The Empty Bottle by John J. Staughton
SARA PICKED UP THE REMOTE control and dusted it for the second time that morning. She softly hummed a tune to herself, a discordant cross between the Final Jeopardy theme song and the original Mario Brothers background music. Years of listening to Tom’s frustrated trivia guesses and her son’s constant video games had filled her creative space with a blend of building tension and endless repetition.
The kitchen was spotless, but the smell of cigarettes and unfinished bourbon still lingered in the air of the family room where she stood anxiously, so she put down the remote and turned to her husband’s writing desk, the untouchable source of the smell, and of her discomfort. His lucky ashtray, emptied during her first pass through the room, still sat smudged and reeking next to his ash-flecked typewriter, and the bottle tucked in the corner against the wall. Simply labeled Kentucky’s Straight Bourbon, it seemed to leak fumes from the corked top, though only a small pool of amber liquid remained at the bottom. She moved towards the desk, rag in hand, but then thought better of it, and instead crossed the room to reset the pillows in the corners of the couch.
By the time Tom came downstairs, the coffee pot was half empty, but he barely noticed as he poured a cup and walked to the desk in his office. Hours earlier, he had finished the final re-writes for Made in China, the novel that he’d been dragging behind him like an unruly child for the better part of five years. He sat down in the black, leather chair that Sara had bought him last Christmas, ergonomic yet somehow uncomfortable. It always felt out of place scooted beneath the ancient, oak desk he’d been stubbornly relocating from apartment to apartment since he and Sara had first moved in together. It had been his father’s desk, and as Tom rolled closer and began poring over his notes and edits from the previous night, the memory of his father shouting “Don’t play in the drawers!” echoed once in his mind. He wondered what his father would think of his swiveling, overpriced chair.
“Will you be here long enough for breakfast?” Sara asked from just inside the family room doorway. He hadn’t heard her come in, and her question, though quiet, gave him a small start.
He paused to let the question re-play in his head, “Well…I want to head into the city early, but I should still be here for an hour or so. Last minute fixes and such,” he replied, without turning his head from the pages spread beneath his fingers.
“So, do you want breakfast…?” Her tone was the same as she always used when he was sitting at the desk, meek and apologetic, as though her very presence was an annoyance that she wished she could undo.
“Sure, sure. Just not too much. I’m having lunch with Jordan before the meeting.”
“Well, lunch with Jordan usually requires thirst instead of hunger,” Sara quipped, in her practiced way of lining an offhand joke with casual caution. To Tom, those small asides had begun to sound more like criticisms in recent months, mainly because they were true. He and his agent, Jordan, had been discussing Tom’s novel on barstools more often than not in this final stretch of editing and re-writes for his second novel.
Sara waited for the witty retort he would surely toss over his shoulder, but when none came, she retreated to the kitchen and began wiping down the counter again. Perhaps she had gone too far in her light teasing. This was probably not the morning for humor. She could hear the methodical clacking of new words onto old pages and the occasional clang of a finished line even before she started cooking. Satisfied with the gleaming countertop and the bleached lilac smell of a well-scrubbed kitchen, she retrieved 6 eggs from the fridge and set to making pancakes, Tom’s favorite.
The smell of bacon and fresh coffee eventually reached the office, and Tom rolled the final page of his edits out of the typewriter. It was the extended version of an argument between the quiet protagonist and his overbearing wife, and Jordan thought that a few extra lines of sharp dialogue and mounting conflict would make the couple’s separation more believable in the following chapter. Tom had been unsure about some of the edits his agent had recommended, but after six years of work and non-work, getting the damn thing published was more important than refusing to compromise based on his nearly forgotten principles.
He opened the glass door of the top left cubbyhole of his writing desk and reached to the back. His fingers closed around the bottle and he slid it out, dragging a small cloud of dust along with it. Turning the bottle in his hands, he blew the remains of years off the crest emblazoned on the glass, a lion rearing on its’ hind legs. He had kept this bottle of Lagavulin 21 for more than six years, never drinking a drop, no matter how thirsty he was in the small hours of the morning when the last bottle of cheap bourbon mocked him from the wastebasket near his feet. In 2002, after Tom’s first novel debuted to a dull rumble of applause, his father had given him the pricey bottle at the small party Jordan had thrown for the book’s release.
