"I don't care, Millenda. I have been dry for weeks and I am ready to be satisfied."
Millenda grabbed at him as he left the apartment, telling him to stay with the program, but Clarence wouldn't hear any of it.
Clarence had been "on the wagon" for about two months, and it had been the worst sixty days of his life. They had told him it would be so, they had explained that alcohol was one of the hardest things to kick, but he hadn't understood at the time. He had been recovering from a bad car accident, and the painkillers had been keeping him riding high. He had agreed with Millenda that it was time to stop drinking, time to stop the cycle that had gripped his family for years. How Millenda had managed to come out with nothing but scrapes while he had shattered his collarbone was beyond him, but she took it as a sign to lay off the hooch.
She followed him down the stairs to their apartment, begging him to come back inside. It was a week before Halloween and the bars would be rotten with possibilities. Two for one pumpkin shots, half-price witches brew, pumpkin chugging, and all the trendy crap they used to get the college kids and hipsters into their dive bars. For pros like Clarence, it was all beer and it was all good for him right now. She stopped at the door as he hit the street, looking around like she thought a bottle of wine might attack her before making one last plea.
"Clarence, please. Come back in. We'll do anything you want. We'll watch a movie or make brownies or," she looked around with embarrassment, "I'll go to bed with you right now but please, don't do this."
Clarence had already won. Millenda had become a real prude once she put the bottle down, and the thought of stepping onto the sidewalk in her nightgown filled her with a dread and embarrassment more palpable than any scary movie. She wouldn't come after him, it was unthinkable, and he felt completely comfortable turning back to throw one last bard her way.
"What I want, Milly, is to drink, so unless you've got a bottle of Johnny Walker under your nightgown I am going to the bar."
She cried for him until he had rounded the corner, and likely went on crying after that but he couldn't hear her once the apartment door was out of sight.
It had been easy for her. Millenda hadn't really started drinking until she'd met Clarence. The two had met in high school, Millenda the shy new girl, and Clarnece the teenage delinquent sliding towards burnout. Clarence had been better at hiding it then, and Millenda's parents had been pleased with her new suitor. Behind the scenes, Millenda had played with alcohol and drugs for the first time in her life, but Clarence was careful not to let her burgeoning problem become known to her parents.
It was easier for her to give it up.
Alcohol was Clarence's life.
The drugs had been icing on the cake, Clarence had never done more than smoke a little dope or take some pills if offered, but the drink had taken him early. Clarence had been part of a big ole third-generation Irish Catholic family, his great grandfather having stumbled off the boat in nineteen sixteen only to stumble back onto another one as they sent him off to fight in world war one. To hear Grandpa tell it, he had stayed drunk for the next three years until it was time to come home, and he'd come back to find his four kids bigger, his wife fatter, and a new bottle to slide into.
"Alcohol has lubricated our forebearers for years, boyo. It's probably what you owe your very existence to." His Grandpa had told him often and always with a wink.
When Clarence thought back on his old man, he could see what his Grandfather had meant.
Clarence Senior, though nobody called Clarence Junior if they liked their teeth in their mouth, had been a mean drunk. He'd spent most of Clarence's life beating him, his sisters, his brothers, and his mother whenever he wasn't working at the cannery. The family was happy right up until Clarence Senior came home around eight-thirty and yelled drunkenly for his dinner. The kids knew that if they wanted to walk the next day with both eyes unblackened then they better get to their rooms and sleep under the frame. Their mother tried her best to mitigate the damage, but inevitably someone would wander out for the bathroom or to get something forgotten and become the subject of Clarence Seniors ire.
Clarence Junior had taken up drinking early, sneaking a mason jar of whiskey into his room when he was just seven years old after a particularly bad beating from his old man, and the rest was history.
It was easy for Millenda to give up the drink.
It wasn't a part of her like it was for Clarence.
"Excuse me, sir," came a cry from his left and Clarence jumped as a man who looked more at home in the center ring of a circus stepped up beside him.
He was in the alley that usually took Clarence from the street to the back of Papps Tavern and the haunted house he had built was right in the way of his shortcut.
"Would you like to take part in a truly terrifying experience?"
Clarence looked up and found something akin to a middle school classes haunted house. The outside was a giant paper pumpkin with its mouth open and lolling to admit any who were brave enough to enter. Two spotlights likely played hell with the local airport and the sign out front promised a "terrifying experience or your money back". The whole thing looked more comical than scary and it was pretty obvious that the Barker, a man in a circus coat with a top hat, was trying to fleece drunks and those who liked to undertake seasonal attractions.
