The bartender was studying for his Real Estate exam, in preparation for which he secretly bought Donald Trump’s book on Amazon. He was enjoying it. Trump wrote: “I have made tough decisions, always with an eye on the bottom line. Perhaps it’s time America was run like a business.” A secret part of himself agreed. He was hate-listening to his ex-girlfriend’s podcast on one air pod and staring at a list of things he had to do. There wasn’t enough time to get done everything he needed done, but he could only do so much.
A hot girl came in and flopped onto a bar stool. You know how hot girls flop. Coat and scarves a-pile. She had been there before but always asked the same questions.
“You really don’t have coat check?”
“No, this is a bar.”
She took off her sweater. One of her shoulders was higher than the other and her left shoulder blade stuck out. The bartender felt appreciative towards her scoliosis. He believed that low-grade consistent pain gave a person texture. Too many people slid around, lubed-up and frictionless through life. She ordered her drink.
“How long have you worked here?” She asked him.
“Almost three years.”
“That’s weird, because I come here all the time and I’ve never seen you before.”
“This isn’t my usual shift. I’m covering.”
She opened a tab with her debit card. Her name was Martha. Not a hot girl name.
Martha asked if he would take a shot with her. It’s not like you’re busy, she said, and she was right.
“Sure,” he said. He made shots and brought them over.
“So what are you up to today?” He asked, risking conversation, fingers crossed for brevity.
“My sister is in the hospital uptown, I’m going to see her soon.”
“I’m sorry. I hope everything works out.”
They took their shots. The bartender poured them another. For your sister, he said.
“What were you listening to, when I came in?” Martha asked. “You seemed, like, absorbed.”
“A podcast,” he said, “a true crime podcast.”
Martha had a pointed chin and a twitchy incredulity around her eyes. She seemed tired. She was stylish and curated-yet-irreverent, but aside from that she could’ve been some girl he knew from back home. This made him feel like he had very little patience for her, but also triggered a Pavlovian tenderness response that pissed him off.
“Actually,” he said, “it’s my ex-girlfriend’s podcast. She and her friend host it. It’s mostly like ripped-from-the-headlines, whatever. It’s ok. Actually it kind of sucks. I don’t know. There are so many podcasts like that. And they don’t really have a hook or a unique perspective or anything.”
“Do you miss her?”
“Not really, honestly. I broke up with her.”
“Then why do you listen to her podcast?”
“Don’t you ever want to feel righteous?”
“All the time, it’s my baseline feeling.”
“I should stop listening to podcasts though,” the bartender said. “It’s a totally passive experience. I should probably read more. It’s probably better for my, like, cognitive function.”
“I hate reading,” Martha said, “especially fiction novels—I get the ick so fast and have to stop— I’ll be sort of into it and then get to some line where I can see the writer writing it and then it’s ruined like I immediately imagine some horrid bespectacled chick typing on a laptop and smirking to herself, like, yeah, that’s the right word, I’m on a roll! The thought of someone being proud of themselves is my biggest turnoff.”
“I know what you mean,” the bartender said.
“The last novel I read I got partway through, and I was actually enjoying it— the main character was this girl who everyone was constantly saying was so beautiful, like unbelievably gorgeous, every guy was like obsessed with her and the, like, burden of her stupendous beauty informed everything in her life—and then I make the mistake of finding the author on Instagram and she looked exactly like how she described the main character— like same hair and eyes and birthmark, even! So I scrolled through the comments to see if anyone else noticed it or called her out but nobody said anything and I felt like I was going insane, then I was like, conflicted because I couldn’t figure out if she was an embarrassing psycho for thinking she was so gorgeous or if I really, like, respected her because she unapologetically created a fictional world where everyone was in love with her, and honestly who doesn’t want to do that? Then I was like, I guess that depends on if she did it consciously or subconsciously—subconsciously, I have much less respect for.”
“Is she really that gorgeous in real life?”
“She’s, like, fine.”
“Whats’s your ex-girlfriend’s podcast called?” Martha asked.
“Like Murder Everyday exclamation point? Like get out there and kill it? Or Murder Everyday period like commit a murder every day.”
“Murder comma everyday. Like everyday comma there is a murder.”
They sat in awkward silence for a moment. He had seen on a Tik Tok that letting an awkward silence pass naturally instead of forcing something to say made you seem more confident. But he didn’t like that. He came from a long line of people who had nothing to say and it hadn’t worked out well for them.
