Matt Klein stood behind the bar of his tavern on Howe Avenue. It was on the edge of the city, close enough to attract some city dwellers, but far enough from downtown to be affordable. When Matt's parents left their home and modest assets to him, combined with his small retirement fund, it was just enough for him to move to the city and finance the old MacMillan Tavern recently shut down, which he renamed to The Overwatch Tavern. It was his effort to reinvent himself, as the loss of his parents left his life in fragments, and none of the pieces were his, nor bore any resemblance to him. It was his push to carve out a new existence for himself, to lay to rest the sad memories, the lingering threads that pulled at him from two hundred miles away, a life he had escaped, but struggled to shake off.
In the span of a few months, he had managed to get the bar back open, but the clientele was still sparse on most nights, and while Matt hadn't yet depleted his savings, he was using a vast majority of it for his own necessities until the business could turn a reliable profit.
Sheb had been early to befriend him shortly after he bought the place. He was a middle-age construction worker, not from the city, but walked the suburban buffer between city life and the country he couldn't shake from his Nebraska boots. He wore his hard work in the early gray of his light brown beard as he sat on the long side of Matt's bar. The two of them were the only ones remaining, and as always, the conversation tended to become more charged and personal, though they always debated without injury.
"That's what I'm talking about with you, Matt. If you hadn't lost your parents when you did, you'd still be living in that hell hole in Iowa. You weren't made for that kind of life. Men degrade in places they weren't made for. I know how hard it was on you, and it was for the better that it ended when it did."
"Sheb, you know me better than anyone in this place," Matt said. "I don't disagree with you for the most part. Men degrade in places they weren't made for, but men are also made by the places they find themselves in, and it's the difficult places that show you what you really are. Those years were probably the most difficult of my life. I would never want to go back to them. They definitely wore on me, and maybe I'll die ten years earlier than I would have otherwise, but hey…I'm still alive."
"That's what I mean," Sheb said, pointing at Matt to drive his argument into him. "You're the most sensitive guy I know, and I don't say that in a bad way. It's a good thing. I think if people had half the feelings you do, this world wouldn't be so damn angry. That's why you're a good bartender, but nobody knows it except the few people that come here. Those years were hard on you. It's left you in a tough spot. Even the nicest person needs to believe that when they try to help someone, they are actually making a difference. When you feel like all your efforts are hopeless, it leaves scars. It can't change your nature though. If anything, it just buries that nature down, and for some people it becomes unrecognizable, but not you. You demonstrate my whole point."
Evenings like this became quite common for the two of them, but it was on this particular fall evening that the strange gentleman arrived at the near-empty tavern. His appearance drew attention as soon as he walked in, causing Sheb to just watch from behind his thick eyebrows, throwing glances at Matt to make sure they were both witnessing the same thing. The man wasn't strange in the sense that something was overtly wrong with him. He was strange because he didn't belong there. He walked in quietly, a tall, dark-haired man in his fifties, dressed in a charcoal, pin-striped suit that cost more than the average person could make in several months. He was perfectly groomed, wearing an expensive watch that sparkled in the warmly lit room, and a hat which matched his pressed suit. He walked easily toward the bar, as if he had done it a hundred times, though a man of such luxury had no reason to ever set foot off Michigan Avenue to visit an old, run-down bar. He went to the barstool closest the door where the light was low, removed his hat, and placed it next to him on the bar.
"Good evening. What can I get for you?" Matt asked with a smile.
"Maker's on the rocks," the man said, rubbing his forehead as he rested his elbows on the bar.
"Sure thing," Matt said. He grabbed a glass, filled it with ice, and turned over a bottle. He felt a slight reservedness about the man as he placed the drink on the bar, so he walked back over to Sheb out of the stranger's hearing distance.
The conversation continued on about their history, family, boarded up thoughts and dreams. Sheb lamented the early death of his mother, and asserted that the good die young, but most especially when the people they love don't deserve them.
