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Guest Writer

Imperfect matches
by Troy Eggleston

e walked in quietly, sat down huddled in a standard-issue pea coat, untucked an old tasseled scarf from beneath the top button, then pulled out a pack of Export A's.

His eyes touched an ashtray as he asked for a double-bourbon straight and a pack of matches. There was a slight shiver in his voice, a strange nervousness that makes a bartender wary.

"Don't pour doubles here," I answered, stoically.

"Make it a single, then, and a pack of matches." He gently removed the filter from one of his smokes.

I quickly brandished my Zippo. The smell of lighter fluid emerged into a tall flame, blue at the bottom.

"Matches, please," he said. "I don't like grown men trying to light my smokes."

I suffocated the fire, reached into my apron, searched out a pack of matches with another bar's logo, and tossed them his way.

"Thank you," he hesitantly murmured.

I walked over to the well and poured his drink with restraint as he began playing with the matches. He lit the entire book with one curiously prodigious stroke. The flame hissed on impulse, struggled for a moment, then grew tall and aware. Sulfur penetrated the air. Its thick scent was irrevocably nostalgic. He slowly maneuvered the anxious blaze up to his face, illuminating a batch of scars and creases that twisted into one another like angry rivers starting from the corner of each eye.

"You know, matches in a box are superior to those in a book, and books in a box are the matches of the inferior," he said, staring into the fire. His pupils dilated as he cracked a small, thievish grin with the lit cigarette sitting limp in the side of his mouth. I gave him a cautious glare, the kind ambiguity invites, and walked over with his drink in hand.

"Read that in a book?" I asked, emphasizing book. I set the drink down perfectly centered on a cocktail napkin. The flame cowered beside my passing breath. Time cannot frame the elusive.

"Yeah, a big heavy one," he retaliated. He picked the drink up with a trembling hand, stared for a moment inside the glass as if seeing his reflection for the first time, took a long, pensive drag off his smoke and then ashed on the bar.

"An ashtray is such a filthy invention," he said, revealing a crooked set of teeth.

He threw the bourbon back and smacked the empty glass down on the bar. It made a loud abrasive sound, the kind that reverberates inside your bones.

"Startle ya?" he asked. My expression must have seemed a bit uneasy. I set an ashtray before him and tried to make eye contact to express my intolerance for such antics. He stared blankly ahead, seemingly in his own universal concoction.

"I'll have another please, same glass, this time with one ice cube."

here was nobody else in the bar. Moments before he walked in I'd decided to shut down a bit early. It was common practice on Mondays. You could always count on a few of the Burnside regulars to show up for their usual fix but, all in all, Monday nights were quiet.

"Why don't you got the game on?" His eyes still avoided me, glancing over at the dead screen of a suspended television in the far corner of the bar. I wasn't much for turning it on. I felt it detracted from the pensive quality of the place.

"Detroit beat the Steelers in overtime."

"Damn. My old man is from Pittsburgh. Loves the Steelers. Hard-working people in Pittsburgh, you know."

"Don't people work hard everywhere?" I always despised the blue-collar pride of underachievers.

"In Pittsburgh they work twice as hard. Movies have been made about it. You'd know if you watched a little TV."

I poured his next drink while keeping watch from the periphery.

He had a stunningly odd profile, where a pointy chin traveled up into an awkwardly high cheekbone. He looked emaciated, his flesh barely hanging on.

His bone structure retreated back at the bridge of his nose, forming a deep canyon where a small lake sat at the bottom. There, alone and weary in the middle of this lake, was a struggling eye that seemed to have drowned, floating like a dead man whose soul had not yet left. A jagged eyebrow sat at the northern foot of the canyon like an expressionless watchman. Beyond it were miles of deserted forehead that eventually led to dispersed, struggling strands of hair that stood stubbornly like toxic missionaries. His ear looked like it had been bitten or chewed; the rear of it bent forward as if trying to protect what little was left. The two fingers holding a smoke seemed to stretch far beyond any normal capacity.

He was eerily lanky, alienesque, just sitting there looking like an evolved stick-bug camouflaged within the barstool.

