A short tale of luck and circumstance (containing references to drinking and alcoholism)
I once knew a man who lived life but didn’t love it. I’ll call him Lars.
Lars loved good scotch and beer, although he was not particularly picky. The truth was he simply loved alcohol. It fueled his depression, his feeling of failure. But, it also made him sociable when he didn’t want to be and at times it made him feel invincible. He also loved smoking, not “wacky weed,” good ole tobacco was his toxin of choice. Smoking cigarettes smoothed out the rough edges drinking kicked up.
Every morning a cigarette and a cup of coffee on the commode started his day. They boosted his metabolism, which made him think clearer. He could contemplate life, plan his day, make his excuses as he started his morning.
This particular morning was like any other. He had lost his latest job a month ago. He had hated it anyway. Who wanted to enter numbers in a database for eight hours a day? One day he left in the middle of his 8 to 4 after being there for 3 weeks. Okay, so it was 10:30-ish. A little early for lunch but the numbers gave him a headache that only some liquid augmentation could soothe.
“Bathroom run,” he had told his cubicle mate, “I must have eaten something that didn’t agree with me.”
He had gone to the bathroom and sat in a stall. He only pulled his pants down after someone came in and went into the stall one over from where he was. He remained seated until that person left then pulled up his pants, exited the stall, and washed his hands. (He felt he had to wash his hands even if he hadn’t touched anything except the stall door, but that was enough.)
“Screw this!” he had said aloud to his reflection in the mirror, “I’m out!”
But, I digress.
This morning did not portend anything unusual. It was 9 o’clock, or so. He could hear his Mom moving around in the kitchen, heard the microwave beeping, the toaster ejecting toasted bread. You know, normal stuff. He was usually the first one awake. He made enough coffee for both of them, went upstairs to get his cigarettes, and started his morning routine on the toilet. She made breakfast for herself. He could never eat that early, especially not since his dinner had consisted of mostly scotch the night before. He thought about topping his coffee off with scotch.
“Hair of the dog,” he muttered to himself.
He figured he would fix his second cup with a little something added to quiet the pounding in his head and the queasiness in his stomach.
He held up an arm, sniffed his armpit, and decided to wash away some of the funk from the last couple of days. He thought maybe he would feel better. He did smell clean after his shower, but his head still pounded. He slowly made his way downstairs.
“Hey Lars, breakfast?” his Mom asked, as she always did.
He shook his head and headed for the coffee pot.
“Your brother said he’d drop by this evening to look at the furnace. Good thing it’s not a really cold day.” she said.
“Uh huh,” he acknowledged, as he poured himself another cup.
“I’ll go get groceries later. Maybe make something special for dinner? What do you think?”
“Whatever Ma. I don’t care.”
“You’re such a good cook, anyway,” he added, softening his tone.
“Hey, did you remember to play the Powerball yesterday with the numbers I gave you? The drawing’s this evening.”
“Why do you waste your money, Ma? You’ll never hit the jackpot.”
“It’s only $10 a week. Thanks for fronting me.”
“Yeah. I don’t have a lot left from that last paycheck.”
“You know I’ll pay you back. Anyway, did you buy the tickets?”
“Yeah. They’re by the tv in the living room.” That said as he climbed slowly up the stairs.
He pulled out the bottle of scotch in the bottom drawer of his bedside table, tipped some into his coffee, and stirred it with his finger. As he stuck his finger in his mouth to taste the mixture, he prepared to drink it all, quickly, acting automatically on something he had read years ago. But, it was still too hot for him to drink immediately.
He lit another cigarette while he waited for the coffee scotch mixture to cool enough for him to drink it all in one go and thought of his brother, Greg. He really didn’t want to be around when he came by. He didn’t want to see the pity in his eyes when he asked if he had any job interviews lined up. Greg had been the good son for his entire life. Greg was the engineer working with the big firm. Whereas Lars had struggled to get through high school and never made it through college. He had been in college two years and a semester when his father died. He had decided to quit school and stay home after the funeral. His excuse was that his mother needed someone in the house. Greg had his own small family but Lars was unencumbered.
He stubbed out the cigarette in the ashtray beside the bed before taking a sip of the coffee mixture. Thinking it cool enough to drink he quickly drank it all. He grimaced as he set the mug down. Hair of the dog, indeed.
He lay back on the bed. He really felt awful.
“Going to the store,” his Mom called out.
He was half asleep but heard her open the door, heard her muffled voice as she called out to their neighbor. Then he was asleep.
He wasn’t sure how long he slept but the pain in his head and stomach startled him awake. He pulled his knees up into a fetal position and thought he probably needed to eat. He heard the tv and the rattle of pots and pans in the kitchen, so figured his Mom was back from the store. He rolled over and sat on the edge of the bed with his sore head in his hands. It was almost tender to the touch. Food, he needed food.
