A Man Walks Into a Bar
by Will Riley
Not much of a place, really. Just a cube of white-washed cinder block with a tin roof. If you happened to be on Route 84, zipping through the desert between Bakersfield and Los Angeles, you’d probably not pay any mind to the joint. Only us locals and the off-road enthusiasts kept the place viable as a business. And the oilfield roustabouts, of course. They can’t go forty miles without a drink. Yep, even Ozzie’s Oasis, in the middle of nowhere, had a reason to be.
Me and Oz were there that day, alone, until a man walked into the bar cradling a chromed sphere the size of a basketball in his arm. He set the shiny orb on the bartop, and it just sat there in spite of the fact that nothing was level or true in the place. The guy took a seat two bar stools away from me, and Oz flipped a little round coaster onto the bartop in front of him.
“What’ll it be?” asked Oz.
“Beer and a shot of Jack,” said the guy.
“Got Bud, Miller, and Coors on tap.”
I was hoping the guy didn’t have an attitude. An attitude usually invited pain at the Oasis. I watched as Oz put a mug of beer and a shotglass of whiskey in front of the guy. Mostly I was fascinated by the chromed ball he’d brought in. The fact that the guy was wearing an old bomber jacket, in spite of the heat, wasn’t as curious as the ball.
“Whatcha got there?” I asked, as he downed the whiskey and chased it with a big belt of the beer. The chromed ball fascinated me.
He set the mug on the bartop, not bothering to look at me. “It’s a Snuffer. Model Eight point Five. The latest version.”
“What does it do?” I then asked, figuring it was a reasonable question.
“Exactly what it’s supposed to do.”
So the guy had an attitude. Screw him. I could play the game of sarcasm as well as anyone. Ask my wife, may she rest in peace. “Good,” I said. “The Model Eight point Four wasn’t worth squat.”
He looked at me then. His eyes were like grey steel ball bearings, his face was scarred, his lips, almost nonexistent, formed a smirk. “Going to Bakersfield today?” he asked.
“Nope. What’s in Bakersfield?”
I stifled a laugh. “You can say that again,” I agreed, having never liked the town.
“Nothing,” he repeated, then finished his mug of beer with a gulp.
Maybe I’d judged the guy too quickly. He looked like he’d been through hell. I thrust out a hand. “The name’s Larry,” I said. “What’s yours?”
He looked at me again, hesitating a moment before allowing me to grasp his hand. It was like gripping a sack of ice cubes. “Bink,” he said.
I pulled my hand out of his. It stung from the cold. “Can I buy you a drink, Bink?” I asked.
His eyes changed from cold grey to a warmer hazel. “Sure, Larry.”
I signaled to Oz for another round. Bink continued to stare at me, never seeming to blink. “Going to Los Angeles?” I asked him.
His face took on a blush. “Yes, Larry. Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco. The entire Pacific coast.”
Oz brought our drinks, then returned to his perch at the other end of the bar. He’d started the New York Times Magazine crossword puzzle on Sunday, and it usually took him a week to finish it. He was one tough cookie.
“You in sales?” I asked Bink.
“Sure. If you say so.”
“Selling Snuffers?” I was admiring the shiny ball again.
Bink’s eyes turned from hazel back to grey. “No, Larry. There’s only one Snuffer on the continent right now. This one’s the first that has actually worked.”
“Model Eight point Five. It’s a beauty, Bink.”
He downed the second shot, and then gulped down the mug of beer. I motioned to Oz to set him up again. Me? I was just drinking beers leisurely. No place else to go.
As soon as Oz set down the drinks on the bartop, Bink finished them off. Oz gave me a look and I shrugged. At my nod, Oz set up Bink once again. This time Bink ignored the glasses of booze and turned to me. Oz returned to his puzzle.
Bink, his eyes now pink, nodded. “You’re right, Larry. Model Eight point Four was a disappointment.”
“How so, Bink?.”
“Range one mile. Eighty percent effective.”
“And Model Eight point Five?”
“One-hundred-percent effective within a five-mile radius.”
