“Bro, you’re drinking all my Voov!” he shouts.
My eyes go wide in mock hurt. I bring a hand to my chest, put it over my heart, frown in that way that says, “I’m not angry, but I am disappointed.” “Bro,” I tell the kid. “I thought it was a gift.”
“You said you wanted a hit, not the fucking bottle!”
The hurt disappears, is replaced by bright eyes and a wide grin. “Oh, I’m sorry, man. I looked at you boys and thought you could drink. I didn’t realize you thought a hit meant, ‘Dab my lips with it like I’m trying on Mommy’s lipstick for the first time.’”
The kid’s eyes go wide with surprise then flash with anger. Someone in my circle chuckles. His friends look confused, frightened. What’s going on? How could this be happening? They are, collectively, the man. They are young and invincible and the world will never take advantage of them. How is it that this motley crew of sweaty disheveled beasts before them could have taken their bottle of overpriced sparkling wine and then had the gall to insult them on top of them? Such grotesque injustice demanded a response, and the kid plumbed the depths of his wit and cunning to produce cunning repartee. “The fuck you’d say to me?”
“I said you wear your mother’s lipstick. I said you can’t drink. My actions are implying that you and your friends are a couple of punks without the strength of intelligence or character to stand up to my shitty behavior.”
“I’ll fucking knock you out, old man.”
Old man. That actually stings. The kid and his friends can’t be more than ten years younger than me. Probably even less than that. Old man. Goddamn.
There’s a special procedure to follow when you’re dealing with people who resort to threats of violence when confronted with adversity. There’s always the danger that they’ll make good on such threats, but the fact of the matter is that they probably won’t. If they were truly violent, they would have simply attacked. When they puff up their chest and start talking about how they’ll kill you or fight you or kick your ass or any of a thousand other colorful expressions, what they’re actually doing is performing a ritual as old as our earliest multicellular ancestors. It’s intended to show how big and scary they are, how fit for mating, how genetically superior. If you ever bump into someone in a bar and their response is to begin screaming about how they know karate, how they used to be in a special forces military unit, how they’ve been to prison and that’s where they got the barbed wire tattoo around their bicep, don’t fall for it. This is the equivalent of a fly that’s evolved to look like a hornet, a caterpillar with just the right markings on its butt to suggest a snake’s head. They’re trying to look far more threatening then they actually are because they know that if push came to shove, a predator would devour them with only minimal effort. Don’t be afraid to bite them, for they almost certainly not poisonous.
What you need to watch out for are two other reactions. The quiet seether is the sort to stab you in the back when you least expect it over any slight, actual or imagined. There isn’t a direct animal kingdom equivalent. Holding that kind of grudge is a uniquely human trait, even if creatures like elephants were known to remember the crimes humans committed against them and smash down a house or two, even if crows could recognize the faces of humans who were especially cruel and callous and harass them from a safe distance.
The second type of reaction to watch out for is the equivalent of a brightly colored frog on a tree branch, a blue-ringed octopus resting peacefully on the ocean floor, a tiny little box jellyfish floating in the water. It’s a creature so deadly that it doesn’t need to make a show to defend itself, a human who doesn’t threaten or posture when a drunk at the bar gets mouthy. They simply sit and exist and if necessary, they kill.
I was at a bar once back on Earth where a particularly sloppy drunk was going at great length about how he’d just gotten back from a tour with the NAC-1 Marine Corps in one of the many wars in Halliburton’s Oil Country Experience and the world owed him for his heroism and his service. This particular gentleman looked about ten years too old to have been a frontline fighter, fifty pounds too fat to have been put in a position where others might have to depend on his athleticism to save their lives, and everyone there knew it. He tried to run this scam for about a week until one day a young man missing an eye asked him calmly where he’d served.
The guy was silent for a long time, his gaze blank and empty. “Gondwanaland,” he finally said.
“What province?” the young man asked.
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“What division? What regiment? What battalion? Company?”
“I don’t want to talk about it, man! You don’t know what it was like!”
The young man just pointed at his eyepatch. “Bet you I do.”
You can imagine where things went from here. A lot of shouting and a lot of calm speaking, a lot of defensiveness and surprisingly few accusations. Finally the young man tells the guy, “You’re the worst kind of liar,” and the guy’s just drunk enough to try and get violent to defend his non-existent honor.
The young man throws the drunk over his shoulder, slams his knee into the guy’s back, jerks his arm up, and breaks the guy’s hand. Calm as can be he stands up, apologizes to everyone for causing a scene, and walks out the bar never to return.
All eyes are on me as I’m standing there reminiscing instead of responding. It’s the kid speaking again that shakes me out of my thoughts. “Well” he asks. “What the fuck have you got to say for yourself?
I take a deep breath. I’m bluffing too, of course, but he doesn’t need to know that. “Look. Kid. You ever see someone break a man’s forearm and then kill him with his own fractured ulna?”
That was probably too high concept for my audience. The kid blinks stupidly. He reminds me of a confused puppy but infinitely less adorable and relatable. Confused slime mold, perhaps. Confused syphilis. Confused politician.
“Because I haven’t,” I say going on. I point my thumb over my shoulder at where Monk is standing. Monk, the shortest of us, the least obviously muscular, the most unassuming. “But he has. You know why? Because he’s done it.”
Monk sighs. The role comes so naturally to him. It’s something he’s pondered, studied, fantasized about, even. He probably actually knows how to do the move I described, at least in an academic sense. “Don’t do this, man. We’re on vacation. We’re here to have fun. You know I hate the paperwork.”
“So, what have I got to say? Nothing. Not a damn thing. If you’re looking for an apology, it’s not happening. If you think I’m going to beg for forgiveness, you’re wrong. You know why? Because there’s three of you and five of us. Because your Voov’s already gone and nothing’s bringing it back. Because we don’t have to do anything but let you throw the first punch, and I don’t think security’s going to take kindly to you starting a fight over booze.
“Actually, here. I’ll say this: walk away. Whatever you think you’re going to do, don’t. Just walk away. It isn’t worth it.”
The kid glares at me. His fists are balled up tight at his sides, but I can tell he doesn’t know what to do with them.
I raise his bottle to my lips and look him in the eye as I drink from it.
The tension leaves his body like a spring uncoiling, glass breaking, a thread fraying, a balloon deflating. “Whatever, man. Fuck you.” He starts walking away and his friends follow, casting glances over their shoulders that try to be tough but mostly look confused and uncertain. “If I see you again, I’ll kick your ass!” the kid shouts back at us.
I smile and wave as he goes, turn to face my friends when I’m convinced the kid isn’t going to decide to turn around and come back. My friends collectively release their breaths.
“Goddamn, man,” Erb says. “Already?”
I shrug, take another pull from the bottle. “I’m getting in the Christmas spirit.”
“It’s not Christmas.”
Another pull. “That’s okay. I’m not in the spirit.”
Erb rolls his eyes. I hold the bottle out, offering it to him. He stares at it for a moment, considers it, shrugs his shoulders and reaches for it.
Word Count: 13,417 (Okay, screw math. I’ll just write 20,000 words this weekend and be caught up. No biggie.)