One More for the Road
by Andrew James Rush
The small church is sparsely populated with people as the preacher finishes leading in the Lord's Prayer.
"A member of the family has asked Arthur Reed to give the eulogy," he says into the small microphone on the podium. "Arthur, will you come up, please?"
There are a few isolated groans. A large man with a long pony tail stands and makes his way to the front. He is barrel chested and wears motorcycle boots with his slacks, and an ironed, white, button-down shirt; tattoos are visible on his neck and on his arms below his rolled-up sleeves. He is wearing a black bandanna over his mouth and nose, and his large beard protrudes from beneath it. No one else in the church wears a mask.
Arthur takes the podium and looks around for a moment at the people in attendance. A thin, balding man with his arms around a younger, pregnant woman glares at him. What hair the man has is black and stringy and hangs over the back of his neck. His jaws clench visibly, and his eyes narrow as his nostrils flare.
"My name is Arthur, and I'm an alcoholic," he says, his voice muffled but understandable through the mask, and he waits silently as the church erupts in a chorus of gasps and shuffling bodies. "I've said that phrase in the basements of churches like this one, at least twice a week, for the last ten years. And that's why I get to stand here behind this podium instead of lying there in a box like my cousin Hannah."
"You..." the thin man stands and starts to shout, but the pregnant woman next to him squeezes his arm, and he stops, and sits again.
Arthur lifts a hand at the man and nods his head in acknowledgement. "I love my cousin Hannah. I do. My heart is broken. But we have a tendency, when someone we love dies, of remembering them only in the best light. When we do that, what we're really doing is letting the real person disappear, and then we replace them with an idea of them that we might like a little better."
The thin man trembles coldly. On the other side of the room, a gray-haired woman weeps silently, her shoulders bobbing up and down as an elderly, wrinkled woman puts her arms around her and squeezes them.
"My sister died two years ago. She crashed her car into a tree. And we didn't talk about it. Five years before that, my mother's liver shut down and she died in the same hospital where Hannah spent her last hours. We didn't talk about it then either. My dad collapsed while he was fishing just last month. He doesn't remember who I am. Nobody talks about it. Well, today, I'm going to talk about it."
Arthur is looking at the thin man as he turns his balding head to the woman next to him and buries it in her shoulder. Her eyes stab Arthur as her upper lip curls.
"Alcoholism is a family disease. And today I look around, and our family is smaller than it's ever been." He makes eye contact with a young man in the front row. He looks to be just under thirty. "Some of you here may not share our blood, but to Hannah, and to me, you're family just the same. And you aren't spared. For those of you who believe in demons, I think you could find a worse metaphor than to imagine that the demon that killed my beautiful cousin is here in this room with us, and it is dancing even as I speak."
"That's enough!" the pregnant woman shouts.
The preacher looks nervously at Arthur. There are beads of sweat on the holy man's brow, even in the chill of the air conditioning.
"Hannah was a beautiful person. She was hard-working, creative, and kind. There was an artist in her that was dying to get out. But she also suffered. She looked up to my sister, who made suffering into her own form of art. But we don't speak ill of the dead, so nobody told her how miserable Judy made us all feel. Nobody told her that Judy wasn't someone to look up to. Hannah was an aunt." Arthur meets the pregnant woman's eyes. "She was about to become an aunt again. What is the legacy she leaves to her nephew and her new niece? Do we pretend that the way she lived was normal? Do we let them look up to her?"
Someone gets up from the back of the room and leaves, slamming the large door to the church.
"I want to honor my cousin. I want her death to matter. I want to finally crush this demon that walks among us. Eradicate it from this family. And I'll tell you this. It's not for lack of willpower that she lies here in this box today. Hannah was one of the most willful people I have ever known. It's not willpower that lets me stand here before you, clean and sober these last ten years."
The preacher is walking back toward the podium, his hands waving x's in front of his chest at Arthur, his lips thin and tight. The pace of Arthur's words quickens.
"Hannah never got desperate enough to want help because nobody told her that she needed it. Nobody ever let her fall hard enough to need help getting back up. Nobody wanted her to feel ashamed or weak, so nobody let her see how fucked up her life was."
The preacher takes the microphone from the stand with a pop and a squeal.
"Okay, thank you, Arthur," he says in a rushed, high voice.
"You all need help!" Arthur shouts, now without the microphone. "And you need to give it to each other!" The small congregation breaks into a low roar of murmurs. The thin man weeps with his head in his hands as the pregnant woman next to him rubs his back. Two younger men that both have the same narrow facial features of the thin man flank the stage, and they take Arthur by the arms.
"Let's all join in How Great Thou Art," the preacher says as he makes a circular gesture with his free hand toward the sound booth at the back of the room. A prerecorded orchestra roars to life.
