Fiction: Midnight Conversations in Rented Rooms
By Bradford Middleton
With Harry rapidly approaching his sixtieth year, a sixtieth year in a god-damn sorry excuse for what most would simply call an existence, his life has become a regular routine of cheap bars and somehow even cheaper living. If you think you might live in the cheapest room in town well he can tell you, in all certainty, that his current room is definitely cheaper, but then, hell, even in a life as wasted as Harry’s even the maddest and oldest of dogs had learnt some tricks. And it was these tricks that made life just a little easier, a little sweeter; the kind of trick that means he can live in a room that cost more than his monthly wage and essentially not pay a single penny towards it. A life a lot of people would be disgusted by but a life that Harry had been living for so long now he couldn’t imagine it any other way. Sure there are sacrifices but, in the grand scheme of things, a couple of days a week and then only for a few hours at a time, he has to go do a job almost no one else wants to do but then once out of there he is gone. Gone and invariably back to his room or, and more generally the case immediately after work, his stool at the bar on the street of ill-repute and sure enough life is soon back to its usual mess of hangovers and lonely days spent getting high and living. And you know something Harry would never have it any other way and, hell, why should he!
Tonight Harry sits reading, as he so often can be, after just another day at the bar. A common day in which he hadn’t drank that much, he certainly hadn’t got drunk, and in which he spoke to barely anyone at all except Tommy. Poor Tommy, well he kind of had to engage with the customers at large as he was the lone bar-guy, but Harry just knew he couldn’t just get up and leave, at least not until he’d had his fill and for that Tommy would have to wait a few hours at least. Enough time to drink to calm his mind to a dull roar and enough to confirm that this town had, yet again, lost its spirit, its soul, its whole god-damn joie de vivre bullshit and, sure enough, just like clockwork, every single god-damn time he reaches the same sad conclusion. And worst of all Harry knows he just simply doesn’t care and he never will, not here, not in this god-damn place, that has never felt like home and, right now, after nearly half-a-lifetime, he has convinced himself never will. Not down here, in this insane asylum by the edge of the sea, he’s never felt truly at home, even now after all the years, decades even, that have passed since he was forced out of his hometown due to skyrocketing rents, and with each passing day he just keeps on dreaming of escape but beyond these narrow streets could he really live how he does right now? He just doesn’t know but sometimes, quite a lot of the time, he is desperate to find out but then he remembers how cushy his situation is here and, well god-damn it he ain’t getting any younger and moving, even if its just around the corner, like his last move, is always so stressful and, until he finds the place to go and finally just wait around to die he can just about hang on.
Harry sits reading another of his pulp paperbacks with the radio whispering quietly in his ear and tonight feels just about right and as he checks his clock he notices it is coming up to midnight but with no work the following day he knows there is only one thing for it. But first up he’s got to finish this chapter and then somehow, and this occasionally posed a real problem, put the book down even if only momentarily as he prepares a late-night mug of decaf tea and a long succulent joint but then, and from out of nowhere, something most peculiar happens. There is a knock on his door and he knows, almost instantly, that this isn’t something he can simply ignore. It sounds like the kind of knock that is desperate to be repeated, the kind of knock that generally finds a person in uniform on the other side, and in a whirl of mad paranoia Harry hides all his goodness away before opening the one window in his room.
“Who is it?” he asks eventually.
“I’m Esme, I’m a new neighbour…”
“Hey Harry… it’s Paul from number 6! Let us in, we got drink!” and suddenly Harry knows exactly what it is he needs to do. It’s simple really. Whenever the option of a free drink rears its head Harry is immediately put under a spell, just like a booze-addled Screaming Jay, and you sure as hell won’t see him stop until there ain’t any left.
“Oh hey,” Harry says as he pulls the door to his room open, “so what’s the occasion?”
“Well I just moved into number 5,” Esme confirms looking across the hallway at the narrow doorway to her new room whilst casually swinging a bottle of cheap supermarket whiskey in her right hand.
“Well you’d better come on in then hadn’t you,” Harry responds before realising that outside of his one chair the only places to sit are either the floor or his bed and all of a sudden he realises just how rare an event this is. A visitor to his room, hell two of them, and one a woman and as she slumps down in his chair he takes in her look and it is a beautiful sight and as she passes the bottle over she reaches over to his radio and begins fiddling with the dial and away from Harry’s usual diet of talk radio.
Harry takes a large dose of the whiskey, at least a treble in pub terms, in one full swoop and immediately feels a hell of a lot more comfortable in this unfamiliar scene, a scene he can’t ever remember happening, not here, not in this town and as he takes a seat on his bed he spies Paul recline on the floor.
‘Rather him than me,’ Harry thinks remembering the hundreds, if not thousands of times, he’d nervously pull on a pair of slippers to avoid any contact with that filth-ridden mess of a carpet on his skin.
“So Esme, you going to tell us your story or you just here to keep me away from this great fucking book?” Harry asks.
“Oh so you like to read?” she responds as Paul lets out a little groan of despair that already the conversation has moved on to something he has absolutely no interest in. Fortunately for him Harry has just passed the bottle over and so he takes a drop of medicine to distract him.
