The road forked. I had a choice. It was tempting to hang a left and pass by my old house. I was in the mood for memories, at that moment. Cemeteries will do that to you. The road to the right, however, was concrete, and that’s what I felt I needed. Something concrete. Straightforward. Instead, the highway unfolded in front of me like a tortuous tombstone. Or a cement serpent, the cold February sun reflecting off of the bright yellow line running down its back, screaming DANGER.
“Teach me thy way, O Lord, and lead me in a straight path,” I whispered. The way was anything but straight. I wanted a drink. And I had an idea.
Just ahead, around the next bend. There. Mac’s Halfway House, a small white clapboard building with a deep green, shingle roof, half way between the two towns of my youth. Pretty sensible name. And I’d always assumed that the original proprietor had been a guy named Mac. I parked beside one of three spruces that had been planted for shade, a century ago. No one had thought about what a large shadow the mature trees would cast. No one had thought about consequences. A sarcastic smile snaked across my lips.
I sat down at the bar and ordered a Manhattan cocktail. I stared for a moment at a long expanse of polished wood that had seen plenty of wear. The place itself was dark, but cozy. Kind of like nestling into a coffin, I thought, and smiled to myself once again. Mac’s was empty, but for a solitary soul seated on a nearby stool. Not a big surprise, since it was the middle of the day and the middle of winter.
“Haven’t seen you in here before,” the fellow said to his beer. “You new in town or just passing through?”
“No, and yes,” I answered. “I grew up here but I came back for a quick visit.”
“Relatives?” he asked, laconically.
“You might call it a family reunion,” I replied, with a wry twist to my tone. He turned his stool to face me. “I just came from the cemetery.” The bartender set the Manhattan down.
“That bad, huh?” I shot the stranger a puzzled look. “I fancy those babies, too, but not at two in the afternoon. Though I guess cemeteries can do that to you.” He drew a few small circles on his beer bottle. “So who’d you visit?”
“Well, my grandparents are buried there. Both sets. An aunt and an uncle. My dad___”
“Geez, you weren’t kidding when you said it was a family reunion.”
“Even my daughter.”
“Oh, god, I’m really sorry.” The guy shifted a bit uneasily. “I’m surprised you didn’t line up a dozen of those things.”
I waved him off. “That’s okay. I mean, I always see her of course, if you know what I mean. But I came up especially for my dad. He died this time month about twenty-five years ago.”
“He must have been young.”
“He was. Sixty. Cancer of the pancreas. They say liquor is not indicated as a cause. But booze=sugar=insulin =pancreas.” I shrugged and held the cocktail up by the stem. “Teach me thy way, O Lord, and lead me in a plain path,” I said, and sipped the drink.
“That’s an ironic thing to say, belting down pure rye whiskey.”
“It was meant to be. In fact, we put it on my father’s tombstone.” The verse from the psalm had stared at me, earlier that afternoon, with a soft, grey gaze, incised into brilliant black granite.
“Was he religious?”
“About his rye whisky, you can bet your ass on that.” I took another sip of the cocktail. It made the hairs on my arm stand straight up. “Tell you something even more ironic though. Know where the quote came from?”
“I’m not religious either, but I’m not dumb. Sounds like a psalm.”
“Twenty-seven, to be exact. It was taped onto the inside of the liquor cabinet.”
“Was it a plea?” the stranger asked, quietly.
“I doubt it. Probably a goal. I think it was a sentiment that was meant, somehow, to act as a guide to his behavior; the way he wanted to live his life. When the cabinet door was closed, of course. When it was open, and he’d reach for the bottle, it became an inside joke. My father was complicated.”
“Aren’t they all,” he said, with a smile. “Irony’s complicated, too. It blurs those distinctions that define meaning. But irony always makes us smile a little; maybe just a sardonic smile, or less even, a bitter grimace tucked deep inside.”
I nodded. Who is this fellow. “For some of us, the only way to cope is to laugh on the gallows,” I replied.
“Then what was the real joke?” he asked.
