One hundred and ninety-one days. That was how many days ago he’d lost his way. Like the truck whose tire blew out and crossed into oncoming traffic. Three cars were hit, one pancaked between the other two and the trucks—one behind them and the one whose tire blew out.
The middle car held his entire world. The middle car took the most damage.
They didn’t suffer, the coroner said. They never saw it coming.
One hundred and ninety-one days of waking up, going to work, paying the bills, avoiding going home to an empty house, and drinking to dull the inevitable pain of meeting that emptiness anyway to sleep and start the same inane cycle of pointlessness.
The grief counselor, appointed by his workplace, had urged him to keep a sense of rhythm. To not alter his day to day too much as he worked on finding his way back from grieving.
The shrink didn’t know how silent a house, once inhabiting an eleven-year-old boy, could suddenly be.
But he’d followed her advice and hadn’t changed his habits too much. He’d only altered one thing. Instead of hurrying home to be with a family, he parked the car in the driveway, walked down the street to the bar, and ordered a straight up whisky with a twist and a beer. Cheap stuff. He didn’t care, it was an acceptable numbing agent.
Around nine, he’d hear her voice.
Best foot forward, Pritchard.
So he’d pay the barman and put his best foot forward to go home and stand in that silent hallway, his heart pounding as he willed a shrill child’s voice to sound from upstairs, followed by thundering footsteps and the weight of his son crashing against him for a hug.
But there was nothing but the ticking of the old clock on the mantle, the hum from the fridge, and sometimes a radiator pinging.
He hated going home to that, so there he sat, looking at another empty glass at the bar. He wondered how many of those he’d had over those one hundred and ninety-one days. An average of three, but the first three weeks, he hadn’t come there. Three whiskeys, three beers, and half a pack of smokes. That’s how long it took to get himself home. Except on what would have been little Zack’s twelfth birthday last month. He hadn’t stopped after three that night, and his boss hadn’t even call to ask why he hadn’t come to work or called in sick.
He was on the second round of scotch and beer that evening, contemplating some of the others in the bar. He knew why he was there, yet sometimes he found it…pleasantly distracting to try to imagine why the others hung out there. He liked to think that he wasn’t the sorriest sob there. He was probably the one feeling the most self-pity, though. In fact, he was more than aware of that. But he didn’t care because at least he didn’t share it like some of the others.
He didn’t get so drunk that he’d sit and bawl the same sob-story in the last glass of the evening every night. In fact, he rarely spoke or interacted at all, suffering his grief alone.
He wasn’t the only regular there, and he’d come to know more about some of them. There were three kind, not counting himself. Some were so damn social they came there for the friendships, and they really seemed close. All with rough edges, but they were inclusive, and he usually liked that bunch. Mainly because they quickly got the drift, left him alone, and sometimes included him in a round.
Sometimes, a younger clientele would come in and shout and play darts, loudly, and they’d drink too much and sometimes brawl over a girl.
Pritchard didn’t mind them, either. They reminded him of his own youth. He’d been a troublemaker, and his mother-in-law, rest her soul, had literally dropped her teeth when she opened the door to meet Monica’s new boyfriend.
He chuckled at the remembered sight and how many times he and Monica had laughed about that expression and dentures flapping out the lady’s mouth.
Pritchard flagged the bartender down for the last set of the evening, and he’d been there enough times for the bartender to not have to ask. The bartender merely served a new cold beer and topped off the glass. He didn’t even ask for money up front anymore. He knew Pritchard would pay before he left.
The third kind in there were the ones raised there. In another time, at least. But alcoholics raised their kids even when not being home. They raised them through their absence to think that sitting at a bar was the norm, so when the kids grew up and was old enough to enter, they’d finally have some time with mom or dad and sit there and share the last drinks before the parent’s livers exploded from alcohol consumption. And then they’d sit around like their parents did, repeating the cycle.
Pritchard knew because that’s how he’d started out as one of the young loudmouths. It was to see his parents.
And then there’d been Monica. She’d been like a unicorn. There was one of those at this bar, too, yet not old enough to change a life yet.
