Gus sat at the bar and nursed his drink, a cheap local whiskey too cheap to be spelled properly. A ton of ice made it last but did nothing for the taste.
Holt greeted Gus by punching him in the kidney.
Gus grunted then slowly turned around, Holt extended his hand and Gus took it. Holt's palms were still moist from the toilet. Holt took the barstool next to Gus and pretended to examine the bottles on offer. When the bartender looked up he ordered what he always ordered. Aurorae Sinus No.8 Whisky.
Gus kept drinking until he decided he'd had enough of Holt. When Holt took his next bathroom break, Gus paid up with the bartender using small bills and broke for the door.
Outside, the weather was turning mean and Gus clutched his jacket to his chest. It was already too cold for a jacket but it was all he had until he got his coat back from the dry cleaners. Holt had been a better friend back when Gus hadn't noticed that Holt was a drunk. If Gus didn't watch himself, he'd end up like Holt. Gus didn't think in terms of alcoholics, he thought in terms of drunks. Drunks blamed themselves, he reasoned. Alcoholics blamed society. Gus decided this made drunks better than alcoholics.
Home was a bachelor flat at the edge of the right side of the city. At his age, with his means, it was mostly decent. He started feeling sad about leaving Holt once he'd ditched his useless jacket on the floor of his flat and poured himself a shot of 56% Pervatsch Vodka imported from Valles Marineris. His only friend in the world and he'd left him alone. If he was going to drink anyway he might as well drink with Holt. He took out his phone to call him and saw he had a message.
"You arrogant prick! Are you coming back?" wrote Holt.
"How about never, does that work?" said Gus to himself.
After a few more shots of Pervatsch, he felt sad again and decided to go back for Holt. He texted him to say Holt was an asshole and that he was coming back for him.
When he'd got there, Holt had already made a stink of himself. He had splurged on a whole bottle of vodka on ice. Something the bartender let him get away with on the theory it would quiet him down.
When Gus came over, Holt was all smiles.
"Gus! Buddy, you came back."
"Let's have another," said Holt, all misdeeds overwritten.
"Let's finish up at my place," lied Gus, anxious to get Holt out of there before they were thrown out. Despite the dubious kindness of the bartender, Holt was starting to act up. Gus knew Holt was only a quiet drunk for so long. In company, the meanness came up faster every time. The bouncer was eyeing them and Gus waved the bartender over. Gus reached into the coat pocket of an unresisting Holt and took out Holt's billfold. Settled up. Gus was really in it now, if he couldn't get Holt out in the next few minutes, Holt would have to be carried out. Gus wouldn't manage it.
The promise of imported over-proof vodka back at his place became the carrot. Gus and the bouncer under Holt's arms became the stick. Outside, the bouncer let go and Gus couldn't manage on his own. Holt slid very slowly to the pavement and lay there impervious and oblivious. Gus hailed cab after cab and finally one took pity on him and stopped. Making his apologies to the driver, Gus inserted Holt head first into the passenger seat and shoved himself in afterwards. Gave his address to the driver.
It was only when they were in the cab that Gus realised he could have just called for one. Drunk logic working in full reverse.
The taxi got them back to Gus' place. Things seemed manageable for awhile as they were getting out. Gus paid the driver from the billfold he had pocketed from Holt, who was in no state to be carrying cash but then Gus thought the end had come for both of them because, just as they left the taxi, Holt lunged at some pedestrians. A young couple. The girl was frightened but, Gus noticed, so was the boy. The boy backed off and reached for his phone to call, Gus assumed, the cops.
"No, please, he's harmless," lied Gus "he's just had too much to drink, we'll be out of your life momentarily."
When the threat had been neutralised, the boy found his courage.
"Better get that fat fuckwad out of here before I kick his ass."
Gus nodded. Making peaceful waving gestures with his hands up, palms facing forward.
