A small fish inside a shark tank, that’s how Joseph Stiglitz felt day in and day out. Meek to the bone, people shunned him left and right to the point he felt like he was constantly walking down a straight path to isolation. In time he had settled for a mute, unassuming existence. He livved in Sufrida street, the perfect place to be just another face in the crowd that you would as soon forget afteer you met him.
Now he sat on a stool that had a too-flat cushion which made his bottom feel sore after sitting for more than five minutes, and he had already been around for about an hour. Hurrying up his drink, the fourth for the evening, -whiskey, any brand, as long as some ice was in it- he still tried getting used to the atmosphere of the bar.
It was a small, boxy kind of place that made you feel you were leaving as soon as you came in. A smattering of a few, round wooden tables, most of them in different levels of decay, with holes and rot setting in comfortably like paint over walls. Ironically the paint job from the bar was a very unflattering attempt at abstract painting; chips from the walls created odd patterns that gave Joseph the impression that beasts were preying on him. Most unsettling was the name of the place, the Big Sleep; the owner probably was a big fan of Raymond Chandler. And yet, it seemed appropriate; he had a meeting with someone named Marlowe – he could have died laughing right there if he took the time, but he was too damned tired.
Few patrons hung around the place, all keeping to themselves. No groups, nor couples, were found here. People sat alone and away from each other: I came here alone, I’m leaving here alone. One of the few places that did not enforce an indoor smoking policy, making the bar a veritable hang out for smokers. The grey-and-blue haze that clung to the air made things seem to be slightly out of focus. A perfect atmosphere to lose yourself.
“Hit you again, boss?”, tired and drawn-out, the bartender edged the bottle of whiskey over Joseph’s glass. Pure sheer will seemed to keep his eyelids open, despite his eyes having that distant look of those who sleep too little. A curt nod was given and the amber liquid poured. Why not? Joseph did not expect to live forever anyhow.
The bartender shuffled without a word to a distant spot from the bar. Behind him a soot-covered wall mirror that crossed the length of the bar cast a ghostly reflection of both him and the others sitting at the bar. Ghosts waiting to be forgotten. Amused by this thought, Joseph raised his glass towards his own reflection, “Cheers.”, he whispered and drank again. “Right back at you. Mr. Stiglitz, I presume?”, slightly startled, Joseph turned next to him and saw a tall man with piercing brown eyes, completely bald, sit on the stool immediately to his right. He wore a brown trench coat that had hundreds of raindrops clinging to him like tears at the verge of falling. His eyes stared unblinking at Joseph, a gloved hand appeared, open and waiting, “I’m Marlowe, a pleasure.”
“Mar-Marlowe? Yes, yes. Pleasure.”, a firm hand grasped his own, leather over skin. It felt cold. Joseph retracted his hand as soon as the grip loosened. “Sorry about that, I was just surprised.”, Marlowe gave the tiniest hint of a smile, but quickly swept it under a mask of attentive indifference. “No worries. My apologies if I surprised you, I forget I tend to be somewhat quiet and end up startling people often. A habit from my…profession, as you can understand.”. Very slowly Joseph nodded, “Yes, of course. Well, I guess we should….get down to it, but….do you mind if…?”, he raised his glass and showed it to Marlowe. “Not at all, please. I’ll join you.”, the bartender had approached the pair and Marlowe ordered an Irish coffee.
Moments passed as both men slowly drank in silence, the night was still young, and neither showed to be in a particular great hurry. A few patrons had left the place, so the bar was almost empty save for Joseph, Marlowe, the bartender and two more people at the opposite end of the bar, drinking alone, swallowed by the shadows of the place.
When finally the last drop of whiskey was sliding down Joseph’s throat, he was feeling a bit more relaxed. “Well then, Mr. Stiglitz, shall we get down to business or if you prefer we can have another drink? I don’t have any other pressing matters to attend, so I have some time to kill.”. Time, sooner or later it ran out, no matter how slow the seconds ticked away.
