BITTER PERCEPTIONS: CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO

Jide

      The modest dècor skillfully combined rustic elegance and modern glamour.  Varnished wood carvings and African-themed watercolours in vibrant shades of red, green, and black adorned the olive green walls. Home-made jams and marmalades in unusual flavours stood on the wooden shelf, adding a homely touch to the warm atmosphere, making me salivate profusely. Mango and chilli pepper. Pineapple and ginger. Papaya and lime. Grapefruit thick cut. Udala and nutmeg? Isaac had always loved jam-on-toast. My eyes brimmed with tears as I recalled the mornings Isaac and I crunched through several slices at the breakfast table, the two of us sharing those tender father-and-son moments. Were those days forever gone?

       I quickly dabbed myself dry with a napkin before anyone noticed. Would I ever see my boy again? I leaned into the padded seat and stared at a wooden replica of the Festac mask, unable to ignore my stomach growling for the breakfast I’d skipped that morning. These days I depended on takeaways from the local buka, but those microscopic portions couldn’t even feed a foetus. Recently I’d swallowed my pride and settled for gari. Yes, soaked gari, the simple staple Mama and I survived on in the slums. No more gourmet meals courtesy of a five-star chef. The mighty had indeed fallen.

      “Can I take your order, sir?” A pretty girl in a yellow t-shirt, blue jeans, and blue highlights woven into her braids smiled down at me, her notebook in her hand. I craved sustenance, and a quick bite couldn’t hurt. I pointed at a few random choices, and the waitress passed my order to the young man in the ankara chef’s hat. Everything about his place suggested top notch—excellent furnishings, inviting aromas, hot waitresses—but despite the liveliness, I remained miserable. City boys in smartly-pressed business suits sipped iced lattes from tall glass mugs, the latest smartphone model glued to their ears. I watched them enviously, blaming myself yet again for my predicament. Ten years spent with Bass, and what had I achieved? Without a steady source of income, how would I survive? Other TV channels and radio stations kept slamming their doors, and no-one seemed to remember my previous voice-over roles, although I hadn’t worked in that field since my Dazzle Malt contract ended.  

      “What are you doing here?” A ferocious voice jolted me out of my self-pity, and a group of casually-clothed millennials lounging on the nearest sofa abandoned their YouTube entertainment to witness the scene. “What on earth are you doing in my café? I just returned from the nursery to collect my son, and the first thing I hear as I get out of the car is someone’s waiting for me. And that someone had to be you?”

      Gingerly I rose to my feet and addressed the eagle-eyed café owner, desperation burning in my eyes. “Please, I just want to talk to you…”

      “Why would I want to listen to you, eh? You may hide behind those glasses and that unkempt beard, but deep inside you’re still a crook, and crooks are not welcome here… Yes, Lauren?”

      The smiley waitress had returned, a tray balancing on her hand. “Here’s your order, sir—Papa D’s jollof, and a glass of our fresh tropical crush. Enjoy your meal…”

      “Thank you, but we’re not serving him today, and we’re not serving him ever. Throw it all in the trash. Well, go on!” The puzzled waitress departed, and her boss beckoned another member of her staff over. “Tope, take Lucas inside. It’s a bit quiet, and we don’t need that many people on the floor right now. Stay with him until I return, okay?” The waiter took the little boy’s hand, and led him through the STAFF ONLY door. The boy’s mother waited until they were both out of sight before she turned to face me, hands on her hips. “What do you want?” she growled. “Because I know you didn’t come here for the food.”

      “You’re right, I didn’t. Please, Juliet—it’s Juliet, right?—is there a place we can talk in private?”

      “Do you think I’ll go anywhere with you in private after what you did to my sister-in-law?” she replied.

       “I’m not here to cause trouble, I’m here to make peace,” I replied desperately. After much soul-searching, I could no longer deny apologising seemed the only way forward, but Doris had vowed she’d never forgive me. Thank God for those magazines the hotel staff left on the reception coffee table. A photo captioned “Juliet Duru with sister-in-law Dr. Doris Duru of The Doctors” taken at Africafé’s grand opening presented a light bulb moment, the discovery of Doris’ Lagos relatives filling me with renewed hope. 