Upstairs, Holt didn't bother with coat and shoes, he just made for the kitchen and took a long swig from the bottle of vodka he saw on the table. Gus didn't stop him, Gus had the habit of hiding his stash. He hoped that lone bottle would be enough and Holt would pass out soon. Drinking with Holt wasn't fun anymore. Holt started singing and Gus couldn't hush him without giving him more vodka so he fished another bottle out from the space between the fridge and the wall and handed it to Holt. Gus didn't want the neighbours to call the police again. It didn't take more than 20 minutes of belting that second bottle for Holt to simmer down. He sat on a chair in the kitchen for about a second then slid to the floor, became fully horizontal and then passed out. Gus didn't bother trying to get him to the couch.
Sometime around 4 in the morning, he heard Holt get up. Gus got off the couch and went to the kitchen. He turned on the lights. Holt was trying to take off his pants.
"Ah shit," said Gus. He helped the sleepwalking Holt to the toilet and left him there. Went back to the couch. Holt could stay on the crapper till morning as far as Gus cared.
Gus felt alright despite the hour, he hadn't had a drink since leaving his flat to go meet Holt. He relaxed into the couch cushions. Let sweet oblivion wrap him in her forgiving arms.
Fuck! Holt screamed. Gus jolted into light and wakefulness, the afternoon sun razoring through Gus' windows told him he'd missed work again and would have to call in sick, he might even now be unemployed, but he doubted it, there were no messages. Holt stumbled into the living room wearing a shirt, jacket, boots and no pants.
"I've been robbed! Chrissake!" Holt continued yelling. Gus looked at the empty billfold Holt was waving in one hand.
"Yeah, and you own me for drinks and the cab last night," said Gus.
"Ah shit man, I'm good for it, you know I am," said Holt, a whining puppy you couldn't kick.
Looking into Holt's shattered face, bloodshot, rheumy, gin blossomed, Gus realised all Holt's friends had left him, except for Gus himself, and Gus was useless.
Gus lent Holt some of Holt's own cash out of Gus's wallet. Saw Holt to his pants and then to the door. From his window he watched Holt get ignored by every taxi on the street. Eventually, Gus called a cab for him, a cheap line. Warned them they'd be picking up a drunk. At least he'd gotten Holt to put his pants back on before packing him off.
When the taxi had carried Holt away, Gus took the remaining bills he'd taken off Holt and hid them under the cutlery tray in the drawer. All hundreds, lined up nice and neat under the knives and the forks. Then he called his boss, explained what had happened, paid careful attention to the details so Holt would take the blame. His boss made him agree to make up the hours next Friday night. Gus agreed and hung up. He got restless, he took a hard look at his seedy kitchen as if for the first time. He took out his remaining bottles from their various hiding places and poured most of all of them down the sink without thinking about it. Leaving one shot in the bottom of each. There was no hope for either of them, thought Gus, they were useless. Gus started to clean up the kitchen but gave up after not even 8 minutes.
Gus took a look at his watch. He'd just been able to buy it back from the pawn shop before the deadline, he didn't know why he'd bothered. It's not as though he need it to tell the time. Tuesday had come round and again Gus was alone after work with nothing but a bottle to greet him when he got home. He hadn't called Holt, who he knew would also be spending Tuesday alone with a bottle. Gus had had enough, something had to change. His kitchen was a mess. He looked for a bottle but didn't try too hard. Maybe he should do something about the rest of the flat before he got raided by the local cops for negligence of homeowners duties, one thing about the city, he couldn't get how someone like him who lived a fairly slothful life was allowed to get away with it while guys like Joe downstairs got raided.
On his way downstairs to find some cigarettes he'd passed Joe's and heard the man talking to someone between crying fits. His jar collection must have been seized. 'No hoarders' was the not-so-secret motto of the city. You had to use it or it didn't stay yours. Gus figured, they might extend that to his flat since he mistreated it so badly, just slept there and made a mess. He figured they might even evict him someday. Gus tried unsuccessful to reassure himself, He kept a job and he kept to himself and had to slantwise hope that's why they left him in peace.
