All Stories, General Fiction

The Drinking Hour by John Conaway

Beachum stops at the Bi Lo to get his latest prescription filled. While he’s waiting he looks for something to kill the cat, some kind of poison. He looks up and down the aisles. It appears that grocery stores do not carry poison anymore.
“Where would I find the poison?” he asks the pharmacist
“What kind of poison are you looking for?” asks the pharmacist. He acts as if the mere contemplation of such a question has given him indigestion.
“Something that will kill a cat.”
The pharmacist sighs. “There are many things that will kill a cat,” he says stapling a sheaf of instructions and disclaimers six inches thick to the bag containing Beachum’s prescription that no one, least of all old Beachum, will ever read.
“Can you recommend something?”
The pharmacist shakes his head sadly. “No,” he says.

Beachum, with a loaf of bread and carton of milk, stands in line at the checkout counter while the checker sends the bagger for a price check. They only have one checkout line open. The line of customers waiting keeps getting longer and longer.
The Assistant Manager—that’s what his name tag says—is standing behind the customer service counter doing nothing to assist. Beachum, since he was a kid, has had a talent for whistling. He sticks his index finger and pinky into his mouth and lets out a shriek. It stops everyone dead in their tracks. The startled Assistant Manager looks up from his paper work.
“Do you see this line?” Beachum asks.
The assistant manager glares at Beachum. “Yes, I see it.”
“Are you going to do something about it?”
“Do what?”
“Open another line.”
The Assistant Manager contemplates Beachum’s question. “No, I’m not.” Beachum stomps out of the store, gets into his old Caprice and intentionally drives into a grocery cart knocking it halfway across the parking lot.
The police catch up with him on Landover Parkway and charge him with first degree destruction of property for the grocery cart. The charges are reduced in court but the judge orders a complete mental evaluation.

“Who’s the president of the United States?” the nurse asks, her oily hair standing straight up. The masculine hairstyle contrasts with her sparkly blue finger nail polish.
Beachum tries to maintain a sense of humor. “Can you make it a multiple choice question?” he asks. Nurse Ratched writes down his answer without cracking a smile.
It’s a joke for Christ’s sake. He knows goddamned well who the president is. It’s on the tip of his tongue. He’s always had trouble with names. He halfway remembers voting for the man—he’s pretty sure it is a man—something of which he’s not proud.
“Do you know what year it is,” she asks, glaring humorlessly at him, her pen poised to etch his answer permanently into the record. He takes a deep breath, begins counting on his fingers, and gives up. “I can give you the century,” he says. He’s glad she doesn’t call him on it.
She straps the blood pressure cuff on his arm. The last time his arm was squeezed this tight it was by the cops restraining him after he’d made a left turn out of the right lane through three lanes of traffic during rush hour on Landover Parkway. Sighing she records the results.
“How is it?” he asks.
“You can discuss it with the doctor,” she says. “He’ll be in to see you shortly.”

Lie! Doctors never come in to see you shortly. Beachum waits, pacing the floor, gazing out the 4th floor window at a sea of car tops. There is no shortage of sick people. He can see his own car, an old Caprice, sticking out like a sore thumb, parked catty corner across two spaces as if by a drunk, or a lunatic who can’t name the president. One of the rent-a-cops who patrols the lot is standing beside it looking up at the Medical Center windows as if in hope of spotting the culprit. Beachum flips him the bird.

The thing about doctor’s appointments is, the more of them you have the more you’ll need. Doctor’s appointments beget doctor’s appointments; every doctor’s appointment reveals the need for another doctor’s appointment until life becomes an unbroken string of doctor’s appointments.
Old Beachum has the pin cushion arms of a junkie from all the lab tests, the needle marks blending with the liver spots, scabs, and other abrasions that keep proliferating; Anyone would think by the looks of things that he’s an old tom cat out all night fighting but he’s seldom awake past nine o’clock. He’s usually too drunk by nine o’clock to even think of going out, unless he’s out of booze.
He stares for a while at a colorful diagram of the human brain mounted on the wall. He imagines his own brain to be a grey, moldy, leaking glob containing all of his thoughts, hopes, and dreams that are becoming inaccessible now like the stuff he’d put on the hard drive of the old computer that he’d purchased from the Salvation Army store to watch porno on. It never worked. The kid from the Geek Squad told him that it was too weak for porno. Perhaps he was also too weak for porno.

