THE GUY WITH THE EYES
Callahan’s Place was pretty lively that night. Talk fought Budweiser for mouth space all over the joint, and the beer nuts supply was critical. But this guy managed to keep himself in a corner without being noticed for nearly an hour. I only spotted him myself a few minutes before all the action started, and I make a point of studying everybody at Callahan’s Place.
First thing, I saw those eyes. You get used to some haunted eyes in Callahan’s—the newcomers have ’em—but these reminded me of a guy I knew once in Topeka, who got four people with an antique revolver before they cut him down.
I hoped like hell he’d visit the fireplace before he left.
* * *
If you’ve never been to Callahan’s Place, God’s pity on you. Seek it in the wilds of Suffolk County, but look not for neon. A simple, hand-lettered sign illuminated by a single floodlight, and a heavy oaken door split in the center (by the head of one Big Beef McCaffrey in 1947) and poorly repaired.
Inside, several heresies.
First, the light is about as bright as you keep your living room. Callahan maintains that people who like to drink in caves are unstable.
Second, there’s a flat rate. Every drink in the house is half a buck, with the option. The option operates as follows:
You place a one-dollar bill on the bar. If all you have on you is a fin, you trot across the street to the all-night deli, get change, come back and put a one-dollar bill on the bar. (Callahan maintains that nobody in his right mind would counterfeit one-dollar bills; most of us figure he just likes to rub fistfulsof them across his face after closing.)
You are served your poison-of-choice. You inhale this, and confront the option. You may, as you leave, pick up two quarters from the always-full cigarbox at the end of the bar and exit into the night. Or you may, upon finishing your drink, stride up to the chalk line in the middle of the room, announce a toast (this is mandatory) and hurl your glass into the huge, old-fashioned fireplace which takes up most of the back wall. You then depart without visiting the cigarbox. Or, pony up another buck and exercise your option again.
Callahan seldom has to replenish the cigarbox. He orders glasses in such quantities that they cost him next to nothing, and he sweeps out the fireplace himself every morning.
Another heresy: no one watches you with accusing eyes to make sure you take no more quarters than you have coming to you. If Callahan ever happens to catch someone cheating him, he personally ejects them forever. Sometimes he doesn’t open the door first. The last time he had to eject someone was in 1947, a gentleman named Big Beef McCaffrey.
Not too surprisingly, it’s a damned interesting place to be. It’s the kind of place you hear about only if you need to—and if you are very lucky. Because if a patron, having proposed his toast and smithereened his glass, feels like talking about the nature of his troubles, he receives the instant, undivided attention of everyone in the room. (That’s why the toast is obligatory. Many a man with a hurt locked inside finds in the act of naming his hurt for the toast that he wants very much to talk about it. Callahan is one smart hombre.) On the other hand, even the most tantalizingly cryptic toast will bring no prying inquiries if the guy displays no desire to uncork. Anyone attempting to flout this custom is promptly blackjacked by Fast Eddie the piano player and dumped in the alley.
But somehow many do feel like spilling it in a place like Callahan‘s; and you can get a deeper insight into human nature in a week there than in ten years anywhere else I know. You can also quite likely find solace for most any kind of trouble, from Callahan himself if no one else. It’s a rare hurt that can stand under the advice, help, and sympathy generated by upwards of thirty people that care. Callahan loses a lot of his regulars. After they’ve been coming around long enough, they find they don’t need to drink any more.
It’s that kind of a bar.
* * *
I don’t want you to get a picture of Callahan’s Place as an agonized, Alcoholics Anonymous type of group-encounter session, with Callahan as some sort of salty psychoanalyst-father-figure in the foreground. Hell, many’s the toast provokes roars of laughter, or a shouted chorus of agreement, or a unanimous blitz of glasses from all over the room when the night is particularly spirited. Callahan is tolerant of rannygazoo; he maintains that a bar should be “merry,” so long as no bones are broken unintentionally. I mind the time he helped Spud Flynn set fire to a seat cushion to settle a bet on which way the draft was coming. Callahan exudes, at all times, a kind of monolithic calm; and U.S. 40 is shorter than his temper.
