Second place winner of Bookshop's annual short story contest, 2015.
"Four Roses with Father" by Thomas Wetzel
It was almost 2:00 a.m as I pulled up to the end of the long driveway beside the old house where I had grown up in Greenwich, Connecticut but I wasn't surprised to see that the lights were still on inside the study. Whether he had fallen asleep in his deep leather chair with a book in his lap or if he was still awake, browsing some well-thumbed novel by Vidal or Mailer was another question. My father’s sleep schedule was anything but on schedule lately, mainly due to the meds.
I parked my Honda Accord beside his Cadillac and the flood lights automatically flickered on as I ascended the steps to the back porch, letting myself in through the rear door to the kitchen. There was music coming from the study down the hallway but I couldn’t quite name it. Mahler’s second symphony?
As I entered the study I saw him slumped in his big soft leather chair, his unshaven chin resting on his chest, eyes closed. Since my mother died in 2008 he was the sole occupant of this spacious home, but he increasingly spent his time here in this one room. I gently shook his shoulder and after a moment he raised his head and looked at me. The older folks in our family have always said that I am the spitting image of my father, but I had never seen it so clearly as I did in that one moment.
“Charles. Well...what are you doing here? What time is it?” He squinted up at the clock above the fireplace. “Are Jeannie and the kids here too?” He straightened himself up in the chair and looked towards the doorway to see if anyone else was there. I placed a hand gently on his shoulder.
“It’s okay, Dad. It’s just me. Jeannie and the kids are home in Philly.”
He relaxed and slumped back into the chair, the sudden light in his eyes dimming again. He rubbed his temples and looked at me, confused.
“So what’s up, Charles? To what do I owe the honor of this visitation?”
“I stopped by for a drink, Dad.” I smiled.
He just stared at me.
“I had to come up here on business tonight and I just couldn’t sleep at the hotel. Too much on my mind, I guess.”
He continued to stare at me.
“Besides,” I added. “When was the last time we sat down together with a bottle of Four Roses?” At this his eyes softened and a thin smile emerged on his face. “You’re right, Charles. It has been far too long. Sit down and let me be a proper host.” He began to rise from the chair but again I placed my hand gently on his shoulder.
“I’ve got it, Pops. You sit tight and I will be right back.”
A few minutes later I returned with a burnished copper tray bearing a bottle of Four Roses single barrel bourbon, a small ice bucket and two snifters. The glasses were already poured so I handed him one and took the other for myself. I held my glass out towards him and as we clinked I offered a brief toast.
“May it all be worth it in the end,” I said, then raised my glass and drank.
He stared back at me for a moment, pondering my words, then he just smiled and drank from his glass too. After that we talked for a while and in the end we talked long enough for each of us to drink four glasses of bourbon as I told him all my problems, which in the end were really just one problem. And, as always, that problem was money.
I never came right out and asked for help and he never offered it, which was our custom. I had been raised with advantages that most children never enjoy; from elite prep schools to private country clubs to summers on Martha’s Vineyard and early acceptance at Princeton. But on the day I graduated college my father handed me a check for $10,000 and told me that I was on my own. I was his primary heir and would inherit most of his estate upon his passing, but he made it clear that I would see little more than greeting cards between now and then, and he had kept his word.
It was almost an hour later when he first started to nod off but I managed to get a fourth glass of bourbon into him before he passed out. This last one was heavily spiked with Dilaudid, a powerful painkiller that I had taken from his medicine cabinet earlier and crushed to a fine powder exactly as I had recently learned to do on the internet. I had discreetly added a heavy dose to each of his first three drinks, confident that the iced bourbon would mask the taste, but this fourth glass contained all the remaining powder and I thought that he would taste it for sure. Perhaps, in the end, he did.
When his chin finally sagged to his chest I sat there for a while, just looking at him. I felt no desire to touch him or to kiss his cheek or anything like that, which is not to say that I felt no love or affection for the man. When the CD we had been listening to reached it’s end I returned the bottle of bourbon to its place, washed the glasses, ice bucket and tray and put everything away. As I exited the house through the backdoor the time was 3:15 a.m. I would be back in Philadelphia before Jeannie and the kids woke up.
Heading south on 195 I wasn’t thinking about my dad. He had lived his life. It had it’s ups and downs, more highs than lows, but it ceased to have any real meaning some time ago. He was now like some aging version of a fairy tale dragon, curled up on a bed of hoarded gold, slumbering his days away while the townsfolk toiled in the fields and starved through the winter. Well, perhaps me and Jeannie and the kids weren’t exactly toiling in the fields or starving through the winter, but we could be doing a whole lot better than we were, and soon we would be. Soon my kids would enjoy the same privileges that I had known growing up.
I loved my dad, but his time had come. It was time for others now. I would never be the man that he was. I knew that. But maybe my kids would see me a bit differently now. After all, I was doing this for them, wasn’t I? At least that’s what I told myself.
And so, if one day, many years from now, my son Jason should suddenly appear by my side in the middle of the night, when the light and life has all but drained from my eyes, I will happily drink a few glasses of Four Roses bourbon with him too, and perhaps listen to Mahler’s Second, and then leave life to the living.