Author: Ken Carlson

Early summer afternoon. The lunchtime crowd at Sal’s was thinning out. Tony the bartender called it the lushtime crowd. Anyone who stopped by Sal’s, a dark, two-bit joint, that early wasn’t there for lunch.

Tony had taught over at Irving High. He got laid off before his full pension kicked in. His wife suggested tending bar, like he did back in college. What the hell, it would get him out of the house, maybe spur a few character ideas for that novel he’d never write.

Some of the regulars were already making a good show. Hal, who put in thirty years down at the plant, was grousing about the death of unions in this country. Laverne lent support as the friendly sot with an iffy handle on reality. Robert and Johnny were there, two brothers that Tony couldn’t recall which was which. They spun tales of paranoia. The government was after them; corporations, mind-reading cell phones. Tony would laugh more at their foolishness but, sadly, some of their dummer premises were proven true.

Tony was nursing an Evan Williams neat when the door opened. The sunlight and the standing shadow signaled a depressing, recurring sight; young Theo Fox, so drunk he had to lean against the door to stay on his feet.

Fox stumbled in wearing his late Dad’s ratty army jacket. Unshaven, unshowered, unkempt, he took two steps forward and fell to one knee.

“So,” said Fox, the town drunk and disappointment, “are you going to help one of your students out, Mister Graziano?”

Like a road accident or a tiresome rerun, Tony couldn’t stand to watch what was unfolding, nor could he turn away. He helped his former student up off the floor; the brightest kid he ever taught, most likely to succeed, the type who gives you hope for our future.

Tony helped Theo onto a stool at the bar. The smell that came off him was tragic. As the teacher-turned-bartender returned to his post to retrieve a cup of coffee, the student-turned-drunk slouched in dejection.

“Here,” Tony said of the lousy cup-of-joe, “drink this, Theo.”

“Nah,” Theo said, “I need a real drink, Mister G, just one more and everything will be fine.”

“You’ve had enough…if your mother could see you now.”

“Well, she can’t, Teach, because she’s dead! The drink, it’s my duty, sir.”

“Your a sad disgrace, kid. You could have made a difference, Theo. Ivy League. Best of the best.”

“That’s what I’m doing. I’m saving the world one drink at a time. I need one more so I can save us all.”

Tony had heard it before; so had everyone else around town. The golden boy meandered the streets, hammered and slurring nonsense about fighting to protect us all. His parents were heroes who fought valiantly in battle. Their son was a lousy bum.

Tony handed Theo his own glass. He didn’t want it anymore. Theo smiled, raised it in a mock toast, and downed it in one.

As his head fell on the bar, his mind was transported to another realm. A multitude of light and energy gave the sensation of unrestrained flight.

Theo found himself behind a silver desk in a gleaming office of white. His senses were sharp. His rags were replaced with a crisp uniform adorned with medals. Through a floor-to-ceiling glass panel he could see troops in a a phalanx and spacecraft being readied for deployment.

A young lieutenant snapped to attention. “Ten-hut! General Fox, sir! ” She smiled slightly and saluted. “Welcome back.”