‘Oh god no, why is it always god-damn books with Harry!’ Paul thinks as Harry begins talking, always it seems talking and never, for Paul at least, about anything interesting. It’s never about football or sports or work with him, it’s always something to make Paul feel stupid, to feel unsophisticated.
“Well sure I love to read, it’s the best drug going!” Harry responds knowing this will infuriate Paul.
“You telling me a book can give you as much pleasure as say….”
“Yes Paul, any of your horrible drugs, you know the ones, the smack, the crack, the coke and all them pills, I’d rather spend a Saturday night with a great book than any of that shit!”
“But what about that smell?”
“My weed?” Harry responds incredulously, “Are you really comparing a little bit of green, my green to be precise, to any of that shit? Hell I probably did more damage to myself this afternoon down the pub than I’ve done since I got home!”
“So you smoke?” Esme responds seeking confirmation.
“Well yeah, doesn’t everyone down here?” Harry confirms.
“Cool,” Esme responds, “so you got any right now?”
“Well let me think, what day of the week is it?” Harry asks.
“Erm, it’s a Tuesday, the 1st of August…” she confirms.
“Well seeing as it’s a Tuesday and that day of the week ends in the letter Y then I guess I must have some!” he responds only half-joking. If there was one trick Harry, the oldest dog in the pack, had learnt over the years, decades even, was never ever allow yourself to run out.
“Oh can we smoke some?” she says, her voice only an octave away from pleading.
“Well sure we can!” and suddenly Harry has the draw open and is pulling from it the box he’d hidden in there only minutes before. He pulls the paper and tobacco back together from within the depths of the box and soon enough is sprinkling a big green bud of goodness into the paper in front of him.
‘Oh god no, not god-damn pot!’ Paul thinks as Harry whips the papers together, sparking the joint to life almost instantly. Inhaling deeply Harry can feel the sweet calming effect of the green run through his mind and then his body and it feels good, it feels really good indeed and as he sits up on the bed he tokes once more before passing it over to Esme and something hits him inextricably. The sudden realisation that this here Esme is a woman of a certain vintage and one pretty darn close to Harry’s burgeoning sexagenarian age in fact and suddenly he spies an opportunity. An opportunity so rare, so unexpected he has no idea of how to act to get what he craves all of a sudden. A craving that hasn’t hit him so hard in a long long time, decades in fact since the last one, the one who got away.
“So what are you into Esme?” Harry asks as she passes the joint back to him.
“Well I love to read and I see you do too…” she responds before continuing ‘I also like a lot of old music, punk mainly…” and suddenly Harry knows this opportunity is one that can’t be forsaken.
“Oh yeah, punk rock?” he responds before launching himself off the bed and over to a shelving unit in the far corner.
“Yeah, that was my time!” she responds, “yeah I love all those old bands…” and just like that Harry finds just what he’s been looking for.
“How about this?” he says as he holds, very tentatively, a signed copy of Rocket to Russia by New York’s finest Ramones.
“Oh my god!” she responds, “whose signature is that?”
“That? This scrawl right down Dee Dee’s right leg?”
“Yes!! Is that one of them?”
“That would be Dee Dee’s signature!” he confirms whilst desperately trying to make it sound like a common occurrence in this life where people come round to his flat just to share the same space as something he had touched nearly thirty years ago before.
“Fuck that is so damn cool!!” she squeals in response, her excitement now not hidden behind any kind of cool at all.
“So come on then tell me everything… how?? How did that happen? I just know there is a legendary story in there!!”
“Well let’s see…” he begins and suddenly she is aghast at all she hears coming from his mouth and just as Harry is getting to the final part of a night that will remain legend forever more Paul gets up from the floor.
“If I hear that damn story about Lemmy and god-damn Motorhead one more time I’m going to flip Harry so at this point I’m going to call it a night…”
“Oh OK Paul,” Harry responds as Esme merely bids him a ‘good nights sleep’ and within seconds Harry is finishing up his story as she just sits there smiling.
“Wow,” is all she can say after Harry finished the story off and he knows this is the moment, this is the chance, a chance he thought he’d maybe never ever get again.
“Can I, erm…” he begins.
“Yes,” she responds as if encouraging him to be brave.
“Can I, erm, well can I… kiss you?” he asks like a clueless teenager on a first date causing her to burst into laughter whilst pulling him in close and suddenly Harry knows everything is changing and as their lips connect for the first time he can almost feel something long dormant come to life, a chance, once again, at happiness and this time, god-damn, this time he ain’t going to let go.
Bradford Middleton lives in Brighton, UK. Recent work has featured right here at A Thin Slice of Anxiety as well as in River Dog, Dreich, Poetry Life & Times, Yellow Mama and at the Cacti Fur. His most recent chapbook, from the Alien Buddha Press, ‘The Whiskey Stings Good Tonight…’ came out earlier this year and he’s currently waiting on the publication of his first collection. Follow him on Twitter: @BradfordMiddle5