Dale could barely feel his headache. But that was only because it traveled with a raging buzz born of an epic party the night before. He had to admit, as he stared at the gouged and grimy bar through his beer, that he was still pretty drunk. Or maybe high. He didn’t remember well enough to be sure.
He remembered getting up, head pounding. He remembered rolling out of a hotel bed, finding a room key and his wallet on the dresser, and needing some air. He remembered making his way down the street a block or two, not sure where he was going. When he saw a bar door open, he had wandered in to the lonely, narrow, dim place - apparently it’s first customer.
The bartender needed no instructions. Dale just sat and studied the bar as a beer was poured and he zoned out.
Random gouges marked the black bar top. The natural wood showing through the man-made paint struck him as art. The contrast between the eternal, irresistable forces of nature - always poking through, and the ephemeral, flimsy, black excretions of man. The gouges could have been elvish writing from a Tolkein novel - a curved letter here - an accent there - and they might as well have been - they were the tale of nature and chaos, hacking away, ignored by most, understood by none, and no less significant.
Less heady thoughts barged into Dales mind. “How did I get into that hotel? That was a dump. Bet I’ve got fleas. Itching won’t help.”
His headache moved and morphed, and ended up parking itself above his right eye, as usual. Finding it’s home, it settled in, and began the work of expanding in intensity.
There really is no proper analogy for a good, solid headache. It’s pain, plain and simple. Pain that plants itself somewhere, and grows. The mind reacts as it will. Sometimes the mind is prepared, strong, fighting smart. Sometimes it’s tired, beaten down, near panicked, and hallucinating. Sometimes the mind is so resigned or occupied that even a painful headache becomes background noise.
Dales mind, sitting somewhere between confused and depressed, decided that it would take an old, beaten path. Internally, he rationalized the pain as a masochist would - he drew in a sip of beer, and welcomed it.
“Ahhh…bring it on.”, Dale said aloud.
“Amen to that, brother.”, a voice replied from down the bar.
Dales head swiveled a few dozen degrees to the left, and his beer hand lowered, but his body stayed in place, leaned forward at the same angle, as if it were stone.
He saw a dark silhouette sat at the far end of the bar, bright light streaming around it from the open door. Dale recognized the voice, but all he got out of the image was blind. He left his drink on the bar and shaded his eyes with his beer hand.
“I know you?”, Dale asked.
“Well, I hope so, brother!”, said the blurry, fat silhouette surrounded by firey eye spikes, “We’re roommates!”
Dale looked back down to his beer and saw the silhouette of a fat man on top of it, staring back at him. He rubbed his eyes with his palms. He had decided maybe he didn’t recognize the voice, and that even if he did, he didn’t want to have anything to do with it, if his experience with it thus far was any indication of future performance.
The worst part of the unfortunate conversation to Dale was the fact that it had completely screwed up his previously healthy masochistic disposition toward his headache.
“I don’t have a roommate”, Dale mumbled, still rubbing his eyes, “or a brother.”
“You were a lot friendlier in the hospital.”, the stranger said.
The hair stood up on the back of Dales neck. Memories unwelcome and unsure flooded into his mind.
The party he had been invited to the night before went south when the Tequila came out. The host, a retiring but highly respected administrator at the local university, had poured king-sized shots of the strongest stuff that had ever passed Dales lips - for toast after toast. The southward turn was slow and enjoyable, like the movement of a gaint cruise ship. Dale remembered thoroughly enjoying himself as laughter and incapacitation spread throughout the party, moving from room to room in the hosts sizeable house with comical incoherency. But when the ship faced fully south, it changed character entirely. Dale had never seen a geology student punch a professor like that, or a mathematician take on a plumber over a minor philosophical point with a cutting board to the gut.
When the sherriff had arrived, Dale recalled he was feeling pretty smug, having positioned himself at the top of a staircase, well away from the melee, propped against a wall for balance, but with a birds eye view of the chaos. Panic came with the sherriff, though, and Dale was thrown forward in the wave of humanity. The partygoers, as unaccustomed with the law as they were with their level of insobriety, rushed to the front door, knocking Dale down the stairs and into a pile of people out of their depth - cursing, confused, injured, and sick.
