Tory Mae graduated with a B.A. in Creative Writing and Literature at Wheaton College in 2015, where her full-length play entitled Can-Swiss was performed in the annual New Plays Festival. She is currently working a collection of short stories, as well as a novel that is set to be completed later this year.
The Whiskey Won’t Keep You Warm
I drummed my fingers on the brick wall and sighed. Yet another disappointed parent lecture. Those were my favorite. I rolled my eyes.
“Oh, how I wish you had gone to Southern New Hampshire, like we’d talked about. It’s only down the street from us, you could have commuted!” Ma said over the landline. “It would have saved us money… You could have been back for your sister’s birthday weekend!”
I sighed. Even if that school was the only one I’d have gotten into, I still wouldn’t have gone. I’d have found some way to make cash and make it on my own. Restaurants were always hiring. And convenience stores. Those were good for some quick and easy money to get started. Or I could have gotten a job as a bouncer, or one of those ticket checker guys at a concert hall. That didn’t seem too hard. And hey, at least that had something to do with music. But alas, I’d chosen to go to a school a whole hour away. Such a tragedy. Heartbreaking. Truly. Why were they so concerned with being around now? It wasn’t like they gave a shit when I was there.
“Sorry, Ma. It’s a long bus ride back. And I have things I have to do this weekend.”
I heard Pop yell in the background. Something or other about how Ma shouldn’t bother.
“Jack…” she began.
It wasn’t just the bus ride that was keeping me from going back. I mean if I wanted to, I could. Plymouth State really was only an hour away. But I didn’t want to. Plus, I was busy. A few weeks back I rounded up some student bands and decided to put together a show. Christ, I’d spent all of Tuesday night hanging up fliers on every corkboard and door and pole on campus. The show was tonight, in the basement of some buddy of mine’s apartment.
“I’m sorry, Ma, but-”
The line clicked and went dead. Dammit. I searched my pockets for more change, but I was out. I’d call her back later.
* * *
The crowd went wild as the last band finished their set. And I meant crowd. I was expecting maybe ten people to show, maybe fifteen. How was I supposed to know the entire basement would be filled? I’d never done this sort of thing before. All these years I’d spent at Plymouth, there was always a sort of scene missing. Sure, there were student bands, but they’d only open for the school’s jazz band or other boring things like that. I missed the rush of the live show. Tonight I got that rush. All I had to do was make it happen. I brief thought about how I never called Ma back flitted through my brain, and disappeared as some guy who I’d never met walked up to me.
“Hey dude, thanks for putting this together,” said the guy as he high-fived me. “You should do this again.”
I looked around at all the sweaty people in that dim basement. It smelled of stale beer and sweat. I think the people were sweating beer. A fantastic combination. But somehow, it wasn’t repulsive. They looked so alive, so energetic, so happy - a characteristic I’d only seen at drunken house parties. But even then, it was a half-dead kind of alive. Like the people were dead inside but the alcohol was their elixir, bringing them back. But it was only for the alcohol, and nothing more. I mean, I loved it. But there had to be more than meaningless parties sometimes. Tonight there was a reason to be happy. I looked up at the random guy.
“Two weeks from now. Same time and place. Tell your friends,” I said with a smile.
Two months since the accident. One month since Mindy and I started dating. I smiled as I looked at the calendar on my phone; things were beginning to look up. I put my phone back in my pocket.
"You guys are starting to pull it together," I said as the band finished their soundcheck. "Your stuff is sounding tight. You know, your band could be going places."
"Hey, thanks man," Tim, their guitarist, said into his mic.
"I remember the first time I booked you guys two years ago at All Asia, back when that place was still around. You've grown a lot since then."
"You wanna come up here and jam for a minute?" Tim asked.
It had been years since I'd done more to a guitar than just move it off the stage. My fingers yearned to make it sing again.
I leapt up onto the stage, grabbed Tim's guitar, and played a few chords. The band joined in and before I knew it we were playing an old Blink-182 song. I looked around and the others were smiling at me and jumping around the stage. I looked out off stage and imagined the room full of teenagers. They were all head-banging and dancing and singing along. They stared at me in awe, knowing this was the happiest night of their lives. Sweat poured down my face and I smiled, and then I blinked and the room was empty again. Why had I stopped playing again? I was a damn fool.
