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One Night at a Local Bar

As for the old man I spoke to that night, I've never seen him again. I've convinced myself his strange story was a well-rehearsed spiel enacted for the sole purpose of cadging drinks from suckers like me. But oh, he was so convincing.

One night I was reading Tarot cards for the amusement of a couple of young women. I had hopes of becoming a part of at least one of the ladies' future, but it wasn't to be. They abandoned me for younger, more vigorous livestock.

But I wasn't doomed to drink alone. This pungent stranger, with haunted eyes and shuffling gait, honed in on me with the unerring radar of stray cats when they sense an easy handout. Relaxing in the chair with a sigh that was a cocktail of exhaustion, sorrow, wisdom and cynical amusement, he blinked at me and said, "Well, mate. Sorry that story didn't have a better ending."

I shrugged, trying to avoid eye contact. My aloofness was no defence against his persistence, however. He continued, "I can see you're a man who knows a little about the shadowy side of life. I'll make a deal. Buy us a round, and I'll tell you a story about lost love to take your mind off your problems. If it isn't the saddest thing you've ever heard, the next round is on me."

I regret to say that my prospects for that evening were so bleak that even the company of this wreck was better than nothing. I ordered drinks. My new friend downed half his beverage in one long gulp, sighed--a much more satisfied sound than previous--and began.

"I was once like you. Young, handsome. And in love. Married in fact. I was working for an architectural firm, we'd just bought our first house, and I thought I had it made. We planned on three kids, and if we got our wish, two girls and a boy. I thanked God for my good fortune. In those days, I still believed in Him.

"Then my wife came back from the doctor. Everything changed."

He paused, finished his drink, and looked at me with watery gaze. I got the silent message and signaled for another round. The scotch was cheap but it grew on you.

My new friend cupped his glass and peered into it as if it were a crystal ball. "After the funeral, I was lost. I spent a lot of time in places like this. I guess I went a little crazy. I begged whoever listens to desperate prayers for just one more minute with my wife."

His eyes were red-rimmed and alert. "You ever hear the old saying, "Be careful what you wish for?"

By now I'd recognized his expectant pauses were signals for me to wave at the server. I ordered another round. My disheveled Sheherazade continued. "One night a guy I'd never seen before sat next to me. He was slender, well dressed, handsome. He watched me guzzle beer for a while. I thought he was coming on to me. But that wasn't it. He struck up conversation and after a while, he made me an offer."

An expression of anguish twisted his face. "What was I supposed to do? He told me I could spend one minute with her, tell her all that I needed to get off my chest. What would you have done?"

"I thought you said your wife had died."

He nodded. "Yes, his offer was to let me cross over and see her in the afterlife."

This was getting good. A ghost story! I ordered doubles. The old man continued. "So this guy, this devil, God curse him, led me to the back door. He muttered something in a foreign language, and the door...looked different. He motioned me to open it. Ah God."

I asked him to go on. Oh yes, I was hooked.

"That door didn't open to the alley like it usually did. It opened into Hell."

I must have looked puzzled. He banged the table. "It was Hell, I tell you. As far as you could see. The smell, it was unbearable. And on that burning ground, miles and miles of it, were people. At least, their heads. Growing out of the flaming ground like pumpkins."

I noticed he'd been neglecting his drink, but I ordered two more anyway.

"I saw my wife there sir. Her head, anyway. I'd recognize her anywhere, even in that awful place, her beautiful hair all singed and filthy. But it was her! She was screaming and begging for it to stop. And, she saw me. I tried to run to her, to pull her out of the ground, but that bastard stopped me. He said there was only one way for my wife to be free of her torments. That was for me to take her place." mermaid off shoulder wedding dress

It's a curious thing, but I'd become aware of a faint, foul, rotting, sulfurous aroma. I attributed it to imagination and cheap scotch. "I take it you refused the deal and left to tell the tale."

He looked at me in utter contempt. "You could say that I refused the deal. I left my poor dear wife in that terrible place. I ran away as fast as I could." He pushed his chair from the table. "I've been running for fifteen years."

He picked up his drink and walked off, trailing that sticky, sulferous aroma. "But you're wrong, sir. I never left that place."