Ed, drunk on bourbon and smoking a Camel unfiltered, seated askance on his stool, the smoke swirling about his peeling forehead and slicked back bar gray hair, has a story to tell me. Rubbing his thumb, the one on the right hand with the split nail and square, shattered tip, into his eye socket as if to excavate the rheumy globe and place it in his tumbler, he clears his throat low, into his collar; it is my cue to snap to and pay attention.
"Yeah?" I've done this twice over the two hours I've been here. Both times lame attempts at gab: the weather, Christmas commercialism, the general holiday banter, albeit the pissy kind. Now it's the expectation that's killing me: when will he get down to it?
"Another?" He’s all low gravel and rumble.
"Sure. Plane's out at eleven-thirty. I'm leaving at eleven." I nod to the glasses. They're removed.
Ed stubs out his Camel, pivots on his stool. I hope it's short. It's late. The reception is just over. I've been at the bar most of the night. I can see the taxi that will take me away from this man waiting in the snowy lot just outside the front door. I can see it pulling up to the terminal, me slipping into the crowd of holiday tourists, my plane warming up on the tarmac, the crews de-icing the wings. This has been the scene the last five years, me dreaming of the tarmac while listening to Ed.
Money is slipped from the bar. The drinks are served.
"So it's '84, right? I'm driving plow, about this time of the year, only it's snowing like a bastard. The freakin' Thruway's closed, the locals are all backed up. I pull the Martin's Hill route, no lights, darker than hell." He pulls from the fresh bourbon. Pauses. A crew from the reception exits, friends I once had but no longer see. Strangers.
"Your old man, the son of a bitch, always had it in for me. Did I ever tell you that? He always rigged the schedule against me, put me where no one else wanted to go. That night it was way the hell out in the hollow. I bitched about it, too. Told him he was a bastard. Still went, though." He stops and coughs into his cuff. When his head rises, spittle puddles in the corner of his mouth. "So I go. I'd been pulling a double by then, tired. It was real dark on the hill. I look away for a second and the kid comes out of nowhere with his shitty little hatchback. Swerving all over the place. He clips the blade, does a three sixty, drops like a rock over the side. No rails up there by Dicky Martin's place, just trees." He sips. I sip. It's ten-forty. "Just like that." He motions and his hand goes over the side of the bar and disappears behind his leg; he's staring at me like he's got some deep understanding of how it all works. He wants me to get this. “What the fuck was he doing out that night?”
This year there is no sullen bar visits to bring me here, no silent benders in the corner of the bar by the fish tank. No, this year there’s a twist; my cousin got married. Now the reception is over. The family, friends, are all gone. It's just Ed and I in the Knights of Columbus. Drinking. Some sort of annual cosmic happening, being plunked down here with him babbling on. Again. I want out. I have no need of his crap, not tonight. I want to be home, far away, back in the city that welcomed me when I bailed way back then.
He's still staring, but then turns his back to me to watch SportsCenter and the playoffs. It's almost eleven when he drops his head to eye the floor. His shoulders are shaking. As I gather my coat he grips my arm, claws digging into me. "I wasn't drinking. I don't know why I kept going. I was scared. I thought they'd blame me for killing the kid." Ed chokes as he sips his drink. "And he forgave me, just like that. He says 'Ed, it's alright.' Like he's some kind of freakin' saint. That got me, right there." He pauses and implores me with his eyes to show some sort of recognition. I guess he can't wait, though, because he moves right on. "You'd think I'd be happy, relieved. Instead, it's like I can't stop seeing him. He's there all the time with those hollow eyes, crying. I gotta stop. Why can't I stop?" He thinks about hugging me, but, gratefully, he collapses into his crossed arms. Where he stays. From the bar he groans, "I'm sorry."
The bartender, Donnie, I think- another old friend I can no longer remember- just shakes his head. "All the time," he says, “Especially since your old man passed. Tells anyone he can. Same story, about your brother, over and over. Only reason we let him stay is cause your old man asked us to. Sorry you had to deal with him. Merry Christmas."
I put my coat on and walk by Ed. Donnie is schlepping down the bar to boost him up, pat him on the back, feed him another bourbon as if it’s the payment of some awful debt. I had called Tommy to come for me that night, partying, drunk, stupid. No one at home knew I called. He was coming to get me, big brother shuttling his idiot brother home. I waited. He never made it. I rode home with my girlfriend, pissed as hell that he left me. It's been fifteen years since I buried my brother on the day after Christmas. Five since I put my father next to him.
The taxi's waiting as I step out into the icy wind. My mother will be home by now, cleaning up after my annual visit, getting ready for bed. The snow crunches under my feet as I step off the curb. The taxi is still there, idling. For what it’s worth, I know this will make me feel better, lighter. It’ll be ok for a while, but it won’t last. It never lasts.
Brian Stumbaugh is a writer and teacher of English. His work has appeared in Arbutus, The Square Table and Antithesis Common.