A drop of the hard stuff, p.39
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       A Drop of the Hard Stuff, p.39

         Part #17 of Matthew Scudder series by Lawrence Block
 
Page 39

  No messages. I went upstairs, walked down the hall to my room. I had my key out, and it seems to me that I felt something, had some sense of foreboding. And maybe I did, maybe I picked up a vibration, maybe without identifying it I caught some scent coming under the door or through the keyhole.

  And maybe not. The memory tends to fill in the blanks, furnishing what seems fitting whether or not it ever happened. Maybe I sensed something and maybe I didn’t, but either way I stuck my key in the lock and opened my door.

  XXXVIII

  AT FIRST I didn’t recognize the smell. It was strong, it hit me in the face the minute I had the door open, and I’m sure it was as unmistakable in its own way as the stench that had permeated Greg Stillman’s apartment. I thought, That’s an awful smell, that’s unhealthy to breathe, I’d better open a window and clear the place. So I recognized the nature of it, but I couldn’t say what it was.

  And then in an instant I could. It was booze, it was ethyl alcohol, it was more specifically bourbon.

  The whole room reeked of it. Was it really there? Was my mind doing this, conjuring up a smell in response to the stress of my work and the anxiety that precedes an AA anniversary? It was as if the cleaning woman had broken a bottle in my room, but I didn’t keep whiskey in my room, so there was no bottle for her or anyone else to break. And it was Monday, and Saturday was the day she cleaned my room, and she’d have no reason to be there, and neither would anyone else, and I’d left the room locked, and it had been locked just now because I’d needed to turn my key to let myself in, and God, God in Heaven, what was going on?

  Then I looked over at my desk. My chair was drawn up next to it, turned just enough toward the door so that it seemed to be inviting me to sit down. And on the desk there was a glass tumbler of the sort they used to call an old-fashioned glass, not because there was anything old-fashioned about it, but because it had been designed to hold that cocktail called an old-fashioned.

  Did anybody order old-fashioneds anymore? Had I ever had one myself? It seemed to me that I had, that I must have. It seemed to me that, with just a little effort, I could remember what it tasted like.

  I did not own a glass like this. I owned a couple of water tumblers. One had a sort of bell shape to it, of the type in which drugstores sold Coca-Cola when drugstores still had soda fountains. The other wasn’t strictly speaking a glass at all, in that it was made out of plastic, so that it wouldn’t shatter when I dropped it on the bathroom floor.

  I couldn’t take my eyes off the glass. I’d had glasses of that size and shape when I lived with Anita and the boys in Syosset. Like every proper suburbanite, I’d had a fully equipped bar in the den, with all the glasses one might be called upon to provide for one’s guests. And, while nobody had ever asked me to mix up a batch of old-fashioneds, that was the glass of choice for serving a drink on the rocks. This wasn’t one of the glasses from that set, which I could only presume were still in the finished basement of the Syosset house, but it was that type.

  Yet I could swear I recognized the glass. It was just the sort in which Jimmy Armstrong served drinks on the rocks.

  Or a double bourbon, straight up, no ice, if that was your pleasure.

  This glass, this glass on my desk, was filled to within perhaps a half inch of its brim with a clear amber liquid. I was able to identify it as a bourbon called Maker’s Mark. There may be gifted human beings who could have made that identification on the basis of the color and aroma alone, but I am not one of them. I did not recognize the brand so much as I deduced it, and I based my deduction on the presence of the bottle of Maker’s Mark bourbon that stood on my desk just a few inches from the glass.

  I couldn’t move. I couldn’t look anywhere but where I was looking—at the desk, at the glass and the bottle.

  Thoughts rushing at me, one after the other:

  It was a hallucination. There was no bottle, no glass, no smell of whiskey.

  It was a dream. I’d come home, I’d lain down for a nap, and now I was having an impossibly vivid drunk dream.

  It was my sobriety that was the illusion, the hallucination. I’d been chipping around for months, having a drink here and a drink there, telling myself and everyone I knew that I didn’t drink anymore. But it was all a lie, a 364-day lie, and the proof lay before me, because I’d poured a drink before I left my room that morning and there it was, waiting for me on my return.

  I blinked, and it was still there. I forced myself to look away, and then looked back, and it was still there. I felt myself drawn toward it. I wanted to approach it, not to pick it up, God no, not to touch it, but to somehow make it go away. I had to make it go away. I couldn’t let it stay there.

