Jeff Nazzaro

Posted on May 7, 2018

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Proven Points

I hadn’t had a drink in fifteen years. No New Year’s resolution or intervention; no riot act, divorce, or DUI. No AA. I just quit. Lots of hangovers, lots of little embarrassments, not a few blackouts, some periods of moderation washed away by ruthless binges, and then I stopped. I was twenty-two. On a Friday afternoon a couple of weeks later, I took a six-pack of O’Doul’s in a brown paper bag to a kegger at my buddy Noah’s house and was handed a red plastic cup, into which, after a brief but intense inner struggle, I poured one of the nonalcoholic brews.

If quitting drinking was a mostly preemptive move, informed by experience and family history, it was a good one, and I was rewarded with a fifteen years considerably more productive than the seven that preceded them. I had a good job, a wife, two kids, a nice house. It had taken me a little while, as it sometimes will for a man, to find myself, but find myself I had.

There were a lot of studies coming out at that time extolling the health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption. Many of the studies focused on red wine and its high concentrations of resveratrol, but at least one that I saw hypothesized that it was just the daily hit of alcohol, whether Japanese sake, Czech beer, or Kentucky bourbon—tiny doses of poison acting as antidote to more, let’s say, pernicious forms, like cancer. So as much as I knew I would enjoy it, I wouldn’t be limited to red wine. I had everything to live for and figured I should live for everything. I’d seen that movie where the struggling novelist guzzles high-end Pinot Noir like Gatorade. The craft beer revolution was taking off. Craft liquor wasn’t far behind. I wanted in, and, I reasoned, after fifteen years, I’d proven my point.

That would be my line. If anyone—my wife, my mother, my old party buddy Noah—mentioned anything about my drinking, my answer would be, “I think I’ve proven my point.”

My wife was the first to get it. We were on our way back from soccer with the kids. It was a Saturday afternoon. I pulled in to a liquor store. When she expressed surprise, I very calmly explained my position, concluding that I felt I had proven my point. What more could she say? I was a grown man, after all, and I’d never had anything to do with alcohol that concerned her.

She waited in the car with the kids. The three-year-old had a picture book; the baby was asleep. I took some time in the store browsing. What was it I’d missed the most these long, dry fifteen years? Beer. I’d finally developed a taste for beer—cold on a hot summer’s day, for lunch with a burger and fries, Friday night Sox game—beyond a proclivity for swilling cheap stuff to get drunk, and then I went and quit. I knew beer, more or less, though; what was it I wanted to try? What was the most versatile? I would start slow and work my way up to moderate consumption. That’s where the health action was, the longevity. Now that I’d finally found myself, I was all about longevity. I knew there wasn’t a shred of longevity in binge drinking, unless you were trying to rub one out at the end of the night. I’d learned that much by sixteen. But neither was there any longevity in the occasional nip, much less in teetotaling. That’s what all the studies said.

I walked around the store. I looked over the beer, I looked over the wine, I looked over the hard stuff. Finally, I bought a half-liter bottle of Russian vodka. The famous one. When I’d quit drinking I barely knew about it. I certainly couldn’t afford it. It was still the Cold War, for Chrissake.

That night after dinner, the kids bathed, pajamaed, and tucked in, I said to my wife in what I imagined to be a nonchalant, if not suave, voice, “I think I’ll fix myself a drink.”

She just nodded and turned on the TV. I asked her if she cared for one. She shook her head, no. She didn’t drink often, and when she did she didn’t drink much—a glass of champagne at a wedding, half a light beer at a barbecue. It was one of the reasons our marriage worked as well as it did. Well, it worked.

