The Sweet Smell of Pine Needles
The bar’s closing. Is it really that late?
Damn. Elizabeth won’t like this. She sends me to the bar so she can have some time to herself, but the bar sends me right back to her. Third night this week I’ve been here. It’s not my favorite place in the world but I seem to end up here a lot. This time, I’ve only been here for seven hours; when she kicked me out today, I got the impression that Elizabeth hoped I’d be gone a lot longer. Years. Elizabeth, Elizabeth. My Elizabeth.
The clean smell of gin rises from underneath my collar, a pleasant smell, like pine needles — so sweet, now, in the summertime! Gin smells like pine needles, that’s what Dad used to say and the older I get and the more gin I drink and the more I realize Dad was so right. I only drink the good stuff, the Bombay Sapphire. That bottle looks so pretty and bright blue up there on the shelf, beaming at you, waiting for you, saying kiss me kiss me kiss me. Some people say it’s all the same going down — poison is poison, no matter how pretty it is or how sweet it smells like pine needles — but let me tell you, no. Bombay Sapphire smells like the very best pine needles, what a good blue gin and tonight I have drunk quite a lot of good blue gin that smells like the best pine needles and so now I smell like pine needles, too.
But Elizabeth does not like pine needles. I can’t tell you why, but she doesn’t. I would think she would enjoy a good whiff of pine needles better than anybody. She’s gotten her share over the years, God knows. On my collar, on my breath, on my coat, in the carpet where I puked and she had to clean up after me.
I want another drink. Is it really too much to ask for just one more drink before this shitty bar closes? What a dump. Dark. Unclean. I hear water dripping behind the walls no really I swear I do. Why the hell do I hang out here? The glasses on the bar look like they need to be washed again. These old wooden stools look like dangerous rickety. I remember when they were new. They felt almost comfortable back in those days. A man could sit on one and not feel like he’d get thrown in the floor if he leaned too far in one direction.
Now they need some paint. Maybe some fresh leather padding. Maybe just a new cushion, something in a happier color, purple maybe. Royal Purple like a king’s crown, not purplish black like a bruise.
I raise my hand to get the bartender’s attention, and notice he’s already staring at me. I know what that stare means, don’t think I don’t know what that stare means. He thinks I’m drunk. Of course, I am drunk. But he thinks I’m too drunk, that I’m one of those guys that gets his tab and then wads it up and throws it back and maybe takes a haymaker swing at the bartender for good measure. But, the thing is, I’m clearly not one of those guys. Those guys don’t wear thousand-dollar suits or diamond-studded Rolexes and don’t have laminated business cards that say Northeastern Bank Vice President, Mortgage Division, either. No, I’m one of the good guys in this world. And frankly, I don’t need those looks from that bartender. What an asshole. Who does he think he is? I come in here a lot; he doesn’t need to look at me that way. There’s nothing wrong with me. I may be drunk but I’m not an idiot. That bartender wishes he could find something wrong with me. He wants to cut me off. He wants a reason to get tough with me, to raise his voice and show the bar who’s boss. Fuck him. I got money. I pay my tab in this town. I pay a lot of tabs in this town. What’s he worried about? Fuck him. He’s a bartender, not a babysitter. I’m not a baby here. Asshole.
I raise my hand again, stretch a little higher. I’m a polite drunk. “Hey, man,” I say to the asshole. “Can I have another drink, please?” So polite, so civilized, so in control of myself. People ought to be more civilized in this world. I bet none of the other jerks in here are civilized as me.
“Sorry, Gary, you just had last call,” says the asshole. “Ready for your tab?”
“Just one more, please,” I say.
I wonder why I come here. This clown at the bar doesn’t even know who I am he must be new. I should find a new bar. A new bar that appreciates its paying customers. Fuck him. Fuck this bar.
I wonder why I come here.
