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  • Even Edward Hopper would have found Vic’s Alibi too depressing to paint. It wasn’t a place to chitchat among the ferns. Nobody gave a shit what your name was. No music trying in vain to plaster a happy face on the gloom. Vic’s served one and one purpose only: to get as drunk as quickly as possible and to stay that way as long as you could.

    I was nursing my sixth beer of the evening. I’d managed to sail through the Great Recession, only to get shipwrecked during the so-called recovery. I lost my business, my self-respect and my wife. I kept the flatulent dog. Maybe you think I’m a coward for seeking forgetfulness from a tap. I could care less what you think, unless you’re buying.

    “Cold out there, isn’t it?”

    The tall man in the plaid flannel shirt and the coveralls settled into the stool next to mine. We regulars at Vic’s don’t stand much on ceremony, but we do have one inviolable rule: leave your fellow drinkers in peace.

    “Man, I can hardly feel my fingers!”

    Of all the gin joints in all the towns of the world, Paul Bunyan walks into mine.

    Vic’s Alibi will never be a model for anyone’s clean, well-lighted place, but I could make out the stranger’s features well enough to see that he had one of the most guileless, open faces I’d ever cast eyes on. He beckoned to Izzy, the surly barkeep, with a bashful smile and ordered a round of beers for the both of us. Imported stuff, no less, not the hazardous waste I usually swill.

    His gesture called for a human response, so I reluctantly thrust out a hand. “Will Klapper.”

    “Nice to meet you, Will.”

    “No, you’re supposed to say, ‘Klapper, that name rings a bell’ and I pretend that that’s the first time I ever heard the joke.”

    “What line of work are you in, Will?” The bashful smile refused to leave his face.

    “Don’t have one. Not anymore. You?”

    “I’m not supposed to say.”

    “Good. I don’t want to hear.”

    “Oh, all right, but you have to keep this to yourself. Promise?”

    I drained my beer and grunted what could have been taken for assent.

    “I’m a Civil War pre-enactor,” the stranger said.

    “You mean one of those weird guys who dresses up in Civil War uniforms and fights old battles? One of those?”

    “No, those are re-enactors. I’m a PRE-enactor.”

    “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

    “Let me pose a hypothetical situation to you, Will. Suppose you could go back in time and visit people who played a major part in causing the war to happen. I’m not talking about Abraham Lincoln or Robert E. Lee. They were merely puppets. The real movers and shakers were not even aware of their roles, but their actions made the war inevitable.”

    “What’s the point of looking them up? Could you change the course of history if you interfered?”

    “Oh, yes!” he said with vast enthusiasm. I ordered a couple of beers for us. Not the imported stuff.

    “Shame you can’t do it.”

    “Do what?”

    “Go back in time.” I was tiring of the game. “Look, mac, who the hell are you really? And what really brings you to a dive like Vic’s.”

    “You, Will. I came here because of you.”

    “I got a news flash for you, pal. The Civil War ended over a hundred years ago.”

    “The first one did, yes.”

    “Did I sleep through the second one? Gee, I really must cut down on my drinking.”

    “I’m being perfectly serious, Will. I don’t expect you to believe me, but I’ve come here from your future to see you.”

    “Let me get this straight. You’re saying I had something to do with the next Civil War? Me? I’m a washed up, bitter drunk. A nobody. Not even my dog respects me. The only influence I have anywhere is with the brewers of America and that's only because I buy in such volume.”

    “All very true. Nonetheless, you will cause a terrible war to break out in five years unless I can stop you.”

    “Jesus, you’re not gonna shoot me or anything, are you?”

    He laughed, and for the first time I detected a hint of sadness in him. “That won’t be necessary. Pre-enactors aren’t allowed to commit violence. We can only offer counsel.”

    “Look, whatever your name is, I’ve been holed up in this dump for almost two years. I don’t hurt anybody, I don’t help anybody, I just live my life. And that’s what I intend to keep doing for the next five years, ten years or whenever they carry me out of here feet first. Save your advice, OK. Go pre-enact somewhere else.”

    The big, tall stranger stood up and tossed some money on the bar. Maybe it was my buzz, but it sure seemed like he’d grown even taller, and he was no longer smiling.

    “Life continually offers us choices, Will. Choosing to do nothing is still a choice. Perhaps that choice is the one that leads to a terrible tragedy. Or maybe you'll change everything by choosing to move to Santa Fe in the spring. Your country is heading in a very dark direction and there will indeed be a major conflict in five years’ time. You can prevent that from happening. What will your choice be?”

    It was none of his damn business, of course, but I blurted out my decision. He smiled. I went back to my beer. The next time I looked up, the pre-enactor and his flannel shirt were gone.

    “’Nuther one, Will?”

    “No, Izzy. Bring me my tab. I’m done for the night.”

    I idly glanced at the tip the stranger had left behind. Two five-dollar bills, and two quarters. And a large coin I’d never seen before. A man in profile wearing something like a laurel wreath on his head and above him were written the words “The Peacemaker,” and I swear to God that that man was me, William G. Klapper. I swear to God.

    I left Vic's Alibi and I've never looked back since.



    Image: Nighthawks by Edward Hopper
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