We wrapped up the song and I checked my phone.
"Sorry guys, but it’s time for me to head out," I said.
"Aw, you're not staying for the show?"
"Can't, it's my girlfriend's and my one month. You know how it goes."
They laughed again.
"You guys are gonna kill it tonight. Knock 'em dead."
"Alright man, see you next time," Tim said.
I jumped off the stage and headed out the door.
It's our first anniversary together, so it should be more than our usual restaurant, I thought as I pulled away from the parking garage. Maybe I'll treat her to one of those fancy restaurants, one that's actually in Boston. Maybe the North End? Maybe. But that's so damn expensive. Why do we even have to celebrate these stupid small anniversaries anyway? Can't we just wait until our six month? Now I'm going to have to spend all this extra money because of course, I've gotta pay. Damn, this is dumb.
I pulled into my parking spot and saw the lights were already on in my apartment. Mindy's car was here. Well shit, was she going to surprise me?
"Must've lucked out snatching this one up," I said to myself as I locked the car and walked up the brick steps.
My heart started racing as I opened the door and thought about the possibilities. My pants may have tightened a little.
"Hey babe," I said, walking through the door, "whatcha..." I stopped.
Mindy was sitting on the sofa, lips pressed tight together. Oh Christ, what now? I was almost positive our anniversary was today, not yesterday. 80% sure. These younger women were always so damn moody. But it's part of what made them sexy.
"What am I doing? Oh, just rethinking some things. That's what I'm doing."
"Christ Mindy, rethinking what?"
Women think too much. They were always thinking about every little thing and overanalyzing every word and action. Why couldn’t they just go with the flow? It wasn’t hard.
"I don't know. This. Us. Everything," Mindy said, throwing her hands up.
"Well if you don't know then maybe we can talk it out."
"Oh okay so now you want to talk it out like an adult?"
"Mindy, babe..." I said, walking closer to her.
"This is over."
"I'm done. I'm leaving you."
"Well shit, why? You can't be sure about this, you're not thinking straight. Let's have a nice dinner, go to bed, and we can talk about it tomorrow. I’ll take you out some place real nice."
"Jack, I've thought it through. You're a fucking child and you need to grow up. Get a real job. You've been doing this band thing for what, twenty-five years now?"
"So since I was born? Even better. Get a real job, Jack. Grow up. Get a life. You're forty-eight years old. You’ve been living in the same dingy apartment for fifteen years. In Brighton. Brighton is where college kids go after they graduate and have no money.” Mindy stood up and started pacing. Pacing was never good. “I can't be with someone who has done nothing with their life when I'm just starting to find my place in mine. It's over."
"Come on babe..."
Mindy was on her feet and out the door before I could stop her. For Christ's sake. I sat on the edge of the sofa where she had just been, ran my hand along the seat and leaned my head back.
And another one bites the dust.
I went to the kitchen, grabbed a bottle of whiskey, threw some ice into a glass, and poured myself a big one. I sat at the kitchen table and put my head in my hands. So much for that. On our anniversary, no less. It was a good thing I hadn't made a reservation, like I probably should have. I could have used it against her. Maybe she wouldn’t have left if she’d known I’d made a reservation at an expensive restaurant. I took a long, cold sip from the glass. Two. Three. Who was she to say I needed to grow up? 'A fucking child,' all right. Okay. Sure. Two more sips. I couldn't be that childish. Weren't people supposed to be praised for doing what they wanted to do? For following their dreams and some shit like that rather than giving in for some cookie-cutter job? Empty glass. I sighed.
Then why does it feel so wrong defending myself?
I sat in silence while the ice in my glass melted. I counted the stains on the ceiling and walls. Nine. I counted the empty glasses on the counter. Twelve. I looked down. Thirteen. The holes in my pants. Two. Months since my last haircut. Seven. My hair was past my ears now. I drank the whiskey water from my glass and pulled out my phone.