Holt surveyed his space, some new kind of architectural Speed buzzing in his brain. He had to be pleased with himself. He had actually done it. He had cleaned his whole flat. He had stayed away from the bottles and he hadn't called Gus who he had decided deserved to be alone since he hadn't had the intelligence to call Holt. He had taken his free day and spent it well. Maybe he would inform on Joe, that bastard should get evicted if anyone should. Holt turned away from the windows and the grey misty light outside, it never rained on Wednesday, so the song went. It was a song about the city, where rain was a programmed event, not a random act of a cruel and loving god.
He made another sweep with his broom and then tied up all the garbage and carried it down the stairs to the bins. He would not be stepping into Thursday with clutter or mess. He looked at the stained walls and felt ashamed. Maybe he'd get started on painting before the end of the week. He didn't know. He looked hard at himself and realised his flat might be clean but he was still a mess. Gus may be rough but he was the only friend Holt had. There had to be some way of getting him to clean up. Speed wouldn't help, Gus never touched the stuff. Why had they ever become friends in the first place? Holt knew why, it was the drink. The worst excuse for a friendship he'd ever made. He felt like a cliché. He hoped Thursday would be a clean one, but he always said so?
Gus was still asleep when the smell hit his nostrils. He opened his eyes but shut them again. Dust, vomit, something or someone had left a big shit on the rug. His field of vision was narrow but he saw Holt's boot peeking out from the kitchen floor. Toes pointing skyward. Let him deal with the shit, thought Gus. Holt probably did it himself. Gus was sure it wasn't him this time. His eyes slapped shut on grit.
Holt picked himself off the kitchen floor and got the kettle going. He poured it full of brown tap water and while the electric coils of the kettle boiled up the stuff, he scraped around under the dishes piled in the sink until he found a mug clean enough he thought he could wash it. There was no soap in the kitchen but Holt found shampoo and body gel in the bathroom, he used the gel to wash the mug . When he got back to the kitchen the water had boiled and he opened the instant coffee jar on the counter. The stuff was caked and smelled sour. Holt fixed it. He took a knife from the cutlery drawer and chiseled two tablespoon sized chunks into his mug and then added about seven spoons-worth of sugar which was moist but somehow not crusty like the coffee. He was about to take a sip when he stopped, looked inside the cutlery drawer again. There, just peeking out from under the cutlery tray, was a small neat pile of hundreds. Holt put down the mug, his fingers trembled. He took a small plastic sleeve out of his pants pocket in a practiced motion and took a snort of Olympus. Clarity shattered to the floor of his skull. It was hard to hold onto things on the mornings after a bender. He noticed he hadn't taken his eyes off the hundreds, thought about it once more and then reached down with twitching fingers and peeled off the top few bills. He took the undrunk mug into the living room where he found Gus half on, half off, Gus' couch.
"Here, I made you coffee."
"Mnpf, great," said Gus from the vantage of the floor. he rolled all the way onto the floor and then picked himself up into a sitting position with his back against the seat cushions. He took the proffered coffee and let his eyes rest again while he took a sip of the sludge Holt had made.
"this tastes like shit," said Gus.
"Your couch looks like shit," said Holt.
"You shit on the rug," said Gus.
"Don't drink it then," Holt walked back to the kitchen, a marionette on taut strings, making a point to go round the shit. Gus drank. When Holt wasn't looking he added some vodka from the bottle he'd hidden last night behind the cushions. He could hear Holt in the kitchen doing what sounded to Gus like cleaning. Gus didn't really want to get started but if Holt could muster the end-game energy to do the kitchen after last night then Gus could too. First, he'd have to cut 'em off at the pass: he was still drunk enough not to feel the full force of his head splitting psycho fucker migraine. But it was slowly coming, like an axe murderer with a spoon. He went to his medicine cabinet which he kept in his bedroom closet and took one tablet of Aspirin, it would kill his stomach but if he could keep it down, he'd have another in an hour. He chased it with sludge and vodka then he went to the kitchen and helped it along with some flat cola he'd left in the bathroom the night before. It tasted vile. He refilled the can with tap water from the sink and hoped for the best. Gus took a hard look at his bathroom, dirt, grime, dust, stains, scale on the shower tiles that belonged on a lizard's back, Rings of Saturn around the tub, the rusted drain an angry red storm. There were piles of old musty clothes, no way to tell if clean or dying. No, he couldn't start here. Gus listened to Holt cleaning away in the kitchen. This wouldn't do. He stripped off his clothes and got into the ruined tub in his socks. Later he'd dry them on the radiator so he'd have some dry socks that had at least technically been washed recently. The trickle of water from the limed up shower head alternately froze him and boiled him. He turned the tap left and right to help this freezing and boiling along. His old roommate in college had called it a 'Swedish Sauna.' Gus had no idea how Swedish it was but, as a hangover remedy, it was the second leg of his patented method.
