by Joseph Milosch
“When you can no longer work like a young man, they’ll can you. Go to college. Otherwise you will end up poor and crippled like Butch.”
Nothing could suppress her bitterness when her husband received a fifteen-dollar gift certificate for not missing a day of work in ten years. In front of everyone, Butch stood slopping beer as he shook his boss’s hand. Then in that half holler voice that a drunk uses, he said, “I owe this to my wife! She tells me, I married you for better or worse not breakfast or lunch.”
Her blood ran up her chin under her rouge, coloring her cheeks raw and open. She turned her head to avoid his breath that swarmed over her like ants. “Don’t spend this in one place,” he said, and she stood stiff as a board, resisting his hugs, his kisses. Butch ignored it all, acting as if she were having fun. Further back than the wall, I sat on a box in the coat room, and drank the beer Butch stashed for me.
During the funeral, I listened to the priest and thought about Aunt Joan. How hard she tried not to express her anger at the Christmas party before my induction. When she puckered her lips, the thin traces of her moustache would quiver mouse-like. Unable to contain herself, she tried to wedge herself between Butch and the new man’s wife. I recalled the glint of gold in the light as well as the ruby stone in his pinkie ring. Quickly, he placed his hand on Joan’s hip. He pushed her to the front and introduced her as his wife. About himself, he said, “I’m the company’s kissing cousin.” It seemed like fun to me.
After his funeral I drove to Lake Huron’s shore to get drunk in his memory. I found a campground, built a fire, and listened to the waves coming ashore. Butch, I thought of your boyhood friend Bob. Sometimes he sat home for days not drinking, nor talking, nor eating. Nothing shook his focus on being lost, rifle-less, and floating over the German occupied Italian slopes. Butch, you saved his job, gave him money, or food, and twice paid his rent. Calling his spells, ‘German Malaria,’ you opened a bottle of whiskey. The two of you would drink, cry, and hug each other. You said to him, “I’ll break Hitler’s nose when I see him in hell!”
On your deathbed you sank into the yellow lines of your face, and your eyes became two lakes iced over and seen from 2,000 ft high. Alone in the campground, I tasted ice in the lake’s air. I tasted the sourness of death, and I promised you that I wouldn’t let your memory fade like birch bark in the night’s fog.
Before my Army induction, we camped at Clear Lake. Snow fell as I held the spool, and you reeled the line. You spoke to me as if I were your friend. “I thought after we kicked the Kraut’s ass I’d come home and women would fall at my feet. I didn’t know, didn’t know.” Dumping my coffee you gave me a shot of bourbon. Later by the campfire, we watched ashes float, and you talked of parachuting in Europe during WW II.
Wrapped in the aftertaste of your funeral, I left the warmth of the fire to walk along the shore of the lake. I pictured chutes white against black. They floated like food in a fish bowl. You felt at any moment you could be caught and filleted. You believed it was luck or God, who protected you.
When I was eight, you took me to a Union picnic; Joan wanted you to stop drinking. You grabbed a beer and took me canoeing. Somehow, we capsized in the Huron River. You caught the root, as you held me from the current’s grasp. After dragging us ashore, you put your arm across my shoulders. As we sat on the bank, a warm pit grew in our stomachs. You said defeating the currents and cheating death felt more satisfying than a slug of whiskey. As you rubbed my head, you told me WW II was the most thrilling time of your life, and you came back believing the only thing that mattered was the bond between fighting men.
When I became a veteran, you took me camping. Getting up for a refill you gave me your hand, pulled me from my chair. “Let’s drink,” you said, and your toast will forever ride the smoke that settled between the brush and water, between the trees, between our chests as we hugged. Now on the lake shore, I toe the water. I tell you that I’ve come to believe Joan was right when she said that drink allowed you to touch another.
Back at camp, I extinguish the fire. How you would fly off if anyone put a can or a bottle in the fire when we burned trash before breaking camp. “I almost lost my life for this country, I’ll be damned if I’ll let anyone trash it.” Now in the campground on the lake, I flip through the events of your funeral. Aunt Joan asked me, “He was a good man, wasn’t he?”
Butch, I know it is a sad game I’m playing, pretending you can listen, or that your drunkenness matters anymore. Your funeral day was a February day. The kind of day a man needed a warmer upper. A clump of snow melted under the pew, and on the way home from the graveyard, your son said, if it wasn’t for me, there wouldn’t have been enough pallbearers. I told him I owed you my friendship. You made sure I came to your Christmas parties. I remember the coat room, beer cached behind perfumed coats, tobacco smoke drifting in from the dance floor. Your voice would catch my ear like a bottle cracking in a campfire.
I knew something was going to happen. I thought how you applied heat to the party. I thought all the time I spent with you reshaped me like a bottle bowed and twisted under fire. I ignored your drunkenness. I ignored Joan’s bitterness. What did I know?
The morning after the last Christmas party, I walked through brittle marsh reeds and across the lake to an island where a crescent of pines grew on the shore. There we met, broke ice, fished, and watched the sun glance off snow drifts, pails, and the iced stripes of the perch tossed onto a drift.