We didn’t have any liquor glasses, so I grabbed a juice glass from a kitchen cabinet and clacked it down on the counter next to the bottle. I twisted the red cap off the bottle slowly— relishing the click of the separating metal, the slitting of the paper seal—then I lifted the bottle to pour. I put it back down. With no shot glass, I was nervous about pouring myself too strong a drink. After fifteen years, who knew what might happen? I dug a measuring spoon out of the junk drawer in the kitchen. One tablespoon. Using a standard twelve-ounce American lager as a one-serving benchmark, I settled on six-tenths of an ounce for a single serving of alcohol. I would start with one and work my way up to two to three per day. I would stop there.

The math took me a little while, but I was determined to be scientific about the whole thing. The vodka was 80 proof, so 40 percent alcohol by volume. I worked it out on a pocket calculator I found in the junk drawer after some determined rummaging. I jotted down figures on a notepad that had been hiding the calculator, using a mechanical pencil that had given me a good jab in the thumb during my search. That drawer held everything. Everything except a goddam shot glass.

I viewed my calculations skeptically. I was never great at math, but I was eager to start the experiment. Fuck it, two and a half tablespoons. If I puked, collapsed, or tore off all my clothes and ran around the neighborhood naked, I’d convert everything to milliliters and try again in another fifteen years.

I rolled up my sleeves and got to work, holding the spoon over the glass and very carefully filling it with vodka. When it was filled, I turned the spoon. Then I filled it again and turned that spoonful into the glass. Then I stopped. Two tablespoons would be enough for the first go. I really didn’t want to run around the neighborhood naked. Moderation would have to be the better part of valor. I filled the rest of the glass with orange juice, stirred it around with the spoon, and walked it over to the couch.

I sat on the couch next to my wife and took a sip of the drink. It tasted warm and thick and alcoholic. I couldn’t believe how strongly it tasted of alcohol. Perhaps I had overdone it. I offered a sip to my wife. She took the glass, sniffed it, and handed it back.

“Too strong,” she said.

“It’s not too strong,” I said. “It’s weaker than one beer. Probably.”

I took another sip. The thickness and warmth spread through my body and landed in my head as a buzz. Impossible, I reasoned. Psychosomatic, like a contact high. No matter how long he had gone without drinking, there was no way one sip of a screwdriver could give a grown man a buzz. The buzz listened to reason and went away.

I sipped the drink, watching the clock above the TV more than I watched the TV. It was a cheap mantel clock, with spinning crystals under the face. I watched the quartz second hand cluck and the crystals spin. I timed it so the drink would last an hour, the alcohol easily broken down by my liver, no chance of a buzz or freak-out or hangover, just a nice little healthy dose of antidotal poison and a bit of vitamin C to boot.

I don’t remember what was on TV, I don’t remember what, if anything, either my wife or I said. At the top of the hour, the program over, she went to bed, and I sucked the remnants from the bottom of the juice glass. I sat on the couch holding the glass, not seeing the TV, not seeing the clock. I placed the glass on the coffee table, then I got up and brought the vodka bottle back to the couch. I sat and half-watched another hour of TV, holding the bottle, turning it in my hands, studying its Soviet-era label, the red bands, the gold medals. I may have considered it for just a second, but I did not pour another drink. I went to bed.

It took me more than two weeks to finish the Russian vodka at two and a half tablespoons per drink. I replaced it with a fifth of English gin. It was a slightly higher proof than the vodka. Two and a half tablespoons became three. I started letting a little slosh over the sides of the spoon. I made doubles, mixing the gin with tonic water and squeezing in some fresh lime.

Even if you drank every night, which I almost did, but not, one shot wouldn’t get you to moderate consumption. You wouldn’t get a buzz, but neither would you get the health benefits, the longevity. Two or three shots would do it, and then five or six nights a week would suffice. Even four. That was the key. My wife didn’t like me drinking every day, if she liked me drinking at all, but I had proven my point. I was proving it still.

When the fifth of gin was nearly gone, I decided I wanted a bottle of single-malt Scotch. If there had been a raft of articles on the health benefits of moderate consumption of alcohol, there’d been twice as many about the sublimity of fine red wine and single-malt Scotch.

