Careless by Mia Dalia


“You know what I hate?” says the man next to me. I don’t know and, more importantly, I don’t care. I came here to get away from it all. This looked like the kind of place to provide a temporary refuge – blandly anonymous, unimaginatively named after the owner, inoffensive enough and cheap enough to survive whatever changes the neighborhood around it goes through and still get enough clientele to stay in the black…if just. Not quite a dive, not enough personality to pass. Weathered dark paneling, jukebox old enough to buy its own drinks, domestics on tap, cheap shots, and people keeping to themselves. Or so I thought.

The guy next to me slurs his speech. Not a lot, just enough to let me know this isn’t his first drink. Or his second one. There’s a certain glaze to his expression – self-pity soaked in gin.

Of all the gin joints in the world, buddy…

“Careless people,” he continues, not waiting for me to participate. “I hate careless people. My wife, she was a careless woman. My ex-wife, shit,” he corrects himself, then takes a long drink. Broke things left and right, she did. Thing around the house. Window blinds, shelves, appliances. Things you wouldn’t even think one can break. Hell, she broke a plunger once. Now you tell me how in the world do you do that? I mean, it’s a foolproof design – a wooden stick and a rubber suction cup. Indestructible, right? Wrong. Shoulda known then…”

The man shakes his head and finishes his drink. Well, one of the two in front of him. Something like disgust and bitterness twist his otherwise plain, well-worn features into an ugly mask. He’s got a meaty face with small deep-set eyes, thinning colorless hair, and pale eyebrows. It looks like his shaving kit has had a rest the last few days. His clothes are clean but rumpled. This is someone you’d ever look twice at in a crowd.

“So, it was only a matter of time until she broke my heart, you know. The writing was on the wall. I was just too stupid to read it.”

I don’t like to be rude deliberately, but then again, I don’t care that much one way or another. I take a look around the bar – it’s quiet. Can’t imagine this place ever being busy. There’s a couple playing pool in the corner – the billiard table’s worn baize groans but allows it. The jukebox is silent. Few people in corner booths. Nothing’s doing. The bartender’s in the corner studying the sports section of the newspaper. He looks like the betting type. Not the winning type, mind you, just the betting type. He glances up every so often to make sure all’s in order in his world then goes back to his paper. He isn’t coming around to save me from the chatterbox to my left.

“Careless people,” the guy next to me grumbles again. “They take and they take and they break and they break and they don’t care.”

“Gatsby,” I nod.

My literary reference sails right over his head. I can practically see its trajectory – it lands somewhere on the scrubbed but still sticky floor a few feet away.

“Now she got my money. My house. Hell, she even got my dog. Who does that? Who takes the man’s dog? I tell ya, that was pure spite.” He shakes his head again, ruefully. “And you know what gets to me? The thing I can’t let go of? We were married. I mean, we were in love and everything. We took vows. Went to Hawaii for our honeymoon. Built a life together. Sometimes it seems like we went from then to now in a blink of an eye with nothing in between. How does that happen? I loved her, man. I still love her.”

Oh no, I think. This is worse than a self-pitying chatty drunk, so much worse. This guy is a romantic. He’ll never shut up.

I should leave. But I haven’t even finished my drink. I’m a sipper, I take my time. Not like I got anywhere to go either. If home’s where the heart is, as they say…well, that makes me homeless. You don’t want to know where my heart is. I do and I’ve been trying to forget about it for a long, long time. But I do have a place to go at night. A drab box of an apartment in a building with low ceilings and lower morale. That’s city living for you.

One of my windows overlooks a busy metropolitan promenade, the other a garbage alley out back. The way I see it it’s trash on both sides. Just different varieties of trash.

I don’t care. This is all temporary. Another one in a chain of interchangeable circumstances and presets. One day, this place will be just a smudged receding image in my rear-view mirror.

Not for this guy, though, oh no. The guy next to me is a lifer, you can tell. Not ever getting out of here.