As the congregation begins singing in unenthusiastic discord, the thin man stands abruptly and pushes the pregnant woman's hands off of him. He darts toward the exit at the back of the church and explodes out onto the street where the two nearly identical younger men are standing with Arthur. It is a balmy summer day, and the street is silent except for the chirping of birds coming from a nearby tree. There are small shops and boutiques on either side of the church; it appears to be the main street of a relatively small town.
"Just what the fuck was that?!" the thin man barks. His face is wet and splotchy.
"What needed to be said," Arthur answers.
"And who the fuck asked you to say it?" he asks, and the two younger men back away. Their faces are full of worry.
"Her mother did." He stands erect as the thin man approaches. Arthur's size makes him look tiny in comparison.
"Dad?" one of the two young men starts.
"Go inside, Elam." The thin man trembles. He is standing close enough now that Arthur can smell the hangover on him.
"Walter, please don't do anything you'll regret," Arthur says. Walter's glassy eyes fix on Arthur's. He bites his lip and throws a wild punch that strikes Arthur on the side of the head with a soft thud.
"Dad!" Elam cries out. He rushes to Walter’s side and grabs his shoulders, pulling him behind his body to protect him, but Arthur doesn't react.
The church door flies open again and several more people spill out onto the street. A man and woman walking on the sidewalk, both wearing masks, cross to the other side, looking back as they file between the parked cars. The people from the church are shouting. The gray-haired woman runs toward the four men and stands in front of Walter, who is struggling in his son's arms. "Thank you," she says, still sobbing.
Arthur touches her cheek and then checks his phone. Seconds later, a car pulls up to the curb in front of the church. There is a bright logo prominently displayed on the dash. The crowd of people has become chaotic. Arthur manages to slip away, even as several people attempt to grab onto his clothing. He gets into the car and it speeds away.
The door opens, spilling pale daylight into the bar, which is otherwise painted orange and red by the lights above the pool tables.
"Elam! Get in here and shut that damn door," Walter shouts from behind the bar. The other young man from the funeral is sitting in a bar stool. "Anybody finds out we're in here, we'll never open this place again."
"Dad, I don't think we'll ever open it again anyway. The quarantine..." the seated one begins.
"You need to stop watching that fake news, Stan." Walter's tone is firm. He flips on the TV behind the bar. "Royals-Cards today, remember?"
"Are there people in the..." Elam starts. "Oh. Those cardboard cutouts got me for a sec."
Stan takes a pull from a longneck beer bottle and Elam sits next to him. Walter selects a rocks glass from the shelf below the bar and places it in front of the lighter haired brother. In the light, it's almost impossible to distinguish their only apparent difference: Stan's hair is light brown, and Elam's is blonde. "You want Jack or Jamie?" Walter asks him.
"Wasn't Hannah drinking Jameson when...?" Elam trails off.
Walter sighs and reaches behind him for the Jack Daniel's, and pours three good fingers in the glass. He raises the bottle to the two boys; they clink their drinks against it and all of them drink. Walter is still pulling from the bottle when the other two lower theirs. He slams it on the bar and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand.
"Ooo-whee!" he cries, and then his face drops. "To Hannah!"
"Dad," Stan says into the top of his beer bottle. "What Arthur said today..."
"You just stop right there." Stan looks up to see his father's face. The red lights and shadows play on it and exaggerate his features as his prominent jaw muscles clench. "We buried your sister today, Stan, and we are going to mourn her. Do you understand that?"
"Yeah, but.." Stan starts.
"C'mon Stan," Elam interrupts. "It's just us in here. And I don't even know what Arthur was doing at the funeral, honestly."
"Your fucking mother," Walter says, taking another swig from the bottle. "Ever since Arthur left for California she's had a boner for him. She was always talkin' about what a great guy he is. You know, years ago, he stole my car and got busted fuckin' a hooker in it. There was drugs in the car. And that motherfucker had the nerve to call me..."
"Yeah dad," Stan stops him. "I remember. You bailed him out."
"You couldn'a been more than ten." Walter pours more whiskey in the other brother's rocks glass.
"We were twelve," Elam says, picking up the now brimming glass. "First time I'd ever seen the inside of a jail."
"Yeah, well anyway, your mother thinks he's Saint fuckin' Peter now. You wannanother beer Stan?" Walter starts to reach into the cooler below the bar.
"Sure," Stan says. He picks up the first bottle. It's still almost half full. He takes a sip, and while it's in his hands, Walter puts another one down on the same coaster. Stan looks at it, and then back at the first one. He puts that one in his crotch, below the top of the bar. "Dad, I don't really understand what happened to Hannah still," he says.
"It's 'cause she didn't eat nothin'," Elam says over the top of his glass as he takes another drink. Walter nods.
"That's what the doctor said?" Stan asks.
