What I wouldn’t give to drink like I was sixteen again. When two six packs, a pint of peach schnapps and two joints in a Sucrets tin could last a weekend at the cabin but would not be enough to even make the drive now. To not have to spend forty dollars on high end IPA’s and brown liquor just to bend the mood enough to make me tolerable at home in the evening. Back then I’d be smiling on a half can of Stroh’s and laughing out loud by the time it was finished. Those. Those were the days.
The kiosk to order custom cakes was all the way at the back of the store, which really was a warehouse. Enter through the garage doors and past the computers, televisions and other electronics, past outerwear (seasons change, hoodies gone), past books, furniture (again, seasons, so it’s patio tables and pergolas), batteries, then the produce, then the packaged cookies and bread, then finally, after a half mile of smooth concrete, the kiosk.
Typically deserted, today a young woman in an apron was bent slightly digging with a pair of scissors in the slot that should have held the order forms. Her round bottom challenged her jeans and threatened to squeeze her phone out of her pocket like a watermelon seed.
“That’s where all the pens go”, I said looking over her shoulder. She smelled of icing.
“They tear them off of this”, she indicated the squiggly cord that usually held a pen, “And toss them in here or walk off with them…I mean, really…then people come looking for me, I have to find a pen…” Through all this she kept digging.
I proudly held out my pen. “I bring one with me-just in case.”
Having fished out three pens and a quarter she paused and smiled. “Well done! You here a lot?”
A little light went off. “Oh, you’re the five-cake guy.”
“Yep. That’s my mob name, ‘Tommy Five Cakes’ “.
She laughed, flashing a tiny dab of lipstick on her front tooth. “Let me know if you need anything”, she said walking away.
Next stop was the liquor store two blocks down for a couple of bottles and a box. She liked box red as our “maintenance” wine-what we drank instead of killing all the good stuff too quickly. They never had my favorite bourbon so I substituted another that would do the trick. And a bottle of cold Chardonnay for the ride home.
Sliding carefully by, I tried to avoid the pretty girl at the near register. Purple lipstick, same color nails and upswept blonde hair. I imagined a nose stud but wouldn’t look. Nothing but trouble this one. She caught my eye.
“I’ll take you over here”, she said. I stood in front of her register avoiding eye contact waiting for the total so I could insert my card.
“You want your box in a bag?” she asked.
“No”, I said looking up but only slightly. “Nor do I want my bag in a box.”
She froze a moment, then continued with a slight uptick to the corner of her mouth. “You had me for a second.”
“But only for a second”, I said. “You’re too quick for that.”
“Maybe.” It was a real smile when she slid the box and bag my way.
“Have a day”, she said.
This is me flirting now.
I love women who
that I won’t bother
Like one who believes in
but doesn’t worship.
Just happy that she’s
© TDR – 2019
Image: “Getting out”, papercut by Marina Mozhayeva
The drear gray of another rainy April morning
Almost made me long for February when darkness
At least had the decency to hang around awhile.
The back bar was full of loud nurses off the night shift
At the hospital up the street.
Front bar was us, the shiftless,
Remembering when a morning’s drinking felt earned
By a hard night’s work.
A familiar face at the end of the bar,
I raise a glass, he nods a lifted eyebrow.
Dated his sister years ago.
City detective; don’t know if he’s
coming off or going on.
Vodka and OJ-perfect cover.
Used to call them screwdrivers,
Don’t know if they still do.
This isn’t the kind of place where drinks have names.
There was an empty stool beside me but he stood
Leaning-here but not here-eyes covering the door.
Don’t ask how I know, but he keeps a boyfriend
In an apartment a few blocks up the hill.
Cute kid. College student.
Too young for him but who am I to say?
Both TV’s were muted against the chatter
But you could see they were talking about drugs;
The words OPIOID EPIDEMIC slid across the screen
Like a banner pulled behind a plane.
There were pictures of pills and flashing red lights
And serious faces trying to explain the scourge.
Don’t know what’s so hard, he said.
You feel shitty.
You take a pill.
You feel better.
How tough is that?
The drugs ain’t the problem, he said.
It’s the feeling shitty.
That’s what we gotta get a handle on.
Outside you could reach up and touch the dark, pressing clouds.
It might snow yet, the fucker.
I’m BOOZER! he roared
Slamming his fists on the bar,
Rattling glasses and tipping Baldy’s beer.
Jesus Walter, Baldy said catching what he could.
He’d been quiet, blinking behind his glasses for hours.
A man and his whiskey.
I’m BIG BOOZER!
You’re Walter Tattalega, old white shirt said,
His officious head up his ass.
That was it from them for now.
When Boozer got started they melted into the dark paneling like oil
Leaving me alone to manage him
Because I was the bartender and bigger than them
But no way the size of Boozer.