“I think you know. Wetheads come in all different flavors. There’s the lively drunk, the morose drunk___”
“The happy drunk, the nasty drunk___”
“The violent drunk, the sentimental drunk___”
“The incoherent, repetitive drunk.”
“Yup. But in the end, they all bleed out and drop into a boozy slumber,” I finished.
“A relief for them? Who can tell?” the stranger remarked.
“A relief, certainly, for the poor bastards that surround them. Work, family, friends. And they all hope that the next day things will be different. No shot of vodka in the OJ at breakfast. No martini at lunch. No rattling of ice cubes in a glass at five o’clock, if the addict waits that long.”
“As they say, it’s always five o’clock somewhere,” he said. “And some drunks perpetually circumnavigate.”
I smiled. “You asked what the real joke is? Hope. The false hope of the victims and the enablers is the real joke. Because the next day the clown starts the carnival ride all over again.”
“It’s worse than that,” he said. “Because everyone believes that there’s some element of free will involved. That the boozer can break the habit, or, worse even, they think that they can break free of the boozer.”
“Like satellites circling a sick star.” I shook my head. “Some poor souls get too close and simply burn up. Others survive, at a distance, but never escape; doomed, I guess, to live out a cold, miserable twilight existence. And some, like me, orbit at vast distances and describe highly eccentric paths.” I traced a grand ellipse with my hand. “We are merely under the illusion that we’re free of the influence of the drinker.” I took a large gulp from my glass and asked for a refill. I’d never finish the damned thing but I needed it in front of me, as a prompt.
“Okay. What’s your story?” he asked.
“Actually, it’s my story and my sister’s. I escaped, in a way, as I just explained, but she didn’t.” I ran my finger around the rim of the cocktail glass. “When I was about six or seven, I decided it was time to split, whenever the boozy haze at home became too dense to navigate. My parents were in their thirties and full of piss and vinegar.”
“Who isn’t, at that age?”
“Right. So they’d throw parties on Saturday nights___”
“Right. I’m not sure what drove me out. It may have been the sappy music of Mitch Miller.”
“Can you believe they actually listened to that shit?” He shook his head.
I shrugged. “I was probably too young to have regarded it as sappy, but it sure was annoying. Al Jolsen, at full Fosdick, finally set my mind to it. Although, I had had an inkling to separate myself from their habit, even as a crummy little four or five year old. When we’d go on family vacation, mom would drop the glove box in the car at five o’clock and set up a mini bar.
“Anyway, as I was saying, a seven year old can get rubbed pretty raw at two in the morning. And the tipping point was Mom.”
“So you had two alchies to contend with? That’s a bit unusual.”
“That’s what they say. My sister gave me some books about ACOAs years back, and not one dealt with a family that had both parents in the tank.” I shifted position to face him, but it was hard to make out his features very clearly. It was that dusky inside the barroom. No matter. “Anyway, mammy would float into the room, surfing sweet Swanee, ‘how I love ya, how I love ya’, twisting this way and that, describing a desultory path, her flouncey fifties skirt ballooning about her. She looked a bit like a giant moth caught in a current. Behind her, the hallway light shone in a blinding blaze, like the high beams of an oncoming car.
“As she hovered above my head, her boozy breath blending with the noise like a nasty cocktail, I asked when the party would end. ‘Soon’, she’d always answer. I knew that to be false, so I pleaded with her to turn down the music. She’d agree. She’d always agree, then leave the room, to my relief. And she would turn the volume down for a few minutes, until she forgot her promise and Mitch would dig deep and penetrate my bedroom, word by perfectly articulated word. Like broken glass.
“I resolved that the next time I learned they were planning a party, I would quit the place for my grandparents’. And so I did. I had always felt safe with them. There was no need for making excuses, since I had stayed with them long before I learned the difference between Mitch and Al.
“When I got older, the visits to my grandparents’ homes grew less frequent, but I still made them. I enjoyed my grandparents’ company.”
I took a small sip of the Manhattan, then pushed it away. “My dad always ran his own businesses. We were of that odd class, collars neither blue nor white___”
“I believe they call it the petit bourgeoi-sie in Europe,” the stranger remarked, lingering on the last syllable of the French phrase.