  I don’t know how long I stood there, neither approaching the desk nor walking away from it. Then finally I wrenched myself away, yanked the door open, slammed it shut, locked the whiskey away behind it. I rushed down the hall, didn’t even ring for the elevator. I dashed down the stairs and out into the street.

  XXXIX

  DURING MY DRINKING DAYS, there were worse things than hangovers. Blackouts were worse—coming to and realizing there were vast holes in one’s memory, hours when some other part of oneself was running things, steering the car and grinding the gears. Seizures were worse, and waking up in a hospital bed in restraints. And, more subtly, the day-by-day erosion of one’s whole life, that surely was worse than a hangover.

  Hangovers were bad enough, however, and some of them were worse than others. But what I remember most vividly in that regard is not so much any particular hangover as the way one of them ended.

  I was in my hotel room, and I felt terrible, and knew that the only thing that would ease my pain was a drink. And of course there was nothing in my room to drink. If there had been, I’d have drunk it the night before.

  So I got myself dressed and downstairs and around the corner, and it must have been around eleven because Armstrong’s was open but the lunch crowd wasn’t there yet. In fact the place was empty, or the closest thing to it, and Billie Keegan was behind the stick, and he took one look at me and knew not to say a word. Instead he set a glass on the top of the bar, and filled it about halfway full, so that I wouldn’t spill it if my hands happened to shake a little.

  I stood there while he poured, and I took a breath, and I felt better. I hadn’t had a chance to get the alcohol to my lips yet, let alone into my bloodstream, but its simple physical proximity made all the difference. It was there, and I was going to be able to drink it, and it would help me feel better again—and because I knew this I felt better already.

  I thought of this when, finally, I heard Jim Faber’s voice.

  First I had to find a phone that worked. Then I had to dial his number, and wait while it rang, and when his wife answered I had to ask to speak to Jim. She said, “He’s not here, Matt. He’s got a rush job keeping him at the shop. Do you need the number?”

  “I have it,” I said. “And I’ve got plenty of quarters too. ”

  I don’t know what she might have made of that, because I broke the connection before I could find out. I spent one of those abundant quarters, and waited while it rang, and then he answered. And right away I felt better.

  “I don’t think you had a hallucination,” he said. “I know that sort of thing can happen, but that’s not what this sounds like to me. I think you’ve got a real glass of bourbon on your desk, and a real bottle keeping it company. You said Maker’s Mark?”

  “That’s right. ”

  “Well, if you’re determined to hallucinate, you might as well go straight to the top shelf. I only had it a couple of times myself, but it seems to me that Maker’s Mark was pretty decent sippin’ whiskey. ”

  “I used to know a woman who liked it. ”

  “You don’t suppose—”

  “She’s dead,” I said. “She died a long time ago. ”

  Carolyn, from the Caroline. Another name for my Eighth Ste
p list, I thought, if I stayed sober long enough to write one.

  “You didn’t pour it for yourself, Matt, and you’re not in the middle of a drunk dream either. You went out this morning, and that was waiting for you when you got back. You know what happened. ”

  “I left the door locked. ”

  “So?”

  “It wouldn’t be that hard to swipe a key from behind the desk. Or to open the door without one. ”

  “And?”

  “And somebody came into my room,” I said, “and brought a bottle with him. ”

  “And a glass from Armstrong’s. ”

  “It could have been from anyplace. Half the bars in the city have that kind of rocks glass. ”

  “So he brought a bottle and a glass. ”

  “And set the stage,” I said. “Poured a drink. Left the bottle there, with the cap off. ”

  “Just the one glass. Inconsiderate bastard, wasn’t he? Suppose you had company?”

  I said, “Jim, he wanted me to drink. ”

  “But you didn’t. ”

  “No. ”

  “You didn’t even want to, did you?”

  I thought about it. “No,” I said, “I didn’t. But at the same time I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I felt like a bird hypnotized by a snake. ”

  “Stands to reason. ”

  “I found the thought of drinking it terrifying. As if it might jump off the desk and pour itself down my throat. As if it had that power. ”

  “Uh-huh. ”

  “It was magnetic,” I said. “I didn’t want it, but I was drawn to it anyway. ”

  “You’re an alcoholic,” he said.

  “Well, we knew that. ”

  “Yeah, and we just got some more evidence, in case we entertained the slightest doubt. ”

  “I wanted to pour it down the sink,” I said.

  “Better than keeping it around. ”

  “But I was afraid to go near it. I didn’t want to take a step in that direction, let alone pick it up. ”

  “You were right. ”

  “I was? Isn’t it crazy, giving the shit that kind of power?”

 
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