Wringing out the dishcloth into the plassteel sink, Art looked around and grunted with satisfaction. His bar was mostly shipshape, stools upside down on countertops, legs straight up like dead insects. Through the plexiglass window on the far side of the otherwise dim bar he could see the sun just beginning to penetrate to the city floor as the midday smog receded. Block after block was coloured by the wan light as the minutes passed, until eventually the sun found its way to Art’s bar, crouched under a high-speed overpass and huddled between two much larger hab-blocks, and crept up the weathered off-white walls. There was a slight cough as an electronic baffler’s capacitor briefly failed, before it’s highpitched screech restarted and once again rose beyond the range of human hearing. The ventilation unit over the window chugged a little, as if in solidarity, before the bar returned to silence.
Art pulled his respirator over his head and pulled open the first door to the outside. In the airlock he checked his newsfeed for messages and scanned the weather schedule for the next few days while he waited for the second set of doors to hiss open. The Weather Department had rigidly-defined multi-month schedules in the more upmarket areas of the city, but down here weather was still partially uncontrolled which Art liked. It felt more real, and allowed for easy small talk - a fundamental conversational touchstone those in the richer areas lacked. Art stepped out into the street and took down the ratty posters advertising last night’s promotion, the acidic nightair already having softened the ink and curled the paper laminate. Art walked round to the alley and discarded the poster into the dumpster before waving a hello to the bored delivery kid waiting there. He hopped into the cab of the delivery kid’s truck and waited a brief second for the cab’s airfilters to scrub out impurities before removing his mask. They exchanged listless pleasantries about the weather and the news while Art scanned the delivery manifest and ticked off the various inventory items.
“No milk today?” he asked. The kid slowly shook his head and indicated that the warehouse was out.
Aside from a few other shortages, everything was in order and Art handed the clipboard back, reattached his respirator and hopped out of the truck to help unload the crates of liquor, water, vacuum-sealed fruit extract and cleaning supplies. The kid waited inside the truck, like he always did. Eventually Art had all of the boxes stacked up inside the airlock and he stretched, extended fingers brushing the plassteel doorframe as he let out a contented sigh. It was a pleasant day, as far as days in this city could be pleasant, and he was looking forward to tonight. On Wednesday the nights were slow, and the wageslaves made up the bulk of his customers.That said, the younger workers might be a little antsy today, doped up on the chems they needed to push past that mid-week hump. Thinking about this, Art stroked a dent in his door from an especially rowdy Saturday night past. When he was younger Art had made a mild profit dealing, and although those days were behind him he could sympathise with that kind of troublemaker's plight. He’d be an addict too, had he some of the wageslaves’ jobs.
The inner doors to the airlock slid apart, and he began to ferry the supplies from the door, up the 4 steps, past the window and to the bar. The fruit extracts (artificial) went below the countertop in their plastic IV-like hanging bags, the water (processed) went into the tank and the liquor (real) went on the backlit shelving behind the bar, blue LED strips giving them what Art liked to flatter himself was an elegant air.
He busied himself with a few minor tasks, until an alarm pinged to mark 5:00pm – the start of the bar’s real business hours. Art switched the dispassionate newsreaders to the sports channels, took down the clock from the wall and hid it behind the bar, and settled in to wait for his first customers.
Kai came in early, as he usually did. He came in alone at about quarter past and ordered an apple cider, swinging his bag underarm under the stool in a practiced motion as he did so. He barely looked at Art, large socketed eyes staying on the floor as he mumbled his usual order in his stop-start fashion. His forehead, matted twists of hair hanging awkwardly off it, had a new spot on it today. Kai was young enough to be susceptible to troublesome teenage zits, but not rich enough to afford full-face air filters or soothing creams to suppress the outside air’s irritant properties. Kai brushed some hair over the spot while he waited for his cider and tapped the floor with a foot. He didn’t like being talked to while he waited for his drink, so Art silently drew the cider and only tilted his head toward the till to ask for payment. Transaction complete, Kai retreated to his stall and pulled out small ‘zine called ‘Default Style’ and started reading.
Vakim came in next with a new ladyfriend, revealing his new designer clothes as he shrugged his greatcoat onto a coatroom peg. Glossy hair like a horse, a proud brow and a lanky frame. He ordered a cocktail while his hanger-on giggled vapidly and breathily asked for another, looking up to him for approval like a small child first.
“I’m Trix.” offered the girl unexpectedly.
“Hi.” said Art woodenly, operating on autopilot. “You from around here?” The girl almost laughed but caught herself in time.
“Oh no. I’m not from around here, I’m from Central. But I love it here” she added hastily, “it's so authentic”. Vakim snaked an arm around her and pulled her close, and asked her something Art couldn’t hear. She giggled again, tinny voice staccato and gratingly high-pitched. Vakim tossed a note on the counter and the two went to sit by the window. Art looked at the note. It was the wrong denomination, too much money by far. He slid it into the till and shut the door with a clunk, avoiding the eyes of the monarch on its face as he did so.