“Right. The parties had long since given way to the mundane grind of doing the payroll and doing the books. Downing a beer to wash down a simple shot of rye. Straight shots of vodka for mammy. Middle age and the demands of managing a small business simply shuttled the booze to a different place on the schedule.”
“Sounds as if the old man drank at home. At least he didn’t blow through the door shitfaced and ornery, after a couple of hours at the local gin mill with his buddies,” the stranger said.
“That’s true, and I suppose that was a small comfort. Mom was his drinking buddy. Of course, that had its own drawbacks.”
“As they say, no such thing as a free lunch.”
“Now that statement is beyond true,” I answered.
“Ain’t it, though.”
“When I was a teen, I had a car. I could escape. I could go anywhere.”
“What about your sister? You said she’s part of your story.”
“I escaped and she couldn’t. There was a big age gap. Seven years. Or maybe it was because she wouldn’t. I mean, with my grandparents, she just wasn’t, um…”
“Yeah, that’s it. Exactly. And as bad as it was, the drinking didn’t really spin completely out of control, until I went to college. She began to tell me stories. “
“She had a girlfriend that lived next door. They were real close. They’re still in touch after all these years. Anyway, they would play and play and play ‘til way past dark. One night, deep into autumn, they ran, breathless, up onto the side porch, just off our kitchen. My sister stopped short and held her friend back with her hand. They drew back into the shadows and stared through the window.
“Our mother was standing at the kitchen counter in front of the liquor cabinet.”
“Let me guess,” he said. “I’ll bet she wasn’t contemplating Psalm 27.”
I laughed. “Bet your ass on that one. No, she was doing shots of vodka. Nothing unusual in that. My sister and her friend had seen it all before. In fact, her friend’s mom had her own addiction. Sex. But that’s another story.
“The real Kabomb was that mammy was whackin’ back shots stark naked. But I’ll have to move on fast, since I’d rather not dwell on that mental image for even a nanosecond.”
“I can certainly understand that,” the stranger said.
“When I graduated from college, my sister had just entered high school. She was starting to fledge. Big time. Getting good grades, real popular. She’d even joined a sorority. But it was the early seventies and times were tough. My old man threw in the towel and moved the family to Florida to start a new business. Again. It was tough, building a business.”
“Always is,” he said. “Curse of the merchant class.”
“Exactly. But it was a fucking disaster for her. Not only did she have to start the socialization process all over, but hard times meant hard drinking.
“One night she begged my dad to stop. He went into the kitchen, made himself a very large Manhattan cocktail and sipped it, with a smile, right in front of her. She bolted. When she got home, later that night, he was passed out under a palm tree.
“And on and on, until she went to college. But it was, as they say, ‘frying pan into___”
“Yup. She met this guy. One of the more fun guys to party with on the planet. And party he did. Everything, he did. Including crawling through the window at four in the morning, when she’d locked him out. Which, I guess, is actually kind of funny.”
“Yeah, unless you’re on the receiving end.”
“Anyway, now she was in orbit around a binary star system.”
The guy chuckled. “How did that turn out,” he asked.
“They’re still together. Divorced once. Remarried.”
“Sounds as if they like one another. That’s something, isn’t it?” he said.
I shrugged. “I guess. But still…”
“But still you feel as if you could have done more, is that it? I mean, when there’s that kind of chaos, isn’t there often a sibling that holds things together.”
“That’s what the books say.”
“Were you the star? The perfect child?” he asked.
“I was supposed to have been, I guess. I can rationalize my behavior. As a little kid, she wouldn’t leave home. In college, I was at a distance and didn’t really know how bad things were. There was this age gap. But that’s all bullshit.”
“No, it isn’t entirely. You weren’t a parent. It wasn’t your responsibility. Not entirely. You did what seemed to make sense for you and for her.”
“I don’t know. Maybe…”
“Sure. Maybe if all of the circumstances had been different, even a little, everything would have turned out differently. But then you and I wouldn’t be sitting here right now having this exact conversation, would we?”
