Slow Burn by Connie Wrzesniewski
hitey slid the shot glass across the shiny bar. I held it up and inhaled the fumes. The whiskey burned my throat as I drained the glass. It was a slow burn. I smiled greedily and savored the taste. Always did.
"One more." I signaled with the empty glass.
"Better make it your last," said the bartender.
"God damn it. What kind of friend are you?" I bellowed.
"Your wife'll blame me again. Don't spend your whole paycheck in one day. You just got it an hour ago."
"Josephine works. She pays the bills. Have to get rid of the Spruance fumes somehow." Spruance's was the paint factory where I worked in North Philly.
I cackled to myself and grinned at the empty glass. Then I ran my fingers across the glossy finish of the bar and waited for my refill.
That was my routine. Not just on payday, everyday. I stopped at the taproom on the way home from work. The paint factory fumes dyed my hair red. It used to be brown. I reeked with the odor of turpentine. My nostrils burned. The booze burned. That was a welcome burn. I loved the comfort it gave me. I loved the friendly atmosphere of the place. Whitey was my best friend. He trusted me. Sometimes he treated me. He knew I would always pay up later if I was broke.
I wrapped my big hands around the glass and stared hard at it. My hands looked like paws. They were so big and gnarled.
Josephine was a good girl. It was me came from the other side of the tracks. She was from a good family. Grandmom ruled it with an iron hand. All the birthday parties were at her house. We'd sit around the table, sing happy birthday and blow out the candles. She kept the bottle under the table. She'd fill the shot glasses and put it right back underneath. All the grandchildren were gathered around, so the bottle was kept out of sight.
Franny and Leo, my kids, they loved the parties. Leo was 12 years old and good looking. Blond hair and green eyes he had. He was something. He towered over Franny. She was short for her age because of the hump on her back. Curvature of the spine they called it. Smart as a whip though. She was an honor student. Two years younger than her brother. Good kids they were. They took after their mother. They were the best thing that ever happened to me and Josephine.
I said to Whitey that it was a beautiful day out. Then I told him that the neighborhood kids would probably cut school. They'd leave early to go swim in the river. Josephine never let our kids go. No, they could never go before June 21. That's when St. John blessed the water. It wasn't safe to go until then. Me, I didn't care. They were big enough to take care of themselves. Always took care of myself at that age. Franny was never interested anyway. It was probably because of that hump on her back. Poor kid. Felt like crying every time I thought of her disfigured like she was.
Whitey looked over and saw me crying and said it's about time for me to leave. It was getting on to supper time he said.
I stubbed out my cigarette in the ashtray. See you tomorrow I said to Whitey and slipped off the red leather seat. The stool was comfortable and I hated to leave. It seemed like I hardly had time to warm it up. But I slowly staggered to the door knowing I'd get an earful from Josephine if I was late again for supper. The four block walk home would sober me up. It usually did. Working late is what I would tell her. Either that or the trolley was late again. Hated to lie but it was always better to save an argument. She always got burned up when I stopped off at the taproom on my way home from work. First, she'd glare at me and refuse to talk. It would start out with a mad look, real steady like a slow burn. Soon she'd start to bang pots and pans around the stove like she was about to blow up. Then she would brush her ringlets back off her face and tell me some day the booze is gonna kill you Joe. That's what she usually told me. Who knows that better than me? I wiped my mouth on the back of my sleeve and headed for the door.
Half way out, I heard one of the guys at the bar call my name. He told me I forgot my cigarettes. You can't go anywhere without your Camel's he said. Eddie's a good man. He's honest. Could've kept them for himself. Instead, he walked over to me and thumped me on the back in a friendly way. Then he tucked the pack in my shirt pocket and sent me on my way. I stepped outside into the sunlight.
The walk home went slow. My hands were jammed into my pants pockets to keep them from shaking. I weaved along the sidewalk with a fresh cigarette hanging from my lips. Halfway down the second block, I stopped, took my hand from my pants pocket and threw away the stump. I pulled the balled up wax paper from my lunch sandwich out of the other pocket and dropped it on the ground. Then I leaned against a dark green Plymouth and steadied myself with the chrome door handle. I lowered myself to the running board, sat down and lit up a Camel. I stared long and hard at the red glow of ash on the tip holding the cigarette between my thumb and forefinger. The smoke curled up to the sky like an offering. Burnt ashes. I could hear the Victrola playing through the open windows of the house in front of me. It sounded like Rudy Vallee singing. Either him or some other god damn crooner.
It was a real trick trying to stand up. After bouncing back down three times, I finally made it to my feet. I kicked the wax paper ball and it landed a few feet away next to the telephone pole. I threw the butt in the gutter and left for home.
The rumpus started as soon as I hit the front porch. Josephine opened the door and yelled at me. She was crying. Her eyes were wild. It wasn't her usual slow burn.
"Get in here, Joe," she screamed. "Hurry up." She was hysterical.
"God damn it," I said. "Shut up and quit your squawking."
"Where were you all this time? You're over an hour late."
"The trolley car was late. I waited over a half hour for it."
"You're a liar, Joe. You were at Whitey's. I can smell the booze on you."
Just then something caught my eye behind the red living room sofa. It was our little brown Pomeranian. Sandy peeked out from the back and shivered violently. Always did when the fighting started.
"Get over here, Sandy." My voice boomed. The dog crept from behind the sofa. I kicked it. It squealed as it flew across the room.
"Quit it, Joe, before you hurt him," she said. Sandy continued squealing and yelping. Then he limped into the dining room. He hid under the table and peeked out beneath the cloth still shivering. Josephine was screeching at the top of her lungs.
"Son of a bitch is stupid," I said.
"Nobody's stupid but you, Joe," she said. "You're too stupid to even ask why I'm crying."
"God damn it. You're crazy. Get the hell out of here."
"You killed him, Joe. It was you. Sure as you're standing there. It's you're fault he drowned. She was wailing furiously, lungs bursting. Her eyes bulged.
I looked at her stupefied. "What the hell are you talking about? Settle yourself, woman." I stared crazily at her and cackled. Fear began to tingle somewhere deep inside of me as I laughed.
"Leo's dead. He drowned in the river. The neighborhood kids came running down the back alley yelling, 'Mrs. Gladiola. Leo drowned.' They hollered loud enough for the whole world to hear. You killed him, Joe. You killed my first born and the whole world knows it. You were the one who told him it was okay to go swimming in the river. The cops will be here any minute now. You'll have to go identify the body." She sobbed hysterically.
I walked over to the buffet, opened the door and took out the bottle of Carstair's. It was my favorite. My nerves needed some steadying. I lifted the bottle and took a long deep swig. Then I wiped my mouth on the back of my sleeve. The burn was slow but sure as the booze slid down my throat. It hit the spot where the fear tingled.