Jeff Clinkenbeard

The night that Gail left early she knew she was taking a chance. The liquor stores would still be open at that hour, and her husband was out of town for the night. That left her plenty of time to grab a small bottle of something, or two—yes, that was Gail’s problem right there. The scenarios spinning in her head always involved doubling the amount. She pictured herself, at home, finally being able to drink right from the bottle as she loved to do, and then the picture fast-forwarded to the last drop slithering toward her, down the inside of the bottle, clinging, teasing, and finally consumed. And then she’d want another bottle. Not the whole bottle, she told herself, just part of a second bottle. Why not? Her husband’s plane wasn’t coming in until late the next night, so she’d have plenty of time to sleep it off, to drink lots of water, to urinate a few times before he got home. She’d have a new pack of breath mints.

The night that Gail left early she got down to the street and started getting jittery. She told herself, “Go back upstairs.” The meeting’s still going on, and they’ll have you back, they’ll want you back. But she didn’t want to go back. She didn’t want to walk forward, and she didn’t want to walk back. She stood there, one foot on the stoop and the other on the sidewalk, paralyzed.

She phoned her husband.

“Hello. Just calling to make sure you landed OK. I didn’t get a message,” she said. From where she stood she could see the liquor store’s lights were still on, and the place was packed. Packed with lucky people who could drink; drink and live.

“Are you OK?” he asked.

“No, no, everything’s fine. I just didn’t get a message,” she said.

“Is your meeting over already?”

He knows, he knows, she thought. Why did I call him? I called him because I don’t want to drink, I knew he’d know.

“Yeah, it’s over, the meeting. There was a, somebody didn’t show up—a speaker, I mean, they didn’t have a microphone, a speaker, and well in that place you just can’t hear without one.”

OK, OK, she thought, this is good to know. It’s good to know—she caught her breath—it’s good to know I’m getting worse at lying about it. That’s a good sign. The cashier at the liquor store, he’s out on the sidewalk, what’s he doing, was he pulling down the gate, do they close early on Thursdays?

Her husband was waiting for an answer to his question, but Gail hadn’t heard any question. She’d only heard in her imagination the sound of that liquor store gate being pulled down. But now, now, there was a nervous silence on the cellphone.

“I’m sorry, honey,” she said. “What? A truck went by.”

“Did you find your earring?” he said in a staccato, enunciated way.

“My—yes, I found it,” she said.

But she hadn’t. Why did I lie about that, she wondered. Just one bottle of something, I promise you, she said to herself, in herself, just one. And I won’t even drink all of that. I’ll throw half of it away. And then, her secret, knowing self asked her, “Oh, really? And will you throw away that half before you start?”

Gail heard someone calling “Gail, Gail, Gail, Gail.” A small tinny voice. It was so familiar. Oh, it was her husband on the cellphone. Better get off the line with him before the store closes. Yep, better end it with this guy.

“Couldn’t you hear me?” she said. “I was saying, hello, hello, hello, hello. I must be in a hot spot, or a cold zone, or what do they call those places where you can hear others but they can’t hear you no matter how much you scream?”

He said a few more things, she said a few more things. She hoped he couldn’t tell she was walking while she was talking. She took small deliberate steps so she wouldn’t seem out of breath, but she was out of breath. The neon sign flickered with age. Sometimes it said, “LIQ OR,” sometimes “L QUOR,” but right now it was stuck at “LIQUOR.” LIQUOR! LIQUOR! LIQUOR! Full tilt neon bathing her in red.

“Love you too, bye.” And she hung up. He’ll know, he’ll know. He already knows. How could he know? He doesn’t know. He might suspect, but there’s been plenty of nights he could have suspected and you didn’t drink. But it’s been so long. She’d been so good so long. OK, OK, she said to herself, as she pushed open the door, I will pour out the first half before I start. But that’s such a waste. Walk out, walk out now. You still can.

The night that Gail left early, everyone at the meeting knew where she was going. That’s why her cellphone was ringing right now; they were calling her. They were probably sending someone right now to come bursting into the store and physically remove her. That’s why she was so glad she’d listened to that voice, that small smart voice that had said to her, “Walk out, walk out now.” And she had. She’d walked out. And down the street to a different liquor store where they’d never find her.

Jeff Clinkenbeard is a professional stand-up comedian and comedy writer. He has worked on Cheers, Frasier, Bob, House of Buggin’, and Good & Evil. His short film, Ripple, screened at the Sundance Film Festival. As a stand-up comic, he has opened for Rita Rudner and Sinbad. He has taught for New York University, Gotham Writers’ Workshop and Chicago City Limits in New York City, as well as Brain Trust West in Los Angeles. He lives on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

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