It’s been said that all stories are Anansi stories. I’ll usually agree, but sometimes I say “horseshit”, because some stories are deeper than Anansi, older than Anansi, and come from the primordial Darkness that Anansi and Iktomi crawled out of all those ages ago. That primordial darkness lies dormant in our heart until we hear an echo of it in a story, and then we remember the long dark nights before fire came to us, when the darkness was dangerous and unrelenting. This is one of those stories.
Johnny sat in the bar, frustrated and depressed. The whiskey bottle he sought solace in lay on its side in front of him, and the clock on the wall read 2:38.
“Last call”, said the barkeep. “Want one for the road, bub?”
“No. What I want I can’t have, and what I can’t have wouldn’t help anyway,” Johnny replied, his words slurring under the weight of whiskey.
The bartender, having heard this before from the desperate souls who sought a wretched absolution from his confessional font, merely nodded slightly. He never promised his patrons heaven nor did he promise them hell, he only served them temporary oblivion for a modest fee.
“Settle the tab then,” he said. “I ain’t saying you have to go home, but I am saying you can’t stay here.”
Johnny pulled out a collection of rumpled twenties from his pocket. “Here,” he said. “My last eighty bucks.”
The bartender’s face never cracked, the old bar towel on his shoulder framing his balding head. “That’ll cover it. Time to fly, Johnny,” he said.
Johnny stood up, stretching and hearing the bones in his back pop and crackle, the wages of a life on the docks. “I’ll piss first, thankyouveryfuckingmuch,” said Johnny. The bartender simply nodded, and Johnny slouched and stumbled his way into the bathroom.
In the bathroom, Johnny leaned against the filthy wall. He read the poorly scratched poetry (“Here I sit broken hearted, tried to shit and only farted”), offers to trade sex for money (“Call Tammy, she’ll blow you for free!”), and the elementary school insult wars scattered under the gangland graffiti tags. What he didn’t get in the urinal went on the walls, the floors, and his own pants. “Fuck that motherfucker,” Johnny said, “fuck him and fuck his fucking bathroom too.” His bladder empty, Johnny zipped up his pants, ignoring the wet lines of urine running down his leg, and stumbled out the front door into the city’s night air.
Johnny shivered on the corner waiting for the walk light turn green. As he did, his mind wandered back to his most recent break-up with his on-again/off-again ex. They’d been dating now for about three years, and he wanted Johnny to move in. Johnny didn’t want to move in his boyfriend, because Johnny didn’t want to explain to his mother why he moved into a single bedroom condo in Uptown, as nice as it was, with another man. He had been about to tell the old bitch off anyway when they had their last blowout over a toothbrush, of all things.
The streetlight turned green, and Johnny followed its beacon into the crosswalk. Just as he stepped off the curb, a strong hand yanked him back onto the curb. “What the fuck,” Johnny started to yell, just as a CTA bus ran the light and barrelled through the intersection.
“Saved your life, that’s what the fuck, buddy. Pay it forward, save a life if you can,” said a deep husky voice. “Pay fucking attention and don’t be roadkill for your mother to sue over.”
Johnny turned and looked at his unexpected saviour. The man’s frame was largely hidden under the layers worn by a Chicago native in winter, when the wind would strip the most hearty resident to a crying baby in thirty seconds flat, but Johnny could see the build of a stockman or a butcher. It was the body of someone who did hard labour for his livelihood, with a thick beard covering his face. His dark skin was offset only by the brilliance of his emerald green eyes. “T-t-t-hank you,” Johnny stammered out.
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, the stranger said. “Pay attention, and pay it forward. You okay?”
Johnny nodded. “Mostly drunk and distracted, seeking what I can never have,” he said.
“Careful with that thought, buddy. Ain’t nothing in this world we can’t have, if we have courage to seek it,” the stranger replied, his deep voice rumbling as he spoke.
“Not me,” said Johnny, wondering why he was baring his heart to a random guy on a street corner as he sat in a pile of melted slush and dead leaves, his pants still stained and wet with urine and who knows what else. “What I want was stolen from me, and I can never get it back.”
A shadow fell through the stranger’s eyes. “I know loss and pain, and I know them well. Death is a motherfucker, but you can make out okay if you know how to bargain,” he said.
“I don’t want to bargain,” Johnny said, suddenly emphatic. “I want to get even. How the fuck do I do that?”
The stranger nodded slowly and paused. In that moment, the city stopped. Stillness descended as silence reigned, and the streetlights burned a bit brighter and clearer. Even the air felt cleaner and somehow sweeter.
After the moment had passed and the city once again shattered the illusion of tranquility, the stranger cleared his throat and said, “You’ll know the answer to that question when you cross into the shadows of a building, on this way or that, only to hear your name whispered in the darkness. There, hidden amongst the destitute and forgotten dregs of humanity, will be a woman, a guardian of the crossroads, to whom your saga is already known. ‘All you must do is voice the dream”, they will say to you. ‘For once spoken, a stolen dream is returned in triplicate. Be wary though, for with such great favour comes great risk… and you may find your dream not worth the payment.’ Pay the Ferryman then, or not, it’s all between you and the darkness. Godspeed in your search, my new friend, godspeed.”
All rights reserved, 2015, copyright filed.