The doctor is tall, thin, and balding. He doesn’t look healthy. “You have alarming neurological patterns,” the doctor says.
“Who’s alarmed?” Beachum asks.
“I am for one,” says the doctor.
“How’s my blood pressure?” Beachum asks.
“It’s the least of your problems.”
“Do you want to know my real problem?”
The doctor studies him for a moment as if debating whether medical school had been worth the sacrifice. “What’s your real problem?”
“Erectile dysfunction. Can you prescribe something?”
“I’m a neurologist. You were referred to me by the judge because of your erratic behavior. You show some early symptoms of dementia. I suggest we focus on that.”
He writes out a prescription and tells Beachum to stop at the front desk to make an appointment for an MRI. This was a follow up appointment. Now he needs to make a follow up appointment to follow up the follow up appointment.

Beachum’s not worried. He’s been dodging these medical bullets for years. He’s learned that when you’re old and dodge a bullet there’s another one on the way. Old and failing bodies grant only short reprieves.
Erectile dysfunction, on the other hand, is a financial concern. He has to pay the hookers overtime for their heroic and pointless efforts. Hours of tugging and nothing to show for it paid for out of his Social Security check. People on fixed incomes need results.

A black cat with white on its chest sits arrogantly in Beachum’s yard licking its paw. Beachum watches through the window. He’s deathly afraid of cats. They’re sneaky and devious. He grew up on a parched and barren farm in the thumb of Michigan. He remembers watching his old man drown a litter of kittens born in his shed. He drowned them one by one in a rain bucket. Beachum remembers the kitten’s eyes under water, wide, astonished, hopeless, air bubbles coming out of their tiny lungs.
He keeps a decanter of whisky on the kitchen table opposite the kitchen window. Beachum loves the rich translucence of the caramel colored whiskey. He doesn’t start drinking until the sun swings around to the west and bursts through the kitchen window making the decanter glow like a magical obelisk.
He licks his chops watching the whiskey splash around the ice cubes in his glass. He rolls the glass rattling the ice cubes. He’s in no hurry to drink the elixir once he’s captured it in his glass. He savors the anticipation of the first sip, the warm rapture in his gut.
He sniffs the whiskey thinking of the stale smelling barrooms of his youth. For years he was a long haul trucker. How many miles had he driven with a bottle of whiskey squeezed between his thighs? How many hours had he spent speeding down empty highways in the middle of the night invisible and stoned, his dick itching, the smell of pussy on his fingers. We shall go no more a roving he says, feeling the burn of the whiskey sliding down his throat.
One glass, two glasses, licking whiskey he’s spilled on his fingers, cancerous glob of a prostate crowding his bladder, staggering to the bathroom for a piss. His grey image in the bathroom mirror, gaunt face, and sparse white hair cut short, feathered across his furrowed forehead. He smiles at himself noting the missing tooth on the right, eyes deeply planted in dark sockets and bloodshot, lips cracked, neck wattle droopy and slack.
He toasts the old man in the mirror, tossing his head back, draining the glass, grimacing, rattling the cubes. Looking out the kitchen window he sees the cat bathed in sunshine in the yard arrogantly licking his paw as if the yard belongs to him. He pulls a can out from under the sink and pours himself and the cat a drink. He’s already put a bowl of the poison out but didn’t get the cat. He doesn’t want to carry the can of poison outside and have some do-gooder neighbor call the police and accuse him cruelty to animals. He’ll transfer the poison from the glass to the bowl outside. He’s about to carry the glass outside when the phone rings.
No one calls the landline but telemarketers. He answers sometimes just to tell them to go fuck themselves in person but this time it’s the doctor’s office. “The doctor would like to talk to you about your test results,” the caller says.
He sinks into the La Z Boy and tries to remember his appointment with Urology Associates. He has no recollection whatsoever. He has to get up and go back in the kitchen to fetch his drink. It’s odd that the ice cubes have already melted. He only set the glass on the counter a minute ago. He reaches into the ice cube tray in the refrigerator, fishes out a handful of ice cubes and dumps them into his drink. He throws his head back and tosses it down. It tastes like shit but that’s because the call from Urology Associates has ruined his afternoon. The drinking mood has passed. It was going down good and now it’s not. When it’s going down good he always says to himself ‘we ain’t going to die today is we Reggie. The whiskey’s going down too good.’
He staggers, not drunk as much as dizzy, into the kitchen to pour himself another drink but there’s a drink already poured, waiting for him on the counter. What the hell? Then it hits him. He drank the poison he poured for the cat.
He pulls the can out from under the sink to see if there are any instructions on what to do in case of accidental ingestion. He sees the skull and cross bones but he can’t read the small print under it because of his cataracts. He drops to his knees. His stomach is churning and his heart is thumping, not solidly like a drum, but more like a dying fish flopping in an ice chest. Then he passes out.
When he wakes up the room is dark. He digs down deep into his reserves of energy gripping the rug and straining until his eyes bug out. His paralyzed body refuses to budge.

