Joe wandered into the Microbrewery on Sixteenth. The place was exactly as he remembered it from two years ago – noisy, bustling with people. A local blues band was hammering out ‘Hard to Handle’ from the loft, and waiters jostled between the crowds taking food to the tables.
He had flown into Denver that morning, and had survived the flight in the back of a 757 without throwing-up. He hated flying in 757’s, as they felt to him like they shimmied in flight, a movement accentuated at the back of economy, the location he usually avoided. But this time at check-in, he had got the cold-hard bitch who was having a bad day, and so was entirely disinterested with his protestations about a susceptibility to air-sickness, particularly on 757’s, and specifically going into Denver, where sometimes the approach felt, to him, not dissimilar to the Khe Sanh technique used during the war in Vietnam.
He had come, reluctantly, in response to a cryptic e-mail from his old friend Robin. In this, Robin had intimated that there may be news about Joe’s brother Charlie, who had left so suddenly during their last visit to Denver. So he had arranged to meet Robin at this bar, and was a bit early.
He surveyed the room for any sign that Robin may have been less tardy than usual. Once he realised that this was wishful thinking on his part, he found a seat at an unoccupied table and ordered a glass of one of their own ales. He really loved Denver, especially this part around Larimer Square. The people were always having a good time, and the free and easy atmosphere became infectious the longer he stayed in it. It was a place to escape your woes for a few hours, without having to drink them away.
The beer arrived, and he again surveyed the room for any familiar faces from back when he frequented the place more regularly. But like most bars, people move on regularly, and so it wasn’t surprising that he saw nobody that he recognised. Then he became aware of a large shape, shambling through the crowd towards him. It was a familiar shape with an unmistakeable gait. As it approached the table, he heard those familiar dulcet tones: “Hey Joe, how’ya doin’?”
It was Charlie, large as life and looking as jolly as ever, in fact looking no different than the last time they were together.
“I’m fine, how ‘bout you?” Joe replied.
“Mustn’t grumble, can I get a beer d’ya think?”
Joe called a waitress over and ordered another beer.
“Have you seen Robin?” Joe asked “he should be here by now.”
“Hell Joe, you know Robin, we’ll be lucky if he’s remembered what day he’s supposed to be here!”
Joe looked at his brother as he sat down opposite him. Inside he wanted to scream out all the dumb questions racing through his mind: ‘Where have you been these two years?’ ‘What on earth have you been doing?’ ‘Why did you just go like that, for God’s sake, without a word?’ But somehow, he knew it wasn’t what they needed to do just now. So they quickly settled down to the normal routine when they met-up. For the next hour or so, they talked endlessly about their many joint passions; music, football, cars, their family. They reminisced about past outings together, conducted a straw-poll on the best stand-up comedian, debated Keira Knightley or Cameron Diaz, and so on.
It was wonderful, as it always was, they just took-up where they left off previously, as if no time had passed between, and no heartaches had been caused by their separation. The band struck-up the old Percy Sledge number, ‘The Dark End of the Street’, and Charlie picked-up on it straight away.
“Not one of my favourites this”, he said, “good time to visit the used beer facility”
With that, he got up from his half-finished glass, and shambled off towards the bathrooms.
The number finished, and the singer announced that they were going to take a break, but would be back at eleven. Joe looked at his watch; it was approaching ten-thirty. He had been there for nearly three hours, but it had seemed like just minutes had passed. He fixed his gaze on the door to the bathrooms. Over the next ten minutes, several people came out, but there was no sign of Charlie. He began to feel uneasy, as the memories of two years ago began to pierce the cocoon that these few hours had created.
He got up and went into the men’s room. It was empty. He tried the cubicle doors; they were all open, and the stalls unoccupied. He went back into the corridor, which was empty, then back to their table, also empty except for their unfinished beers and the tab, nipped under the corner of the condiment tray.
‘Surely he hasn’t just gone again?’ he thought.
Joe worked his way back through the bar towards the entrance. There was no sign of Charlie. Then he hurried out into the street. It was busy, but he thought he caught sight of a familiar shape ducking down the alley at the side of the bar. He rushed to the end of the alley, stopped, and looked down it.
There, down in the shadows on the right-hand side, opposite the bar, he saw Charlie looking towards him, holding a door open. Charlie smiled that infectious smile of his, held up his hand in a farewell gesture, then disappeared through the door. As it closed, Joe heard a distinct metallic clank, like a jail door closing.
All of a sudden, the gambit of emotions he had suppressed earlier was released, overwhelming him. He bellowed the word “NO!!!!!!” as he sprinted down the alley towards the door. When he got to where he perceived it was, there was no door to be seen. It was a blind alley, and the right-hand wall had no openings anywhere in it, not even a window. He stood there bewildered, staring at the solid red brick. Then he heard another familiar voice:
It was Robin’s voice. Joe looked back up the alley, and saw Robin halfway back towards the street, holding open a side door to the bar. Joe walked slowly back to meet him.
“Did you see Charlie?” Joe asked sheepishly.
“Sure I did, but he had to leave. I’m sorry”
“But why?” Joe begged.
“It was time, and it’s also time for you to come back in here now Joe”
“What…..??”, but Robin cut him off.
“He needed closure for two years ago. He didn’t want to leave so suddenly, but he had no choice. He wanted you to know that there was no reason, it just happened. Now you have to come with me Joe, you can’t stay here any longer”
Robin took Joe’s arm and helped him through the door. As he did, Joe turned to him and tried again. “But Robin….?” He was again cut-off in mid-sentence.
“Joe; I’m not Robin. I am just here to help Charlie. Robin is waiting for you inside; look over to your right.”
Joe walked through the door and looked to his right. As he did, he heard the door close behind him with that same metallic clang. Joe’s head was spinning, but he gathered his thoughts and looked out across the familiar, bustling bar. The band was back in the loft, and banging-out ‘Hard to Handle’ again. His legs were shaking, so he leant back briefly for support, then quickly realised that he was leaning against a door that someone might come bursting through at any moment. So he looked around for more solid support, only to see that he was already leaning against a solid wall. The door had gone, and so had Robin.
He was completely confused, and began to wander through the bar looking for a seat. Then he heard a familiar voice again.
“Hey Joe, over here!”
He looked to his right and saw Robin waving to him from the table he had left minutes earlier. He went over to the table, and Robin leapt up to greet him, throwing his arms around him and patting him firmly on the back.
“Hey buddy, great to see you again after all this time!”
But Joe couldn’t react. His mind was still churning, trying to connect all of the loose ends left flailing around after the past few minutes.
“Let me look at you” Robin continued, pushing Joe away whilst he held on firmly to both of Joe’s shoulders.
“Hey Joe?” his voice softened in concern; “You OK? Say, sit down; you look like you just saw a ghost!”