Short story by Mason Bolton
There was a glass with his name on it.
He lifted it up to his mouth and saw the world through an amber haze as he let the harsh liquid fill his mouth. A comforting fire filled him as it slid down his throat to his belly. Ice rested against his lips as he took his slow swallow.
He placed the half-empty glass back down on the bar, but did not relinquish his hold on it. Slumped over the counter he looked through his glass and watched the ice shift in the remnants of whiskey. He pushed himself up just enough to comfortably finish his drink and put it back down with a hard thunk against the counter. No sooner had it touched the wood than he had signaled the bartender. Then, and only then, did he finally take his hand off the glass.
It was filled again and placed back before him. His hand flew to reattach itself. He held it up to his face with an elbow rested against the bar top and studied the dark liquid gold.
There it was again. A nice and full glass that looked new and tidy; it hid the evidence of its previous tenant, just like the beer bottles that had been their predecessors. Each glass could have been his first to an outsider, just a beginning. A clean slate.
Oh, but only if it were. No, instead he was sitting in his bar, the same bar that had once been his father’s and his father’s father and so on. Someday his son would probably sit on a stool just like this one. Maybe he would sit on this very stool.
Something tightened and hardened in his chest.
What was more depressing though was wondering if what he was doing now was what his father and father’s father had done before. He had always thought of them as being a little pathetic: coming home stumbling and smelling like cheap beer and stale smoke; when they woke their sleeping children and tearfully told them “I love you. Don’t forget that.”
Had they spent their nights away like this? Had they sat for long lonely hours at the nameless local bar wondering “what-if”s and “might’ve been”s? Had they felt guilty knowing their wife was home with their baby? Did they spend their time thinking about redheads who got away instead?
Redheads like his auburn beverage; all spicy fire and heady earth. The kind of auburn that sent the blood rushing to your head, to your heart, so fast you nearly passed out every time. It was the kind of auburn you spent the rest of your life looking around corners for. The kind of auburn you’d never find in a glass or bottle.
Just like at the end of fall the auburn and the past had been blown away with the leaves. Gone were the days of carefree youth and happy romance. Oh well, that was to be expected, wasn’t it? Hadn’t it been like that for his dad and so-on and so-forth? Now he was a family man just like they had been. Now he had a wife just like they had had and a child of his own. That was enough for him, just like it had been for the men who came before him. So what if her hair wasn’t red enough? So what if she didn’t make the blood rush to his head? She was here and real and his redhead had left so long ago that it was more like a distant dream than a memory.
A slight hint of cherry flitted to his nose. In drunken earnest his back straightened and his head rose; he forced his gaze to bring each patron into focus, only to slump and sag back on himself when the culprit failed to be seen and his evidence became hidden under smoke and sweat. Cherry lip balm. His redhead had always taken such good care of those lips. Even now he could close his eyes and imagine he felt their softness against his rough skin, freshly balmed and quirked into a secretive smirk or a chastising purse. He’d been the only one he had ever known to be able to kiss with a frown. How badly he missed those lips now.
When was the last time they’d actually touched his own skin? When had that last goodbye been? Six years.
It had been six years.
Already six years; only six years. How many more would it take to stop the pain? Had it really been so long ago they’d been in love? It seemed so strong in him to be so very far away. It still filled his thoughts and dreams, each frayed sense, smell, sight, taste, touch, like the alcohol he imbibed for the purpose of forgetting. Each was of a high proof, easily overwhelming when swallowed quickly and without substance to cushion the blow, but incessantly beckoning sweetly to his starving aspirations of delirious joy and contentment. Neither ever fulfilled him and both gave him a headache when he took in too much.
Still he could remember those days when careless youth had seemed infinite, even when he’d been well aware it wasn’t and never was. He’d been destined from the start to stay here, whether it was this town or one five hundred miles away it made no difference. He was born and bred trailer-trash. In a moment of bruised ego he’d flaunt it to his tormentors, those kids who came to school with specially bagged lunches and fresh, chic clothes who’d regarded him with disgust and pity. He’d march around them with bravado and pride, a child tripping over his father’s shoes but still insisting to wear them. His friends had known it was all bullshit. They knew he was full of shit. He knew he was full of shit. And he knew they were all full of shit too. They never said anything about it though; nothing. They’d rag on each other, fuck with each other, but never asked for unproffered information, not even when everyone already knew it.
