“I didn’t know how to buy underwear”, Jack smiled, from the bar stool beside me.
His hands were grease-blackened from decades spent beneath the body of a jacked up car. The grease had pooled in the wrinkles that deepened over the years, and with Mabel gone the way she went, well, sometimes he might forget to take a shower for a few days. Or sleep in a bed. Or cook a meal.
We were sharing war wounds, this lonely old drunk and me. At 32, I already had my own contribution to the Things Only Widowers Can Understand list.
“I didn’t know how to work the TV”, I replied, the ghost of a smile whispering through the pained grimace that had become my constant expression when something made me think of Janie. Which was every three to seven minutes, on average.
“With Janie working from home, and me never really watching TV, I never had to actually touch it myself. I discovered this the night I got drunk and decided I wanted to watch our wedding video”.
“That’s one thing I can say is I’m glad that sort of technology wasn’t around in my day. Photos and memories are hard enough”, Jack slurred over the top of his beer.
I nodded, and drained my whiskey. It burnt my gums and my throat on the way down, before settling like a small volcano in my sloshing stomach.
“Voicemail’s the hardest”, I replied, pushing myself up off my bar stool and nodding to the bar tender to pour us another round. “I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve called her phone. I don’t know if I’ll ever ring up to have it turned off. I just keep paying the bill each month”.
Now it was his turn to nod with understanding as I unfolded a twenty and dropped it on the bar. “I’m going to take a piss. There’s his cash when he comes back”.
I wormed my hands into my pocket and made my way through the back of the bar. The carpet had ceased to be fabric many years ago, and was now just a brownish-grey paste of cigarette ash and stale beer. It stuck to your shoes and made your flesh crawl, but it was home.
At 4pm on a Tuesday, the bar was only populated with the handful of dedicated regulars who knew each other by name, but spoke to each other only in short nods of acknowledgement. One of them, a heavy bloke named Bob, in a cheap, polyester suit and runners, sat in a booth near the bar, beneath a greasy lamp covered in dust, doing crosswords and drinking vodka.
In another booth a few rows back sat Karen, an overly-friendly, prone-to-crying, used-to-be-blonde woman with a penchant for whiskey and wine. She was exhausting, but thankfully her attention was occupied today by an unfortunate stranger who came in here looking for an easy woman. Well, he’d found one, but nothing is ever really easy.
I did my best to avoid making eye contact, the unwritten law of the seedy dive. When you’re at the bar, it’s acceptable to mutter an exchange about the weather or current Prime Minister’s latest arsehole policy, but when everyone was safe in their own personal drinking hole, you avoided any circumstance that would force you to intrude on their solitude.
People who wanted to be talked to sat at the bar.
I reached the bathroom door and steeled myself against the wall of stench I was about to encounter. It wasn’t the smell of piss, that smell I can tolerate, even on a grand scale. This was the smell of cheap urinal cakes. A lot of cheap urinal cakes.
I held my breath and did my best to avoid touching any surfaces with my hands. I pissed as quickly as I could, thanked God above that Management had at least forked out on taps that sense your hand beneath them, and fled from that filthy room like the hounds of hell were chasing me.
“Why don’t you just wait until he’s got his back turned and go into the women’s?” Jack asked me when I got back to my chair.
“Well, for three very good reasons”, I replied, hauling myself onto the bar stool.
“1. It’s the women’s bathroom;
2. Karen might follow me in there and;
3. I never thought of it”.
Jack laughed, finished his drink and slowly slipped out of his chair.
“See ya tomorrow, kid” he said, giving me a gentle slap on the back on his way past.
“See ya, Dad” I replied, watching my old man make his way toward an empty home. A man who hadn’t gotten used to it, he’d just had more practice at facing what I was still unable to face, myself.
I caught the bar tender’s eye and ordered another whiskey.
I took it to a booth and sat down, dragging my crumpled crossword from my back pocket.