A Tale or Two

A Tale or Two

In Short Story by James Ewen

            The cast of characters, myself included, were perched at the bar, listening with all ears to Olaf’s tale of survival. His command of English was delivered with such eloquence that any language barriers between us and him were considered negligible. He lit his second cigarette since beginning and repositioned his smoking paraphernalia neatly on the bar in front of him. Continuing, his softly spoken German tones fuelled the story with an added air of mystery.

            ‘My daughter had cast a line off the side of the yacht, and after half an hour or so she came to me complaining that there were no fishies,’ Olaf said, puffing smoke from his nostrils. ‘I thought it odd that this was the same spot we had been in the day before and there was many fishies swimming around. I leant over the bow to have a look for myself and sure ee-nough there was not a single fishy. Immediately my stomach sank and without hesitation I ran to power up the vessel.

            ‘Luckily we weren’t too far from the island and made it back pretty quickly. Of course I tried not to panic and explained the situation calmly to the girls and my wife, and her parents, but they were all very per-plexed—that is the right pronunciation?’ he asked looking round at us. We all bobbed our heads silently, urging him to continue with our widened and unblinking eyes. ‘Ah, yes. So, we made it back to the dock. I got everyone off and moving toward the jeep when I remember hearing this strange whooshing sound, followed by: Doomp. Doomp. Doomp. Perplexed,’ Olaf paused and scanned our faces with a smile across his, ‘I turned to investigate. The tide! It had vanished! Leaving all of the boats lying stranded on the seabed, along with dozens of flapping fishies and some exposed turtles.’ Olaf stubbed out his cigarette. ‘May I have another bier please,’ he whispered to the bar man before lighting another cigarette and neatly reorganizing his life on the bar top again. His posture never faltered a degree from ninety, and in keeping with this, his appearance was immaculate. He had definitely been present for half a dozen decades but his cinnamon complexion, that he could thank the Thai sun for, kept his older years at bay. His cigarette intake would not be as kind to him.

            ‘Running up the pier,’ he continued, ‘I noticed nobody around to warn. We jumped in the jeep and began racing along the jungle tracks. But, sliding around a muddy corner, I lost control of the vehicle and made contact with a tree. The tires wouldn’t grip, so I jumped out and began pushing, my wife took the wheel.’ A foaming bottle of bier greeted Olaf, ‘Danke.’ He took a swig and continued on, his voice had upped a gear.

            ‘In between my wife’s attempts on the gas, I heard a shouting. I yelled to her: STOP! Children. Playing. I told my fami-lee. I ran through the jungle and found two boys playing with sticks. I did not know Thai then, so I gestured as best I could the situation but they ran off into the woods and I lost them. I heard my fami-lee shouting, so I ran back. The car was unstuck and my wife was already at the wheel. We high-tailed it for the mountain road and kept climbing until we left the tree line and found the locals.’

            To see all of our faces in awe of Olaf’s story would have been a picture for a postcard: a bunch of strangers sitting at a tiki bar with mouths and eyes aghast because of a German man’s casually, yet rivetingly, told tale of plight; all the while with their backs to a sunset bleeding over the Pacific; beneath a lingering cloud that loomed in the wicker rafters due to our barman’s penchant for ganja. A scene perhaps better captured by a photograph?

            ‘We witnessed this tiny ripple on the ocean roll in from the horizon, carrying lots of little coloured dots,’ he continued. ‘The wave hit the pier where my yacht was—notice I say was—before smashing the town, and plowing through the jungle. Then, the same whooshing sound as before, but this time coming towards me instead of away. The tide came up just beyond the tree line, no more than one-hundred-fifty meters from us before it retreated back into itself.’

            There was a collective sigh of relief amongst the patrons of the bar. I felt myself blink for the first time in so long it stung. Olaf made up for neglecting his foaming beverage by chugging the thing. ‘Another,’ he exclaimed, slamming down the empty.

            ‘Aaaand then,’ Olaf paused, waiting for attention to rekindle, ‘a tap on my shoulder. I turned. An ee-normous Thai man stood before me, holding a young boy. I looked down to see another boy, older. Ah, I thought, the boys made it! The Thai man had a tear in his eye and hugged me. Now I meet him once a week for a whisky.’

