The bar was full of ghosts.
They had that in common, he thought, as the gazed at the husks of the barstool occupants, sizing them up, glad at least that they were ghosts of his own nationality for a change. In the afterlife it seemed as if there were too many affected accents. Too many of the dead did not speak English. However, this small comfort quickly evaporated within the split second that it takes for even the inebriated to notice that the game is on, the game is on, and suddenly they all came to life. Every seat swiveled to the best of its ability in one direction, every half-bald head tilted to the right as if a change of perspective would provide clarity through the garbled foam of the iffy television reception. All of the ghosts were resurrected, except for him.
This shift caused him second thoughts- he didn't know if he wanted to enter after all. For the 40th time and counting he doubted his purpose for coming this far, but he was so close now, so close to the goal that five years or so had either kept from him or pushed him towards. That was why he was here. It was down to just 15 miles, and Barney's was the first stop he'd seen that was familiar. He and this place had some history- in his past life anyway.
The sun flickered like a defective light bulb as the clouds passed over and through it, offering the establishment the swan song of the day. As Miles slipped out of the shadow cast by the curved doorframe, he realized that the last time he had been here he was not yet old enough to drink. In order to keep Miles's mother happy and to save his own hide (Mom and her Irish temper was well-known even in this town of middling size), the bartender, Sarah, let Miles hang out but kept a wary eye on his habits. It was Mike's birthday. Last time Miles was here he gazed on admiringly as Mike toppled a few beers and an Irish Car Bomb, joined the others in the bathroom to make fun of Mike's wuss stomach, and let nothing get by him. He had noticed the gummy black stuff that worked its way under his nails, the way his coat absorbed the smoke that permeated the room as if his leather shield were trying to save them all from the smell. He remembered the rumpled collar of Sarah's red shirt that reminded him that she had two other jobs and the neckline of it that made him forget. He remembered that it seemed terribly interesting at the time, even after they got home and he wiped the dry vomit from Mike's face so mom wouldn't see.
Mike had joined the reserves before Miles left. He was off "with them", as they all said, long before Miles even thought about Australia, months before Miles compartmentalized his backpack and bought the ticket and saw it all and made the phone call and began his second life. There was no telling where Mike was now. Centuries had passed, dragging the minutes down with them into the pit where time goes to die- the big pity being that Miles could not summon the strength to care. He didn't even call himself Miles anymore, he didn't call himself anything. Ever since the phone call, he knew he couldn't-- a name meant a family, and that simply would not, could not exist.
But gin could. He ordered one. He was sitting now, at his own table, and the bartender was named Bob, not Sarah. Progress. Until the boy sat down beside him.
Miles observed the funny looking character that had seated himself beside Miles and his backpack (which took up a whole chair). Seated was too polite a word- plopped was more like it. This kid, he plopped. He was bright eyed- in fact his two large grey eyes were so sopping with light that Miles could notice upon first glance how remarkably close together they were; how small this boy's nose was. No, no no, he would not go back to noticing things. He looked down at his gin that had spontaneously generated from the gummy black table, as if by magic, as if there were a god.
"I'm Jim!" He said his name and his greeting in the same exact tone.
"Hi," Miles spoke. And regretted it.
"Today's my birthday," said Jim, who was probably called Jimmy by his mom and his dad and everyone else that helped construct for him the pencil outline of his being.
"Happy birthday," said Miles, smelling Jim's traveling beer breath.
Jim was taller than Miles, which he would have found unsettling if he found anything unsettling. He was unused to looking up at anyone- not since Mike had towered over him did he have to tilt his eyes to meet the pair of another's. He also did not particularly want to look up at this boy, he did not want the boy to start thinking that there was some sort of give and take here, or that he would exert energy that he couldn't even conjur for the people he used to love on some stupid kid. This kid, this kid who had never been anywhere, not seen anything, this kid who was still a kid in the sense that he had not yet even painted himself in flesh tones.
"You know I'm 21 today?" He posed it as a question with the tone of voice that you're supposed to use when asking children if they want to play Candy Land.
"That was my first guess," said Miles. He did not speak with exasperation. He did not want to speak at all, but when he did he did not sound any different than he used to, when he spoke all of the time, when he was tan and flirted with Emily Spiller right in front of her parents and four brothers.
"I bet you're wondering why I'm here on my birthday by myself." Jim didn't know about past lives.
"The question had crossed my mind." Miles lied.
"All of my friends are too busy. It's too close to Thanksgiving."
"Thanksgiving's a week away."
"Is it? That's funny." Jim smiled. "Honest to god, though, I don't have a lot of friends."
Miles jumped from the exposition that was due any time and straight to the reassurance.
"Things can change." Miles drank his gin, and Jim's eyes turned all gooey and sincere.
"So do you want to drink with me?" the boy asked. Miles didn't say anything, but he didn't get up to walk away, either.
They sat in silence until more drinks were brought to them.
"I'm one of those kids who didn't drink much before now," Jim said, and Miles wondered at the uncanny effect that alcohol had on strange sentence structure. Jimmy smiled at his drink rather than consuming it, as though he were counting the drips of condensation from the bottle- the aesthetic of the glass construction seemed far more pleasing than the substance inside. "I was a good kid, not until the legal age was I going to drink, nope."
"You're one in a million," Miles said, wondering if he had already said that at some point in this ridiculous conversation. After all, when you don't speak there are only so many clichés in one's vernacular.
"How old are you?" Jimmy turned his shiny eyes on Miles again.
