Top Shelf

by John F Musser, SSC | November 11, 2020

honda civic

It is a small pour for sure. Two ounces? Yup, very good bourbon. You've never drunk cheap. Treat yourself a bit, double it up. You can stop at just one, right?

Why don’t you go ahead and fill the glass about halfway? Don’t just sit there licking your lips and staring at the glass. Answer me, or pour the damn whiskey.

Afraid? Please – you and I both know you ain’t afraid. Afraid you gonna always be a drunk? You're damn good at it, so why not really commit? Afraid of dying? Bullshit. You need me to remind you of…No? Sure, you remember the good times as well as me.

Yes, why is sort of important. You ain’t doing it to avoid something, are you? You aren’t running away from something?

Yeah, even that little bit of booze made your eyes light up. No, I don’t think that ever goes away. I think you are stuck with the bloodshot nose as well. It doesn’t matter, you weren’t so good looking anyway.

You are down to two ounces of top shelf mid-morning and another two at 1700. Remember when you would keep a bottle by the bed? If you could choke that first swallow down before you got upright, you might avoid those damn dry heaves.

Remember holding your stomach, puking up blood in the kitchen sink, some stranger coming out of the bedroom, looking at you with pity as she gathered her stuff up. Sometimes she would walk over and sit you down on one of the hard chairs around the table, maybe wipe your face with a damp cloth. Occasionally someone would ask about the ink, or the scars.

You were always surprised how patient they were with you, how…caring? No, you were never a mean drunk. I didn’t say you were. The more you drank, the more polite you became. You would wear people out with your Yes Sirs and Ma’ams.

You still got oxy in the bathroom from those dozens of trips to the ER. I know pills have never been your thing, but maybe break one in half and crunch it between your teeth. It’s not booze, it doesn’t count.

No? Good choice, my Brother, but we got a long day ahead.

Real Estate Lady was nice, sort of young. You're right, everyone is sorta young these days. You didn’t have much to say when she asked you why you were selling the place.

“Beautiful Home,” she said. “Filled with precious antiques and even more precious memories.” Like she was quoting an ad in a magazine.

“It’s heavy. I need lighter right now.” you said. She got sort of uncomfortable. I think your smile made it worse.

So why are you getting rid of this place? All this furniture and antiques and art. Good Lord, all these books…

You running from something? You afraid? You weak? No? Are you sure?

Where in the hell are we? This neighborhood isn’t the greatest. That little ranch-style sure has seen better days. Yes, I know, poor people don’t mean bad people. Still, you got your N-Frame stuck in your belt?

You know, someone who is slightly unkind may say you look a little creepy sitting here staring through your binoculars. Damn, they are some beat up old field glasses. Last time you had them out was…okay, sorry I brought it up.

Who is that guy getting out of the Honda? What?! Where in the hell do you know a preacher from? Oh, okay, that makes sense.

Looks like some teenage kid and her little sister coming out of the house. That’s her daughter? Jesus…

Well, the Preacher Man just gave her the keys to the Honda, and she's sitting behind the wheel crying so hard she's shaking. The Preacher looks pretty happy, picking up that curly-haired little girl.

There’s an envelope on the dash? Mom is crying harder, out of the car now and squeezing the breath out of them.

You can’t hear her, Brother, but I know what she is trying to say. She needed a car to get to work, she's behind on the rent and the electric bill. The weight on her back is trying to crush her, but she won’t let it. She wants to tell him a bunch of stuff, but all she can do is cry and say, “I just needed a little help, just enough room to breathe, I just needed a big deep breath.”

Get your ass down there! Let them know it was you that bought her a car and left an envelope full of cash. Let her hug you and thank you and tell you what it all means.

Please, Brother, go down there and feel her tears on your face and keep them in your heart.

You not going down? No, Brother, I'm not going to ask why. A good coach, even one that’s only in your head, knows when to shut up.

It’s been a pretty good day. Why don’t we call it a win and head back to the house? No guilt in heading in for the day. There is always tomorrow.

The house is too big? Too much space? You got one more thing to do? Really?

Listen, no need to push our luck. Let’s stop at the Ritz, hang out in the restaurant and have a steak. Maybe get a suite and watch an old western on TV.

We shouldn’t just drive around, it’s not good for you. You need a plan to stay on course.

