One breezy October afternoon, Eddie left work and drove to Parham’s Lounge. The route led through Springfield’s rough inner-city streets, ones that needed paving and were lined with run-down houses that cried for renovation. Week after week, for the past three years, he did not drink, as he had promised his wife. But loneliness had sunk into his bones and he thought that a drink, maybe two, would shake it off without ruining his sobriety.
He parked in the nearly empty dirt lot behind the bar, next to the owner’s 1984 triple black Jag. Looking at the Jag now, he saw it as a sign of empathy, for Parham was a good listener and wise in understanding another person’s perspective. More than empathy from Jessie Parham, though, Eddie wanted to drink to drown the grief that tormented him like an unforgiving ghost.
The dimly lit interior escorted Eddie through the back door, which he found just as it was three years ago when he’d last patronized the bar. Nothing had changed: the air conditioners gurgled with a low hum, the oval-shaped bar took up most of the room’s space, the cracks winced in some of the leather padded stools around the bar, the center station was stacked like a stadium, the overhead fans rotated like old men, the scuffed vinyl flooring held onto durability, and the dark paneled walls along the booths embraced their secrets.
Five young men in suits and ties, sat together across the bar, drinking bottles of beer and tossing back shots between loud talking and laughing about one of them turning forty. The lone bartender turned her back to the men and circled around the center island as Eddie found a seat, alone, opposite the celebration.
“What’s your pleasure?” the bartender asked. She looked about thirty-years-old, with smooth brown skin, a short pixie cut hairstyle, and a warm smile in her eyes and on her lips.
Eddie’s heart sped up; he suddenly felt exhausted and feared his first relapse. He considered getting up and leaving, but he adjusted his wire rim glasses and glanced around. “Where’s Parham?” he asked.
“Oh, he’ll be back later,” the bartender said, nonchalantly.
“His whip broke down?” Eddie asked.
The bartender’s smile turned into a frown, as if he’d asked her to surrender her name, date of birth, address and social security number. “He’s not the only one who drives it,” she said, as though she’d said it once too often. “The man owns several cars and what business is it of yours?” She raised an eyebrow.
“None,” Eddie muttered. He chuckled to himself. Was she involved with Parham? The guy was almost sixty but Eddie knew he had an eye for younger women. His gaze went past her to the rows of bottles that stood at attention. One drink, he thought, just one would help loosen the sadness that he still kept over losing Kim, and pause the feeling that life had betrayed him. Yes, one drink would put a little distance to the proximity of his misery.
The Hennessey snapped its fingers at Eddie. He tried to look away. The bartender still waited for his order then turned to look in the direction of his gaze. “A whiskey?” she said.
Eddie nibbled his lower lip, “I’ll take a tall glass of straight tonic water,” he finally said, lifting his eyes to catch the bartender’s grin. “And a wedge of lime to that and some ice.”
Her eyebrows arched. “Straight tonic, no chaser?” she asked, as if meaning to say, “You for real?”
Eddie took off his wire rim glasses and set them on the bar, “No chaser,” Eddie said, hearing his own bit of impatience; “Straight tonic.” Why was she still grinning at him?
The bartender rested both palms on the bar, “I haven’t seen you here before.”
“Haven’t been here in three years,” Eddie said. She had a familiar something about her, he thought. Something in her Mateuse bottle shape; narrow at the top and wide at the hips, and something about her sea-weed brown eyes reminded him of his wife. “I stay sober now,” he added, though the Hennessey had a seductive way of reminding him how self-indulgent and frivolous he was in his drinking days, before he met Kim and wanted to have a family with her.
The bartender folded her arms across her small bosom, “Now ain’t this just the place to stay sober.” She gave him a sideways grin then walked away to get his drink but not before the loud party of five ordered up five more shots.
Eddie gazed across the bar at the booth where he had met Kim five years ago on a chilly November night. Parham’s Lounge flowed thick with adrenaline, schmoozers and drinkers competing with the dance music that boomed from the DJ’s station in the back corner of the tight dance floor. Theresa and Skip, friends of his, waved him over and introduced him. Kim was attractive, though more of her beauty came from her intelligence and clever wit. He knew right away, she was not a player or a loose woman, like the ones who often frequented Parham’s. And then Kim asked him to dance, and in a bashful manner he told her that he was a clumsy dancer. But she said, “I got you,” and led him onto the floor and helped him find the beat’s rhythm.
“I got you,” the bartender said, setting Eddie’s iced-tonic water in front of him.
Eddie blinked several times. The words lifted him out of his nostalgic trance and into the present. He greeted the bartender’s lively eyes and the curl of her bow lips with a smile, “Thanks,” he said and took a sip.
“You live in Springfield?” the bartender asked.
“Born in Cleveland,” Eddie said; “Moved to Springfield when I was nine. I live across town, out by Forest Park. Where you from?”
“Hartford,” she said.
Eddie took a healthy swallow then cleared his throat. “Parham never said he had a niece from Hartford.”
