Two Beers, with Hops
Evil, sir, has arisen in our midst and must be vanquished. Yes, its name is Legion, for many are its manifestations. I know you’ll think I’m a crazy man for saying this, but I’ll say it, nonetheless. And anyway, I’m no more than normally crazy. Who isn’t these days?
Yes, you sir! I’m speaking to you. You must listen. I have an albatross around my neck, and you do too, although you may deny it. I know you do because I see the skin tighten around your eyes as you glance at the television. Even across the gulf of two tables, I see it. Such a distance! They could have dancing girls! But I see your eyes. They keep the television turned to the news in this establishment. I’m not sure why. Maybe they think we’ll drink more if we watch the news. Or maybe they hope we’ll leave before we drink too much. I don’t know.
The story, this albatross, isn’t about the past, is it. Or at least not the distant past. It’s really about the present, isn’t it? And about what is to come.
Ah, the stricken look! I knew it. I recognize that. I see it every morning in the mirror. Or I did, before I stopped looking into the mirror. I don’t shave anymore. I brush my teeth with my eyes closed. My fingers are my comb, regardless of where my hair may fall, but I don’t look into the mirror. But you, sir, are well-dressed and groomed. Do you still look in the mirror to trim your beard? Can you? A barber, perhaps. Yes, a barber. Even now. Your averted eyes tell me that.
What we do to avoid … Oh, never mind!
Let me buy you a drink, please! Waiter! A beer for this gentleman and a beer for me. Strong ones, full of hops!
No, no, please, don’t leave. We must discuss this albatross.
You look to be an educated man. That is not always a good thing nowadays, perhaps it’s even dangerous. Are there spies? No, that is nonsense. I mention the possibility only because … Well, never mind that. But you, me, we thought education was a good thing back then, when we were young men. I willingly sacrificed my youth and even my middle age to books. Even my old age. Well, a lifetime of study, of experience, have accumulated in you and me for this precise moment. Yes, you know it. When things fall apart, when the anarchy of mere chaos and fear — mere chaos! — are raging in our hearts and minds, when we see with alarm that the borders of reason have been breached and overrun by men mouthing nonsense that embarrasses even little children, then we see that education is a burden.
But it’s too late for regrets.
You feel a panicky desire to call someone, don’t you? To flee to the hospital emergency room, but you can’t. It’s like sleep paralysis. We want to flee, to run, to hide, but we can’t. I know because I tried. When I resolved to seek help, the emergency room was full, the doctors and nurses were overwhelmed, and they had no time or cure for what ails me — ails us. Perhaps you even found a counselor’s number to call. I did, but the call failed.
We can’t call because we are the ones who are called.
Serious stuff, but where are our beers? Waiter! Can you not hear my muffled cry? Two beers, please! With plenty of hops!
Should we talk when the waiter is around? These days, one never knows …
No, sir, I’m sorry. I can’t excuse you, because I didn’t bring you here. You came to discuss the albatross.
Where was I? Oh, yes.
All the books and life experiences, all the exercises to build strength and resilience, all those miles we jogged every morning, all the meditation and prayers, everything that we are, were preparations for this moment, when the whirling dervishes are blinded and careening around the room, dizzy, arms flailing, in danger of falling. Falling, sir, the dervishes are falling!
I apologize. I’m sometimes too emotional.
Ah, our beers at last! Thank you, kind waiter.
Oh, smell the hops!
And now, sir, you and I must take a chance. We must lower our masks to drink our beer. What a sad state of the world that we must risk our lives for a sip of beer!
Very good stuff! Oh, sir, don’t look alarmed. I did not breathe while my mask was down.
Our story, yes, our story.
Perhaps you did not know that long ago you were called, or perhaps you resisted the call. Perhaps you went into business or the law and dulled the din with work. I don’t know. I didn’t know at eighteen or thirty or even fifty that I was called. I did not. I thought I liked books, not the affairs of the world, as terrible as that sounds. But I discovered that wasn’t true. I read books because I was concerned about the affairs of world. So, please, don’t feel ashamed, sir, because you aren’t alone. No shame. But here we are, and we can no longer deny the world, because now the call is as clear as the cry of a bugle before battle. Yes, battle. A battle that will be lost without you and me.
