They flocked together. What else could they do? They were all the odd ones out, which made them peculiarly fitting for one another. J, the irascible bartender who barely got shifts and was always broke but pilfered booze from the pub when he was there, keeping them all wet when necessary. M, the concert pianist with fingers broken in an argument with her boyfriend when he accidentally – he said – on purpose – she said – smashed the car door closed on her hand, ruining her career. B, whose business ventures failed as soon as she started them, each and every time, as if she were born to failure. H, whose performance art was more lucrative than it should be and who was waiting for the day they woke up to find that it was just a dream after all, whose entire being was fluid enough to fit in with any other crowd but who couldn’t, in good conscience, allow themselves to be subsumed by these or those or others because to do so would be a falsehood, and if H had one rule it was that performance wasn’t a lie but a truth creatively told.
These strange birds still in pinfeathers, barely out of the pediatric ward of life, found themselves with a semi-regular date at J’s bar, on Tuesday nights, when he could get a shift and the rest of them had nothing else going on, which was almost always, since J wasn’t a very good bartender and so got the off nights, and Tuesdays were empty of almost anything, let alone social evening plans. Except that they became so – social – and remained so – regular, more or less – proving that there was something to do on a Tuesday night, and it was this.
“Where’s H?” M said, coming in, rubbing her hands from the cold. Her fingers ached almost all the time, but most of all in the cold. She taught piano lessons for money and wept in her spare time. J nodded at her, whipping a glass out from under the bar and filling it with M’s poison – the cheapest beer on tap, whatever it was. B already sat at the bar nursing her own drink, a vodka-tonic with a plasticky cherry in it.
“Not here yet,” B said. She waved her phone around. “They called to say they’d be late.”
“That’s H,” J said, resting the beer in front of M. “Calling, not texting. Like he lives in the twelfth century.”
“They,” B and M said together. J rolled his eyes. No one else other than J could get away with it and still call H a friend. Even H didn’t understand it. B and M did, all too well, but since they knew that H didn’t have a shot with J, who was a self-described pussy-eater, man-whore, and pathetic romantic – depending on the night, his mood, and the amount he’d had to drink – they never addressed it with either H or J.
A customer came in and J reluctantly went to deal with the imposition. B and M waited, barely speaking. This was what it was to have friends, for them. To be able to sit silently, unquestioned, until the desire to speak simply arose in them. The four were like a meeting of Quakers that way. When the door burst open again, B, M, and J all turned, expecting to see H, but instead there was a policeman in the doorway, huffing and gesturing outside.
“Can I get you something?” J asked, using his barman rag as a prop, something to do with his hands.
“Your friend is outside, got hit by a car, said he was on his way here, he says you’re next of kin?” The policeman waved his arms pointlessly some more, trying to get someone to come outside with him.
“They,” B and M said together again, abandoning their drinks. J stayed inside. He couldn’t leave the bar. He had a job to do. He couldn’t get fired. He wasn’t paying rent on time as it was. But more than that, he couldn’t see H broken.
Outside was an ambulance and a police car and a gurney and the car that hit H and its driver. B and M rushed to the gurney to see that H was fine, shaken up but fine, maybe a concussion but fine. They hugged B and M and asked about J, and said to tell J that they were fine. B escorted H to the hospital while M went back inside the bar and smacked J upside the head for staying inside.
“I thought they would be dead,” J sobbed later, much later, after closing time, when he was good and sauced, and M made cooing noises and patted his back until he fell asleep.