The sun is dipping low on the Los Angeles horizon, and after a long day of signings and readings, B.J. figures he owes himself a drink.
He has a few favourite spots that he's found over the years just by wandering around his neighbourhood and walking into the least seedy places he can find, but tonight, he's in the mood for a change of pace. So he walks. A couple people do double-takes when he passes them—normal—and he walks down an entire street that smells of weed—more normal—until he happens upon a bar he's never seen before. Which, for this area, isn't normal at all.
It doesn't seem that seedy, though; just kind of antique in a cute way, with the sort of timeless wooden deco theme that could put it in any country and any era. A sign proclaims its name to be 'Convergence', and through the window he can see people milling about, looking drunk off their asses and generally seeming like they're having a good time. B.J. texts a picture of it to Mindy with the caption "Ever been here before?", and then mentally says, fuck it, he might as well try this place out. An exiting couple holds the door open for him, and he really does think of Mindy for a second before heading for the bar. He has to weave between small wooden tables as he goes, every single one occupied by people of varying ages, colours, sizes, and states of inebriation. The closer B.J. gets to the bar proper, the rowdier the people at the tables are, till he finds a relatively empty corner of the counter that's thankfully devoid of yelling people.
The bartender, a guy with a receding hairline and clever eyes, asks B.J. what he wants. "Uh," he says, and names the first thing he sees on the menu.
"Sure thing," says the bartender. "Hey, you look kinda familiar. Do I know you from somewhere?"
B.J. briefly toys with the idea of introducing himself as the author of 'One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories' just to fuck with him. "Yeah, on The Office I was—"
"Oh!" says the bartender, slapping both hands on the counter. "You look like one of my regulars, that's all. We get a lot of folks in this place."
"...oh," says B.J., honestly surprised that the dude isn't calling him Ryan and belting Billy Joel. "Yeah, I guess I do look like a lot of people."
"Definitely." The bartender squints at him, then claps him on the shoulder. "You're welcome to sit and have a drink. Just don't stay too long."
"What? Oh—is it close to closing time?"
The bartender just stares at him for a long moment. "Sure, you could say that. It won't be open long."
"The...bar?" asks B.J., brows furrowed. You really do meet all kinds of people in Los Angeles, huh?
"The Convergence," the bartender says, which is sort of an answer, B.J. supposes. Then the man's attention shifts noticeably to the door. "Hey, Ryan, nice to see you! How you been, man?"
B.J. turns automatically and then feels his mouth drop open. This is even fucking weirder than whatever that conversation was. Because he would swear that's Ryan Howard walking towards the counter—dyed blond hair, the face he sees in the mirror every day, a suit B.J. literally remembers wearing on the set of The Office—talking into a cell phone B.J. also remembers with dizzying clarity.
"Kelly, come on," the guy says, sliding into the seat next to B.J. without even looking at him. B.J. fixes his attention very pointedly on the drink the bartender hands him and tries to figure out when the fuck cosplayers got this good. "I told you I'm going out with friends tonight, I can't talk to you. Yeah, Thailand friends. No, it is not our anniversary. Which one? We have, like, twenty. Yeah, that's fine, I don't care," whoever-it-is continues. "Sure. See you. Bye."
The phone shuts with a click, and then the guy looks at B.J. and does a double take. "Wow. Is it just me or do we look exactly alike?"
"Not just you, dude," says B.J., knowing it's physically impossible for Ryan Howard to actually exist and somehow still sort of believing it. "I'm B.J."
"Ryan," says Ryan, sticking out his hand. They shake. "You know, it's weird, man, a lot of people in LA look like me. I'm here on a soul-cleansing kinda thing, you know? Just trying to figure out who I am. It's super invigorating. Everyone I know thinks I'm in Thailand."
"Y'know, I feel like Los Angeles isn't the best place to cleanse your soul," says B.J., wheels turning in his head. "You sure, like, Fort Lauderdale wouldn't be a better choice?"
Ryan thinks about it. "Nah. What's there to do in Fort Lauderdale?"
Nothing, except that the writing crew picked it as the place for Ryan Howard to take his fake Thailand vacation while B.J. was filming...
The door opens. Someone else, someone in an army uniform, walks in, and B.J. begins to think he's had too much to drink already.
Somehow, Ryan sitting next to him makes it easier to digest Private First Class Smithson Utivich heading for the counter, still wearing the uniform B.J. remembers filming in all too well. "Howard," Utivich says, giving Ryan a sharp nod. Ryan nods languidly back. "Hello," says Utivich, sizing up B.J. before sticking out his hand. "If you don't mind my saying so, sir, we look damn similar."
