Sunday, November 6, 2016

DECISIONS - A Short Story




Mike stared at the ebony liquid which had formed the shape of the glass in his hands.  'Should I or shouldn't I?' was the quandary playing tennis in his head.  It had been over an hour since he first sat down and posed this question to himself. He had not moved an inch closer to resolution.
       "It's not a television, it's a drink.  It won't do nothing till you pour it down your throat."
       Mike turned towards the voice that had derailed his train of thought.  Its owner was a dapper looking man in his sixties.  Dapper wasn't a word utilized with great frequency in Mike's vocabulary, but in this case it seemed a perfect fit.  How else would a man in a tweed three piece suit, a bow tie encasing his neck, a derby upon his head, and a walking stick in hand be described?  All that was missing was the British accent.
       "I was just thinking," Mike said in explanation of his meditative pose.
       "That's what libraries are for.  Bars are for drinking, not thinking."
       "How about thinking about drinking?"
       "Are we composing a nursery rhyme?"
       "It looks that way."
       "The name's Dave."
       "Hello, Dave.  I'm Mike."
       Dave ordered himself a beer.  "What has you thinking so hard, Mike?  If you don't mind my asking."
       "I was supposed to be getting married tomorrow.  But now I'm not.  My girlfriend pulled out.  Out of the marriage, out of the relationship, out of my life.  One minute I'm all settled, everything mapped out nice and neat.  Next minute I'm here, wondering what happens next."
       "She give you a reason?"
       "Two.  She doesn't love me and she does love someone else."
       "Pretty good reasons."
       "They are," Mike admitted.  "I don't blame her.  Truth is, I don't think I'm in love with her either.  I'd been thinking about breaking things off for the longest time. But I was never able to convince myself totally that it was the wise thing to do.  So I kept waiting for some kind of sign."
       "Why get married then?  If you don't mind my asking."
       "We were together five years, lived together for the last two.  What else was left?  Our families, our friends, hell, people we hardly even knew kept asking us the same question over and over. When are you two getting married?  We got tired of answering it."
       "So you lost a woman you had already grown tired of?"
       "Something like that.  You get used to a person.  You get comfortable, like a child with his favorite blanket or his thumb in his mouth.  It's tough to let go of your security.  Don't believe me, just ask all the buck tooth people walking around." 
       "That's as good a reason to get loaded as any I've heard."  Dave lifted his glass to toast.  Mike didn't return the gesture.
       "I need to drink to get loaded and I'm not drinking.  I'm just thinking about it."
       "You're starting to lose me, Mike.  What's to think about?"
       "I'm an alcoholic.  Or I was.  Or I might have been.  It all depends on how you look at it."
       "You haven't found me yet, Mike."
       "I used to have a drinking problem.  Well, I don't know if it was a problem.  It didn't cause me any difficulties.  I functioned as well as the next guy.  It was just a habit of mine and when alcohol becomes a habit, society tends to see that as a problem."
       "Society holds many a warped view on many a subject that's none of its damn business."  Dave took a swig of his beer as exclamation point to the statement.
       "Anyway, I decided to quit one day, so that's what I did.  No AA meeting or any psychological mumbo jumbo.  Once I make a decision, I stick with it.  If I'd been an official drunk I wouldn't have been able to stop cold turkey like that."
       "Maybe.  If it makes sense to you, what else matters?  So what made you quit, if you don't mind ..."
       "I don't mind.  I got out of bed one morning, grabbed a brew from the fridge, and sat down to drink it.  About halfway through I realized there was something terribly wrong.  I couldn't recall when, or why, or how I had switched from Wheaties to a cold one.  What made me go from the breakfast of champions to the breakfast of bums?"
       "It sure sneaks up on you, don't it?"  Dave motioned to the bartender for a refill.
       "Actually, it landed on my head like a piano.  The moment I remembered the last person I'd seen having beer in the morning, I knew I would never touch the stuff again."
       "Who would that be?"
       "My dad.  No way I was turning into him.  Now he was a world class drunk.  And a world class jerk.  Not the footsteps I intended to follow."
       "Let me tell you something, Mike.  I've drunk some powerful concoctions in my time.  Once had me some hundred and eighty proof Tennessee moonshine that could have launched a space shuttle.  But I never had anything that could turn me into another person."
       "No need for the lecture.  I figured it out on my own.  I also found out that my dad had more valid reasons than thirst for his drinking."
       "Every reason is valid, Dave.  The second you start judging is the second you start playing God, and I believe that job is taken."
       Mike looked down into his glass, swirling its contents with a swizzle stick.  Some people may have seen it as completely not empty, others as entirely full.  But one fact remained undisputed.  He had yet to consume a drop.
       "I have another question for you, Mike.  If being an alcoholic isn't your problem, and turning into your father isn't the problem, then what is?"
       "He's got a brain in his head, that's all."
       The gravelly voice entering the conversation from Mike's immediate right belonged to another gentleman in his sixties.  The man’s face was covered with a three quarters salt, one quarter pepper beard.  His rumpled attire was considerably less formal than that of his counterpart.
       "Sorry, but I couldn't help overhearing your conversation," he continued.  "The name's Lou.  Mike, your reservations are well worth heeding.  You have explained away every reason for not drinking, yet you still haven't taken a sip.  Your gut is telling you that having a drink is a step you're not ready to take.  I'll take gut instinct over hedonistic intellectualizing any day."