One of the social ones always played a few games. Cards, dice, didn’t matter. He seemed a sociable guy, not the one to get mean when drunk, not aggressive, just…a happy drunk until he slid off the chair with a goofy smile on his face, and the others would carry him to a sofa to sober up for half an hour and then support the man in staggering home to her.
The pattern breaker.
His teenage daughter, looking like she belonged in a middle-class home with enough income for tuition. Bright brown eyes revealed intelligence and purpose.
Monica had been the same, and once Pritchard had fallen for her, she’d hauled him out of the muck, telling him best foot forward, Pritchard, and we can do anything.
Resentment at the happy drunk once again waving off his daughter, as she tried to get him to come home and eat, filled Pritchard up for the umpteenth time.
He never got involved in anything there, though.
Like so many times before, she gave up and left her dad to gamble, and like so many times before, he didn’t even seem to registered that the five minutes he’d asked her to wait sometimes became thirty before she left, her shoulders slumping from yet another defeat at another drunken promise lost in an alcohol-drowned mind’s ability to tell time.
Someone had taught her to put her best foot forward because she seemed like she had things under control. Nice but cheap clothes, pretty, well-groomed. She certainly didn’t look like the daughter of the man with three days old sweat stains on his olive green wifebeater. Was it even originally green?
None of his business, so Pritchard kept to himself and continued to glare at the scuffed-up man in the mirror. He wore a suit at work. Office job. Nothing fancy. And he drank in that suit. Alone. Always alone. He rarely stumbled upon people he wanted to have a chat with except for one of the bartenders. He’d seen things in life, too. It was easy to tell by his eyes. The way he weighed loud voices or body language. And his silence. And the way he held a bat when drunken customers got into it enough for him to have to break it up.
Pritchard always stayed out of those, too.
Like so many nights before, the girl waited more than five minutes while someone at her dad’s table lost a round, and it was served.
In the mirror, usually telling Pritchard he looked more and more like he belonged, he noticed the glances she sent her dad as he emptied one bottle and received the one he’d just won.
How old was she? Sixteen? The glance she sent her dad could have belonged in the eyes of a mother, sending her child a disapproving look and weighing when and how to best correct their behavior.
As always, her gaze returned to her phone, her thumb working the screen, scrolling.
“Another game?” someone asked.
“Yes,” her dad said.
“Dad!” Her body language seemed to deflate. “You promised.”
“I can play this one while I drink my beer and get a card.”
She returned her attention to the screen, shrinking in on herself.
The game continued, and by the time they’d finished, Dad had lost the round. Accompanied by cheers and friendly banter, he got up, laughing, going to the bar, while the other three at the table shouted their winnings. Apparently, shots.
Dad returned with four shots and another beer for himself.
The girl threw out her arms and left, pushing the door open, hard, kicking it. Her dad didn’t even look up.
Pritchard’s resentment grew, and he emptied his bottle, paid, and left, withholding the angry glare he felt like sending the incompetent father.
It wasn’t his business to meddle in.
Like the girl, he pushed the door open, hard, the fresh air hitting him, giving for a momentary clarity of mind before the alcohol gave the last kick to the numbness he needed to face that dead house.
He turned and tripped over something, struggling to catch his footing, while the noise of something crashing to the ground resounded.
The girl stood against the wall with her phone, staring at him and her scooter.
“Oh, shit, I’m sorry.” He managed to coordinate himself to get it uprighted, the girl coming over to protect her property.
“You broke it!”
The mirror hung limply from a few exposed wires, and a part of the body had broken away from the frame, exposing what looked like delicate parts of the engine.
“I need this to get to school,” she said, her tone giving away just how much the misfortune would set her back.
“I’ll pay for it.”
“Yeah, right.” He’d heard that tone from her every time she answered her dad, and it cut into him. He wasn’t like that. He was nothing like her dad.
“Here, look.” He fished out a business card and wrote his private cell number on the back. He had enough coordination skills to do that even in the limited light from the lamp post. “Give the mechanic this and have him call me with the price. I’ll hash it out with him before he starts so you don’t get stuck with a bill.” He handed the card over, earning a skeptical glance.
She snatched the card, looking it over. “Auto repairs?”
