Upsetting
Thursday, August 22, 2002
 
Sometimes drinking beer when it’s hot out is a drag because you get all faded and sleepy, and you’re insta-buzzed. Other times, though, there is nothing quite like an ice-cold beer on a scorching day, and that was the case when Caroline and I drank a six-pack of Bud on the back porch of her Kensington cottage yesterday.
The temperature was like 760 degrees, I swear.
She’d called me at work and suggested we cut out early and get together. We did, and by 2:30 p.m. we were in shorts and bare feet on the bricks in her backyard. That Lou Donaldson record with “Tennessee Waltz” was on her record player, and we talked about the baseball strike, the likelihood of terrorists striking San Diego and how stock options work.
By 5:30, there was no beer left, and we were at that drinking crossroads. Call it quits, and I ride my bike home. Stick with it, have fun, and maybe later regret any number of things.
But it was still hot at 5:30 p.m., so we decided to go get more beer. Caroline said if I walked down to the liquor store, she would see what she could scrape up in the kitchen.

Down on Adams Avenue, across the street from the library, I saw the guy from the cover of The Dragons album teetering outside the liquor store. He might have been even more besotted than he was on the cover of the record. Swollen head, splotched and parched skin, moist lips, he spoke of a lifelong – and losing – battle with the bottle. The transparent wisps of hair on his head only called attention to the liver spots.
But the guy’s clearly not a bum, a jakey whiffing on 24-oz. cans of Lite. He buys his own, like any self-respecting drinker.

Clem’s is one of those cool slick liquor stores where the beef jerky is of the highest order and the shop itself smells oaky and monied. The kinda place built when drinking wasn’t so stigmatized by self-righteous squares, guys who wear belts with shorts. I think it’s actually called Clem’s Bottle House, to give you reading of just how worthy the shop is.

As I walked to the counter with the sixer, the owner, his son and one of those guys that just hangs out all day at the local store were abuzz with Lotto fever. Sunlight knifed through the doorway and windows, backlighting the dust motes that sparkled above the counter. For liquor store owners, they were exceptionally friendly.

Outside, I stopped to read the headline in the newspaper box. Something about the Westerfield case. When I turned away, shielded the sun with my left hand and started back to Caroline’s, my path was blocked by the drunky. He reached and put his left hand on my shoulder. It was a heavy hand. He had that antiseptic, Listeriney smell old drunkies get.
His eyes were so vacuous, I’m not sure you could say he was looking at me. His mouth didn’t move when he spoke. It was just an O.

“Son,” he grunted. We stood about eye to eye. I waited.
His chest heaved a bit as he searched for the rest.
“Son,” he said again, nodding a bit, his hand still on my shoulder.
Respectfully, I arced my eyebrows to let him no there was no hurry. I suspected wisdoms of the ages to pour forth. I tried to place myself in his mind, plumb his watery memory.
He started to shake his head, and I might’ve heard a muffled chuckle from him.
He looked down at the ground, and when he pulled back up he was smiling. His eyes were different, too. There was an unmistakable gleam, as if he saw in me an old Army buddy or first wife. He clasped me with both hands.
“Son,” he said, and then let me go. “Best of luck to you.”

 
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