      “Jules, baby! How are you, and how’s business?” A pint-sized woman with unruly curls and freckles dotted over her fair skin hugged her friend who remained stiff on the spot. “Just popped in to take more photos of your café for the lifestyle section of my blog, but it’ll only take a few secs. And can I have some of your lovely tropical crush to go, and a double-stuffed chilli pie? Must dash as soon as possible though, because I’m preparing to travel to Calabar with Chukwuma to see the designer I’ve joined forces with for the swimsuit designs, and I need to pay Femi an emergency visit before I get home. This Lagos humidity is playing havoc with my hair, and…hey, what’s wrong, Jules? Are you okay?” she enquired, puzzled at her friend’s deadly silence until she spotted my face over Juliet’s shoulder, and yanked off her giant sunglasses. “You? Why are you here? Juliet, who let this monster out of its cage?”

      “Excuse me?” Why did this short but stunningly attractive woman with a mouth bigger than her wind-blown hair look familiar all of a sudden? “Who the fuck are you? This is none of your business, so if you don’t mind…”

      “I’m Anna Agu, Doris Duru’s cousin, and please watch your language inside here,” she seethed, nodding towards two children eating soursop ice cream with their aghast parents. “The whole family found out when your evil friend burst into her father’s house and confessed. He came hiding behind his parents, as if that would have made any difference. You know, I was shocked when I discovered who did it because I met you years ago when I was working at The Guardian, remember? We hired you to record our radio commercial, and we both chatted. I thought you were a decent guy, little did I know you were a demented rapist…”

      So that’s who this flaming fireball is, I thought. “Oh, I remember you, you’re the one who writes that ‘A-Two’ blog,” I said.

      “A-Squared, actually,” Anna sharply corrected, and I recalled the day I met the former Guardian journalist who quit her job to run her fashion and lifestyle blog , the latest one to give Bella Naija a run for her money in the popularity stakes. Shirley had logged on regularly, quickly becoming a huge fan, and while I never understood the appeal, I appreciated the writing style and precision. Unlike those ‘cut-and-paste’ copycats. Anna’s lavish wedding to technology millionaire Chukwuma Agu had made every other gossip blogger’s headlines, and she had become famous in her own right, but never would I have guessed she was related to Doris Duru. Man, what a small world.

     “Anna…Anna…” Juliet tapped Anna on the shoulder and glanced around. “Let’s take this outside, people are watching, and if I’m tempted to punch him I wouldn’t want to start a riot of destruction, not after the effort Fred and I put into opening this place.” She stepped outside with Anna, the latter giving me some side-eye corresponding with a long hiss. My tail now drooping between my legs, I followed the pair, the burning sun scorching my eyes. Neither Juliet nor Anna offered me a seat under their outdoor parasol, and I reached into my pocket for my old designer aviator sunglasses, only to discover a handle had broken off. I caught a satisfied grin on Anna’s face, and she mockingly adjusted her own eyewear, but I ignored her, remembering my mission. 

      “I can no longer deny what you already know,” I began. “But believe me when I say I regret what I did that day, I regret everything. You’ve got to understand, being in the same school as Doris didn’t make matters any easier. I had a really shit upbringing in an Aba slum after my…” I paused abruptly, struggling to say the word. “…my father left us with nothing, and my mother and I suffered. Even when I tried making changes in my life, everything backfired. I started a band with some friends, but our so-called manager cheated us. All my life, I faced tough times, but Doris has always had it easy. her father’s an oil baron, and I couldn’t handle that…”

      Anna had tilted her head upwards and folded her arms, staring motionlessly at the cloudy sky as if searching for planes. Juliet looked like she could have stabbed me. Were they even listening?

      “Doris was a Medicine student who did one catwalk show, and everyone on campus wouldn’t let me hear anything else. ‘Doris this, Doris that…’ The whole thing upset me, and anytime her name was mentioned, it reminded me of my own shit life. Doris modelled for Ebonee Jade and had her picture printed in Enugu Echo while I couldn’t hit the big time with my band. I couldn’t even get into the course I wanted, I had to study Education instead. When Doris ridiculed me in front of everybody at our Millenium party, I’d had enough. She turned me into a laughing stock when I reached a low point, and I couldn’t take it anymore. That was when I joined forces with my former friend Mex Orlando, and took action.”

      “You took action?” Juliet repeated. “I bet it made you feel like a real man?”