The bartender made a naughty face then wagged her finger, “You a detective or something?”
Eddie half-grinned, a little embarrassed, “No. I’m just Eddie Taylor, a single man who goes to work, to the gym sometimes, takes his dog for a walk or a jog through the park, then goes home and cooks dinner. I can roast a good chicken, though, make the skin crackle in your mouth.” He watched her eyes drift to his ringless finger, and her brow furrowed.
“Brother, you’re not the first dog to come in here with a light shadow on his wedding finger that tells the world he’s married.” She smirked.
Eddie glanced at his finger and made a face as if he’d lost his wallet, “Oh, no no,” he said, apologetically. He raised his hand and splayed his fingers for her to see the finger closer. “I’m not married, I mean was married, I mean —” He paused and took a solemn breath. “I mean . . . my wife died two years ago . . . pregnant with our child. He passed with her.”
The bartender’s eyes grew wide and her cheeks flushed.
“I am so sorry.” She placed her hand over her heart, “Oh God, please forgive me.”
Eddie put his hand down, “It’s okay. You couldn’t know. I just stopped wearing the ring, recently.” He flexed his left fingers, “That’s why the shadow.”
She sighed and again said, “Forgive me? Please?”
Eddie nodded his head and shrugged a shoulder.
“No other children?” the bartender asked as if searching for something safe to say.
Eddie shook his head, “Just trying to stay sober.”
“So, you came in here to look at the alcohol to stay —” She blinked her eyes and twitched her head.
“Nope. I came in here to drink and to forget, if only for a moment.” Eddie took another swallow; “So,” he continued, “You like Springfield?”
She shrugged her shoulders, “Beats Hartford. Too many gangs shooting and killing innocent people. My kids are safer here.”
Eddie ventured, “I guess you and Parham got a good thing going on?”
“You sure are nosy.”
“Sorry. I’m just a naturally curious person.”
The bartender squinted and grinned, “Jessie’s just a good friend helping me out. I’m renting one of his duplexes until I find a house.”
“Nice,” Eddie said, though he still thought Parham was getting more than just the rent from her; “How many kids you got?”
“Two boys, five and almost-four.” And before Eddie could ask, she said, “No, Jessie’s not their father.”
The Hennessey snapped its fingers again at Eddie, and the bartender turned to follow his gaze. She turned back, “Tough decision, huh?” she asked, grinning.
“No, no,” Eddie said, shaking his head; “But you know what?”
She dipped her chin and tensed her eyes, “What?”
Eddie chuckled, a little nervously, wanting to push the Hennessey into a quiet corner of his mind. He cleared his throat, “Don’t take this wrong, I’m not trying to get personal with you, but . . . you resemble my wife and she was beautiful. Even your smile —”
The bartender held Eddie’s eyes for a long moment, “Well, thank you, I suppose.” She added, “Hmmm,” and took a breath; “You seem like an honest guy, Eddie, and we don’t get much of that in here. But I wonder . . . not to get personal . . . but did alcohol have anything to do with your marriage? It seems there might be some regret built into the past about something before your wife died.”
Eddie cleared his throat again, and muttered, “Wow.” Her instinctive insight was like Kim’s, too. He took a couple sips of the tonic water. Why did it feel so easy to talk to this stranger? He took a couple breaths then continued, “Actually, my wife had a health issue that made it hard for us to conceive, but we finally got pregnant . . . and she got me to finally stop drinking . . . She was eight months pregnant when God stepped in and filled my life with that bit of nothing that won’t let me sleep. Grief is a potent spice on happiness.” He glanced at the bottles, “I’m still working my way out of it.”
The bartender glanced over her shoulder at the boisterous men in suits then looked back at Eddie. She placed her forearms down on the bar and looked casually into Eddie’s eyes, “Nice looking man like you must have a couple lady friends.”
Eddie swallowed a laugh, “Friends yeah, but no relationship. Just friends. I kind of keep to myself. Maybe someday, but I want to be secure with my sobriety before I find another her.” He bit his lower lip, “Oh, shit, maybe I’ll have just one shot of that Hennessey. I turned forty-one yesterday.”
“Happy birthday. You sure? Don’t go blaming me for ruining your stretch of good behavior.”
Eddie held up his index finger, “One shot’ll do.”
“What’s your conscience gonna say?”
The bartender refilled Eddie’s tonic water and then he watched the amber-colored, eighty-six-proof pour like slow motion into the shot glass. She placed the shot next to the tonic water. He stared at the liquor for a moment, wavering, knowing the suffering it could bring for breaking his promise to Kim to remain sober. But one shot would stifle the loneliness and release him from the sadness that he felt trapped in, that empty feeling of reaching out into nothing but darkness. One shot, like a punch, would knock the misery out of him, for a moment, he hoped.
“So, what do you do, Eddie Taylor?”
Eddie reeled in his bearings, “I’m an addiction counselor at Willard Minimum Security Prison in Enfield.”
