The Last Drink

All decisions have consequences, some more dramatic or unexpected than others.

Mike Larson sometimes recalled what Mark Twain reportedly once said, ‘Quitting smoking is easy. I’ve done it thousands of times.’ He paraphrased it when it came to his drinking saying, “Quitting drinking is easy. I’ve done it dozens of times.” Which was true. This was his latest attempt and he hoped it was his last. But, in the end, who really knew?

It was his last day working for Long Lake Hardware and he came through the door with an air of mixed emotions. He was looking forward to moving on with his life, but he was also going to miss the easy camaraderie of the people he worked with.

His boss, Karen Jackson, took away all of his potential nostalgia when she said, “Hey, Mike, even though it’s your last day, don’t feel like you can goof off. I need you to clean out the storage room and organize the shelves. It’s a mess back there.”

Mike gave her a mock salute and headed to the back of the store. So much for taking it easy today. But that was alright. Working would keep his mind off what would be happening tomorrow. That was the day his wife, Ellen, was scheduled to pick him up and take him home. He’d been living in a cheap, one room efficiency apartment two blocks from the hardware store for the last year trying, as he put it, ‘to get my act together.’ He had a drinking problem and had been sober for one year, the terms he’d agreed to with Ellen before she would let him come home. And he’d done it. He was proud of that. Proud but also nervous. The fact was he liked to drink, and the past year had been the hardest of his life.

He spent all day in the back room doing exactly what his boss wanted him to do: stacking paint cans, arranging boxes of nails, screws, and bolts by size and in alphabetical order, and generally tidying things up. At the end of the day when he showed her the result she said, “Looks great. I might even miss you when you’re gone.”

Although she laughed at her little joke, Mike knew she probably didn’t mean it. “I can stay on, if you want,” he joked back.

“Naw. I’m good.”

And that was that.

Now the work day was over and he had time to kill. It was a beautiful spring evening, song birds were singing in nearby trees, and there was a pleasant aroma in the air of lilacs in full bloom. He decided to walk across the main street in town, Orchard Boulevard, to The Golden Roster, a local bar. He told himself he wouldn’t drink. Why would he? Being sober for one year was something he didn’t want to jeopardize. But he was suddenly lonely and feeling a little sorry for himself, so the congenial companionship of the patrons of the bar seemed like something he could use. Besides, a local bluegrass band, ‘Left of Fred’, was playing. Why not treat himself to a little fun?

He pushed open the beat up, wooden front door and went inside. It was Saturday night and just after eight. The place was starting to fill up with a boisterous crowd, talking and laughing, making him feel immediately at ease. He said Hi to a few people he knew and decided to skip sitting at a table, preferring a stool by himself at the bar instead. He sat down and looked in the mirror across from him. The image was of a nearly bald man with a scruffy beard  who looked much older than forty one. Though he would argue the point, heavy drinking had taken its toll, aging him by at least ten years. He reached into his shirt pocket for a cigarette, an automatic gesture after years of sitting in bars with his buddies, having a few beers (well, maybe more than a few), and smoking his cherished Marlboro Reds. Then he remembered the Golden Rooster was smoke free. He’d have to wait.

Now, what to order? He’d been thinking about this moment from the minute he’d walked in. To drink or not to drink, that was the question. Man, he was so witty. He laughed to himself, the play on Shakespeare giving him the confidence to go ahead.

“Hey, Steve,” he called the bartender over, a guy he knew from stopping in at the hardware store. “I’ll have a shot of Jack and a Bud Light.”

“Coming right up.”

Steve set the drinks in front of Larry and went to help some other customers.

Larry wasn’t watching Steve walk away, however. He was spending a magical minute gazing at the amber color of the whiskey. The liquid contained for him infinite possibilities of joy, happiness, and relaxation. He lifted the shot glass and took a loving sniff, moving it in a circular motion under his nose. He followed it up with a long, satisfying inhalation. The woody aroma of the Jack Daniels filled his nostrils and immediately brought back memories of all the times spent drinking and all the fun he used to have. He had loved being with his friends, out for a night on the town at a Sports Bar, watching whatever game was on TV and shooting the breeze with the guys. If sometimes he disregarded his family, made his wife mad, or neglected his daughters, well that was just too bad; it was the price that had to be paid. Drinking for him was more than enjoyable. He loved the feeling of slowly unwinding as the alcohol flowed into his system. He loved getting relaxed and the feel of letting the tensions of the day leave his body. He felt he became more talkative and friendlier when he drank. More confident, too. When he was slightly buzzed, he felt his friends appreciated him more, thinking he was funny, often calling him ‘the life of the party’. Being with them when he was drinking was a large part of what some might call a ritual, but what he called a way of life; a way of life he enjoyed spending time cultivating. A year ago, though, he’d driven when, in retrospect, he’d had more to drink than he could handle.  He ended up crashing his car, miscalculating on a turn and smashing head on into a tree at high speed, caving in the front end, breaking his right leg and crushing his left hand. He was lucky to have escaped with his life. He now walked with limp due to a pin in his femur and had only the use of the thumb and index finger on his damaged hand. He’d lost his license, too, for three years due to it being his third offense. He lost his wife as well, along with his four kids. Ellen had told him to get out.