            Each of us began what could have been a prolonged period of quiet fire-catting—pondering the potential fate of Olaf if not for his daughter’s desire to fish—but the evening made an abrupt change in volume. Akin to the muffled sounds that crescendo on resurfacing from a deep pool, the rattle of a steel drum began clinking through the open night air. On realizing music had been devoid from the prior ambience, everyone jolted their heads up in the hope of finding the source. Justin, our barman and resident Canadian, stood, caught in the headlights, beside the stereo.    

            ‘Lo siento para mi…mi…shit,’ he said, trying to showcase his knowledge of Ecuador’s native tongue. ‘I’ll get there. I thought it best to let Olaf carry out his stor-ee in peace. Thought it time to re-inter-duece some toons. If anybody wishes to quarrel, I ask: when has a reggae toon ever harmed a soul?’

            A ripple of giggles worked its way across the bar. The setup of the place dictated that Justin was planted firm in the middle of us all. There were three sides that harboured bar stools and a back wall fit with a door that led into a stock room, as a guess. I was never able to quell the notion that Justin felt like an animal in this straw cage. His fidgeting and constant movement was evidence of this, and no doubt his hazy habit fuelled it too.

            ‘You know Justin, for a Canadian you ain’t half bad,’ Hank’s deep, Texan drawl cut through the laughter before erupting into a snigger itself. He slapped his hand down on the bar and gave a mighty belly laugh. ‘And as for you Oh-laugh, I’m gonna keep you close. ‘Cause damn, you gotta be the luckiest sunuva-bitch I ever met.’ He let out a husky laugh as his shoulders shrugged like a shaking dog.

            Hank was at least seventy. A cattle rancher by trade, about an hour outside El Paso, and was on an extended vacation to celebrate his retirement. He was bald on top, save for a scraggly ring of billowing white hair that drooped to his shoulders. Always seen in board shorts and dinner shirts, he was the man for every occasion.

           ‘Hey man, if I’m sittin’ right up aside you at the bar, you’re thinkin’: what a regal lookin’ ol’ fucker, wearin’ a damn dress shirt in this climate,’ Hank told me on my first meeting with him at the bar a few days prior. ‘It ain’t ’til I’m walkin’ away that you hear my flip flops flappin’ and you catch a glimpse of my lower attire.’ His Muttley snigger followed.

            ‘Damn everyone! Oh-laugh could near have been lost on this run through of life. Be good to hear that stor-eh on the next time round too, so don’t you go changin’ nothing ya hear, ‘cause I have no doubt that my cyclical self will find it just as thrillin’.’ Cue: vibrating shoulders and mischievous chuckle.

            The Italian couple sitting to my right straddled this moment to reabsorb themselves in each others’ company. My guess was that their grasp of English had been tested during Olaf’s tale, and now their commitment was to each other rather than the collective.

            Hank was the evening’s unofficial compare for what was quickly evolving into a vocal compendium of tales, be they long, short, or tall. Never probing, but always curious, he was slowly making his way through each of us. Patrons had come and gone during the twilight, and Hank had peacefully interrogated each and every one of them. His watchful eye would land on me occasionally and his face would go blank. Thankfully, I had escaped his clutch so far, but I suffered from the nervous anticipation of finding myself in the spotlight next. Waves crashed faintly on the beach close by. The palms gossiped amongst themselves overhead.

            Darkness had seeped in during Olaf’s story, but the bar beamed bright like a beacon in the night. To passers-by everything under our tiki shelter was illuminated. Every movement and nuance detectable. To us patrons of the beacon though, looking out was just a feeble attempt at deciphering darkness. The stage was set and I could only assume that our audience was out there.

            ‘Alrighty Scotsman, time for your monologue. Care to enner-tain us with an ol’ yarn from the frontline?’ Hank’s words were like bullets. My throat pulled the plug, and left my mouth in drought.

            ‘Ehm,’ I gulped, attempting to reinstate saliva into the situation. ‘Maybe in a bit, enjoying listening at the minute.’ I felt my heart racing.

            ‘Ohh-kay, the conch will find its way to you at some point young man, believe you me,’ Hank redirected his attention to our stooge with the booze. ‘Justin, how long you say you been down this ol’ neck of the woods?’ Hank’s quest for anecdotes continued.