"My old man was married to my mom for ten years, and he was mean to her every day of it. Her illness only made things worse than they already were. Most people thought it was losing his wife that had him all torn up inside, but that wasn't it. He was an asshole years before — a heart of ash and charcoal. Even so, it wasn't him that killed her or made her sick. It was something else. God. An angel. Something took her away from him — because he was so rotten. She was a kind, beautiful woman, and all his anger couldn't corrupt her. She was too good for this world, and there was nowhere for her to go, so she was taken to a different world. She deserved better — so did you, Matt. All that stuff in Iowa was hard on you, but like you said, somehow you made it out alive. It's over now, because something picked you up and brought you here. This is where you belong, whether business shows it or not."
Sheb pulled out his phone and grimaced as he tapped the screen. "I gotta go. Damn brother-in-law just broke down off Carpenter." He grabbed his heavy set of keys from the bar and stretched his arms above his head as his feet found the floor. "That damn truck is a piece of shit if I've ever seen one. I've told him a hundred times. Might be back later."
Matt smiled and tasked himself with cleaning and reorganizing. The stranger had been listening to the few fragments he could hear from across the room, but gathered more from the inflections and gentle gestures. He could tell the men weren't talking inconsequential topics, but about things that really mattered.
As Sheb made his way to the door, he stopped next to the man in the suit and quietly spoke. "That right there is the kindest man I've ever known. If he could bartend for the whole world, half of the problems in it would disappear."
The stranger listened as he watched Matt moving glasses in the back of the bar, out of audible range. He smiled and responded, "You really think so?"
"Yep. It's just something he was born with. It's a part of him. People talk to him, and he hears what they say. Most people in the world listen but don't hear a damn thing. Lots of people pretend to listen but actually just wait to talk. Some people wait to talk, and when they open their mouths they don't say a damn thing. Matt's different. When people talk to him, everything else vanishes; everyone else gets put on hold."
"I know people who have a favorite bartender, but you hold an exceptionally high opinion of yours. You make him sound like a regular saint."
"Oh, he ain't no saint," Sheb said, straightening his jacket, "A true saint wouldn't survive in this city, but he listens like one, maybe better." He shouted a departing word to Matt as he threw a tip onto the bar. "Good evening to ya," he said to the suited man. The man nodded, and Sheb pushed out through the front door.
Matt came to the front of the bar where the stranger had been quietly sitting. As he approached he could see that despite the perfect attire and freshly shaven face, the suited gentleman was disturbed. His body language gave it away. Sheb was right about Matt — he had a knack for people, and his observation of detail was unsurpassed. It took only one look for him to know when something was wrong. He pretended to clean some glasses.
"You know, it may not be polite to mention," Matt said, "but I can't remember the last time anyone came into my place in that kind of a suit. Special occasion tonight?"
"You could say that. I'm not usually on this edge of the city."
"Well, that's probably not a bad thing. I mean, it's alright around here — better than some places, but certainly not as good as others as far as business goes."
"Business…" The man looked down at the bar, and he spoke as if his gaze might open up a darker place for him to fall into. "I know business. I've devoted more of my life to it than most people, and I'll tell you this — don't waste your life on it."
"My father said the same thing in his later years," said Matt. "The man was virtually a stranger to me until I turned thirty. It wasn't really his fault though. He had a good heart, but it was never placed in the right hands."
"You have any kids?"
"No. My life has had some odd turns. Not really conducive to children, or a wife for that matter."
"Well, I was that kind of father, though I'm certain a far worse one. Decades spent away from my family, convincing myself it was in their best interest. That wasn't the truth."
Matt was apprehensive about pushing the conversation. There was something darker, regretful in the man's voice. His inclination was to shift the topic to ease tension, but something in the man's tone was asking for consent — permission to speak from a place that make most people uncomfortable.
"Not the truth? What was the truth?" Matt asked.
The man sipped and swallowed, rubbed the back of his neck, made a long, nervous exhalation. "The truth was that my marriage was on the edge of collapse, and my children had been emotionally distant from me for years. My wife had withdrawn not just from me, but from most of her social life — living on every kind of antidepressant the doctors could throw at her. They couldn't cure her because there weren't any drugs to treat her real illness — which was me."
"For twenty years, I made every kind of business merger you can imagine. Media companies, automotive manufacturers, retail, and I gave my family a rich life. Not a fulfilling life — a rich life — one that wasn't enough for her."