      “I was young and foolish then…” I protested. “Taking advantage after dropping those pills in her drink seemed the only way to seek revenge. At first, I rejoiced at seeing her suffer, but after they expelled me from EU, I suffered. Twelve years of unfortunate events, most of them linked to the Basseys. Even when I lived in that big house and drove that expensive car, life was far from perfect. Doris predicted I would never know peace as long as she lived after I did what I did to her, but I brushed it aside. Now I realise everything she said came true…” 

     Anna laughed derisively. “Good!”

     “Everyone thought I was a producer because they gave me the title, but that was all smoke and mirrors; I was nothing more than a glorified office boy, especially after Chief Bassey demoted me. I’d made the stupid mistake of signing a work contract without understanding the terms and conditions, and when I tried to leave Bass, I couldn’t. My wife made my life a misery, never giving me any peace in that house because we argued pretty much every single day. When she booked herself a plastic surgery holiday in Europe, I asked her not to go through with it, but Shirley never listened to me, and when she died during the procedure, everyone blamed me. They said I’d forced her to undergo lipo, who told them that? I was dismissed from Bass after her funeral, but no-one else would hire me.”

      I could no longer hold back my tears, each drop rolling down my face and splattering off my chin. “I’ve lost my home, I’ve lost my career, and now I’ve lost my son. The Basseys fought for custody after Shirley died, and after an old friend of hers revealed she had other lovers around the same time he was conceived, a DNA test revealed I’m not Isaac’s biological father. Chief Bassey has had full custody since the final ruling…”

      “And?” growled Anna.

      “It was terrible, all the odds were stacked against me. People I hadn’t seen in years testified against me, even the mother of my other child. In the end, custody was awarded to the Basseys…”

      “Hallelujah!” 

      Couldn’t this Anna woman zip it? Couldn’t she see my experiences were all poignant reminders of the words Doris spoke before Mex Orlando pushed her outside his student flat? I’d endured every single load of shit the Basseys had flung in my direction, but did I have to take hers?

      “There’s also my other child who I never knew existed until recently. It took ages trying to track his mother down, and when I found her, she chased me away. She wouldn’t let me see the boy…”

      “Why not?” Even behind those dark lenses, I sensed the hostility emitting from those grey eyes. “Did you rape her too?”

      “Anna!” Juliet reproached her in-law for making yet another unsavoury remark, but I noticed her quivering lips, a sure sign she’d held back her own nastier put-downs. “Mr. Okoroafor, why have you come to us when it’s Doris you should see? Why us?”

      Us? It’s you alone I came to see, not this half-caste big mouth… “I want you to speak to her, and she’ll listen to you because you’re family. Please, tell her I’m sorry, and I mean it, I do. Things have been bad, and I don’t know just how much more I can take. I miss Isaac, and I want to meet Michael, but I have this curse hanging over my head. Please, talk to her?

      “That’s it? Is that dumb head of yours picking any signals at all? Fix the antenna,” Anna scowled. “You see someone who’s privileged, and your first instinct is ‘I’m going to use my penis as a weapon’—how sick is that?”

      “Doris got on my nerves the way she carried on in EU. She made me feel that small when she insulted me at the Millenium party…”

      “Shut your mouth!” spat Anna. “I don’t know what happened at that party, but I do know this—Doris is the nicest, sweetest person you’ll ever meet, so don’t you stand there talking rubbish. Doris would never boast about her father’s wealth if he were loaded, which he isn’t. Who told you my Uncle Ru is a rich oil merchant? All Shell Nigeria employees are multi-millionaires, is that what you’re implying?”

      “My own father worked for Shell too, and I can confirm he doesn’t own any wells either,” added Juliet. “Even before I married her brother, Doris’s family was my family, we grew up together in Shell Camp, we did everything together, and I know my sister-in-law. My own mother used to own a poultry business, did that mean my family ate eggs for breakfast every day? If her father was indeed a rich oil baron, do you think he’d spoil his children? Please, her father was an employee with Shell Nigeria, anything wrong with that? Did Doris ever pretend she was born with a silver spoon?” 

