Before all those unhappy miles, there was that night. Over time the memory of that night—of the exact moment where Liam's life went off course—grew clearer, so that he was able to see in his mind's eye each cigarette butt in the ashtray, each drop of condensation on his glass, every bill and coin lying by his left hand, the chipped veneer on the far edge of the table top, and floating above all these details, the crooked, satanic leer of the Czech, a lit cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, his left eye squinting as the blue smoke curled back toward his bony face.
"Man, you’ve got to do this for me," the Czech said. "It's like…the opportunity of a lifetime."
The Czech spread his hands as if presenting a cornucopia of riches. White scars from old cigarette burns zigzagged down the inside of his left arm.
Later, when Liam's troubles began to mount, he was able to trace them back to this precise instant, as if he'd left a trail of bread crumbs through the underbrush of time, or had unspooled behind him a long unbroken thread with one end securely fixed to that chair in the bar in which he'd sat, drunkenly full of himself and vodka. Memory is a map that can only be read once the destination is reached and the journey over, a topography of mistakes and regrets, of ecstatic mile markers along a highway not safe for travel.
The Czech twitched and looked sideways at Liam, out of one eye. Liam was reminded of the sparrow that landed on his kitchen window sill every morning. It would hop about and sing a repetitive sparrow song that made Liam tense until the sparrow flew off and Liam instantly longed for the stupid sparrow song again.
The Czech had heard about Liam's boredom, his dissatisfaction and unfocused but growing urge to do something—anything—else. Current circumstances had no value to him, no meaning. There was no love, no peace, no future. There was only labor to crush the spirit and the imprisoning revolution of drink. The Czech looked and saw that it was time. It was time.
"Opportunity of a lifetime," he said. "Are you in or out?"
That was all it took. That was all it ever took, every time after that. And each time he was glad of it and his lungs were full of freedom and he was a beautiful young god able to command the stars until he'd awaken older, emptier, farther along the road with the scars to prove he'd paid all the tolls, no longer a beautiful young god. He would sit and follow the trail of bread crumbs, trace the path of the string backwards to that moment and promise himself that next time, he'd keep the glowing miracles, he'd hang onto the power to command the stars and he would never look upon his map of regret again. Next time, surely.