Joseph shook his head, “No, that’s ok. Might as well get on with it.”. Marlowe assented with a slight nod, “Of course. Please, if you will follow me. There’s a private room that I have booked so we can conduct our business without interruptions.”, he stood up and dropped a few bills on the bar while making a stopping motion to Joseph when he was about to pull out his wallet, “Drinks are on me.”.
They walked behind the bar and towards the end where a steel door was wedged between a wine cooler and a trashcan. The bartender paid no attention to them as Marlowe opened the door, a flight of cement stairs led down. Marlowe signaled for him to go first. Slowly, he descended step by step, a moment later he heard a soft clicking behind him and Marlowe’s footsteps. They arrived to a long grey hallway that had a red door at the end of it, “It’s at the end of the hall, behind that door. It’s all been arranged there.”. Despite his resolve to follow this through, Joseph could not avoid but feel a slight shiver run down his body, making him halt momentarily. A heartbeat later he felt a hand gently place itself over his right shoulder, “It’s ok to have second thoughts. We can still call it off.”. Joseph swallowed hard and shook his head, not daring to look back at Marlowe.
He began walking again, reaching the red door and opening it, darkness greeted him. After his eyes quickly adjusted he saw a small storage room, full of all manner off foodstuffs, as well as bottles of beer and hard liquor. Some large plastic barrels stood on a corner, neatly lined up. Joseph saw immediately the metal chair and small table in the middle of the room. A metal box laid atop the table. Marlowe flicked a switch behind him and a lone lightbulb cast a pallid yellow light over the room, briefly blinding Joseph who rubbed his eyes to recover. Marlowe was already on the opposite side of the table, soundlessly as before, opening the metal box, pushing it gently towards Joseph and gesturing him to come closer. Taking a deep breath and slowly letting it go, he approached.
Inside the box were a syringe with a clear liquid and a length of steel wire. Pearls of sweat began to surface on Joseph’s temples and forehead, “These are my options then?”, he tried to sound casual, detached, but a hint of desperation crawled at the end as he took a seat on the chair. Marlowe remained standing. “That is correct. Both are efficient and won’t make a mess. Now, I won’t lie, neither method is instantaneous, but both get the job done quick enough. Especially if there is no resistance from the affected party.”, his eyes bore into Joseph’s skull. “But, before we proceed on choosing, I would like to ask one question, if you will permit me.”. Joseph stared back at Marlowe, feeling somewhat lightheaded, he nodded weakly. “Thank you. My question is quite simple: why?”. His face was a mask and his voice betrayed no particular emotion, yet Joseph felt that if he did not give a satisfactory answer, then things would not continue and the business would end. He thought for a bit about it, yet he found there wasn’t any grand resolution or anything.
“Because I am tired, because people make me sick, because this city chokes the life out of everyone in here, because I can’t afford to go elsewhere, because I am utterly alone from dawn to nightfall, because….because I don’t care anymore.”, he looked down at the inside of the box with longing. “I see.”, came the soft reply, “Then allow me to ask one last question: why not end things yourself?”
Joseph felt himself shrinking a bit in his seat, he knew this question would be asked, and he dreaded the answer, but it was a necessary part, “I’m too scared to do it myself…to jump into oblivion, alone, unwitnessed.”.
The room was silent for a moment, Joseph felt like squirming in his seat, but stayed still, still unable to meet Marlowe’s eyes again. “Very well then, I guess we can proceed then.”, and with a sweeping gesture signaled at the open box. Joseph stared inside the box, feeling himself falling inside.
The bartender was cleaning some glassed and the last customer had shuffled outside quietly. He had already locked the main entrance and placed the CLOSED sign on the door. The basement door opened and out came Marlowe. “What’d he choose?”, the bartender asked in a bored voice. Marlowe shrugged, “Syringe. Almost everyone goes for the syringe.”. The bartender grunted, “At $5,000, they can get a blowjob for all I care. Dumped his body in the barrel?”, Marlowe nodded while raising an eyebrow, such a vulgar man.