Tom had very few memories from childhood that were unclouded by the smoky reek of a scotch in his father’s hands. After a long day at the courthouse, where Tom’s father worked as a D.A., he would come home and carelessly lay his briefcase on the oak desk where his son now sat. He would pour three fingers of whatever top shelf scotch was currently aging in the decanter, and then come to find his son, ruffle his hair, and ask him about school in between sips from the crystal tumbler.
Those short chats became the highlight of Tom’s day, and were some of the only times they spent together as “father and son”. When Tom left for college, his decision not to pursue a career in law was already dividing the two men, and his eventual choice to major in journalism marked a symbolic end to childhood, as well as paternal affection. Following the publishing of Tom’s first novel, four years after graduation, his father reached out and was a surprise attendee at the release party. Tom had always seen the gift as a nostalgic olive branch. Tom’s girlfriend at the time, Sara, also bought her favorite new author a bottle of whiskey, a 12-year Jameson. It was an inside joke, as she had spilled a glass of Jameson in his lap the night they met.
Sara’s bottle was passed around the party and their origin story was retold a number of times as the newly published author beamed in the spotlight of virgin fame. His father, who didn’t stay long, congratulated Tom with a firm handshake and a convoluted explanation for his early departure. Before he left, he jokingly added, “maybe we’ll drink the Lagavulin when you publish the next one”.
Sara, now his wife, was preparing breakfast, and his second novel was tucked firmly in his bag. Jordan had told him that the meeting this afternoon was a formality, a chance for Tom to submit his final edits and choose what photographer to use for the dust jacket photo. He set the bottle down, next to his Smith Corona, and smiled. There was no party planned for that evening, but Tom would celebrate just the same, as his father had suggested six years ago.
“Do you want two pancakes or three?” Sara called from the kitchen. Yanked from his reverie, Tom patted his bag one more time, pocketed his cigarettes, and flipped off the light. He hesitated for a moment in the doorway, then turned the light back on, picked up the sticky bottle shoved into the corner of his desk and emptied it in one throat-wrenching pull.
“I think I’ll just stick with coffee. I didn’t realize how late it was,” Tom answered, as he walked into the kitchen, his chest still burning and his mind suddenly buzzing with life. His son James sat at the table, mangling his pancake in a lake of syrup with the side of his fork.
“Hey pal, eat your food, don’t play with it,” he warned, as he clumsily rumpled James’ mop of brown hair. “Be a good boy at school today. I’ll see you tonight.”
“Okay, daddy. Be a good boy at work today,” he parroted, now working intently on burying his bacon in the mushy pile of pancakes.
“Tom, you need to eat something. It’s a big day.”
“Give my pancakes to the big guy, he looks hungry.”
Sara put the spatula down on the counter, turned on the tap, and washed her hands. Tom scanned the room for his coat, seeing that it wasn’t on the back of the chair where he’d left it last night.
“It’s in the hall closet. The room was just so cluttered this morning. Sorry.”
She dried her hands and followed Tom to the front door.
“Have a good meeting, hon. I can’t wait to hear all about it later. And don’t start celebrating with Jordan too early, okay? Just do your best.” “It’s not a spelling bee, Sara. We just need to iron out the final details. I’ll give you a call when I’m headed home.”
“Okay. I love you.”
“I’ll see you tonight.”
He kissed her on the cheek, and her nose wrinkled for just an instant as the recent memory of alcohol slipped through his lips. She quickly recomposed her smile, and their eyes met for a stretched moment. Nothing was said. Then, he was gone, the door clicking softly behind him.
* * * *
Tom was meant to meet Jordan at eleven o’clock at McFadden’s, an Irish pub down the street from the offices of Middleton Press, Tom’s publisher. McFadden’s was also the only bar open before noon on Wednesday. Surprisingly, the place wasn’t empty when Tom arrived, and like most mid-morning bar flies, the patrons had all seated themselves at the bar, as close to their liquid mistress as possible.
