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by Matthew Licht

A man with a gray ponytail down his back and a gold hoop in his ear downed rum as though he never did anything else. Maybe he didn’t do anything else now, but he looked like he’d once done many other things.

He felt the stare. “You’re about to say I look familiar,” he said. “A lot of people think they recognize me, especially in places like this, but then they can’t remember where they’ve seen me before. The truth is they don’t want to admit it, not even to themselves. That’s what you’re thinking, isn’t it.”

“Are you the devil?” I knew I’d run into him someday, and the Perfume River bar was as good a place as any.

“Some people think so. They read my book, and saw my picture on the back cover. They knew they’d have been better off if they hadn’t read it, but they did anyway. And then they look at me like you’re doing right now.”

I tried to look away.

“What’re you drinking?” he said. “Have another, on me.”

Drunks, and that’s what the man with the ponytail and the earring and the loud shirt seemed to be, want you to be drunk too. That was better avoided. I asked for a beer, and tried harder to place him. He said he wrote a book. A picture of J.D. Salinger appeared, snapped before success drove him insane.

“Wrong,” he said, and downed another tumbler of brown fluid.

He could read thoughts. The barroom felt hot.

He smiled and nodded. “That’s right.”

But I’d only leafed through that book in nightmares. Maybe I dribbled beer.

“What do you want?” I asked him.

He was amused. “What makes you think you’ve got anything to offer? C’mon. Drink up.”

Matthew Licht writes the weekly bilingual Hotel Kranepool column for Stanza 251.