            ‘Not long, Hank,’ he replied chipperly. ‘Was traveling for a while and was about ready to retire from self-exile, then I stumbled into this bubble. Been here about tres meses. Can’t really say I’m on a path of discovery, but I’m certainly enjoying myself.’ Justin was only half paying attention to his own words. His other half was occupied rummaging around on his side of the bar, in the pursuit of—he found it—a lighter. He kept hold of it and continued searching.

            ‘Mean to say there ain’t no secrets of life waitin’ to be found around these parts?’ Hank replied. ‘Aww, shucks, guess I’ll be on my way.’ He got up and sauntered off into the darkness, flipping and flopping as he went. An air of confusion descended on the bar and we were left in silence. It swiftly became apparent that Hank was our lynchpin. Reggae’s background remedy saved our barren scene from the threat of tumbleweeds.

            Enter stage right: girl, mid-twenties, bubbly. She perched herself down at the back corner and piped up mousily for a libation. Justin tackled her request with as much haste as a beach bartender could. She took a sip from her tropical chalice and peered round at us with wide eyes and a dimple-cheeked smile.

            ‘Hallo,’ Olaf put forward for the group. She swivelled to face him, and poised herself for conversation. However, Olaf’s attention was quickly reabsorbed by his bier and cigarettes. Other than his extended anecdote, I hadn’t heard more than two words from him at any one time. Hank’s tactics for juicing a stone were elegant and enviable.

            There was a lustful notion hanging over us to conjure up an anecdote or a whimsical question to ask in order to save Hank’s legacy, but my tongue still found itself bound. A similar story circle had presented itself on a jungle trek a few weeks prior and I couldn’t for the life of me find the will to participate. It operated more like a contest than a congenial exchange, and my rivals were quick on their delivery of judgement and betterment. This had soured my taste for public speaking. Escape wasn’t an option given the hostile fauna, but I managed to find solace by weighing the rear and making acquaintance with our guide. Fortunately we possessed a mutual respect for silence. Sat at the tiki bar I couldn’t shake the notion that fate was breathing down my neck and was demanding atonement for the jungle.

            Out of the silence, out of the darkness, came the return of the flip and the flop. Our stages’s luminance sought him out and presented Hank back to the collective.

            ‘Jesus,’ he exclaimed, ‘who died?’ chuckling to himself. ‘Conversation is allowed in my absence ya know,’ he continued, straddling his bar stool once again. Hank produced a small metal tin and placed it on the counter. He looked up at Justin with his brow raised in question.

            ‘Si si, claro. As long as the wealth is shared, then by all means,’ Justin replied. Hank popped his tin and produced a proud and chunky little number.

            ‘Of course!’ Hank replied, ‘Saw you scurryin’ around back there and knew it could only be for one thing. Felt it only right that I returned the kindness you’ve given me the past few nights. Anyone got a light?’ Without blinking, Olaf slid his lighter down the bar top. Hank caught it and sparked up. Justin was stroking his beard and realized that he was still holding his lighter. This shook him from his habitual million-mile stare and back to the present. Hank exhaled a plume of exhaust in the direction of the girl. She coughed on contact.

            ‘Oh gosh darn,’ Hank said, with smoke still billowing from his mouth, ‘didn’t see ya there. My apologies. Welcome to our little gang, and who might you be?’

            ‘I just got in. I’m the new yoga teacher for the hostel. Amanda.’

            ‘Right on,’ Hank returned, ‘And you have arrived from where exactly?’

            ‘Originally, the Bay Area. But I left about a year ago to get my accreditation for Bikrum in Asia. I just flew in from Kolkata—it took…I dunno. What time is it?’ Justin looked down at his wrist: no watch. The rest of us followed by example and arrived at the same findings. Beach life is a stranger to time. ‘Don’t sweat it. It took a day or so, I guess, and a lot of courage.’ Amanda finished off her drink and gave Justin a nod for another.

            ‘Some peace-pipe friend?’ Hank offered the smokeable to Olaf, ‘I can say that, I have some Native blood in me…somewhere,’ he added, chuckling. Olaf took it without hesitation.

