A short story by Mr. Substitute

The date was going well mostly because the conversation was enticing for both parties. They met, as so many nowadays do, on a dating app, hit it off via texting and the chemistry clearly continued as they sat in an intimate restaurant outlooking the Santa Cruz cliffs. Justin was a 25 year-old grad student, studying at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, transplanted from San Jose; Angie was also a 25 year-old grad student, studying linguistics and training to be a speech pathologist. This being their second date, the familiarities were forgone and, both being conversationalists, engaged in a flirtatious tête-à-tête. It was here that Angie asked Justin a question that sparked a memory so vivid for Justin that his eyes glazed over in recollection far longer than he noticed.

    “What’s one of the strangest things you’ve ever seen before?”


    It really wasn’t too long ago, I was starting my first residency at the MBARI and I remember everyone was excited because of some new discoveries down in the Gulf of Mexico. Basically, they did a geothermal scan of the area right at the tip of Baja and east to Sinaloa known as the Alarcon Rise and found… well they found an underwater volcano. Big stuff. They thought they only existed in Iceland and I believe the Galapagos Islands… Doesn’t matter–point is we had to get down to Mexico as soon as possible to deploy our sonar-mapping drone to see what we were working with. I think I was there for three days in Moss Landing before I had to pack all my things up again and was on a boat to Mazatlán. Hated the trip–threw up like four times, swore it wasn’t from seasickness but it probably was, anyways, that’s not the point. We stayed there for 3 months and after we were done working, we were ultimately on our own to do as we pleased. 

    So one night when I first got there, I wanted to go out for a drink and had no idea who to ask so of course I turned to Google and find this place called Fredy’s Bar (spelled like F-R-E-D-Y) and I’m not sure if it was the crappy hotel Wi-Fi or what but pictures weren’t loading so I couldn’t see what it looked like, but it was close to where we were staying and had a few good reviews. I got an Uber over and it was an absolute dive bar.

    I remember there were a lot of neon signs of basically every major beer company that existed. There was a small TV in the bar’s corner playing boxing that looked like it aired some 20 years ago. I looked around and saw maybe 5 or 6 people there, only one table with two people, everyone else was ultimately by themselves which I thought was a little weird. Other than that, it looked like any other dive bar in San Jose so I went up to the bartender who immediately identified me as an American and almost fell over making his way down to me from the end of the bar. Growing up in San Jose, going to high school at San Jose High, you had to know the basics just to get by. This bartender–his name was Carlos–and I struggled enough to speak each other’s language that I was able to order a local beer because I’m into those sorts of things. I got my beer and opened a tab and found the last remaining table. I remembered as soon as I sat down that I didn’t have any signal so I asked him if they had any Wi-Fi and I remember I asked “Tengo Wi-fi?” and he chuckled and said “No se!” but then pointed to the sign with the Wi-Fi password.

Justin looked at Angie after a pause, “I’m sorry if I’m talking too much.”

    “No, I’m enjoying it.”

The waiter circled by a seventh time.

Ok so now to the strangest thing I’ve seen I feel like ever. I remember because I was sitting at my table playing this game on my phone and my phone ended up getting very low on battery and I knew I needed it for an Uber back to the hotel, so I turned it off and was forced to [he exaggerated a gulp] exist in a social setting without my phone. I think I was on my second beer and I started noticing everyone around me wasn’t on their phones either, some watching the boxing on the small TV, the two men in the corner quietly having a conversation, and I guess everyone else was just minding their own business and listening to the faint radio playing banda music.

Then out of nowhere this guy opened the door with a bang and it scared the crap out of me but somehow didn’t bother anyone else. In walks this guy in dirty jeans, t-shirt and his cowboy hat almost falling over. He headed straight to the bartender who was drying glasses on the other side of the bar. And I don’t know exactly everything that was said but the guy seemed really upset. I heard something about he “pagué ayer por adelantado” which the bartender just nodded and kind of gave him one of those comfort pats and said “Si, carnal.” Carlos poured him a small glass of something and he immediately drank that and asked for a beer.

This guy drank fast, I remember that. The whole time you could hear him talking to himself and sniffling. It became apparent that he was upset about something and his drinking had a very specific purpose. I overheard the men in the corner whisper “Esta dolido… no mames.” Carlos could hear the poor guy get more vocal and he turned the radio up. The horns of the banda drowned him out for a couple of drinks, then it was turned up again.

By this time, the man had tears coming down his face and it was almost this open weeping. And I’m looking around at everyone and not a single person is phased. Carlos kept drying glasses and taking inventory, the gentlemen in the corner continued their conversation and the boxing matches continued on the small TV. And then this one song came on on the radio and this guy shot upright and reached over the bar for the radio and turned it all the way up. This guy belts out every lyric of this banda song. Something about a drunk in love, or drunk love, I wasn’t too sure. I looked over at Carlos who looked back at me and gave me a slight shake of the head that signified, “It’s all good, but don’t interfere” and he went about his business. And again, not a single person in there is phased! At this point I’m looking around at everyone, trying to make eye contact with anyone to see if we are experiencing the same thing, yet the only person who I looked at just gave a small shrug and drank his beer.

When the song got to the chorus, my God, this man was screaming. His face was purple as he belts out “Me voy bebiendo tu recuerdo!” and he’s pointing at the corner screaming “TU FANTASMA EN UN RINCON!” and I’m looking over at where he’s pointing thinking “What the fuck is he pointing at?” He sang every goddamn lyric to that song like he wrote them himself, like it cost him blood to sing and he was ok with that. 

And no one said a single thing. Other than the comment from the men in the corner, not a single soul had acknowledged what this man was doing. That song felt longer than Freebird because he kept screaming out the song from his soul, pointing to his chest and raising his bottle, rocking back and forth to the tuba.

Then the song ended. He just stood there staring at the corner with that drunk sway, panting and sweating. Carlos turned the radio down just a bit then went back to occupying himself. The men in the corner got up from the table, paid and left. Someone just got knocked out in the boxing match. And that poor man just stood there, tears coming down his face even though he wasn’t frowning, and he put his empty bottle on the bar and just walked right out without paying.

I must have had my mouth open when I looked at Carlos who then looked at me and looked quizzically at me and asked “Que pasa? Uno mas beer?”

I was so confused. And the worst part about it was I didn’t know how to ask what the hell happened. I didn’t think anyone would know even if I did ask. But I finished my beer and closed my tab by that time the Uber had arrived. I just remembered going to bed entirely confused. I figured he was grieving something, but to just break down like that in a bar, and have no one say anything as if they were familiar with it, that’s what I found so strange. That poor man.


    The waiter rounded their table and said with a touch of annoyance “Just wanted to let you know the bar is closing up, if you want to make any last call drink orders.”

“El Pesar” written by Mr. Substitute is the debut of story stories and other creative writing on Music Shelf with Mustard.


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