Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Early Christmas Gift

We're coming up on the holidays, and I want to give you an early gift. Here's a short story I wrote some time ago. I hope you enjoy it. (If you prefer another format, try this link).

                      “JUST LOOKING FOR A DRINK…”
            “Easy does it.”
            “One day at a time.”
            “I’ve got a hundred days now.”
            Those folks don’t make sense. I’m not sure I want what they’re servin’ in there. The man hesitated for a moment more, but thirst and need proved too strong. Walking like a sailor on a rolling deck, he crossed the sidewalk and descended the cement steps, holding tight with both hands to the rusty iron rail, setting an unsteady course for the door that stood half ajar at the bottom of the stairway.  From the street above him, he could still hear snatches of banter from the group that had just left the bar, or club, or whatever it was.  Just as long as I can get a drink, I’m not particular where I get it.  And this is the only place on the block that looks like it's open.
            At the bottom of the stairway, he grasped the vertical bar that served as a door handle, steadied himself, and surveyed his surroundings.  Glass in the window, covered on the inside by a cloth shade.  There was no neon sign, no sign of any kind, nothing to indicate what lay behind the door.  But in the past year or two, he’d learned to recognize two things: people who drink and places that serve them.  The group that had streamed out of this door had the happy, “nothin’s gonna bother me” attitude seen in many of the former group, and the dirty stairwell where he now stood certainly reminded him of some of the lower-class dives where he’d sometimes tried to slake his thirst.
            He pulled back the shabby cuff of his once-white shirt, only to remember that his watch now lay in the window of a nearby pawnshop.  Dredging up remnants of a dignity he’d thought long forgotten, he rubbed his scuffed shoes on the back of his pants, straightened the mismatched suit coat he wore, and swung open the door, prepared to try to con the bartender or whomever he could find out of a drink.  Just one to keep me going.  I’m gonna have some money in a day or so, and I can pay for it then.
            “Help you?”  The speaker was an older white man, clad in tan chinos and a black tee shirt.  Maybe he was a janitor, since he was holding a broom in one hand.  He stood in the far corner of the room, where a coffee urn sat on a workstation next to a once-white sink with a rust-colored stain running from the base of the single faucet into the strainerless drain.
            Where’s the bartender?  Matter of fact, where’s the bar?  
            “Can I help you?” the man at the urn asked again.  The blank look he received in return apparently caused him concern, because he leaned the broom against a wall before striding across the room, the vigor of his movements a sign that he was perhaps younger than his physical appearance indicated.  He placed his hands on the shoulder of the stranger and said gently, “Are you all right?  Here.” He pulled out a chair from the stack behind him, and pushed it forward.  “Sit down.  Let me get you some coffee.”
            The offer of coffee stirred the man to action.  “No, no coffee.  Whiskey.  I need a drink.  Can’t pay you until tomorrow, maybe the next day, but I need a drink now.”
            “Sit down,” said his host, and gently pushed him until he settled in the chair. “I think you’re a little drunk, and more whiskey’s certainly not what you need.”  He chuckled, adding, “Besides that, I’d think an AA meeting’s the last place in the world anyone would come expecting to find a drink.”
            “Isn’t this a bar?  Or a club? Or a speakeasy?  I’ve walked for six blocks, and this is the only place that looks open.  I’ve gotta have a drink.”
            “Easy, now.  Let me get you some coffee, and we can talk about it.”  He put out his hand, and said, “I’m Ron.”
            Social niceties learned at an early age rose to the surface through some atavistic instinct, and the stranger took the outstretched hand, rose unsteadily, and said, “Mike.”  Then he settled slowly back into the chair like a parade balloon leaking helium. 
            Ron nodded as though he’d just learned something of deepest import.  He moved to the coffee urn and filled two Styrofoam cups.  He paused as though considering what he might have forgotten, then nodded in silent affirmation of his decision.  He set the cups back down and scooped up a handful of sugar cookies from the mound that spilled through the split sides of a package on the sidebar.  He placed the cookies carefully on a napkin, then turned and called to Mike, “Cream and sugar?”