"Here you are." I set the next drink before him.

"Thank you," he said. The "thank" was long and drawn out, while the "you" was a quick turn, slightly resentful. He immediately picked up the cocktail and once again stared into the glass, seemingly perplexed by its content.

"Are you sure there is only one ice cube in here?" His voice echoed from inside.

I smiled uncomfortably, realizing he was serious. The tone of voice was urgent and insecure.

"Not all together sure; those things are slippery, you know." I took a deep diplomatic breath. "But if there is more than one ice cube in your drink I deeply apologize. It was not intended."

"Look," he said while pausing to wet his lips with a slow-moving tongue, "there are at least three ice cubes in here and I only asked for one." He removed his face from the glass and made eye contact with me for the first time. His right eye swam to the surface and stared at me like a lunatic bird, while his left eye just bobbed up and down like a stained cork caught in a dime-sized whirlpool. His jaw was stiff when he spoke and, judging by a slight twitch of his upper lip, this was indeed a serious matter.

"One is the beginning of time. One is the individual." That one eye followed me like the past. "I have a riddle. Would you like to hear?"

"Sure." My voice was reluctant.

"What is the sum of one who is here but ends up over there where two become one and one becomes none?"

I was confused by the meter of the riddle. I was more interested in deciphering what level of threat, if any, this man had upon my life.

"Don't know."

He clapped his hands. "Yes! You are 100 percent correct."

Then he reached into his pack of smokes, once again tore off a filter and asked for another pack of matches.

"Ritual," he confessed. "Without them we are lost." His other cigarette still burned in the ashtray.

"Started smoking at 12. Dad smoked, I smoke. My kid probably smokes."

I tossed him another book of matches. This time no thank-yous followed. He immediately lit one of the matches and held it beneath his glass. The flame burned all the way down to his fingertips. He lit another allowing the same process to occur, and then another.

This carried on like an infected ritual. He became stiff, never flinched – which made the scene that much more unnerving.

"Look, I'll pour you another, okay?" I said, feeling a bit challenged.

"Just speeding up the process, Jack. You have a better idea?"

"I'll pour you another, I just happen to be stocked up on bourbon."

I reached for the glass and he immediately pulled it out of my arm's reach, then blew out the match with his nostrils.

"You bullin' me around, Jack?"

The sulfur lifted its way toward me once again as a rush of adrenaline prowled through my body, smelling confrontation. A long wait followed – one of those awkward lapses in time that never quite seems to resolve.

"No. I was just gonna pour you another so you don't have to wait for those ice cubes to melt, is all." An insincere retreat.

He began to laugh hysterically. The sound lifted throughout the bar and filled each corner, every inch, with an exaggerated, grating dissonance. And then, just like that, it escaped. It was swallowed up by an even stranger, more menacing type of silence.

"Hey, bartender," he said with some momentum in his voice. "The lady here would like another drink."

e motioned beside him to where there was nothing but an empty barstool. I could now tell that he had committed to being a nuisance. But what I had a problem understanding was whether it was of the conscious, vindictive sort, or just the ramblings of a crazy mind. I began to run through my limited halls of psychology. A threatening air now sat thick throughout the bar and I had to try to disperse of it without seeming obvious.

"I wish there were some ladies in here. You know Monday nights; ain't much going on."

"The lady would like a drink, Jack." Each word held an uncomfortable pause. "Don't care if it's Monday, Friday or a heyday. When the ladies are thirsty, I buy 'em a drink. Or does Jack not like the ladies?"

"Jack does not fabricate the ladies, he fornicates with them."

He looked at me disdainfully, like I was some young punk kid flirting with his own demise. He threw the second glass of bourbon through the creases of a snarl. It seemed he changed lanes and was ready to crash.

"You saying she ain't no lady?"

I didn't want to play along but was gravely unsure of where it would go if I did not. That has always been my problem as a bartender. A good bartender has a type of occupational clairvoyance where he sees a situation before it even happens and, therefore, if it's a potentially bad one, directs it in a manner so that it never happens.

"Look, you want another? And then I'm closing shop on account of that it's just so dead in here."

