by Jeff Haws
Jolting upright, I squeeze the Jack Daniels bottle between my thighs just before it tips over to the floor. I look down and see the black label staring at me; the little bit of whiskey that's left is tilting toward the lip, ready to fill my shoes if my legs can't hold onto it. I briefly wonder if this is why they give these bottles flat sides, for better drunken, convulsive thigh catches. It's saved me on more than one occasion from having shoes full of whiskey. Well, that and my ability to leave the bottle mostly empty.
I grab the top of the bottle and pull it back up, then try to raise my head; the room rotates quickly, lights blur and walls smudge while my head bounces on a neck that refuses to carry the weight. Enough of these nights will teach you the chair is always your better bet than the bed. I'd have already puked into my own lap if I'd been in bed, but keeping your feet on the floor helps ground you against the worst of the drunken spinning head. When I know I'm spending the night with Jack, I'll always stay downstairs in the recliner with my feet firmly planted on the linoleum.
My head bobs left and settles on my shoulder; in front of me, the window reveals a purple sky with a sliver of dim light peeking over the ground, between the neighbors' houses across the street. What does that make it? 6:30, maybe? I can't remember if I ever fell asleep. I'm not confident I'll ever fall asleep again.
The people across the street, though—I'm sure they're asleep. Spencer and Mary are in bed right now, dead to the world. Her head's probably resting on his fucking shoulder. He snores a little bit, but she's used to it by now. Probably even comforts her, just being reminded he's there. I fucking hate those people. I really do. Their whole lives are based around creating these perfect little characters so the rest of us feel even shittier about our own lives. But you can't even get mad at them, or you look like the jackass who's jealous and screwed up in the head. Not the people who pretend they're something they're not. No, it's the guy who minds his own business and is genuine about who he is who's the fucked-up one. That's the way the world works.
I spin the bottle around in my hand, looking at the liquid slosh around in waves. Bubbles cling desperately to the glass walls but can't hold on, splashing back down into the molasses-colored pool below. I raise the bottle and tilt it toward me; the whiskey burns just a bit as it hits the back of my throat, the sting helping to delay the inevitable throbbing head that'll come next. I lift the bottle and splash the last few drops into my mouth, shaking it to make sure there's nothing left, then drape my arm over the side of the chair and let the bottle fall to the floor with a heavy clink.
I have no idea what day it is. Am I supposed to be at work in a couple of hours? When every day's the same, it's hard to say. Time is just change, in the end. If the sun didn't come up and go down, the Earth didn't rotate, the world never changed, there'd be no way to measure it. Essentially, there'd be no such thing as time. People's lives can get like that too. When the days start blending together, how do you measure time? And, even more so, what's the point?
That sun that's gradually getting closer to showing itself isn't going to bring anything good with it. The dark is better. You can hide when everybody else is sleeping. You don't have to look at how your neighbors' lives reflect your own inadequacies. You don't have to face yourself. The dark lets you be alone, lets you wallow and embrace whatever misery is there to be embraced. The morning just exposes it all to those smiling faces with white teeth all lined up in a row.
I know they don't approve of me. I see them at church and they say hi, but you can see it's forced. There's no small talk. No more invitations to their lake house. Just hollow greetings if they can't avoid me. When Adrian would show up with fresh cuts and bruises on her arms, I know they suspected something. I think she purposefully tried to make them just a little visible. A small cry for help, maybe. She's been gone awhile, though.
Now, God wouldn't approve of what I've become. This withering mass that passes the hours of insomnia with liquor straight from the bottle. He can smell the whiskey on my breath just like the neighbors can. I don't even know why I go to church anymore, when I can remember it's Sunday. He can see my heart's not there, that I wish I could have a handle of some devil's water with me when I'm kneeling in front of a pew. It's not that I don't have faith that there's someone in control; it's that whoever that someone is has delivered me into this reality, this life. Whatever this is. Becoming an atheist almost seems redundant. When your belief is this tainted, is it even worth the bother of leaving behind?
I figure I've been strapped to this chair long enough, so maybe I'll wander upstairs. I have blackout curtains in the bedroom; I can shut the world out up there. Pretend I'm somewhere else, somewhere better. Somewhere new. There's no way I'm stepping foot outside today.
Standing up, I get a feel for just how much I really drank; my legs nearly buckle, and I fall back toward the chair. My hand catches on the chair's arm and stabilizes me while I try to forget about the merry-go-round in my head. Ten seconds pass, then twenty. Finally, I lift my hand off the chair arm and pause to see if I can stand up. My legs wobble but hold; slowly, I bring my hand further up from the chair and straighten from my hunch. My arms are spread to my sides like I'm on a balance beam, trying to keep my center of gravity above my feet. I take one careful step forward, then another, deliberate, slow, momentum building as I reach the banister for the stairs and grab ahold hard.
Each step is becoming a little easier, now getting help from my left hand, pulling my body up the stairs one foot at a time, finally reaching the hall. I'll need an aspirin or four before I lie down. If I'm lucky, I'll sleep. If not, I'll stare at the ceiling in the dark for awhile.
I open the door to the room and step through; the bed is just a few steps in front of me. I walk quietly to it and stop, bending carefully over the mattress. I pull back the quilt a little bit and bend further, kissing her forehead gently. She's only six, and she deserves me to be better than this. It's kind of amazing we've made it this far; she believes her mom is someplace better, and I do nothing to dissuade her from that. Hell, I hope she's right. But if so, I can't join her there now. There's more for me to do. If there is a god, this is the one lifeline he's thrown me, and I'm clutching to it with everything I have. She'll get me to the other side of this. She'll be the light breaking through the dark. It's dim now, but it'll shine brighter if I can rise with it.
I pull the quilt back up under her chin and fold it back across her shoulder. Then I back out the way I came and shut the door behind me, careful not to let the latch click. My bedroom's down the hall, and more darkness still awaits.