Create a character based on one of these quotes (the quotes were all Nietzche). Now, he's a bartender. He's opening the bar one afternoon. There's two regulars outside. Who are they, what's their relationship, what does the bartender think of them? The bartender keeps something personal in the bar. What is it and why is it important? The bartender has some fantasy. What is it? An accountant comes in with his girlfriend. They have a fight -- what are they fighting about? The regulars try to intervene. What's the reaction? Finally the bartender puts a stop to the fight. How and why?
This had to be done in-class. Here, for your reading displeasure, is the result. Don't think too much about it.
I have seen much of the world. It is brutal, and cruel, and dark. Marching forever into a blind eternity, it neither knows whither it is bound nor from whence it came. It seems directionless, maddeningly so, and I'm surely not the first to notice; through the ages many have offered their own suggestions, solutions, sage maxims and platitudes meant to assuage our fears, doubts, and general despair. Religion, politics, economics -- there is certainly no shortage of theories, from philosophers and pundits and laypeople alike. All take the pulpit at some point, asserting that if this were changed, or that, then things would fix themselves. Magically, inexplicably.
I used to be one of them. You know the sort. The type who rails endlessly against a perceived sea of injustice, of a society plummeting downwards. I had my theories too, and spent much of my youth doing what I could to make things better, with reckless disregard for the futility of my struggles. From underground newspapers to political campaign support -- you name it, I did it. And for all the good it did I may as well have been trying to fend off a squad of Marines while armed with naught but a drinking straw.
Eventually I gave up. Caring was too much work, took too much out of me. For every time I rolled up my sleeves and tended to another wrongfully accused, or another broken heart, it cost me a little piece of myself. It's suicide by tiny increments to live that way, forever driving yourself mad by wading hip-deep in the refuse and detritus of wrecked lives and failing systems. The problem isn't politics, or religion, or economics -- no, the problem is people. And I wearied of grappling with them, for as Nietzsche put it, if you gaze too long into the abyss, the abyss will soon gaze into you.
The abyss: humanity, bent on marching itself through the gates of Hell, perhaps the only direction it has ever found for itself. You ask me, the wisest man who ever lived was Nero, playing a fiddle while the heart of his mighty empire burned. That was someone who realized futility when he saw it -- knew there was nothing useful he could do, no way to prevent the blaze from consuming that which had taken so long to create, and resigned himself to enjoying the moment while he could. The band continued to play while the Titanic sank, and lovers twirled away on the dance floor of the Hindenburg as it went screaming to the ground in a fiery inferno.
Sometimes you have to give up. The wise general knows not to fight a battle he cannot win.
There comes a point, though, when justifications like that aren't enough. I could walk away but I couldn't stop caring. Not completely. I needed a way to help people -- even if only by fractions -- without involving myself. That's why I opened the Equinox, where people come to reach a bit of equilibrium and I help them by pushing alcohol across the pine until they can't remember the world.
. . . . .
The Equinox is carefully located to attract a bare minimum of barhoppers. It opens when I feel like opening it, and it closes when I decide to close it. Prices are subject to what kind of mood I'm in that day. This bar is my haven, a tiny cutout where I can run things my way in the middle of a city decaying from within.
I don't advertise, and even the sign out front is small and inobtrusive. People find this place by hearing about it from friends of friends, I suppose, although I don't make it a point of asking. This sort of business model has the advantage of attracting only a certain type of clientle, the sort who comes for a specific reason and not just to make the scene. It has the disadvantage of attracting only a certain type of clientle, the sort of pathetic trash that has nowhere else to go, the type with a desperate hunger in their eyes and a fire that has long since gone out of their hearts, living only to continue their existence.
I hate these people for the way they remind me of myself. But then, I have a right to disdain them -- I'm on this side of the bar, they're on that side, and if they don't like it, they're welcome to find some other place that will tolerate them. Many have threatened to do so, few have tried; the ones that did all ended up back here anyway.
They're regulars by strict definition, but not necessarily out of choice. This isn't Cheers. They're regulars only because they can't find anywhere else. Every afternoon I unlock the front door, and every afternoon I find some of them loitering about outside, waiting for that magic moment when they can step off the street and into my world.
