It was early morning when the woman wearing a black backpack walked into the bar. The air was stale with old booze because this was a proper pub, a beer and whiskey joint, with nary a wine glass in sight. The space was narrow with an alcove for a pool table and video poker machine, and it was empty except for the bartender and a sad sack nursing a pint at the far end. She took a middle stool at the bar, not too close to the front door, and the bar mirror directly in front of her so she could keep an eye on what was happening behind her.
“I’ll have an Old Fashioned,” she said to the bartender. “Buffalo Trace Bourbon, if you have it.”
“It’s barely eleven, pretty early for a drink, wouldn’t you say?” said the bartender, who was dive bar attractive. On the cusp of his forties, ten pounds away from a dad bod, but he looked like he could handle himself in a fight.
“Depends on the hours you keep.”
“I suppose you’re right. I’m afraid the best I can do you is Jim Beam White Label,” he said apologetically.
The woman shrugged, “It’ll have to do.”
The bartender made the drink and set it on a napkin in front of the woman. She took a sip and nodded. Even though it wasn’t the bourbon of her choice, it wasn’t a half-bad Old Fashioned. She pulled out a one hundred dollar bill and placed it on the bar.
“It’s too early,” the bartender said. “I can’t change that.”
“You won’t have to, I’ll drink my way through it.”
Two sips later, the woman asked the bartender, “So, what’s his deal?” gesturing to the sad sack at the end of the bar.
“Who Herb?” the bartender said in a hushed tone. “Poor guy’s going through a rough patch. They say bad news comes in threes and sure enough he lost his job, found out his wife’s been cheating on him, and the bank foreclosed on his house yesterday.”
“Hmmm,” the woman said, as she got off her barstool, collected her drink and moved down the end of the bar next to Poor Herb. “Can I buy you a drink?”
Herb, abruptly pulled from his sulk, looked at this woman. Even though she tried to hide herself in baggy clothes, she was, without a doubt, the most beautiful human being he had ever laid eyes on in person. Burnt Sienna skin, willowy, and a face cut right from the pages of a men’s magazine. A real stunner, as his dad used to say.
“What’s the angle?” Herb asked.
“Angle? I don’t understand.”
“This is New York, lady. Women, especially beautiful ones like yourself, don’t buy drinks, they have them bought for them, whole bottles, top-shelf. So, when you offer to buy me, an absolute stranger, a drink, I’m smart enough to know that it doesn’t come free.”
The woman pondered this a moment and said, “I’m Marietta. Our bartender friend here…”
“Bill,” the bartender offered.
“…Bill, tells me your name is Herb. Now, we’re not strangers, are we? Normally, I like to drink alone but I don’t know a soul in town and I’m tired of talking to myself because I already know what I’m going to say. You can say no to the drink and the chat, if you’d rather be alone. That’s fine, I get it. I promise I won’t bother you anymore.” Marietta turned to walk back to her seat.
“Wait,” Herb said. “I’m a jaded New Yorker and a bit of an ass at the moment. If the offer still stands, I’d be delighted.”
“Just a chat,” Marietta said before taking the stool next to his. “I don’t want you getting the wrong idea.”
“Drink and a chat,” Herb said, holding up his first three fingers. “Scouts’ honor.”
“Name your poison,” Marietta said. “It obviously isn’t that beer or the glass would be empty by now.”
“It’s about all I can afford, and I was savoring it,” Herb admitted.
“Well, I can afford better than that, so down that puppy and tell Bill what you’re having.”
“A whiskey sour,” herb offered hesitantly, displaying that he clearly wasn’t used to someone else paying for his drinks.
“Done,” Marietta slapped the bar. “And what about you, Bill, what’s your drink of choice?”
“Dyed in the wool tequila man, just like my Mama,” Bill laughed in a short burst.
“Then set yourself up and let me know when that hundred runs out.”
And so they drank and talked, and in bar chat fashion, one person’s story sparked another person’s story and they compared miseries but not in a competitive way. Then the dam burst on Herb’s series of unfortunate events and after he spilled the entirety of his guts, the bar went silent.
“Words,” Herb finally said after several uncomfortable minutes. “I made my living slinging words but the truth of the matter is there isn’t a single word in any language, active, imaginary or dead, that could describe the pain I felt when my wife told me she’s been having an affair, and that she never loved me. Each syllable was a dull blade that sawed back and forth, tearing at my heart.”
