The Beret Man

by Amandeep Jutla

I met the Beret Man after last semester’s microbiology final. That test, and the weekend I’d spent preparing for it, had ground my brain into a fine powder of facts: antibiotics, mechanisms of action, pathogens. I was eager to sweep it all away. The dive six blocks from my apartment — it called itself “the cantina” — would, I figured, help with that.

I avoided the group of classmates sitting around a corner table and made my way to the bartender, who grimaced ever so slightly at my request for a vodka tonic. It was a drink beneath the cantina’s dignity. She mixed one anyway. I thanked her, but she had another order to take. She was gone before I’d finished speaking.

I was a lightweight and knew it: this one drink would be more than enough to give me a pleasant buzz. But that night I had another, and then another after that. Three drinks was more than enough for my pleasant buzz to thicken into a drunken static that was equal parts self-pity and self-regard. That’s how 2am, closing time, found me contemplating the myriad ways in which I was the most beautifully and insightfully sad person in the world. It’s also how I wound up falling into a construction pit on my way home.

Such was my inebriation that I’m not clear on what happened next. I remember pain in my hip, and a large, dirty section of pipe next to me. I remember the stars overhead. Right before I fell I’d been imagining they could see me, and even that they were deeply impressed with what they saw. I remember thinking it unlikely this was still the case.

The pit wasn’t deep, but I didn’t try to climb out. I was cold, and tired, and drunk. My eyes closed. Seconds, minutes, maybe hours later, someone grabbed my arm, hauling me up with tremendous force.

The smell hit me first: thick and rancid. Then the jacket, just as intense in its way: bulky, bright blue PVC. I made out the face last: small and pale, encroached upon from below by a ragged beard, and from above by an ill-fitting beret. I decided I was hallucinating, and my eyes closed again.

I woke to find myself lying on an uncomfortable couch. A black cat watched me warily from the far armrest. I sat up. My head was pounding. I made some kind of inarticulate noise. My mouth was too dry and furry to do otherwise. The cat twitched an ear, turned its head to the side, and yawned.

“You all right?”

For a moment I thought the cat had spoken. Of course it hadn’t. It was the man from earlier. He’d shed the jacket, but not the beret, and not the smell, either.

I coughed. The man stepped into an adjoining room and I heard a faucet open. He came back with a glass that I drained in one large gulp.

“Thanks,” I said. “Thank you.” I put the glass on a coffee table crowded with empty cans – beer, soda, cat food.

“Seen you around the cantina,” he said. Had I ever seen him? I didn’t think so. I said nothing.

“Say hello next time you’re there,” he said. I nodded, not intending ever to do so, and indeed, the next day I drove back to my hometown, and for the three weeks of winter break I didn’t think about what had happened once.

But one evening in January I went back to the cantina and the Beret Man was seated at the bar. The stools to either side of him were empty. I attributed this to his body odor and its sheer power. I had a seat. What the hell.

He said, “It’s you. How are you?”

I said, “I’m good. I’m fine.”

He said, “That’s good.”

I ordered a drink, and sipped it without saying anything. Twenty minutes later, he stood up.

“Time I headed home,” he said. “Good seeing you.”

Another twenty minutes and I went home myself.

In the coming weeks, I stopped by the cantina from time to time. The Beret Man wasn’t always there, but when he was, we’d exchange a few words. We never had what you might call a conversation.

I’d like to say I noticed right away when the Beret Man stopped showing up. I don’t think I did. But one night in April it occurred to me that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d talked to him.

I tried to ask the bartender about him, but because I didn’t have his name, I didn’t know what to say. “Man with a beret,” I said finally. “Funny smell.” She narrowed her eyes. At first I thought she was suspicious. Who was asking? Why did I want to know? But it was simpler than that: she didn’t know what I was talking about, or why I was talking to her about it.

I made a serious attempt to find his place, even though I knew this would be difficult, probably impossible. I had only been there once, and I’d been hung-over, too. I knew his place was walking distance from the cantina, and from my own apartment, for that matter, but you’d be wrong to think that would have narrowed it down. All I remembered of his building was the general impression of weathered brick and stained concrete that every structure in this city shared.

When at last I was ready to just admit to myself that the search was futile, I saw a stray cat watching me from behind a trash can. A strange, fantastic notion seized me: something terrible had happened to the Beret Man. His cat had been left to fend for itself. Now it had found me, the only person it recognized.

But this wasn’t possible. The cat in the Beret Man’s apartment had been black, and this one had a tabby coat. And anyway, it had already lost all interest in me, and was walking away.