There’s an old man that sits in the back corner of this bar I go to on nights when the overwhelming loneliness of a one-bedroom apartment gets to be too much for me. I never talk to anyone. I sit at the bar, order some beers, drink them, and leave. Surrounding myself with the white noise of other lives dulls the sting of solitude for a moment.
Anyway, the old man…
He’s like me, paying attention to nothing but the whiskey glass in front of him at his corner booth. The lamp hanging above him is broken and flickers constantly. It doesn’t bother him. He’s always there when I walk in the door. He’s always the last one to leave. I know this only because if it weren’t for him, I’d be the last one to leave. Long after the partying crowds have trickled back out into rainy streets, I’m still sitting at the bar, and he’s still sitting at his booth.
I never pay attention to him, I just keep my eyes glued to the glass, but every night I hear him shuffle his way out of the booth and stand up, his bones creaking and snapping so loudly I’m holding my breath for the day that they break completely. He hobbles over to the bar and sits right next to me.
There are so many other stools available. But he sits right next to me. He smells like stale hand-rolled cigarettes and spilled whiskey that’s soaked its way into his clothes and his leathery skin. Little white bristles of a patchy beard poke their way out of the cracks and canyons of his face. There’s no more hair on his head; amazingly, it’s the only smooth part of his body.
He sets the glass down on the bar and rests his elbows behind it. He looks at me; I can feel his eyes burrow under my skin, trying to read me, not getting anything useful.
His crackly, weathered voice worms its way into my ear and tells me the same story, word for word.
There’s an old phone booth on the outskirts of this godforsaken town. Nobody knows how it got there, and nobody wants to find out why. On a good day, it’d probably take an hour or so just to walk there. After you reach the outskirts, you’ll come across an abandoned junkyard. It’s the only establishment you’ll find for miles. It’s just a fenced-in area surrounded by nothing but a barren wasteland of grey sand and ashes. I’ve never been outside the city but I’ll take his word for it. Once you’re inside the junkyard, the phone booth’s pretty easy to find, as long as you can handle the smell of old garbage and rusty machinery. Head straight for the center of the place, and you can’t miss it, a little phone booth surrounded by dead cars, broken glass, and puddles of muddy water.
The glass is smeared with dirt and there’s a big spider web crack in the glass like somebody threw a rock at it years ago.
When you open up the door, the squeaking hinges sound like an ungodly choir set to wake up the dead.
You step inside and close the door behind you. You have to do that. It won’t work otherwise.
There’s a moldy phonebook hanging from a chain, but it’ll do you no good. You can’t call anybody because there are no buttons to push.
But there’s a coin slot, and if you slip a quarter in and wait a minute or two, the phone starts to ring.
You pick it up and put it to your ear. You can feel all the sweat and skin particles from every face that’s ever been pressed up to that receiver.
Then you hear the voice.
It’s a voice you’ve never heard before and will never hear again, and it only says one thing:
“What’s ailing you?”
It’s sweet and dark, blunt and soft. It’s everything good and beautiful all in one voice and one phrase and it’s brought tears to the eyes of even the most bitter of hearts.
It will unlock your mouth and before you know it, you’re spilling your guts to that disembodied voice, telling it your life story without hesitation. You’ll tell it everything that’s hurt you, and everything you’ve done to hurt others.
It all happens in ten minutes flat.
After that, you hear a click at the other end of the line and you’ll hang the phone back up. When you step back outside, all of a sudden you feel right as rain. Some people fall to the ground and cry for a bit. Others just walk away with a smile on their face.
I never respond to his story. I just finish the last of my beer in silence. Once, I did ask him what he said to the voice. He smiled wide and said he couldn’t even remember if he tried. The memories were all gone.
The old man sighs and puts his head on the bar. A few minutes later, I always hear him start to snort and snore. That’s my cue to leave. Put on my jacket and face the bitter winds of the city’s winter.
I’ve heard that story so many times I know it by heart, but it never fails to impress me. I always think about it on my way back to my apartment where no one waits for me. How can something make an entire memory evaporate from the brain? Does it make anything better? I’ve never tried to find out if that phone booth is really out there like the old coot says it is. I wouldn’t mind trying it out though. God only knows I’ve got some stories to tell. I could do with clearing out some space in the attic. I always think about heading down that way, then think better of it and turn around.