The Man Who Could Only Be Human
by Shawn Jacobson
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
On Memory Lanes
appears in issue 726.
“You don’t see this in Omaha,” the barfly said as I poured him a drink with my nonexistent right hand.
“Actually,” the kid said, “I’m from Iowa, just north of Des Moines.”
“Omaha, Iowa, doesn’t matter; all those Eastern cities are the same,” the barfly retorted, slurring his words.
“Iowa isn’t Eastern,” the kid replied, his voice ascending toward indignation, “and it’s a state, not a city.”
“You ever see a bartender pour a drink with no hands?” the barfly retorted, ignoring the kid’s geography correction.
“No,” the kid admitted.
“Well, you see, it’s an Eastern place then. You only see things like this in the West,” the barfly replied through his rough of facial hair.
This is so, I thought, though I did have to admit that the kid had not responded to my act with the usual mix of wonder, terror and disbelief that it usually caused in folk new to my establishment. I gave the kid credit for nerve. Also, Spirit Land greenhorns didn’t answer my magic with arguments over geography.
“So?” the kid asked. “What you got in the way of beer that’s good?”
“Try this,” I said bringing him one of the local brews. “Folk around here like it.”
“Thanks,” he said taking the can and testing the flavor. “Not bad.”
Silence descended as the customers drank. Some drinking establishments style themselves nightclubs and add all sorts of other entertainments to what they offer: pinball machines, video games, dance floors with fancy lighting, and whatnot. Except for a beat-up pool table and a juke box full of old country crying songs, our place just offers drink. Drinking, done to find a refuge from the misery of a fallen world, is what we do here.
“What brings you out west, Mr. Iowa?” I asked.
“Just decided to see the country, check out the scenery,” the kid answered. Then: “By the way, my name’s Bill.”
“Well, Bill,” I said, “this is as far west as you go unless you cross into the Spirit Lands. Crossing into that territory is not something you do lightly. Many who try wish they hadn’t done so at all. The Spirit Folk know how to make you feel unwelcome if they don’t like you.”
“That could be,” the kid, Bill, answered. “I’ve not decided to go the whole way yet.”
“Are you working somewhere while you decide?” I asked.
“I got a job over at Falcon Lab,” he said. “Not real big brain stuff like the learned folk do. It’s just working with files on computers, stuff like that.”
At this, another man came in, slouching in a mousy way. He seemed the type of man who’d been conditioned to be unsure of himself. “What kind of beer do you have that’s good?” the man asked. He might have been basketball-player tall if he’d stood straighter.
“We have this local beer that folk around here like,” I said, giving him the same kind I’d given the kid.
“Thanks,” the man said taking the offered can. He slammed down a mighty gulp of the brew.
“Good,” he said drawing the word out. I got the impression of a man finally reaching an oasis, a happy fleeting stop, a respite in a desert trek.
“I don’t think I’ve seen you here before.” It was my standard opener for this type of situation.
“I don’t get out much,” the man said. “We kind of live too far from here, up in the hills, for this to be an easy destination. I wouldn’t be here except the Mrs. came into town, had some business at Falcon Lab. I had her drop me off.”
“You don’t drive then?” the blind man asked from his place at the end of the bar.
“It’s not exactly that,” the new man replied. “I guess it works out to the same thing though. We don’t have many roads where I live.”
Being from these parts helped me do the peculiar math of the West. I knew that anywhere way up in the hills was Spirit Folk country, which explained why there were not many roads; they weren’t needed. As for the Mrs. dropping him off, well, marriages between humans and Spirit Folk were rare, but I knew from personal experience that they happened. The mousy man was learning the hard way that such relationship required a special temperament not common in either peoples.
“It’s been forever since I’ve had the chance to just hang out at a bar, talk to other folk, folk outside my family,” the man said. “I love her dearly but...” The man trailed off.
I let him drink, letting him relax and listen to the music from the old juke box and the buzz of conversation.
“I know the feeling,” the blind man replied. “I used to feel trapped in my wife’s family before the divorce, before she could no longer bear my burden.”
The blind man, I remembered his name was Brian, and the new guy talked, building up a lively conversation about the love that could trap you in its web and the need for occasional escape. The kid sat there listening with a fierce intensity.
I’d heard the blind man’s story before. When he’d gotten married, his wife had loved him so that she had not minded the things he couldn’t help with, the driving, the sight-dependent appliances he couldn’t use, and all the rest. Then, kids had arrived and dogs, then other pets. Finally, the burden had become too much.
“She finally got to where she had to let the pet blind guy go,” he’d said in a particularly dark season of his soul.
* * *
The men talked on through several beers. Then the door swung open and a woman came in. She would have been alien in this place even if her people had come from our world; she was too exalted, too lofty a being for our establishment. I got the impression of someone looking down upon us from a height that dwarfed even the mighty peaks to the west, as if she were looking down upon us from the stars. I knew her to be of the Spirit People, one whose understanding of scientific advancement was unimpaired by the humility taught by the religion practiced by the newcomers. I put up the “T” sign.
“Oh, be careful, little mind, what you think,” I said for the kid’s benefit.
“What?” he asked.
“Telepath in the house,” I responded. I used a stirrer to point at the sign. “When I have the sign up, it means that someone is here who can read your mind.”
People deal with telepaths in different ways. Some folk concentrate on happy thoughts. Others mumble, hiding their feelings behind a mental fog. The wisest strive to think nothing at all while the crazier folk leave their thoughts open to the world.
“Is my husband here?” the woman asked. It was apparent that she was Mrs. Mousy Man. Then: “Oh, there you are.”
“Hi, Nary,” he said. “How did it go at Falcon Lab?”
“Fine,” she replied, “about as well as could be expected. The folk I talked to are a bit slow on the uptake, but that’s to be expected. Your folk don’t have the scientific history that we have.”
“I’m sure you were good at setting them straight,” the man replied. “You always are.”
“We do what we can,” she said. “And have you been having a good time? I hope you didn’t drink too much.”
“He’s been talking to some folk here about life,” I interjected. Part of my job is to defend my patrons in the court of family opinion. “Sometimes, we feel that this is helpful, a chance to relax and talk about our problems in a safe place. Some folk find it therapeutic.”
“Rather barbaric,” she replied. “Kind of like the way your kind treat cancer, but I guess that’s to be expected.”
“I’m sure it’s barbaric,” I said, “but we find it relaxing.”
I had to admit that the place smelled barbaric, especially to a being as exalted as she was. Old beer, cheap booze, cigarette smoke, sweat, hamburger grease, and the onions that went on the burgers all combined with the sour tang arising from things best left unmentioned to combine into a smell that proclaimed this place to be a bar.
“You sure play rough with emotions,” the kid mumbled barely loud enough to be heard. I cringed at what the lady would say. I had no doubt she’d understood him even if she hadn’t heard his voice.
“Just telling it like it is,” she replied. “If you’re going to live with Lisbet, you should know how things are. And you should know,” she continued, “Lisbet’s holy-roller family doesn’t approve of drinking; they just don’t.”
At this, the kid threw down a bill on the bar. “I’ve got to go,” he said as he bolted out the door.
“You warned him about telepaths,” Mrs. Mousy Man said. “I heard you.”
“Yeah,” I said, “you do have to be careful with folks from the East.”
At this, the lady collected her husband and headed out to wherever in the hills they lived.
* * *
Copyright © 2018 by Shawn Jacobson