The stranger pushed his stool back a bit from the bar. “Did you ever confront them? That’s something you could have done.”
“Waste of time with mom. She’d go into total denial. ‘It’s my life’, she’d say___”
“Which is complete bullshit. When you have kids you lose your life,” he said. “As one psychologist put it, whom I happened to have read, there’s only so much that each family can pour into the emotional well. And the kids take it all. But they put very little in. That’s their nature; and if you don’t get that, don’t have them.”
“The best was when she’d go around singing ‘I gotta be me’. Jesus, that was fucking annoying,” I said.
“Well, you gotta admit that her taste in music had improved. Sinatra beats the hell out of Jolsen, any day. In my book, at least.” I laughed heartily. It felt good. “And pappy?”
“As I said…”
“He knew. Sometimes he’d listen___”
“But he’d never stop.”
“Right. And sometimes he’d get angry. And I’d had enough of that as a kid,” I said.
“So, he’d smack you?”
“Smack is a euphemism. But you know what? He never touched me when he’d been drinking,” I said, in a voice so soft I wasn’t sure he’d heard me.” But he had. He cleared his throat and stood up. “He’d have his rages when he drank. But he never hit me.”
I laughed. “Oh, he belted me, on a regular, irregular basis. Funny, though, when he’d lose it after he’d been drinking, he’d always be remorseful, apologetic even, the next day.” I laughed again, but it was tinged with bitterness. I could tell. The place was that quiet now. “Know what? I kind of wish he’d whacked me when he was loaded. At least he would have apologized the next day.”
“Did he ever apologize for the boozing? Ever?” the stranger asked.
“Not exactly. But before he died, when he was already in the hospital, he said to me, “I guess I was an alcoholic.” That’s something, “I said.
“Yeah, but not enough, I’d say. And how’s your mother these days. I assume she’s still alive?”
“Oh boy, is she ever. In her eighties and healthy as an ox! And I do mean healthy. Off the twags, eating nuts and berries. Exercising,” I said, shaking my head. “Now that’s ironic.”
“She still drinking?”
“Yes, but she’s off the hard stuff. She’ll have a glass of wine, or two, before dinner, when we’re around. Although my sister and I think the count goes up when either of us is not around.” I shrugged.
“You mean, if a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there to hear it___”
“Does it make a sound?” I took a very deep breath.
“And have your sister and your mom___”
“Reconciled? They’re working on it,” I said. “Mom’s still in denial, but at least it’s not total.” I exhaled deeply. “Of course, the best we can ever do is learn to live with our histories. We can’t change them, and we can’t really change ourselves, fundamentally.”
“That’s true. We can only adjust our behavior so that we can live with our pasts. But it sounds as if you’ve figured that out,” he said.
The fellow pushed his stool back against the bar and moved toward me. I can’t say that I recognized him, but the features were familiar. Odd.
He picked up my Manhattan and smiled at me. “Do you know the story of Tantalus?” he asked.
“Sure,” I answered. “I’m something of a classicist.”
“Yeah, I know,” he said. I cocked my head and looked him over.
“So you know that he stole nectar and ambrosia from the gods and then tried to atone by sacrificing his children. But it didn’t fly with the Olympians. They condemned him to be tempted for all time by his desire, and for it to be always unfulfilled.
“I am so sorry,” he said, and lifted the glass to his lips. The fellow drained my Manhattan. The liquor flowed out of his body and onto the floor. I stared for a moment at the puddle of rye and vermouth. As I looked up, the stranger seemed to evanesce as the Manhattan evaporated off the hardwood.
“Spill your drink?” the bartender asked.
“Sort of, “I said.
“Want me to mop it up?”
“No. Actually, the guy who spilled it just cleaned up his own mess.”
“The one I’ve been talking to for the last ten minutes,” I answered.
The bartender eyed me suspiciously. “You the only one that’s been in here since lunch. It’s been quiet as a grave.” Nice choice of words, I thought. “Sure you’re okay? Want another?”
“No, thanks. The next round never solves a thing.”
© Paul Sinsar 2017