I met Elizabeth in a Lexington bookstore, a gigantic two-story place called Russo’s that had thick maroon carpeting and more books in it than the public libraries of most small American cities. We were both seniors in college. Elizabeth worked at Russo’s as a cashier, with a deep love for 18th and 19th century Gothic literature. She was fascinated by novels and poems that I never knew existed, written by authors whose names I’d never heard before she whispered them to me.
My literary tastes, on the other hand, tended to fall into a more contemporary vein: I didn’t really like books. People like me, we don’t have time for books. But, the hot word around campus held that beautiful and wanting young women wandered the aisles of Russo’s in search of all the goods that frat-house guys like me offered in abundance. Sounds dumb now, but I believed it then. And because I believed it, I kept going back there and hanging around in sections where I thought the prettiest girls would be . Poetry, philosophy, self-improvement, art. Don’t know why I believed girls were so attracted to poetry, philosophy, self-improvement, or art, but when I first saw Elizabeth she was reading from a thin little book of Spanish poems. So there.
That day, I knew. As the old song says, sometimes a man just knows. I knew this was My Elizabeth. My Elizabeth was tall and thin and blonde, warm and graceful as a spring breeze, and I knew. She had on sandals, loose jeans, and a pink blouse with the ugliest floral pattern I’d ever seen in my life, and she read poetry in a foreign language, and she loved things that I never cared about or knew existed, and still, I knew. My Elizabeth.
I ask again, “Can I have just one more?” but the bartender says, “Gotta close up, Gary. I’ll get your tab,” and then he looks at me like my nose has just fell off. I don’t say anything to him, though I do imagine picking up my glass and throwing it through his forehead. That would be fun. But instead, I shrug my shoulders, pick the glass up from the bar, and finish off my last gulp of gin and tonic.
Gary. He called me Gary. My name is not Gary. He knows my name is Vincent, has known that for God-knows how many years. Normally, I couldn’t care less if he remembers my name or not, but now he wants to be all buddy-buddy with me and he can’t remember my name and I hate that. He doesn’t want to be my friend. I don’t want him to be my friend. I’m just an unpaid tab to this guy, and he’ll say whatever he thinks he needs to say to get that tab covered and me out the door without incident.
No doubt, he’s afraid I’ll try and skip out the door or take a swing at him when that check comes. Tonight, I drank twenty-six gin and tonics — I know because whenever I drink, I place each little black stirrer under my leg, to keep track, to keep from getting screwed — and maybe if another man drinks twenty-six gin and tonics he might be a load to handle. But I am not like another man. I am me, there’s only one of me, I am polite and I am civilized and I’ve got this under control. I pay my tab, I pay a lot of tabs. Just bring me the bill so I can get out of here.
I reach for my wallet. It’s thick with cash, more cash than this bartender makes in two months. And he thinks I won’t pay my bill. Right.
The asshole brings the bill back to my end of the bar. “How much?” I say, taking the little white slip of paper from his hand before he can lay it down on the bar in front of me. I hate when they lay the tab face-down on the bar. It’s like they’re ashamed of the dollar amount. So rude — do they think I don’t know exactly how much I drank? Guys like me, we always know the bill, not that it really matters, not that there’s ever a danger we can’t cover it.
“Thanks, Gary,” he says. “I’ll take it when you’re ready. We close in ten minutes, okay?” Then he walks away again. I start to yell after him, start to inform him that I’m not Gary, I’m Vincent, I don’t know Gary, shut up about Gary. But instead, I just check the tab, pull a hundred and twenty-five bucks out of my wallet, then throw in an extra fifty just to show the asshole that I can. Then I leave.
The day before our tenth wedding anniversary, Northeastern promoted me to Vice President, Mortgage Division. I’d worked a lot of long nights, made a lot of sacrifices — seventy hour weeks, no vacation in five years, things like that — and I deserved the recognition. The same night I got the news, I took Elizabeth to a restaurant downtown that we’d had our eye on for years, but never been able to afford, a strictly jacket-and-tie place on Broadway that was a little fancier than the one we’d planned for our anniversary dinner the next night, but which I thought was more than justified considering the special occasion.