. . . . .
"Hey," Bryan greets me as I approach the Equinox, keys in hand, and I wonder how long he's been standing out here in the parking lot. With him, as always, is Sarah, with close-cropped hair and downtrodden eyes. I can't tell if they're friends, lovers, coworkers, or what, and I've never pursued the issue. All I know is they both like Corona with limes and they mostly stay out of my way. "How're you?" he continues, offering me the illusion he thinks I want: that we're all friends here.
"I'm alive," I say simply, unlocking the door.
"Better than the alternative," says Sarah.
"That depends on your perspective," I tell her, and head inside, flipping lightswitches with a practiced motion. Dull overhead lights flicker to life, casting moody shadows on the floor, the walls.
Bryan and Sarah follow me in, take their usual places at a corner table, and I ignore them for a few moments while I go through the motions of bar preparations. Filling the ice bins, checking keg pressures and taps, making sure the register is stocked with small bills. It's all a process, one that isn't written down but I follow in the same order each time.
When all is in readiness to my satisfaction I crack out two Corona longnecks and bring them to the table without being asked -- because there's no point and even if they felt like something different today, I don't care. Both of them acknowledge me with a "thanks" as I put the bottles on front of them, and I grunt in response.
Back behind the counter I busy myself with slicing fruit, while Bryan and Sarah take idle pulls from their beers and stare listlessly into the distance. The jukebox burbles out an old AC/DC song from tinny speakers.
Bohemia, this is not.
. . . . .
Safely hidden beneath the bar sleeps a cheap Chinese knockoff of a Walther, disposable and light and utterly deadly. If anyone found it, I'd tell them it was simply a matter of prudence, of being able to defend myself and my bar against possible robbery. A lie, of course; I've no illusions about the value of this place and I certainly wouldn't take a bullet for it.
Only one person has ever found it, a girl I'd dated briefly, years ago, who had eyes somewhere between espresso and chocolate and a perfect curve to her jawline of the sort that mathematicians dream about. Most people don't notice these things. I do.
She had come by after work one evening to see me, and it was the last time I would ever see her. Conversation had turned into Discussion, with a capital D, and this was not a good thing.
"Don't you ever dream?" she'd asked.
"Sure, I dream," I said. "Just don't remember them, is all."
"No," she said, sighing at me. "I mean, don't you want anything? From life? Is this," and she swept her hand to encompass the entirety of the bar, "what you aspired to?"
"You just don't seem curious. Passionate. About anything," she said.
"Hey, what's all this? What'd I do?"
"Nothing," she replied. "And that's just it. You don't do anything, don't want anything."
I put down the towel I'd been wiping the bar with and looked at her a moment.
"It's just," she said, propping her her chin on her hands, "that as well as you treat me, you can't put all your energy into me. You have to want something more, to become something better."
"So now I'm not good enough? I have to be better?"
"You know what I meant," she said. "You're treading water, and I'm forced to also, just to stay next to you. And I don't want that. Not for me, and not for you."
"Look," I said, leaning closer, "do you think this is the time and place for this? I'm at work, okay? Can we do this later?"
"One thing," she insisted. "Just tell me one thing you want for your future, and I'll stop."
"There's one thing I value as much as you," I told her, "and that's my free time. What do I want for my future? I want to make a metric ton of money and retire at thirty-five and take you away to someplace where we won't have to do anything for anyone ever again."
"That's it?" she asked. "That's your big ambition? To laze about doing nothing?"
"I didn't say that. I said I don't want to have to do anything for other people. You know, like those people on TV who win the lottery and then say they're going to keep working because they'd get bored otherwise? Well, fuck that. If I had that kind of money I could find things to do from now until the day I die and never be bored. I could travel the world, learn to sail, take up martial arts, learn to cook. You could do whatever you wanted too, except when you had to try my latest culinary delight."
A small smile played across her lips. "So that's your fantasy if time and money weren't an issue."
"You got it."
"You're a real piece of work," she opined.
"I know," I said. "Watch the bar for me a minute, okay? I'm stepping outside for a smoke."
And when I came back, she was behind the bar, her pale skin even more ghostly than usual, and my heart twisted, knowing.
