“Whiskey Kisses”

It really wasn’t all that far from the barstool to the floor. Still, it took him longer to get there than he thought it might.

On the way down he had given up on all the chances of climbing back on top—or at least to stop falling. He waved sadly to friends who stood and shook their heads when he refused their outstretched hands; watched even his children eventually turn and walk away; told more than one boss to kiss his ass; traded a suburban house and late model cars for rundown apartments and crowded buses, and then flophouses for park benches and underpasses. His three-piece suits and expensive shoes became tattered rags and sneakers stuffed with old newspapers.

It had been a bitter January. The cold of the wind and snow were nothing compared to the ice that formed around his broken heart. He felt as if his very soul was in the granite headstone. The name and dates engraved there marked everything that had been his life, too, for forty years and more. Now his name was printed in white on a black label, his life’s blood became brown sour mash and bourbon.

He didn’t even try to break his fall. Instead he willingly let himself go, unable to accept the possibility of anything new that might thaw the rime of loneliness or chip away the crystal ache of loss. Only whiskey’s stupor blurred the reality that was no longer real.

That final night in March he thought he was the only one in the bar besides the bartender, and she only cared that he had the money for the next shot and that he didn’t make a mess she would have to clean up. When the dirty floor came up to meet him, he didn’t feel it. He lay there with his glazed eyes trying unsuccessfully to focus on a crumpled handbill. He didn’t feel the drool that puddled under his chin or the warmth of his own urine when his bladder let go. The smell of stale beer and cigarettes didn’t register in his besotted mind. The jukebox played his favorite song, but he didn’t hear “Whiskey River take my mind.” It was already gone.

From somewhere came gentle hands that caressed his cheek, and then raised his head off the sticky hardwood. Other, stronger hands took his shoulders and his feet and lifted him onto a gurney.

A week or so later he seemed to come back to himself and the world. That, too, had been a harrowing journey. Once again he lived through death and rejection. His body rebelled against its own healing, but miraculously it had healed. He became aware of the sun coming through the partially drawn shades, the feel of starched sheets that covered his emaciated frame, the antiseptic smell in the air, and the sweet scent of a perfume he vaguely recognized. When he finally opened his eyes to really look around, she was sitting across his hospital room, looking at him with eyes full of concern and love.

“Becky?” he whispered, not yet willing to believe his old friend was there.

“Hello, Hank,” she said. “Welcome back. We’ve missed you.”

“Why are you here? Where did you come from?”

“I was in Italy when Jane passed away….”

The mention of her name caused him to look away, and she rose from her chair, came to his bedside, and took his hand. He tried to draw it from her, but she refused to let him go.

“When I got back, I tried to call you, but the numbers I had were disconnected. I called Anson to see where you were and how you were holding up. He told me his father had all but disappeared. I’ve been trying to find you for almost two months. The last place I expected to find you was slipping away on a barroom floor.”

Her voice caught: “The doctors said I barely made it in time.”

“I’m sorry, Bec. You should have left me there.”

“No, Hank. You’re too important to me—and to your kids—to give up like that. We need you.”

“We? Becky, I’m no good to anyone anymore.” With a dejected sigh he looked from her imploring eyes and saw the monitors, bags of fluids, snaking tubes, and blank sterility of his condition, and for the first time felt the shame and disgrace that he had brought to those he

When she leaned over and kissed his cheek where embarrassed tears streamed down his face, he turned and looked into brown eyes that seemed to hold a future he thought he had lost. He squeezed her hand and smiled for the first time in months.   At that moment he didn’t need the siren-sweet kiss of whiskey, and somehow he thought he never would again.

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