The bartender’s eyes widened with mild shock, “I know where Willard is. My step-dad is there. George Sorryass Braithwaite.”
“Really?” Eddie said, knowing the man she spoke of; “He’s mister know-it-all, calls himself a realist and talks talks talks, yack yack yack. He won’t last long out in the world.”
“He’s an asshole. Used to beat my mom awful and feed her heroin addiction. She overdosed and died six years ago. He got fifteen years for robbing and beating a man close to death —”
Eddie cut in, “Which he pled down to ten, which then became seven with good behavior.”
“He’s been in and out of jail all his life,” the bartender said; “Treats incarceration like an instinct. Some people just don’t deserve forgiveness.”
“I’ll be sure not to tell him we met.”
“Appreciate it,” the bartender said. Her eyes drifted to the shot of Hennessey. She gave her earlobe a pensive tug and gazed at Eddie, “You’re not the only person to understand the weight of loss and the trap of belonging only to your grief. I’ve been clean and sober for seven years, went back to school, earned an Associate’s degree in accounting, and I’m starting a new job as a loan officer at the Institute for Community Economics in Springfield, on Monday . . . I miss my mother every hour of every day. I was her only child. I even recently started looking for my real dad, wherever he is. I know that empty feeling you’re talking about. But damn if I let it trash my recovery.”
“Wow,” Eddie muttered; “My wife was a foster child. Took us three years, then finally, after so many dead ends, and just before she got pregnant, we found a match through the New York State Adoption Registry. But the couple changed their minds and refused to be contacted. The registry wouldn’t give us their names.”
“I never heard of anyone being matched through a state registry. I’ve been saving my money to hire a private investigator.”
“Either way, it takes a lot of work. Why do you want to find him now?”
She tensed her eyes, “He left me and my mom when I was ten. They argued a lot, like the world was coming apart. My mom had a lot of issues. So, he left and moved to Boston and then just disappeared. My mom never got over losing him. He was a kind person and a good father. Maybe we could be friends and my sons could get to meet their grandfather.” She glanced over her shoulder at the boisterous men in suits, “And if I can’t find him . . . at least I tried.”
Eddie narrowed his eyes as he watched her take the shot glass and pour the Hennessey in the sink behind her. He knew he’d let his guard down, shown that he couldn’t control his drinking. But she didn’t know that he hadn’t decided to drink the shot, he thought. He felt a frost melt within him, as though she’d released his grip on a bad intention. She offered her hand. They shook and he caught a hint of her Coco Chanel perfume, the same fragrance that still sat in the bottle on his bedroom dresser as a lasting memory. He took another swallow of tonic water then put his glasses back on.
“I’m Sydney,” she continued; “I’m leading an AA meeting tonight at Acres Church on South Branch — Will you be my guest?”
Eddie leaned back a little, “Well,” he muttered, caught off guard. He wondered what to do, what to say, wanting his expression to look neutral. “Nah,” Eddie said, shaking his head; “You didn’t have to pour that shot away. I wasn’t going to drink it.”
Sydney’s eyes held his, again, as if meaning to say, “You for real?” She glanced over her shoulder at the boisterous men again then looked back at Eddie. “What was your wife’s name?”
Eddie hesitated, then said, “Kim.” Sydney gazed at him, looked deep into his eyes. It was a look that Kim would have given him. He felt his knees tremble a little.
“Well, Eddie, Kim would want you to accept my invitation to be my guest at tonight’s meeting. It’s Friday and it would be a healthy way to start your weekend. We could get some coffee after. Have a bite to eat. Maybe talk some more about the state adoption registries? You know where the church is?”
Eddie nodded, as though the winds of indecision blew through him.
“Good. Sounds like a plan. Meeting starts at eight.”
Eddie deliberated for a long moment.
“Life happens, Eddie,” Sydney said. “You have to move on. I used to drive for a chauffeur service. Consider the invitation as a lift, something to get you back on the right path.”
Eddie didn’t like AA meetings; they were for alcoholics. He continued to mull the invitation over in his mind.
“All right, okay, eight o’clock,” Eddie finally said. He glanced at his ring finger. “Looking forward to it,” he added. He drank the rest of the tonic water then pushed the empty glass toward Sydney. “I still have the International Locator Guide to Finding Family, Friends and Loved Ones. I’ll bring it.”
“Thanks,” Sydney said. “See you tonight.”
“I got you,” Eddie said. He got up and walked out the back door.
Heading home, Eddie drove with the front windows down and watched the leaves tumble across the streets in autumn colors that ranged from reds to yellows, to oranges and muted browns. Sydney had sparked a promise of hope in him, with no burden of expectations. As he drove through Forest Park, the view was stimulating and the push of balmy air warmed his face and a smile walked across his lips.
Garr Parks served twenty years as a Corrections Officer in the Connecticut Department of Corrections, including many years counseling addicts. His years of experience provided the details in the short story The Map to Belonging. Retired, he writes out of Savannah, Georgia and enjoys trail hiking and salt water fishing.