Miles found himself somewhat stunned by the question. "I'm…. 24."
Jimmy laughed. "Old man, having trouble lifting that glass? Need me to oil your joints?" He burst into girlish laughter, finally stifled by a good stiff sip.
Miles tried to crack a smile but failed. Jimmy tried again.
"What did you do on your 21st?"
Miles squinted at the door in the way that one does when trying to remember something specific- as though the answer is just in the distance, waving. "I was… in Australia."
To Jimmy this was the most hysterical joke in the world.
"Mayte, eh eh wot wot?"
Miles nodded. "Crikey."
"What were you doing there?"
"Backpacking. I liked to travel."
"You don't anymore?"
"When it becomes a way of life it loses its novelty, yeah."
"You gonna write a book?"
"A novelty, haha?"
Miles marveled at Jimmy's ability to turn a laugh into a question.
"I love that. Australia! I want to go there. I love Indians. Nicole Kidman lives there. I had a dream about Nicole Kidman once."
"You're starting to lose me, now."
"Well, it was a nice dream."
"Can you fly?"
"Yes… that's usually how people do it."
"On a plane."
"I love planes too," Jim's Jimmy-ness had started to show. In a matter of minutes his expression had become what can only be referred to as precious, and he clutched his Beck's bottle as though it were a prize for best 21-year-old.
"I'm sure you do…" Miles began to notice that the sun was gone, officially- it had made a break for it while the bar patrons were occupied. Miles couldn't blame it, but he missed it. He began to search for his wallet, suddenly sullen. He did not have time for Jimmy's and beer. He just wanted a moment of purgatory before hell, would that have been too much to ask? As he scraped his pockets for precious currency, the greyness seeping into him stirred a silent protest against Jim-Jimmy, his button-up shirt, his toussled hair, his innocent bright eyes (growing closer and closer together the more widened with wonder they became). Stupid.
"No, I mean, I really love planes. My dad's a pilot."
Miles reformed to his original silence. Jim continued.
"Yep. I used to make the models and all that stuff. I still have some cool ones, but I don't show them to people."
Miles was counting his change. Jim continued.
"I really like the ones from World War I, you know? The little… ones? Fighter planes!"
Miles nodded. $2.50. Jim continued.
"Now THOSE were cool. I made some. Little ones, not the real ones."
Miles nodded again. $2.74. Jim continued.
"Yeah, those were cool. I… yeah. When I was a little boy- like 8- I had this dream that I was a fighter pilot in the war- World War One, cause that was the best war. I mean, if you were gonna go to war, that one's okay, right so anyway? I would be a fighter pilot, and one day I'd just go out and grab-- no, not grab because you have to be nice to girls I'd ASK her before I grabbed her I guess anyway-- I'd take out some nurse…prettiest war nurse in the whole place and we'd sneak off to my red plane and I'd make sure she was all safe inside and then we'd go flying around and we'd see the whole country side and wear those fighter pilot scarves, because they do that- did that. And we'd fly off into the sunset."
While he spoke, Jim had traced the shape of a plane over and over into his napkin with the tip of his nail, and, to his credit, a vague definable shape now remained. Miles had stopped counting change long enough to watch it in action, but couldn't decide if he felt anything for it, this napkin plane and its matching daydream. He didn't have long to consider, however, as the next second saw Jim bolting towards the bathroom.
Miles couldn't help being smug as he coldly finished counting out the remainder, leaving it on the table for Jim or the bartender or somebody to find later. Still, as he stepped outside and felt the chill of the East Coast air, he felt unwilling to leave. He wondered if this was all part of it-- when bad things happen to you, you can slip into a dream where you don't know what you're doing or feeling or wanting. You merely decide. So Miles went back inside, back to the bathroom, back to the back stall where a weary Jimmy crouched, heaving. There, the familiar sound of weight meeting water. Miles stood, gazing into the stall and at Jimmy, and all of a sudden he saw it. The sinking of a world war one sun, a plane with a lovestruck, pretty girl tucked away, a dashing pilot making his way through the clouds.
When Jimmy turned, thankful to see another living soul, his eyes seemed less lightweight, no longer transparent and peppy but tired. Flying into the sunset does that to a person.
In the end, he was glad that he didn't tell him- he was very glad about that, because Jim or Jimmy or whatever his name really was wouldn't have known what to say, just like mom didn't know what to say when he called her collect from Australia, from backpacking, from The Gap. He had read about The Gap before; they tell you that it happens, more than 50 people every year do it. There are fences there now, and security, and cameras, but they say that doesn't even stop them. Famous people, poor people, rich people, boys and girls of all ages go there; it's one of the top spots in the world for suicides. But you never expect to see it happen. You never expect to be by yourself and see it happen to a stranger (as if it just happens TO people, like catching a cold or stubbing a toe). Miles knew that once he was in the world he could brace himself, he could understand that bad things are going to happen and he was going to see them, or even be a part of them, but nothing prepares anyone for a moment for which there should be no excuse. Two people died, Miles liked to think, the minute that girl in the grey jacket crashed over the cliff, and a year, five years, cannot bring strangers back, cannot create love where only an ache resides, cannot force a phonecall home, cannot cause the reappearance of a lost boy.
And yet, as Miles stands in front of 1837 Chestnut Drive, he can see the silhouette of mom, and now dad, and now mike, and someone else, moving things from the table post-dinner. Someone carrying a coffee mug. Someone relaxing in the comfy chair. Miles stands in front of 1837 Chestnut Drive, and as he walks forward he is flying into the sunset.