Whether Real or Not

Though everything at that time in my life felt late, we had gotten there too early, before anyone really thought about ever getting to a bar like this, with its boarded up window in the front and a leaky roof in the backroom where the pool players go. Jimmy, the bartender, makes the drinks stiffer than I’d like most nights, especially when he’s had too much to drink himself. That night, I figured, was going to be one of those nights, as they say but never explain.

Cookie’s dealer wasn’t off his dishwashing shift for another thirty minutes he had told us, and so we sat at the bar talking to Jimmy. The walk over from the British pub a few blocks away left me sweating, stuck in the heat bank that Denver became then in summer, and so the backs of my thighs poking out from my shorts stuck quickly to the broken pleather of the barstool. Jimmy made us G&Ts that beaded condensation before our hands even touched the glass. A cool slick on my fingers that I rubbed under my legs for relief.

“How the hell’s it this hot out still?”

“’s only nine thirty,” Jimmy replied. “Night’s not even started yet. You all want shots?”

We thanked Jimmy for his overpours and took them in stride. I sucked down my gin, light tonic, to help the burn go down.

“Heya Scotty,” Jimmy said to the well kempt, ragged man, a denim shirt he pressed with his hands as he walked over towards us from the entrance, taking a seat next to Cookie.

“I only need my beer,” he told Jimmy.

“On me,” Cookie said.

Scotty nodded his thanks to Cookie, and waited in silence until Jimmy poured their glasses, clinking before shooting their whiskey.

“So Scotty, is it?”


“So what do ya do, Scotty?”

Cookie always did this with names. He did it with me the first time we met, the summer before. I hated it then. It distanced him from people, never truly learning his real name, only the pet name his girlfriend, Peg, had given him.

I hate that he did it then, to Scotty.

“Well,” Scotty gestured towards his bike and bag leaned against the wall next to the door, “ain’t much doing for me now. But I keep busy. A while ago, though, I did some time in prison.”

He smiled as he said it.

“No shit,” I muttered under my breath into the bleeding “sss” of his pronunciation.

Prison. To be holed up in the same place, days in and days out, regimented through until you’ve served the will of society, paid with what little of yourself was left to pay, and let go for being good, like a puppy from its crate. As if this was the only profession one could have. Something he nearly took pride in, and took shame in taking pride.

“Bet there’s some stories about that,” Cookie says.

“Wouldn’t you like to hear.”

“I would actually.”

“It’ll cost you.”

“I got money.”

“No, no, not money. Gimme some respect. I don’t want your money. You gotta tell me a story yourself. That’s the price”

“Tit for tat?”

“Just like that.”

“What kind of story?”

“What kind of story you wanna tell?” He took a big gulp of the beer Jimmy set before him, condensation rolling. “What kind of story you wanna hear?”

“Something that makes me scared of going to prison?”

“You’re not scared of going to prison,” I jumped in, hesitant.

My regret sunk in quickly, in front of Scotty. I wasn’t scared of him. I knew what it meant to rely upon containment as a form of reformation, of rehabilitation, and of failure. But still, somewhere in the guarded parts of me I hadn’t wished to unlock, afraid of what might show itself about me, there was the prescient fear of prison. Though I wasn’t scared of the Scotty in front of me, knowing him then for only a few minutes I could sense nothing but sincerity and longing in him. He opened himself immediately to us, as though he cared for us. I felt indebted to him.

I had believed, at that time in my life, that I was a good judge of character, of reading people. I still feel this way about Scotty, at least.

“I mean,” Cookie begins, “I don’t want to go, no offense, but I’m not scared of going.”

“Okay. So then you gotta tell me a story that no one else knows about you.”

“Like that I like a finger in my ass during sex?”

Scotty nearly spat out his beer, laughing hard enough to swallow wrong and cough some. “You boys are funny,” he said to us as he took out a handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped his mouth.

I felt invisible, as I often had around Cookie’s aura. Suggesting bars he knew everyone at, paying for everything, except the drugs, and holding dominion over the barflies’ conversations anywhere we went. I wasn’t funny, I thought, I was just seated next to the loudest man in the bar at this moment. But the burn of the shot and the empty glass in front of me indicated that I was feeling better about the night. I let myself pretend that I was important.

“But no, I mean a story that tells us something about the world. I wanna know about the world, man. Y’know, I was locked up seven years. So I missed out on a lot.”

“Does it work if it’s a story about my grandfather?”

“Is it one no one else really knows?”

“If they did, he’d have been dead a lot longer time ago.”

“Then yeah.”

Cookie took a sip of his new drink, Jimmy having come out from the office near the bathrooms only once to come and bring us more drinks before disappearing again into the back, and began to tell the story of his grandfather as a young man living in Naples.

“Florida or Italy,” I asked, wanting to prove Scotty correct.

“Italy,” he said.

Scotty took another swig of his beer and rested his head on his fist, leaned up against the bartop. Cookie continued about his grandfather. He was an unassuming hulk of a man, the kind of sturdy and intimidating body that you only noticed when you really got up close. Because of this, one night, while drinking with some friends, Cookie’s grandfather noticed a group of other young men bothering some women. Drunk and ready to be chivalrous, and receive whatever favors might come of that chivalry, he yelled at the young men to leave the ladies alone. Those young men, drunk themselves, and filled with the kind of authority and power one only felt in that region by being associated with the mafia, took extreme offense. They grabbed their guns and took aim at him.

