Short Story: The Man at the Bar, by Hasan Shikoh
The Man at the Bar
By Hasan Shikoh
The night flashes absently with gaudy neon signs in the empty General Mathenge Road. In numerous alleys along it, old men and women sleep with blankets draped around them. From a building in a corner, a red-orange light spills out from a doorway. A loner sits half-asleep on a chair by its entrance. A cacophony of conversation and music emanates from inside.
The night is cold. People inside the bar warm themselves with cheap beer and laughter. A bleary-eyed band plays live reggae music amid the cloud of cigarette smoke, stench of Tusker beer and body odor.
"The boss is a bastard, Kamau."
"That's not new."
"He doesn't know a damned bit about what to do."
"He's always like that, Njoroge. He has no sense."
"Who brought him to the top?"
"I wish I had that kind of money."
"Well, you just don't."
"Then what's the point?"
"Can't I just wish? Don't I have the right even to wish, damn it?"
"Perhaps. But you don't have money. And that is just that. You are a poor thing. You'll die so."
They sip their beer.
"Tell me, where did he get that kind of money?"
"They say he's rich and has good contacts. He says he's worked as foreman for 12 years at another place. That's all. Nobody knows anything more."
"I'm thinking of quitting this job."
"Where do you think you'll go?"
"I don't know."
"Thank the Lord you can get even this cheap beer with what you make, my friend."
"Let's go over to those girls. You need to relax. They're playing roulette."
The barman snatches their lagered mugs away along with the smeared two ten shilling notes from the bar. Njoroge, taller of the two, and short tempered, lights a cigarette as they plod toward the crowd.
Everybody is excited. People are gambling. Two girls with long, red painted nails manage the game. One rolls the machine while the other collects the chips and the money. Men snuggle around them, jostling deliberately against their bodies.
Njoroge, towering above others, can see best what is going on. Suddenly, there is clapping and excitement. Somebody has won. Everybody looks greedily at the fingers giving away five hundred shilling notes to a shabby little man who wears a hat over his bald head. He has won five hundred shillings – half a month's pay – in just a few minutes. He has become rich – in one night!
The little man decides he will have a go again. He wants to get even richer. He slams the bank notes on the table and the girl pulls them charmingly towards herself. Somebody shoves people away and arranges himself alongside the girl with the money. He removes his cap and rubs his hands together. It is Njoroge. He wants to get rich, too. He, too, has a dream.
The little man rubs his huge belly as he takes a long sip of his beer. "Five hundred shillings," he says.
The girl with the money smiles.
"Five hundred shillings," Njoroge echoes.
"What are you doing, man?" Kamau cries. "You got no other money. You got a family to feed."
Njoroge counts five hundred shillings – some of it in small change – and hands it over to the girl. Kamau shouts at him again from behind other thronging men; but Njoroge's mind concentrates, and his eyes stare at the red, black and white rink with passion.
The other girl rolls the rink. The men drink and suck long at their cigarettes before the dice and the rink come to a stop.
There are cheers as Njoroge wins. He does not have many friends around so the merry-making does not last long. He wants Kamau to see him having won a game. He would like to look at him straight in the eye now.
There is going to be a set of three rounds. Quickly, arrangements are made for the next one. Njoroge has won one. If only he wins one more, he would be five hundred shillings richer – in the middle of the month!
The smile on his lips disappears as he concentrates again. He must win.
The rink and the die are rolled again. Njoroge stares at the rotating movement, concentrating so much that his eyes nearly lose focus. He curses it to stop, and prays for the red for he has chosen that color again.
The die stops on the black. The short, unkempt man wins. Njoroge swallows. His heart skips a beat. It is one-one now.
Njoroge breaks from the throng and orders a beer at the bar. He swallows the whole drink in one swig and returns to the rink, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. He adjusts himself beside the buxom girl and waits until the other one rolls the rink and the one by his side rolls the die a third time. This time, he has chosen black as his rival did before because he thinks that the short man has a lot of good luck.
The rink rotates at a fast pace, then it slows down and the poor man's heart beats faster.
"Black, darn you. Black. Gaawd … please, black!"
Njoroge watches the dial point at white, then red, then black. The rink crawls ever more slowly and it seems to stop at white; then that last millimeter squeezes past and it rests at red. The lucky little man wins again. He is the owner of another five hundred shillings now.
Njoroge's dream is shattered once again. Men praise the short man. The girls smile and eye him approvingly.
Njoroge is dazed. He does not seem to register anything now. He loses his temper. He swears at the little man and flounces at him. The men around him clamp his limbs. There is a lot of hooting. After a little struggle, Njoroge sags. The men set him free. He trudges out away from them and reaches the bar. He orders a beer but the barman looks at him reluctantly. He knows he has just lost a lot of his money and doubts whether he would be able to pay for a drink. Njoroge notices his attitude and orders rudely again. The barman complies, spilling some beer out of the bottle as he serves with disgust. Njoroge grabs it and pours the entire beverage down his throat in one go again; then he slams the bottle on the counter and orders for another.
Presently, Kamau flashes through his mind; then the issue of money for the month springs up and he instinctively grabs the new bottle that just appears before him.
There is no more money for his wife and his seven children. And there are fifteen days yet to go. He drinks.
He looks nonchalantly for his friend but does not find him anywhere. A few paces away the band entertains a sparse group of swinging drunkards to Red, Red Wine, in a smoky wash of disco lights. Njoroge seems to think for a while then pulls out some last ten-shilling notes and drops them on the counter. Then he slides away from the barstool, but his legs buckle as a sharp pang of nausea attacks him. Banter breaks out at his back.
"Shurrup!" he shouts without turning but the men hoot back even more. His knees hurt but he manages to lift himself up and trudges toward the exit, away from this smelly, noisy world.
It is three o'clock and the night has gathered on with its earlier bite. The sky is a confusing blue-black with the distant, jewel-like stars far away and above watching Njoroge slave himself along the empty road.
In the fresh air, he catches his own beer-fumed breath and feels even sicker. He drops his arm into his shabby blazer that he had bought at a second-hand clothes sale from an Indian family up at Kusi Lane, and pulls out his half-smoked cigarette. He lights it up after a series of failures and puffs deeply.
The distant howls of stray dogs reach his ears as he passes along an unlit area of the road. Just then, a skinny dog sneaks past him and he looks at it hasten away into an alley. Suddenly his spinning mental theater straightens.
Ah, yes. Although everybody else despises him – his boss, Kamau, the girls and the men at the bar – he is not the only defeated creature in this cold world.
While he is engrossed in this consolation, he trips against a large slab of cement placed half over a manhole. He pitches headlong and crashes into a dented lamp post. He senses warm blood pour across his face and a violent pain stab in his head; then everything turns dark. But still, just before he collapses, he registers a last strange solace: It is still two hours before day break when somebody might spot him, and if at all, pick him up; at least till then, it would be a dreamless sleep.