“I know you probably can’t see it now, but you’re better off without her,” Marietta said.
“Listen to her, Herb,” Bill said. “One day you’ll be able to look back on all this and see it was for the best.”
“But what if that doesn’t happen?” Herb asked, eyes welling with tears. “What if I’m one of those people who gets stuck in a moment and spiral into misery and despair until I become a crazy homeless person that’s given up on life? What if I’m all out of rebounds, used up my lifetime allowance of fresh starts, and I never get another chance to rebuild my life?”
Marietta laughed and it was hearty enough for both Herb and Bill to eye her suspiciously.
“What’s so funny?” Herb asked.
“You don’t realize how fortunate you are,” Marietta answered. “Are you serious about that? Starting fresh? Because, Herb, my friend, I can do that for you.”
“You can do what for me?”
“I can put you back at square one.”
“By buying your past,” Marietta said like it was obvious. “You sell me your past and you get to start over again.”
“I don’t get the joke.”
“It’s not a joke, Herb,” Marietta said, slipping the backpack off her shoulders. She sat the bag on her lap and unzipped the main compartment, revealing the backpack was stuffed to the brim with bound stacks of hundred dollar bills. “Over two million tax-free dollars in non-sequential bills is yours if you agree to sell me your entire past.”
“Counterfeit bills?” Bill asked.
“Nope, check for yourself,” Marietta peeled a bill off one of the stacks and handed it to the bartender. “I’m sure you’ve got one of those counterfeit money detectors behind the bar somewhere.
Bill took the hundred over to the device right by the register and held it under a UV light. “It’s real,” he confirmed.
Bill started to bring the hundred back, but Marietta waved him off, “Keep that and keep the drinks coming. Things are about to get interesting.”
“Wait wait wait wait,” Herb waved his hands in the air like he was shooing off flies. “I’m a little drunk here and I just want to make sure I’ve got this straight: you’re going to give me two million dollars in exchange for my past?”
“I say, Sure, take my past, and you hand me two million dollars?”
“Right after we seal the deal with a kiss,” Marietta nodded.
“Two million for kissing you?”
“And your past, let’s not forget that.”
“Tongues?” Herb asked, embarrassed at how pathetically childish it came out.
“Herb!” Marietta reeled back in shock. “How dare you?”
“I’m sorry! I didn’t mean anything by it, honest! It’s the alcohol and the entire situation…”
“Calm down,” Marietta smiled. “I’m just messing with you. Of course tongues. I’m going to french you like there’s no tomorrow, or in your case, no yesterday.”
Bill returned with the drinks and asked, “You wearing poisoned lipstick, or something?”
Marietta shot the bartender an are you fucking kidding me right now? look. “One: I’m not wearing lipstick. Two: who am I, Mata Hari?”
“Then hell, if Herb won’t take you up on the offer, I sure as shit will.”
“Hey, stop trying to horn in on my deal!”
“So, do we actually have a deal, Herb, or what?” Marietta asked. “If not, I’ll offer it to Bill. It makes me no difference either way. You just seemed like a guy in need of a break.”
Herb pondered the entire situation for a long moment before saying, “I just want to let you know that I think you’re an absolute nutjob…”
“Guilty as charged.”
“…And I’m not buying a word of any of this…”
“Not necessary to complete the transaction.”
“…And I haven’t worked out the scam yet…”
“No scam. It’s just as it says on the tin.”
“…But, without meaning to objectify you, you are drop-dead gorgeous…”
“No offense taken, and thank you. You ain’t half bad yourself.”
“…And all I can think about is kissing you right now.”
“So, we have a deal?”
Herb nodded, “Yeah, we have a deal.”
“Then I need you to say that you, of your own free will, bequeath to me the entirety of your past in exchange for the money in this backpack.”
Herb made the pledge, and Marietta sat the backpack on the floor, rose from the barstool, and took Herb’s face in her hands. “Pucker up, you wonderful man!”
Marietta pressed her lips to Herb’s and she was the aggressor. Her tongue plunged into his mouth, deeper and deeper…and suddenly the logical part of Herb didn’t want this because her tongue was tangy with the threat of mold, but the animal part couldn’t give a tinker’s damn about the taste. It wanted her, all of her, and it wanted her to have all of him. He squirmed on his barstool, fighting in vain to break the kiss and now he had an erection that rivaled the best hard-on from the height of his virility. Her tongue reached the threshold of no return, and knocked, seeking entry. Logic screamed, No! but the animal inside him opened the gates and let her in.