"They call it 'complications,'" Walter explains, trying to make air quotes with the whiskey bottle still in his right hand. "But yeah, said it seemed like she hadn't ate nothin' fermaybe few days."
"Why not?" Stan asks. Walter reaches behind him and pulls a bottle of Cazadores tequila off the wall.
"Here son," he says, pouring a large measure into another rocks glass. He spills nearly as much on the bar, but seems not to notice, and he shoves the glass toward the frosty beer bottle. He shrugs his shoulders and puts the tequila back. "I dunno why Stan," he finally says, looking at the wall of bottles. "Hell, sometimes even I forgedda eat." He turns back and pulls again from the bottle of Jack. There is only a small bit of amber liquid left in the bottom and it sloshes loudly.
The relative silence of the bar is shattered by a loud buzzing sound. A phone screen throws blue light on all three men, and it vibrates and dances a few inches across the top of the bar. Walter picks it up.
"Amy, honey hi." He steps quickly to his right and regains his balance. "We're fine he's withme." Walter puts the bottle down and waves his free hand in front of his face, his mouth in an O, silently protesting something she's saying. "No baby izz fine. We're just gonna loggup here soon. I'm'll tellim ta call you." He hangs up the phone. "Thazz yer sister." He hiccups. His brow furrows with concentration and he says very clearly, "don't call her."
Walter lifts his head from the bar and winces at the dim orange and red light. He's on the other side now, on a bar stool, and there are two bottles of Jack next to his head--one empty, and one less than half full. He stands up and stumbles backward a few steps, stiffly opening and closing his right fist.
"Stan!" he calls out. "Elam?" There is no response.
He pinches the bridge of his nose and squeezes his eyes shut, then pats his pant legs where his pockets are. As he moves to go around the bar, he suddenly stops and puts a hand on one of the bar stools. His eyes open wide and stare straight ahead, and he bends at the waist, one hand on his stomach. After a moment, he stands straight again and continues behind the bar. He sweeps a hand over all the surfaces until he finds his cell phone. The screen is cracked, and it is cold and black as he fumbles with the button on the side.
"Fuck," he mutters softly.
He picks up the half-full bottle and twists the cap off. When he puts it to his lips, his eyes squeeze shut again in concentration for a full couple of seconds before he tilts the bottle up. Air bubbles dance like shimmering jellyfish up through the amber liquid. He slams it back on the table and pants loudly before grabbing his side.
"Uunggg," he moans.
Something shuffles in the corner of the bar. He looks up, and listens. The corner it came from is pitch dark. It's where the big table is, with the wraparound booth seats. He can see the top of the table, but the booth is enveloped in blackness.
An old looking, imperfectly shaped glass slides forward from the darkness on the tabletop, followed by a dusty brown bottle that is strewn with bits of cobweb. Walter hears the sound of fingernails clicking on the wood.
"Who's there?" he calls out.
"Stan, this isn't funny."
"Alright, listen..." he trails off as he comes back around the bar toward the table. As he gets closer, he can see beyond the blackness, into the booth. The shadows have taken the shape of a person. A very large person. Its body is stretched out on the booth seat in a reclining position, and it has one elbow and forearm on the table, and it clicks its fingernails again.
Its skin is impossibly black. It is dull and deep, like a shadow on a moonless night, and it is pocked with earthy green splotches that look like lichens. It is the only texture visible on its naked body, and the only things that reveal the features of its face, with a long, cruel nose and deep frown lines.
"What the..." Walter freezes.
"Come have a drink Walter," the demon beckons. Its voice is gravelly and carries in the air with a strange warble. "Just one more before we go." It smiles, and the impossible blackness breaks open to reveal a red mouth full of needle thin fangs that glisten with saliva.
Walter turns to run, but stumbles and falls forward into a booth. He pulls himself up and hoists his upper body onto the table. The strangely shaped glass is next to his hand, and behind it, the brown bottle. The demon laughs, and the fabric of reality ripples with it. He is in the same booth he had just turned to run from.
The demon's long, bony fingers wrap around the top of the bottle like spider's legs, and he twists the cork off with a singing thoomp. "Have a drink, Walter. You need it." It pours a thin, black liquid into the glass, and a few drops spill onto the table where they hiss. Steam rises from the place where they fell. It pushes the glass toward Walter.
"First," the demon's voice hisses dreamily in the air, "the man takes a drink."
Walter looks up at it. Its eyes are swirling milky clouds.
"Then," the demon continues as the room begins to pulse around them. "The drink takes a drink."
Walter picks up the glass and the spicy perfume smell hits his nose. There is a vapor coming off of it like highway heat waves. The glass gets bigger in his hands and he seems to be hovering over the mouth of it, falling in.
"And finally..." Walter sees the demon's gristly smile through the cloudy walls of the glass. "The drink takes the man."