The bar was nearly empty now. Lights high above, dangling from the ceiling, were now dimmer than usual and I knew it must be nearing closing time.
I looked around. There was Joe, as I called him, sitting a few bar stools away toward the end of the bar- his usual lot. He didn’t look awake, but groggy- as if recovering from a long flight and combating jet lag, but really I knew it was just the bourbon he’d been pouring down his throat for decades. The bourbon he spent most of his nights like this one downing the poison, here. Joe didn’t talk much, which is why I didn’t know his real name. Don’t get me wrong, lord knows I tried- I have a tendency to talk the ears of strangers off once I have a few drinks in me. But he never replied, and I didn’t hold it against him. He was his own sad, sorry character in this world, and it wasn’t to be taken personally.
The bar tender wasn’t in sight anymore. He wasn’t very talkative or friendly anyway for that matter, not the usual friendly girl with hair like Betty Page who asked of my writing and talked of the weather, so I didn’t mind so much. There was an old song from the seventies playing from the dusty jukebox. I wondered how many people had heard that same song wailing from that sorry machine. Glancing at my watch, I downed the last of my last gin and tonic, jingled my keys on the counter for a moment, coaxing myself up from my ripped bar stool. Time to go home. Time to face the world again- leave this dark and tired place, and the sadness it carried behind. For tonight, at least.
As expected, my dog was quite unhappy to have been left alone for so long and howled loudly, running around the house. Daily it was something I vowed to change, but never seemed to bring myself to when the time came. The silence of my little house was simply too crushing, entirely too heavy most nights, as day turned to dusk again- and yet still, I always ended up back there. I should’ve been more thankful. But more than often, I wasn’t.
Settling into my usual groove in the old couch, I opened a beer. The news was on TV but luckily on mute- as it always seemed to be- and only the headlines streaked past quickly. My inebriation was weighing my mind down, and so I only caught a few phrases, words.
“..Two killed in midnight crash..”
“..Convicted guilty and sentenced to..”
“.. killed in car bombings today..”
These days, to me, it seemed to be the only way anyone could stomach watching the news. Fleeting and brief. As emotionless as possible. Strangers, somewhere else, with the bad luck wind at their backs.
Without warning, a picture hanging from the wall fell off. It landed face down with a thud on the carpet, the only noise at all in the house except for the slumbering hound dog. After more coaxing of myself to move, I got up and walked toward it slowly. Not only had the gin taken it’s toll, but also the pills that I popped daily like a child does candy; these days. I picked up the frame, steadying myself on the small end table. To my surprise, it was The Captain. Naturally I should’ve known this, considering the placement and blank space on the wall where The Captain usually hung, but gin can play some amazing tricks on a woman. I looked down at him solemnly. A captains hat and uniform, and a long sherlock pipe in his hand, almost to his lips, as the other was lighting it. White beard and mustache, heavy eyebrows which looked both sad and stern. The kind of strength that comes with living to that age. Expressionless mouth, squinted eyes. Suddenly the stereo kicked on somehow, as if brought to life all it’s own, and Billie Holiday was crooning out the blues from another era out into the living room around me. My attention drawn away from The Captain now, I was only hearing Billie.
When he went away
The blues walked in and met me
If he stays away, old rockin’ chair will get me
All I do is pray, the Lord above will let me
Walk in the sun once more
It was Stormy Weather, stormy weather here to stay, old Billie was singing about. I looked back to The Captain knowingly.
“I bet you know what that’s like, huh old boy?” I blew on the picture then, dust rising back in my face. I set him down on the couch in the empty spot. His spot on the wall still vacant, I think back. He’s been hanging there a long time now, a lifetime it seems now, drunken and alone in my old house on this tired night. Somewhere outside, far away from the darkened windows of all the city houses and lazy street lamps, I can imagine the stars directing the lost back home, or somewhere better. The radiated, poisoned oceans, destroyed by humankind- the worst kind of loss; so unnecessary and made by greed, to the core. I think of those stories you read every now and again in the newspapers and in magazines, of the lost dogs who were left behind in a family move but months, years later, finding their way home again. It must be the stars. Oh, and The Captain, with his deadpan expression and thick, heavy eyebrows, taking a long drag on his pipe. Maneuvering through some ancient, long forgotten storm without worry, steady handed. Telling his best first mate that he’ll be home to see his first son born, he’d better goddamn believe it.
“You know, you really ought to dust in here more often,” an unfamiliar voice tells me suddenly in a matter-of-fact tone, awaking me from my exhausted daydreams on this night. A dark voice; aged from years of tobacco smoke and life experience. I sigh.
“I know, I know.” Settled back into the comfortable groove on my hand me down couch, I glance over to The Captain’s gaze. “There are a lot of rational things I should do more often.”