Mike continued to sit silently with his head in his hands. Ron shrugged and added two spoonsful of sugar and a dollop of milk to one of the cups.  The cookies in one hand, the two Styrofoam cups balanced tenuously in the other, he returned to Mike’s side.
            “Feeling a little rocky?”  There was genuine concern in Ron’s voice.  As Mike looked up, Ron held out one of the cups.  Mike took it, grasping it in both hands, hands that shook enough to spill a bit of the hot coffee onto them.
            “Ow,” he said.  But he continued to hold onto the cup and took a tentative sip.
            Ron handed him a napkin and offered the sugar cookies.  “You’ll find that a little sugar helps with that craving you’re feeling now,” he said.  “They’re stale, but if you dunk them in the coffee they’re not bad.”
            Mike accepted the proffered cookies and chewed tentatively on one, quickly washing it down with a sip of coffee, followed by another exclamation. “That’s hot.”
            “Blow on it for a minute,” said Ron.  “And dunk this next cookie to soften it.”
            Mike complied, and managed to get the cookie down.  He took a tiny sip of coffee, and when he didn’t end up with further burns in his mouth, he drank more.  “That coffee’s not half bad.”
            “AA meetings run on strong coffee, stale cookies, and cigarettes,” Ron observed. “I suppose that if AA stopped having these gatherings, Phillip Morris would go into bankruptcy, the Keebler elves would be looking for a new line of work, and Juan Valdez would be standing on a street corner somewhere begging for handouts in order to feed his donkey.”  He laughed at his joke, but stopped when he saw that Mike wasn’t paying attention. 
            “Mike, what can I do to help you?”
            Mike roused himself and took another long sip of coffee.  He was beginning to lose the buzz he’d worked so hard to maintain. Coffee wasn’t what he needed. “You wouldn’t have just a bit of whiskey to put in this?  Maybe some brandy? Some schnapps?”  
            Ron shook his head.  “Mike, why is liquor so important to you that it drove you out after midnight looking for a drink?”  He took another chair from the stack, set it down, and straddled it backwards so he was facing Mike.  He leaned forward with his arms on the back of the chair, and said earnestly, “How about telling me?  I’m a good listener.”
            “Not much to tell.”  Mike’s words were less slurred, and seemed to come more easily to him now.  “You wouldn’t know it to look at me, but I used to be somebody.”  He nodded toward the outside door.  “Out there, lots of folks knew me. Big man in investment banking, taking care of the high rollers’ accounts.  Then....” His voice trailed off, and he sat mute, apparently lost in memories.
            “But…” Ron prompted.  “That’s the way testimonies at AA meetings generally go.  It’s always, ‘I had a life, but…’ There’s always a ‘but.’”
            “Hey, I didn’t come here for a meeting.  I just wanted a drink.”
            Ron raised his hands defensively.  “Sorry.  No, this isn’t a meeting—just two guys talking.  Go on.”
            Mike was silent for a moment, then took a deep breath and continued. “Yeah, you’re right.  My particular ‘but…’ was when I got a stock tip that couldn’t miss.  It was close to being insider trading, but nobody could ever prove it, so I took the risk. And here’s the ‘but.’ I was short on cash, so I dipped into some of the trust accounts I managed.  You can guess what happened.”
            Ron nodded.  “Yeah, I can guess.  The ‘can’t miss’ tip missed, and you couldn’t cover the shortage in the accounts.”
            Mike nodded, then shook his head as though to cast out the memories there.  
            “So, you had to ‘borrow’ from some other accounts to make up for what you’d done,” Ron said.  “And you were caught.  Is that it?”
            “No.”  Mike’s reply was delivered in a soft voice, totally devoid of emotion.  “No,” he repeated.  “I wish it were that simple.  Then I’d be just another white-collar criminal.”
            Neither man moved or spoke, the silence hanging like a veil between them.  Finally, Mike went on.  “My wife’s parents were killed in a boating accident.  He was a lawyer, very successful west coast practice, very wealthy. All their money came to my wife. She never touched it, called it our 'nest egg.'”  Mike stifled a sob.  “I forged her name, almost cleaned out her accounts to replace the money I’d…the money I’d stolen.”
            The rest of the story poured out then.  His theft was discovered, his wife refused to press charges.  Instead, she divorced him, moving halfway across the country with their two-year-old son.  “Nobody at work ever knew about what I did.  But my life fell apart anyway.”
            The story he related was a familiar one, simple but heartbreaking. He sold their house and sent the money to his wife.  Coming home to an empty apartment every night was too much for him. He turned to alcohol, mainly at night initially, drinking himself into oblivion, with a nip during the day, just to get through. 
