The Way Things Work
By Johnny Nys
Published: April 8, 2008
Updated: April 8, 2008

The outside world was growing silent. The busy intersection died down to only a few engine roars each quarter hour. A normal person wouldn't pay any attention to it, but Fred wasn't a normal person.

"Look at that," he said to the bartender. Carl looked but didn't see anything worthwhile. Only darkness, interrupted by the shine of streetlights scattered across town. He knew better than to ask Fred about it, though. He kept his mouth shut and his attention on the last beer glasses that needed rinsing.

He knew it was going to be a while before he got his hands on the very last glass. Fred was holding it, often waving it around as a conductor's baton. Carl decided to turn off the music. Perhaps that would scare this stubborn customer away, or at least extend the glass's life expectancy.

"I mean, just look at that," Fred started again. Carl glanced at the window and finally saw what the drunk was babbling about. A couple was passing by, long blond hair disappearing out of view. He couldn't see much, but the girl sure seemed to be a looker. The guy next to her no doubt was some ugly bastard with a cocky attitude. That's how it worked.

"You know what I mean," Fred nodded at him. Carl was startled. He hadn't noticed him turn around on his barstool. "I recognize that look in your eyes. You're jealous you don't have a girl like her. You can't understand why she wants to be with that guy."

Carl shrugged. "That's how it works."

Fred kept on nodding. "That's what you say, but do you get it?"

"It's the greatest difference between men and women. Women only care about appearances when it's their own. Men don't care shit about clothes as long as they aren't shredded to pieces, but put a girl's appearance over everything."

"Sounds about right," Fred said. "But let me tell you about differences. Did you ever read a book? Watch a movie?"

Carl sighed. Fred took that as a yes. "Ever notice how everyone first has sex and falls in love later? How often did that happen to you in real life?"

Carl sighed again. Fred didn't wait for an answer. "Zero times! I know, me too. It just doesn't work that way. Don't know what those writers and movie makers are thinking about when they write that stuff, but it's the biggest lie in human history!"

"Shouldn't you be heading home, pal?"

Fred nodded. "Sure. Head home. Get some sleep. Get up in the morning to live another fucking day and go to sleep again. It never ends. I fall in love first. Hasn't gotten me any sex yet, but it's still true. The way it works, is that the girl has to love you back. No shit like sex first, love later. Not in real life."

Carl sighed. How come drunks were always obsessed with this subject?

Fred put his glass on the bar. Carl snatched it away, hoping the guy wouldn't ask for another beer. He wouldn't give it to him if he did, though.

"Perhaps I don't fit their image of a guy they'd sleep with right away," Fred said.

Now there's a thought, Carl thought.

"But that's not really fair, is it? I mean, that would presume women only like big, strong types, no matter what their face looks like and whether or not they know the alphabet. Women can't be like that, right?"

"Some are," Carl said, remembering how his ex dumped him for some bodybuilding ignoramus, which was also the reason why he had started going to the gym. It was a nice place and he had gotten to know some friendly people, except for that annoying guy named Glenn who was training to be a sumo wrestler and always trampled his sports bag while rope skipping.

"Well, I refuse to believe that," Fred said. "Women are nice and smart. Just look at them! How can they be anything but? Not like us men. I mean, we're ugly, even when we're sober."

You're one to talk, Carl thought. "You shouldn't rely so much on appearances," he said.

"Back to appearances!" Fred said. "It never ends."

And you never leave, Carl thought. He wondered why he was talking to this guy. That only stimulated him further. Perhaps he should just throw him out.

"People are different," he said instead. "That's how it works. No matter what they look like, they all act differently. And some may act alike, even though they look nothing like each other."

"Like you and me, huh?" Fred asked.

Oh no, Carl thought.

Fred came up from his stool, bent over the bar and put his hand on Carl's shoulder. He was moving fast for a drunk and Carl didn't have a chance to back away. "I know what you're thinking. You've got a college degree and are working here because there's no other work in this damn city. You see me as a hopeless drunk who just lost his job or his wife or whatever, complaining about the world in general and sometimes going into specifics because he's got nothing better to do than feel sorry for himself. You're good looking, got some muscles in those arms. I'm old with a beer belly, and balding to boot. We're opposites, yet we care about the same things."

Sure we do, Carl thought. He nodded. "What I care about right now, is for you to go home so I can lock up and go to mine."

"Sure, kid," Fred said. "I'll do that. You're smart, I can see that, but not smart enough. You just wait and see."

He let go of Carl's shoulder. Carl took a step back, turned around to put the very last glass on the shelf behind him and looked in the mirror behind the shelves.

No more drunk guy.

He gasped, feeling the urge to turn around but didn't, for he could clearly hear the man breathing heavily behind him as he had all evening.

"I remember women didn't have a choice in who they were going to marry," Fred said. "Back when I was still Frederick."

Carl noticed the guy was suddenly talking with a German accent.

"We came to England in the Thirties. The 1830's, that is. Her father was my business associate. She had just turned sixteen. Our marriage would have brought wealth to both our countries. Sadly, it didn't turn out that way. Look at me, Carl."

How does he know my name? Carl thought, unable to disobey that hypnotic voice. When he looked Fred in the face again, he saw he was smiling. The smile disappeared when he continued his story.

"We docked in the middle of the night and didn't leave the ship till morning. He came on board sometime during those early hours, sniffed me out. He wanted me for my money, you see. He took my life and drained me of everything I had. Then he was gone, leaving me in this sorry state."

He smiled again and now Carl saw two shiny points protruding from beneath his upper lip. "I've been tracking him ever since. He didn't only take my money, my life, but also my love. I really loved that girl, Carl. You might find that appalling, but there was nothing weird about a middle-aged man marrying a young girl in those days. He took her away from me in a way you can't imagine. And now there's no room left for love in my existence. I've stopped calling it my life, you see. I only exist now. Never rely on a person's appearance. Remember, Carl?"

Carl realized he was trembling. Leaning against the shelves, he heard the glasses rattle against each other. Afraid they might drop to the floor, he took a step forward, confronting the creature before him. "What do you want?"

"I want blood. That's how it works, you see. But I don't want yours. I know you've got some personal business to take care of. Winning your girl back and all that. I sympathize with you, for that is no easy task. I was thinking, perhaps I can be of some assistance, make things a little easier for you "