"Hey, it's Jack. Can I stay with you for a couple days?"
Ma rushed to clean the countertops when she heard the car pull into the driveway. The chicken roast had been in for almost an hour, and Pop would be starving when he came in. He deserved a nice meal ready for him after work. She brought the good plates down from the cabinet and took the cheesecake out of the fridge, putting it on the yellow-checkered plastic tablecloth. The car door slammed. Footsteps on the pavement were heard.
I tapped the first domino and they all began to fall on the tan shag rug, one by one, stealing my attention. Cheryl was unamused, staring past the falling dominoes into nothing.
The front door opened.
"Hello honey," Pop said, kissing Ma's cheek.
"Oh hello dear. How was work?"
Pop sighed and put his briefcase on the kitchen table.
"Banking is banking. Never changes."
Ma took Pop’s briefcase off the table and put it by the door. While her back was to the table, Pop grabbed a fork and took a bite of the cheesecake. Ma turned around.
"Fran! What in God's name are you doing?"
"Oh don't worry honey, I'm just testing it!" Pop took another bite.
Ma shuffled over and slapped his hand.
"It's quite fine! Don't you steal another bite!"
"How much time is left on the chicken?"
Ma opened the oven to check on the roast. She stuck her face close, but removed it a second later, the color drained from her skin. She reached for the back of the stove and turned the knob. Pop's eyes narrowed.
"Are you telling me..."
"Oh dear oh dear oh dear, I am so sorry! I've set the oven as high as it can go, it should be done in twenty minutes!"
Pop's nostrils flared.
I removed the fallen dominoes from their curly-cue pattern, pushed them to the side, and grabbed a different box.
"Wanna play pick up sticks?!" I asked Cheryl.
I dumped out the box and pulled each stick out, one by one, being as careful as I knew how to be. I looked at Cheryl but she was looking at the wall again.
The chalky, thick smell of smoke began to fill the kitchen. Ma rushed over to shut the oven off. She opened the door, smoke pouring out, and grabbed the blackened chicken out. As she waved a floral hand towel at it, Pop snatched the cheesecake and stormed upstairs.
"Oh dear oh dear oh dear. Fran!"
She was met with footsteps pounding on the wooden stairs and a door slamming shut.
I giggled and continued to pull out sticks. One at a time, I tried my hardest not to move any sticks other than the one I pulled at. I’d gotten better at pick up sticks since Cheryl had taught me last July. I was a champ at not making mistakes. We were outside in our driveway and I kept rolling around on the pavement trying to get the right angle. Ants kept crawling along the multicolored sticks and Cheryl was grossed out, but what did I care? She showed me all the tricks and the first time we played each other I beat her. She blamed the ants at first, and then she called it beginner’s luck, or something like that.
"Someday I hope I learn to fly so I can stop crushing ants when I walk."
Cheryl stared me in the eye.
"People can't fly. Grow up, Jack."
"Thanks for letting me stay with you, Cher, really. It means a lot right now," I said, hanging my jacket on the coat rack.
I’d driven up just a couple hours after talking to her. It had begun to snow, but I didn’t care. All I knew was that I needed to get away from that damn apartment. Family can be nice sometimes, I supposed.
"Well I couldn't turn my baby brother away."
Forty-eight years old and she still called me that. I sighed. At this point, I was surprised she didn’t call me her infant brother.
"I appreciate that," I said.
We stood in silence for a moment. I could feel a tension forming.
"Why did you ask? What did you do?"
I put my hands behind my head and started pacing around the living room. My brain began to hurt. I look up at Cheryl’s degree from Colby hanging on the wall and wished I’d gone to a better school. Or at least tried harder. Plymouth State only got you so far in life. Changing my major three times before settling on a Music major my junior year probably didn’t help. A deep breath shuddered on its way out.
"It's complicated. Kind of. I think," I paused, "I think I need to make some changes in my life. Clear my head. My girl broke up with me. She blindsided me, but then again I shouldn’t have been shocked at all. I need to fix my life a little bit and I can't do that at my place, not right now."