This night I’m telling you about, for instance, was nothing if not merry. When I pulled in around ten o’clock, there was an unholy shambles of a square dance going on in the middle of the floor. I laid a dollar on the bar, collected a glass of Tullamore Dew and a hello-grin from Callahan, and settled back in a tall chair—Callahan abhors barstools—to observe the goings-on. That’s what I mean about Callahan’s Place: most bars, men only dance if there’re ladies around. Of one sex or another.
I picked some familiar faces out of the maelstrom of madmen weaving and lurching over honest-to-God sawdust, and waved a few greetings. There was Tom Flannery, who at that time had eight months to live, and knew it; he laughed a lot at Callahan’s Place. There was Slippery Joe Maser, who had two wives, and Marty Matthias, who didn’t gamble any more, and Noah Gonzalez, who worked on Suffolk County’s bomb squad. Calling for the square dance while performing a creditable Irish jig was Doc Webster, fat and jovial as the day he pumped the pills out of my stomach and ordered me to Callahan‘s. See, I used to have a wife and daughter before I decided to install my own brakes. I saved thirty dollars, easy…
The Doc left the square-dancers to their fate—their creative individuality making a caller superfluous—and drifted over like a pink zeppelin to say hello. His stethoscope hung unnoticed from his ears, framing a smile like a sunlamp. The end of the ’scope was in his drink.
“Howdy, Doc. Always wondered how you kept that damned thing so cold,” I greeted him.
He blinked like an owl with the staggers and looked down at the gently bubbling pickup beneath two fingers of scotch. Emitting a bellow of laughter at about force eight, he removed the gleaming thing and shook it experimentally.
“My secret’s out, Jake. Keep it under your hat, will you?” he boomed.
“Maybe you better keep it under yours,” I suggested. He appeared to consider this idea for a time, while I speculated on one of life’s greatest paradoxes: Sam Webster, M.D. The Doc is good for a couple of quarts of Peter Dawson a night, three or four nights a week. But you won’t find a better sawbones anywhere on Earth, and those sausage fingers of his can move like a tap-dancing centipede when they have to, with nary a tremor. Ask Shorty Steinitz to tell you about the time Doc Webster took out his appendix on top of Callahan’s bar…while Callahan calmly kept the Scotch coming.
“At least then I could hear myself think,” the Doc finally replied, and several people seated within earshot groaned theatrically.
“Have a heart, Doc,” one called out.
“What a re-pulse-ive idea,” the Doc returned the serve.
“Well, I know when I’m beat,” said the challenger, and made as if to turn away.
“Why, you young whelp, aorta poke you one,” roared the Doc, and the bar exploded with laughter and cheers. Callahan picked up a beer bottle in his huge hand and pegged it across the bar at the Doc’s round skull. The beer bottle, being made of foam rubber, bounced gracefully into the air and landed in the piano, where Fast Eddie sat locked in mortal combat with the “C-Jam Blues.”
Fast Eddie emitted a sound like an outraged transmission and kept right on playing, though his upper register was shot. “Little beer never hoit a piano,” he sang out as he reached the bridge, and went over it like he figured to burn it behind him.
All in all it looked like a cheerful night, but then I saw the Janssen kid come in and I knew there was a trouble brewing.
This Janssen kid—look, I can’t knock long hair, I wore mine long when it wasn’t fashionable. And I can’t knock pot for the same reason. But nobody I know ever had a good thing to say for heroin. Certainly not Joe Hennessy, who did two weeks in the hospital last year after he surprised the Janssen kid scooping junk-money out of his safe at four in the morning. Old Man Janssen paid Hennessy back every dime and disowned the kid, and he’d been in and out of sight ever since. Word was he was still using the stuff, but the cops never seemed to catch him holding. They sure did try, though. I wondered what the hell he was doing in Callahan’s Place.