Kai had finished his drink, quicker than he usually did. Probably stressed about something. Or just thirsty. Not everything has to mean something, Art mused.
He came over to the bar, dropped off his glass and sat by the countertop. Art knew better than to initiate conversation, and made a start on the dirty glasses stacked up by the wall while he waited.
Minutes went by. Vakim was drawing something on the window’s condensation with a finger, the girl – Trix? - enraptured by his drivel. Kai sat motionless, looking at nothing. There was a new patch on the shoulder of his jacket, it showed a blue sun setting (or possibly rising) over a yellow desert. Finally, as was his way, Kai spoke. His studded voice was sonorous, but stopped and started suddenly, reducing its natural import.
“Read something today – went to the library – read Don Quixote. Not the famous one – I’ve read that, it was interesting – but a different one, it's ironic. The book I mean, Don Quixote. The one I read. But the real one is too. My book is by Thomas Kulak. It's about books being a waste of time. Last page is just a picture of a middle finger, all very postmodern. Heard of it?”
Art shook his head patiently. “Don’t worry, it's terrible. The modern one I mean. It had a few good moments. My mother thinks its bad for me – irony that is. Says it's dishonest, and it kills conversations – ha – thinks it's the worst thing about me. The irony. But I’ve never been good at conversations. That's why I like books, I can take my time to think about what to say to them. They don’t get impatient or demand, demand answers. I can talk properly to them, no repetition.” Art had heard this speech, or similar, many times, and knew exactly when to murmur agreement and when to furrow his eyebrows in a placid facsimile of thought. Kai continued. “Seen Wojak? I want – I need to talk to him. He said he’d get me an internship. My mother wants me out of the house, wants me to get a job. Says I can pay for my own damn library, stop leaching off her bread, be a man. Seen Wojak?” He repeated.
Art shook his head. “Wojak will be here soon, I think the ‘rail is striking again.” Kai nodded jerkily and flicked his head, hair shivering with the motion. He calmed a little and stopped tapping his foot. Art readied the vodka beneath the counter, anticipating another order from Vakim soon from across the bar. Kai lapsed back into nervous thought and Art eyed Vakim’s almost-empty glass from the other side of the room. The girl had hardly started on her drink and she seemed wound unusually tight beneath that incessantly giggling personality she flaunted.
William walked in with a few of the ever-changing punks that made up his circle of ‘friends’. They all ordered beer or the cheaper synthetic equivalent. Art gave them the low-quality nasty stuff – it didn’t do to encourage repeat business from troublemakers. They settled down at the counter between Vakim’s claimed spot and the bar, shaved heads coming together as they gossiped and slid cloven insults and halfsentences around each other’s constant low-level conversation. The only nice thing about William and his friends was the never-ending buzz of ambient conversation they added. Art didn’t really consider the bar open until that buzz was present, and at their entrance he began to perk up a little, paying a smidgen more attention. He saw one of William’s companions stick chewing gum to the underside of their counter, and put a mental black mark against his tattooed face. Three black marks were all you got, went his unofficial (and illegal) policy, after which a repeat offender would find his change miscounted and his drinks diluted or, in extreme cases, cut with small traces of dishwasher fluid. Not many could put up with Art’s implacable and passive-aggressive pettiness, and almost all abandoned the bar after a few nights of such treatment.
More filed in as the clock swept onward. Some clubbers warming up early. Two office drones in slackened ties and sweat-marked dress shirts. A lurking teenager, looking 14. Probably testing a new fake ID on the door scanner, because he left only a second after he stepped inside without ordering anything. Vakim ordered several new cocktails to sate the increasing numbers of hangers-on surrounding his perch by the window. Kai worked his way through another pint, and Wojak arrived, partially unbuttoning his two-tone blue and purple shirt as the doors closed behind him. Wojak stuffed his bandana into a pocket and clapped Kai on the shoulder as he sat down. Wojak was the only person Art had ever seen Kai let touch him. The radio hitched for a second, the voices in the bar suddenly sounding very loud, before it chugged back into operation and the music dripped out of the speakers unobstructed once again.
Art was on the other end of the bar serving some faces he didn’t recognise, but out of the corner of his eye he saw Wojak and Kai exchange the usual pleasantries, seeing but not hearing Kai’s foot tap-tap-tapping against his stool again as he spoke. When Art had dispatched his customers he surreptitiously sidled closer to the pair. Wojak was poor at social banalities, but he sometimes had some good stories and was interesting enough. Wojak was talking when Art was within earshot.
