An empty bar, possibly not even open, with a single table, no bigger than a small round table, but higher, the sort you lean against—there are no stools—while you stand and drink. If floorboards could speak these look like they could tell a tale or two, though the tales would turn out to be one and the same, ending with the same old lament (after a few drinks people think they can walk all over me), not just in terms of what happens here but in bars the world over. We are, in other words, already in a realm of universal truth. The barman comes in from the back—he’s wearing a white barman’s jacket—lights a cigarette and turns on the lights, two fluorescent tubes, one of which doesn’t work properly: it flickers. He looks at the flickering light. You can see him thinking, “That needs fixing,” which is not the same thing at all as “I’ll fix that today,” but which is very nearly the same as “It’ll never be fixed.” Daily life is full of these small repeated astonishments, hopes (that it might somehow have fixed itself overnight) and resignations (it hasn’t and it won’t). A tall man—a customer!—enters the bar, puts his knapsack under the table, the small round table you lean against while drinking. He’s tall but not young, balding, obviously not a terrorist, and there’s no way that his knapsack could contain a bomb, but this unremarkable action—putting a knapsack under the table in a bar—is not one that can now go unremarked, especially by someone who saw Stalker (on Sunday, February 8, 1981) shortly after seeing Battle of Algiers. He orders something from the barman. The fact that the barman’s jacket is white emphasizes how not terribly clean it is. Although it’s a jacket it also serves as a towel, possibly as a dishcloth, and maybe as a hankie too. The whole place looks like it could be dirty, but it’s too dingy to tell and the credits in yellow Russian letters—sci-fi Cyrillic—do not exactly clarify the situation.
It’s the kind of bar men meet in prior to a bank job that is destined to go horribly wrong, and the barman is the type to take no notice of anything that’s not his business and the more that things are not his business the better it is for him, even if it means that business is so slow as to be almost nonexistent. Far as he’s concerned, long as he’s here, minding his own business and wearing his grubby barman’s jacket, he’s doing his job, and if no one comes and no one wants anything and nothing needs doing (the wonky light can wait, as can most things) it’s all the same to him. Still smoking, he trudges over with a coffeepot (he’s one of those barmen who has the knack of imbuing the simplest task with grudge, making it feel like one of the labors of a minimum-wage Hercules), pours some coffee for the stranger, goes out back again and leaves him to it, to his coffee, to his sipping and waiting. Of that there can be no doubt: the stranger is definitely waiting for something or someone. Excerpted from Zona (Pantheon, 2012) with permission of the author.