Pick Up At The Bar
By J. L. Thurston
MY SHOES TREAD OVER THE CORPSES OF LEAVES, too wet from a week’s worth of rain to crunch and crumble. Autumn satisfaction is dead now that November is upon us. The smell of the bonfires is chased away by the bite of the cold. Pumpkin spice churns like acid in our stomachs, over-consumed in the early throws of the season.
Grace does not notice the sting of the icy moisture in the air. She feels the wind blow her hat from her curly head for the twentieth time and laughs like a girl who has made a new friend. I cannot hold her hand. That would be like catching a snowflake in a storm. She’s running from puddle to puddle, laughing, exuberant in this changing life.
The red door is near, faded and worn from the hands of so many patrons. From the quiet sidewalk, the din is growing. In the pretense of the holidays, the flock gathers at their flowing altar and pray long hours deep into their bottles. They cheer at sports, they laugh about each other’s lives. Farmers, factory workers, caregivers, teachers. The little town’s heartbeat throbs inside where the air is dark and the fragrance of stale cigarettes sits in the back of throats.
I bring my little Grace through the red door. We are known to the patrons who signal their greetings with the raising of hands, the nodding of heads, or hiccupping “lo’s.” We are in a nimbus of gray light, blaring to those within the bar, but the metal door swings closed behind us and we must stand blinking until we grow accustomed to the darkness.
The patrons sit on black stools facing a long mirror clouded by years of smoke. Tinsel and lights are already lined along the mirror, and beneath the glimmering display of brown and clear bottles is a woman of girth. She has the hair-sprayed wild hair of three decades past and blue eyeshadow that extends to her eyebrows in clownish fashion.
The woman points, knowing full well the reason I’d bring my child to this den. And there he sits. At the end of the bar, at two in the afternoon, a gray man in flannel like a lonely lumberjack. His skin hangs off his skeleton, his hair long and low. His very body is weeping, but his eyes are swimming in booze instead of memories.
I feel the judgement, the glares. They watch the familiar scene with different perspectives.
She’s dragging her father back home. Again.
He’s a stinking drunk.
What a lowlife.
She must look down her nose at the rest of us.
Leave the poor man alone, for once.
He sees me and there’s a twinkle of recognition. He has a smile reserved for Grace. I hang his arm around my shoulders and take his weight from the stool. He’s not as heavy as the first time I had to do this. I’m getting stronger and he’s… well, he’s still here, anyway.
It’s a burdened walk, but one I must make lest my laziness summon the police. More than once, they took my role into their responsibilities and one situation allowed them to bring him home without flashing lights and tickets explaining poor conduct. One situation required metal cuffs and cages made for people. Paperwork, fines, a court date. My father the drunk, the man lost in booze. Some people understand why, and those who don’t call the police.
We are nearly home. I’ve spent many of these walks in anger, thinking about yelling, scolding, abandoning. I’ve spoken to rehabilitation homes and insurance companies. I’ve discussed care plans and home health. I could lock this shell of a man away forever and wish his withered health all the best, but then the hollowness that has consumed him might spread into me. And would Grace be making this walk with my arm around her shoulders one day? I could never let that happen.
I take the weight of my father’s wilted body, which weighs less than his grief, and I bear him home without grudge or anger. Those feelings are seductive and can easily take over, but I fight them. Grace dances ahead, curiously playing with the wind and the little droplets in the air. She gains smiles from me and I want her to think this is the most normal thing in the world.
Grandpa is not feeling well, again. He’ll do better tomorrow. I even give a smile to him when he can look at me. I still love the man he used to be.
Because, though now he’s stooped, I once rode on that man’s shoulders. His lips, now cracked, once told me stories that put all manner of monsters to bed. His hands, still large but now bony, once took mine as often as I’d allow. And though I carry him home now, he once was my home.
One morning I will go to wake him and find a body. His liver will quit, followed by his kidneys, then his heart. It won’t be long. I’ll weep tears similar to this ice water in the wind. Swift, cold, and gone before much consideration. I will be too happy to release tears of any noticeable size. When that day comes, this man will have escaped his pain. And I will be released of a burden I should not have to bear.
J.L. Thurston’s latest book, Fallout Princess, is now available.