Richard Charles Darling had been sitting on his favorite barstool for an hour now. The bartenders knew him, the owner knew him, and the tired patrons looking for a place to unwind knew him all too well. He didn’t shut up.
“One day you’re all gonna wake up,” he slurred. “WAKE UP!” He rapped his knuckles on the desk, which caught the attention of the only bartender, a dirty blonde college student named Catalina. The bar was seldom full, and this evening was no different, so Darling’s voice seemed to echo against the old rafters. Catalina, in her usual cut-off tie-dye shirt, approached the drunken man.
“You know Charlie, sometimes I feel like we oughta rename this joint ‘Charlie’s Saloon’. ‘Cause you sure seem to think you’re the only one who’s ever in it.”
Charlie gave a long exhale and scratched at the sparse scruff of beard on his cheek. “I might as well be the only one in it. Lord knows nobody in here ever hears me. No one LISTENS”. As he shouted he shifted away on his stool as if to address the rest of the bar. Only two booths behind him were occupied. He turned back to the bartender. “I’ve got a PhD in bioengineering, Cat. I worked for TEN YEARS with the base in Seneca. Slaved away, and for what? They never told me. I asked. They never told me. I asked—” Catalina rolled her eyes at the story she’d heard over and over again.
“—they NEVER told me. I asked again, they fired me! They’ve got something to hide, Cat, and it’s got teeth. It’s the zebra mussels, man!”
At this final exclamation, the “Employee’s Only” door behind the bar swung open, and a man about Charlie’s age stepped out. He motioned Cat away and took a seat on the barstool beside Richard Charles Darling. Cat made herself busy wiping down the counter. Usually when things got too rowdy, Harley would come out of the office and spare Cat the gritty work of breaking up bar fights. On nights like this, however, the gruff and sturdy owner was the only person who could settle Dr. Darling. His arrival was also one of the only indications to Charlie that he was being too loud again. Turning towards Charlie, the lumbering bar owner spoke, his breath perfumed with cigarettes as usual. “Are we shouting about the lake clams again?”
Charlie squinted as though Harley had just said something offensive. “They’re mussels, not clams. They cling to strata with byssus fibers, for godsake. When was the last time—” he belched “—you saw a clam secrete byssus? I’m not talkin’ your average bivalve, Har.”
Given Harley’s lumberjack stature, he rarely had to raise his voice to command order. Charlie was one of the only people that could test that resolve; it was his insistency of impending doom that really put a damper on the business. Still, Harley composed himself. “You remember when we were growing up, how we’d pretend we were flyfishing and cast our rods from the water, instead of on the dock? And your poor mother was patching your feet up day in and day out ‘cause you’d just never wear shoes. I’ll bet you’ve stepped on more zebra mussels in your lifetime than anyone else.” Charlie was already beginning to shake his head. Harley continued. “You’re still here. So can we stop all this nonsense about the mussels trying to kill everybody?”
Charlie barely let his friend finish his sentence, whisper-shouting in a failed attempt to match Harley’s tone. “No, see, you’ve got it all wrong! It’s the base, they’re altering the zebra mussels, they’ve got a strain more dangerous than you can imagine. These things won’t just give you a slice, they’ll spread infection, and it’ll be the GOVERNMENT’S FAULT when they’re released and infect us all”. At this point, the few patrons in the bar were staring daggers in Charlie’s direction. Only Harley noticed. He leaned in closer to his friend.
“I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”