Suddenly, memories of losing the fight with the bank for the house, pleading with his boss to keep his job, and sobbing like a child while his wife laughed at his misery and moved out of the house with her new, younger man, all rushed past him and vanished into the distance, and there was a strange sense of relief.
But then other memories followed:
- Landing the job of his dreams in the writers’ room of his favorite tv science fiction show;
- Receiving his first acceptance letter from a publisher for a short story;
- The time the bathroom light behind Aunty Valerie revealed the outline of her body through her nightgown and the intimacy of the sight made him nervous because it was the closest he’d ever been to seeing a woman naked and he was amazed and repulsed at the same time;
- Finally standing up to the school bully who later became his best friend throughout his school years;
- Working alongside his dad as he fixed the family car;
- Setting up the red cedar Christmas tree with his mom and sisters for the first time…
So many first times; first kisses; first attempts at intimacy; initial feels of new crushes; the early days of falling in love; when his geeky hobby obsessions were brand spanking new; all the excitement, pain, sorrow and happiness… gone, gone and gone.
Herb could feel Marietta’s kiss begin to wind down, and he found himself standing in the theater of his soul, and the seats were all empty now, no one to occupy his memories because he no longer had memories to occupy.
Marietta broke the kiss but held Herb’s face a moment longer. She looked him squarely in the eyes and said with complete sincerity, “You have no idea what a debt I owe you, and it’s a shame that all I can offer for your sacrifice is money.”
She lifted the backpack off the floor, rested it on her barstool and zipped it closed. Then she slid his arms through the straps and secured the bag to his back. “Best you wear this. You won’t believe the number of times I’ve set it down and almost left it behind.”
The bag was heavier than it looked, heavier than Marietta made it seem. Herb figured she must have been carrying it for a long while and had gotten used to the weight.
Marietta gave Herb a hug and whispered into his ear, “If it turns out a fresh start isn’t what you want after all, do what I did. You’re not a bad-looking guy, you can find someone to take you up on the offer. You won’t believe what some people will do for money. Oh, and I intend to make your wife pay for what she did to you, it’s the very least I can do.”
On her way out, Marietta tapped the bar, pointed at Herb and said, “Nice meeting you, Bill. You know, had the bar been empty, that could have been you.” and with that, she left the bar a million times (two, in fact) lighter than when she entered.
The man who used to be Herb just sat there, lost in his aloneness. He knew what transpired in the bar, Marietta left him that much at least, but that’s all there was. This moment in this bar was square one. He would have to build his life up from scratch. He pulled out his wallet and his driver’s license and all his credit cards were blank. He couldn’t even remember his name or the names of his family and friends, or even if he had family and friends.
He did not like the feeling at all.
Then the bartender came into his sphere of attention. Apparently, this man had been talking to him the entire time but he somehow managed to block the guy out.
“Hey, Herb! Are you all right, man?” Bill said, his face full of concern.
Previously-Herb shook his head, “No.”
“Oh man, don’t be going all catatonic on me like that! You had me freaking out for a moment!”
“Hey,” No-Longer-Herb said. “Would you really have traded your past for this money?”
“Pal, she wouldn’t have had to ask me twice.”
“Would you still trade it for the same deal?”
“What, to kiss you?”
Normally, any guy who tried to kiss Bill would have gotten five knuckles across the gums, not that he was a homophobe or anything like that, it just wasn’t his practice, and he aimed to make that point clear the best way he knew how.
“You want to french me that way she did you?” Bill asked for the sake of clarification.
“I want to give you two million dollars for your past. Do we have a deal?”
“I’m not gay,” Bill announced for the record.
“Neither am I. Two million, in or out?”
Bill’s fist clenched and unclenched as he worked the situation over in his brain. Who in the hell did this guy think he was, making a proposition like that? Was he insinuating something? Was Bill giving off some sort of vibe that wasn’t aware of? If he was, how many other people were picking up on this vibe?
Then the little voice inside his head cleared its throat and reminded him of how life-changing two million dollars would be, and none of his memories were all that precious, as he tended to live in the now anyway. Not to mention that the bar was still empty, so nobody would ever know…