Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: The Sober Club

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The three of them were drinking and zinging haphazard barbs at various political figures (who of course could not respond), and generally commiserating about the unholy state of the world. It was cool enough to wear jackets, but they still preferred Mel’s patio–that’s what she called it, despite it being a rectangular, cracked slab of concrete with tufts of weeds winning out. Mel was a natural yard keeper, she said in self defense once. Veralynn and Kat waved her off, retorted that it was simple if benign neglect, case closed.

Kat got up to grab another bag of lime favored rice chips from a grocery bag, then popped it open behind them, startling Veralynn, who reacted strongly.

“Please do package opening in the kitchen–that was a bit irritating!” She chugged her remaining beer and reached for another bottle.

“Hardly a big noise–but we are loud, the neighbors will be peering over my fence in a few, then lobbing things next.” Mel said, eyebrow raised. “Anyway, I like that Kat leaps and gallops to the kitchen for more food. That’s the spirit! Even if it is shameful junk food.”

Mel had thought about suggesting that they needed to meet elsewhere awhile, it was becoming a point of contention for the Johnsons across the alley and was wearing her out, all the clean up. Soon they’d be forced indoors by winter rain. She shivered thinking of those temps and pulled muscled legs close to her chest. She considered one more beer, but three were likely enough.

Kat giggled–she became a giggler as alcohol relaxed her– and plopped down with a sigh, pushing three chips past her toothy smile, giving off a strong beam of her mischievousness. Her lips were one of her better features–perpetually colored candy apple red, and then those expensive teeth nearly glowing day or night. And long limbs, dancerly and lithe. She must have been a persuasive real estate agent before the kids were born.

“Well, they’re only envious–or dreadfully sober,” Veralynn said, pushing a sweep of dark hair from her forehead.

The others laughed at that, and munched on chips greedily.

But the last phrase echoed in her head. Which was in fact more dreadful–a hangover or no hangover? She was the senior technical writing editor for a large company–she freelanced, as well–and sometimes on Thursday mornings, the morning after they drank, the words she had to read zigzagged or receded. Thank goodness she was good enough to not be badly chastised–yet. It had been hard to jockey for such a good position.

They clinked bottles–Mel had grabbed one more–and settled back for a last few minutes. They all had early morning obligations, they reminded each other once more–it was only mid-week for two of them. Veralynn only worked four days a week at last. But they liked their sessions (our therapy, Kat thought, and I need these desperately), each Wednesday and again on Friday. It helped smooth the wrinkles that had begun to etch about their forty-ish faces, to ease pressures of their busy lives. It was their little club.

They were finally talked out–work, relationships or lack thereof, kids (Kat’s two plus a husband), health goals (Mel was into taekwondo), emotional balance (much was left unspoken but all had their troubles) and maybe toss in supplemental topics like books, films, art, spiritual well being–if they had time. No one wanted to lean too much toward intellectual discourse at their drinking sessions, they had agreed from the start.

As Veralynn was compelled to note, “Drinking and rigorous intellectual activity–that is an oxymoron, ladies. We must use this time to drown our tiny sorrows and act foolish.”

So they said goodnight, quick hugs all around. Kat and Veralynn left as Mel placed bottles in recycling and wiped down counters, turned out the kitchen light. She watched Kat’s SUV drive off with Veralynn beside her, Mel’s hand lightly pressed against the living room window. The window pane fogged under her nose. It was getting colder already out. How she loved the sun’s heat…

The house was so empty after their gatherings, it crowded her with its silence. Since Bill had left her when she’d fallen asleep last spring, nights were the worst.

******

It was Thursday, getting late. Veralynn finished up a last proofread of the document and switched off her computer. It was nearly 9 pm and everyone else had left, as usual, except for cleaning staff whose vacuums ripped apart the stillness. Working four, ten hours days meant she was at her desk for twelve–she was always trying to catch up. She put her shoes back on, grabbed her tan leather tote and coat. She would not take work home this time, she’d had enough.

The long drive from city to suburb was an easy one at this hour. Her mind ran over meetings of the past week, assignments, documents still needing touch ups. As she passed three bars, one after the other before she got on the highway, she felt the old pull. Tomorrow she could sleep in, after all, unlike her friends. She exited and pulled into a half-filled parking lot.

The Royal was anything but, yet its worn black leatherette seats and amber lighting, the three pool tables at the back, the nostalgic music that played and the usual line up of regulars at the bar,–it held an odd allure. It was suitably rundown, in a cozy way–at least when she felt ragged from work. Nobody was impressed with her professional manicure, expensive haircut or–of course, they hadn’t seen it–her luxe condo. They had come to accept her as an off-type–a visitor and just enough friendly–and her money was good as anyone’s.

