Grey Beards, Marlboro’s, and never ending stories

I never intended to talk to him or anyone else. After a long day in a week filled with disappointments that seemed to follow each other. The only thing that was on my mind was making beer chase beer and hoping for some sleep that would actual bring on some relief.  Most nights anymore are just hours of tossing and turning with only a few moments of unconscious bliss. It’s never enough and I wake up quite often more tired than the day before. Not today was my thought process. No work tomorrow and only a bottle to keep me company. So there I sat struggling with the great millennial question of our time. What am I going to do with my life? Before I had a chance to answer the question, along came on old man with thinning long gray hair, a thick and dirty grey beard and a pronounce limp. He was breathing hard as he shuffled across the empty bar and found himself a stool right next to mine. From that moment, away went my night of quiet drinking.

                 He pulled a pack of Marlboro cigarettes from his pocket and placed it on the bar. Just as the bartender brought him a beer he pulled out a zippo and lit one as and then offered me one. I waved my hand saying no and then he began to talk. I don’t simply mean he started to converse with me, I mean he started in on a conversation that only he could see. I was sitting with my gaze transfixed on the bottles on the bar and the barmaid was at the other end in the corner of the bar playing with her phone. So on and on he went only pausing long enough to sip his beer. His cigarette staid in the corner of his mouth all the while he carried on. I thought after a while he’d get tired or notice that I wasn’t listening but about the time I had my third beer I learned this wasn’t the case. As a buzz started to set in I found myself starting to listen to his stories. Whether they were simply stories or his actual life I still couldn’t tell. It would three more beers before I was intently listening and my buzz was in full bloom.

                As if he was on a loop he started all over again, He told me how he was born in Illinois, how he started to study physics and horticulture at the local college. After a while apparently he grew tired of the rules of academic life and said to hell with it. Since it was 1972 and the draft was going out of style he said he wasn’t worried about going to Vietnam.

“Well, I found myself working for a buddy’s family who had a landscaping business. I just needed a job and they thought they’d put some of my schooling in plants to use.”

Right there this old man laid his life out in front of me. He left nothing to the imagination. He told me about the business not suiting him so decided to join the Army after all.  

“They saw I was one semester shy of a college degree when I enlisted and they tried to convince me to go to Officer Candidates School. I started to fill out the paperwork and said screw it. I was only going to stay in for four years.”

His face was wrinkled from years in the sun and at the rate he was smoking those cigarettes, probably from years of chain smoking. I was hooked now. I doubt I had said more than ten words the past few hours he had been talking. When I did get a chance to talk I sounded like a parrot echoing the same question, “What did you do next?” By now he had caught up to the present telling me about his children, grandchildren and with a sigh of tired astonishment that he had just become a great grandfather. He reached down to grab his cigarette pack and shook it seeing that only one cigarette was left. In one swift move he flicked it between his lips popped open the zippo and lit it, exhaling the smoke as he blew out the lighter. He laid his money on the bar to pay for his drinks and stared at the last mouthful left in the glass.

‘I’ve married two women I never loved, spent 30 years busting my ass in foreign countries I never wanted to see and I never got my degree. My kids from my first marriage don’t want anything to do with me and my kids from my last wife are nothing but leeches. I’ve been an asshole my whole life and haven’t gone a day without a drink in 50 years. You didn’t ask for it but I’ll give you some advice anyways. Don’t be an asshole. Marry a woman with perky breasts and firm hips that you can love, don’t waste your life being miserable and if you get the chance to be a father, be a father. Don’t let them sort it out on their own.

He took the last gulp of his beer and one more drag on his cigarette before he stubbed it out in the ashtray in front of him. The old man turned and left without ever telling me his name or asking for mine. I wasn’t sure what it was I just heard for the last two hours. One man’s confession or suicide note. Convinced I was drunk enough I called an Uber and went home. The entire ride back to my apartment I didn’t speak to the driver like I usually do. I just sat back in the seat thinking about what he had said over and over. I was wondering now if I was being an asshole in my life and with the choices I’d made. When I finally managed to crawl into my bed I had only one thing that still floated through my thoughts, was I going to be him one day too? To my surprise I fell asleep and slept the whole night through. Not one nightmare or second thought. It was like I was dreaming it all up. Only the smell of cigarettes on my shirt the next day convinced me it wasn’t. So now I had committed myself to a new mantra I found myself muttering under my breath. Just don’t be an asshole.

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