“He didn’t retreat. He didn’t flinch. He didn’t do anything they expected him to. Just sat there and stared at ‘em.”

Cookie spoke with an eloquence suggesting this story was a favorite of his to tell, though I had never heard before. Scotty sat listening with an murky smile on his face.

His grandfather was saved from any of the drunken mens’ trigger fingers by an older man who had just entered down the street.

“They were all out drinking on the street. Did I mention that?”


“So this guy, he sees his soldiers aiming their guns at my grandfather, and he comes down on them like your mother if she ever caught you drinking out of the milk jug.”

Scotty gave a knowing laugh in the pause that followed.

“That’s it,” I asked.

“Yeah, the capo apologized to my grandfather, paid for his drinks, and then told him ‘never fuckin’ come back here, again.’ He never did. It was one of his last nights in Italy before coming over here to America.”

“Damn,” Scotty said, a sullenness grew on his face as he finished his beer.

At the conclusion of Cookie’s story, only the heat and the static of the box television over the bar lingered in the air. The open door, where Scotty’s belongings were piled, let in the sounds of passing cars, of a siren off in the distance. Our drinks were empty.

“Okay,” Cookie started, “it’s your turn now.”

“I got busted in the springs,” Scotty began. “Wasn’t for much, but it was for enough. And don’t ask what because I’m not that person anymore, so I don’t like talkin’ about it.” The whites of his knuckles showed as he gripped his glass while talking, and I hoped Cookie understood. “So they threw me up in the prison in Limon. Wasn’t supposed to be for too long, but I had a mouth on me at that point in life and I had the hands to back it up, so one thing led to another and ultimately I was there for a bit of an ‘extended stay’ as you might call it now. Well, anyways, I was bunkin’ with this one guy who was in there for murdering his ex-girlfriend and her boyfriend, telling me he had suspected them of foolin’ around while him and the chick were still goin’ out. Told me this all night, every night, and usually the story was the same, few different lies thrown in to the point where I wasn’t sure what was lie and what was truth. But then this one night he gets into the story, and he starts telling me about what he did with the boyfriend. Now, everytime he told me before this night, he said he killed them the same way: waited for them outside of a gym at night where they both worked out and shot them both in the head. Only this time he tells me he broke into their house and found ‘em in the middle of the act, y’know, naked as Eve and Adam. I won’t tell you all he told me, but what he put them through before killin’ ‘em, in that version of the story, was awful to hear. It was real enough to feel, y’know? So he tells me this new story about murderin’ ‘em that night, and the next night he moves on to a new story, this time not about the ex and the boyfriend, but about a riot that happened down in the Santa Fe prison, about how the whole prison went chaotic and people started killing and raping each other. He was in the same block with the guy that ended up takin’ another guy’s head off, stickin’ it on the end of a broom, and tellin’ the cops outside the prison to fuck ‘emselves. He tells me that he worried that guy was gonna kill ‘em all in that part of the prison, but he knew how to take care of himself, and at this point in him tellin’ me his story he starts feelin’ me up, y’know, and I didn’t wanna start nothin’ with ‘im because I’d already fucked myself up by being in there longer than needed, but soon he’s tellin’ me this other awful shit he saw in there—and I’m not divulgin’ any of that for his own sake, wherever he may be now—but his hands were getting harder on me, stiffer, and like I said, I had the hands to back my mouth up, and so when he got too close to me, I gripped his neck as hard as I could,” Scotty reaches his arm out into the air in front of Cookie’s face and tightens his fist until all the veins show, “and I told ‘im not to tell me another fuckin’ story ever again.”

He set his empty glass on the bartop.

“Jesus,” is all I can half-mutter.

“So,” Scott begins, “whose story was better?”

And the question is addressed to me. The sweat behind my knees drips down to my ankles and I reach for my own glass, warmed and watered down, for relief, looking first at Scotty, then at Cookie, and back to Scotty’s fist, still clenched in his lap. The smirk had come back to Scotty’s face, and Cookie was smiling too.

“I mean,” I begin.

“Hell man,” Scotty interrupts, putting his hand, no longer balled, onto Cookie’s shoulder, “I think it’s your’s.”

But it’s wasn’t, and I didn’t know how to go about saying this. How to tell Scotty that his story—whether real or not, in the way he told it, or in some other way that it might have gone—is the better of the two. While both men in the stories got away from what they were in, he is the one in front of me, the one I am drinking with and, in the dim barlight under a sweltering sky, our night together about to end, and never enter back into our lives, he is the one I felt in brotherhood with, though I never told a story in that moment, nor would I ever tell one to Scotty, nor Cookie for that matter. Cookie’s story—whether true or not, in the way he told it or the way his grandfather recounted—was not his to tell.

Nor is any of this for me.

Yet I write it down, because saying it out loud loses some of whatever magic I felt for what happened, as it does to write it down now, in this sober light of day. Scotty is gone. Cookie is gone. Their stories stay with me, improper and incomplete. Jimmy appears infrequently as I maneuver through hazy nights and wonder what any of this meant.



Joseph Linscott

Joseph Linscott is a writer and operations manager currently living in New England with his wife and their dog. He can be found on social media @prosephlinscott. Joseph recommends the Food Bank of the Rockies.


Edited for Unlikely by Jonathan Penton, Editor-in-Chief
Last revised on Monday, April 22, 2024 - 21:39