      “You really don’t know our family, do you?” Anna looked as if she would kick my ass at any minute. “Karma’s a bitch, and I pray you to continue to pay until you die. When that happens, I’ll piss on your grave if they buried you in far away Siberia…” Okay, that’s just harsh…

      “Please, I’m sorry.” I could no longer hide the tears I’d struggled to hold back as my lips quivered. “Please tell Doris I’m sorry, I’m begging you. She’s blocked me on Facebook, she won’t reply to my emails, and I can’t meet up with her at Bass TV because…”

      “Why can’t you go back to Bass TV? Or can I guess?” scoffed Anna. “Because they fired you, or because she’ll scar you once again? I wouldn’t blame her if she did. You should have seen what happened when that fool Emeka Obasi disrupted our Christmas dinner with his parents, and his father is a bishop… a bishop! I’m surprised they made it out of there alive, because her brother could have killed your friend that day. The poor girl went through hell because of you, and she kept it to herself for years. I don’t blame her for attacking you the day she ran into you at Bass, or what did you expect?”

      “Do you even care about your other son?” My heart raced rapidly when Juliet mentioned Isaac. “Or did you try contacting his mother because the doting father act always looks good to a jury? My brothers-in-law heard how you bullied people at Bass. Made you feel like the big man, didn’t it? Thank God for that judge, because you don’t deserve custody of any child.”

      “Your sperm should carry a criminal warning,” added Anna, rising from her seat. “Come on Juliet, let’s go back inside. I can’t believe this beast showed up here asking us to beg Dee on his behalf. He doesn’t even give a shit about her; he only cares about himself. Boys will always be boys, right?” She coolly eyed me from head to foot. “Yes, she told us about that, too. She ran into you at the National Theatre, and you laughed, telling her to get over it because boys will be boys. How sick is that?”

      “You better leave, right now,” Juliet ordered before she followed her in-law inside. “My husband will soon arrive, and if you think I’m crazy, you don’t even want to think about coming face-to-face with the man whose sister you abused, just ask your friend. Don’t you ever set foot inside my café again, understood?”

      I crumbled underneath the parasol. I deserved to pay this price, but Isaac? Because of my past, he faced a future without me. That DNA test meant nothing, I was his father, and he was my life. I’d always sworn I would never follow in Waste of Flesh’s footsteps. Now I feared Chief Bassey would poison his grandson’s mind against me, and Michael would regard me as nothing more than Waste of Flesh II…

***

     Young ladies in figure-hugging tops and skin-tight jeans chatted excitedly between sips of Remy Martin in shot glasses, flicking long Brazilian fringes away from heavily-kohled eyes. Customers had gathered at this nameless open-air bar one last time that Sunday evening before returning to their respective jobs the next morning. Under normal circumstances, I would have swaggered towards those girls unannounced, sat at their table uninvited and flirted heavily all through the night uninhibited. What wouldn’t I have given to relive the footloose and fancy-free pre-Shirley era when I thought nothing of buying several rounds for blood-sucking leeches only interested in my wallet? An ancient tube TV with a crooked antenna and fuzzy reception sat atop a Coca-Cola-branded fridge, and a rapper flanked by overly enthusiastic gangan players giving an energetic performance played on the box. The camera sporadically cut to the black-tie audience bobbing their heads and wiggling in their seats, and I recognised several faces I’d worked with before they reached greater heights without crediting me as a mentor who showed them the ropes when no-one knew their names. Stuck-up ingrates. 

      Dominic Nnodi, the pretty boy who stole my Nigerian Hairways role years ago, had flown in from the States where a Hollywood producer reportedly cast him in a big-budget Hollywood movie, and throughout the night he wouldn’t stop grinning ear-to-ear, as if to say “I’m still better than you, and I fucking know it!”. Show-off. That follicly-challenged Penfold aka Coleman still ran his production company, and still picked up awards left, right, and centre. Greedy bastard. My former production assistant Maria and the former Bass cameraman Segun clasped hands in the back row like two lovestruck teens at the cinema. Hadn’t he denied a budding romance when they both worked on my team? Office romance, just like Charles and Ekaette Obot before them, my former mentor and my longtime crush.   