Excuse me while I take another sip.
Hops! Good, so good! Oh, mask up! I beg your pardon. Air, moisture, droplets. I am sorry, sir!
Well, can we refuse our duty now? Am I too muffled? No? He’s the madman, sir, for bringing us to this state, a true madman! … But refusal of our duty now is the death of our minds, our hearts, and our souls. It’s the death of our families, our friends, young and old! No, we cannot refuse. The madman must be stopped. To refuse is to bear too great a burden of knowledge. I know that now, and so do you, for I see that your eyes have narrowed, and the skin around them is taut.
You, me, all of us ignored the warnings and dismissed the Cassandras. Yes, we did. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be sitting here, two tables apart, afraid to take a free breath of air. We looked into the entrails of our divining animals and beheld disaster, then we ignored what we saw.
Entrails, by the way, look and smell horrible but taste great when they’re coated in cornbread and deep fried. A bit of indigestion, but…
Oh, I’m sorry if I offended you. I, too, am an educated man, but I came from a poor family who ate such things and enjoyed them. But I’ll refrain from indelicacies.
Anyway, we accepted the injustices and failures and outrages as if they were ordained by holy writ, didn’t we? We thought our laws and ancient institutions, handed down to us by our fathers, from their fathers, would protect us. And we even reveled from time to idle time in the atrocities large and small that were committed in our names. We called them victories.
Wars and weapons of war, sir, are terrible things. I …
One moment, I need another sip. My throat is suddenly dry.
Ah, yes. Good. Lovely hops! And I remembered to put up my mask before speaking. See, I have manners, too, sir!
I don’t know why you and I were called, sir, do you? No? Why fate or history or the will of God did not pass us by. Why we could not have lived and read books, loved, drank a little, and then died as contented, wrinkled old men. Well, we are old and wrinkled, so that is something. What is that curse? May you live in interesting times. But here we are, you and me. I swear by all that is holy that I don’t like it any more than you do! It works on the nerves, this anticipation. While I’m in here, I’ll drink too much; when I go outside, I’ll smoke too much. Eat too much, smoke too much, drink too much, for tomorrow we will die! But we didn’t die, and so here we are.
We are suffering from anticipation, aren’t we? But I already said that.
Sad specimens that we are — Oh, not you sir! I was speaking in general. Anyway, now we must be a source of strength for those who have lost hope because we have not, have we? We are still watching the news, aren’t we? Some indigestion over various indelicacies, perhaps, but we watch. We still remember, don’t we? We remember too much, too much … We feel a burning in our bellies and a tightness in our throats. We know this cannot stand. We know right from wrong and freedom from unfreedom. We know death … Yes, we know. And yet we have hope, which is a curse in interesting times. We know what must be done, and we can anticipate the cost. Yes, our experiences and reading of history informs us of the cost, but our hope for others compels us to act — because we remember what it was like before now. So we must run toward the sound of battle.
… Ah, excuse me, sir. Lost in a memory, I guess. My eyes are weak and watery. It is of no consequence.
What we know now is that we must be centurions demanding justice! Don’t be alarmed — I did not meant to bang on the table — but we must! We know how! We must also be monks proclaiming peace as the birthright of all. Of that, we are less sure, but more determined. Yes, we are full of contradictions and fears.
And hope. Damned hope.
Ah, I see. You are checking your watch. An appointment, no doubt. That’s okay. Go if you must. You will return, with friends who also bear an albatross. Yes, there are others, and you know some of them. I’ll be here.
A final thing as you put on your coat: We must give all things, be all things, risk all things!
Good day, sir!
Oh, he didn’t even touch his beer. I can’t let that go to waste! Hops!
Waiter! I’m stepping outside for a cigarette. Please be a good man and leave my beers alone! Oh, and do you have those deep fried … What do you call them? Entrails? No. Calamari, that’s it. Calamari. I’ll have a plate of those. Thank you, sir. I’ll remember you when the revolution is over.
What revolution, you ask? When I return, I will tell you.