So he went down to the bar and got drunk. He hadn’t done that in a couple years, since the last time he stopped drinking, but it was one of those things where he had to have a drink right away. It wasn’t that his marriage and family life were bad, but all that responsibility wore on him and eventually something inside of him snapped and he’d go down to the bar and get drunk. Of course, this time there was a darker reason. An almost understandable reason. But no matter his motivations for going to the bar, he always ended up gone for a long time. He could never have a few drinks and go home, like most men who claim not to be alcoholics do. No, a trip to the bar meant he’d be gone for at least a few days, stumbling into the great white light of the world, floating high in a sweaty unshaven stupor until it all came crashing down, brutally.
This was the longest he’d gone without a drink. His other stints of sobriety lasted a few months, max, before he’d end up back in rehab. He thought maybe this time he was done. Like done for real. But bad things have a way of sneaking back into the lives of the doomed. He’d come home from the rehab center where he’d sobered up and gotten in shape and received acupuncture and flirted with a few of the nurses for good measure. When he walked through the front door of his small two-bedroom home on the outskirts of St. Petersburg, right near one of the shittier beaches in the area, he said honey, son, Papa’s home and he’s sorry. I know I’ve made some mistakes and I know I haven’t given you much of a reason to believe in me, but believe in me, because I’m clean and I feel better than I have in a long time. His wife and his son hugged him, timidly, exchanging glances that said I know he’s said this before, but we need to give him another chance. Even the family dog seemed hesitant to embrace the father’s return, licking him on the legs with the caution of an animal stung by a wasp too many times. It had been a warm spring day in Florida and there were sunny days to come.
Two years later, the hugs and promises were forgotten. Something in him snapped and he went down to the bar and got drunk. If anything is going to drive a man to drink I suppose the news he received during a checkup at the doctor would do it. It was cancer. All cancers are bad, of course, but this was the worst of the worst. Pancreatic. I mean, really. The same disease that killed his grandpa. It was a quick and painful death, one that would turn a man into a diseased shell of his former self. The man had a few months left, if he was lucky. He remembered watching his grandpa, who in his prime was 6’6” and 250 pounds, shrivel into a stringy husk in no time. Toward the end, before he was admitted to the hospital for good, his grandpa spent most days smoking pot in bed, trying to ease the excruciating pain. When the man would visit his grandpa, he’d hear coughing from the bedroom and smell a strange skunky odor seeping under the door. The man watched in horror as his grandpa slipped away, piece-by-piece, cell-by-cell, so he knew exactly what he was in for over the coming months. He went down to the bar to get drunk and did not go home. He kissed his sleeping wife and sleeping kids before he left because he knew this would be the last. He was going to get ahead of this thing.
The man’s bar of choice was Togo’s, the place he’d been starting benders for years. It was a desolate shack a block from the beach, but it suited the man well. He preferred to drink in dark, dank places because it set the tone for what he was getting into. The darkness allowed him to hide from himself. There were signed pictures of celebrities yellowing on the wall. No new ones, of course. All from the ‘90s or before. Chris Farley and that generation of folks. Yesterday’s heroes.
The man had been sober for so long he didn’t recognize any of the staff at Togos. That was fine with him. Anonymity was what he was going for. He sat down on a stool at the bar and one of the legs was shorter than the others so it wobbled. He rocked back and forth, ordered a Jim and Coke and faced it. Then he ordered another and did the same. A familiar warmth filled his head and veins and the dank bar shimmered in a great white light and right then the man knew he was back. This grand feeling was why he drank, and he was glad to feel it one last time. He smelled the sea breeze through the windows and for an instant forgot all about the cancer and his imminent demise. In that moment he was just a guy getting drunk at a bar, a guy spinning happily alone in a formless universe that defied comprehension. Where had his grandpa gone? Where would he go? These questions no longer seemed like abstractions, but as real as the alcohol flowing through his bloodstream. He knew he’d never be able to answer these questions, yet he’d find out the answers soon enough. Against his will.
In that moment he was just a guy getting drunk at a bar, a guy spinning happily alone in a formless universe that defied comprehension.
He took it all in, one last time. Togos. He had good memories here, memories that floated in the fog of drunkenness like gravestones. There was the time he punched a guy, Jim or something, in the face because Jim had been boasting about killing dogs. The man couldn’t remember exactly what it was all about, but Jim was bragging about how he’d shot 10 or 20 dogs that’d wandered onto his property for no other reason than it was his property, god damn it, and he’d be damned if some pooch was going to step foot on it. The man had said to Jim why don’t you shut the fuck up, and Jim said fuck you, so the man knocked him out in one punch. That was the only time he’d been kicked out of Togos. That he could remember, at least.
The man chuckled to himself. Then he looked at all of the bartenders he didn’t recognize and felt like a stranger in a strange land. A familiar face walked out of the kitchen and began washing glasses in the sink. The man smiled and rapped his fingers on the wooden counter.
“Alan,” said the man.
Alan looked up from the sink. He was strongly built with a thick mustache. It took Jim a moment to recognize the person calling his name, but when he did his eyes softened and he smiled.
“Gio!” Alan said. “It’s been a while. I see rehab must’ve not worked out too well for you.”
“I’m no quitter,” Gio said, the warm buzz of liquor in his veins. “How you been?”
“Good, man, good,” he said. “Well, you know, Gina hasn’t been doing so hot. They found a lump in her breast and it turned out to be cancer. You know how that goes. Trying to see if it’s metastasized, or anything like that.”
“Ah, buddy, I’m sorry to hear that,” said Gio, looking into his drink. “Hopefully they catch it before it gets bad.”
“Yeah, well, that’s what we’re hoping, too,” he said. “But you never know with these things.”