Sid leaned on the bar, a towel bunched in one reddened fist

“What’ll it be, Vera, whiskey neat?”

“That’ll do it.” She put elbows on the marred black counter, chin in hands then half-turned her head. They were all engaged in chatter and drink–she didn’t know many that night except for a couple who lifted their palms to her and a guy at the end of the bar, Nels, who was usually there. He was a guy she didn’t really like or dislike, but she felt his eyes on her often and she didn’t return his gaze. She only nodded if unavoidable as she passed by on the way to the ladies’ room.

The rest were the usual. A small bunch of older men, four younger to older women, three hearty guys in work shirts and flannel who also preferred the counter. One by one, most eventually noted her presence and raised a glass. But no talk. Tonight they had their eyes on the flat screen above them.

Veralynn did not have the attention span, nor the interest. Newsy stuff with a sports review blared on. She sipped the whisky, accepting its rich burn. About half a glass finished, she realized she hadn’t really wanted or needed a drink. She wondered why she’d even stopped. It was just a habit–she had begun to come by two or three times a month, always Thursdays. It had been precipitated by a change of bosses, a tougher, surlier one, and by end of the work week she was running on empty and a bit raw. Yet, that was seven months ago. Now she was attuned to the new rhythm, and brusque Glenn Hannon had come to appreciate what he called her “backbone” for sticking to her decisions and her fastidiousness in editing. She had her eye on a promotion but wasn’t sure when, so she kept up the long hours.

Sid paused on his way elsewhere. “Got what you need? All ok?”

“I’m good, thanks, just realized I don’t need to dawdle.” Her shoulders ached, her eyes were computer- bleary, her stomach rumbled even more since the whiskey.

He gave a short laugh; only that Vera used words like “dawdle.” He kind of liked that.

“Gotcha, catch you next time.”

Veralynn left the drink, shoved off the bar stool and started across the room.

So did Nels.

As Veralyn exited, she felt him by her elbow; he nearly touched her andhis presence seemed sloppy but intense. She moved away though not too fast, lest she offend him. He always seemed the more offendable type. She wasn’t up for any of it; she wished him away.

“Always wanted your full name,” he said in his low, smoke-roughened voice. “Number. I seen you come and go, wondered–why’s she coming here? What’s her game?”

Veralynn approached her car and was ready to beep it unlocked.
“No game, just a drink now and then after work.” She glanced back at the bar entrance. No one there. He’d began to crowd her between her car and the next.

“Hey, you can’t look at me when I talk?” His words spattered out, he was wobbly on his feet, calmed a bit as he looked over her Mustang. “Nice wheels…”

She turned her face a little toward him. He was not quite a foot away. “I know who you are, a longtime regular, right, Nels? I bet everyone knows you and you know them.” She offered a sideways smile and beeped the car, hand on the door handle, tote snug to her body, all senses blazing.

“Yeah, that’s right, this is my neighborhood.” The words were drawn out, almost slurred but he tried hard to speak clearly. “Yeah, everybody but you….waltz in, waltz out.” An arm with hand wiggled in the air for emphasis. “I says to myself, Nels, she’s something this woman, one drink and gone, no friendly chat, no how d’ya do.”

She could smell his breath, sour and thick with drink, a lack of dental care. His sandy hair–what there was of it– was slicked back, and baggy pants hung a bit too low, shirt opened to a dark t-shirt. She thought, he’s likely harmless, he’s an aging drunk, but it didn’t help. Her only choice was to very fast open her door. She slid in, jammed key in ignition. But Nels’ hand caught the door edge, and it didn’t close–his hand was lodged.

“Just wanted your pretty hand, don’t crush my fingers!”

But Veralynn didn’t want to shake his hand. And she did not want it stuck in her door as she slammed it again and took off, either, so she opned the door a bit to shove her large, overstuffed leather tote hard against his hand and wrist–and because of the drink, being off guard, he staggered backwards.

She started the car, put it in drive and peeled out, but not before she heard Nels yell: “No friend of mine, are ya, damn good riddance!”

But she thought, as she shook all the way home: what if he had gotten in my car? Or what if I had slammed the door on his hand and half-dragged him with me onto the highway? What was she even doing at an established neighborhood bar where she was politely–usually–tolerated? But she liked it there, more or less. Well, it was about her drinking, that’s what. Not being neighborly. Another convenient pit stop at end of week where drinks were cheaper, no one bothered her, no pressure to say the right witty things.

Until Nels called her out–even if he was dicey about it, even if he had other ideas.

There was only fear with her filling that night. And finding solace in a drink didn’t enter her mind. She took a long hot shower, bathroom door locked. It wasn’t that bar, not really. There had been other bars, other unnerving encounters. This it had hit her differently. She could be anybody; alcohol leveled the playing field, as they said in articles she’d skimmed.