            ‘Danke,’ puffed our German captain of fire and smoke, survivor of God’s most formidable wrath. He blinked with great effort using only his bottom eyelids.

            ‘A year ago you left Californ-eye-ay. You been in India all that time?’ Hank enquired.

            ‘No, but I was in and around Kolkata for a while,’ Amanda replied. ‘I travelled around Nepal a ton before India. I did a lot of spiritual training and a lot of trekking. Actually, we got lost for four days in a blizzard just east of Everest. It made the news. Not sure if you heard about it?’

            ‘Si, I heard about that,’ Justin piped in before downing a pint of water. Our cast of merry characters stopped particle motion.

            ‘Out of all of us I would have expected you to be the least engaged in the outside world,’ Hank said, ‘and boy, how much water you puttin’ back? Drink any more and I’ll be feeling the urge to purge.’

            ‘I have my sources. And I know of dos ways to stay awake, legally: mucho café, o mucho agua. I don’t have a taste for the former, so the latter is where I pledge my allegiance. Anyways, you were saying Amanda?’ Justin said with a smug charm.

            She sniggered before continuing, ‘I feel like we all know our story in the most concise way after being asked it by a million people along the way.’ Her hands were perpetually gesturing. ‘We’d gone off the beaten path a little and suffered for it. The blizzard hit and we hid out in a cave. Flares got swept away in the gusts, so we had to just sit tight. When it cleared up, the mountains looked gorgeous though. All that fresh powder. I’ve got lots of pictures,’ she whipped out her phone and began scrolling through a stream of photos. We all peered on with varying levels of interest. Olaf nodded at the first image then proceeded to stare off into the night. Hank was feigning enthusiasm like a trooper. His level of engagement between her words and photos was chalk and cheese. Justin squinted his way through the slideshow, visibly clinging on to his consciousness. I was too far to discern detail so abandoned hope early on. ‘The language barrier was essentially unscalable between the guide and me, but we found a way to agree that the god of the mountain was punishing us for going off course. From then on I’ve felt a positive change in my chakra, like a new appreciation you know,’ she took a moment and nodded to herself before adding, ‘the guide actually ended up getting a finger amputated because of frostbite.’

            ‘What!’ Justin exclaimed. ‘Do you still have all ten fingers and toes?’ She held up her hands and wiggled her fingers.

            ‘I can do the same for my toes, but this stool doesn’t make that easy.’ Olaf passed the joint to Amanda, but she waved it on to Justin.

            ‘So yea, I didn’t lose a finger or anything like that. But the cold did some nasty work on my lungs. Yoga helps it, so does the heat, but smoking kills me. Would still say I’m spiritual without it though.’

            ‘Right on!’ Hank bellowed. ‘I’m a pretty spiritual dude too!’ A tuk-tuk came beeping down the dirt track beside the bar and screeched to a halt. Justin’s attention was raised. His mouth fell open lazily as he tip-toed to peer over the scraggily hedgerow separating us from the road. Specifics were hard to decipher but the vehicle seemed enormous. The driver began shouting in Spanish without revealing himself.

            Justin lowered himself and pivoted his gaze around us, ‘Anyone expecting an angry local on a tuk-tuk?’ The man began shouting again. Our barman gave the stranger his peace before retorting, ‘¿Qué es el dealio, hombre?Justin’s thinking in his mother tongue was masked with great subtlety in another. It provoked a volley of confusion back and forth over the hedge where words and phrases amassed with little coherence. Muchacho; amigo; ay, ay, ay; no sé were Justin’s repeated weapons of choice amidst a clutter of Spanglish offsprings.

            Hank swivelled off his stool and flip-flopped past the bushes and onto the road. A faint murmur was all that could be heard between the two gents, anything more was lost to the sound of the surf. Hank let out a chuckle that was quickly followed by a ra-ta-tat laugh from the mysterious stranger. We had become an intently intrigued audience, listening in library-silence to the perplexing encounter. Even the Italians had reinvested their attention. The tuk-tuk’s engine fired up with a bang and clattered off into the night. Hank returned sporting a lazy grin.

            ‘You speak Spanish?’ Justin whimpered.