"When I came home and found her on the bathroom floor, empty bottles of pills scattered on the cold floor, it forced some perspective on me, and I understood why our life wasn't enough for her. Amazingly, she survived, and I resolved to make our lives different. I promised her I would make my work second to the family — second to her. I had already made enough money to support us for the rest of our lives, and our grandchildren's lives, so I had no honorable justification for my priorities. The truth is that I worked to work, to get away from her, and myself, to avoid the part of my life that I had no idea how to deal with."
"When she recovered, we found a counselor, and I made plans to start over. I planned a trip for all of us to stay in Jackson Hole for two weeks. I wanted to make things different, get away from work, confront all the things I had ignored for a decade, reconnect with my kids. The week of the trip came and we were all ready. We had first-class tickets, the plane arrived to pick us up, it lifted off, and then crashed in the fields of Iowa…and I wasn't there. I never got on the plane, and I lost them all."
Matt looked down and covered his eyes. "Jesus," he said as his thoughts swam to a few years ago. "I remember that. I remember hearing about that. I lived near that part of Iowa at the time, maybe five years ago..."
The man nodded. "The night before the trip, the V.P. of my company had a crisis on his hands. I told my wife to go on without me and I would fly out later in the evening as soon as I took care of things. I didn't need much time, just to authorize some last minute things that no one else could, save me."
The man sat there with his hands trembling, staring off through the dark walls around him, unable to look Matt in the eyes. "They all died on that plane and I wasn't there. I was never there. I should have been there. I was a terrible husband. I was a terrible father. That's the truth."
He took another drink.
Matt knew there wasn't anything appropriate to say. Usually, people give condolences like, "I'm sorry for your loss" or "I'm so sorry to hear that." Everyone in Iowa had heard about U.S. Air 523 when it crashed. As terrible as it was to hear from a real, scarred human being instead of a news report, Matt wasn't entirely sorry to hear it. In the man's voice was some subtle indication that he had not told this story to very many people, and if he had, he hadn't told it the way he was telling it tonight. He grabbed the man's empty glass, filled another the same, and placed it in front of the man who was still lost in his old, devastated life.
After a few moments of polite silence, Matt said, "I was living in Detroit when I got the call from my father telling me that my mother was ill. He knew from the beginning that it would be terminal. I paid her some visits when I had to, but nothing really more. My mother and I had little interaction for years, and in some ways I think we were both better for it. The one who wasn't better was my father. I didn't know how to feel about it. If I could have chosen a mother when I was born, I would have picked almost anyone else. Our relationship was toxic since I was a child. It only got worse with age. Though I doubt I could have made anything better, a part of me felt guilty for him having to live alone in that house with her."
"She finally passed, and by that time, my father was so worn out, it wasn't long before he started going downhill. It was some kind of autoimmune problem, but I supposed that after decades of verbal attacks from my mother, it seemed only fitting that at some point his skin would absorb the venom and poison the inside of him also. There I was, taking care of him in his house, giving him food on the same bed where my mother had died. The man lost all ambition, and even though we had a laugh some of the time, I felt like there was no repairing the parts of him that had withered. I think his life could have been better without her, but I could never say that to him. We really became good friends before he died. I don't know what he would have done without me, but taking care of him in that state was the hardest thing I've ever had to do. All that hate and sadness was stored somewhere inside of him, and I tried to pull out as much of it as I could before he was gone. Whatever I managed to take, it's still with me. It followed me all the way here to Chicago. I can't get rid of it. It sticks to me like oil."
The suited man relaxed a bit in his chair, some of his tension dispersed. "When I came in, you wondered what I was doing here," the man in the suit looked up at him. "Well, sometimes, on certain days when I can't tolerate anything in my life, I come out to a place like this. Some place I've never been to before, some place I will likely never come back to, with strange faces that I will never see again. I know that may seem bizarre, but sometimes it's difficult to exist in places where everyone knows who you are. They know your name, history, too many things — most of which I'd like to forget, but they won't let me. Every face I see is a reminder of my old life, despite how much they might actually care about me. With people who don't know me, sometimes I'm actually a little closer to being the person I am, or would rather be. I don't change my clothes. I'm not trying to pretend I'm something I'm not. Sometimes, I just need different people. Sometimes it's the only thing that keeps me breathing."