This restaurant was the real deal. The kind of place where a tablecloth might cost more than an average man’s suit, where a set of silverware was worth more than all the dishes we had in our house, and where reservations were most definitely required at least two weeks in advance. “But don’t worry about that,” I said to Elizabeth. “We’ll get in.” I promised that I would slip the guy in front a hundred dollar bill, get us in that way. We could afford to do things like that now. We could afford to pay what it took to get what we wanted. “Order whatever the hell you want, too. Anything,” I said.
When we sat down at our table, I told the waiter to bring the most expensive bottle of cabernet sauvignon in the building. He looked at me funny (I guess people only order that way in movies) but he did as requested. To be honest, I never would have guessed that a single bottle of cabernet sauvignon, even one with such an unpronounceable name on the label, could cost that much. But it was worth it.
While we waited for our meal, I noticed that Elizabeth’s gaze kept moving away from me and settling on whoever sat behind me. Finally, I asked, “What are you looking at?”
“What? I’m not looking at anything,” she said.
”Are you sure?”
“Okay, then,” I said. It was such a celebration; I didn’t want a fight. I finished my glass of expensive cabernet, and then excused myself to the men’s room. As I walked, though, I made a special effort to notice exactly who was seated behind me. I saw only a man in a dark brown suit, silver hair, maybe sixty years old. He sat by himself, reading the business pages, circling a few words here and there. The food on his plate was practically untouched.
When I got back to the table, I tried again. “You’re sure you don’t know that guy?” I asked Elizabeth.
“Which guy?” she said.
“The guy with the newspaper.” I motioned towards him.
She looked behind me and shrugged. “Sorry, I don’t know him. Why? You think he knows me?” She laughed. I picked up the wine, filled my glass again. I asked Elizabeth if she wanted any more, but she said she’d had enough. Which was fine — that just left more for me.
That night, we took a cab home because two glasses of wine was too much for Elizabeth, and also because I drank my share of that expensive cabernet sauvignon, then ordered another bottle and drank it all myself. The cab driver was a big fat guy who smelled like a rotten cigar and wore a Green Bay Packers t-shirt that was way too tight around the armpits. When we got to the driveway, Elizabeth asked the cabby if he could help carry me up the steps and into the house. On the way in, I rolled my head over onto his shoulder and puked expensive red wine all over that Packers shirt and also all over the side of the cabby’s face, too. He didn’t care much for that. Fortunately, though, we were already in the house at that point, and when he dropped me, I landed on the living room couch, which was soft black leather, brand new. Elizabeth gave the man fifty dollars on top of the fare for his troubles and said she was sorry I puked on him, that I got that way sometimes but that was pretty bad even for me. Then she helped me upstairs, undressed me and put me to bed and even kissed me on the forehead.
I remember that kiss. So soft, so warm, so perfect. The world spun and my brain sloshed inside my head like a rubber duck in a bathtub, but I remember that kiss.
“Goodnight, Vincent,” I heard Elizabeth say, and then the world went dark.
Some time in the night, my dreams floated in on an ocean of red wine, dreams I didn’t understand, dreams that maybe I didn’t want to understand, and yet dreams that, somehow, I never forgot.. I saw so many things in my sleep that night. Business cards, stacked to the stars. A thousand empty houses, begging me to mortgage them to happy young couples. A solid oak desk, bought just for me, sitting in the middle of an office that was so big I had to take a taxi to get from one side to the other. I saw a fat cab driver in a Green Bay Packers shirt. I saw a bottle of cabernet sauvignon, tall as me, taller than me, the tallest and most expensive bottle of cabernet sauvignon in the whole world. I saw a silver-haired old man in a brown suit, sitting all alone in a restaurant, reading the business pages and circling things that interested him while his food rotted on the plate before him.
And I saw a girl.