“Do you always talk to customers for as long as you’re talking to me?” Martha asked. He couldn’t tell if she wanted a compliment or if she was just filling the void.
“Not really,” he said, “usually I’d rather just eavesdrop.”
“Same. I’m a much better eavesdropper than talker. I can watch people’s conversations like a movie.”
“Me too. And a lot of the time,” the bartender said, “it’a a horror movie.”
“My sister and I used to sit at restaurants and literally not speak a word to each other the whole time because we were listening to all the conversations around us—passive aggressive couples were our favorite—but then my sister would do this incredibly annoying thing where whenever she talked she would want people to listen, and it was like she was always on and speaking for an audience, and it was so pretentious, and she’d wind up saying the wildest, most unnecessary shit in response to very normal things, and I’d be like, with all the fucking spying and judging we do, how do you not realize that it’s the people that don’t want anyone to hear them that always have the best drama? She never, like, intuitively understood anything—sometimes it’s like every day is her first day on earth.”
“Are you and your sister close?”
“Yeah, really close, she’s only like a year older than me.”
“If you don’t mind me asking,” the bartender said, “why is she in the hospital?”
“Basically—she tried to kill herself.”
“Oh, wow. I’m sorry. Well, I’m glad it didn’t, like, work out?”
“I don’t know, it would probably be better for everyone if it had. Do you have any siblings?”
There was the snowy, forgotten town where he grew up in northern New England, in the shadow of a sagging ski resort. His older brother, then twenty-three, had a heart attack while driving home from work one night and plowed his shitty car into the side of an old lady’s shitty house, which was the one and only house on that stretch of back road, and the old lady had no phone, so she lived with a car sticking out the side of her house that had a dead body inside it for six days until the home health aide came for her monthly visit and called the police. Nobody had reported the bartender’s brother missing during that time because he didn’t keep in touch with anyone, and lived with roommates who figured he was out partying, because he was a drug addict, and the heart attack that he had while driving was preceded by a drug overdose, because he had been using in his car while driving home. The bartender had just walked the four miles home from high school because nobody had come to pick him up, wet hair from swim practice stiffening in the cold, when they told him. Don’t judge him, his father said, that’s what happens when you let it all get into you.
“No, I don’t,” the bartender said.
“I have a story,” Martha said, “for your ex-girlfriend’s podcast, if you want an excuse to hit her up and seem really interesting.”
“Go for it.”
“So my sister got married three years ago, to this guy she met in a bar actually, and we all really liked him a lot—super sweet, had a good job, and like, adored my sister—and I didn’t think she’d ever get married honestly because she was so shallow and found some bizarre, tiny thing wrong with literally everybody, to the point where I thought maybe she was like, asexual, but she actually liked Tim— it was so weird, never like, mushy, obviously, but she was like, yeah, we’re going to get married I think—and then they did! I was the maid of honor and it was a really tasteful wedding—taupe and rose gold—Tim was older than my sister, so his parents had actually passed already, and left him their gorgeous house—like, beyond—so they moved in there after the wedding and like, there she was— this dumb bitch suddenly had a little dream life.”
“Sounds like a Post headline,” the bartender said, “Dumb Bitch Gets Dream Life.”
“And they had a baby! My niece. So cute, the cutest thing ever, I’m obsessed with her.”
“But” Martha said, “the thing about women, I think, is that they’re cruel but also easily impressed, and when the being impressed wears off, just the cruel is left, and that really weighs on you to feel so mean all the time—it’s a lot to carry. She started complaining constantly and talking shit about Tim and how all the mommy stuff was torture and she hated it, and she was like OCD hyper-focused on thinking about ten years, twenty years from now, if she would still be so miserable, and I told her not to do that, that life is only bearable for anybody if you live it a teeny tiny bit at a time— she thought her life was so minuscule—who cares? I said, enjoy your minuscule life in your pretty house where you don’t have to work some idiotic job to pay rent or go on slim-pickings pity dates with fatuous leftovers— trust me, I said, there’s really, like, nothing else out there.”
The bartender knew this, about there being nothing else out there. He had known it for a while. But he thought there was a hang time—a honeymoon period perhaps—between knowing this and the hopelessness setting in. Like sitting on the train next to a person who clearly has a cold, knowing its already too late but hoping you get a few peacefully nescient days left of nose-breathing before your sinuses catch on. You can know something for a long time and your body can still be surprised. There were things he did to extend the honeymoon period as long as possible—drink expensive IPAs, read his real estate books, have sex and / or go to the beach when either opportunity presented itself. But increasingly it felt like his mind was sharp and present but his body was already flung down an icy back road and crashed into an old lady’s kitchen.