“You stay sober for a year and you can come back home,” she stated. “You’ll see the girls only when I say you can.” Which wasn’t that often.

He didn’t argue. She had a point, and he had taken the year to get sober and stay sober. He had done what he set out to do, and he felt good about what he’d accomplished. Ellen would pick him up tomorrow and take him home. He had an opportunity to start over, yet he was nervous as hell. Was he really ready to get back into the role of husband and father he’d given up on for the last year? He had to admit, he liked his freedom. He liked his simple life. Even though he didn’t have a car anymore, he liked walking to work and coming back to his little apartment and watching television. He liked not having a lot to do. I’m “Keeping it simple,” is what he told his friends when they asked how he was doing. ‘Cool, man,’ was the essence of what most of them said back. Yeah, he thought to himself, it was kind of cool.

Yes, he hadn’t had a drink in a year and that was something, but now here he was in this friendly bar with its atmosphere enveloping him life a cozy blanket. Right now he felt super. Maybe he’d just take one little drink and get that warm, good time feeling going again. Maybe he’d even relive some of his cherished drinking memories. Ellen would never know. He’d take one more drink and that would be it. Over and done. No more drinking after that. He’d go back to Ellen and the kids and be a family man again. He shuddered a little at the thought and then put it out of his mind, finally making his decision. He took a moment in almost gleeful anticipation, and then in one smooth, confident motion, he lifted his glass and downed the Jack. Next, he took his bottle of beer and chased the whiskey, drinking the Bud down in hungry swallows. He sat back, savoring the warm glow as the liquor traveled down his throat into his stomach.  Almost immediately the expected sense of well being started traveling through his veins, relaxing him, enhancing his mood. Man, that felt good. He sat for a moment soaking in the feeling. He felt wonderful. In the background he heard the bluegrass band kick into their first song with a fiery fiddle solo. People cheered and there was enthusiastic applause. This had the makings of a memorable evening and he wanted to be a part of it. He made eye contact with the bartender.

“Steve,” he said, motioning him over, “I’ll have another.”

It was just after midnight night when Ellen’s phone rang. She had been up, unable to sleep, pacing in her bedroom and thinking about Mike coming home. She was both excited and nervous. On the whole, she felt she and the four girls had adjusted nicely while he was gone. Amy, her oldest at thirteen, had taken over a lot of the household responsibilities, especially helping out with Sara, Lucy, and Lori, aged ten, eight, and six, respectively. The girls all missed their dad, and Ellen couldn’t blame them. Mike was generally a good man. He was a fairly reliable father, taking the girls to soccer games and shopping for clothes; anything she asked him to do, really. If he wasn’t overly attentive, at least he was willing. Be he had changed over the course of their fifteen year marriage. Which Ellen thought was alright and, in fact, to be expected. But the drinking…The drinking had gotten out of control, having escalated ever since Lori was born. Six years was a long time to put up with a man who she depended on to be more than just a father figurehead and a neglectful husband. Which is what he was turning out to be. Most everyone agreed with her putting her foot down and setting limits. She felt it was something she had to do. A year was a long time without him being around, but she and the girls had made the most of it, starting to build a life for themselves. The girls, with Amy leading, were pitching in more and helping out with cooking, cleaning and laundry, and even doing yard work like cutting the grass, shoveling the driveway, and raking leaves, things Mike normally did. In spite of it all, though, she missed him. She missed her husband, and the companionship of the man she married; the man she knew he had the ability to be. If he wanted to be. The choice was up to him. For her part, she was willing to put the past behind and was looking forward to ‘starting over’, as she sometimes put it, with him.

Then came the call. She let her phone ring three times before tentatively answering it, knowing at this time of night it couldn’t be good news. She listened to a measured voice telling her that he was a sergeant with the Long Lake Police Department. As he talked, Ellen’s hand started shaking. She grabbed it with her other hand to hold the phone in place, listening and disbelieving. He told her that Mike had left the bar drunk and had waved aside offers for a ride home saying, instead, ‘I can walk from here.’ He’d stumbled out onto Orchard Boulevard, and a semi-truck making a late night run hit him and ran him over. He was killed instantly. Ellen tried to blot out the vivid  pictures forming in her mind as the sergeant talked on, giving her more details. She listened but, at the same time, didn’t listen, not wanting to believe the words he was saying. Finally she forced herself to accept the reality of what she was hearing. Mike was never coming home. Tears welled up in her eyes and her throat began to constrict. She tried to focus on the sergeant’s voice but the room was starting to spin. He was telling her that he needed her to come to the hospital where he would meet her and they could, ‘Talk more,’ as he put it, when she realized she needed to get off the phone. Quickly, saying, “Ok, ok, I’ll get there as soon as I can,” she hung up. Her husband was dead and never coming home. The finality was debilitating. Numbness set in as she fumbled the phone onto the nightstand. Momentarily, her world turned black. Then anger set in. She picked up the phone and threw it across the room, where it smashed against the wall. She took some satisfaction seeing it bounce to the floor. Then she jumped onto her bed and started punching Mike’s pillow. Hard. Throwing punch after punch until her fists hurt. How could he have done this to her? To the kids? To their family? Over and over the questions raced through her mind. Her anger built. She felt she was going to explode. She picked up the pillow and threw it randomly, knocking over a lamp. She pounded her fists against the wall, pictures in their frames falling to the floor, glass shattering. She ran around the room throwing things to the ground: a floor lamp, stacks of books and magazines, and treasures from the dresser. Then she collapsed on her bed, energy spent, tears running down her face, the pain and the anger giving way, finally, to a despair so deep she didn’t know if she’d ever survive. Her chest felt as if it was collapsing . Her breath came in spurts; her body wracked with heaving sobs.