The man loosened his collar. "Mind if I stay awhile?"
He did stay awhile, into most of the night, even long enough for Sheb to come back from his familial, roadside obligation. The man proved to be quite an impressive conversationalist, and with Matt's ear and Sheb's light-heartedness, they talked until Matt shut down the bar. They made their share of humor, along with other minor confessions, and at the end of the night, the man in the suit got up from the bar and reached into his pocket.
"What's the tab, Matt?"
"It's on me tonight," said Matt.
"That's ridiculous. I've been here all night. The money is not a problem."
Matt leaned over the bar and looked at him straight in the eyes. "There's no way you are leaving anything on my bar tonight."
"You know, your regulars seem to have a pretty high opinion of you," he nodded toward Sheb. "I think I understand why. For years I've walked through my life like a robot, doing the same damned thing I always do, making the same damned decisions I've made before, like doing some sort of impression of myself that I hate. I've been at a hundred bars in my life, had a thousand drinks to make the time pass more quickly, and none of it made me feel any better. For the first time, I feel more like a real human being than when I walked in."
"Humans drink free tonight," said Matt with a smile.
"Thank you," he said with a solemn face. "Good evening gentlemen."
The stranger departed. Matt and Sheb closed up the bar together, as they had so many nights before. It wasn't until they were about to walk out that they realized the man, in fact, did leave something on the bar. Behind the row of taps, they found the hat which so perfectly matched his expensive suit. Matt placed it behind the bar in case the man ever came back, doubtful as it might be.
That was the beginning, and from that point on, Matt's business increased. Sheb told him later that the nameless man didn't just leave his hat, but actually left something else. It only took a short while to discover what it was. Matt had brought out something special in the man that night, and he continued to do it with others. He began to build a reputation for himself, and consequently the bar began to build a reputation of its own. One by one, people came in and sat where the man in the suit had, and they told Matt their stories — stories of heaven lost and hell uncovered, tragedy and funerals, wicked deeds and regret. Every time, Matt would listen, and even shed a tear or two in the process, then poured them a drink on the house.
"Humans Drink Free" became the unofficial slogan of the place, and as word spread, it became common wisdom among the locals that when a friend or stranger harbored something they couldn't handle on their own, there was someone they needed to talk to — somewhere they needed to go to feel like what they were struggling with mattered. As months passed, the man in the suit didn't resurface, and Matt hung the hat in a special place above the bar in memory of the night it was left there, and nearly every night, someone sat just underneath it telling Matt a story they had bottled up for years.
Tina Collins told him about how she had watched her cousin drown when they were children, and was unable to save her because she couldn't swim. She never did learn how.
Jim Ackford lost his girlfriend in high school when he was too drunk to be driving by himself, let alone with anyone he loved. He still had the old notes she wrote to him twenty years ago.
The people who sat in that spot formed a sort of unspoken bond with each other, and it was those people who became regulars, accumulating as time went on.
A year passed like this, until another fall day when Matt received a phone call, from a lawyer who insisted on a meeting with him regarding pending legal matters which would affect his business. It was a Friday afternoon when the lawyer, Douglas Marden, entered the office at the back of the bar with a briefcase and cool, professional demeanor. Matt sat in the chair behind his small desk. After the formal greetings, the lawyer moved straight to business.
"I'll get right to the point. About a year ago, a man visited your tavern. I only know this because shortly after, he authored a legal document concerning you and this establishment. I know little about the relationship you had with him, except that you are not family or close friends, nor did he give many details about what transpired that night, but his name was Martin Scalding, one of the wealthiest men in Chicago. He has recently passed, and left specific instructions regarding this tavern. It was dictated to me as head of this newly formed organization that — " he began reading from a document.
"H.D.F. Inc. shall secure this life annuity for the beneficiary (Matthew A. Thompson) which shall begin payment one month after my passing. It shall accommodate initial payment of all business mortgage, debt, and utility payments of The Overwatch Tavern for the life of the beneficiary, and allow for direct investment to facilitate its continued operation for the benefit of past, current, and future patrons."