That Beachum could never remember to keep the batteries on his cell phone charged is a big problem now. He had the phone in his hand when he fell and had managed to hold onto it when he hit the floor. He was actually thinking about hooking it up to the charger just before he fell. So here he is lying on the floor with a dead cell phone. The landline isn’t doing him any good either. It’s in the kitchen. Under the circumstances it couldn’t have been more useless to him if it had been in Afghanistan. He’s screwed.

The phone in the kitchen rings. No one ever calls on the landline but doctors, and telemarketers.
“Hello, do you ever worry about falling getting into or out of the tub? If so we have great news. This offer is only available for a short time. Maintain your independence. Take advantage of our one time offer by dialing or saying ONE to be connected to our friendly and professional sales staff.”
“ONE, ONE, ONE, ONE,” Beachum screams.
“I’m sorry but we weren’t able to process your response. Please say or dial ONE to be connected to our sales staff.”
“OoooooooooNnnnnnnnnnEeeeeeeeeeee” Beachum yells.
“I’m sorry but we weren’t able to process your response. Have a good day.”
He falls asleep and when he awakens sunshine is pouring through every orifice of his house. He’s on the floor and he feels like hell. His mouth is full of cotton and his lips are cracked and he’s never been so thirsty in his entire life. For most of his life thirst meant needing booze. It’s water that he desperately needs now. “Help,” he moans to an empty house.
The phone rings.
“Mr. Beachum, this is Cindy from Urology Associates following up on my call from the other day. It’s very urgent that you contact us immediately upon receiving this message. We’ve gotten back some abnormal test results and Doctor Hill would like to discuss them with you ASAP. Please call us.”
Beachum drifts in and out of consciousness. Hours pass. Another night comes and goes. Beachum is so weak he can barely blink his eyes. His heart beat is so faint it feels as if it’s coming from another zip code. The phone keeps ringing.
“Hello, this is Millie from rewards notification regarding the contest you entered. Pack your bags. You’re our grand prize winner. I’m so happy to inform you that you’ve won and all-expense paid Caribbean cruise for two. To claim your prize simply press or say ONE.”
“One,” Beachum whispers. His eyes are open and he’s staring straight ahead. He wonders how he could possibly still be alive. He hasn’t had anything to eat or drink in days. He’s lost all feeling in the lower two thirds of his body. How could he not have died and gone to Hell already. Then again, maybe this is Hell, an unfamiliar version of it. The first couple of days on the floor when he imagined the screaming sinners burning on spits, fat popping and splattering, it made him hungry. He’d always liked his steaks bloody rare, the meat resting in a red tinged pool of grease. “One,” Beachum whispers again. “I’m sorry but we were unable to process your response. To claim your prize simply press or say ONE.”
“One,” Beachum whispers with his dying breath.

A black cat with white on its chest sits on the window sill with a look of calm forbearance. He licks his paw and washes his face. His busy tail wags slowly back and forth, back and forth. The sun swings around to the west and bursts through the kitchen window. The whisky decanter on the kitchen table glows like a magical obelisk. The drinking hour has arrived.


John Conaway

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2 thoughts on “The Drinking Hour by John Conaway”

  1. I love the thrawn arrogance of Beachum. His health is no reason to change, what does he care…it’s the idea of possibly being eaten by a cat tht he fears most. The truth, we know, is there are many more people just like him and this is a very serious issue. But you can’t help but laugh.


  2. Hi John,
    You should never annoy a cat, it will either use your shoe as a toilet or eat your face when you are dead.
    Probably both!
    You have created a very visible character and this was a pleasure to read!
    All the very best my friend.


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