Clarence rolled his eyes and started to just walk around, but he soon realized that all he had to do was drop a couple of bucks in the box and then come back after a drink or five and say he hadn't been satisfied. It was a great plan, he could tie a few on, walk right back out the back, get his money, and go home satisfied.
"Sure, how much?" he asked.
"Five dollars," said the old man, shaking a money box under his nose, "and a refund is guaranteed if you are not absolutely satisfied."
Clarence rolled his eyes and dropped the money in. He stepped through the pumpkin's mouth and was immediately bombarded with smoke from a fog machine. He coughed, hating these things more than the mealy taste in his dry mouth, but when he cleared it away and made it inside, he thought he might have taken a wrong turn. The low lights, the smell of old booze, the wonky sound of a juke that had been hit one too many times, even the tinkle of the bell as he stepped fully in.
Clarence was in Papps.
He looked behind him, but it was the same door he had come in through so many other times. The multi-glassed wooden front door held a swinging bell to alert the owner of guests and as it stopped ringing, he heard Pap greet him like he always had. Clarence breathed in the familiar smells of cigarette smoke and spilled beer as he approached the bar, feeling an odd sense of homecoming in those ancient aromas. The same bar flies hung around in shadowy alcoves, offering his nods or waves, but he couldn't see much beyond the lingering murk around them.
"Long time no see, me boyo." Pap said, and as he called him Boyo, Clarence thought the old bartender looked a little like his Grandpa, "What'll it be this evening?"
Clarence shook his head, "Well, Pap, I think I'm gonna start off with a whiskey and,"
"Comin right up," the old bartender said, slamming a huge glass jug onto the counter. It was huge like a jug of hobo wine, and Clarence could see that it was full of amber fire. It would have to be way more than Clarence had on hand, maybe more than he had in the bank, but as the smell hit him from the little plug hole he knew he had to have it. Even if it was only a single sip before it was taken from him, he had to have that first long sip.
"Where's the glass, Pap?" he asked, looking up to find that Pap was no longer there.
The bag of bones bartender in the greasy apron and dirty undershirt had been replaced by his Grandfather.
"No glasses, boyo. It's all fer you, and it's on the house."
He tilted his own bottle then, and Clarence winced as his lips stuck noisily in the plug hole before being pulled free.
"Gramps?" Clarence asked, not sure what was going on.
"Ie, what's wrong, boyo? You look as though you've seen a ghost."
Clarence was indeed seeing a ghost. His Grandfather had died when he was sixteen, and it had been the greatest loss of his life. He had been living with Gramps by then, his Dad becoming intolerable after his mother had died a few years before. Most of his siblings were also living with relatives by then, the ones who were old enough to get away, and it had been the best times of his life. He shared his time between Millenda's house and his Grandpa's home, and when he had come back to find the old man dead after a weekend with his girlfriend and her family he had fallen to pieces.
To see him here now alive and hail was enough of a shock to put him in the grave.
"I don't know," he said, his hand shaking as he reached for the bottle. He had never needed a drink so much in his life. He suddenly needed to blink and see Pap and his filthy, toothless self-standing before him as he asked if he was on the bad stuff again. When the bottle grated harshly against the table top and Clarence still hadn't snapped out of it, he realized this was actually happening.
"I saw your body, Gramps. I watched them put you on the earth. You can't be here." he stammered as the old man smiled at him knowingly.
"And why wouldn't I be? This is where all the old fish go when they've drunk their last tank."
He swigged from the bottle again, and when he smacked away from it, his lips looked stretched like taffy. His face had a long, unhealthy look to it, and Clarence was reminded of something his mother had said about his father. He had asked his mother why his father drank so much, why he did it when it made him mean, but she would always shake her head and tell him it wasn't his fault.
"It's the devil, Clay. The devil lives in those bottles, and it has him. The bottle takes him, and he just can't find his way back."
Clarence had always felt guilty about that when he started drinking.
He felt like he would get lost too and then no one would be able to find him again.
He finally felt like he had stumbled into a bottle that he might get trapped in.
"Why does it do that?" Clarence asked, looking at his own bottle distrustfully.
"Do what?" his grandfather said, his voice slurring but having nothing to do with being drunk.
His lips were hovering around his chin now, and the skin was slow to bring them up again.
"Why does it try to keep you?"
His Grandpa laughed, and when he drank this time, it sucked half his face inside with it, the skin turning red as he drew it back out and stretched his flesh like bubble gum.
"Oh, the bottle always tries to keep ya, boyo. The bottle knows it's nothing without you, so it tries its best to hold you so you can't leave. It has a queer magic about it. It makes you believe that you need it as much as it needs you, and what it takes with it are the ways you might escape it."