“Yeah, and if you find a mechanic handling our brand who can fix a scooter, he’ll know he’ll get his money.”
She tugged the card under the cover of her phone, then pocketed it.
“You want me to help you haul it home?”
“No! I’m afraid you’ll fall over with it again and break it completely. A bit of tape and I might be able to make it in tomorrow on time.”
Pritchard felt like shit. “I really am sorry.”
She rolled her eyes, shaking her head.
“What’s your name?”
“Why?” she asked incredulously.
“So I know who’s referring the mechanic with a bill.”
She sighed. “Rose.”
“Rose. That’s pretty.”
“I hate roses. I like lilies, though.”
He waved off his own attempt at smoothing the situation a bit, and she dragged off with her broken scooter, a panel rasping against the ground. He’d suggest she follow just up the road and help tape it together in his garage, but he was sure she was too mad at him, and he was an old fart at forty-three that she probably didn’t think it a good idea to follow anywhere.
So he left it at that, hoping she’d contact a mechanic like he’d asked her to.
The trip home from the bar always seemed three times as long, and it wasn’t because he was so intoxicated that he zigzagged enough for it to be true. He was numb and uncoordinated, not skunk-drunk. And, to be fair, that scooter had stood just behind the door and far enough onto the sidewalk for there to be almost no way of seeing it.
He could argue that, but he didn’t plan on it. That girl had more than enough trouble on her hands, and her focus had been on getting to school on time. He respected that.
And there it was. The empty house looking dark and uninviting.
He stared at it for a moment, then looked down at his feet.
Tomorrow still seemed irrelevant, yet the grief-councilor kept insisting that it would get better. That time indeed did heal all wounds.
One hundred ninety-one days.
How much time did she expect would have to pass? He’d asked that to have some sense of how long he’d merely have to survive through the steps of grief. Denial, anger bargaining, depression, and at some point, with time…acceptance.
Her answer was useless, though. She had a degree in this stuff, so she had to know something. Grief is individual. That was her vague answer. Someone could get over having his family killed on a Wednesday morning in a few weeks, and he was six months out feeling as emotionally dazed as the day the police had come to his office to bring him the bad news.
His heart had stopped. That’s how it had felt, anyway. Heat had spread from the center of his chest to incapacitate him, and numbness had followed.
That’s all he remembered. The rest didn’t make sense. It wasn’t clear anymore.
The numbness remained, though, and that was what he tried to cancel out with alcohol. He wanted to stop feeling dead in his heart by blunting his senses.
Unlocking the door, he met silence and darkness.
Sometimes, he didn’t even turn on the lights. He didn’t want to face it all. He just shuffled inside, kicked off his shoes, and shrugged out of his jacket.
How he managed to clean the entire house every Saturday before going to the bar he didn’t know, but Monica had been a proud housewife, and he felt like he owed it to her. Everything was left exactly like when she’d walked out that door. Every Saturday, everything got done. And at four pm when he was done and looked around at the shrine to her, he left it and ordered more than three sets of scotch and beer so that he could sleep Sunday away and start another week of passing time toward healing.
Tonight, he merely hung his suit jacket on the coat hanger and climbed the stairs in the darkness. He brushed his teeth in the night-light installed by the panels. Monica had liked that, thinking it would be easier to fall back asleep if you weren’t blinded by light if having to take a piss in the middle of the night.
Finally ready for bed, he tossed himself under the covers and relished in the buzz that kept everything just outside cognitive reach.
It never took long to slip into slumber under that buzz.
Sitting on the edge of the bed, he rubbed his face, then glanced at the clock radio. He’d sat there longer than usual, feeling more hungover than usual.
He figured it to be sleep drunkenness. He hadn’t slept much that night, thinking about the girl whose scooter he’d knocked over. He’d pay for it, and she’d gotten his details, so why did she keep him up?
Finally, he reached the conclusion that it was the lack of faith in her eyes when he’d apologized and promised to pay. That drunkard dad was probably the reason. She didn’t believe him because he was slipping into alcohol abuse, and she took it as nothing more than another drunk’s promise never to be fulfilled.