It was late and there were only a couple other people at the bar. A gray-haired guy in a pink Hawaiian shirt at one end, a frumpy bleach blonde in an ill-fitting bikini top at the other. The place smelled like salt and leather. Jimmy Buffett was playing. Alan finished drying the last glass and placed it on the rack. He ran his fingers through his hair and rubbed his palms into his eyes. He looked a hell of a lot older than Gio remembered.
“So what’s new in your life?” Alan asked.
“Same old,” said Gio. “Kids are great. Wife’s still meaner than hell. You know how it is.”
“Hear ya, brother.”
Alan stared at Gio for a moment, his hands clasped in front of his stomach like he was giving thanks for something. Then he looked down at the floor, shook his head and said: “Well, buddy, I gotta get back to work. Maybe I’ll be seeing more of you?”
“Yeah,” said Gio. “Yeah, maybe you will.”
Gio nodded goodbye as Alan disappeared into the back of the bar. Gio swirled his drink and gazed at the frumpy blonde in a bikini, who was now leaning to one side like she was about to fall off her stool. She leveled out but then leaned too far the other way. Gio thought for sure she was going to collapse, but she never did. At some point she may have been good-looking, but time and liquor had done her in. Time and liquor’ll do that, Gio thought He shook his head and took a sip which burned as it went down. The bright white light he’d felt during his first drinks had dimmed to a sort of brown glow and now he was hitting his sweet spot. Not sober, but not out-of-his-mind. Right where he wanted to be. For a moment he forgot about his cancer, and he thought about all the things he still had left to do. But then he remembered the cancer and the fear and dread returned and he knew he had to get on with it. Just do it, he thought. Just fucking do it.
He pulled out his phone and checked his bank accounts. It was there. The hundreds of thousands of dollars. Some of it inherited from his grandpa. Strengthened by the liquor he contemplated what his family’s future would look like without him. He had good life insurance through his job so monetarily they would probably be all right for a while. But he wanted to help them out more, because his hospital bills would not be cheap, and because on some level he felt like he was abandoning them, like he was somehow to blame for a disease that was a random act of nature. He thought maybe it was the universe’s way of punishing him for drinking away his good years. For being a crappy dad, a crappy husband, a crappy son, for so long. As he sat there in that dank bar near the gulf with Chris Farley staring down at him, he suddenly smelled his wife’s hair. It came out of nowhere. He loved her hair. It was a mix of peach and lavender, and what he liked most about it was not the smell at all but the gray hairs mixed in with the brown ones. He thought it made her look distinguished. Hard-earned, for sure. Just like his own. They’d been through a lot together and now it was coming to an end. And so quickly, too. Life is a wisp and then it’s gone, he thought.
Gio finished his drink and settled the tab and walked into the muggy night air. It felt like his head was floating above his body and he was fine with that. The way he wanted it. He could hear the surf pounding the sand across the road, on the other side of the condos, and he felt a strange pull to be out there with his toes in the sand and the breeze on his face and the moon shining on him just right. It was a romantic thought and he was in the mood for romance. I might as well make it special, he thought.
Before walking onto the long and lonesome beach, he went to his car in parking lot and popped open the trunk. He moved a towel to the side and grabbed a pistol. His grandpa’s pistol. It had a swastika on it. His grandpa had stolen it from a dead Nazi soldier during the Great War and somehow managed to sneak it back to the states. He’d left it for Gio when he died because Gio liked guns. Gio had been his favorite grandson. They’d had the same eyes, popping blue ones that were so similar grandpa had said it was like looking in the god damn mirror. Gio missed his grandpa everyday. He stuck the gun in his waistband and walked toward the beach.
His fondest memory of this beach was from years ago, when their son, Gregorio, was two-years old. It was during one of Gio’s rare stints of sobriety. The memory was bright and clear as heaven. Gio and his wife, Isabella, with whom he’d been with since high school, had brought little Gregorio down here to watch the sunset over the Gulf. Gio, enlivened by being clean, lifted him onto his shoulders and put his arm around Isabella as the red sun sank into the watery horizon. It was such a perfect moment that Gio promised he’d never drink again. Not for any reason, ever. He’d thought he really meant it. But less than a year later he was off the wagon, getting thrown out of Togo’s for punching Jim the dog-killer in the face. That’s the way it always went with Gio. Trying to stop this would’ve been like trying to cease the flow of the mighty Mississip. Yet all great rivers eventually meld into something larger than themselves. This was true of Gio, too, here tonight, out on this beach of fond memories, a Nazi luger in his waistbelt and sand between his toes.
Gio sat on the beach in the middle of the darkness. The surf rushed in and out. The alcohol made his brain feel like styrofoam. There were a lot of stars despite the moon and Gio noted their beauty. Where will they go when I’m gone, he wondered. There’s nothing for a man to do but toil around for a spell before letting it all go. A man can puff his chest all he wants and sing beautiful hymns and make concessions to the Gods, but there is no control here. No grand control, anyway. Smaller things could be manipulated, tiny puffs of stunted meaning. Like how and when to go. A way of stealing back autonomy, Gio thought. A way to avoid being broken in ways no man should be broken. Ugly and pointless. No one should have to see that, not the Gods, not his wife and kids. This is my way of saving them, he thought. A happy death on the beach.
He pulled out the luger and in one quick and meaningless motion did it. A loud crack echoed against the tall condos and a body thumped into the sand as the waves crashed. Just like that there was no more Gio. No more stars and no more universe.
Small things can still wonder. Gods don’t have that luxury. I don’t think it’d be all that fun to be a God.
So here I am, standing in front of another drab office building, waiting to die.
Reflections on fatherhood and family history.