“That’s not true,” the bartender said, “There’s a lot of good stuff out there. Pessimism is like, very uncool. And can manifest in chronic illness.”
“My sister should have met you before Tim,” Martha said. “Maybe it would have all turned out differently for her.”
Truth was, he found himself having a crush on this cruel, unimpressed stranger he had never met. He knew he had the capacity for great meanness and found himself unable to connect with, let alone love, anybody who seemed pleased. There was a comforting, fertile quality about a woman who showed up to the table already disappointed.
“But anyway,” Martha said, “I started to just get really pissed off, she was becoming a white noise machine to me, repeating and repeating and repeating her myriad complaints, and finally I was just like—get a divorce, let him keep the kid, like, do something, literally anything, just shut the fuck up and make a choice—you have to be a woman of action—your toxic energy is blocking your ability to have a feminist mindset and own your power in the situation.”
“I think, like, culturally,” The bartender said, “we have this mass inability to make a choice. I see it all the time, even here. People will switch barstools like seventy times for no reason. I’ll offer them a seat and then they’ll pick the one right next to it, just to feel like they’ve made a choice for themselves. And ordering a cocktail, forget about it. Um, I just need a few more minutes to, um, decide? with those big, dumb, terrified eyes, looking at a menu like it’s the Hellraiser puzzle box. If it wasn’t so fucking annoying, it would just be sad. The powerlessness. Like choosing the correct bar stool is going to prove you’re real and this isn’t all just a simulation. I don’t know. Capitalism and Schizophrenia and whatever.”
“I think you may be assigning too much intention to people’s unconscious, like, tics,” Martha said, “have you read the ancient stoics? You may be suffering some imagined troubles.”
“A bit,” he said, “I wish I could be a stoic. But I guess wishing to be stoic and not doing shit about it isn’t very stoic. But I remember that Seneca quote— ‘what I advise you to do is, not to be unhappy before the crisis comes.’ But what if crisis is more of a flow state—kinētikos— sometimes I think the daily, like, indignities, all added up, are equal to or greater than one grisly death.”
“Maybe you’re just too empathetic,” Martha said, “maybe you see people patronizing themselves and it makes you so sad that you get angry. Maybe your crisis is that you’re too nice of a guy.”
He couldn’t tell if she was joking or not, but he liked this interpretation and decided he’d go with it for the rest of his life.
“Seneca also said that if you take away hope, you take away fear, and having hope and having choices are the same thing, I think, so maybe everyone would be much happier walking into a bar that had no barstools or tables at all, and then if everyone just had to stand, you wouldn’t have to bear the psychic weight of watching people choose,” Martha said.
“That sounds really nice.”
“My sister basically did that,” Martha said, “She eliminated her barstools. She murdered her husband and give her baby away to an underground adoption agency—if that’s even real, which we’re pretty sure is not but we hope it’s true and that she’s alive somewhere—we have a PI looking for her—hopefully really looking for her and not just cashing our checks, but that’s another story, maybe I’ll come back another day and tell you about that, as if you ever want to see me again, lol, but yeah, she stabbed Tim in the heart while he was sleeping, gave the baby away—allegedly—and then tried to slit her own wrists, but it didn’t work, so she’s been in the hospital until she’s recovered enough to go into custody—I understand a little bit at a time but I’ll never understand the whole thing all together.”
“I’m sorry. And— I know how insane it is to say this,” the bartender said, “but try not to judge her. Sometimes that’s what happens when you let it all get into you.”
“I just can’t stop thinking about the baby. If she’s still alive, if she’s in the country, I wonder what’s ahead for her—it’s a very dense place—she can be reasonably close by and still be, like, gone forever.”
Martha asked to close her tab, and the bartender said it was on the house. She gathered her jacket and scarf and stood up.
“Sometimes I see my sister walking down the street or sitting on my couch, like the ghost of King effing Hamlet or something,” Martha said. “Is that bad?”
The bartender knew what she meant. But usually, it was himself he saw from a distance.
“Well, bye,” Martha said, “have a good rest of your day. It was really nice to meet you.”
“It was nice to meet you too,” he said.
“Again,” he said, “I’m really sorry. About everything that happened.”
“It’s ok,” Martha said, “It’s not uncommon. Modern life can be, like, unbearable.”
All he could think to say was: “perhaps it’s time America was run like a business.”