Tom slid into a Naugahyde booth and waited for the lone waitress to notice him. Disinterested though she was, tips are tips, so she soon brought him a pint of Guinness at his request. She didn’t offer a menu, although they had begun serving lunch a half an hour earlier. Career waitresses have a sixth sense of seeing the difference between drinkers and diners. In a bar like this, at this time of day, her intuition was typically right.
Jordan, as usual, was late. Tom looked at his watch as he drained the pint and held the empty in the air, silently toasting his glass at the waitress across the room in the universal signal for “one more, please.” Not expecting Jordan to be more than 20 minutes late, Tom switched to Jameson after his second hearty meal of Guinness. By the end of his second whiskey, Tom was flipping randomly through his manuscript, which he had removed from his bag, keeping his hands busy so he wouldn’t drink any faster, his wife’s lingering voice seeming to whisper from the booth behind him. His free hand unconsciously spun the small glass tumbler in slow circles on the table, while his thumb traced the smooth designs etched onto the glass.
Tom was skimming through his last edit from that morning, the intensified argument between his two main characters, when a hand roughly shook his right shoulder and Jordan’s unmistakable voice rang in his ear, dispelling his thoughts of rewrites and Sara. “You drunk bastard! How long have you been here?”
“Since eleven. I thought that’s what we said yesterday on the phone,” Tom answered, hesitant. He glanced at his watch again as if to show Jordan that he had one, and saw that it was well past noon.
“Oh, man, I sent you an e-mail this morning. New client called up this morning, said he was thinking of signing with me. A real up and comer. You’d probably hate him. Anyway, I said that I’d meet you at noon instead. Didn’t you get the message?”
“No, I forgot to check my mail this morning. I got caught up with work. Finished the re-write on the Mark and Yu Mei argument,” Tom rustled the pages on the table meaningfully, then signaled for the waitress once again.
Jordan’s face pinched in surprise at Tom’s confession of not checking his mail for an entire morning. The idea was shocking, almost revolting. As if in protest of such an antiquated lifestyle, Jordan removed his phone from his pocket, a sleek, silver rectangle with a rubber case that vibrated the moment he set it down on the table. Jordan flicked the screen sideways with one finger and it lit up. He read intently for a moment, chuckled, and then looked up at the waitress standing beside him.
“I’ll take a Bloody Mary, extra spicy, and another round for my friend here.”
Tom considered protesting against another whiskey, but his heart wasn’t in it, not even close, so he smiled and nodded at the waitress as if to proudly agree that he would indeed have his fifth drink in less than two hours. The waitress offered a menu to Jordan, but he immediately declined, without even looking in Tom’s direction.
“So, Jordan…this meeting today. Anything I should know about?” Tom casually began, knowing that even though Jordan technically worked for him, the relationship often felt reversed, and the agent typically started any discussion of work.
“Let me get this drink in me before we get into your hot and heavy interrogation, Tommy. I’m working off a fiendish hangover at the moment – what about you? You seem to be starting early…you sucking down some hair of the dog too?”
The waitress returned with the drinks, so they ceremoniously toasted to nothing and drank deeply as she walked away. “Just calming my nerves, Jordan. Same as always.”
“Well, don’t let them get too calm.” Tom thought this might be the narrow opening for talking about the re-writes, but Jordan was absently fingering through the pages spread on the table and quickly interrupted him.
“Sometimes, I don’t get you, Tom. You must spend hours re-typing these pages on that ancient beast of yours. Do you know how much faster this whole process would go if we didn’t have to go through actual pieces of paper with the publisher? A little more cut, copy, paste, delete and we wouldn’t have to try and set up meetings all the time.” Jordan flicked his phone’s screen alive again, although Tom hadn’t felt the table vibrate.
Tom had heard all this before, Jordan’s playful teasing of his stubborn love for smudged letters and red pen corrections. He had run out of logical or funny retorts to the heavy-handed suggestion that he “get with the times”. His writing had always comes out better when he could see the hammers smashing the ink of each word into the paper. He couldn’t explain why. Punching the keys cemented his ideas, and he was more careful with his writing when the safety net of digital deletion didn’t make him reckless and spontaneous, spitting out wasted words that were just as quickly discarded.
