ELY, Nev. – “They’re really breaking my balls,” he said, seemingly to no one, putting his glass down with a clink of ice cubes, turning halfway to me and halfway to the bar.
“Yea, fucking bastards,” I muttered, pretending I knew what he meant.
I probably did. As far as I was concerned, the details of his problems were neither familiar to me nor any concern. It was one of those circumstances where one is better off ignoring the problem and hoping for the best. I returned to my newspaper, reading about the aftermath of the brutal Himalayan earthquakes and building Greek instability.
My mind veered from the articles about a desert car race in Nevada and some Republican presidential debate to the growing despair hunkered down at the bar next to me, between a set of dusty elbows. The despair was separated from me by an empty bar stool. He had these weathered hands that can tell more stories than his lack of verbosity ever could.
“That guy’s seen some shit,” I thought to myself.
The bartender refilled my empty porcelain cup and I thought about Ram, the mysterious dealer of arms or rare books and lead or whatever it was. Probably opium. I return to the present to realize the depressed man has recovered and has been talking the whole time. The words “Trans-Siberian Express,” “opium” and “Kashmiri” come into audible focus and my attention is far away from the New York Times.
The man said he recently returned from Yemeni island of Soqotra where he met with the type of merchants who don’t owe people favors and who only pay in cash, handled by people with short life spans. They were setting global prices for the new opium crops in Afghanistan and the glut of American weapons and equipment of war on the various global markets.
Ram was among the dealers and merchants, most likely. I spoke up, saying I think I met the Indian man in question, adding he is supposed to be dead – not that I have a particular grudge against him, it was just business. And it was none of my business.
He introduced himself into his collection of sticky highball and shot glasses, “I am Reisiger, from South Africa.”
He pointed to the bartender, who poured again without taking his eyes from the saturated Bollywood movie playing silently on an old television behind Reisiger and me.
“I’ve been looking for Ram ever since he slapped me across the face in that fucking sand flea-ridden tent in Yemen. I’m not sure if I want to slit his throat or buy him a beer,” Reisiger said whilst pulling the side of his coat back to reveal a machete handle.
I recognized the handle, with its inlaid teak and mother-of-pearl and the polished tamahagane steel blade made in the folded manner of a Samurai sword. My brother’s brand is engraved in the handle and blade, he made in exchange for a small shipment of AR-15 lower receivers with legitimate-looking forged serial numbers, but it was thought to be lost in a gas explosion in Taipan.
“I want to return this blade to Ram, in his grave,” he hissed. “I got it from him in a bet, he lost, but I took it anyway.” He looked over at me for the first time, raising his head and peering at the well-worn Leica M4 camera I had sitting on the bar. He looked at my dusty Crazyhorse leather Blundstone 550 boots and sand and sage-colored kaffiyeh and dusty trousers, which looked like they had their own story. I felt his eyes looking at me and I was curious about the machete and how Ram got it from The Oracle.
“I know you,” he barked. “You’re that fucking photographer from New York. You carry that ridiculous film camera around. You’re sitting in the roughest, dirtiest bar in Ely, Nevada, drinking coffee and reading a newspaper.”
“Fuck it,” I thought. “I’m already a dead man, so might as well make the most of it. Besides, there is a slim chance I may make it out alive.”
“You don’t even have the decency to get a real Leica – that’s one of the Canadian ones,” he yelled.
This was one of those times I regret not buying the brass knuckles in that Tuvan bazaar, or the fancy hunting knife from that place in Orange, Connecticut.
I tried to pretend to be agitated and turned to the angry, drunk South African and said, “Youxin rebuilt this camera, it’s all German and new on the inside, Canadian on the outside; this bar is the only place in this shithole of a town where no one bothers me, it’s also where I’m supposed to meet … Have you ever heard of The Oracle?”
“You’re not meeting that poacher motherfucker,” he said, laughing between syllables.
“He died in a plane crash in Tajikistani mountains 10 years ago. I should know, I shot the fucking plane down,” he said in a calm manner, waving to the bartender to get another round.
“I sold the wreckage for scrap and I used the remaining fuel from the plane’s tanks to burn the bodies. I traded the surviving cargo to that asshole from India, sort of, for a shipment of Soviet rocket-propelled grenades. It’s what I used to shoot the plane down.”
“Wait, I said,” interrupting him and waving my hand. “You drunk asshole, that timeline doesn’t work … ”
“Oh, um. Yea … ” he said staring at the wall, seemingly confused. “Right, it was some convoluted ‘wreckage futures’ thing … I think Ram or someone sent me a weapon sample to try out.”
I turned back to my paper and pretended to read it, taking a sip of my cold, stale coffee as the door opened revealing a shadowy figure surrounded by blinding sunlight.
“Fuck, that’s bright!” Reisinger and I seemed to say at the same time.
Reisinger shot to his feet, launching his bar stool loudly to the floor. The bartender panicked and reached for the shotgun with the filthy handle under the bar.
I stood more slowly, looking at the time while stepping away from the growing tension standing next to me while facing the backlit, dusty figure darkening the doorway.
“You’re even on time when you’re dead,” I said to the shadow as the door shut behind him.
The door creaked all the way open and the dead man walked in, holding the door against the foul, dusty wind. Reisinger turned, and in a motion swiftly guided by equal parts anger and ambush, reaches for the holstered Desert Eagle hidden under a scarred leather coat. Before the startled bar stool hit the ground Reisinger fired two rounds, the boom deafened everyone in the room.
No one heard or noticed the bar stool.
The dead man has not a scratch. He coughed and demanded whiskey. “None of that fake lighter fluid you bought from me and keep in the good bottles, give me the real shit!”
Daylight peered through two new bullet holes and I reached over the bar and grabbed the first bottle my free hand found and poured a shot for Reisinger and one for The Oracle, the dead man.
“No, not that swill,” The Oracle said waving his hand. “Go to the lower shelf in the storage room, in the box labeled ‘cheap whiskey’ and get a bottle of actual whiskey.
The Oracle turned to Reisinger, who was refilling a shot glass, spilling cheap whiskey all over the dusty bar, “you can keep drinking that brake cleaner if you want. South Africans don’t know any better.”