            “You can guess the rest,” Mike concluded.  “I lost my job.  I managed to get by, at first by borrowing from friends.  They gave me money because they knew I couldn’t pay them back, so I’d avoid them.  That was just their way of getting rid of me.”
            Ron looked carefully at the man who sat beside him.  “And you’ve pawned some things, I’d imagine.”
            “I’ve scrabbled to get by.  Yeah, at first I pawned some things. That wasn’t enough, so I did some shoplifting and sold the stuff.  Now I even sell my blood.”  Mike brightened.  “It’s been long enough that I should be able to sell another pint tomorrow. Then I’ll have a little money.  Is there someplace I can get a drink, just to help me get through the night?”  He lowered his head, and said softly, “I rolled a wino a couple of blocks up the street and stole his bottle of Thunderbird, but it’s starting to wear off.  I need something to block it all out.  Just for a few hours.  Just for one more night.”
            “Mike, you think something’s missing from your life, and it is.  But it’s more than your family, more than your job.  Lots of folks face those losses, and are able to move on.  You need something more.  You need--“
            “Pastor, I’m finished setting up for tomorrow morning’s service.” Mike hadn’t noticed the open doorway on the far wall. Beyond the doorless aperture was a stairway, shrouded in shadow.  An elderly black man emerged from the darkness and addressed Ron. “I’m leaving now.”  
            “Thanks, John.  I’ll see you in the morning.”
            Mike pulled back as though he'd touched a live wire.  "You're not an alcoholic.  This is a church, and you're the preacher."  Mike pushed back his chair, knocking it to the floor and spilling his coffee.  "I'm out of here."
            Ron shook his head.  "No, Mike.  You're only partly right.  This is a church, and I'm the pastor, but that's not why I was down here tonight."  In a voice that was hardly audible, he continued, "I'm an alcoholic. Even though I haven't had a drink for five years, I'm still an alcoholic.  I'll be one until I die, but I hope to die sober."
            Ron remained sitting, with his head bowed. Mike stood over him like a priest about to absolve a penitent. Somehow, in that instant, their roles seemed to have been reversed.
            "If you're an alcoholic, why are you still a pastor?" Mike finally asked.
            Ron looked up with sadness in his eyes.  "You may have noticed that this church isn't exactly in the richest part of the city.  There are plenty of people in the congregation with problems like mine.  Some are alcoholics, some have been in jail, a lot of them have broken marriages.  Almost everyone has problems if you look deep enough. These people feel like everybody deserves a second chance, and that's what they gave me." He unfolded his lanky frame from the chair and stood looking into Mike's eyes.  "Let me help you.  You deserve a second chance, too.  God can forgive you for what you’ve become, what you’ve done. You can start over with a clean slate.  How about it?"
Mike didn’t answer.
Ron motioned to him. "Let's go upstairs to my office. We can talk about this some more."
            Mike's mind raced, or at least churned as fast as his rapidly diminishing blood alcohol level would allow. He glanced at the door leading to the street.  I was just looking for a drink. I can go back out that door, and I'll bet I can find a bar still open. That's what I need, just one more drink.
            Then he turned to look at Ron, who was now standing beside the open doorway leading upward, beckoning to him. "You can have a new life, starting now.  Just follow me."
            Mike hesitated for a moment more before making his choice. He set his cup on the floor, squared his shoulders, and moved toward the door he'd chosen.
                                    *                                  *                                  *
            Two stories appeared in the inside pages of the local newspaper the next day.
            BAR ROBBERY FOILED, ONE DEAD. An attempted robbery at the Idle Hour Bar, located at the corner of Twelfth and Center, ended in gunfire that left one man dead. According to witnesses...

            ROBBERY AT CHURCH, ONE KILLED. A thief entered the Metropolitan Congregational Church at 1205 Center around midnight last night. Authorities say he fled with money from the church office, but not before he shot the two men who were sitting in the pastor's study, killing one. The survivor, whose wounds were serious but not life-threatening, was identified as…


Mama Cat said...

Thanks for sharing! Perfect time of year, too!

Priscilla Bettis said...

Awesome story! Sweet message. I love ambiguous endings.

Richard Mabry said...

Thanks. Glad you liked it. There'll be more as Christmas approaches.