"Why," she snarled, "do you have a gun?"
"Er," I said.
"Are you insane? Why the hell didn't you tell me you had this thing?"
"Jesus," I said, closing the distance between us in the hopes that she'd lower her voice. Not that the patrons were paying attention, but I didn't feel this should be public knowledge. "Keep it down, yeah?"
"Well?" she demanded.
"You know that scar on my back?" I said. "How I never told you where I got it?"
She stood, transfixed, the neon Amstel sign glowing in her eyes.
"I keep that gun because it's good to remember," I finished.
"Remember being shot?"
"You're unbelievable," she snapped, and shoved me aside as she stalked out from behind the bar, and out the door into the November night.
. . . . .
By the time I'd gotten home that evening, her stuff was gone. All of it. The only evidence she'd ever lived there was an clean spot amid the dust on the nightstand, where her alarm clock used to be.
When I smoke, I don't go outside anymore.
. . . . .
You can always tell accountants when you see them. The dull, witless look of a trapped animal, head full of useless trivia about expense reports and accounts receivable and mean salary-to-benefit ratios. So when one breezes in tonight with an attractive woman behind him, I have to hide my surprise. Takes all kinds, I suppose. Sarah gives them both a vague glance as they walk in; Bryan takes no notice, too intent on fiddling with the crushed lime on the rim of his bottle.
The accountant and his companion, though, do not look especially happy. Most people in my bar don't, but these two had a particularly despondent aura. I've seen it a thousand times, in the glances of a thousand couples who have come through here. Their relationship was twilighting, and I could see it even if they couldn't.
"What'll it be?" I ask them, racking a martini glass as they settle on the barstools.
"Stoli on the rocks," he says. "And for me, a Heineken."
"Wait," she interrupts, just as I'm turning around to get their drinks. "I don't want a Stoli."
"Fine," I tell her, "then what?"
"You got wine?" she asks. "Chardonnay?"
"Doesn't matter," she says definitively, "that's what I want."
When I told her the chardonnay was nothing spectacular, I was not being entirely truthful. It was, in fact, quite vile, the variety you can purchase by the bottle for five dollars at a gas station. The only reason I stock this sort of thing at all is for specialty cases like her -- the regulars here most certainly wouldn't order chardonnay. I doubt they even know what chardonnay is.
To retrieve that bottle takes me a minute; having little call for it I keep it in the back, to make room at the bar for more useful things. I come back just in time to hear the beginnings of a State Of The Union type argument between her and her accountant: "...ordering for me," she's saying.
"It's what you always get," he counters.
"Don't tell me what I always get," she says. "I don't always get that."
"Yes, you do," he replies, "and what's the big deal? He got your wine like you wanted. Right?" he concludes, looking to me as if for confirmation. It's a cheap trick used by people in these situations -- he's playing the gender card, hoping I'll side with him as a fellow male.
"Yeah," I tell him, giving them both an impassive look and not wanting to be involved. I pour her wine, put his draft in front of him, and step back, pretending that the task of cleaning more glasses is of the utmost importance.
"It's a big deal to me," she continues once I'm not standing in front of them. "You're always trying to dictate to me what I want and don't want."
"That's bullshit," he retaliates. "You can get whatever you want -- I was just trying to be kind of chivalrous and this is the thanks I get."
"Yo!" she bellows suddenly, and I almost drop the glass I'm drying. "What the hell's this trash I'm hearin'? You know good and well it's my rhymes you're fearin'. You can't even boast your cash flow on this coast, so stick your head up the hole you love most."
The accountant bristles. "I'm no poet," he says, "I'm just a freestyler. But when I'm online, I'm a turbo tax filer! I bust up some 1040s to fill my pockets with cash, and I got a new computer cause my old one got trashed."
"You're kidding me, right? You call that a rhyme?" says the woman. I've stopped washing glasses now -- I don't like where this is going and I'm ready to remove them both if I have to. "Please, get a life, you're wasting my time," she continues. "You're still just a freak in the rap sideshow, but I'm the ringmaster cause I got the flow. I got rhythm and style and a thing called technique, while all you got are forced rhymes that are weak."
