Author’s note: Part 1.
The man shrugged, but he popped the top of the can one-handed and took a long pull. The thin beer seemed to calm his nerves somewhat, as I find a familiar taste often does. “I was trying to get to Library bar,” he said after he swallowed. “It’s the five year reunion for my frat – Xi class,” he added meaningfully. I hadn’t the faintest idea what this meant, but I nodded understandingly.
After another pull, the man crunched the can in a meaty fist and slid it back to me. I was surprised by his speed, but I dropped it behind the bar and withdrew a second. “This was my high point,” he said mournfully. “I mean, to be honest my life has been pretty much in the crapper since college. Seeing all the guys again was all I’ve been looking forward to.” He opened the second beer without asking about the price.
I nodded again, doing my best to appear sympathetic. He sounded like the classic Flotsam type – someone who didn’t have anything in the world, no ties or connections to prevent him from being swept away. I had heard variations of his tale too many times before to count. “What’s your name, friend?” I asked.
“Tommy Bach,” he said, holding out a hand. He had a firm grip, but I’ve had much stronger fellows stumble into the bar, so I wasn’t put off. “My bros call me T-Dawg.”
“Tee dog?” I tried.
“Nah, it’s one word, more accent on the w. T-Dawg,” he repeated.
“Well, Tee Dawg, we might not be holding your reunion, but you’ve still made it to a bar,” I said. “Look on the positive side! What were you looking forward to doing tonight?”
Tommy sat up from the bar and swiveled on his stool to look around. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that Flotsam doesn’t have a lot of high-tech gadgetry. Touch screens don’t respond well to claws or paws, and the robots’ circuitry seemed to always interfere with the pinball machines. We had a few large tables and a couple of dart boards in a corner, but that was about the extent of things. Most patrons focused on their alcohol.
After a moment, Tommy’s brow furrowed. “Where’s the beer pong?” he asked, his affronted tone suggesting that I had just kicked a small child.
I gave him a blank look. I’ve had a lot of time behind the bar to practice this look, so it was very blank indeed. “Beer pong?” he repeated, and I carefully didn’t shift a single facial muscle.
“Oh man, you guys don’t have pong here? No wonder everyone’s so gloomy!” he cried, sliding off the stool onto his feet. He threw a hand across the counter. “Red solo cups, dude. I need about twenty of them.”
After a moment’s rummaging under the bar, I found the red plastic cups he wanted and passed them over. Somehow, the bar always seemed to have what I needed. I had never questioned it, just wrote it off as one of Flotsam’s little quirks. Tommy seized the cups and made for one of the large rectangular tables. He kept one stack of cups and slid a second stack over towards the sole occupant at the far end of the table, a wide-eyed teddy bear in a booster seat. Tommy began setting up a triangle of the cups at his end of the table, and after a moment of helpless confusion, the bear began to do the same at the opposite end.
“Can I get a pitcher of water?” Tommy asked once the triangle was complete. I filled a plastic pitcher from the tap and slid it across to him. He filled each cup about a third full of water, and then passed the pitcher over to the bear. The bear was forced to hold the pitcher with both paws, but it managed to fill its cups without too much spillage.
By this time, quite a few of the other drinkers had begun to gather around the table, curiously watching with their eyes, cameras, light sensors, feelers, or other sensory equipment they possessed. Tommy wasn’t put off in the slightest; he was in his element. “Balls, dude,” he called out.
I looked down and saw a package of ping-pong balls sticking out from the same shelf that had held the red cups. I tossed the pack to him, and he removed two of the balls before returning it. Tommy climbed on top of one of the chairs so he could see over most of the assembled crowd.
“Rules,” he announced. “You gotta throw from behind your edge of the table – no leaning, or that’s a cup penalty. If you get it in their cup, they have to take that cup away, and they have to drink. Once the ball bounces, it can be grabbed by the other person. If it bounces off the table, though, and lands in a cup, that counts as two cups they gotta remove. If you make both your shots, you get the balls back as well as clearing those two cups. If both shots go in the same cup, you get balls back and they clear three cups. Two re-racks – that is, two chances to, at the beginning of your turn, ask for them to change the shape of the cups to whatever you want. Losers need to finish their drinks. Bear-” he pointed with his beer can at the teddy bear across the table- “-you’re up first!”