Short Story Corner

"One for the Road"

by F. R. Foksal

I drank myself senseless on Christmas Eve. I knew I shouldn’t have done that; I knew it was a bad idea; it was a terrible idea even, but I did it anyway.

The bearded man at the other end of the bar raised his shot glass; he raised it as ceremoniously as a priest during a Mass, then he froze for an instant, tried to steady his swaying body, even though his hand holding the glass remained impeccably motionless, like that of a crane operator, and declared: “One for the road! Ladies and gentlemen, one for the road!”

He downed it in one gulp, and the entire bar—full of patrons and smoke—also downed their drinks with him. I saw the sudden flashes of light, reflected from the bottoms of the raised glasses, flare up all around me, here and there, as if the starry night had crept into this crowded place and taken it over. I remember waiting for them to finish all that collective raising the toast and drinking—I had never been particularly fond of any mass actions, or inactions for that matter. And only then, when the last glass had landed safely on the runway of the counter or a table, did I allow mine to take off.

“Don’t be shy, ladies and gentlemen! Don’t be shy!” he would reappear a few minutes later, as shaky and wobbly as before, and yell: “One for the road! One for the road, ladies and gentlemen! And Merry Christmas to you!”

It took several of those high-proof farewells to knock him off his feet. Too much cordiality defeated him, apparently; so that, before long, two more or less sober Samaritans had to step up and tow him out of there, tow him back home—his insteps dragging on the ground, like twin turntable needles trying to record something. They left two parallel grooves in the fresh snow—so they had recorded something, after all: his path home.

When I got out of there myself—yet without all that dragging and towing—I felt the sidewalk swim beneath me, just as if it tried to catch me off guard and smack me in the face. I saw everything swim and be in constant motion: the snow-caked shops closed for the night; the blazing streetlamps forcing me to squint my eyes; the snowplows sailing majestically down the snow-covered streets like the monumental icebreakers that are about to reach and claim the North Pole; the trashcans being discreetly emptied by the warmly dressed garbage men roaming the empty streets—a swarm of nocturnal creatures creeping out of their lairs only after dark. The world, despite the pervading cold, seemed to be in a sudden mood for swimming—so I swam along with it.

I swam down the road, my plump and short legs desperately worked beneath me—like the needles in the hands of one knitting a jumper—doing their fat best not to let me down; my long coat grazed and caressed the snowdrifts, like a delicate and passionate lover.

Hazily, I saw—through the low-placed windows that I passed on my way—the cheery families gathered around their tables: the late Christmas dinners; I saw the warm and colorful blaze of fairy lights pour from each of the top-floor windows; I felt the festive mood suffusing the air; I saw the Christmas trees sag under the oppressive weight of all the sparkling and glittering nonsense being attached to them, as if they were generals with their chests hung with medals. And then I saw a splash of vomit on my right shoe—I must have stepped into something left by that yeller from the bar: I was a shrapnel victim. I dug the tip of my shoe into the nearby snowdrift—a portable shoeshiner, very convenient.

Then it occurred to me; then it struck me—I couldn’t go back home like this; I just couldn’t return home empty-handed like this—it was Christmas Eve for crying and howling out loud.

I staggered back, back to where the shops and flashy display windows could be found. I staggered back to the shops with their shelves bending and buckling under the overflow of presents, toys, mascots, shiny gift-wrapping papers, and everything that one might wish for on a day like this. I staggered back there, yet only to find them all closed and boarded up—such a cruel lack of compassion on a night like this, on such a special night like this. The tree sellers were gone as well and only the occasional heaps of green needles here and there—impossible to miss on the uncompromising whiteness of the fresh snow, like the blots of blood on the crime scene—marked the spots where they had till recently practiced their trade.

Before I realized what I was really doing, I grabbed a spruce growing next to some building—the first one that I had encountered on my way. I kept wrestling and fighting with it, the snow and needles raining on me, on the ground, on the car parked nearby, until the fairly thin trunk gave up and broke with a snap.

Eager to walk away from there as fast as possible, from the amputated tree trunk sticking accusatorily from the snow, from the incriminating evidence of my wooden crime, I cleaned it up; I straightened the spruce up, as if I were adjusting a child’s clothes before dropping it off at school.

I barely climbed the stairs; it was dark in there. The tree kept brushing against the walls of the narrow staircase, showering the needles all the time, leaving a treacherous trail on the steps—I would deal with it later; I would deal with it tomorrow. I found the door to the apartment to be invitingly ajar—a warm light seeped from there, like the comforting heat from a fireplace. I silently walked in.

In the living room, I saw a table; it was all set: full of empty plates; the empty chairs all around it, as if I intruded on a secret meeting of the huddling furniture. Was I too late? Did I miss it? Had they started without me? Was it that bad?

Cursing myself, I propped the spruce against the wall; it poked and tilted the picture hanging there, like one fingering a loose tooth. I wiped my forehead—it was hot in there; too hot to my liking.

Then I saw it: another Christmas tree, fully decorated, large and proud, sitting in the opposite corner of the room: a glittering impostor—they hadn’t even waited for me to do it.

A sudden wave of drowsiness came over me; I could hardly keep my eyes open: I had to lie down. I directed my clumsy and more and more dragging steps toward the bedroom. The door was open; the bed was nicely made up—every tired man’s dream.

I didn’t even bother to take off my coat, much less the shoes—it was my bed, after all, I could afford a hint of slovenliness, once in a while at least. It was warm; it was pleasantly soothing; it was fine.

Then she appeared in the doorway, like a slice of bread jumping out of a toaster.

“Out, out, out of here!” she started screaming right away. “Get out of here, now.”

A tall and balding man dressed in a ridiculous sweater with a horizontal diamond pattern—was that the best he could do?—materialized right next to her; the silly robust grocer.

“Jeez, not him again. Not that guy again,” the baldie squeezed into the room, past the speechless woman; he leaped to my side and started tugging at my coat’s sleeve, like a toothless dog maltreating a trespasser. “Sir, you can’t be here. Sir, you can’t keep coming here.”

“Call the police,” the woman demanded. “Kids, call the police. Tell them that this man is here; he’s here again.”

I saw a duo of girlish little heads peeking around the doorframe and looking like tiny flowers in a boutonnière.

“Sir, it’s not your home,” the baldie went on and on. “Sir, you can’t be here. It’s not your home.”

“Kids, call the cops,” the woman kept wailing. “Where’s the phone? Call the cops.”

“Sir, get up. Sir, it’s not your bed,” the baldie pleaded. “Please go away. It’s not your home.”

“It was my home,” I slurred, burying my head deeper into the pillow—a blissful smile on my face—into the soft bedclothes. “It used to be my home. It was my home once. I only had one for the road.”

Copyright © 2019 by F. R. Foksal

This short story is from a collection, Hour Between Late Night and Early Morning, by F. R. Foksal

In this collection of 27 interconnected stories, we follow the antics and misfortunes of the citizens of an unnamed city, all of them taking place sometime between late nights and early mornings. Immured in that both voluminous and ethereal hour, like fragments of a ship in a bottle, they live, love, hate, and stumble upon one another, while never finding enough time to pause and ponder where they are headed and whence they came.

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