Plus, I was a kid. The only battles I’d fought were on the football field-
Which counted for shit.
He had a bad war, they said. Whatever that meant.
Didn’t seem to be having a good peace neither.
He’d a killed me if he had a mind to. But he didn’t.
Word was he served with my uncle who didn’t come home.
He’d always let me walk him to the door, my hand resting on his shoulder
A giant breathing, ham.
Never pushing-just resting there-feeling the strength and the tension.
He touched me on the chin as he left-a soft cuff that
Made me wince.
They oozed back around the bar once Boozer was gone.
You think you could play ball, one said. You shoulda seen Walter when he was a boy.
Shame what happened to him.
Shame what they did to him.
I was suddenly too small to see over the bar.
Had to jump up to sit, legs dangling, on a stool,
Having a Pepsi and chips while the old man shot pool.
Christ, he’d a killed me if he had a mind. to.
I knew there was a line. Plenty of them-actually. Too fucking many of them. And they always moved, sometimes blurred, but they were there. And why were they scratching at the door so early, the cats? By rights, they were hers and she should have taken them with her. Some bullshit about no room, allergies, carpets, whatever-she just said what came into her mind at the time. So she’s gone, the cats are here. Three years of cooing, baby talk, petting and combing-out the fucking window. So I hadda get up-they wouldn’t stop. I stepped into the hallway dragging my feet so I wouldn’t trip over them-or stomp them-and went downstairs not turning a light on, so they would know somehow that it was the middle of the night and not time to be getting up. With only the streetlight watching I opened the can, split it into two bowls, added warm water and leaned back, listening to them lapping in the dark. I sure as hell wasn’t going to make coffee-had to be too early for that-so I opened the fridge for orange juice. None, of course. But there was a beer. A few actually, left from last night. How long ago could that have been? An hour? Two? It mattered somehow: was it still night, or morning? Quickly tired of waiting for an answer, I popped the top on one and closed the door, slipping back into the shadows. I expected to shiver at the first swallow, but it went down so nice. Nothing had felt that smooth in weeks. My cigarettes were in the jacket pocket over the chair. I grabbed the pack and headed for the door to smoke on the porch but caught myself. My fucking house now. Using a cat’s bowl for an ashtray I sat at the table and drained my first, or one of my last, beers of the day.
I decided to stay in and drink alone today.
Not as dire as it might seem.
We shoveled snow for two hours this morning-
Before she could get the truck out to visit her family.
Then I needed some eggs and a pain pill before
Hooking up the new hot water tank.
Course I needed another pill after an hour on the concrete floor.
Feel free to go out and grab a meal, she said on her way out.
I’ll be late.
My back has begun to loosen;
And my knee to straighten.
Both hands can now open flat on the table.
You got anything to say old man? I ask the empty room;
Startled by the growl of my own voice.
He was quiet for now, but I’m sure he’ll be around later.
My head feels light on my neck-airy;
Like a beach ball in a breeze.
I decided to stay in and drink alone today.
Flew to Paris years ago on business. I was saddled with a mid-level manager who was as loose as uncooked pasta so I had to entertain myself. Because it was those times, I snorted coke crouching in the lav then couldn’t sleep the whole way across the Atlantic; drank too much in the darkened plane till I got tired of it then dropped a Quaalude. The times, as I said.
By the time we landed the drugs had cancelled each other and I was straight, but wine drunk and it was midmorning. He wanted to go to the hotel to “freshen up” whatever that meant, but it was my first trip to Paris so I commandeered the cab and barked “Pere Lachaise!” Where? he asked. Cemetery, I said. We’re in Paris and we’re going to a cemetery? Who’s buried there? Balzac, I told him. Balzac. Turned out to be true but what did I know? Just said it. Didn’t want to tell him we were going to Jim Morrison’s grave.
The jig was up when we got out of the cab and picked up a map from an old woman on a folding chair and started following the makeshift signage. As we got closer, the graffiti thickened, the litter deepened and just as we reached the small circle of pilgrims passing a joint, which I grabbed at, the sun hit me like an ax and the night of red wine split my skull. Somewhere there is a picture of me talking to a pack of German girls one of whom had some English. None of them thought Morrison was buried there. That he was dead at all. I had no problem with him being dead-that it could happen. That’s what people did: some sooner some later. I never thought he wasn’t buried there.
Until the morning, years later, when I saw him working in a bait shop in North East, PA where we had gone salmon fishing. We were almost sick at the time, having drunk all night and barely sober in the cool autumn morning. Aside from the fishing and wine, North East was known for fresh donuts made in a bakery with huge foggy widows on the main drag. People lined the street for them. That was back then-not now. Now it’s all Horton’s and Dunkin and that shit.