            ‘Enough to get answers,’ he replied, hoisting himself back onto the bar stool. ‘Guy had huge stone Buddha on the back that thing. Said somethin’ about a delivery to a hostel.’ Justin’s face dropped.

            ‘Ay, ay, ay. Vanessa told me there was gonna be somethin’ delivered here man.’ He looked down at the smoking gun in his hand and sighed. ‘Not again.’

            ‘Relaaax,’ Hank gestured with his hands, ‘I told him to take it round back, and if I’m not mistaken, that’s out of your jurisdiction and into Mike’s. So you can si’down and enjoy the rest of that there number. It’d be a shame to lose a member of our little posse.’ Justin, as if ordered, parked himself on a counter and took another draw. ‘On the road just now, I heard them waves crashin’ mighty fine. Knowin’ very little ‘bout the rocks and rolls of the sea, I have to ask: why’s this such a prime surf spot? That’s why everyone’s here, right?’

            Justin handed the spliffable my way and with it the conch had been passed.

            ‘Honestly, I came here to get out of the cities,’ I said. ‘I’m not much of a surfer: saw Jaws too young.

            ‘Si, but it’s just about luck in the end man,’ Justin responded.

            ‘There’s two kinds of luck though, I’m not saying I don’t have any,’ I replied, passing the conch on to Hank.

            ‘The circle is complete,’ Hank proclaimed with a puff. ‘You’re not gonna find me in the water either, my Scottish compadre. Not that I’m a pussy like you, I got me a pair of bad knees.’

            ‘Everyone’s got fears, mine just happen to be easily avoidable,’ I retorted. ‘I’ll consider myself safe, until street-sharks make an appearance.’

            ‘Ohh-kay. No more for the Scotsman,’ Hank said, closing the circle. The floating reggae took centre stage again. I wanna love ya, and treat ya right. Bob’s lyrics allowed for an arrangement of strangers to sit in a comfortable vacuum. Is this love? Is this love? Is this love that I’m feeling? The talk amongst trees rustled faintly over the music, and beyond that: the waves.

           ‘Alrighty folks,’ I interrupted, ‘gonna head to the beach for a stroll. Thanks for the chat. Thanks for the stories. Justin, can you fix up my tab?’

           ‘Cosa segura, amigo,’ he replied. On clocking my questioning expression, he added, ‘Sure thing, amigo.’ With a cigarette between his fingers Olaf saluted farewell. Amanda gave a dimpled smile. Justin was already deep in a million-mile stare. The Italians were none the wiser of my departure. Hank just stared back at me, blankly. Justin added as I got up, ‘Keep an eye out for sharks, Scotland.’

            ‘Have a good night everyone,’ I managed to mumble before exiting stage left.

            The sand shone bright with moonlight. White caps sparkled and broke in the darkness. Pounding beats bounced their way along the beach from the lights of the town; accompanied by the shouts and screams of revellers tethered to the tunes. I planted myself down on the sand and became mesmerized by the shimmering veneer of the Pacific’s black expanse.      

            It couldn't have been more than five minutes since leaving the bar that a flip and a flop came creeping up behind me.

            ‘Don’t set your heart on becoming a ninja, Hank,’ I said with my eyes still glued to the ocean. He let out a snigger that continued until he reached me.

            ‘Care-ta help me out with this?’ he said, brandishing a freshly lit number. The beach was glowing, but detail was hard to discern. Hank appeared as a silhouette. Inhaling, I felt the heat and light balloon across my face. Exhaling, the breeze stole the smoke from my lips. I helped Hank lower himself down beside me. His knees clicked and I felt my teeth grind.

            The pulse of the beat. The roll of the waves. The quiet of strangers. All of it culminated under the glow of the Pacific’s celestial offspring. It couldn’t be denied that the moon looked down with a fonder heart on the body of water that lay before us.

            ‘Are you here to bust my balls for not telling a story?’ I said, violating the silence.