It was a long night of nattering in her brain.

******

In the morning, after a night of rooting within her covers and tossing about with pillows, Veralynn made a decision.

She splashed cold water on her face, ate a slice of toast, and called Kat, then Mel.

“You’re not sick? Why, then? It’s a Friday and we always meet Fridays… Jamie is on kid duty tonight as usual and I have stuff to tell you all. Geez, Veralynn, don’t do this to us, we’ve been a trio of best friends, and it’s just not right to beg off entirely. I need these nights out, you know? We need them! I mean, no offense, I like your place, but without the booze, what will we actually do? Not the same, lady.”

The call to Mel went better. Maybe.

“Well, I saw it coming, Veralynn. You just haven’t had the heart for the sessions, lately. I can’t say it has been the best highlight of my weekdays lately, either. I mean, I am trying to get healthier since Bill took off, and taekwondo is a rigorous sport, as you know. I am fully committed to it and also cycling on week-ends with my bike buddies. I always indulged in my beer, but it’s starting to feel hypocritical, you know? I need to clean it up. But meeting without our usual drinks–though I appreciate the offer of your home, believe me!–I don’t know…Let me call Kat, see if I can convince her. I mean, Veralynn, calling it ‘the sober club’ sounds a little…off-putting, I have to say. No one is an alcoholic here. We’ve called our nights ‘our sessions’ for ages–for a reason. I’ll see what I can do, no promises.”

Veralynn turned on the first gas lit fire of autumn in the marble fireplace–it had rained and threatened more– at 7 pm. She’d arranged on a white platter the cheese wedges and crackers, plus pumpkin spice mini-muffins (courtesy of deli and bakery). She had stocked up on seltzers and made hot water for tea. She put on Tony Bennet’s newer CD with Lady Gaga on it–his voice could soothe anybody–and put on grey cashmere lounge pants and top. She felt excited but nervous. She couldn’t recall one single time they had met that there weren’t alcoholic beverages of some sort.

They had met in a classy bar opening downtown, introduced by a friend who knew Veralynn from a gym in her old neighborhood. That friend had moved out of state shortly, but the three of them kept on meeting. Becoming better friends was easy, despite Mel being very attached to Bill then, as well as being a high school math teacher; and Kat having been long married to Jamie, a mother of twin boys–once a high end real estate agent, longing to return to it one day. They had things in common, like classic and foreign movies, Italian and Asian food and novels that had strong female protagonists. And micro beer. Well, any beer. They moved to meeting mostly at Mel’s house–it was centrally located, cozier–and drank, talked, laughed. Even shed a few tears together. And they felt grateful to have those times.

They’ll come, she thought, nibbling at a cracker, trying not to eye her clock. They’ll come to their senses if they’re honest about things, finally see we don’t need alcohol to be friends. They wouldn’t refuse to visit just because I’ve decided it isn’t in my best interests to drink, anymore… would they? A couple hours with no drinking, just talk? Not a big deal. It sounded so good to her the more she thought it over.

But Veralynn began to pace before her full length windows on the tenth floor at 7:20. She felt tense, anxious, worried as 7:20 became 7:30. She checked her phone multiple times–nothing. Maybe it had been a stupid overreaction to Nels’ sloppy, leering, behavior. It had scared her enough that she knew she’d not return to the The Royal. Or any other bars. They had seldom served her well, in the end. She got too drunk and had to call a cab while leaving her Mustang overnight–risky; she’d had near-run-ins with those who became belligerent because she hated bullies and said so; she’d had many men following her with drinks in hand, bribes for a one night stand. I am a competent career woman, she’d wanted to yell; I just need a decompressing night of drinking not a man or a fight or greasy bar food.

She hadn’t told Mel and Kat about last night. She wanted to have them there to share these concerns– last night’s experience being one of too many that had made her wonder about benefits versus disadvantages of drinking. Now she knew–like she woke up with the clear solution to a heavily nagging problem–it was not what she wanted in her life, and she wanted to tell them why. And find out how they felt, bottom line, about alcohol in their own scheme of things.

Could they do that with her, learn more about each other– and enjoy differences as well as commonalities? There was one way to find out–sit together minus alcohol. But if they didn’t they felt it a waste of their time or foolish or boring so did not come–well, then, maybe they weren’t interested in sincere connection. She’d just have to live with it somehow. Veralynn felt that certain about her choice.

At 7:45, Veralynn put away the cheese and crackers and cakes. “Rude, just rude,” she complained aloud. “How could they be so inconsiderate? Just one call!”