He made his way slowly downstairs to the kitchen.
“You look rough son,” his Mom said, as she cut a whole chicken into pieces. The sight of the raw chicken made him queasy.
“I feel rough. My head hurts. My stomach hurts. I need food.”
“I got some egg salad and that seven-grain bread you like. I even asked the nice guy in the bakery department to slice it up.”
“I just want a plain cheese sandwich.”
“I got cheese too. Swiss.”
“What’s wrong with good ole American cheese?”
“You know that stuff is over-processed. We need to eat healthier. I need to eat healthier a-and… you need to stop smoking.”
“Spare me the lecture,” he said as he opened the package of Swiss cheese slices and pulled out a slice.
He rooted around in the bag, found the bread, and grabbing two slices sandwiched the cheese in the middle. He didn’t think his stomach could stand anything other than water, so he got a glass from the cupboard and filled it with water from the kitchen faucet.
“I’m going back up,” he mumbled, as he took a bite of the sandwich.
“At least get a plate!”
He ignored her and started walking up the stairs.
“You’ll get crumbs everywhere!”
“Hello! Ma!” Greg called out as he pushed open the front door after unlocking it with his key.
“I’m in the kitchen,” his Mom answered.
Greg walked in and kissed his Mom on the cheek.
“Hey, Ma. Everything ok?”
“Yeah, fine. Thanks for coming to take a look at the furnace.”
“Yeah. I knew Lars wouldn’t know what to do. But, it’s not cold in here right now.”
“That’s because I’ve been baking and cooking for most of the day. I felt like doing something special.”
“It smells delicious! What’d you make?”
“Baked chicken, potato and cheese casserole… what is that called? Oh, potato gratin. Steamed broccoli and carrots and carrot cake for dessert.”
“Good God, Ma! Why’d you do all that?”
“I told ya. I wanted to do something special, different. You’re going to have some, right?”
“Ma, I have to get home after I take care of the furnace. Sorry.”
“Well maybe I’ll have a taste,” this said after he saw his Mom’s face. She smiled at that and patted his cheek.
“You should talk to your brother. He’s not doing well.”
“I don’t know what to say, Ma. I know he doesn’t want to but maybe he should join AA.”
“Father Dominic said that a group meets in the church basement. I told Lars but he said the only way he’d go back to that church was in a coffin.”
Greg sighed and moved toward the basement steps.
“I’ll take a look at the furnace and talk to him after dinner.” Greg said, as he opened the basement door and started down the stairs.
Forty-five minutes later he came back into the kitchen.
“All fixed,” he said.
“Thank you. Now go get Lars. Let’s eat some of this food.”
Greg walked up the stairs and knocked on the door to Lars’ room.
“Hey! Ma made a ton of food. You coming down?”
He didn’t hear any movement from the room and Lars did not respond. He turned the door knob and pushed on the door.
“Lars? Are you sleeping?” he asked as he walked into the room.
Lars was in bed. He lay on his side, his body curled, his mouth grimacing in pain.
“Are you okay? Lars, what’s wrong?”
Greg went over to the bed and touched his brother on his arm. Lars did not move.
“No, no, no… Lars,” he whispered.
He quickly left the room, calling to his Mom.
“Ma! I have to call 9-1-1!”
“What?” His Mom asked as she came from the dining room.
“I need an ambulance. I’m at 1440 Lindsay Crescent. It’s my brother. I’m not sure he’s breathing!”
“Oh my God! No!” His mother wailed, starting to climb the stairs.
“No Ma. We need to wait.”
“But I have to take care of Lars. See if I can help him.”
“You can’t. It’s too late.”
Greg pulled into the driveway of his mother’s house. His mother was sitting on the front porch with the suitcases he had loaned her. He got out of the car and walked over to where she sat.
“Did you lock up?”
“Don’t be sad Ma. You’ll love the new place,” Greg said, as he pulled her to her feet and hugged her.
“This house has so many memories, Greg.”
“I know, but you’ll be closer to me and Sheri and now that you’ll soon be a grandmother again, you’ll make many new memories in your new place.”
“I wish your Da was here. I wish Lars was here. He would have been so happy.”
“You can be happy in his place. That’s what he and Da would have wanted.”
“Lars never believed it could happen, never believed his luck could change. I just wish he could have lived to be surprised and enjoy the money, even a little bit. It was his ten-dollar bill after all.”
The inspiration for this O. Henry-type story was a poem I wrote, Where a Buzz Goes to Die:
Thanks very much for reading, subscribing, and sharing the stories, poetry, and essays in this space. If you like a story, poem, or essay please click on the heart. Also if you are so moved, please leave a comment. You also can show your appreciation by buying me breakfast.