Six hours in at Janie’s, all Ed wished was for her to take down the mirror behind the bar. It was like a curse, seeing himself shrink to nothing. This time last year he had been a head above the frame, tall as a short man, chinful. Now he was chinless, shrunken, squat as a gnome and just as ugly. Gravity had won. Negotiations were over, his case closed. He would be repackaged, refolded, forever fetally pinched. At 74, was he not due an appeal?
He placed his palms flat on the bar and leveled his feet on his stool. He would take a stand, straighten himself out. So he pushed. He pushed and pushed and pushed, as if it were his final feat—which it was. He pushed so hard his lower back seized with pain, and he let out a whimper-hum as he slipped back to wilting. The pain dissipated. He hung his head as he caught his breath. It felt right, how he sat, like a large stone and where it has come to lie. A voice spoke to him: “Behold now and for your remaining days, The Ground, your final place of rest.”
To that, Ed spat on the floor and raised his eyes to behold his chinlessness. This time next year he would have lost half his jaw. He’d be nothing but a row of yellow teeth, a red nose, milky eyes—and his clean dome, gleaming softly as the bar’s brass foot rail.
“To good death,” he said, toasting himself. “To good death!” echoed the crowd. His audience, how could he forget them?
Ed threw back his whiskey, and as he sipped his milk, a long-limbed youth clasped his arm around his shoulder, jostling him. “Pleasure to meet you,” the kid said, snapping a selfie. “Pleasure. Exactly. All yours,” Ed said. He wiped the milk from his jacket and the kid flashed a smile and vanished. Janie, the bar’s ageless proprietress, poured him another finger. “Corner booth,” she said, and crossed a name off her list. The couple sitting there raised their glasses to him. Sweet kids, Ed thought. The boys were like clean radishes and the girls budding flowers; and both were as precious and mindless.
He dipped his pinky in his whiskey, licked it, winked at the couple, and threw back his drink. He won their laughter. Janie rolled her eyes, and Ed tongued his milk like a cat. The couple raised their glasses once more. They’d gotten what they had come for, for what they had paid. “Oh, rest your arms,” Ed said. “Never!” roared the crowd, and bottoms shined up.
They came to watch him drink, the townies, students, and odd tourists. Ed was a fixture. He was the walking, talking, sulking sorrow, however benign, that forgave Janie’s Pub its gas lamps and wood stove and sawdust on the floor—all the quaint flair that made Janie’s Janie’s. She’d only put up the mirror because every other bar in Pacoma had put up a mirror, just like everyone “knew” Ed in that they knew of him. He wrote a column, “Odds and Ed’s,” for the local alt-weekly. A regional travel guide had him listed as an attraction. Pacoma, Ga: “Stop by Janie’s Pub to buy writer Ed Osiris his patented whiskey and milk!” He first appeared in the 2000 edition and hadn’t paid for a drink since.
But he’d paid for his fair share. He’d been going to Janie’s for forty-odd years; through jobs, debts, homes, girlfriends, a boyfriend (one, in the eighties), marriage, retirement, and now, divorce. His wife, Peg, had told him that morning. “I want out,” was all she said. It was two days before Christmas.
She stood underneath the archway to their dining room, in a thin t-shirt and clotted underwear, pained, it seemed, by her relative youth. She was fifty-two but still lithe, and in the cold mid-morning light, Ed could make out her nipples beneath her shirt. Steam curled up from her coffee to her uncolored lips. Déjà vu, but worse: dream déjà vu. Ed had had this dream before. A nightmare of Peg leaving him.
He took the news lying down, cocooned in a knitted blanket on the couch in their living room. He still wore the clothes he’d had on the previous night, and his head was pulsing. He had come home at four in the morning singing drunk, swollen with the light mood of love and filled with memories of him and Peg: dancing, drinks, sex; their Appalachian honeymoon and fictional picnics. He’d slipped in the front door and crept up the stairs, so as not to wake her, but his caution had been in vain. He heard moaning as he approached their bedroom, saw blue television light beyond the cracked door. He pushed it open mechanically, expecting the worst.
Peg was splayed on the bed stirring herself, agape in ecstasy, masturbating to a shirtless Folin Cirth from the 1995 CCB production of Vanity & Vice. Relieved, entranced, Ed started forward, pulled, as if toward a siren, but Peg shouted him off. “Don’t move!” she screamed. He froze like an obedient child. “Don’t look!” But he was drunk and couldn’t break his gaze. Cirth dove into a British aristocrat’s lake, and Peg’s shadow began to tremble. Her eyes rolled loose in her head. Ed could tell he wouldn’t even need a pill.
“Quiet, quiet, quiet,” she pleaded. Her breath quickened and her stomach sucked in. This is new, Ed thought. She slowed her hand and planted her feet on the bed. Her back arched, she grabbed herself, and a piercing cry knocked Ed against the door frame. He fell to the floor, dizzy and frightened. The room was spinning, sweltering, as Peg chuffed in relief on the bed, on some far-off sexual plane. Ed drunkenly retreated, crawling from the bedroom and down the stairs on his hands and knees.
After Peg’s pronouncement, Ed had gone back to sleep in the hope of waking from his dream—or hiding from his nightmare. The clap of the back door closing woke him. He rose in a daze and ate Peg’s leftover toast, gulped down her cold coffee, choked on the dregs. It was Peg’s third marriage, his second, not including common law, and they had only been married for six years, but the tears came hot and fast. Was it purely shame, embarrassment? Could it have been his performance? Ed tried to reason his way out but couldn’t. Gone was the gentle melancholy of old age, given way to the shock of the condemned: he would die alone.
He clung to the wall as he approached the stairs, driven by the curiosity of fear. He wanted to see the scene. The hallway to their old bedroom—to Peg’s bedroom—was dark and humming. Ed took hold of the bottom newel, and then the banister, which shook under his unsteady hand. He willed a step, and then another, and the timed light in the living room turned on. Five o’clock. It was already five o’clock. Time must have distorted. It was dark out. Five o’clock! Up from his dying embers, a flicker of flame budded in Ed’s chest. He would escape. To Janie’s!
Ten hours in, all Ed wished was for the mirror to break. He stared at himself with a morbid fixity. This blurry, greyish ghoul—who was taunting whom? Ed didn’t know, didn’t care.
Wavering, he stood, finished his drink, and cocked back his arm. A hush fell over the bar as his glass sailed through the air. It didn’t make it to the mirror. It fell and clinked among the tiers of liquor bottles, eventually capping a dusty rye. The bar was silent.
“Opa!” someone yelled. “Opa!” cheered the crowd, and Janie rolled her eyes and opened the rye. She poured shots until the bottle ran out.
“Opa,” she said to Ed, placing two in front of him. He gently put his hand on hers, and looking into his dim eyes, she gently removed it.
He took his shots efficiently and groped for his stool. Janie poured him a fresh finger. “By the door,” she said, crossing a name off her list. Three radishes raised their glasses to him. “Oh, rest your arms,” Ed said. “Never!” roared the crowd, and bottoms shined up.