Two philosophers walk into a bar. They wear robes, maybe some Grecian textile that’s musty from long-term entombment or maybe some clearance sheets from Bed Bath and Beyond.
“I’ll have a G & T,” the first philosopher says, which is surprising because who knew philosophers drank anything but wine or water out of shallow cups.
“I’m abstaining,” the second philosopher says. He’s shoeless, which isn’t recommended in a bar. His toenails are longer than seems safe or sanitary, but not so long as to be record-winning. He’s maneuvering a piece of ice over his tongue, maybe thinking, ice, ice, what a beautiful novelty.
The first philosopher looks around the room at the others there. The slumped man, the made-up woman, the two people in workwear. None of them look happy or good.
“Another,” the first philosopher says to the bartender. “What is it?” he says to the second philosopher who has gone quiet.
“Remember Daphne? Ovid’s Daphne?” the second philosopher says, “you know the story, how she turns into a tree to avoid the pursuit of Apollo? There’s that painting where her arms are branches reaching up from her body?”
The back door opens, and a triangle of light from the streetlamp lands on the wood floor by the bathrooms. Of course, the philosophers are men.
The first philosopher had been a wanderer. He’d had a wife. Or a child. Or maybe it was the second philosopher who had those things. Anyway, they were not without their backstories.
“Writers love turning people, women especially, into things non-human, ghosts or animals or trees,” the first philosopher said. “I mean, tell me something about an actual human woman!” The first philosopher exhales in a way that calls to mind wind on water, walks to the row of pinball machines, and puts quarters into The Addams Family, his favorite. The game lights up. He snaps along to the song that starts the game and pulls to let the silver ball go flying.
The second philosopher says, “Do you remember Dante’s she wolf and the greyhound? The wolf is a she, but the greyhound is just a greyhound. As is the leopard, just a leopard.”
The second philosopher waves his hands around while he talks, and his robes drape over the machine’s glass top, which causes the first philosopher to lose sight of the silver ball. It goes down between the flippers so quickly he doesn’t see it going. The first philosopher does not need to say it, but there is something about life in that quick-dropping silver ball. Going, going, gone.
“Yes, I remember the greyhound,” the first philosopher says. “A female animal punished for her desire. All symbol, no substance.” He tilts the machine to keep the ball from going down between the flippers, but he does it in such a way as to avoid detection by the machine. So gentle. “We ask a lot of characters,” he says. His face glows in the machine lights. “They have to stand for something. Go on a journey. Be beautifully, satisfyingly changed on the other side.” He sighs when the ball tumbles out of sight again and reaches his hands into the deep pockets of his robe and finds no quarters.
They walk to the bar’s front door and out into the night where the sky is velvet or suffocating, depending on how the world is for you.
“Anyway,” the second philosopher says, “Eve’s apple was most likely a pomegranate.” He steps over broken glass, then looks for the moon.
They pass the old department store, the bakery, the church with all its banners and walk all the way to the street with the drive-thru where people wait in a line of cars for burritos.
It’s awkward to stand in a car line wearing robes. Still, they end up between two Hondas. Through the back window of the car in front of them, the philosophers see the pressed-together bodies of boys, men. Through the front window of the car behind them, they see the sharp white smiles of girls, women. All of them, the men and the women, convinced that night that the future holds thrills and good fortune.
The philosophers sit on someone’s discarded sofa near a dumpster and eat burritos in an alley behind a frame shop and manage to not spill salsa on their robes. At the back of a house, lights turn on, and a woman stands with a water glass at a window. Maybe she looks familiar, like a wife or a sister or a mother.
They walk up the hill to a small lake on the campus where a tower sometimes plays bells, but in the night the tower is silent. The philosophers find a good spot to lie back in the cattails near the water. They pull their robes tight.
The philosophers believe in many things, but they aren’t maybe the expected ones. Chance. Nature. Wind. The moon, not in an ethereal potions-and-spells way, but in a reliable beauty way, in the way of something constant that’s a reminder of things elsewhere and beyond, to remind them: life is short. Life is sad. Life is hard. Life is joy. Life is fullness and stalling and rushing and something and something and everything.
A nestled goose does a strange sleep-honk, and the philosophers go still, their feet twitching in the cattails and grasses. Probably, they are sleeping.
When the geese alert again, when they guffaw and flap over water, the sky is washed pink, and the philosophers are dreaming of everything: old times and house cats and fireplaces and metal fans and lipstick and maybe the kind of oblong spaceships that fifty years ago looked like the future.
Someone has climbed to the top of the bell tower, and the bells ring out, saying to anyone who will listen, Hello, hello, here it is again: morning.
Amy Stuber is a fiction writer living in Lawrence, Kansas. She edits flash fiction for Split Lip Magazine. Her work has been published in or is forthcoming in Flash Fiction America (W.W. Norton, 2023), American Short Fiction, Copper Nickel, Ploughshares, West Branch, New England Review, and elsewhere. She was the recipient of the Northwest Review Fiction Prize (2021) and a runner up for the Missouri Review Editor’s Prize (2022) and the CRAFT Short Fiction Prize (2022). She’s on Twitter @amy_stuber_ and online at www.amystuber.com.