The accountant stands, knocking over his beer in the process. The bottle crashes to the ground, spraying shards of glass on the floor. If this were any other time I'd be halfway to the broom closet by now, but for the moment I'm not willing to leave this powder keg situation unattended.
"I don't know what you're trying," he roars, infuriated. "You're acting a fool. You're outclassed by miles in this rhyme duel. It's time you give up and admit your defeat -- you'll save yourself time if you call a retreat. If rap skill was vision, you would be blind," and he's reaching a crescendo, "so take my advice and quit while you're behind."
She's on her feet too, now, and circles him like a predatory attorney. "I asked around," she informs him, "and everybody agreed: you talk a lot of shit but you gotta concede. I've got you beat in finesse and in form. You're like a lone tree and I'm an electrical storm. You can tell that I'm coming if you check your barometer, but if you try to knock me I'll clean your chronometer."
Waxing poetic, the accountant explains, "I've had enough and I'm sick of your shit. You rhyme like a schoolgirl so why don't you admit that your vocab is weak and your rhythm is broken. Run along, Laura -- Jason has spoken."
"You want to talk vocab?" she shoots at him. "It's a crutch for your rhymes, to cover the fact that you wouldn't get dimes if you went to the street and stuck out your hat. Don't bother with me till you admit that fact."
"Goddamn," he says. "You say take my beats to the street? I am the street! I shit concrete! It's time you face facts: You're still just a twit whose lyrical prose ain't the least bit legit. You abuse good taste with bad metaphors, forced analogies and whack rhymes galore. The idea that you can beat me is your own little fiction, so from this rap battle you've just earned an eviction."
She's gearing up for a response, and the jukebox is belting out an ABBA song, Swedish vocals and stacks of synthesizers clashing against the harsh words being played out in front of me. From the corner of the room, I can see that Bryan has finally taken notice, and he stumbles over to Jason and Laura, weaving as though the bar had become an obstacle course.
"Listen, you both," he slurs at them, still clutching his Corona, "you gotta cut it out now. You're both having fucking lyrical cows." He turns to the accountant, whose face betrays his desire to throttle him, but Bryan takes little notice as he rants: "When you dropped your rhythmless funk on the mic, she owned you so hard she ruled the Rhyming Reich." And now faces Laura, visibly swaying on his feet. "You rolled over his prose like a Panzerdivision," he assures, "cut through his crap with a surgeon's precision."
Jason is not amused. "I got a phased plasma rifle in the forty-watt range," he tells Bryan. "Step to me, punk, and your face I'll rearrange. If the stage were the Vatican, I'd be the Pope, taking charge of this place with the verses I've wrote. But not John Paul the cripple -- I'm more like Pope Pious, burning rap heathens at the stake with unholy bias. That's prejeduce," he clarifies, "just in case you were wondering, against sucker MCs who try to steal my thundering."
Sarah's at Bryan's back, tugging on his jacket. "Bryan," she pleads, "stop."
Bryan shrugs her off and is about to unload more alcohol-fueled venom when I decide that the problem, as always, is people, and I just can't deal with this. Not tonight. Not any night.
The imitation Walther comes out from under the bar, and I slide the magazine back as though chambering a round. A bluff: I don't keep this loaded and never will, but the sound has everyone's attention.
"I got a nine-millimeter all covered in chrome," I announce. "If you don't take this outside, I'll drop a slug in your dome. You come in here cause you're thirsting for a beer. You try to catch me, but you can't, cause I'll shift it into fifth gear. So take my advice, go back to your habitation, before I slate you all for rhyme termination."
Having said that, I click back the hammer.
Sarah leads Bryan away, dazed, and Jason tries to regain some of his dignity before leaving. "MC Abacus be takin' care of business," he says. "Peace. I'm out of here."
And with that he's gone. Out the door before anyone notices, and from the parking lot I can hear his car start like a bad day.
Laura seats herself back at the bar, her lips trembling as she downs the rest of her wine. "Son of a bitch," she says to no one in particular, though whether about the accountant or about life in general, I may never know. I find a broom and start sweeping green bits of glass off the floor.
The myopic gaze of the abyss never blinks.