"Yeah," says B.J. "I noticed." For the second time that night, he shakes hands with a doppelgänger, and then drains half of his mug to compensate.
"I'm glad you're still alive, man," says Ryan, who noticeably doesn't have anything to drink. Utivich, on the other hand, gets a very tall mug put in front of him by the bartender before he's even sat down properly. "Fighting for our country," Ryan continues. "Super patriotic of you."
"Thank you," says Utivich. "In my opinion, killing Nazis is more of a moral issue than a patriotic one."
"Nazis?" Ryan frowns. "What year you from, 1943?" Ryan slaps B.J. on the shoulder, who can't help but realize he's the oldest of all of them. Blond Ryan and Utivich are from roughly the same period of his life, making this encounter more than a little like receiving a shitty time capsule that freaks you out instead of giving you fond memories. "Ignore this guy," Ryan advises. "He talks like he's from the 1940s. Maybe it's an army thing."
"You're talking like it isn't 1943," says Utivich.
B.J.'s eyebrows go up; Ryan just tilts his head a little and squints. "You sure you haven't had anything to drink yet, Utivich?"
"I really don't understand you sometimes, Howard," is all Utivich says, shaking his head and taking a healthy sip from his mug. "Where are the others?"
"The others?" B.J. parrots.
"The members of our club," Ryan explains, pulling out his phone and checking the time before shoving it back in his pocket. Utivich doesn't even react to it, and B.J.'s too apprehensive of fucking with time to ask what he thinks Ryan's looking at. "We talk about how shitty our lives are. It's therapeutic."
"Oh, cool." B.J. not-so-subtly swivels his stool so his back is to the counter and his eyes are glued to the door. In his pocket, his phone buzzes, and he sees that it's a text from Mindy—Haven't been there, where is it? Invite me next time!—and in the thirty seconds it takes him to respond, an uneven set of footsteps limps up to the three of them.
"Hey, Bob, nice to see you," says Ryan, and B.J. stuffs his phone back in his pocket so fast it nearly falls back out. Ryan, meanwhile, doesn't even look up from his. "How're you hanging?"
"Good," says Robert Sherman, who died eight years ago, who isn't even the acclaimed songwriter at all but appears as B.J. himself portrayed him seven years ago. Bob Sherman, who carries the limp B.J. spent a near month perfecting and is now sort of relieved he did so. "Did we get a new member?"
"Yes," says Utivich, nodding to B.J., who waves at this third iteration of himself. "Bob, this is..."
"B.J.," he fills in, holding out his hand for Bob to shake. Not for the first time, B.J. wishes he didn't look so identical to his high school self, because the four of them together really do look like the exact same person. Aside from Ryan's hair. "Nice to meet you."
"You too," Sherman says as he seats himself on Ryan's left side. There's a wariness in his tone and eyes that even Utivich lacks.
The man in question gives Sherman a sympathetic once-over. "How's the leg?"
"Bad, as always." He nods his thanks to the bartender for the mug of what looks like beer slid across the counter, then adds, "There's this goddamn insufferable woman that Richard and I are working with. She's driving both of us absolutely crazy."
B.J. decides not to reveal that the woman in question is living under a false name and will, in Sherman's world at least, eventually turn out to be a genuinely good and cooperative person. He doesn't exactly feel like telling Utivich how his war is going to end, either.
Wait. Does Brad Pitt's character also exist in Utivich's world? Because if so, B.J. definitely wants to meet him.
He's only drawn out of his thoughts by the sudden realization that, if this freaky little gathering is supposed to be comprised of his biggest TV roles—and since he doesn't see Sophia the sex robot anywhere near, One More Thing characters don't seem to be included—they're missing one. "Where's Harry?" B.J. asks, interrupting Utivich in the middle of what sounds like a military story.
Utivich isn't offended, though, just blinks at him. "How did you know our last member is named Harry?"
B.J. shrugs, mentally smacking himself for his stupidity. The other men are staring at him with various degrees of confusion. "Lucky guess?"
Ryan holds up his phone. "Well, he just texted. Says he can't make it; too busy talking real estate with his new client."
"Really?' asks Sherman, sounding interested. "He found someone that can stand him?"
"He's not that bad," says Utivich.
"He helped me come up with my proposal to corporate," Ryan notes.
"Did that really work out so well for you, though?" B.J. says.
Ryan throws up his hands in exasperation. "Just because I dyed my hair doesn't mean I'm, like, down on my luck or something. I hate that everyone assumes that!"
"Maybe if it didn't look so..." Utivich begins.
Sherman snorts. "Dumb?"
