Prompt #: 21
Date: November 10, 2006
Re-state the prompt: A drunk man sits next to you in a bar, thinks you’re his buddy and starts confessing “the truth.” Write about what “the truth” is.
It was dark in the tavern. The smoke from a thousand cigars wafted at face-height like poison fog; luckily I was accustomed to it. The barkeep was a surly fellow but a friend, and he didn't hesitate when I called for an ale. As I sat at the scuffed bar, I glanced over the crowd. A group of suspicious fellows were playing billiards, and a lady of ill repute was talking up a nervous-looking businessman. As my eyes completed the arc back to the depths of my drink, they paused on a probably soused, definitely dirty fellow sitting beside me, glowering at his rum and grumbling softly. He looked up and caught my eye.
"Hey, lady," he muttered in greeting. No come-ons, no crude gestures; just an acknowledgement of my existence. I nodded and took another drink. The drunk moved down two stools to sit beside me. He was rather fragrant, and if not for the cigar smoke I might have coughed. I met his eye inquiringly.
"I gotta tell somebody, y'know?" he said, quaffing his beverage and calling for another. "Can't keep it to myself no longer. Can you lend an ear to a harmless old drunk, you know, for the sake of old times?"
"Of course," I said, though I didn't know the man. "I'm always willing to listen."
The man smiled, baring yellowed teeth and a purplish tongue. "Good, good," he said with a raspy laugh. "It's nice to find a friendly face, er..ear, again." He coughed.
"My name's Machin, you recall," the man began. "You may be expecting me to say I wasn't always like this, I was a good fellow once, all that garbage, like I used to. But I ain't going to say it. I always been like this. Born drunk, momma always said." Again, the raspy laugh. His reeking breath was making my eyes water, but I smiled anyway, urging him on.
"I been coming to this bar far back as I can remember, swillin' the rum and list'nin' to the talk. 'S hard to pay for the drinks, though, so I took up...a hobby, you could say. Or a curse." His joviality was gone now, and he stared uncomfortably into his glass.
"I stole dreams, lady," he said, softer than before. "You might laugh, but I did."
"You can't steal a dream, old man," I said, amused. "Dreams belong to the dreamers."
His eyes met mine, urgent, afraid. "Oh, but I can, lady. I can. And I did. For years, I been going up to the younger fellows, getting them shitfaced. They pass out, and they dream. I steal those dreams and take them to--" He cut off.
"...the Peddler," he said, swilling the rum. "The Peddler of Dreams." He finished it off, and called for another. The barkeep glowered, but I nodded.
"I'll pay, keep," I said. "Let the old man have another round."
"Thanks, lady," the man called Machin said, accepting the mug gratefully. "You were always a good friend."
"The Peddler of Dreams?" I inquired.
"Ah, right then," Machin said. "The Peddler is a bad fellow, lady. Don't you ever get involved with him, no matter what you do. Better to die in the gutters than live in the pack on the Peddler's back." His eyes were watering, from tears or the smoke I couldn't tell. "The Peddler pays well, oh too well. 'Just dreams, boy,' he says. 'Dreams they don't need. Bring them to me and you'll get your reward'. Oh, I got my rewards, alright. Twelvefold I got them." He glanced furtively over his shoulder, dreading, perhaps, the face of his employer.
"Anywho, I took on the task of collecting for the Peddler, and it paid good, oh real good. All the rum I could drink, and money besides. And girls..." He chuckled. "So many girls. But you needn't hear that from me, lady."
"I'd go up to the boys, friendly-like, and buy them drinks. Drink after drink, 'till they'd get real soused. They'd lay their little heads down on the bar and float off to dreamland. Then," Machin leaned in confidentially, nearly overwhelming me with his odor, "then, I'd take the little box the Peddler gave me, and I'd put it over their heart. Not their head, like you'd think."
"'Tell me, where is Fancy bred? Or in the heart or in the head?'" I muttered. "Shakespeare."
"That's as may be, lady, but it's in the heart. 'The heart,' the Peddler would say. 'The doorway to the soul. The seat of all that happens on the inside of a man. Through the heart, you overtake the mind, and coax the dreams from their seat in the soul.' And I did it. I did it, year after year, bringing the fantasies of the fallen to the Peddler of Dreams, and he'd take the little boxes and put them in his big black pack. I never saw them again," he sighed. "I don't know what he did with them. Maybe sold them to the wicked, the sinners so dark that they can't dream anymore."
We sat together in silence for some time after that. I finished my ale and said I must go.
"Sure enough, lady," old Machin said. "Thanks for listening to an old man. And," he said, clutching my arm as I stood, "look out for the Peddler of Dreams. He's always lurking." He turned back to his rum and did not glance up as I left.
The street was foggy and cold, and leaves scraped pavement as I walked home. The streetlights cast a pallor on the night, the ghost of sunshine. I approached my door, took out the key, and turned it in the lock. It may have been my imagination, but I thought I saw a man, standing across the street, watching as I closed the door behind me. A man with a great, black pack over one shoulder, and strangely bright eyes...
I didn't sleep at all that night.