The sound of a shot glass striking the counter was especially loud given the relative quiet of the bar that night. The atmosphere of the room was almost cliché in its oppressive gloom. An old-seeming jukebox sat broken in one corner of the room, its lights as lifeless as the room itself. Smoke from long extinguished cigarettes was just starting to fade, giving the room an unearthly haze rather than forcing the last of the untainted air away. The bartender, Jay, emerged from a backroom, idly drying a mug, to see the youngish man from earlier was still there, doing his level best to finish off his stock for the last day of the year.
The man was perched on a stool in front of the bar, alternating between nursing one drink and slamming down another. As each glass emptied, he would slide it out of the way, to make room for another. The bottle Jay remembered leaving out seemed a bit worse for wear, with only a thin line of liquid lacing the bottom to show it had ever been filled. The man looked briefly as Jay entered, but quickly turned his attention back to his drinks, which seemed to be dwindling quickly. Jay put away the mug he had been drying, then walked over, towel in hand, to take care of the next mess.
“It’s New Year’s Eve,” he said unnecessarily.
“Huh?” the man replied, lifting his head to give Jay a confused look.
“I said it’s New Year’s Eve,” he repeated. “Don’t normally get too many folks here tonight. Especially not NEW faces or young ones. Sure you wouldn’t rather be out there?” he asked, pointing through the tinted window. The young man turned and stared for a moment, at the crowd of people gathered outside in the snow. Despite the cold temperatures and darkness, they were festive, all filled with excitement and hope for the days ahead. He turned back to the bar and resumed drinking.
“Not my scene,” he replied simply, between swallows.
“It aint?” Jay asked, taking in the man’s youth and disheveled dress clothes.
“Aint got nothin’ to celebrate,” he answered calmly before lifting the now empty bottle. “Got any more of this?” he asked, with significantly more composure than Jay would have expected from someone who downed that much alcohol.
“I might,” he hedged. “But you might wanna think about slowin’ it down some.”
The young man shrugged.
“Doesn’t matter,” he replied. “Don’t have to worry about waking up tomorrow.”
“Yeah, that’ll do,” Jay answered. “Think I’m gonna go ‘head and stop you for the night. You’ve had enough.” The man shrugged again.
“If you say so,” he said easily, before hopping from his stool. He took a moment to stretch his back, letting out a slight groan as his spine and bones made a series of popping noises. After he stood upright, he pulled out his wallet and drew out a fairly sizable stack of bills, dropping them on the counter.
“The bottle’s expensive,” Jay said dryly. “But it’s not THAT expensive.”
“Like I said,” the man sighed. “Doesn’t matter.”
“I’m gonna call you a cab,” Jay stated. “I don’t really think you’re good to drive.”
“Don’t bother,” the man replied. “I’m just gonna go and find the next place that will serve me. I need to get drunk and I don’t seem to be having much luck with that.”
“Join the revelers outside,” Jay recommended. “You won’t have any problems gettin’ drunk OR getting’ laid. Who knows, your whole next year might look a little better afterwards.”
The man had slipped on his coat and hat wordlessly, but he stopped at the door and turned to face the bartender once more.
“No,” he said with finality. “It really won’t.”
A sudden noise from outside forced the man back. Whether it was fireworks or something more exciting, neither of them could be sure. The sudden flash of fear across the man’s face made Jay pause, even though it only lasted a second.
“Tell you what,” he said, coming to a snap decision. “Take another drink and watch the ball drop here. No sense getting trampled to death in the snow.” The man, his face once again impassive, shrugged and walked back to the counter, taking his seat once more. Jay left another, much smaller, bottle on the counter, along with a couple of glasses so he could drink in his preferred manner before walking to the back, making sure things were properly closed up back there. When he emerged, he found a second customer, seated next to the first. Unlike the youngish fellow, the second man seemed positively content, as though everything was right with the world. He had an arm draped across the first’s shoulders and wore a wide smile, though the first man seemed to have shrunk even smaller than before.
“Hey!” the second man greeted the bartender cheerfully. “Mind if I get a couple drinks here? Got some celebrating to do!” Jay raised a single eyebrow at the newcomer. This man seemed a bit more like the people outside, who wanted alcohol for the sheer pleasure of it rather than to drown their sorrows. Still, he looked well-heeled, and one dollar was as good as another. With a shrug of his own, he walked off, to fulfill the drink order the man shouted during his moment of contemplation. Even from across the room, he could hear that the two patrons were in the middle of an intense discussion. He couldn’t hear either of their words very well, but he was certain he heard the smiling man say “terms and conditions” and “contracts” while the former muttered something about “regrets.”
“A business deal gone bad,” Jay surmised. “That would explain the misery.”
Jay might have ventured a comment, but the noise outside grew too loud to speak over. Checking his watch, the bartender saw that the new year was only seconds away. Casting his eyes to the television, Jay saw that the ball had already started dropping, and was rapidly reaching the bottom.
The smiling man began to count along with the partiers, his smile growing wider every second, but Jay noticed that the first man seemed to get smaller and smaller every time the announcer spoke.
As the ball reached the bottom, the noise outside spiked once again, and the happy guest gave a loud whoop.
“HAPPY NEW YEARRRRRRRR!!!!!!!!” he shouted excitedly. “New Day, New Year…and all bad things coming to an end.”
Jay thought the phrasing was somewhat odd, but he let it go. It was too late in the night on a holiday for him to pay it too much mind.
The bartender left the pair alone for a moment as he walked to the back, carting some of their discarded glasses with him. They were washed and dried within minutes.
When he returned to the front, he was surprised to find the smiling man happily downing half the bottle, with the first man nowhere in sight. The raised eyebrow and the dark look on his face were all the clues the cheerful one needed to know what he was thinking, but he spoke nonetheless.
“Where’d the other guy go?” he asked gruffly. The second patron made a “pshing” sound and waved a hand lightheartedly.
“I had a friend come pick him up,” he replied quickly. “No big deal.”
“Why was he so upset?”
“Bill came up due,” the man said. “He wasn’t able to get a refund.”
“That sucks,” the bartender stated simply.
“It does,” the man agreed. “But a deal’s a deal. Is what it is.”
Jay nodded in agreement.
The man finished his drink and slammed the bottle down on the counter.
“Woooo,” he breathed. “That was some good stuff, Jay. Worth every penny.” He quickly drew a few bills and set them on the counter, waving away Jay’s protests. “I’m in a business too,” he asserted. “And one thing I know is that we always pay our debts. It’s just good business.” With that, he jumped from the stool and stretched, much like the first man had several minutes before. With a cheerful nod, he all but pranced to the door, his smile still wide and bright. He had only gone halfway when he suddenly stopped and snapped his fingers. “Oh dang!” he cried. “Almost forgot.” He walked briskly back to the counter and laid a small business card down.
“Meant to leave this for ya, Jay,” he said happily. “Give me a call if you’re ever looking to make a deal.”
With another raised eyebrow, Jay grabbed the card and read it aloud.
“M. Pheles. Dream Merchant”
He frowned in confusion.
“Dream merchant?” he repeated. “What the heck is that?”
He looked up, expecting an answer, only to find the bar was now empty, with no sign of his joyful guest.
Belatedly, he realized that he wore no nametag, and hadn’t told the man his name.
“Maybe he’s been here before,” the bartender thought. Shrugging, he moved to lock the front door. As soon as the lock was turned, a look of bewilderment crossed the man’s face. Frowning, he walked behind the counter and retrieved a can of air freshener, spraying it liberally around the room.
“That’s weird,” he considered. “Nobody’s lit up for at least an hour. You’d think the smoke smell would have gone down by now.”