I should know better by now. He placed a tattered bill on the bar, took the shot of bourbon which Callahan handed him silently, and walked to the chalk line. He was quivering with repressed tension, and his boots squeaked on the sawdust. The place quieted down some, and his toast—“To smack!”—rang out clear and crisp. Then he downed the shot amid an expanding silence and flung his glass so hard you could hear his shoulder crack just before the glass shattered on unyielding brick.
Having created silence, he broke it. With a sob. Even as he let it out he glared around to see what our reactions were.
Callahan’s was immediate, an “Amen!” that sounded like an echo of the smashing glass. The kid made a face like he was somehow satisfied in spite of himself, and looked at the rest of us. His gaze rested on Doc Webster, and the Doc drifted over and gently began rolling up the kid’s sleeves. The boy made no effort to help or hinder him. When they were both rolled to the shoulder—phosporescent purple I think they were—he silently held out his arms, palm-up.
They were absolutely unmarked. Skinny as hell and white as a piece of paper, but unmarked. The kid was clean.
Everyone waited in silence, giving the kid their respectful attention. It was a new feeling to him, and he didn’t quite know how to handle it. Finally he said, “I heard about this place,” just a little too truculently.
“Then you must of needed to,” Callahan told him quietly, and the kid nodded slowly.
“I hear you get some answers in, from time to time,” he half-asked.
“Now and again,” Callahan admitted. “Some o’ the damndest questions, too. What’s it like, for instance?”
“You mean smack?”
“I don’t mean bourbon.”
The kid’s eyes got a funny, far-away look, and he almost smiled. “It’s…” He paused, considering. “It’s like…being dead.”
“Whooee!” came a voice from across the room. “That’s a powerful good feeling indeed.” I looked and saw it was Chuck Samms talking, and watched to see how the kid would take it.
He thought Chuck was being sarcastic and snapped back, “Well, what the hell do you know about it anyway?” Chuck smiled. A lot of people ask him that question, in a different tone of voice.
“Me?” he said, enjoying himself hugely. “Why, I’ve been dead is all.”
“S’truth,” Callahan confirmed as the kid’s jaw dropped. “Chuck there was legally dead for five minutes before the Doc got his pacemaker going again. The crumb died owing me money, and I never had the heart to dun his widow.”
“Sure was a nice feeling, too,” Chuck said around a yawn. “More peaceful than nap-time in a monastery. If it wasn’t so pleasant I wouldn’t be near so damned scared of it.” There was an edge to his voice as he finished, but it disappeared as he added softly, “What the hell would you want to be dead for?”
The Janssen kid couldn’t meet his eyes, and when he spoke his voice cracked. “Like you said, pop, peace. A little peace of mind, a little quiet. Nobody yammering at you all the time. I mean, if you’re dead there’s always the chance somebody’ll mourn, right? Make friends with the worms, dig their side of it, maybe a little poltergeist action, who knows? I mean, what’s the sense of talking about it, anyway? Didn’t any of you guys ever just want to run away?”
“Sure thing,” said Callahan. “Sometimes I do it too. But I generally run someplace I can find my way back from.” It was said so gently that the kid couldn’t take offense, though he tried.
“Run away from what, son?” asked Slippery Joe.
The kid had been bottled up tight too long; he exploded. “From what?” he yelled. “Jesus, where do I start? There was this war they wanted me to go and fight, see? And there’s this place called college, I mean they want you to care, dig it, care about this education trip, and they don’t care enough themselves to make it as attractive as the crap game across the street. There’s this air I hear is unfit to breathe, and water that ain’t fit to drink, and food that wouldn’t nourish a vulture and a grand outlook for the future. You can’t get to a job without the car you couldn’t afford to run even if you were working, and if you found a job it’d pay five dollars less than the rent. The TV advertises karate classes for four-year-olds and up, the President’s New Clothes didn’t wear very well, the next Depression’s around the corner and you ask me what in the name of God I’m running from?
