moment of silence, then another retch and flush echoed through the men’s room.
“I, uh, I guess so?”
“Just instinct I guess. I could feel myself getting sick, but when that guy raised up that gun, I guess the adrenaline or something just took over.”
Tim sheepishly opened the stall door, avoiding eye contact.
“Well, um. Thanks man. You … you kind of saved my life.”
“No, no, Pat did that. I just … I wasn’t thinking. If I was thinking, it was trying not to profile the guy.”
It started as a snort. Then another. Soon Ryan’s shoulders were into it, his back, and before long he was wheezing breaths between the laughter, tears streaming from his eyes. Tim, concerned at first, started giggling nervously along.
“That’s…that’s what I started doing too. Oh man.”
The pair walked out howling.
“Will you two shut the hell up? Anyway, yeah, I need somebody to come pick this guy up A.S.A.P., you hear me?”
Neil was on the phone swatting away the duo’s noisy revelry. Pat, having finished tying up the perp lying face down on a table, was eyeing him carefully between sips of bourbon.
“Look, you’ve got an early morning in Pittsburgh, why don’t you get out of here? I’ll stay with the guys to file the report.”
“Jesus, are you sure? I mean, I could wait.”
“No no, it’s fine. You’ve got work.”
“Alright, well, look. When I’m back on Tuesday, dinner is on me. Wherever you want buddy.”
This time the handshake was firm, equal.
“Yeah, sounds good. Buddy.”
They giggled a bit as Tim walked Ryan to the door. He waited at the entrance, and waved at the sounds of a Toyota Prius honking.
“Can I get up now?”
“Yeah, yeah. Neil, where’s your broom? Nice work, nice work. He called me buddy! Now that’s a new friend.”
The rope fell slack. When the perp took off his own hood and ski mask, the family resemblance to his excited younger brother was unmistakable. For all their differences in stature, they had the same piercing eyes, the same thin-lipped mouth. Neil shook his head and resumed toweling off the bar. Pat shoved quarters into the faded chrome of the poker machine.
Tim started whistling.
Story by: Mike Spara
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