"Well," says Ryan, "my girlfriend Kelly doesn't think it's dumb. She's the one who suggested I dye it."
B.J. smiles a little at this similarity between Ryan's world and his own. "Let me guess. You didn't want to do it at first, but she wore you down with kisses and very loud arguments until you gave in?"
"Yeah." Ryan gives him a bit of an odd look. "B.J., man, where are you from, exactly? How do you know so much about us?"
B.J. pauses. Tries to come up with an explanation that wouldn't massively fuck with the brains of the men staring back at him and comes up with nothing. "Um, I'm good at reading people?" he tries. "I'm a writer. It comes with the territory."
"Me too," says Sherman. "I wish that infernal Travers would let me get a good reading of her. I literally don't understand her at all."
"I feel you, man." Ryan sighs dramatically. "Kelly, right, like I do not understand that woman's signals—"
B.J. checks his phone again, relieved to have averted an identity crisis and a little alarmed by the fact that it's already almost nine-thirty.
When he looks up again, he's alone.
Ryan, Utivich and Sherman are gone.
"Hello?" says B.J., only managing to attract the attention of a couple sitting further down the counter who give him odd looks. He blinks, hard, but the three stools to his left remain obstinately empty.
Their cups are still there, though, all drained to the last drop.
"I told you," says the bartender, and B.J. looks at him sharply. The other man looks a little pleased. "That the Convergence wouldn't stay open."
"Convergence," B.J. repeats slowly, realizing for the first time that maybe he hadn't been referring to the name of the bar. "Was that...like, timelines converging? How—"
The bartender holds up a finger to shush him, dark eyes twinkling. "That's not for me to say, buddy. I think you'd best be on your way."
B.J. shakes his head to clear it a little. "Why?"
"It's not safe to stay here too long," says the bartender, brows raised. "Check your phone."
Three hours have passed in a minute.
His lockscreen and home screen have switched pictures.
It's 12:30 in the morning.
"Yeah, see?" says the bartender, smiling. "Have a good night, B.J."
"Uh." B.J. pockets his phone and slowly gets off the bar stool, glancing at the end of the counter and seeing that the couple is gone. So is almost everyone else in the bar, and he hadn't even noticed. "Goodnight."
He backs out the door and walks three blocks before he calls for a taxi.
Mindy doesn't believe him when he tells her what happened, but she goes to the bar with him the next week anyway. They have a drink, watch the game, argue as usual, and only halfway through does Mindy ask, "So is that the bartender?"
"The bartender," Mindy clarifies, picking up her glass. "From the last time you were here, remember?"
"I've never been here before," says B.J., frowning. "Mindy, you were the one who suggested we come here."
"I—no, yeah, you're right, never mind." Mindy laughs at herself and takes a generous sip of wine. "This week was so stressful, B.J., I think it's getting to me."
He cracks a grin. "You mean aside from Creepy Dan?"
"Yeah, can you believe it? Okay, so, on Wednesday after I called you I thought I was done with the Creepy Dan business. It was over, whatever. But then my producer called, and..."
"You think we're ever going to see that B.J. dude again?" Ryan asks, on the same night, at the same time, in the same place and yet also a different one.
"I don't know," says Utivich. "Maybe he forgot about us."
Months later B.J. writes a piece for the New Yorker about a bar where different versions of a man meet up and talk about how shitty their lives are. As all his stories are, it's funny and thought-provoking, but this one is widely acclaimed by critics and laypeople alike. Then it turns into an Internet meme wherein people quote one of the characters, who said "let's talk about how shitty our lives are", and use it as a sarcastic, catch-all phrase for calling out someone else's bullshit.
(Someone on Twitter started it by mentioning an American celebrity and saying, "Her: 'I would like a genuine apology for your actions. You:", and then including a picture of the drawing in the New Yorker where B.J.'s exhausted character is saying the quote in question. B.J. is kind of proud of himself for being the genesis of that meme.)
Anyway, one thing leads to another, and eventually B.J.'s asked in an interview where exactly he got the inspiration for the story behind the meme.
"You know, it's funny that you ask," says B.J. "I've had this recurring dream where the exact plot of the story happens to me. Like, I enter a bar, I meet these different versions of myself, and, you know, we talk about how shitty our lives are." Polite laughter from the interviewer. "I don't know that I usually get my inspiration from dreams—it's kind of just ideas that I think would be funny and, you know, want to explore them—but this one was basically born fully formed."
And how did you come up with the title? Was that part of the dream, too?
"Oh, yeah, for sure," says B.J. "I remember waking up and realizing that I had to write about this man, and his alternate selves, and this bar that was named Convergence."