Swagazine #4

The Appointment    by Jim Clark

I ENTERED THE BAR with a sense of purpose, of direction, something that had recently been absent from my daily routine. It had been a long time since I had procured a job, much less one that was this important. Lately things had been clouded in an air of disillusionment and regret, and the dreary prospects of my existence were hanging heavy on me, much like the way the smoke hung off the lights of this place.
     Nobody looked up from their glasses or mugs as the door creaked behind me and shut with a thump. The noise of my entrance went unnoticed, the sound disappearing within the din of low mutterings and soft lounge swing music which filtered out from the back of the room.
     I took care to walk in slow and move fluidly to the barstool, gathering as much detail as I could from my surroundings before sitting down.
     I took a quick inventory of bodies:
     The couple in the booth to my left, in the corner. They sat close together, his arm around her shoulders, their foreheads almost touching as they spoke and shared quiet conversation. A single candle in a glass bottle burned softly, illuminating their young faces.
     The fat guy at the small table in the center of the room. He held a burning Puerto Rican Tueraco cigar in his left hand and half of a salami on rye in the other. He glanced up and regarded me with a cautious eye and chewed with his mouth wide open so that I might see what his jaws could do. Sweat gathered on his cheeks in small droplets and reflected the dim light like little diamonds.
     Someone sat in a booth in the back of the room. The light overhead was tilted slightly to the right, just enough to cast a shadow over his face. All I could see of him was the silhouette of his massive figure as he shifted slightly in his seat to get a good look at me. Smoke climbed away from him in little wisps.
     The bartender polished a glass behind the bar, as bartenders sometimes do, but not often.
     The clock on the wall behind him read 11:34.
     I pulled the wooden stool back from the bar and sat down, reaching into my overcoat pocket for the Lucky Strikes and letting my eyes flick back to the fat man one more time. All of this I did in one motion so as not to attract attention to any one particular movement. I didn't want to reveal anything too soon.
     The fat man was still squinting at me, chewing carefully and meticulously, sweating ever so slightly.
     I turned my attention back to the bar and the short man behind it.
     "Evening," I said quietly. "Double-bourbon on the rocks, with a lime twist."
     He answered me with an even gaze. The glass in his hand made a soft squeak as he rubbed it with a damp rag.
     "And some matches, if you please." I shook a Lucky up from the pack and picked it out with my teeth.
     The cleaning of the glass continued as he said: "That's a strange drink for this time of night."
     "Yeah, well I'm a strange guy." I slid the pack into my pocket again.
     There was a pause as the bartender looked at me, from one eye to the next. He took the rag out of the glass, turned the glass right-side up and placed it on the bar in front of me. A couple of ice cubes clinked as he dropped them in. Then he produced a bottle from under the bar and poured the urine-colored spirit, topping it off with my slice of lime.
     His eyes never left mine.
     "Four-fifty," he said.
     I held up a five spot between my index and middle fingers and waggled it. "The matches?"
     He dropped a matchbook next to my glass and snatched the bill from my hand.
     "Keep the change," I said. I took a match from the book and lit up.
     The smoke felt good in my lungs, felt good as I pushed out what was left of the night air I had ingested on my way to this place, felt good as it tickled my eyes on the way to the ceiling.
     I spent the better part of an hour consuming my cigarettes, watching the room's activity in the dusty mirror behind the bar. There wasn't much movement, and what little there was didn't hold my attention too deeply. The fat guy worked on his cigar in between grotesque bites of his sandwich. Every so often I caught a glimpse of his sharp teeth, and I could have sworn I saw his forked tongue at least once.
     I stared at the candle between the young lovers for quite some time. It flickered and danced in time with the cadence of their conversation.
     My drink was refilled three times.
     The young couple in the corner finally got up to leave. The fat guy's eyes darted away from me and landed on the retreating figures as they pushed their way out into the street. All eyes in the bar chased them out the door, watched as they strolled past the window and embraced under the streetlamp, followed them past the window until they were out of sight. A few seconds later, their voices had trailed off completely.
     The candle on their empty table flickered and went out.
     The room was silent, except for the soft tinkle of the lounge music and the whooshing of the fan overhead as it churned through the smoke.
     I looked back to the mirror and noticed that the fat guy was now standing, moving towards me. I let him approach, extinguishing my cigarette to make it appear as if I didn't notice him.
     I could feel his hot breath on the back of my neck as he stood behind me, and it wasn't pleasant. I turned slowly to face him, and our eyes met.
     We said nothing for what seemed like forever and a day.
     Then he said:
     "You here to see the Foreman?" His deep voice was like gravel being shoveled from the back of an iron truck.
     "Sure am," I answered.
     "What's yer business?" he snarled.
     "Check your calendar," I said.
     He cocked his head slightly, his eyes following my form to the floor and then back up to meet my gaze. I hadn't been sized up in such a melodramatic way in quite some time.
     "Don't take that tone with me," he growled. "Do you know who I am?"
     I smiled and lit another Lucky. It was all I could do to keep from blowing a small cloud of smoke into his boarish face. But I wasn't here for a confrontation, I was here for a delivery.
     "Yes, I know who you are," I said through my grin. "And I also know the words that can hold you." I leaned in a little. "I think you know I who I am, yes?"
     His eyes widened slightly, and he took a step back. His nostrils flared.