He held up the bottle and Clarence saw that what he had mistaken for hops or grit was actually small floating things. At the bottom were coins, like a wishing well, and some of them had things written on them that Clarence could just make out as they shifted. Wealth, life, health, happiness, and completion were there, but they were only a few among the stack of metal that lay within.
"Ye've left your own wealth at the bottom of a few bottles I'd wager, haven't ye?"
"Don't listen to this old Gink, son," came a very familiar voice from the stool beside him.
Clarence felt his blood run cold, but he resisted the urge to turn and look.
The voice had been familiar, but it was the nature of the voice that made him chilled.
It sounded as if his father were speaking from the bottom of a well, his voice distorted as it floated up from the depths.
"The bottle is your treasure, my son. You find solace there, you find comfort there, and it dulls the knowledge that you will never be anything better than what you are. You'll never lead armies, you'll never sail to foreign shores, you'll never command the love of the masses, and when they bury you in a pauper's grave, you'll have nothing but pickled memories to follow you down."
Clarence turned his head ever so slowly, his neck a rusty hinge in a funhouse attraction, and when he saw his old man, his scream stuck in his throat.
His father hadn't lived long past his Grandpa, and Clarence had found him dead as well. Clarence had been forced to move back home after his grandfather died. Gramps had left him his house and a sizeable inheritance, but Clarence had still been sixteen and was not able to live on his own. He'd been avoiding home, staying at Millendas house or working long hours so he was at home as little as possible, but that day he'd had little choice but to come home. He was seventeen, his birthday only a month away, and he had intended to propose to Millenda and move into his grandpa's house on his birthday. The two would live happily ever after and start a family of their own and nothing bad would ever happen to them again.
How God loves to laugh at our plans sometimes.
He'd come in and found his dad on the floor of the living room.
He had fallen with a beer bottle in his hand and it had shattered when he fell face-first on the ground. The coroner assumed that he must have fallen mid-sip because he had aspirated broken bottle pieces and died as a result. Clarence hadn't cried for his Father, not like he had for his Mother or his Grandfather, and he had dropped out after burying him and started his new life in his grandfather's house.
Four years later, he had sold it and he and Millenda had packed up to move to the city so he could find work.
They had drunk up or smoked up all his inheritance and now it was time to go somewhere he could find a job and support himself and his new wife. He had been as optimistic about the move as Millenda had been. They could get a fresh start, a chance at something better, but between his drinking and her burgeoning alcoholism, the two were really just moving from one watering hole to another.
Looking at him now, Clarence could see the bleeding lips and purple throat from the glass that had cut it. He was slumped over the bar, and at first, Clarence thought he was just resting his head against the bottle. It wasn't until he set up to look at him that he saw his father's head swimming drunkenly inside the glass, his crew cut rubbing against the bottom of the jug as he squinted at his boy.
"Your mother told you the bottle had taken me," he said, sounding like a merman in a cartoon, "but I don't think even she knew how true it was."
The jug made his purple neck bulge, but it appeared that it too was disappearing into the glass container.
Soon his father would be nothing but a living jug, a slave and prisoner to the bottle, and when Clarence pushed off the barstool, his father reached for him drunkenly.
"It's too late, boyo," his grandfather said, and when Clarence looked back he could see the bottle stretching his face like silly putty as he grinned with a sort of knowing vertigo, "Might as well stop fighting and give in. After all, it's in your blood."
Clarence shrugged out of his father's grip before it could turn to iron and went pelting out of the bar at blinding speed. When the smoke again surrounded him, he coughed and swiped at the air as the familiar scents of the street came back to him. He was walking out of the pumpkin's mouth, bumping people as they came in, and when the Barker approached him, he jumped and looked around as if expecting the specter of his father to be right behind him.
"Easy, boyo," the Barker said, grinning hideously, "You've come out the other side. Was it everything I told you it would be?"
Clarence reached into his pocket before he could stop himself and dropped the sixteen or so dollars in crumpled ones into the box. It was all the money he intended to drink with, and right now he wanted to be rid of it. If he didn't have it, he couldn't drink, and right then he really wanted to be drunk. Thinking of drinking, however, made him remember that strange hell he had been in, and he thought that maybe he had really taken his last drink.
"And more." he breathed, excusing himself as he ran back up the street, intent on apologizing to his wife and begging for her forgiveness. They would work the steps, they would get through tonight, and Clarence would have a great story to tell the next time he was in group. Clarence might even recommend the haunted house to a few of his friends in the group who were having trouble with sobriety.
The funhouse had been better than six months of AA, better by a long shot.
Barker smiled at the man's back as he hurried back to whatever hole he had scuttled from, "Another satisfied customer."
About the Creator
Writer, reader, game crafter, screen writer, comedian, playwright, aging hipster, and writer of fine horror.
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