So the first thing we did was split two dozen fresh, gooey hot glazed donuts and sweet steaming coffee from Styrofoam cups. Then went to the bait shop near the creek where Jim Morrison sold us salmon eggs and hooks. It was surreal. I couldn’t stop staring at him. I even called him “Jim” and he looked at me like I was nuts. It wasn’t till later, on the stream, that I realized the guy didn’t look like Morrison at all, but like a fat Val Kilmer. I had them confused from the movie. Fucking embarrassment. Coulda been worse. Coulda thought he was Doc Holliday.
Caught three nice steelhead that morning, on the eggs I bought and only puked once behind a tree. Kicked leaves over it. Turned out to be a good day overall.
A December warm front had filled the valley with a thick drizzling fog that turned midday to dusk. I had just left the Vet’s club heading for Tony’s Wild Irish Rose on the corner because I had a thing for the daytime bartender. Too early to tell if she was open or interested, but it seemed promising. Had to put in the time to find out but things had started to look up over the past couple of weeks.
I stopped short noticing a distinctive shadow down the block in the fog.
He was less a person from here than a dark smudge on a dirty gray sheet.
“Mark! What the fuck are you doin?”
Mark was below me through a gap where a church had burned, across the alley on the railroad track. From what I could tell, he was more than half way through Master Chen’s 60 movement tai chi form. I knew the form well enough; he’d been trying, with varying degrees of success, to teach it to me over the last two years. But that was in his dojo, two blocks up next to the bodega. Not down on the tracks.
He would do this kind of stuff when it struck him. And it was much easier to deal with him when he was drinking. Then he knew, on some level, at some lizard brain level, that what he was doing might be stupid and would allow himself to be talked out of it. He lived with the hard-wired assumption that he might be wrong because he was a drunk.
Now, four months sober, there was no reasoning with him. He could not be dissuaded from ANYTHING! Today he was frighteningly sober. The kind of aggressive-sober only drunks could get. And he was doing tai chi on the railroad tracks.
“I smell the booze coming off you”, he growled when I got close enough.
Better a shot of CC than getting hit by a train, I thought. But said nothing. His movements were crisp but flowing. Hundreds of years of meditative body mechanics brought to bear on the rocky ballast in the down side of town.
“Put me on the list”, he said.
“Your pallbearer list.“
Shit, I thought. I had forgotten I’d told him about that. It wasn’t like I’d written it down or anything. And it wasn’t final. There were ten or twelve possibles that moved in and out as the mood struck. Unless they died, then obviously, off for good.
“I said I didn’t want to do it”, he went on. “But that will be fine. I’d like to speak too. Say something about you being weak and a drunk who shoulda died years ago and saved the air for the rest of us.”
“I don’t know if that will go over. I’m sure I’ll have family there.”
“Betcha I won’t get an argument”, he said, still never looking my way.
There was a growing rumble in the tracks. The afternoon CSX, filled with coal, was winding its way down river but was slowed by the big curve and the bridge on the other side of the switching yard. Still-by the sound of the whistle-it was no more than a half mile away.
“Train’s comin’”, I said.
He ignored me and kept to his pace. He’d probably finish in time. Nothing to be done.
I walked up to The Rose and sat at the end of the bar where I could still see him through the window. Treena, following my eyes, placed a beer in front of me and poured a shot. “He was in here earlier looking for you.”
“I was at the Vet’s earlier. What time did you start?”
“Trying to get an extra couple hours”, she explained. “Hadda take tomorrow off. Headin’ down to West Virginia. My old man’s gettin’ outta jail.”
“No dipshit. My husband. Did eighteen months. Early release.”
“Didn’t know you were married.”
“Who wants to talk about their husband in prison? Went in with the meth-hope he’s coming out clean. Said they fixed his teeth.”
She smiled. Her teeth were good, except for the cracked one in front.
I pounded the shot and chased it with the beer as the train blew by a little too fast; it’s whistle, loud and bawling, rattling glasses behind the bar. Couldn’t see Mark anywhere.
I signaled for another round.
Someone once told me that Jerry Garcia died getting straight. If he had stayed an addict, he’d still be alive. I don’t know about that but Mark Krajack never woulda faced down a train drunk. He woulda joined me someplace outta the fog for a beer and tried to converse over the roar of the whistle. That’s what he woulda done.
Are you getting up?
Maybe. Christ, do I have a headache.
You almost drank a bottle of Maker’s.
Not that much.
You opened the bottle, now it’s almost gone.
Is it going to rain? Feels like my sinuses are going to blow.
Not even with water. You just swilled it!
There was ice.
Only in the first one!
You drank a glass while you were asleep, I swear.
You were sitting there with your eyes closed, bringing the glass
To your lips.
I wasn’t sleeping!
You were snoring between swallows.
I took a picture-here, look. That’s whisky. That there is drool.
Do we have echinacea in the house? I might be getting a cold.
Vitamin C might help.
Wonder if I have allergies…