The beer settled in the glass and filled it, and next to the glass in the emptiness of the bottle bubbles disappeared, malty and hoppy aromas floating upwards with them, the brew master’s art to meet nose and tongue in one final flourish, bottle cap like a fallen guardian, rolling awkwardly on jagged metal edge. And beside the glass on the bar stool the drinker sat, questioning his philosophies, pouring his life into the beer that had just taken residence in the glass.
If someone had been looking for him, they could have found Jim on that bar stool for three hundred and fifty nine out of the last three hundred and sixty five. The only break in his streak came from a forced trip to Morgantown; a trip which resulted in a reckless driving ticket, a black eye, and a full, fresh case of apple pie moonshine. He planted himself there on red patent leather perch each evening at 5:49 (with clock-hand punctuality), not leaving until coaxed out by his next shift or a bartender who really, really wanted to go home.
Jim was more than a regular. He was as much a part of the Smokestack Tavern as the ring shaped stains that tattooed the shiny lacquer bar, or the dingy nicotine coated shade that hung over the unkempt lawn of a decades old pool table. The other regulars knew him as the first there, the first to start drinking, the first to order some chicken wings minutes after the kitchen had closed. To enter the bar meant a greeting from Jim, his energy and enthusiasm as inevitable as it was annoying.
He was a man of big ideas. Big hopes, big dreams, big visions of how he could break the world to his desires, reinvent anything and everything given enough time to mull it over. He would drink and dare and spin wild yarns like an eccentric seamstress about how he’d escape this town and start his own company and bring all his bar-friends with him, all while sitting, nearly immobile, on that same seat he had sat on for more years than he had ever spent in school.
In the tiny space of the bar, no stool was safe from his social filibusters, his simple solutions to social problems, political quandaries, deep, complex issues of ethics and morality. He often explained how a shift at Walmart (even a shift stocking shelves) was favorable to the midnight drive-through at Wendy’s, as he got to work with Sarah (who he’d sworn to marry, someday) and found the menial joy of placing every item on the shelf in perpendicular perfection an exercise in discipline and self-restraint.
In his drunken, heavy-handed wisdom, he would remind the other patrons how good they really had it, how they still had all their limbs and weren’t haunted by the stalking shadows of war, and PTSD, and memories a life away from the shores and safety of home. He’d point and shout at all the men gathered around the shabby dart board about the luxury of time to play games, time to let their responsibilities dissolve into the effervescence of their light, domestic beer.
Even after too many poorly mixed Crown Royal and ginger ales, when he went just a little too far and invaded a little too much personal space, no one ever challenged Jim, told him to shut up, or suggested a meeting of fists in the parking lot. He’d become such a unwavering fixture that his squawking melted into the George Jones and Old Bosephus that filled out the background noise of the bar. Everyone knew Jim and knew the kind of guy he was; a guy stuck in a perpetual loop of failed self-improvement, a guy who lived vicariously through his own dreams of the future, never actually moving forward, always circling back to his stool, the comfort of the regular, the near inescapable rut of routine.
And no one faulted Jim because they were all in parts just like him, all stuck in their own private loops of success and failure, all hoping to one day be something greater than a quiet silhouette in a dark corner of the Smokestack. They never spoke against him or disagreed, in silent consensus that his positivity, however misguided and unrelenting, was one of very few things that held them back from the brink of small-town irrelevance.
They all knew that Jim, as overflowing with imagination as he was, would slowly stagger forward, by his moves or something else’s. He’d pile mistakes onto inaction until his life reached a critical mass of disappointment, and he’d finally break the world or the world would break his will.
He’d come to manage that Walmart, that Wendy’s, slowly hoard enough money in that jar beside the TV to push that single wide out to a double, come home each night to a pregnant Sarah, and go to sleep dreaming of his life reborn, king of that east Tennessee town.