No one except his redhead.
His redhead was the only one that broke the code…But then, they’d broken a lot of those self-imposed rules hadn’t they?
What had his redhead said? “This is for the best”? Something like that.
How was this for the best, huh? How the fuck had things turned out better than they would have any other way? Huh, Daniel, just how had they turned out to be so great?
And where was his redhead to answer his question?
No where to be found.
Even when sullen anger burned his throat his heart still ached to see those auburn curls again.
He stood and pulled money from his pocket. He placed several bills under his empty glass and grabbed his coat. The noise fell silent when the door swung shut behind him. He pulled his coat on clumsily and stumbled a bit as he walked home. He never drove to the bar anymore. He had more freedom this way.
Hot breath crystallized in the frozen air. His path was a haze of dark shadows and blurs, the memory of so many previous footsteps was the only thing that led him to home instead of some unfortunate alley or ditch. His mind begged to lead him off to the furthest corners of town, to the places of long, sweet kisses from so many years ago, to a childhood long lost; thankfully, his feet refused, they stayed the course they had set on from the bar door.
All too soon a too familiar blur met his eyes. Above him the outside light was off, she had gone to bed long ago; he wasn’t surprised. He stared at the door only inches from his face and imagined the flaking, dulled paint he could not see in the dark. He licked at his chapped lips.
For several moments he stood in drunken reverie. He debated going in. He debated running away. He was still young, he could still make a new life for himself. He could still find his redhead, the one who got away.
A thick puff of whiskey breath pulled his fantasy away with it up into the atmosphere.
He could never leave his son, would never leave his son. And no doubt his redhead was married now, and he was just a long-forgotten childhood romance, only called to mind on rainy spring mornings when the frost of departing winter still chilled the air. His wife needed him there, to pay the bills, to raise their son. She was a good woman, she didn’t ask for this.
The near nightly ritual of contemplation and morose affirmation complete, he slipped in the house with a groan of the door that his heart echoed in magnitude. With stumbling movement he kicked out of his boots with muffled curses. He padded through the small house to the tiny hallway to the smallest room of all.
Quaint and clean, the room smelled of baby powder, of a mother’s touch. He couldn’t remember what color the room was. Was it blue? Was it green? Guilt rested idly in his heart.
Pressed against the far wall was a crib, wooden bars guarding the precious cargo within. Its contents lay slumbering and bundled up in thick blankets, blissfully dreaming under the moonbeams streaming through the window. He crept to the side of the crib like a thief, whiskey and smoke radiating tainting the air of purity. He passed a dirtied hand through the pale moonbeams and pressed it to his son’s forehead. The hair under his fingers was so silken and fine he could barely feel it under his calloused fingertips. His eyes began to water, burning with his shame.
“I love you, okay kid? I won’t leave you, okay?” His son didn’t waken, didn’t answer, only stirred enough to press back against the warm weight of his father’s open hand as if to acknowledge the promise.
The stench of his own breath reached his nose. He didn’t belong here, not like this. Jarred back to reality with the nauseating smell of booze and smoke mixed with fresh powder and soap, he side-stepped away. With faltering feet he made his way from the tiny room.
The short hall seemed too short. His final destination loomed before him. Barely steadied hands reached for the door, one hand on the knob and one on the frame, bracing against any omission of sound. It opened softly and quietly as he had tried for, but not as he had hoped for; he would rather have the door locked shut. He would have loved to be barred from his own bedroom.
Silently he dragged his feet over thick carpet and slipped into bed next to his sleeping wife. No sooner had he settled in than she gravitated to him, melting into his body heat. Dutifully he held her close, and shut his eyes when they began to sting and blur with brine. He would convince himself again, for one more day, that this was best, that flames only burned and died with time; he was determined.
And then he would sleep and dream only of redheads and amber liquids.