Bitterness and self-pity are their own kind of amber, they paralyze and preserve. Or maybe quicksand is a better metaphor. Either way, he’ll continue spiraling into his own hell and I don’t need to bear witness to his descent. Not tonight. This episode of barroom confessional better be coming to a close.

“You ever been in love?” He drawl-slurs at me.

I turn in his direction and level my gaze at him. If eyes are the windows to people’s souls, just for a moment ours speak. He shivers involuntarily. I get that a lot.

“Shiiiit,” he says, looking away. “You done more than that. Bet you seen some things, right? You a cop? Army?”

I shrug noncommittally, allowing him to write his own narrative for me.

He downs his second drink and gestures for more. Still wearing his wedding ring, I notice. Pathetic. The gold band is cutting into his fat finger.

“You ever kill anybody?” he asks me.

“Now why would you want to know that?”

“Don’t know. Guess it’s come to mind a few times lately. My wife, ex-wife, she’s been carrying on with a guy ten years younger, her gym trainer. How cliché is that? All I think of at night when I can’t sleep is them lying in myhouse, in my bed, screwing and laughing at me.”

“So, you think you’d feel better if you killed them?” Well, this is getting interesting.

The man shrugs. “Can’t be worse.”

I take a slow sip and consider the situation. All I wanted to do was to have a quiet drink, unwind, get away from work. But work just keeps on finding me.

“You have killed, haven’t you?” The man says. There’s a greedy shine in his small eyes now. Like he’s onto something prurient, some dirty little secret.

I spare him another noncommittal shrug. I’m good at those.

I don’t need to look at him – I let our reflections do the talking. There’s always a mirror behind the bar in places like this.

“What does it feel like?” he wants to know.

I consider my answer, then tell him exactly what he needs to hear.

“Good,” I say, “it feels good. And then it feels like nothing at all.”


“Yeah, it just becomes another thing you did. You move on. The world moves on. End of story.”

This is boggling his gin-addled mind, I can tell. “What about guilt? What about consequences?”

“Guilt is something you can let in or shut out. Consequences are only if you’re stupid about things.”

“Well, I ain’t stupid,” he grumbles into his drink.

I don’t agree but don’t argue either. As they say in customer service training…pick your battles.

“You figure people end up in hell for murder?”

Now there’s a loaded question. Funny how people tend to find religion in trenches and quiet desperate hours of the night.

“What’s your idea of hell?” I ask him. “Lost love? Lost life? Sleepless nights? Cheap booze and comfort of strangers?”

He gets it, I think. He nods like he does. His lank hair falls into his eyes and he pushes it back with one meaty hairy-knuckled paw. The sigh he lets out is mournful, deep enough to echo. Someone really should feed that jukebox – this place is too quiet.

Then we start talking details. I let him do most of the talking; it’s easier that way. The bartender brings him another drink, then retreats to his corner and never looks up at us once. Guess the numbers in the paper didn’t tell him what he wanted to hear.

Eventually, the man finishes his last drink. Still sober enough to walk, long past the time of sound judgment, he gets up from the barstool. The cheap vinyl upholstery squeals in relief.

“I’m glad I ran into you,” he tells me with drunken bonhomie.

I don’t like to lie when I don’t have to – a surprising trait for someone like me – so I say nothing. I make sure he can’t see my eyes; he wouldn’t like what he’d find there. My reflection shows the flames beneath my hooded lids, and I blink it away.

Maybe tomorrow I’ll read about this guy in the papers. Maybe he’ll go home and sleep it off and forget this conversation. Sometimes it’s a sure thing and sometimes it’s a gamble. I didn’t push it this time. Didn’t care enough. It was, after all, supposed to be my night off.

What’s one, two, or even three souls in the grand scheme of things? Mine is a slow business. Slow and steady, as they say. Oh well, I got time.


Mia Dalia is an author, a lifelong reader, and a longtime reviewer of all things fantastic, scary and strange. Her short fiction has been published by Night Terror Novels, 50 word stories, and Flash Fiction Magazine. She’d like to give you nightmares…the fun kind. Reviews, essays, and thoughts can be found at

Published 8/25/22