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His real name was Epteron but, if asked in this era, he would say that Peter was his name. He was a Gnomen, part of a race of beings so old their origins have been completely forgotten. Whatever curse or magic that shackled the Gnomen to this world and to this Earthly existence would endure for all eternity. Released would only come when a stranger asked him one of six questions. He had been waiting centuries for that to happen— a century of centuries. He was prepared to wait forever.
Of course, He hadn’t been waiting at this particular bar all that time. But bars like this one were safe, public spaces where he could relax and still be available to strangers any of whom might want to know: Why is there evil? Is there a God? What is the meaning of life? Why are we here? What is truth? Is there life after death? If any of these questions were asked of him, he would answer truthfully and would be free. Freed for what exactly he wasn’t sure and it was that uncertainty that frightened him.
Looking scruffy and slightly derelict was both his camoflage and his disguise. His disheveled appearance generally put people off and discouraged conversation. He once heard himself described as cheap wine in a paper cup. Not a very flattering portrait but one he deserved. He looked like an older gentleman down on his luck. A little seedy, perhaps a touch disreputable in worn, ill fitting clothes. When approached his conversation was banal consisting almost entirely of platitudes and cliches. In short, he turned people off.
Only once or twice a decade would a stranger even approach him and then only for something mundane—something like, “Hey buddy, got a cigarette?” or “How about them Yankees?” His replies were so terse and cold that further conversation was discouraged. In truth he was afraid of what would happen to him if someone succeeded in penetrating his defenses and actually asked him something meaningful. He would have to answer truthfully and then what would happen to him? The ancient spell would be broken and his reason for being would be at an end. He didn’t love his existence but it was the only one he had.
There were, he knew, six Gnomen on the Earth— one for each continent save Antartica. Each, like him, waiting for the question and fearing the consequences of the answer. He never met his fellow Gnomen, he wouldn’t recognize them if he did. His was a lonely life. Every bit as empty and meaningless as those that buzzed around him in the crowded bar. Knowing the answers to life’s unanswerable questions was no guarantee of peace.
It was a Friday night and Angelo’s was busier than usual. Besides the regular afterwork crowd there was a batchelorette party in full swing. The bar was filled to capacity with young people. Peter admired their joyous youthfulness. Even with their ignorance of the nature of the universe they managed to enjoy themselves. Maybe knowing the answers made no difference to ordinary people. Maybe it was only a handful of philosophers and deep thinkers who cared about such matters. He’d long ago given up the illusion that what he knew mattered. For these young people, life itself was enough. They didn’t bother themselves with imponderables. Only philosophers, suicides and priests cared about his questions. Young people just wanted a good time.
As he sat there nursing his brandy, a young woman stumbled into him jostling his arm and causing him to spill his drink. “Oh, I’m so sorry,” she said. “Someone pushed me into you. Please don’t be angry. Let me buy you another drink.” And before he could say that wasn’t neccessary, she had signaled to the bartender and asked him, “What were you drinking?”
“A brandy,” he replied. He was bound to answer truthfully.
“A brandy for my friend here,” she told the barkeep. “And a vodka for me.” Extending her hand she said, “Samantha. I’m Samantha. My friends call me Sam.”
Taking her hand he shook it and told her his name was Epteron but she could call him Peter. “Hi Pete.” She handed him his brandy and lifted her vodka clinking their glasses together. “To life,” she said and drank her vodka down.
“To life,” Peter echoed and took a sip of his drink.
“So what brings you here?” Samantha asked.
“I enjoy watching young people,” he replied candidly. “Why are you here?”
“My girlfriend’s getting married Saturday.” She pointed to a table filled with young women. “We’re here to send her off. You know, her whole life is about to change. This is her last fling before she becomes a married lady.”
“I see,” said Peter realizing he was on unfamiliar ground. with the direction this conversation was taking.
“Life’s funny like that. One minute your sleeping around, dating, looking for love and the next minute you’re attending PTA meetings and knitting sweaters. Go figure.” Samantha signaled the barman for another vodka. “You want another?"
“No thank you, I’m fine.”
“Aw, come on, live a little. This is a party.” She got their glasses refilled and resumed her monologue about the vagueries of life. and then addressed him directly. “But I suppose a man of your years must know all about that.”
“About what, exactly?” Peter asked.
“About life. About raising a family. About how it can change in an instant. You must have seen a lot of things in your life.”
It was then that he realized that although he’d been alive for a thousand years, he had never really lived. Although he had all of the answers about life’s purpose and meaning, about God and death, he’d never actually cared. This young woman sitting next to him understood far more of what life was all about than he ever would. Peter lifted the brandy to his lips and, for the first time in a thousand years, he felt joy.
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