      Ekaette. Still the perfect woman of my dreams. Womanly curves had replaced that svelte frame she owned when we first met, but even motherhood hadn’t made her any less desirable or graceful. She looked unbelievingly breathtaking in her purple aso-oke and matching beads, sending my heart into a somersault. Ekaette had quit her acting career a few years before to raise three children and run a boutique, but was attending the awards to support her husband, now managing director of Bass FM Uyo. I took another long gulp, this time straight from the bottle. No beer glass big enough in depressing times. Only a year ago I’d been a part of that crowd. And now…

      “Thank you, Studder X, great performance, man. You guys buy his album, y’all!”. A cornrowed dude impeccably dressed to the nines in a white suit with an ankara bow-tie and matching waistcoat encouraged the crowd to cheer louder, and they willingly obliged. Hadn’t they nearly screamed the roof down already? “I’m still Chidi Obi, and you’re still watching the 2013 Television, Radio, and Internet Awards, coming to you live from the Eko Hotel, and have we got even more fun and excitement for our lovely audience! That was just a tip of the iceberg…”

      The TRI Awards. In recent years the organisation had rebranded, extending their honours to Youtubers and bloggers although television remained the most competitive area. I still had some unpleasant history with the TRIs after nasty comments I made regarding their nomination process hit the headlines. Me and my big mouth, I cringed, draining the rest of my chilled golden nectar and ordering another bottle. Of all the open-air bars in Mushin, I had to walk into this one showing the blasted TRI Awards on TV. Just my luck.

      “To present the next award, here are two of the nation’s most popular newsreaders, both of whom were nominated tonight. Please give huge applause for Sunday Udoh and Patricia Inyang.” I set my bottle down, and watched the two NTA Network News anchors appear on stage arm-in-arm, one of them waving a silver-embroidered envelope.

      “Good evening distinguished ladies and gentlemen, hope you’re all having fun!” The veteran newsreader in the red evening gown and hair twists greeted the crowd. “We are here to present the award for Best TV Presenter. Wow, so exciting, I wonder who will be the lucky one?”

      “That’s right,” nodded her younger companion. “The nominees are…”

      “Nwakaego Dike, Fashion Plus…” Applause.

      “Lola & Kunle, Zebra Crossing…” More applause.

      “Daniel Akume, Sports Spectacular…” Polite applause.

      “Chidiebere James, The Doctors…” Loud cheering.

      “Oh, who cares?” I grumbled. I took another sip, nearly choking at what came next.

       “Doris Duru, The Doctors,” announced Patricia, and the cheering intensified. “Two nominations from one show in one category, that’s got to be a first in TRI history, wow!”

       I swallowed hard, resisting mounting temptation to smash my Gulder bottle into the screen. Doris Duru nominated for only five minute’s work? Okay, maybe I’d formed an unfavourable opinion of her in EU, as those two Africafé witches had pointed out, but couldn’t she do Nigerian TV a huge favour and barricade herself in the consulting room where she belonged?

      “Dr. Chidiebere will win,” predicted a gangly customer at the ladies’ table. “He’s a good presenter, and he’s hot. Pity he refused to do that topless shoot for Cosmopolitan…”

     “There’s a rumour he has some really nasty scars on his chest, like the ones on his arms, but worse. Maybe that’s why,” another lady contributed. “Still, we all know how he got them, it’s not his fault, but he’ll still look good topless, scars or no scars…”

      “Is that all you girls think about, his chest?” The bar’s proprietor, a grandfatherly figure in a grey safari suit, tutted disapprovingly. “What about Dr. Doris? Young girls should look up to women like her instead of lusting after half-naked fantasy men. I know someone from the brewery whom she treated at Future Hope, and he said she’s a good doctor.”

      “Yes, you’re right,” agreed a middle-aged man nursing a small stout bottle. “My nephew injured his foot during games practice, and she was so nice when she attended to him. I don’t understand why she’s still not married, fine intelligent girl like her.”

      “She speaks well, too,” remarked the proprietor. “She has to win this award.” 

      I couldn’t even have one little drink without her fan club singing her praises? Make it stop, please. I braced myself, watching the female newsreader tear open the envelope, all my worst nightmares coming true at once.

       “And the winner is…DORIS DURU, THE DOCTORS. THE LOVELY DR. DORIS DURU, YEAAAAH!”

       The whole bar erupted into an excited roar watching their idol hug Chidiebere, Zainab, Olivia before gliding up the stage, waving to the audience now on their feet in full support. I gritted my teeth and watched her deliver a speech claiming she hadn’t expected to leave with a TRI. Yeah, right.

