Sometimes They Don't Leave
BY SPENCER HAYES
They made their peace with the old man, but that did not mean they liked him, only tolerated him. If they had known when he entered all those years ago, stumbling over the scuffed and sole-worn sill of The Foxbilt Inn, lost in the haze of his most recent hangover, they would have… what? What could they have done to the man who sat alone, propped on a spindly chair, the legs shaking like dousing rods? He nursed the same beer he had been drinking now for years. Just how many years, they did not know. With the old man, time played hide-and-go-seek.
He was a fixture of the place along with the jukebox, the pool cue rack, the door that was left open even in the cold, the cityscape of long-necked bottles behind the counter. He passed from one generation to the next, from owner to owner, father to son. No one knew anything about him. The pillars of the community down to the gutter trash had their theories on his origins, his name, how he survived without food, without going to bathroom. They talked about him with glee and concern, no one believing a word of their own gibberish.
That first night he came in they should’ve known. His unkempt mustache draped over his lips like Spanish moss, his breath dead magnolia sweet. His eyes were two raisins pressed into his face, and without even ordering, he had a beer before him. He had not touched the tap, and all the glasses were accounted for, but he sipped, and he stared.
The other patrons talked among themselves and watched the old man. The folds of his skin held the dust of yesteryear, and his ears echoed with the singsong of the people who lived on the land before civilization. They expected hoof strikes to resound off the cobblestones outside, a whore’s caterwaul to trill down the dusky passages, a whiff of fly-glommed dung to slap their noses, tallow candles to flicker where once were light bulbs. They imagined muddy alleyways packed with urchins, sun-beat sailors, and tin cup beggars with filth-matted beards. They gave the old man his space and asked no questions.
Final call rang out, and as the other patrons gathered their coats, settled their tabs, found their friends, their latest squeeze, the old man sat on, sipped his near-full pint. He contemplated the universe in a drop of lager. The bartender asked him to get a move on, but the old man ignored him. He would not go.
Some of the bartender’s friends loafed around to see what the commotion was, and the bartender explained the situation. Together, they politely asked the old man to move, then again, then a third time, but not so politely. They kicked him off his chair, discovering no great and powerful voodoo held him to it. They muscled the old man out to the sidewalk. This was not hard. He was as light as an unfilled piñata, and so they heaped him by the curb, high-fived, and went away.
The next morning, when the owners opened the door, there was the old man in his usual spot, and he had a beer before him. When they saw him, they did not believe. The doors had been locked, the windows not jimmied. They blinked like prisoners released from solitary, dazed by the invention of light. How was it possible? But it was. It was.
This time they hauled him to an alley, set upon him with trashcan lids and bottles and fists and feet. They left him bleeding, unconscious, and were satisfied. The next day, they checked the alley and found a dark red corsage on the pavement. The awkward, sticky bloom trailed off into an archipelago of dots and dashes. The drizzle led back to The Foxbilt Inn, to the door, under it. The locks were secure, but when they went inside, there was the old man in his usual spot, in his usual condition, a beer within reach.
They all had ideas on what to do with him and how to do it, but they rarely said them out loud, did not want the old man’s magic to curse them. If they did scheme, it was always in a dubious, maybe-some-other-time kind of voice. Their fears made them feel silly, childish, and when all was said and not done, they still did not know what to do with the old man because they did not know if he’d done anything wrong, per se.
Even though it was only the third day, they knew he was—whether they liked it or not—a part of their lives until he died, or they did. A man who could survive a beating and heal overnight, a man who could not be stopped by deadbolts, by brick and carpentry was not a man to tango with. They lived with the mystery. What other choice did they have?
Some quit going to The Foxbilt Inn, too spooked by the frozen-eyed man in the corner, but their boycott floundered. They were drawn back, rapt by the oddity of a living statue. The old man attracted new customers, reporters, cameras, sightseers bursting with touristy zeal. The owners charged fees to gawk, and the hooting, pointing crowds were kept at bay with chicken wire. Activists said it was inhumane, and street corner evangelists said the old man was a sign of the end of days, spoke of archangels and Beelzebub. But they all faded away when they discovered he was not a show, just a man existing, sipping his beer periodically.
In time, it was like the man was not there, had never been there, that the bar did not have an old man living in it. And at night, after everyone else had gone, streetlights rubying the windowpane, the glaring shafts of color fixed the old man in his spot like an object, a relic, not a person.
Sometimes an unfamiliar would offer to buy him a drink, the requests sloppy-slurred by the end of the night, but the old man did not acknowledge the gesture. Sometimes they would get belligerent, demand the old man says something, shout and pound the table, and some old-timer would pat the rookie’s back and explain the situation in hushed tones.
Large-breasted women in tank tops stepped around him like he was a puddle of vomit, and bearish men, their wizened faces equipped with mountain man stubble, averted their eyes. The old man made them feel like they should have been somewhere else doing something else for somebody else instead of there doing nothing for no one.
The sullen realization slammed their chests like another body, hurt their heads, and warped their thoughts. The tops and bottoms of their steel trap faces pinched together. Their stomachs grieved and pretzeled. They were all like the old man, cheerless, mute, with no past and no future, no family and no religion. Not yet, they thought and twisted their glasses to and fro. Not yet. And the people who said it and repeated it to themselves did not believe it.
Spencer Hayes lives and writes in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.