“Is that so?” His voice seems softer in this question. “Well, that is true. I watch you, you know. Where does the irrationalist stem from? Where does any of it begin?” Sitting opposite of me on the couch, I get to my feet and walk to the linen closet; rummage through in search of a clean cloth.
“Does irrationality ever truly have a beginning?”
He pauses in thought, then goes on: “Time is a humanly barrier we impose on ourselves to feel closer to the ground. It’s like gravity. Let go of the limits and look further. Clear your mind.”
Cloth in hand, I close my eyes, trying to do so. A stab at freedom. Clarity. Barriers. I repeat the words in my head. After a minute or less, I sigh.
“I can’t. I’m too weighed down.”
“Oh, Jesus H. Christ.” He scoffs. “By what?!”
I laugh, then. “By what?! By the call I should’ve made to my mother today. By world hunger, the confused and lying government, the helpless impoverished children dying in the streets all over the world. My busy sister with her productive anxieties; my good friends who’ve lost their way. The dying elephants of faraway countries hunted for human greed. The rain outside the window, clogging the gutters- my own restless and chaotic existence-“
“Stop,” he says. “Just stop there.” He pauses a minute, taking a long drag from his pipe. Swept up in my feverish thoughts, I am breathing heavy now, waiting for him to go on. I wait. “Are those dying elephants here now, in this room? The starving children? Your mother?”
I look around, knowing full and well they are not. Then I look to the ground, waiting for some kind of sly remark to come. But it doesn’t. “No, they aren’t here.”
“That’s right, they aren’t here. And what of you? Your ‘restless and chaotic existence’ as you call it? Who will worry about you?”
I wait again for some kind of answer, but nothing. “I’m not sure.”
“That’s because, though others may worry for you- and I don’t doubt they do- worry is one thing. Change is something different. Easily confused, mind you, but extremely different, nonetheless. You can drive yourself mad with worry for others who you can’t help with sheer worry. You can drink yourself into a stupor every single night if you’d like- trust me, others like you have before and have done nothing more- but if you truly worry, it means nothing without action. Only action can bring change.”
I think a moment. I see myself suddenly in the depths of some foreign jungle, hiding in trees, guns in hand, crosshairs set on poachers eyes. And bang. But no. That too, is irrational. “What the hell does that mean, then?”
He shakes his head, spirts of smoke hazy around his head. “You need to forgive yourself. You need to move on. Stop holding yourself hostage and put the worries to rest. You cannot be afraid of the dark waves as you are still learning how to guide your own ship.”
At this outspoken revelation, I am frozen solid. To let go, to truly forgive- is it possible? I try to imagine it. It’s the same as when I can’t sleep at night; when I remember as a child, my mother saying to me, think of the happiest things you can imagine. I think of exhaling, of the truth that surely would come with forgiveness of myself, as The Captain says now. I imagine myself then as the captain of my own ship, slowly willing my being toward shore. The hardships still there. The daily wear and tear of life still there. But also, undying peace; a kind of serenity which I crave so solely and completely on these nights, that I am left speechless with want.
“But, what if I never figure it out?” I hear my own voice again saying suddenly, a twinge of despair in my words. I look back to The Captain, sitting in frame on the other end of the couch.
But he is frozen again.
Frozen in time, in memory, in rich paints.
Picking up his frame, I look him in the face.
“What if I can’t figure it out? What then?”
There is no response.
Resting the good Captain in his frame on my knees, I look around the empty room. A cigarette butt smolders in the ashtray. Sleeping dog is still, lost in his dog dreams, chasing rabbits and hare. The news is repeating itself from the glow of the television.
Quietly, I sigh as I wipe off the painting. The dust gathers and builds on the clean white cloth, and I can see his true colors so brilliantly again, its as if it were his first day here to come and stay with me, forever. It’s then when I realize I am crying, as one silent tear falls onto the painting. I breathe a heavy sigh, then coax myself to more movement. It’s somehow easier now, with these words out here, and someone there, though he may or may not be real, nevermind if he ever was.
Slowly, I move back to the wall, and hang The Captain back on his old rusty nail- the place he has hung for so long now. A fixture in my home, my existence, my own scattered dream. I am all deep breaths and smudged eyeliner, the night wearing on me now more than I’ve felt in a long time.
Outside, the nights breeze is gentle and serene. Autumn has fallen again over this part of the world. I think of those I do not know and worry about, though they will never know it, and hope to myself that wherever they are in this moment, they are happy, too. Out of my pocket, I take a cigarette and light it. I inhale deep, taking a long drag. Sleeping dog has awoken and runs out ahead of me into the darkness, chasing squirrels and the like. Above, a million, billion stars twinkle for no one in particular. I smile up at them, thinking of The Captain’s voice.
And then, I just lay back in the long grass, my cheeks warm from the liquor and strange happiness. I look up to the stars again and wait, watching, knowing this isn’t the end.
Knowing that I too will find a way back to shore, someday.