A BLACK LABEL MAN
The neighbor came bounding up the steps with a sack in his hand. He wore plaid shorts and a shirt that read Westwood Country Club: Play A Few Holes. When he reached the door of the blue house he cleared his throat, looked at the sack one last time, and knocked.
Inside Jim was watching the news. It was nearly all he got done anymore. He read and ran in the evenings and watched the news all day long. Hearing the knock he first yelled for Laura, she being the more sociable of the two, but he remembered she was at work and got up to answer it himself.
Howdy neighbor, the neighbor said to Jim. Sorry to disturb.
No, Jim said. No worries. Was just watching the news.
Oh god, the neighbor said. Were they talking about the bombing?
They were, Jim said, remembering. There had been footage of the aftermath. A bomb had gone off in an American embassy in some Arab country. Jim had just watched women praying in the rubble with tears streaming down their faces. Awful stuff, he said.
You bet, the neighbor said. Just think, you're sitting there one minute, on the phone, filling out some paperwork, and then boom. All gone.
Awful, Jim said again.
Jesus, the neighbor said and let out a sigh. It was August and sweat was rolling down his forehead. He wiped it with the back of his hand. It was covered in long black hairs. Well, he said, I didn't come over to talk about that. God no. Jean ran into Laura yesterday. They were at the store and bumped into each other.
Oh, Jim said.
Yeah, the neighbor said, and Laura told her the good news. So I wanted to congratulate you. Laura's a great girl.
The best, Jim said. And thanks, I appreciate it.
No problem, the neighbor said. Any idea when you're gonna tie the knot?
November, Jim said. We're thinking this Fall.
That's fast as hell, the neighbor said.
Well, Jim said, finally looking at the sack in the neighbor's hand, we didn't want a long engagement.
The neighbor wiped his forehead again, but this time he used the hand holding the sack. It came into Jim's eye line and he watched it rise and then return to the neighbor's side. Jean and me eloped, the neighbor said. Her folks didn't care one bit and we liked to have never heard the end of it from mine. The neighbor shrugged. I say, you do what you got to do.
Sure, Jim said.
Anyway, the neighbor said, enough of my yakking. I got you a little something to celebrate. He handed the sack to Jim. I figured you for a Black Label man.
Jim felt the paper of the sack and the outline of the bottle in his hand. Black Label, he said.
You like it? the neighbor said.
I do, Jim said. I am most definitely a Black Label man.
Good, the neighbor said and clapped Jim on the shoulder. I got a nose for this kind of thing. Used to bartend at the club on weekends.
Huh, Jim said, turning the bottle.
You show me a guy, the neighbor said, and I can tell you his drink like that. The neighbor snapped his fingers.
Well, Jim said, you got me.
Jim thanked the neighbor then and the neighbor invited him and Laura over for dinner sometime. After saying yes, Jim let himself back in the house and carried the sack and bottle into the kitchen, which was just off the living room. The TV was still going and the news had moved on to the weather. He left the sack on the bottle and set it on an island in the kitchen. He walked away from it, sat down on the couch, and tried to watch the news. They were showing a highway somewhere that had buckled under the heat. A few cars had fallen off of an overpass and were lying in a heap below. He looked back to the bottle.
A few minutes later he walked back into the kitchen and took the bottle from the sack. He threw the sack away and set the bottle back down on the island. He looked at it. He tilted it this way and tilted it that way. He watched the brown liquid roll like waves. He pinched the cap in his fingers, thought he might open it and just have a smell. Then he thought of Laura and stopped. He thought of promises he'd made.
He looked at the clock on the wall and saw that it was four thirty-three. He did the math in his head and knew Laura wouldn't be home for another five and a half hours. Maybe six if she had to work over.
At five he stopped staring at the bottle and sat back down on the couch. The news had started over. There was more footage of the bombing. People lifting shapeless bodies out of wreckage. Snippets of a news conference. He picked up a book and tried to read but couldn't focus on the words.
Then he took the bottle outside and put it into the trash. He was careful to set it down softly on top of a bag. Fifteen minutes later, he returned and saved it. It was back where it had been on the island. He looked outside and saw his neighbor gassing up his mower and sipping a can of beer. When he finished he put it into the back pocket of his plaid shorts. On the TV another commercial, this one for beer. It was set on a hot day in a city and when someone popped open a bottle a train covered in ice rumbled through and turned summer to winter.
Jim picked up the bottle and felt its heft. He meant to throw it against the wall. He meant to watch it bust and bleed a mess of glass and liquor onto the floor. He wanted Laura to come home, smelling like the bakery she worked in, the breads, the flour, and he wanted her to see. He wanted her to take one look and know what he'd been through. For her. But when he wound his arm up, when he aimed at that spot just under the picture of them on a beach, a beach he could no longer remember the name of, he found that he couldn't let go. It stayed stuck to his palm.
After going upstairs he took off all of his clothes and put on his running shorts and shoes. He stretched in the floor and when he felt good and limber he exploded out the front door and sprinted past the neighbor and left their neighborhood behind. He took one of the back roads and ran until he was surrounded by fields and open sky. He ran so fast and so reckless that he felt his heart thump in his chest and his fingers go numb. His knees ached. His back screamed but he ran faster and further. He came to the end of the road, by a pen full of cows, and he stopped and bent over and got his breath back. The road back looked like an eternity and when he had his second wind he sprinted until his body felt like it might come apart.
At his house he climbed the same steps the neighbor had. He felt like the light had changed. The neighbor had finished mowing his yard and the sun had gone down some. Inside his house he filled a giant plastic cup full of water and sucked it down. He looked at the bottle and had another. Then he looked at the clock and saw that it was six forty.
Three hours and twenty minutes.
He watched the news two more times. Saw there was another hour left. Watched it half the way through again and hit the power button.
The house was quiet then except for the hum of all their things. The refrigerator kicked on and then kicked off. He thought maybe the TV made a low-frequency sound, but couldn't be sure. He could definitely hear the clock though. Heard the tick of the second hand. Heard its steady beat. Heard it counting down.