     With a snort, he turned and stormed away to the back of the room. To the booth where the large man sat in the shadows.
     He murmered quietly to the large man, pausing only to point back at me and snort for emphasis.
     I thought of the young couple, and the candle.
     The large man waved his hand in dismissal, and the fat guy returned to the bar.
     His head hung low, as did his glare. "My apologies," he muttered. "The Foreman has granted you audience with him." He motioned for me to go to the back of the room.
     "Think nothing of it," I replied. "I'm sure that will be easy enough for you."
     As I approached the corner booth, the shadows shifted over the large man's face, and as I took a seat opposite him I noticed that they were almost part of his grizzly features.
     He regarded me solemnly for a moment.
     "I had not expected an envoy," he said at last in a hollow voice.
     I shrugged and waved my cigarette slightly. "You should have," I said.
     "I suppose so." He took the cigar from between his jagged teeth and smiled. "I'm glad it was you. It is good to see you, Sara."
     I could not hide my amusement at this. "You lie well, sir," I returned. "But I receive your compliment nonetheless."
     He returned my smirk. "This meeting place is acceptable to you?"
     "I've been in worse places."
     "Yes, I know," he said. "So. How are things at home?"
     I shrugged again. "They are as they have always been."
     "And probably always will be, I'm sure." He tapped his cigar on the small metal tray in the middle of the table, sloughing off the gray ashes to reveal the glowing embers beneath. "You look like shit," he said as he returned the cigar to his teeth. "This the first job you've had in a while?"
     "That's too bad," he said. "I would think someone as resourceful as you would be doing a lot better."
     I wasn't enjoying this particular route that our dialogue had taken. I looked away, my brow heavy, and my eyes fell upon the empty table and the smoldering wick of the candle.
     "I want to keep this short," I said, turning back to the large man, "so I'll get right to the point."
     "By all means."
     "I bring a message," I said. "It is time."
     He studied my eyes carefully. "That's it?"
     "Yes. That is the entire message."
     He nodded. "Very well," he said. "If that is your message, then my answer is this: I have been preparing, and I am ready to begin."
     He blew a large ring of smoke into the air, and it briefly hovered over my head before dissolving.
     "Then that is settled." I leaned back in my chair.
     "You look relieved."
     "I am," I said. "My job was to deliver the message, and receive yours. Now I can go home. I haven't been home in a long time."
     His eyes narrowed slightly. "I have been away from home much longer than you," he said sternly. "You get no sympathy from me."
     "And I'm not asking for any."
     There was an eerie stillness as we both considered each other in silence.
     I thought again of the young lovers, and of the dripping wax of the candle.
     I took a deep breath. "I suppose I should say something," I began. "I suppose I should try and change your mind. I believe that is why the message was supposed to be delivered in person, so this meeting could take place and I could try to intervene. I think I'm supposed to try and stop you. Maybe I should. Maybe I should go on and on, and tell you why this is wrong, and offer you all the alternatives that you were offered in the past. This does not have to be. It does not have to happen now."
     He said nothing.
     "Did you know that I have been empowered to grant you reprieve? It's true. I have the authority to bring you absolution, forgiveness. You could come back to the family. I could offer you a position, allow you to return home. I could do that. All you would have to do is let it pass. Let the time come, and then let it go. Sit idly by and do nothing, and redemption could be yours."
     I waited for an answer. When none came, I sighed and shook my head. "I don't really care either way," I said. "You can do what you wish. Perhaps they choose poorly when they sent me as the envoy. Because I don't care what you do. I've been here far too long, here in this city, and it's made me numb. So do what you will. I've said what I think I was supposed to say, but in all honesty, I have no feelings about it. Let it all get destroyed, why should any of us care? When this one is gone, another one will be made." I inhaled the last of my Lucky and dropped the butt into the tray in front of me. "I hope the next one is more interesting."
     I sighed again, and looked away.
     The smoke in the room had managed to consume most of the light that was left, despite the dim glow of the struggling lamps overhead. The lounge music had diminished entirely.
     After a time, my companion leaned slightly forward, drawing my attention back to him.
     "You know what I have to say, Sara," he said. "You cannot change my mind. No matter what your concerns may be, I cannot deny who I am, and what I have to do." His voice became somber and direct, and his eyes bore into me. "The time has come, and I must murder the world."
     I looked deep into his black eyes, and nodded my head.
     "Then my business here is done," I said.
     I rose from the table and turned to go. The fat guy at the small table stood and took a few steps back, allowing plenty of space for me to pass.
 [Image by Dee Dreslough]      As I reached the door, I heard the dark voice from the back of the room. "I shall see you again soon, Saraqael," he said.
     I turned my head slightly. "All too soon, Lucifer," I replied.
     The night air was cold and brisk, and it stung my face as I stepped into the street.
     I stood under the street light for a time, looking up at the dim lamp, and I thought of the young couple, and of the candle they briefly shared between them.
     I am still thinking of them.
     And now, here I am, waiting for the light beyond the horizon. Soon I will be going home. I can't see it, but I know the sun is just beyond the edge of the city and is slowly climbing into the sky. I am anxious to feel the warmth on my face, to sense the aroma of the morning, and to climb into the intoxicating light of the last tomorrow.


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Image by Dee Dreslough.