It was a partial truth based on impartial reasons.

"Hell, yeah, I'll have another, and the lady will, too." That eye crawled out of its cavernous hole and glared up at me while the rest of his attention focused on pulling a filter off another cigarette. When he finished, he licked the thing up and down, slowly, while that same defiant eye just attached itself to my skull like a depraved voyeur. He struck a match.

"Fire don't burn the outside if you're already burnin' in the inside." He held the flame beneath an unwavering hand. Soon, the smell of flesh permeated the air. "There's a vacancy on every floor. Those are rooms I prefer to sleep in, Jack."

stood behind the bar, silent and concerned. I was hoping the situation would just ride itself out, dissipate. I poured one last shot, set it before him and then began to put things away, hoping it would make a subtle suggestion.

"And the lady would like a gin martini," he said, ashing on the bar again.

"Are you from Pittsburgh?" I asked, ignoring the request, trying to divert him from the whole phantom-lady obsession.

"How did you know that?" he said while cautiously picking the drink up from the bar.

"No, well, you mentioned your father being from there; I was just wondering if you grew up there or something."

"Why?" He leaned back, looked around suspiciously.

"Hey, just ... you know I have a few friends from there. Just asking."

"You FBI or something?"

"No ... no. Couldn't get through the background check, you know."

"Oh, so you're trying to get in the FBI."

"No, no just, uh ... a bit of ineffective humor. Sorry."

"FBI is everywhere. Look out, Jack." He raised the glass to his mouth and stuck a reptilian tongue in the alcohol to swirl it around a bit. "Look at you, trying to play the detective."

He pulled out a crumpled old wallet. "What is it you want, Jack? Social Security Number, I.D., a picture of me doing involuntary acts, what is it?"

I began to feel like he was conducting an experiment and I was just some expendable rat caught in a maze.

"Nothing. I was just making conversation. Relax." The fight-or-flee instinct was creeping toward fight.

"Relax?" He stood up, took off his coat. He was extremely tall. "Relax, huh? Do you want me to confuse distractions with relaxation such as you have? "

"I don't know what you mean."

He reached into his coat pocket. "I've been watching you watch me, Jack. What is it you see?"

An old hand-held tape player emerged from his coat. He set it gently on the bar and then smiled over toward me.

"Art is what collides intention with invention. Only the true at heart can invent a frame to harness the intended emotion. We can witness two paths converging only when we enable ourselves the capacity to believe." He ran his hand across his nose. "My old man told me that."

A sound then emerged. It was the sound of an old cassette that has been played a thousand times, rolling in a bed of static, anticipating the first note.

e straightened himself, adjusted his collar, then held out his hand to this seemingly transparent woman. She apparently accepted. And there, in the aisle between the bar and the booths, they began to dance a waltz to a beautiful melody.

At first I stared ahead, unamused. I thought it was just an attention-getter, used in every bar he frequented. Probably every bartender in town could speak of that crazy guy who dances with ghosts.

Then I began to associate it with me, what effect it had on me, how I could avoid this from ever happening again ... and why was this derelict taunting me with his indiosyncrasies?

Yet he continued to dance, very unconcerned with me – content, swaying gracefully with the music.

But I began to let the song seep in, and it was then, as if by some strange enchantment, a hallucination took hold of me.

I saw an image take form beside him. It was a beautiful, middle-aged woman. His hand delicately wrapped around her waist. She had rosy cheeks where small locks of hair rested gently. Her eyes were strong, yet empathetic. She had a smile that was ever so slight and radiant. Her focus was strictly directed toward this bizarre man. They seemed perfect together, in the way imperfection can only complement.

When the song ended, he bowed to his knee and kissed her hand. And with that, she dissipated into the confines of my imagination.

He walked over to the bar as if in a hurry, grabbed his coat, threw two 20s on the bar and, following a gracious "thank you," said, "I don't believe we have been formally introduced."

"No, we have not." I was weary, stunned by what I had just witnessed.

"It's okay, Jack. I'm real as they come."

He turned and walked out as if a secret had just been exchanged – one that, despite all my efforts, I was still too slow to catch.

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