art by Jonathan Westbrook
by Conor Powers-Smith
Sasha took what looked to be the third- or fourth-to-last sip of her Jack and Coke, still flirting with the idea of a second round. This was pure fantasy, she knew. After a shift and a half at the hospital, she was too tired to linger in the little roadside bar, neat and quiet though it was. And she didn't want her breath to get too boozy, in case the girls woke up when she snuck in for their belated goodnight kisses.
Someone--a man, she thought--slid onto the stool to her left. The bells over the door hadn't jingled, which meant the man hadn't just come in, but had probably been one of the anonymous heads turned away from her, toward the baseball game on the TV mounted above the far end of the bar; which in turn meant his change of position likely had something to do with her.
She kept her gaze casually but resolutely on the shelves of bottles behind the bar. She was definitely too tired for this.
Most men were perfectly capable of understanding signals, but some chose not to. Apparently this was one of those, because he said, "Hey, uh... can I buy you a drink?"
She turned, with a smile whose only message was its own purely polite nature. The man was extremely plain. She'd thought that adjective was reserved for women, but there was really no other word for him. He seemed unduly nervous, as if he were approaching some unattainable stunner, rather than a moderately attractive thirty-four-year-old single mother. He looked at least ten years younger than her.
"Thanks, no," she said.
"Something to eat?"
"No." She finished her drink in one quick gulp, not bothering to chew a couple of the half-melted chunks of ice that slid down the glass and clinked wetly against her upper lip. "Thanks."
"Then, listen. Let me tell you something about myself."
She smiled again. Would this be about his fabulous yacht? His adventures as a war hero? Or would he jump right to penis size?
"I can see the future," he said.
"Oh, God." She began gathering her coat and purse from the stool to her right.
"No, I can."
"Well, congratulations. Good night." She looked at him again, and stopped. He wasn't looking at her, but down at the bar. His hands were clenched. Had there been a hint of aggression in those tight little fists, she would've walked away without hesitation. But he wasn't trying to throttle whatever insubstantial presence his hands were closed around. He was trying to hold onto something: a rope that was unraveling by the second, or the last two handfuls of water on earth.
She sighed. Sometimes she was too nice for her own good. "Okay. Who's gonna win the Super Bowl?"
His head shot up. For a moment, he was too pathetically relieved to speak. Finally his mouth opened in a small, self-deprecating smile, and he said, "Couldn't tell you."
"Oh," Sasha said, feeling foolish for having indulged him.
"That's not for, like, six months."
"That's too far?"
"Way. I can only do five minutes."
She smiled back at him, waiting for the punch line. Apparently more was required from her, the straight man. She offered, "Five minutes, huh?"
"About. It's more like four minutes, forty-something seconds. Five minutes just sounds better."
"It's not as useful as you'd think. I mean, it's good for some stuff. You can do all right at the track with it, but... I don't know, those places are depressing."
"Yeah, that's true. I haven't tried it."
"You can see the future, and you haven't been to Vegas."
"I know. I went to Atlantic City one time. I'm from Jersey."
"Oh. What're you doing in Ohio?"
"Just driving around. Kinda... wandering. But, yeah, I felt like I had to try it, at least once. The casino gimmick. I did okay."
"Yeah, just okay." Now that he'd gotten the conversation he'd sought, the man seemed distracted; his eyes roamed the bar, paying special attention to the main door, and the side door that led out onto the deck. "Like I said, it's not as useful as you'd think. I tried it with poker, which was stupid. You never see everybody's hand, you know; it's not that big of an advantage. And then, most games--blackjack, roulette, all that--take less than five minutes. Per hand, or spin, or whatever. It's hard to time it out. I wouldn't want to make a living like that anyway. It seems like you should be able to do something better with it."
"You're gonna become a super hero?"
"Yeah. 'Five-Minute Man.' That doesn't sound too good, huh?"
"I did try to do something with it. I got a police scanner, and I looked ahead while I was listening to it. That's how it works: whatever I'm doing at the time--five minutes later, I mean--that's what I see when I look ahead."
"So, when something popped up on the scanner, I called it in. Five minutes ahead of time, you know? Well, four minutes forty-something."
"But it didn't really work. That stuff gets on the scanner because someone calls it in, and it doesn't get on right away. So I was really shaving off maybe a couple minutes. Calling in, say, two or three minutes before the call would've come in anyway. For most stuff, that's not gonna make a big difference."
"And then, they didn't like it, either."
"Yeah, the cops." As he explained, his eyes continued to move, rarely encountering Sasha's. She caught several clandestine glances at his watch. "They caller-ID all that stuff. A couple times I think they did get there in time to scare off whoever it was. You know, someone reports a guy trying to break into a house, and the cops get there, and, no guy. They're not big fans of that. It happens a few times from the same number, and they don't have a lot of patience for that.
"They swung by one day and explained all this. I didn't have the scanner out at the time, thank Christ. That really would've made me look like some kind of false-tip fetishist. But yeah, it turns out there're a number of very sensible laws about not making false police calls. State, federal, and local. I was strongly encouraged to, you know, not do that. So I stopped. Which is fine. The whole thing was pretty boring."
"Huh. Well, it was nice meeting you. I'm gonna hit the road."
As she'd thought, the man's full attention snapped back to her. "Wouldn't you wanna stay for, like," he glanced down at his watch again, not bothering to hide it this time, "just another minute or two?"