That Sunday, we stopped at the supermarket on the way back from the mall. I couldn’t believe it. When I’d quit drinking fifteen years before, you couldn’t buy beer or wine in a Massachusetts supermarket, much less liquor. You couldn’t buy alcohol anywhere in the state on Sunday, owing to old Puritan blue laws, but now it was all fair game. Beer, wine, liquor, supermarket, Sunday.

“I guess they proved their point, those Puritans,” I said to my wife.

“You and them both,” she said. She took the kids and started off to fill a cart with food.

It took me the entire time she was shopping to decide, but I finally settled on a Scotch. It was a full liter, single malt, eighteen years old, and, for me, very expensive, but it came in a special embossed gift box with a pair of little souvenir snifters. The Scotch cost as much as the rest of the groceries put together, and my wife was, let’s say, concerned, but I said, “I haven’t spent a nickel on alcohol in the eight years we’ve been together, until now, so I must have saved thousands compared to other guys.”

“But so much for one bottle,” she said. “Of booze.”

“Single-malt Scotch,” I corrected. “In a snifter. It’s dignified, refined. Healthy.”

I said it. If she wasn’t happy about it, well, she hadn’t been happy for awhile. Not since the baby was born, which had broken a streak of unhappiness snapped by, of course, the baby. Either way, I had my kids, I had my house. If my job was a year-to-year proposition that suddenly came to an end, there’d be another job. Or she could go back to work and I’d take care of the kids. I didn’t care. I had settled in and I was going to enjoy it with a snifter of single-malt Scotch. Or two. A day. I had proven my point.

My wife drove home from the store. I opened the gift box and examined the Scotch bottle in the front seat, holding it up by the thick, recessed base, thumb and forefinger on the paper-cinched neck, rotating the vessel in my hands, watching the sunlight play through the glass upon the pale gold liquid inside.

“You better be careful with that,” my wife said.

“Nonsense,” I said. “Anyone pulls us over I’ll show him the bottle and invite him back for a snift.”

“A snift?”

“A snort.”

“Just be careful, please.”

When we got home, she pulled the baby from the car seat and carried her into the house, holding the three-year-old by the hand. I stayed behind, sliding the Scotch bottle back in its box, tucking the box securely under my arm, and gathering up the plastic grocery bags in my hands. Point of pride, I could make it in one trip. When I had everything else, I hooked the milk jug with my thumb and hustled after the closing front door, knowing if I got there in time I could wedge my elbow in and fling it open wide enough to fit myself and all the groceries inside.

I’d proven several years before to my wife that you did not need fifty-seven trips back and forth to get the groceries from car to house. You could have them in and put away in no time, really, sitting in front of the TV sipping a drink, only in my excitement to try my new Scotch, I must have shifted my body too abruptly, the weight of the groceries helping supply a bit too much torque, for just as I reached the door, I felt with a sickening dread the gift box lighten and contract. I had it upside down and the lid wasn’t secure. I’d broken the tape with my thumbnail in the car so I could admire the bottle, and now it slipped out of its shiny embossed paperboard gift box and tumbled to the ceramic tile below.

There was a moment, naïve I know, stupid, when I thought the bottle wouldn’t shatter, followed by a longer moment when I couldn’t believe it had. In that longer moment I had this odd sense that I could somehow gather up the spilled liquor, the broken glass, and make everything whole again, at least for a few sips worth, and when I knew this for the pipe dream it was, I thought that at least I’d have the souvenir glasses. But as I bent and turned to save the bottle, the box flung free and landed hard, and the snifters shattered, too. I got a sniff, a fleeting nose of the Scotch—my mother’s mincemeat, toasted marshmallows, espresso dregs—before it wafted away, and all that was left was to deal with the broken glass.

****

Jeff Nazzaro lives and writes in Southern California. His short fiction has appeared in several online literary magazines, including the Angel City Review, Oddville Press, Pilcrow and Dagger, and Work.

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