Imagine you’re a bartender, and there is a sad, lonely man sitting on the corner stool. You ask him what’s wrong. What story does he tell you?
And here's the story:
I'd seen him there before, but never noticed him as I did that cold, snowy Christmas Eve night. He always sat on the last stool at the end of the bar, his head lowered, eyes hooded, a big man but quiet and unobtrusive. He had longish brown hair, usually wore jeans, a pullover sweater -- just an average-looking guy, nothing special to catch my eye.
I've been a bartender for six months now, and though it was supposed to be a part-time job so I could get enough money saved to attend college, I found that I enjoyed the gig. I learned to make all the mixed drinks expertly and with flourish; pour a beer with or without a "head," ring up tabs at the cash register -- but most of all, I liked the opportunity to study the odd assortment of people who dropped in. I always wanted to be a writer, and this job was ideal for observing vastly different kinds of individuals. Everything from bored housewives who seemed to sneak in and grab a quick drink before heading out to pick up their kids at school to rich, respectable businessmen knocking one back before a big important meeting came in from time to time. The big, quiet guy though had escaped my scrutiny until this night...
It was getting late, nearly midnight, and we would be closing soon; the big guy was the only one left in the bar. An eerie absence of laughter, conversations, and the general noise usually in the bar gave me an uneasy feeling. Through the dim lighting and smoky haze, I glanced over to our bouncer, Mac, still standing at the door, his meaty arms folded in front of him and his tiny, dark eyes looking in my direction, asking an unspoken question. Glad he was still there, I shrugged, and headed over to see why the big guy was still on the stool when the clock now showed midnight.
As I approached him, I wiped the bar, moving that way slowly...putting on my sweetest smile. And if I do say so myself, I'm an attractive gal (blond, blue-eyed, good curves in the right places) and when I turn on the charm, I can be downright irresistible. As I came up close to where he had his arms folded on the bar, head down, I said, "Say mister, could I get you one last drink for the road?"
He looked up at me, and I was astonished at the melancholy, pained look on his face; he had deep brown eyes, heavy jowls, not attractive at all...but there was..something about him, something almost charismatic in his riveting gaze. I kept smiling, but it wasn't easy.
He said, "Time for me to leave, huh?" His voice was soft, low, almost a whisper and he kept his eyes pinned on me.
I shrugged, said, "Um, yeah, but you've got time for one last drink on the house." I did remember he'd only had one beer, which he'd nursed for the last hour or so. As I looked at him, I realized he was not as old as I'd first thought, probably no more than 30 or 35. Being overweight I'd just not realized he was a younger man...
"Okay, I'll take that beer, if you don't mind."
I got one from the tap, still smiling at him, and set it in front of him.
He sipped it a little, his brown eyes never leaving my face; I thought he actually might be flirting with me...but then that hang-dog sadness slumped his shoulders again, and he looked away, off into the middle-distance as if seeing something too sad to talk about.
Suddenly I heard myself say, "My name is Sharon, I've seen you here before...mister?"
"You can call me Charlie."
"Well Charlie, let me wish you a Merry Christmas."
He grimaced, shook his big head, wiped a strand of his too-long brown hair off his forehead. "Sharon, this is not going to be a good Christmas, no way."
"I'm sorry..." I could hear the loneliness in his voice, see it in his every gesture, and found myself feeling sorry for him.
"Yeah, just another day to me. Course, the way I am, guess it's just as well. I don't deserve any of the goodies Christmas usually brings."
Curiosity made me ask, "And why is that Charlie? What about family?"
He gave me a crooked, but somehow appealing, smile. "No family, none at all. Parents dead, most of my relatives way out in California, where I'm from."
"You're sure a long way from home here in Michigan."
"True. And alone."
Oddly, I suddenly felt compelled to say, "You could join my family, I'm going there tomorrow. My parents live out in the burbs, but I promise you'd have a really good meal, my mom's a great cook."
He looked up, smiled that crooked smile, said, "You serious?"
I wondered if I had gone insane, to ask a total stranger (in a bar, no less!) to my parent's home. Still, the deep sadness in his brown eyes touched my heart, and I quickly assured him, "Yes, absolutely. I could pick you up on the corner near this bar tomorrow...on my way to my folks."
He took a few more sips of the beer, studying me intently over the beer mug. As he set it down, he said, "You know, I might just take you up on that offer. I've only been here a couple weeks, and don't know anyone at all."
"No wife, kids?"
"Nah, I've never...been the marrying kind."
I thought I detected a hint of a tease, and felt I was helping him feel better already. "Well Charlie, we have a date then." I wondered about him, about his life, why he was so alone, so sad...but felt I would find out once we were better acquainted.
He swilled down the rest of the beer, set it down with a thud and stood, putting on his thick coat. "This sure is my lucky night, and I do appreciate your invite. What time should I be at the corner tomorrow?"
I took his beer mug, wiped the bar off, started doing the usual closing up tasks, saying, "Wait a sec, and I'll walk out with you."
Mac came over to the bar, but when I smiled and said, "Hey Mac, I'm about ready to leave. Sully is in back, doing the cash stuff, so maybe you won't be here too much longer."
He just grunted, nodded and headed toward the back office where Sully was working.
I got my coat, yelled a quick, "Merry Christmas Sully, Mac..." then joined Charlie at the door. As we headed outside, the wind was so fierce it nearly took my breath away. I wrapped my coat tightly to my shivering body, and Charlie and I stood underneath the awning, looking at the few passing cars, fat snowflakes starting to fall.
"Wow, looks like a white Christmas," I gushed, teeth chattering.
Charlie said, "Do you have a car? I'll walk you to it, if you want." His voice sounded a little strange, husky almost.
I felt a slight tremor of fear, as if...as if something wasn't quite right. As I looked up at Charlie, I'm sure my face showed my sudden uneasiness, for he said, "Or you can go on, and I'll head back to my room."
I just stood there, feeling foolish, but I turned slightly toward the corner, about to head for the parking lot across the street where my car was parked.
I felt Charlie's sudden grasp on my arm, and then, his other arm went behind me, and I felt something hard at my back. "Just walk toward your car, like you do every night when you get off work." His voice had changed again, deeper, menacing.
I trembled, tried to pull back from him, but he pushed the hard object into my back, demanding in a scary whisper, "I said, walk to your car...I've got a gun."
I did as I was told, trembling and shaking, wanting to motion to a car...seeing that no one was out on the street this late, everyone no doubt at home, planning on Christmas with their family. "Please...don't hurt me," I begged in a breathless plea.
"Just get in the car."
We were at my car. I fumbled for my keys in my purse, got the door unlocked, and got in behind the driver's wheel; Charlie quickly got in behind me, in the backseat, and told me to get going. I started the car, turned the lights and windshield wipers on and started out of the lot and then onto the street. I knew my life was over, I just knew it...but I couldn't think of anything to do, anyway to stop Charlie. He had the gun at my neck, and I was at his mercy.
He told me to turn down a deserted alleyway and then said, the fury and rage in his voice merciless, "I know I look sad, and I am. You know why I'm sad? I'll tell you why, it's because I can't help myself, can't quit killing women, I just can't!"
Those were the last words I ever heard....