      “Well done Dr. Doris, and congratulations.” Chidi Obi, now in an orange version of his jacket and trousers, returned to the stage after Doris walked off the stage, clutching her gong with tears of joy. A cheeky glint twinkled in the host’s eye, and the audience braced themselves. Only God knew how many times this so-called comedian had mercilessly roasted celebrities as part of his act. “Good to see people nominated for awards they truly deserve, unlike certain “Made in Enyimba” cry-baby sons-in-law who shall remain nameless.” He had to go there, useless cut-price Chris Rock wannabe that he was… 

      “What is he talking about?” the clueless proprietor asked. “Cry-baby sons-in-law?”

      “You don’t know what he meant?” A curvy girl from the round table stared at the proprietor in disbelief. “He’s talking about Titus Okoroafor; he used to be married to Shirley B, Chief Bassey’s daughter. That guy is the devil—he wanted to get rich by all means, that’s why he got her pregnant, to get a promotion at work, but he still wanted more. He used to bully the staff when he worked there, the man was a monster. He’s the type of guy who wouldn’t think twice about unplugging his mother’s life support to charge his cellphone, so selfish.”

      What? Unplugging Mama’s life support? How dare they? Who were these idiots anyway?

      “Yeah,” confirmed her friend. “Anything he sees, he wants, he’s never satisfied. Instead of coming up with his own ideas when he worked on those TV soaps he copied from other people, but still expected the TRI board to honour him, and when he wasn’t nominated in 2006, he insulted them. That’s why he hasn’t attended the awards since, they banned him.”

      “I see,” nodded the proprietor. “But what has Enyimba got to do with it? Is he from Aba?”

      “Yes, he was in a rap group called the Enyimba Rascalz years ago, and they released this really stupid song called “Made in Enyimba”, it’s on YouTube. Probably a decent tune when they recorded it, but it didn’t age well.”

      “That’s true, although they never actually released an album, they just made that video for promotion.” A young tattooed bar-crawler joined the conversation, his graffiti cap nearly covering his eyes. “Somebody posted the video on YouTube, low-quality shit. That Titus guy had zero talent—all he did was stand in the background waving his hands about, chanting ‘Uh, uh, yo, yo’. No wonder they didn’t last. How did he manage to hook Shirley B into his net though?”

      “That’s a bit harsh,” the proprietor remarked. “You don’t even know him, and you’re saying all these nasty things…”

      “Trust me, sir, you don’t have to know him personally to know he’s a total criminal!” another round table babe cut in. “He attended the University of Enugu City, but instead of reading his books, he went around looking for trouble—I know, because my cousin’s husband’s brother also attended EU in 2000. Titus Okoroafor gained admission with fake WAEC papers too, but they expelled him when the truth came out. The national papers even carried the news, maybe that’s why he changed his name to Titus and moved to Uyo where no-one knew him.”

      “Yeah, but he worked in radio first,” added the girl with the curves. “He wasn’t exactly the brightest spark, though. They say he went mad when he wasn’t chosen to star in Nigerian Hairways after the show moved from radio to TV. Did he think no-one would have recognised him on screen?”

      “Maybe he thought all would be forgiven when he married a Bassey, but the plan backfired,” added her friend. “He drove her to the grave when he forced her to get plastic surgery, but she went to the wrong doctor and died…”

      How could these hopeless losers spread vicious lies? I never forced Shirley to get a facelift and lipo, but who was I to judge? 2012’s Best TV Presenter winner had faced similar shit when Mad Dog published those stories in 2000, but at least the ridicule had only occurred within EU’s walls. My mounting crisis had turned me into a national laughing stock, and no-one cared half the stories were false.

      “That’s serious,” remarked the proprietor. “That’s what I said earlier, work hard to become somebody, and everything else will follow. If it doesn’t happen, move on…”

       The proprietor rattled on, condemning layabouts only interested in easy money without any proper graft, and his younger customers listened to these pearls of wisdom. I’d grown a bushy beard and mini-Afro since leaving Victoria Island for Mushin, and thank God for the bucket hat I’d thrown over my head before stepping outside. These clowns would receive the shock of their lives if they discovered Titus Okoroafor hiding within the dark shadows of this open-air bar. Nothing surprised me anymore—I’d read more than enough YouTube and Nairaland comments to learn exactly what people thought about me—but hearing their contempt straight from the horse’s mouth? Thank God I’d already paid for my drinks. Without a word, I drained the rest of my beer in one gulp, and staggered out unnoticed.

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