Brother, you're pushing this pickup pretty hard, and you seem very focused on drinking that Dr. Pepper. You think the sugar and the fizz and the little bit of cherry in that soda pop is going to do the trick?

You're right, it's not the same as two fingers of Elijah Craig with a Sam Adams back.

The tranquility of looking over your glass at the bottles behind the bar is hard to describe. The light is magical when it plays on the different liquors. All of them, waiting for you. Unrealized potential, like a cartridge on the carrier or a barely-there sundress on a beautiful woman.

The security as you slide the bolt forward, your breath catching as you ease a strap off her tan bare shoulder, the weight of the cool glass in your hand… The anticipation is almost unbearable.

You feel whole as soon as you bring the glass to your lips. Something inside you was empty, and now its full. The instant feeling of peace and the certain knowledge that all is right in the world while the booze rests in your mouth.

There is no rush now, you have all the time in the world. Swallow and feel the burn and then bury your nose in the glass and breathe deep. The cool beer will soothe your tongue and add to your thirst.

Was it seeing the young Mom struggling so hard? Sure, some, but it was the little girl, wasn’t it? Helpless, fragile, so tiny and her eyes filled with such hope and kindness. Yeah, I know who she reminds you of.

You carry her and those like her with you all the time, don’t you? They're so much heavier than the anchor of your possessions. Can’t off-load them, Brother, they gonna be with you forever.

Life’s hard, life’s tough, not your fault, not your responsibility, you did everything you could, didn’t you?

Wait a minute: you either did everything you could, or you didn’t. If you did everything you could, then you failed because you weren’t good enough. Which is it? Doesn’t matter – fail is fail.

Answer me, you pathetic old man. Did you not try hard enough, or were you too weak?

Why you pulling in here? This is what you got left to do tonight? How about we slow down a bit. All the choices you got, all the things you could do, and you're choosing to be here?

It’s coming up on 1700, almost time for your two ounces of top shelf.

I don’t know much, but I know this isn’t the place for that. Brother, listen to me – you know what’s waiting for you in here. You know the pain its gonna bring, you know how much it will hurt.

You don’t bounce back like you used to and I know what’s in your head and I know what your gonna do here, and hell, who knows how long it will take you to recover.

You sure you don’t want to head home, get your two ounces there, just settle in? You've had a good day. Why you going in here? You know what’s waiting for you. Tell me why.

Look at you, you can barely walk. You sure you're okay to drive? Of course I'll ride with you. You know by now I’m not leaving.

Trying to get comfortable in that seat? Stop squirming around and watch the road. Leave the radio alone! You knew this would happen, and you still went in there. I hope you're proud of yourself.

I know I am.

You didn’t even take your squat shoes off when you limped out of the gym. Too beat up to even change out of your sweats, bent over and dragging that leg and grinning like an idiot.

Bro, today was leg day, and you killed it. It was epic. I know, I know, not supposed to call it “leg day.” That’s so 80’s. Well hell, you don’t get much more 80’s than us.

When you drifted into the parking lot like a 16-year-old kid I asked you, and I am gonna ask you again.

Why did you go in there? You knew you had squats today, you knew you didn’t sleep much, you knew you had just finished a hell of a day. Your head wasn’t right.

Did you go in there to hear their encouragement when you chose to get under that weight? To hear them cheer when you kept grinding up out of the hole?

After that last rep, with the weight on your back and in your head, trying to crush you into the ground, they screamed at you for another rep and they got really quiet and watched you take that big breath and cheered as you gave it to them.

Were you there to enjoy their company? All of them hanging out, helping you unload your bar.

Remember that kid with the pony tails? What did she say? Oh, that’s right: “Doesn’t matter what you used to lift, what matters is you lifted more than you did last week.”

Why did you go in there? Maybe you're afraid of being weak? No? How about afraid of crawling back into the bottle? No? Maybe you are afraid of the past? Not that either?

You're aware of all the hell in the past and all that is waiting ahead, but awareness is not fear. You went in there because you remembered who you are, and who you are is better when you are strong.

And you like being better, so you do your squats.

You have decided what weight has to be carried, and what doesn’t. You have decided your load is a little lighter when you help others carry theirs. You have lowered your hips and leaned into the flames and are driving towards the future.

You going to go home and have your two ounces of top shelf? Well, it's your choice now. It really is.

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