by Kathryn M. Barber
Clock on the stove turns over to midnight, another day gone, another day he ain’t come home, another night I’ll wait up, then give up, go up to bed, start the whole thing over again tomorrow—& what do you reckon he does out there? He’s in some corner of some bar somewhere, sitting up on a stool, neon lights & bar-back mirrors keeping him company because somehow, somewhere, I stopped being enough, stopped being something he needed. & I bet there’s a record filling his ears, some needle scratching some Haggard or Jones or Cash. I bet he’s leaned over a glass, kissing them edges like he ain’t kissed me in years, licking it off his lips. Bet he likes the way it burns the cracks in the skin in his lips. Bet he likes the way it tastes like something that ain’t me.
I know those old demons that come calling on him; know, deep down, if I’m honest, why he drinks way he does, all the things all those years done to him. Thought when he left that job, finally, done for good, it’d get better, be different, but it ain’t. It’s worse. But still, still I wonder—if I curled up inside that glass, too, would I be the first thing he thought about in the morning? If I curled up beside him on that barstool, would I be the thing he’d wrap his hands around, cling to, pray to? If I was that blue-neon light that flickers outside that bar, would I be what he’d come home to at night? If I’s that ice melting in the bottom of that bourbon, could I keep him warm?
Because I don’t remember when he stopped calling me sweetheart, when he stopped sitting next to me in that church pew every Sunday morning, when he stopped sliding that gold wedding band on his finger in the mornings. I don’t remember when he stopped coming home, when I started sitting down here in the kitchen at night, waiting until the clock rolls over to midnight, climbing those stairs up, up, up, alone.
I don’t remember when beer can turned into bourbon glass & when one glass turned into a bottle & when one bottle turned into two. & I don’t know why he can’t be stronger, why he can’t learn to put that bottle down, why he can’t be the man I fell in love with thirty-seven years ago. All I know is I’m about tired of watching him drink himself to death, of him not being able to look me in the eyes. Tired of him not understanding ain’t a thing in this world he could do to make me not love him anymore, to make me love him any less.
Clock says 12:37, & so I slip my feet back in my slippers, move slow up the stairs, hold my breath, pray that door’s gonna open & he’s gonna stumble in. Never wanted babies, all I ever wanted was him, just him, from the time I was twenty-two years old until now. All I ever wanted, all I ever wanted was just him. But I can’t sleep, all I see when I close my eyes is his face, his face, his face leaned over that glass, over that bar, over everything that ain’t me.
So I go back downstairs, stand over top that record player, one he worships, sways beside at night when he comes home, sways & sings into the dawn. & I slide all that vinyl out them cardboard envelopes, one & then another & another, & I smash Willie, smash Waylon, smash Hank, smash every last one until they ain’t nothing but pieces staring up at me from the carpet. I open that cabinet above the sink, one where he keeps all them bottles, & I yell & I holler loud as I can—everything I want to say to him, everything I know I never will, & I turn every bottle I can find in this whole damn house over the sink, turn them upside down until every last drop finds its way out every last bottle.
I dunno how the Lord counts who’s going to Heaven & who ain’t, but if he looks at how many times a man’s sat in a barstool to how many times he’s sat in a church, I ain’t gonna count to figure where I’m going. Woke up this morning in some bed I don’t remember getting in, next to some woman I don’t remember kissing on, & there was a bottle of bourbon lying in the bed between us, & I turned it up & then I left her there, but I didn’t go home, couldn’t go home.
She don’t deserve who I become, my wife. Deserves better than the likes of me, & maybe once, long time ago, I was better, was closer, anyway, to the man she wanted, the one she needed. But not now. Now, now my breath smells like bourbon & I can feel it coming out of me, out my pores, out my sweat, out everything.
Slept it off in the back of my truck, slept in there all day parked behind the bar till it opened. I shouldn’t’ve left my job, should’ve waited, maybe, to retire, but it was time, & now all I do with the time I’ve got is just this. I pour whiskey till I can’t think straight, don’t wanna think straight, because if I do, all I can think about is every damn thing I done wrong.
I shouldn’t’ve married her, should’ve set her free a long time ago. I was selfish. Wanted her long as I could keep her, & now, now I can’t face her, can’t bear to go home & look her in the eyes because the last time I did, I could see it written all over her face. Regret. Disappointment. Shame, maybe. She could’ve done better, me & her both know that. Part of me wants to just leave her, let her go, let her start over with what time we got left, but what’ll I do if I go home one day & those yellow flowers ain’t on the table & she ain’t made the bed I didn’t sleep in & her house shoes ain’t by the bed, right where she left them?
Truth is, I don’t even want this drink I can’t put down, all I wanna do is go home & tell her I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry. But it won’t matter because I’ve gone too far, ain’t nothing I could do now, nothing, to fix all the things I broke. She’s all I want, all I’ve wanted since we was twenty-two years old packing up those apartments after senior year, & she’s as beautiful now as she was then. Couldn’t tell you what I’m doing here, can’t go home, & what am I supposed to say, anyhow? What could I say that makes up for all the things I done?
Some nights, I walk by the house, see if I can see her shadow sitting there in the kitchen, sipping that wine, waiting. I can’t face her. Ain’t talked to her, looked her in the eyes in almost a week now, & I don’t when it got this bad, but feels like all I can do now is hide here, keep drinking this bourbon, keep hoping she’ll leave so I don’t have to. She deserves better better better better than me. Went home two nights ago, she’s upstairs—she’s started giving up about midnight now, later than she used to. I could hear her praying, praying the Lord’d make me stronger, better, a bunch of stuff I can’t live up to, not anymore.
& when the bartenders calls for the last round, I drag myself up off that stool, listen to the needle slide off the record, & I slide outside, blow cigarette smoke into the cold night, walk home slow as I can. It’s almost one, she’s gotta have given up by now. I’ll sleep on the couch, can’t sleep next to her after what I done last night—& it ain’t even the first time. Truth is, most nights maybe I’d rather sleep with other women than my wife because they don’t look at me like she does. They ain’t got those looks written all over they faces, that look worth thirty-seven years of disappointment.
I open the door real slow, don’t turn on no lights, & I go to the cabinet above the sink, but everything’s gone—every bottle, every sip, gone, gone—& then I turn around & I see them all lined up on the countertop. Bottles from the kitchen, bottles from under our bed, bottles I tucked in places I didn’t think she’d ever find, but there they are, in a straight line. & at my feet, all my records, smashed up & lying all over, faces of men who’re better lovers than me staring up, their words & their notes dead & broken & gone.
In the darkness, I can see something catching the light from the street outside through the window—beside all them bottles on the counter is her wedding ring.
Kathryn M. Barber is the Associate Editor of Ecotone magazine at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, where she also teaches English and creative writing. A preacher's daughter raised in the mountains of Tennessee, her stories often revolve around religion, country music, and the South. She holds an MFA in fiction from UNCW and an MA in English from Mississippi State University. Her words can be found or are forthcoming in The Pinch Journal, Steel Toe Review, Helen, and elsewhere.