Ellen didn’t notice, but as she lay weeping, the door to her bedroom slowly and carefully opened. It was Amy, her oldest, who stood in the doorway, awakened by the violent outburst. She watched as her mother sobbed hysterically, unsure what to do. The bedroom, usually so neat and tidy, was destroyed: stuff was strewn all over the place, lamps shattered, and debris on the floor. She was frightened, never having seen her mother, usually so strong and dependable, having broken down like this. After a minute of watching and unsure what to do, she gathered her courage and carefully walked across the floor, avoiding broken glass. She sat on the bed, softly touching her mother’s shoulder. Ellen started and then turned, silently acknowledged her daughter’s presence by grasping her hand, gripping it hard. They sat like that for a long while. Finally, Ellen’s tears stopped, and she relaxed her hold on her daughter’s hand. Amy took a Kleenex from the bedside table and handed it to her. She wiped her eyes and her face, finishing up by blowing her nose. She waded up the tissue and tossed it haphazardly on the floor. All the while Amy sat silent. It was calming for her to be with her mother. They had become close in the last year, using the time without her father around to begin to forge a relationship different from what it had been before. She liked helping her mother and the new responsibilities she was given. She liked knowing her mother depended on her. Sitting with her now, as her mother calmed down, Amy’s initial fears vanished. She was no longer frightened but feeling, instead, the beginning of something she’d never felt with her mother before; a closeness and a sharing. It was like her mother needed her and was letting her into her world, letting Amy see her as both vulnerable and human. Something in Amy shifted. Her heart suddenly went out to her mother. She felt she should say something.

“Mom, what’s the matter?” she asked innocently.

Ellen responded by hugging her daughter, pulling her close and holding her tight, taking a moment to appreciate Amy being there with her before saying, “It’s about your father…”

As Ellen talked, telling her daughter what she knew of the accident, Amy’s thoughts drifted. She stopped listening after the words, “He was drunk…” She’d seen her father that way too often to count. How he acted during those times had been sometimes ugly, sometimes embarrassing, and all of the time unsettling. But, as she half listened to what her mother was saying, all of that didn’t matter anymore. What mattered was this moment in time, being with her mother right now, wrapped in the comfort of her arms and feeling her love and her strength. It would be just be the two of them (and her sisters, of course,) for years to come. That was apparent. Her father was never coming home and she would have to learn to live with that reality. For now, though, she listened to her mother as she talked, her words flowing like a meandering woodland stream, both relaxing Amy and at the same time, giving her courage; Ellen’s words soothing as she held her daughter so tightly that Amy could feel the calming pulse of her mother’s heartbeat. On and on the words came, her mother offering now solace, telling her daughter that things were going to be Ok. “We’ll survive,” Ellen whispered into her daughter’s ear, “We’ll get through this,” and Amy nodded, her fingers finding her mother’s hand, entwining and holding on tight, believing her words, knowing that no matter what, if that’s what her mother believed, then she believed it too. It was now something they shared: they would get through this together.

Suddenly there was a flurried motion and both mother and daughter turned. Amy’s sisters stood in the doorway waiting and looking cautious, as if not wanting to intrude. Ellen sat up straight, looking at her three daughters, unsure what to do. She nervously smoothed Amy’s hair, the feel of it calming her. Ellen gazed at the glowing freshness of her daughter’s face, the faint freckles and her delicate eye brows. So young yet, also, so old. Amy met her mother’s eyes and Ellen saw in them a strength and resolve she had never seen before. Amy touched her mother’s hand, both of them gaining confidence by the simple gesture, feeling a connection, then, between them: something bold, something different, something lasting. Ellen smiled at her daughter, acknowledging the beginning of something new in their lives. The days ahead would not be easy. She was going to count on Amy more than ever, but they had each other and that’s what mattered; that’s what really counted. She looked toward the doorway and motioned toward the bed, her decision having been made. Encouragingly she said, “Come in and sit with us, girls. Your sister and I have something to tell you.”