“Oh, yeah. I don’t really remember much about the hospital.”, Dale said.
“Weeeell, we talked for an entire day there, Dale - off and on.”, the man said.
Dale noticed another glass near his right hand. The old indian bartender had placed a full glass of water near Dale and another near the stranger. Just then, the bartender snapped open the shutters to the windows behind the bar. Light flooded into the place.
For a moment, Dale and the stranger were both blinded, mumbling incoherent and unfinished curses. When their eyes adjusted, Dale could see the stranger clearly. He did look familiar. The guy had a belly on him. There was some stuff in his curly red beard and his overfull head of curly hair.
“Sorry, I don’t remember your name.”, Dale said.
The stranger threw a hand up and let out a sound of mock exasperation.
“You said we were there for an entire day?”, Dale said. He scratched his head, it felt damp.
“Well, yeah! Dale, I swear, I’m worried about you. That bump you took was serious.”
“Shit.”, Dale said, looking at his hand. “I must be…”
“And my name is Bob, by the way.”, Bob said, walking down the bar to sit next to Dale, both drinks in hand.
“Nice to meet you, Bob. So…”, Dale said, finally getting a good look at Bob and smiling despite his headache. He remembered him from the party, vaguely. He had liked this guy. Talked to him about theory of mind.
“It’s Monday?”, Dale asked.
“Yup.” Bob said, sitting down and raising his glass in cheers. “And we’re alive.”
Dale raised his glass to clink Bobs. He was concerned as he noticed a little blood on his hand when he did so.
“Bob, I think I just completely lost 24 hours. I don’t remember a thing after Saturday night.”, Dale said.
Bob launched right in, explaining to Dale the events of the day before. Dale switched to water and his head started feeling better almost immediately.
It was quite a story, and Bob was a storyteller. A few of Dales lost memories either came back or hinted at it. A few other things, as well as any embellishment on Bobs part, Dale just had to accept, having no alternative theory with which to argue the points. There were some highlights for Dale, like learning what kind of injuries he had and what pain killers he was on. But the long and short of it was that Dale had made a world-class ass of himself. He was lucky to be out of jail.
It didn’t feel good. He felt like he had wasted more than a day.
Bob, who as it turned out was a professor of history, left him with his phone number and well wishes and headed home to his family, leaving Dale where he was thirty minutes earlier, staring at the gouges on the bar. He ran a couple fingers over them. In the light they seemed less mysterious, but had no less attraction. Dale tried for a moment to regain the feeling of wonder he had when he first sat down and stared at them, but it wasn’t quite the same. He was anxious, more than anything. He had a nagging, low feeling that told him his habits were unbreakable - that he stood at at precipice, or perhaps was spiralling down already, into something that meant the end for his physical health and self-respect.
The bartender, a staid older man with a large face , who had heretofore studiously kept to his own business, revealed to Dale a genuine and surprisingly toothy smile as he poured him another water. “It’s the little things.”, the bartender said.
Dale wasn’t about to argue with the bartender just because the guy was wrong. He looked at Bobs number on the bar, sitting on those gouges. Bobs writing was the script of a doctor that had never learned cursive. Dale could defocus his eyes and see the writing as symbols, correllating them to the marks on the bar. In his mind he imagined them moving and glowing, and he arranged them as any artist would.
After some minutes, Dale snapped out of it, cursed himself for wasting time, drank the water, paid the man, and left.
Outside, the weather had improved.
It’s complaints temporarily quieted, Dales mind cleared. It turned him to face the sun with closed eyes, and reflected on the events of the recent past: He had problems, but a lack of imagination wasn’t one of them. He had witnessed as the victorious celebratory charge of an army of erudite highbrows devolved into an unrefined and boorish retreat. In that epic defeat he had born scars - scars worthy of a letter home, or at least a campfire story. He had made a friend.
Dale opened his eyes and scratched his head again before continuing down the street. He thought aloud, “Maybe it is the little things.”