This piece appears as part of a serialized fiction experiment by Nathaniel Kressen for At Large magazine. New installments will be published weekly, each based around a different liquor.
I swore I would never be a man who looks for meaning in a bottle.
If marriage means compromise, if marriage means buying a bourbon that drinks like vanilla water because that’s what your wife prefers despite the fact that more often than not she prefers to drink vodka leaving you with a glass of no relief after another white collar day of mindless obedience… if marriage means compromise, I wonder what separation means.
Because the Basil Hayden’s still there in the bar cabinet. She took all of the glassware and all of the utensils yet chose to leave me the compromise bourbon.
That, a patchwork quilt of my mother’s, and the dog. I’d sooner be homeless than give up Spud.
He’s sweet with us, an asshole with company. He’s misunderstood. He has no concept of what’s happening.
I drink from the bottle, continuing a tradition in my family. The bourbon’s so smooth it might as well be invisible. I need burn. I need fire. There is no fire in this bottle.
I’ve undersold my wife’s generosity. She left me a great number of things. A cabinet full of spices. A fridge full of takeout. A closet full of clothes she picked out for me. She even left me a lonesome sock of hers behind the laundry bin.
In a matter of hours I have become a man who drinks from the bottle and sniffs used socks.
The dog and I suit up to brave the cold. Young men and women who look suspiciously like my wife and I crowd the evening sidewalks, hand in hand. Glove in glove, rather. The wind is ruthless and whips through city buildings. These younger versions of us bundle their scarves up to their noses then peel them away to laugh and kiss and plan for all the glorious days ahead. My dog sniffs at a tree and circles himself before pissing on the tied knot of a curbside garbage bag. I feel a modicum of guilt, imagining the poor garbage person who will grab this bag at that exact spot as he or she works so diligently to clean our city. Surprise, surprise – this guilt does not prevent me from allowing my dog to do it again farther up the block.
We enter a deli that allows dogs and get a sleeve of plastic cups, two oranges, and a cheap fold-up corkscrew. First step toward civilization. I pay with a platinum card. Yes, I have money. It’s amazing what a man can earn if he keeps his mouth shut.
Back in my vacant home, I pour bourbon into a cup. I use the corkscrew to slice off a bit of orange peel, twist it over the cup, drop it in…
I am a genius. There is the fire. Next I will journey to the moon. I will cure cancer. I will achieve more than my father ever did.
I retrieve the guitar case from the top of the closet, change the strings, and tune. Once, I had substance. Once, I had fire. Life has a way of changing dreams, or perhaps just the power to make a man forget.
Maybe I’m the one who drove us to this.
I lift the cell phone, dial, there is no answer.
I’ve not played in longer than I care to admit. My fingers are stiff but they soon remember and the flesh of my fingertips scream like rekindled lovers. There is no satisfaction without pain. I finish my bourbon and refill my cup and my hands find a chord progression they like. It is a sad mournful cry, stirring thoughts of an old man limping. I’m not sure there’s any other kind of song left.
When you wake up still drunk, everything is an accomplishment.
In the shower I turn the temperature up near scalding. I close my eyes, lose balance, grab the wall for support. I find equilibrium keeping my left eye shut.
It takes several minutes before I realize the soap is gone. I step out of the shower and drip on the floor. I make a mental note not to crack my skull open. The cabinets look as if there’s been a theft in the night. If one were so inclined, he could file a police report. That’s how stripped of everything she’s left our bathroom. When I think of all the times I complained about her multitude of tiny bottles, it’s unexpected that this should be the thing that finally makes me cry.
But I don’t. I swallow it. Heart in my throat, I search for that bar of Irish Spring she never let me use.
I’m still off-balance following the shower. The dog looks concerned. It’s going to be a day.
Clothes are puzzle pieces. I stare at my hanging collared shirts with their antiseptic patterns and wonder how in god’s name we chose these as our uniforms? Why can’t humanity strip naked and run through the jungle and claw one another and eat one another and spend every living breath looking death in the face and daring it, just daring it, to take hold? Why do we kill ourselves instead of living? How can we break the pattern?
I burp and bourbon rises up. I need to brush my teeth.
The guitar’s in the corner. That’s right. I played. That same progression, over and over. I remember the strumming but I don’t remember the tune. How is that possible, to have passed time in such a way, to have lurched closer to one’s true self, to have lingered and flirted with it into the night, only to wake up and remember nothing but shadows? Does it mean I came closer to being alive, or does it mean I was merely drunk and foolish and too out of practice to remember a single song?
Where did my heart go? That’s what she asked, movers carrying our possessions out the door. Where did my heart go.
There’s an ounce left in the bottle. Perhaps, I reason, this will ease my transition into the day. It does not. It tastes like bitter medicine going down. Now the bottle’s as empty as the apartment.
* * *
The more money I make, the less I do.
There are numbers involved. They change several times a minute. Junior staffers analyze these crude dances and present me with simplified memos. I simplify them further and pass them upward. For this, I am paid handsomely. Perhaps, with another promotion, I can spend my days sleeping under my desk.
The drunk leaves by mid-day, but now I am in for it. This is a hangover that kills. I drink water. I eat bananas. I urinate frequently. I can smell the booze on my skin.
There is no one I can talk to about her leaving. My superiors would think me weak. For them, spouses are summer homes. My staff, meanwhile, depends on me for their living. Hence, they would sit and empathize and that new one with the pompadour might offer to get me drunk.
The easiest way to process emotions is not to do it. Numb oneself. Walk through the world cock-eyed, bumping into things, forgetting vast sums of time, spending vast sums of money, medicating, fornicating, masticating, never asking why. Whether it’s the bottom of a rocks glass or the inside of a woman’s thigh, fill your mouth to empty your head. Your heart is an organ that keeps you walking. It doesn’t matter if you’re walking to or from something. Doctors have found no evidence that emotions are anything other than a false religion.