All Is Bright (10)

A Christmas Eve story in 24 installments

Ten

He devours the double cheeseburger, lustily enjoying every bite, and contemplates having another. But first he has a taste for something else.

“Hey, Dave,” he calls out, “you got anything stronger than coffee back there?”

“What, isn’t my coffee strong enough for you?”

“Plenty strong,” George says, thinking of the bottle in his room. His longing to get back there isn’t quite as urgent now that he’s comfortable, with a full belly, and he still hasn’t figured out how to get into the home and past the nurses. “But I need something a little more…you know.”

“No liquor license, George,” Novak says, turning back toward the grill. “This isn’t a bar. If you want that, go to Maggie’s place.”

“Not open tonight, remember? And I know you don’t have a license, but I thought you still might have a bottle around.”

George immediately feels unease, worried that he might have been insensitive. He vaguely remembers hearing something about Novak having had a problem, getting sober, being in recovery. Novak didn’t talk much about it, but he might have let it slip during some languid afternoon when George was the only customer in the diner, and Novak had tired of chatting with his employees—usually Vickie the waitress and Julio the busboy—and sat down across from George. Or maybe he heard it from someone else.

When George told Maggie Kiernan he hadn’t been to her bar, but drank elsewhere, he meant to give the impression that he drank at other bars, that he was a man about town. He didn’t want it known that he only drank in his room from a stashed bottle, with only a blaring TV for company. There was already enough stigma involved with men who drank alone. He hadn’t been to a bar since he moved—was moved—downtown to St. Luke’s, and Wojtak’s, the corner bar in his old neighborhood on the north side, was too far from any of the bus routes.

He missed his old house, his neighbors, the old men at Wojtak’s who were his drinking buddies. Smitty, Fred, Vince. 

Debbie took all of that away from him, plus his car, when she forced him to move to St. Luke’s. He hadn’t at all noticed his mind slipping, or at least nothing as bad as what she claimed. He only got lost while driving one time, and forgot a kettle on the stove until the water boiled away only once, or maybe twice. He could still keep up the house, inside and out. Cooking, cleaning, mowing the lawn, raking leaves in the fall until the yard was bare. 

“No bottle, George,” Novak says.

George can see pain in Novak’s eyes, maybe as he remembered his darker times.

“You should go to Maggie’s, maybe tomorrow.”

“Debbie’s hosting Christmas,” George says. “I’m on my own tonight because I didn’t want to go to Mass.” He pauses. “Christmas Day is usually nice at her place.”

“Well, maybe the day after, then,” Maddie Kiernan says, from her stool at the counter.