A girl, a beautiful girl, tall and thin and blonde, warm and graceful as a spring breeze, wearing sandals, loose jeans, and a pink blouse with the prettiest floral pattern I could ever imagine. She stood in a bookstore. She asked if I liked poetry, and I said no, not really, and then she smiled and said that’s fine, poetry isn’t really all that important, anyway.
It’s a nice night to stagger home drunk.
The warm wind keeps me from passing out on the sidewalk. I welcome the help. Since I walked out of the bar I’ve ascended three levels of drunkenness. Pine needles sneak up on you.
My house waits ahead. Our house. Her house. I wonder, is Elizabeth still awake? The lights are all turned off. I hope she’s still awake. I feel the last seven hours rise out of my stomach, into my throat. Please be awake, Elizabeth. Please God, let her be awake.
I drop to my knees and throw up beside our mailbox.
Ten minutes later, I make it up the steps. I reach for the doorknob and find she’s locked the door, but that doesn’t make me mad. When you’ve got as much expensive stuff as we do, you keep the doors locked and the alarm system activated or else you’ll wake up one morning and find you made a good Christmas for some sixteen year old shitass thief.
I knock on the door, quiet as I can. Don’t want to be too loud, don’t want to awaken the neighbors and damn sure don’t want to set their damn dogs barking. The neighbors really hate that. I’ve awakened the neighbors and their damn dogs way too many times before, and the last time I did it they brought up the homeowner’s association bylaws and threatened to toss us out of the neighborhood. I don’t want to get tossed out of the neighborhood. It’s such an expensive neighborhood.
I wait for a light to come on in the window, but no light comes on. I wait for Elizabeth to come and let me in. I wait. I wait. A long time I wait, half an hour, then a whole hour, but she doesn’t come and she doesn’t let me in. I stand on the porch until two-thirty in the morning, let the warm wind blow in my face, and enjoy the smell that rises from underneath my collar, the wonderful smell to which I have grown so accustomed: the sweet smell of pine needles.
Finally, sometime later but I’m not really sure what time, I hear footsteps inside the house. Coming down the stairs, into the living room. A light switches on, the door clicks open, and Elizabeth stands there in front of me. Her eyes are red, swollen, watery. She looks like she hasn’t slept in a week. Maybe she hasn’t. I think hard, hard as twenty-six gin and tonics will allow me. It’s been a few hours since I left the bar but if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that those pine needles stick to you for a while.
I want to say the right thing. I’m not sure there is a right thing.
“Hello, Elizabeth,” I say.
“I thought we agreed,” says Elizabeth.
She thinks we agreed? Agreed on what?
“You know exactly what, Vincent,” Elizabeth says. I realize that I was thinking out loud again. Damn.
But the thing is, I don’t know what. I never know what. And Elizabeth, she knows that I never know what. She thinks I don’t know what because I just don’t want to know what. Maybe there is some truth to that. I start to apologize, start to say I’m sorry, I don’t know what, What? But Elizabeth holds up her hand and stops me. She wipes her puffy red eyes and stares at me for a long time. I don’t know how long exactly, just that it’s a long time, maybe the longest time we have ever gone like this, staring at each other, silent, unsure.
Then, her gaze jumps and settles on something or someone over my shoulder. I whip my head around, who’s she looking at? Then I see him, for a shadowy moment. I see him. The man in the brown suit, the man with the silver hair, the man from our big expensive dinner all these years ago. The man in the brown suit with the newspaper spread out before him, the man who sits alone and quietly circles the interesting parts of the business section. I see him. I see him! What is he doing here now? Here with me, me and Elizabeth, my Elizabeth. I reach for him. I want to know. I am drunk, too drunk. Still I turn from my beautiful Elizabeth, and reach for the man behind me, and open my mouth to ask what he’s doing in the darkness, just beyond us. But by then, he’s gone.
Aaron Saylor live in Mt. Washington, KY, and enjoys reading, writing, movies, and wiffleball, not necessarily in that order. He’s just finished my first novel, Sewerville, an Appalachian crime drama.
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