Matt scratched his head, not knowing what to say. He got up and walked to the doorway, looking out into his empty tavern. The hat still hung above the bar, and all the bills he still needed to pay couldn't push through the thoughts of the night the man wandered in. That night had changed his life, and helped him discover the kind of man he wanted to be, and his business might have never survived this long otherwise. Now the dead man was giving him something again, perhaps never knowing he had already given something far more important.
The lawyer took Matt's listlessness as confusion, and assumed he hadn't adequately explained the circumstances. "Mr. Thompson, this is very good news for you. Don't let my formality mislead you; it's my job to be factual and unbiased. If there's something you don't understand, it is my job to explain it clearly. Effectively, your mortgage has been paid, and your debt cleared pending a few simple formalities. You can make virtually any improvements to this place you wish. As long as you are alive, this tavern is guaranteed to remain open, so long as you wish it to be. I recommend you get your own lawyer to verify these documents independently. I have a copy of everything here for you. Had the instructions not been so specific, I would have taken you for a relative or long-time friend."
"No, nothing like that. That night was the only time I ever saw him."
"I don't know what you did to make such a strong impression on him. He gave massively to other major causes, well-known charities and museums, but your case was unique. Not one of his executors knew or heard of this place until his death. For whatever reasons, he seems to have wanted to make absolutely certain this place stayed open, and that you remained in charge of it."
"How did he die?" Matt said quietly as he stared out at the bar.
"They initially thought it was an accident, a malfunction with his plane, but the occurrence was too deliberate. His plane crashed on the anniversary of his family's death, and he was the only one on board. Though he had little flight time under his belt, it's impossible to prove one way or another. Legally it was an accident, but common sense tells us otherwise. It was several weeks after he had gone missing before they found parts of his plane on Lake Michigan."
"He left me something."
"He certainly did."
"No, that's not what I mean. Something else, but it doesn't matter. I have all the paperwork and your contact information then?"
"Absolutely. It's all here. If any clarification is needed, I can provide it. Again, this is part of the job that's been left to me, and I take it very seriously."
"What was your relationship to him?"
"Long time colleague. I was his legal advisor for many years. I was sad to see him go."
"I am too. Thank you for coming. This is all quite a lot to process, but I'll get back to you very soon."
"Pleased to make your acquaintance," the lawyer said, shaking his hand.
Two weeks later, it was the end of a busy Friday night. The legal matters had checked out, and Matt's attorney had verified the authenticity of the paperwork. Toward the end of the night, after the crowd had left and only Sheb remained in a stool at the bar, another customer sat down a few seats from him. Matt looked up and stared. The man's green eyes were weathered, and he was dressed in simple slacks and a t-shirt.
Matt walked toward the customer slowly, never breaking eye contact. A normal person would have reacted differently, would not have been so thoughtful in their approach, but Matt always managed to see part of himself in the person on the other side of the bar — with this man now more than ever.
"Have we met before?" Matt said.
"No, Sir. Must be someone else you're thinking of."
"What's your name, stranger?"
"John," the man said, looking at him, his eyes filled with vulnerability.
"Pleased to meet you. Let me grab you a drink."
Matt filled a glass with ice, turned over a bottle of bourbon, and set it on the bar in front of him.
"Thanks," said John. "You must be Matt, the owner. I've heard a lot about you. People say you're a hell of a guy."
"That's me," smiled Matt. "I can't comment on the rest of it, but I do care a lot about my patrons."
"Mind if I stay awhile?"
"I'd be glad if you did. This is Sheb, a friend to me as long as I've been here."
Sheb nodded, "Nice to meet you, Sir."
The three of them talked for the rest of the night, and many nights after, over cold glasses but in warm tones. When the weather was cold and the air drifted through the front door, the warm air of the bar pushed it back out. It became a place where coldness was not allowed to enter, where dust was never allowed to settle.
The world moved outside while the inhabitants hummed their own stories to each other, shared parts of themselves they had kept hidden. It became a place where tired sleepwalkers entered with demons attached to their backs, where they tried to remove the claws and stop the bleeding with the help of other gentle souls, a place that absorbed the blows dealt from living and dying, a shelter where humans drink free.