            ‘Kid,’ Hank began, ‘you know why I like hearin’ other folk’s stories? ‘Cause I’m bored of all my own. Been tellin’ em all my life. I don’t even remember what happened and what didn’t half the time.’ I expected a chuckle, but he gave none. ‘These stars take me back though. Ain’t seen ‘em so nice since I was teachin’ up in Alaska. That was in the sixties—sixty-four if my memory serves me—which it usually don’t.’ The lost laugh found itself. ‘Remember it bein’ around the time of the Mercury Boys and their orbital exploits. I’d have my wireless set up for the broadcast, then I would look up and wave whenever one of em’ would pass by. Just so, ya know, they’d feel that someone was down here at all corners appreciatin’ their efforts. After that whenever I’d look up at night I thought about all the other worlds out there and how my entire life I didn’t even think about wavin’ at ‘em. Thought I should be a friendly neighbour on behalf of us all, so I carry on wavin’ to this day.’ He upheld his self-appointed galactic duty.

          ‘Am I safe to assume that you’re a well travelled individual?’ An older gent is always likely to have an extensive array of tales, but Hank kept an extra card up his sleeve. His tales always ended leaving more mystery than clarity.

            ‘Never really had the luxury of bein’ able to travel for leisure, not ’til my old age. Was always venturin’ about the country for work, occasionally took a bit of time in Meh-he-co, ‘cause of the proximity to my ranch, but that’s about it. Seen a lot of faces, met a lot of different type folk. But d’you want my two cents?’

            A wave crashed in and I turned to him, ‘I wouldn’t deny a man of his opinion.’

            ‘You’re an old soul, Scotsman. Thought you was just plain shy. Young guy, travellin’ solo, was easy to assume that. But my wanderin’s have taught me that the power of assumption is a dangerous thing. ’s-why I sat on my hands ’til I cracked it.’

            A compliment or not I wasn’t sure, but nevertheless it struck me. Hank continued, ‘You sat there all night, listenin’ to the tales of others, not willin’ to give up any of your own. I wondered: why? You don’t strike me as the dee-pressed type. Maybe you didn’t wanna pipe up for fear of soundin’ conceited; a dash of the bashful isn’t a bad thing mind you. But I think your silence is ‘cause you’re humble. You’re an observer who takes away from a situation, and contributes his attention.’

            His two cents had value and weight. He gave me the time and the silence. Misinterpretation of your own character is easy when you’ve not been exposed to the array of possibilities of who you could be. I didn’t want his opinion to become gospel in my mind purely because of an idealistic notion that with age comes great wisdom.

            ‘The other night at the bar,’ Hank continued, ‘we were talkin’ ‘bout misfortunes, and you said your camera broke a few weeks back. Do you actually think of that as bad luck?’

            ‘Not so much. I feel more engaged with a situation and can remember wee details, or at least how things appeared to me.’ I thought of Amanda and her slideshow. I wondered if she remembered those moments, or if the camera was her only way of recall.

            ‘Right on. Ain’t it cool to think of things just how you remember ‘em? Way I see it, there’s: how it happened, how it didn’t happen, and the way it happened to you. Perspective makes things our own. I know you’ve got some tales to tell, Scotsman, and as long as you know ‘em, it don’t matter ‘bout no one else knowin’ ‘em.’

           ‘Cheers Hank.’ I looked out at the water once more, there was a change on the surface. Under the spotlight of the moon, I got up and strolled out into the surf. My recent history reeled its way through my mind. All the places, all the journeys, all the faces, all the music, all the mishaps, all the notions—fulfilled or other. I know that they happened, I was there.

            ‘This you being cleansed?’ Hank shouted, conquering the sound of the surf as it whooshed away from us.

            ‘No chance, there are sharks about,’ I fired back. The sea beneath me was retreating back into itself. Its attempt to take me with it was clear, but I held my ground. My feet were firmly in the sand as the evening and its stories were washing over me. Patience is a necessity for acceptance. Doomp. Doomp. Doomp. The boats in the bay began hitting the drained seabed. A new tale was beginning. There was no time to ponder if one day it would be shared. I turned to my older compadre, ‘Hank, we need to go.’

About the Author

James Ewen

James Ewen is an appreciator of many things, but at the top of his ziggurat lies the three Ts: traveling, tales, and tunes. Habitually, he seeks out these offerings from the world, and when this top-tier-trinity is unified, damn is his merriment infectious. He studied Film Production at Edinburgh College of Art and writes when time is kind to him.