“Man, I’ve been straight for seven months, what I mean, and in that seven god damned months I have been over this island like a fungus and there is nothing for me. No jobs, no friends, no place to live long enough to get the floor dirty, no money, and nobody that doesn’t point and say ‘Junkie’ when I go by for seven months and you ask me what am I running from? Man, everything is all, just everything.”
It was right then that I noticed that guy in the corner, the one with the eyes. Remember him? He was leaning forward in rapt attention, his mouth a black slash in a face pulled tight as a drumhead. Those ghastly eyes of his never left the Janssen kid, but somehow I was sure that his awareness included all of us, everyone in the room.
And no one had an answer for the Janssen boy. I could see, all around the room, men who had learned to listen at Callahan’s Place, men who had learned to empathize, to want to understand and share the pain of another. And no one had a word to say. They were thinking past the blurted words of a haunted boy, wondering if this crazy world of confusion might not after all be one holy hell of a place to grow up. Most of them already had reason to know damn well that society never forgives the sinner, but they were realizing to their dismay how thin and uncomforting the straight and narrow has become these last few years.
Sure, they’d heard these things before, often enough to make them into clichés. But now I could see the boys reflecting that these were the clichés that made a young man say he liked to feel dead, and the same thought was mirrored on the face of each of them: My God, when did we let these things become clichés? The Problems of Today’s Youth “were no longer a Sunday supplement or a news broadcast or anything so remote and intangible, they were suddenly become a dirty, shivering boy who told us that in this world we had built for him with our sweat and our blood he was not only tired of living, but so unscared of dying that he did it daily, sometimes, for recreation.
And silence held court in Callahan’s Place. No one had a single thing to say, and that guy with the eyes seemed to know it, and to derive some crazy kind of bitter inner satisfaction from the knowledge. He started to settle back in his chair, when Callahan broke the silence.
“So run,” he said.
Just like that, flat, no expression, just, “So run.” It hung there for about ten seconds, while he and the kid locked eyes.
The kid’s forehead started to bead with sweat. Slowly, with shaking fingers, he reached under his leather vest to his shirt pocket. Knuckles white, he hauled out a flat, shiny black case about four inches by two. His eyes never left Callahan’s as he opened it and held it up so that we could all see the gleaming hypodermic. It didn’t look like it had ever been used; he must have just stolen it.
He held it up to the light for a moment, looking up his bare, unmarked arm at it, and then he whirled and flung it case and all into the giant fireplace. Almost as it shattered he sent a cellophane bag of white powder after it, and the powder burned green while the sudden stillness hung in the air. The guy with the eyes looked oddly stricken in some interior way, and he sat absolutely rigid in his seat.
And Callahan was around the bar in an instant, handing the Janssen kid a beer that grew out of his fist and roaring, “Welcome home, Tommy!” and no one in the place was very startled to realize that only Callahan of all of us knew the kid’s first name.
We all sort of swarmed around then and swatted the kid on the arm some and he even cried a little until we poured some beer over his head and pretty soon it began to look like the night was going to get merry again after all.
And that’s when the guy with the eyes stood up, and everybody in the joint shut up and turned to look at him. That sounds melodramatic, but it’s the effect he had on us. When he moved, he was the center of attention. He was tall, unreasonably tall, near seven foot, and I’ll never know why we hadn’t all noticed him right off. He was dressed in a black suit that fit worse than a Joliet Special, and his shoes didn’t look right either. After a moment you realized that he had the left shoe on the right foot, and vice versa, but it didn’t surprise you. He was thin and deeply tanned and his mouth was twisted up tight but mostly he was eyes, and I still dream of those eyes and wake up sweating now and again. They were like windows into hell, the very personal and private hell of a man faced with a dilemma he cannot resolve. They did not blink, not once.
