With a respectful nod to the late, great Jim Croce for the title
The door to the bar opened, spilling a little fresh air and a gringo inside.
A few of the locals looked up from their beers and their cards to study the gringo. He was young but not a boy. He was nicely dressed but not expensively. He was clean but he had been sweating in the southwestern heat. He was not one of them, but the pain in his eyes made him an honorary citizen of their little bar so they left him alone.
The gringo took a stool at the bar, leaving a few polite open spaces between himself and the other man sitting there.
“Una cerveza, por favor,” the gringo said. The bartender nodded his graying head and produced a lightly chilled bottle of beer. The gringo stared at it for a long time. At last he spoke quietly: “All the time I have left is in this bottle.” He picked up the beer and downed half of it.
“Time passes quickly for you, señor,” the other man at the bar observed. He was several years older than the gringo, and his name was Horacio, not that the gringo had asked. The gringo’s name was Benjamin, not that Horacio had asked.
Benjamin said, “Time has been rushing by so quickly I have friction burns. Just a little anesthetic here, and then I will put all the pain behind me.”
Horacio had never heard the man’s accent before. He had to have driven a long way.
“How will you do that?”
Benjamin dug in his pocket and let a large folding knife thud onto the bar. The stainless steel handle with its tiger eye inlay gleamed in the dim light. It was easily the most valuable item in the room. Behind them, the card games and the conversations seized up like rusty machines.
“I’ll go out the back door to the alley, with the rest of the trash, and cut my throat.” He took another pull on the beer.
Horacio winced a little; that seemed the hard way to do it.
“Hm.” He looked down at his newspaper again, confirming that his favorite team had lost yesterday. So close to the goal when the whistle blew. “I don’t wish to be a nuisance, but I’m curious: what is it that is draining your bottle of time so quickly?”
“It’s a woman who took my name and then gave herself to another man.” He chugged down another swig.
“Ah. A woman you would joyously welcome back even now if only she would come home.”
Benjamin nodded. “Even now.”
“You would forgive her everything.”
“You would forego killing the pendejo she ran off with.”
Benjamin considered briefly. “Sure.”
“Hm.” Horacio set his newspaper off to one side and considered the spare bottle of beer sitting open in front of him.
Benjamin sighed and upended his beer, draining it. He lowered the bottle, looking into it as deeply as he could before setting it down softly on the bar.
He lay his hand on his brand-new knife.
Horacio gave his extra beer a push. It slid toward and past Benjamin’s hand and clinked to a stop against the empty bottle.
“The clock has been reset, señor,” Horacio said.
Benjamin stared at Horacio in profound confusion.
Horacio continued. “Each of us has a bottle of time from which we drink, and one day we will empty it. But there’s no need to guzzle it down. Sip. Taste. Savor. Especially when it’s bitter. Joy always tastes the same, but bitterness has a thousand nuances. Sample each in its turn and then move on to the next one. That’s how you become a connoisseur.”
Benjamin shook his head. “A connoisseur of life’s bitterness? What the hell for?”
“So that you may learn the difference between an ordinary grief such as everyone endures and an exquisite misery that God and the devil together have created for you alone. You will come to be grateful to have such a discriminating palate.”
The gringo looked away, his eyes finding a neutral ashtray. “Yeah, right.”
Horacio shrugged. “Or so a friend told me on a similar day — after my wife left me for a thinner, richer man and I held a borrowed pistol to my head.”
Benjamin looked sharply back at Horacio. “Was this long ago?”
“The taste has not fully gone. But long enough that I have learned the wisdom of my friend’s words. And to become curious about the other griefs, both greater and lesser, that await me. And to see what it is I decide to do in the spaces between. I think my friend may be wrong about joy; surely it will taste all the sweeter after such bitterness. I am looking forward to finding out.”
Benjamin regarded his bottle of borrowed time. It was a beer longer than he had planned to live. He picked it up and took a small drink. “Still bitter. And lukewarm,” he said.
“That, amigo, is the taste of life,” Horacio told him. “And it is sharp enough on its own, don’t you think?”
Benjamin looked down and saw part of his knife peeking out from under his hand. “For what you tell me is an ordinary grief … yes, it is.” He reciprocated, rocketing the knife down the bar to Horacio, who intercepted it before it could sail past him.
Elsewhere in the room, something like a collective sigh was released and the men resumed their games and their talking.
Horacio admired the knife, opening it to let the five-inch-long blade catch the light. Gringos: even when they planned to kill themselves, they did so with style. You had to admire that about them.
He closed the knife and clipped it to his belt. The gringo had no further need of it, and it was a nice reward for saving his life. Horacio stood up and took the barstool next to Benjamin.
“Amigo,” he said. “It’s just a beer again. Drink up and then get a cold one. Now that you have granted yourself a tomorrow, it will be soon enough to start sorting things out.”
Benjamin picked up the warm beer and saluted Horacio. “L’chaim.” He drank and wiped his mouth on his sleeve.
“Do you want to hear the funny part about the pistol I borrowed?”
“I made sure it was fully loaded.”
They smiled sadly at each other.
“So … how long ago?” Benjamin asked. The bar got a little quieter again and unbidden, the bartender set a fresh beer in front of Horacio. He took a drink.