I toed the edge of the sofa and sighed. What the hell was I going to do? Where does anyone even begin to make changes when it’s their whole life they have to change?
"I see, I'm sorry to hear about your girlfriend. But I'm glad you’ve gotten some sense knocked into you. And it’ll be good for the kids to spend some time with their uncle. You're welcome in the spare room for as long as you want..." Cheryl trailed off and reached into her pocket. She pulled out her phone and looked back at me. "It's Concord Hospital."
"Hello? ... Yes, this is she." The color drained from her face and she fell back onto the sofa. "Oh my God. I'll be right there."
Cheryl shoved her phone back into her pocket, stood up, and grabbed her coat.
"Mom's had a heart attack."
The smell of the place was too sterile and the walls were too white. It made me sick. Pop's aged skin was only a couple shades darker than the wall. The right side of his face drooped and he wasn’t breathing as often as he should be. In fact, he was hardly breathing at all. The room smelled unwelcoming, not the way a home should smell. Pop had been here for six months. If a person lived in a place for six months, shouldn't it feel like home?
It felt like the end. How was it that one could feel like it was the end without there being some clear sign? Did the Grim Reaper announce itself? Did the Angel of Death leave a save the date? Telepathy, perhaps. No one knew but everyone could feel it.
I was on Pop's left side, Cheryl to his right. Ma was closer to his head and Cheryl's kids were at the foot of the bed. They were too young. They looked almost emotionless while their mother held Pop's hand in a teary fashion. There were some tears in Ma's eyes, but she knew it was time. She'd been preparing for this day for months. What would she do when he was gone? They were married for 66 years. That was an awfully long time to be with one person. What does anyone do when they're left alone after not being alone for almost 70 years? Pop breathed in sharply, and the breath shook its way out.
I looked at Cheryl, pointed my chin to Ma, and she nodded. We took Jimmy and Allie and left Ma to be with Pop. Nurses came rushing in five minutes later.
Ma looked peaceful, despite her ragged, labored breathing. Well, as peaceful as she could be in a hospital. Okay, she didn’t look great, but her eyes were closed and her face, though well aged, looked to be just a bit younger. The crusted corners of her mouth turned up ever so slightly. Was she thinking about Pop? The lives they led together? Maybe she was seeing him again, for the first time in three and a half years. Cheryl brushed a stray hair off Ma’s forehead, skin tinted ashen-blue, and picked up her hand. She wheezed once more and a shudder ran through her stiff body. One long beep came from her heart monitor.
A nurse came in a minute later and her shoulders slumped when she saw Ma.
"I'm so sorry."
She covered Ma's face with a sheet, and another nurse came in moments later and paid her respects.
"She must have lived a long, fulfilling life."
Cheryl nodded. My older sister wasn't as tearful as I would have imagined. After taking a deep breath she turned to look at me.
"Do you want to go out for a drink?"
I thought about it for a moment.
"No," I said, "let's go home."
She was sitting on a bench in a park in New Haven. Her legs crossed, one arm stretched out along the bench and the other in her lap. Her eyes were closed. A red leaf floated onto her lap.
He was taking a stroll in the park on his afternoon off. His hands were in his pockets and he was whistling a patriotic tune. He spotted a young woman sitting on a bench. He stopped whistling.
A breeze shook leaves off the trees and ruffled her short, blonde hair. She breathed in the crisp, damp air and smiled.
He tapped his thumb against his thigh and looked at his pocket watch. He lifted his chin and walked up to the young woman.
"Pardon me miss."
She opened one eye.
"Do you have the time? My watch appears to have stopped working," he said.
He gestured to his watch but slipped it back into his pocket so to hide the still ticking hands.
"My apologies, I do not carry a watch with me." She paused. "Perhaps you should see about getting yours fixed."
"Ah, but then I would have no excuse to speak with you," he said, winking.
"Today is my birthday. Perhaps you could get me my own pocket watch as a gift. That would be plenty of excuse to speak with me."
"How about a watch and a slice of pie?"
“Only if it’s cherry pie.”
“I know the perfect place.”