He shambled to the bar, and something was wrong with his walk, too, like he was walking sideways on the wall with magnetic shoes and hadn’t quite caught the knack yet. He took ten new singles out of his jacket pocket—which struck me as an odd place to keep cash—and laid them on the bar.
* * *
Callahan seemed to come back from a far place, and hustled around behind the bar again. He looked the stranger up and down and then placed ten shot glasses on the counter. He filled each with rye and stood back silently, running a big red hand through his thinning hair and regarding the stranger with clinical interest.
The dark giant tossed off the first shot, shuffled to the chalk line, and said in oddly-accented English, “To my profession,” and hurled the glass into the fireplace.
Then he walked back to the bar and repeated the entire procedure. Ten times.
By the last glass, brick was chipping in the fireplace.
When the last, “To my profession,” echoed in empty air, he turned and faced us. He waited, tensely, for question or challenge. There was none. He half turned away, paused, then swung back and took a couple of deep breaths. When he spoke his voice made you hurt to hear it.
“My profession, gentlemen,” he said with that funny accent I couldn’t place, “is that of advance scout. For a race whose home is many light-years from here. Many, many light-years from here.” He paused, looking for our reactions.
Well, I thought, ten whiskeys and he’s a Martian. Indeed. Pleased to meet you, I’m Popeye the Sailor. I guess it was pretty obvious we were all thinking the same way, because he looked tired and said, “It would take far more ethanol than that to befuddle me, gentlemen.” Nobody said a word to that, and he turned to Callahan. “You know I am not intoxicated,” he stated.
Callahan considered him professionally and said finally, “Nope. You’re not tight. I’ll be a son of a bitch, but you’re not tight.
“The stranger nodded thanks, spoke thereafter directly to Callahan. “I am here now three days. In two hours I shall be finished. When I am finished I shall go home. After I have gone your planet will be vaporized. I have accumulated data which will ensure the annihilation of your species when they are assimilated by my Masters.To them, you will seem as cancerous cells, in danger of infecting all you touch. You will not be permitted to exist. You will be cured. And I repent me of my profession.”
Maybe I wouldn’t have believed it anywhere else. But at Callahan’s Place anything can happen. Hell, we all believed him. Fast Eddie sang out, “Anyt’ing we can do about it?” and he was serious for sure. You can tell with Fast Eddie.
“I am helpless,” the giant alien said dispassionately. “I contain…installations…which are beyond my influencing—or yours. They have recorded all the data I have perceived in these three days; in two hours a preset mechanism will be triggered and will transmit their contents to the Masters.” I looked at my watch: it was eleven-fifteen. “The conclusions of the Masters are foregone. I cannot prevent the transmission; I cannot even attempt to. I am counterprogrammed.”
“Why are you in this line of work if it bugs you so much?” Callahan wanted to know. No hostility, no panic. He was trying to understand.
“I am accustomed to take pride in my work,” the alien said. “I make safe the paths of the Masters. They must not be threatened by warlike species. I go before, to identify danger, and see to its neutralization. It is a good profession, I think. I thought.”
“What changed your mind?” asked Doc Webster sympathetically.
“This place, this…‘bar’ place we are in—this is not like the rest I have seen.” Outside are hatred, competition, morals elevated to the status of ethics, prejudices elevated to the status of morals, whims elevated to the status of prejudices, all things with which I am wearily familiar, the classic symptoms of disease.
“But here is difference. Here in this place I sense qualities, attributes I did not know your species possessed, attributes which everywhere else in the known universe are mutually exclusive of the things I have perceived here tonight. They are good things…they cause me great anguish for your passing. They fill me with hurt.
“Oh, that I might lay down my geas,” he cried. “I did not know that you had love!”
* * *
In the echoing stillness, Callahan said simply, “Sure we do, son. It’s mebbe spread a little thin these days, but we’ve got it all right. Sure would be a shame if it all went up in smoke.” He looked down at the rye bottle he still held in his big hand, and absently drank off a couple ounces. “Any chance that your masters might feel the same way?”