       "Who died and made you his conscience?" asked Dave.
       "Who made you the serpent in the garden?" Lou asked in reply.
       "Relax guys," Mike refereed.  "What's the big deal?  I either get tanked or I don't.  The world keeps spinning either way."
       "It is a big deal," said Lou.  "You don't want to be a drunk. No matter how fancy he may dress himself up, a drunk is still nothing but a drunk."
       "And a self-important, holier than thou, propaganda spouting, weak willed nosy body is still nothing but a guy named Lou," Dave rebutted.
       Mike couldn't believe that his dilemma was serving as the catalyst for a senior citizen bar room brawl.  "If I do decide to drink, that won't make me an alcoholic," he said, hoping his logic would defuse the situation.  “Not if I have just the one.”
       "But you're not a hundred percent sure of that or else you'd be drunk already," said Lou.  "Gary, I'll have my usual," he said to the bartender.
       "Yeah, I guess you could say that," Mike had to admit.
       "Seltzer," Dave practically spat in disdain as Lou's drink arrived.  "Let me guess your line, old timer.  You're a former drunk.  Got saved by AA so now you want to return the favor by converting the world."
       "I haven't touched a drop of liquor in eight years.  But I'm not a former drunk, Dave.  I'm a drunk, same as you.  Only difference is I'm fighting the demon, you're succumbing to it."
       "A day at a time, right Lou?"
       "Damn straight."
       "Well I'm a former AA member too.  My wife told me to get sober or get out.  So I got sober.  Stayed that way for three years.  I was a die hard just like you, praying to the great dry God."
       "But you were weak and you failed.  That's your problem.  Helping to push this young man over the edge will just make one more ruined life you're responsible for."
       "Hey Lou, have a little respect.  This is my story, I'll tell it.  My wife and I got divorced anyway.  Not because I was drinking, but because it wasn't meant to be.  And the last three years were the worst because I was sober every day of them."
       "Is there a moral to this tale?" Dave asked.
       "Moral is you want to be sober, be sober.  You want to get drunk, drink up.  But a man needs to make that choice, not let that glass do it for him.  If Mike doesn't drink because he's not thirsty, or because he’s not in the mood to get a little light headed, then fine.  But if he doesn't drink because he's afraid, because he thinks the content of that glass is stronger than his free will, then that makes him prisoner to the booze just the same as any drunk on skid row suckling a flask like it was mother’s milk.  A sober prisoner is no better off than a drunk one, Lou.  He’s worse off, actually.  At least a drunk prisoner might be having a good time.  You probably wouldn’t know one of those if it walked up and bit you on the nose."
       Mike cleared his still dry throat.  "I have to admit, I'm afraid of what might happen if I start drinking again.  Maybe it won't be as easy to quit next time.  Maybe I'll screw up my life.  But is a screwed up life better than one lived in fear?"
       "Of course not," said Dave.
       "Hell yes," answered Lou simultaneously.  “Nothing wrong with a little fear.  Nothing wrong with humility.  You do know what excessive pride leads to, don’t you?”
       Mike picked up the glass.  "I miss Angela already.  It doesn't matter that we don't love each other anymore.  I got used to waking up and seeing her there beside me.  I guess I'm just a creature of habit."
       And with this toast said, Mike closed his eyes, brought the glass to his lips, tipped back his head and began pouring the liquid down his throat.  When he placed the now half empty glass down, Lou had already risen from his seat.
       "I'm a creature of habit too, Mike.  That's why I'm here.  Even after I stopped drinking, bars were the only place I ever felt comfortable.  So I'll probably be seeing you around.  Maybe I'll even see you sober again someday."  
       Lou walked away, disappointment registering in his every step.
       "I'd love to stay," said Dave, who had also risen from his seat.  "But I have an appointment to make.  Some other time perhaps.  Good meeting you, young fella."
"Same here."  Mike shook Dave's hand and then watched him walk out of the bar, every bit the sophisticated, gentlemanly drunk. 
Taking in a deep breath, Mike again lifted the glass to his lips and finished it off in one gulp.  He placed the glass on the bar and then walked to the pub's jukebox, removing quarters from his pocket.  He was good and ready to select some "my baby done me wrong" music to accompany his melancholy mood.  Problem was, there were so many top quality sorrowful tunes to choose from.  Whichever he selected would wipe away an equally good alternative, and he had neither enough time nor enough change to listen to all of them. 
That was the thing about choices.  The moment you made one, you also threw another one away.  Dave put the coins back into his pocket and returned to his seat at the bar.  
       "I'll have another one, please."
       "Pepsi, right?"
       "You got it."
       Mike held his newly filled glass before him, staring intently at the soda, wondering if he would eventually switch to something stronger.  If he did, would it be his downfall?  Would that make him just like his father?  If he refrained, did that make him any better off?  Or was abstinence synonymous with lack of belief in his powers of self-control?  He simply didn't know which scenario would make him more pathetic.
       Maybe Angela had a valid point when she said that the end of their relationship was ultimately caused by his ambivalence towards practically every aspect of life.  But what did she know?
       After all, he had firmly chosen Pepsi over Coke. 

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