“Yes it is.”
“Have another drink, Bink.”
He seemed to be in a good mood finally. I watched him finish off the booze while I pulled another twenty out of my pocket. Oz set him up again. Even though I hadn’t the faintest idea what Bink was talking about, I was amused. Then Benny entered the bar.
“For goshsakes, Oz! Turn on the TV!” Benny hollered, sitting down on a barstool, the other side of Bink.
“It’s broke,” Oz replied, setting up a gin and tonic with a twist of lime for Benny.
“Then you ain’t heard?”
“How’s it going, Benny?” I asked.
He had to lower his head almost to the bar to see past Bink, who was a rather large man. “Oh, hi, Larry. Didn’t notice you were here. How’s it hangin’?”
“Same ol’, same ol’. What’s up?”
“There’s nobody in Bakersfield!”
“I told you,” Bink mumbled. “Model Eight point Five.”
I had to scrunch down to continue my conversation with Benny. His thin bearded face was framed between Bink and the chromed ball. “What are you talking about?” I asked him.
“There’s nobody in Bakersfield. Not one person. They’ve all disappeared.”
“I’m not shaggin’ you, man! Cars have crashed all over the place. The drivers vanished. A small plane crashed. No pilot.”
“Only took an hour,” Bink said. “With Model Eight point Four, I’d still be there, running around in my Avis rental. Kinda nice car. It’s got GPS.”
I looked at Bink. “What?”
His eyes were red, somewhat unfocused. “Bakersfield was a success. It means we can start at last. San Diego tomorrow.”
Crazy talk. Was he drunk? I didn’t know for sure. On an impulse, I handed Bink the shotglass, and he downed the whiskey, then the beer. Then he sat rigid, his red eyes aglow, his smirk ridiculous.
“Oz, bring me a bottle of whiskey!” I hollered out.
He looked up from his puzzle. “Can’t do that Larry. No bottles. You know the State rules.”
“Hump the State! Bring me a bottle of Jack, or I’ll get it myself.”
The urgency of my request got him out of his chair. He brought the bottle and I filled Bink’s mug with whiskey, then handed it to him. He seemed in a trance, but took the mug from my hand and drank it dry. It was enough booze to kill a skinny guy like Benny, but Bink just sat steady on his barstool, like a statue, his fiery eyes staring straight ahead into Oz’s apron.
“Whaddaya doin’ Larry?” Oz asked.
“I don’t know, but this guy ain’t one of us. Look at him. He’s wearing a bomber jacket and it’s a hundred degrees in here.”
“The air conditioner will be fixed tomorrow.”
“Did you call my brother in L.A.?”
“Hell no. He reamed me last time. I got a cheaper price in Bakersfield. An Armenian guy. Talks a little English.”
“Don’t count on him showing up,” Benny chimed in.
“Model Eight point Five,” I answered for Benny.
I pointed at the chrome ball. “It’s a Snuffer, Oz. The latest model.”
“Dammit, Larry. I’m shutting off your big friend here, and if you keep talking crazy, I’m shutting you off too.”
I had a hunch. I swung my elbow as hard as I could into Bink’s chest, and he flopped backwards off the stool, hitting the floor head first, his legs doubled over the top of him. He folded neatly in half, like he had no spine.
“Wow!” Benny exclaimed. “How’d he do dat?”
“He’s not human,” I explained, certain of it then.
“He’s an alien?” Oz asked.
“An artichoke picker?” Benny wondered.
Suddenly it made sense to me. “I believe he’s been sent to eliminate humanity throughout the world. Or at least on the West Coast. Bakersfield was a test of Model Eight point Five. A successful test. Fortunately it was only Bakersfield. It’s up to us to save San Diego.”
We all stared at the chromed ball. Fate had put the immediate future in our hands. Me, a humble llama rancher, and my two pals would deal with Bink and the Snuffer. Mankind had been lucky this time. Whoever or whatever had sent Bink to earth made a big mistake. They’d sent a closet alcoholic.
Copyright © 2006 by Will Riley