“None. Even I can still see that you must be destroyed if the Masters are to be safe. But for the first time in some thousands of years, I regret my profession. I fear I can do no more.”
“No way you can gum up the works?”
“None. So long as I am alive and conscious, the transmission will take place. I could not assemble the volition to stop it. I have said: I am counterprogrammed.”
I saw Noah Gonzalez’ expression soften, heard him say, “Geez, buddy, that’s hard lines.” A mumbled agreement rose, and Callahan nodded slowly.
“That’s tough, brother. I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes.”
He looked at us with absolute astonishment, the hurt in those terrible eyes of his mixed now with bewilderment. Shorty handed him another drink and it was like he didn’t know what to do with it.
“You tell us how much it will take, mister,” Shorty said respectfully, “and we’ll get you drunk.”
The tall man with star-burned skin groaned from deep within himself and backed away until the fireplace contained him. He and the flames ignored each other, and no one found it surprising.
“What is your matter?” he cried. “Why are you not destroying me? You fools, you need only destroy me and you are saved. I am your judge. I am your jury. I will be your executioner.”
“You didn’t ask for the job,” Shorty said gently. “It ain’t your doing.”
“But you do not understand! If my data are not transmitted, the Masters will assume my destruction and avoid this system forever. Only the equal or superior of a Master could overcome my defenses, but I can control them. I will not use them. Do you comprehend me? I will not activate my defenses—you can destroy me and save yourselves and your species, and I will not hinder you.
“Kill me!” he shrieked.
There was a long, long pause, maybe a second or two, and then Callahan pointed to the drink Shorty still held out and growled, “You better drink that, friend. You | need it. Talkin’ of killin’ in my joint. Wash your mouth out with bourbon and get outta that fireplace, I want to use it.”
“Yeah, me too!” came’ the cry on all sides, and the big guy looked like he was gonna cry. Conversations started up again and Fast Eddie began playing “I Don’t Want to Set the World On Fire,” in very bad taste indeed.
* * *
Some of the boys wandered thoughtfully out, going home to tell their families, or settle their affairs. The rest of us, lacking either concern, drifted over to console the alien. I mean, where else would I want to be on Judgment Day?
He was sitting down, now, with booze of all kinds on the table before him. He looked up at us like a wounded giant. But none of us knew how to begin, and Callahan spoke first.
“You never did tell us your name, friend.”
The alien looked startled, and he sat absolutely still, rigid as a fence post, for a long, long moment. His face twisted up awful, as though he was waging some titanic inner battle with himself, and cords of muscle stood up on his neck in what didn’t seem to be the right places.Doc Webster began to talk to himself softly.
Then the alien went all blue and shivered like a steel cable under strain, and very suddenly relaxed all over with an audible gasp. He twitched his shoulders experimentally a few times, like he was making sure they were still there, and then he turned to Callahan and said, clear as a bell, “My name is Michael Finn.”
It hung in the air for a very long time, white we all stood petrified, suspended.
Then Callahan’s face split in a wide grin, and he bellowed, “Why of course! Why yes, yes of course, Mickey Finn. I didn’t recognize you for a moment, Mr. Finn,” as he trotted behind the bar. His big hands worked busily beneath the counter, and as he emerged with a tall glass of dark fluid the last of us got it. We made way eagerly as Callahan set the glass down before the alien, and stood back with the utmost deference and respect.
He regarded us for a moment, and to see his eyes how was to feel warm and proud. For all the despair and guilt and anguish and horror and most of all the hopelessness were gone from them now, and they were just eyes. Just like yours and mine.
Then he raised his glass and waited, and we all drank with him. Before the last glass was empty his head hit the table like an anvil, and we had to pick him up and carry him to the back room where Callahan keeps a cot, and you know, he was heavy.
And he snored in three stages.
Copyright © 1977 by Spider Robinson