“You know, I was in Chinatown yesterday – I told you that already – and I saw something kind of interesting. Turns out a cafe is thinking of putting some tables outside, and they’d contracted a team of Geomancers to assess the area to decide where they should put the tables. They had spirit levels, laser rangefingers, it was all surprisingly high-tech.” Wojak paused for a moment but Kai didn’t seem to respond. “You know what a Geomancer is, right? Okay. So you know Feng Shui? In Asia they hire these people called Geomancers to make sure new buildings obey all the superstitions and rules of Feng Shui to avoid bad luck or whatever.I heard this place in Hong Kong, right, where this huge skyscraper had to be closed down for over a week just so they could adjust the angle of an escalator by 3 degrees after some Geomancer complained about it.”
“Ohh - oh, I know what Feng Shui is, of course - sorry. I just didn’t know you called them – practitioners - ‘Geomancers’ in English.” said Kai. “I never realised where the word – that one - came from until recently actually – my Mom, she told me. Feng means “wind” and Shui means “water”, so it just means ‘wind-water.’” He paused. “I knew the words, I just never made the connection somehow.”
“That's pretty cool.” said Wojak with the appropriate ‘Hm’ sound.
There was a brief pause and they sat there drinking for a while. Wojak broke the silence.
“I told you I read that book, right? I sat down and read the whole thing in 4 hours at the library yesterday.” He reconsidered. “Maybe more like 2 hours, I don’t know. However long it took – its short, it's more of a novella than anything, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, it is. Short I mean. The second one is longer I think. But it's not as good, you have to push through it - to get to the third one. Because then – oh my god- you just have to read it. It's going to blow your mind”
“I loved the first one, I can see why its your favourite book”. Kai smiled at this, cheeks colouring a little. “No, really.” pressed Wojak. “It’s definitely up there. Something I noticed, I liked, was you remember the son, Peter? You know how he’s afraid his father will kill him so he hires the main character?”
“Oh, yeah. I remember.”
“Well in the book, once the father enters the story, he never tries to kill the son. But the son never appears again, the whole book becomes about the father. So… in a way he did kill the son. In the way that, as a character, the son is only ‘alive’ if he is being mentioned in the book – by supplanting the son as a character in the book, the father has sort of killed him, right? That's what I thought anyway.”
“Very good, that's a good spot. Yeah.”
“Did you get that email I sent you?”
“No, what did it say?”
The conversation continued as Art served another regular patron, Chris. Chris was 25 and looked 16 with a round face and a skinny neck. He was talking to a younger man seated at the bar as he signalled Art over.
“What do you want? I’m going to get a gin and tonic. Beer okay? Yes, no? Fine. Art, one gin and tonic and one Singha please.”
The two continued their earlier conversation, the darkhaired young man speaking;
“...I should be done with my degree soon, though, I have only a few months left. What about you, what do you study?” Chris ducked his head and rubbed his neck, taking a moment to taste his drink before he replied with a little too much flippancy to be genuine.
“Oh, I don’t study anything. I went to college, but I didn’t like the people there, so I left. I chose to, you know, its a waste of time. I have an apprenticeship in marketing at the moment, it's great.” He sounded like he was trying to convince himself. “You meet much more interesting people and you get paid for it!” He laughed a little in a forced kind of way. The young guy changed the subject, and Art liked him a little more for it. He hoped he’d come back some other day. Chris was a good person at the heart of it, and Art had sympathy for him the same way you might have sympathy for a lame puppy.
It was turning out to be pretty good for a Wednesday night and the bar was humming in an agreeable way. Art served more drinks, patrons came and went, the till chirping happily away, and the music incremented louder and louder. By midnight the quiet ones had left – Kai and Wojak among them – and all that were left were well-soaked drunks shouting at each other.
Time ticked on a little longer until closing. He made his excuses and stopped talking to the sad drunk at the bar, rang his little brass bell, flashed the screens red to indicate last call, and prepared to close at 12:00 AM sharpish. There were a couple of complaints, but they were drowned out as the music started up again.
Last call came and went, and the bar was left deserted. Dreg-filled glasses were strewn over the countertops and on the landing stairs, and cigarette butts indolently lounged in the ashtrays. Art rubbed his face, turned off the infoscreens and music, and began clearing up. He mopped up the spills first, then pulled on his plastic gloves and went and picked up the litter – just in case. He unstuck the chewing gum William’s punk friend had deposited with a frown, and shook it into the wastebin he was carrying under his other arm. He stacked the glasses and carried them to his bar, gave the countertops a cursory wipe – he’d clean them properly tomorrow and flipped the barstools up on to the tables. Yawning, rubbed his face again, scritching at a few day’s patchy beard growth, fingers tracing his jawline and tapping against the smooth semicircle around his mouth he kept shaved for the respirator seal. He stood in the middle of the dim bar for a second, looking around, before he headed to the door and hit the flakily-painted green exit button, lights flicking off automatically behind him.
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