Holt reached into his pocket for the phone that wasn't there. Gus had warned him that taking his phone was a bad idea. Holt was used to his friends condescension. His hand touched the bill fold in his pocket with the neatly creased hundreds. He could buy himself a new phone, he thought to himself. First he needed a drink. The Bent Jar was open early but it was all the way downtown. He decided a little taste would be enough. He popped into the nearest off license corner store he saw and ordered a pocket flask of Amazonis Planitia Rum. No back alley for Holt, no sir. He took the little plastic bottle into a Starbucks and ordered a large black coffee 'Americano' with almond syrup. Sitting in the rough corner where all the armchairs pile up by the late afternoon, he took half the coffee and poured it down the liquid disposal. He then filled the now half empty coffee cup with the rum and considered himself an optimist.
Gus worked to make money, it wasn't his passion, he just did it so he could eat. It was a back office job working with documents and keeping an index. To call him an archivist would be to insult archivists. A proper archivist is a decent person who likes order and winds up in archiving largely by accident and magnetic attraction. Whenever this sort of person gets into an office, things start working better, things are no longer lost, there is a place for everything and everything is in its place. The first archivist at a firm makes it so that everyone who has felt the order they trail behind them like a comet tail get used to having things that way and when such people leave, one of the higher ups ensures that, while there was never an archivist there previously, there will be one from then on. Gus was the last in that line, in a medical administrators company that handled records for many hospitals. It suited him because as long as his hours added up and so long as the documents were available when they were needed, Gus could show up any time he wanted and so he did. The weekend started tonight. Gus cleaned himself up and shaved and took out his work clothes. However ruined his wardrobe got, he made sure one outfit was always dry and clean. He ironed them up, he polished his office shoes and put them in a bag. His lunch was a meagre thing. Two sandwiches with the fatty greasy salami he bought when it went on sale. It always went on sale. Nothing he knew, except perhaps Holt, could sweat like that salami. At the door of his flat he looked himself over and passed the lint brush over his coat. Turning to look once more at the mess inside, he noted with pride that no one would imagine he lived the way he did if they saw him on the street. He had clean pants, a white collared shirt, a simple tie, lucky for him they didn't see the process, thought Gus. He wore sport boots to work, it was a rainy mess out there. What sort of evil bastard had decided to put a city here? Gus was glad for the coat. He had it back from the dry cleaners only yesterday and it was a welcome return to warmth. That jacket he'd taken to wearing was simply not up to scratch for Octember. He steamed up his working glasses when he entered his office building through the revolving doors. He put down his lunch to wipe them. Sandwiches flew, kicked across the foyer by a jerk in a hurry. Apologies were yelled and then silenced by the closing of elevator doors. Gus crossed the hall and collected his lunch from the far wall himself. Crowds rushed on, Guards looked on. Gus felt his cheeks burn under the Octember frost left over from the cold wet morning. He brushed the muck off the bag with his gloved hands but only succeeded in mucking up his gloves. Sighing, he stuffed the plastic wrapped sandwiches into his coat pockets and tossed the ruined bag into the nearest bin. Upstairs he greeted the receptionist and retreated to his lair, the archive. Behind its fireproof and bombproof doors (the office used to be a consulate) he sat down at his desk, an antique made of solid steel and changed his shoes before getting up to hang his coat. Nobody went back here. Gus sighed, maybe next week would be better.THE END