Happy Hour

by Braxton Younts

Mid-December days in Wilmington, North Carolina, were normally pleasant and warm. But today the sun hoisted itself above the horizon, hardly warming the air. Instead of the temperature increasing throughout the afternoon, today it had actually done the opposite: it was noticeably cooler this afternoon than it was earlier when Chuck was on a ladder painting the side of a house. Now, inside Micky's Tavern, Chuck was thawing.

"Looks like snow," Chuck said, stubbing his cigarette. Each day he drank here. This time Chuck had accidentally sat too close to the men's toilet. The odor of urine and the regurgitated contents of a sad man's stomach wafted out each time someone entered or exited.

Happy hour specials drew a crowd. They offered either cocktail weenies smothered in bar-b-que sauce or microwaved corndogs for fifty cents, and draught beer for a dollar.

Sally stomped loudly as she came in from the cold. All heads turned toward the door. "So, Sally, what do you say?" Sally didn't acknowledge the question. She ordered a draft and a shot of whiskey and took to the back of the room. Chuck followed her.

She was Chuck's closest friend. Four years his senior, she was like a mentor. Over the past decade, they had been friends without judgment or spite.

"Cold out, huh?" Chuck tried again. Sally and Chuck grew up on the same street. Reluctantly she looked at Chuck; her eyes were glazed like she was already inebriated.

"Got some bad news." Sally's eyes dropped. "Dad passed away this morning."

Chuck reached out and pulled her into his chest. Her father had been fighting liver cancer for months. Despite modern pharmacopoeia, his body had finally given up.

"Oh dear, I'm sorry." Chuck gulped his beer and asked Sally if she wanted another round of drinks.

Half-frowning, Sally said, "Sure."

For a couple of hours, they sat and drank while Chuck tried to keep the mood light. They made fun of the other drunks and played pinball. The ashtray filled with scads of spent cigarettes.

"One more drink and I've got to go," Sally slurred. This had been the running joke all evening. Just one more for the road, like her father used to say.

"Go? Where?"

"To Dad's funeral, that's where." Sally's bloodshot eyes squinted. In his last months, her mother and father had retreated to the Appalachians in hopes his last days alive could be as tranquil as possible.

"Whoa! Sister, you're not going anywhere," Chuck said. She had at least one hundred miles to drive. "Walk with me to my house. You can sleep on my couch until tomorrow, and then drive.".

Slurping the last of her beer, Sally said, "No, I'm a big girl; I can drive." Sally often drove drunk, not believing alcohol impaired her faculties.

Chuck peered around. Hopefully Sally had left her car keys on the table so he could confiscate them. The bulge in the hip pocket of Sally's blue jeans were the keys. She was closely guarding them. "Come on, Sally, give me your keys." Chuck knew it was a frivolous plea.

"Go to hell!" Sally snapped. "It's now or never. I've got to go."

Chuck walked her to her car. "Are you sure you're okay to drive?" he asked again, delicately.

"Yes, I am," Sally said carefully, enunciating each syllable. Chuck hugged her, silently wishing she would not drive.

"I'll call when I get to Mom's," Sally swore.

Chuck watched her car pull out of the parking lot. Snow flurries danced in the beams of the car's headlights. He worried she'd have an accident or end up in jail after being stopped by police for weaving down the highway.

Back inside the bar Chuck ordered a shot of whiskey. He sat for a moment while images of Sally and him playing in the snow when they were in high school flashed in his mind.

Snow started to cover the roads. Chuck trudged home and waited for Sally to phone him.

Copyright 2002 by Braxton Younts. All rights reserved.