She padded to her bedroom, got her quilt and the novel she’d begun to read and settled deeply into the sofa. Then she stared at the fire, hugged the quilt closer, a heaviness clogging up her chest and mind. Maybe I need that drink, anyway, she thought, but bit her lip, closed her eyes until the impulse passed. She listened to the rain pelting her windows, grew dozy.

When the buzzer went off, she nearly threw off the quilt. She went to the intercom with its screen and view of the main floor entrance.

“Oh! What on earth?…”

She buzzed to allow entry, then stood by her half open door.

In pranced Kat with a huge pizza box in each hand, and Mel followed with two bottles of sparkling cider.

“How do you like that?” Mel said. “You get all cozied up and we’ve been tromping about in a chilly drizzle. Here, I brought a deck of cards, in case we decide to play rummy or something…”

“It took way too long to get the pizza, really sorry, Verlaynn–we went to Rico’s, it’s Friday night, you know.” She put her face close to the boxes, sniffed aromas of cheese, onions, tomato sauce with sausage and bacon. “Well, we wanted to surprise you, too!”

Mel stepped forward, held up her phone and pulled out a cord from her coat pocket. “My phone needs recharging, it went dead.” She looked around. “I have missed the bright lights and that wide angle view of the city from up here, Veralynn.” She held out her arms as if to embrace blur of lights within the rainy scene.

“I’d about forgotten how fantastic your place is–and we have a fire burning… how perfect is that?” Kat ran over and sat right down, long legs stretched before it, a gazelle settling into the gentling dark.

“I can’t believe you finally came,” Verlaynn said as she plated pizza and poured cider. “I had given up….if you’d called– well, I am such a doubter, aren’t I?”

She put the plates down. Her chin fell to her chest, eyes blurred with the tears of sudden relief. There came an rising of deep affection for the women before her, so different than she was, but willing to stick by her. As she had hoped. As she was prepared to do for them.

And then came arms about her. Of course they were there–even late. They had been friends for five years; they’d always said they’d be friends, no matter what or where they were. Until they became wrinkly and tottery–and that seemed such a long way off.

They gathered at the coffee table by firelight, wolfed down the pizza with swigs of sparkling nonalcoholic cider when Kat said, “So–tell us what happened.”

Mel added, “And what we can do to make things a little better.”

Veralynn took a deep breath. “I came to the understanding last night that I need to be sober. I have come so close to being caught up in bad events, and I bet you’ve had scary times, too. No, wait–if I am honest here, I’ve lived through things I’ve not even told you about. Because it’s embarrassing. Or too frightening to recall. And it has nearly always stemmed from alcohol. My drinking has been less and it has been more. And I think it has to end before it gets just worse.” She looked up at their intent gazes. “Maybe not you–but for me. Just for me.” She crossed her hands over her chest. “But this guy last night–Nels–he helped me wake up to facts…”

They were not a little stunned. Pizza was pushed aside, glasses set down.

Veralynn laid before them a story of alcohol taking up more and more of her time, her life’s design, how it had taken things, maybe even relationships, from her. How Nels had scared her badly. How grateful she was that she had not drunk more than usual and had driven home safely.

She needed it to change.

“Will you honestly be able to be my friends without the booze? I do want to offer more good times to you.”

Mel and Kat looked at each other a long moment, then at her.

******

That’s how the Sober Club started. Plus a homemade Friday night dinner made if they had desired and time. Mel and Veralynn met every time they could, swapping homes for meetings every other week. Kat came, though, as she could. She was beginning the process of a return to real estate; there were Fridays she just couldn’t make it. At least that’s what she said. Veralynn was inclined to believe her; she’d become more serious about her career goals after the night they’d talked so openly.

Mel had already been headed toward a no drinking lifestyle. She loved her beer but she loved a healthier, active lifestyle more. And it was a relief to get her house back on Wednesdays.

“Plus, it was getting tiresome in the middle of the week with us getting half-crocked–and neighbors talked this past summer, snide remarks, funny looks as I took took out the garbage, that sort of thing. I’m a teacher, after all, and now that classes have resumed, I need a clear head. I need to set an example, too. Three high school students, maybe more, live on my street!”

It wasn’t always relaxed at first, nor the same idiotic fun. But in time no one minded not drinking. In a few weeks, they even forgot about it and did other things–went to the movies or out to eat, for a walk even in evening rain, to a concert. It was more often that Kat randomly came and went; they thought it likely she drank with her husband, with real estate friends after a deal was closed or at open houses. But that was alright. When she did come over, she looked great and sounded even better and it seemed she had her pre-motherhood independence and spark back. She never mentioned their old drinking sessions; she was just glad to catch up with them.

They seemed to bring to any table more fascinating, engaging, funny stories. In the end, sharing more of those was what carried them forward as they kept the Sober Club going. That, and the well tested bonds of affection they made a priority to protect and strengthen.