My father distilled his whiskey through joint paper, tears rolling down his face from lemon juice and Jack. He said it gave the hit a spiritual lilt, like Native Americans on the plains of San Francisco.
“I don’t think there were Indians in San Francisco,” I would correct him. “Lots of gays, though.”
“Ahhh the gays! They love their whiskey.” And that was the end of it, before another long drag, a slurping guffaw, and a collapse into the shredded Victorian chair in his one-room apartment.
These were the days when I bonded with my father—me with my butt wobbling on the edge of a shaggy old ottoman, him in the same red chair, eyes bloodshot and pores seeping. Once, we even talked about my future, but that led inevitably to the same advice he always gave: “Relax more. Take a hit. Have a drink. Find a girl.”
Moments came and went when I was tempted to actually indulge with him, but they didn’t last long.
When I was in college and living at home, I would come home to the radio blaring and Walter Kronkite gushing in his vibrato tenor about the way it was that day in the world. There were tragedies and comedies all wrapped up into one half-hour segment, but my father was always limp and snoring in his chair, dope blanketing in his jeans. He had missed it all. And in the morning over a hung-over, painfully quiet breakfast he would often ask: “Did you hear the news last night? Not sure I caught it. What’s going on these days?”
He was a predictable man, and though I thought I knew him inside and out, there were days that our relationship surprised me.
The day before my college graduation, I got a call from a hospital back home. I was just wrapping up my finals and getting ready to cheer the end of another chapter in life. To go dancing. Laugh. Celebrate. But the lady on the phone spoke quietly and slowly, an inflection reserved for tragedies. He was in the hospital, my father was. Kidney failure, she said. Come quick.
So I left behind my friends, packed a few clean clothes in a backpack, and took the train down to the worn out old city my father called home. As I approached the front doors of the hospital, it began to rain, falling down my face in streams and hiding the teary-eyed grimace that had crawled onto cheeks.
They led me down dark corridors barely lit, until a gentle woman named Alice opened a door to a small room. There was nothing in it but a metal bed and the gaunt figure of my father under snow-white sheets. His arms hung out like they did evening-times in his favorite chair, but tubes rushed up from each arm to bags and noisy machines. I couldn’t tell if he was asleep or already gone, but the look on his face was peaceful. I turned around to look for the nurse, but she’d already left. It was just Dad and me, just us. No ottoman, no chair, no whiskey, no joint. Just white walls and clear tubes.
I inched my way to the side of his bed and looked down. Rain no longer hid the tears that slid down my thorny cheeks, and my bristly face contorted. Every day I told myself over a cold bowl of cereal that my father wouldn’t last another day. Just one more glass of whiskey—that’s all it would take. But every morning he’d wake up and stumble into the kitchen, his dirty-gray robe pulled tight around his waist. And he would ask the same question unfailingly: “Did you hear the news last night?”
That morning was the last morning I would hear those words, hoarse and clueless, usher from his mouth. He laid quiet now, truly sleeping—nestled into a dream. And whatever his wrinkled, sunken face said about countless years of pain and abuse, they didn’t bother him anymore. As I reached down to touch his forehead, to connect with him one last time, I heard the rhythmic beat of the machines fall silent and felt the white of the room collapse around us both.
I ran. Down morbid hallways smelling of death and alcohol, down flights of concrete stairs, out into broken alleyways. I tripped over curbs and rolled my ankles on broken bottles, strewn over the asphalt. But I couldn’t stop—my body wouldn’t let me. I panted and wheezed, running past strip clubs where I’d first gotten laid, past liquor stores I’d seen robbed at gunpoint, past grocery stores rotting with the stench of week-old vegetables, into the dark abyss of the furthest corner of the city that I knew. I was ready to jump into the river and let it do the running, to carry me away, but I fell again. And this time, the pain was too much to ignore. Throbbing and crying with yelps, I pulled myself to a dark corner. Any corner. Some corner. Next to a weary old dumpster.
With my heaving and moaning, I could hardly hear him approach me, but I felt his breath on the back of my neck. Whipping my head around, I slammed my back into the side of the building and shook my bleeding fingers at him as if to say, “No further.” But he knelt down anyway, patting my knee, and hoisted something from the satchel on his back. His shaggy black strands of hair hid his eyes, but not his mouth—a wide open maw with jagged yellow teeth and soot for a tongue. He reached for my hand and turned it palm-side up in front of me. First, he poured a golden liquid on the scratches and immediately, sharp pain scoured my nerves. I screamed bloody murder until he shook me clear of it, bracing my shoulders with bandaged hands. Then he handed me the bottle—a dusty old thing with a fragment of a faded label. Jack Daniels.
The last thing I remember from that night, many years ago, was sitting in the pale light of a street lamp, chugging whiskey with a hobo. We took turns until the bottle ran dry. It dulled the pain some, and made me forget where I was going and where I had come from. And then, in the haze of drunkenness, he pulled something else out of his satchel—something thin and long and familiar. I reached out to touch it and turned it over and over again in my hands. I was the first to put it to my lips, holding my breath as he held up a roaring match, even with my bloodshot eyes. Carefully, memorably—and as the rain began to fall once more—I inhaled.