It’s the last Thursday of the month, which means it’s wrestling night at Ol’ Shenanigans with the boys. It’s a tradition Pete, Jim and I have kept up for thirty years and we ain’t about to change tonight. And I wouldn’t want to. Pete orders his rum and coke, Jim gets his Jameson on the rocks, and I get my bourbon. The waiter, a strapping younger gentleman with suspenders, a blue checkered shirt and a curling mustache slides our drinks across the bar one by one. Each slides and scratches against the aged wooden countertop. We catch them by their handles. I watch the bourbon slosh back and forth in my glass and all feels right. I’m a man of tradition. We all are. Tradition brings balance to an unpredictable world. Tradition is what’s comfortable – it’s the past, present, and future, and so long as we stick with it, it’s all we know for sure.
“Strike the bum out,” Jim yells at the television, his scotch drizzling over his lengthy graying beard. I break out into a laugh that turns into a dry, smoky cough. Pete throws a glare toward me and puts up a finger over his chapped lips. A Twins game was is never a laughing matter when you’re watching with Pete. I should have known better. I take a sip of my beer and it goes down nicely, but in an unexpected way. When I set it back down on the counter I stare at it and lose myself in its white froth for a while. I wonder why I didn’t expect it to taste the way it does. This is our tradition after all.
I look to Pete to say something, but his eyes are locked on the television and I wouldn’t dare interrupt him in the fourth quarter of a Patriots game. Instead I turn to talk to Gerald, who couldn’t care less about football. But he’s busy too: staring out the window, watching the snow fall on the quieting streets of Chicago. He looks lost in a trance – as if he’s thinking about a somber past, an opportunity lost. “Gerald?” I say. “What’s on your mind?”
He doesn’t seem to hear me. He just keeps staring. Staring and pushing his whiskey back and forth between his hands. I pick up my glass and take a sip of my root beer, then look at it again. I should have ordered something alcoholic. It is tradition after all.
I look back to my left to see Susan stirring her margarita. I don’t expect to see her there, but I can’t quite figure out why her presence is so startling. She catches me staring at the lime green concoction and gives me a smile. She’s about to say something, but doesn’t, interrupted by the young waitress in the red and white dress coming over. “Is everything going alright?”
I nod and say, “Yes, thank you.” But then I notice the waitress’s concern – like she’s being forced to work at gunpoint. Her mouth is smiling but her nose is stagnant and her eyes are dead. I think she’s shaking. I study her, attempting to read her unsettling expression, but then she points towards my left and continues talking. “Are you expecting any company? Or can I take this chair?”
I’m a bit baffled when she asks this and let out something of a scoff. “Expecting?”
“Why, Susan is just right –” I reach my hand out to place a hand on my wife’s back and point her out to the waitress. But when I drop it toward her, my hand falls through into a swipe that catches nothing but cold air. I turn to my left. She’s gone. I don’t know whether to be more puzzled that she was there, or that she’s now gone. In fact, the chair isn’t there either. Nothing but a muted episode of Wheel of Fortune plays on the television above the bar. “Susan?” I call out softly, unable to muster any fortitude in my throat.
A gust of wind blows through the broken glass window and chills my right shoulder. I take a sip of my soda, then rub my shoulders for a semblance of warmth. I turn back to catch the waitress’s reaction, but when I pivot towards my right there’s nothing there, and now I can’t recall what I was looking for.
My unoccupied hands begin a trembling fit I have to remedy. I see my glass of champagne and think maybe I need to hold something. I reach for the glass on the coffee table before me and swipe at nothing but the cold wintry air creeping underneath my nails. The early Christmas lights are out and an old jingle plays from a passing car. On a muted TV, a superficial parade marches on. But I’m alone. The bar has faded into a wall bare of all but a spider weaving a web in the corner. I look down to my feet and find them turning blue against the falling snow. And when I look up, even the walls are gone.
It’s still tradition in a way. I smile and, despite it all, take in the biting air with a sort of subtle appreciation. Tradition is what’s comfortable. It’s all we have left.