“Do you want to have another?” Jordan asked, as his straw rattled the dregs of his Bloody Mary. He slid the olives off the pink, plastic sword with his teeth as he waved at the waitress and spun his finger, the universal signal for “one more round, please”.
“Shouldn’t we get going? The meeting starts in 40 minutes,” Tom answered, trying to hide the notes of confusion and slight drunkenness in his voice.
“Well, Tommy, here’s the thing. I got an e-mail from Middleton this morning after I met that new client. Turns out, they’re going to pick up his novel and squeeze it in before the end of the quarter.”
Tom’s gut wrenched violently, probably the Jameson churning in his stomach, searching for food to soak it up but finding none.
“And what does that have to do with our meeting?” Tom asked casually, intentionally dumb. He already knew. He reached for his glass, slick with whiskey sweat, which the waitress had silently placed in front of him.
“Tom…buddy, they wanted to lock down their quota before the end of the month, and this hotshot’s book is how they want to do it. He had a finished product months ago and has been shopping around the different houses with it.”
“That doesn’t answer my question, Jordan. I don’t give a shit about some jerk-off Lit major’s new book. When am I meeting with Middleton?” Tom’s voice had risen, loud enough for the waitress to look over, but seeing neither of the two signing symbols for thirst, she went back to polishing silverware at the station next to the bar. Raised voices between mid-day drunks were not exactly news in McFadden’s.
Jordan cocked his head to one side and spun his blood-red glass between his fingers in the damp ring it had made on the table. When Tom met his eyes, he saw pity in them, then anger for having to spell something out so simply. Jordan worked in a business of handshakes and insinuations, subtle inflections and backdoor promises. Plain speech was not in his wheelhouse. He had specifically gotten into this line of work so it wouldn’t have to be.
“Maybe next year, once Middleton lines up their schedule for printing, we can set up another meeting. They just wanted something concrete to finish off their season. Apparently, this kid has some real potential. Middleton called him a ‘young Augusten Burroughs’.”
“Jordan, I don’t care if Middleton found a young, fucking James Joyce, you said this deal was in the bag! Today was just about clearing up the final cuts, the photographer, the fucking cover art!”
“And it would have been. But they didn’t have your book, man. They had a pile of papers with hand-written page numbers. And look,” Jordan picked up a random page with a faint ring of a coffee cup in the top corner, “what is this! You do realize that to publish a book, they need an actual book first, right? Frankly, Tom, when it comes to publishing, the high road is not always the easy road. But guess which one wins?”
Jordan’s friendly tone had withered, and the pity in his eyes had shifted even further to disgust. “I know the book is good, I’ve read most of it. But you’ve been out of the game for six years. Things change. Nostalgia is cute, but it isn’t profitable. When John Le Carre uses a typewriter, we find it charming. When JK Rowling writes out a book on bar napkins or whatever the fuck, it’s endearing. But I think we both know, you aren’t exactly writing The Constant Gardener or Harry Fucking Potter.”
The bartender and the waitress were both eyeing them openly, but the other patrons stared blankly forward, counting their bottles of booze on the shelves before them.
“My advice, and as your agent, I suggest you take it – type up a polished draft and send it to me after the holidays. By type, I mean on a computer. And by send it, I mean in an e-mail. We’ll go from there.” Jordan picked up his phone and flicked the screen alive again, then took out his wallet and stuck his finger in the air, a sign the waitress correctly translated as “Check, please.”
“Next spring…” Tom mumbled, at a loss for words. He had been so close, one quick lunch and a casual meeting away. He began to speak, then stopped himself, realizing that there was nothing more to say. There was no more meeting to fight for, no more soapbox to stand on.
The waitress arrived with the check and Jordan handed her his card without opening the sticky, plastic bill holder. Tom, as he stared at the mess of paper carpeting the table, had one thing left to say.
“I’ll have another round, please.”
“Do you want to start a new tab, sir?”
Tom answered without looking at Jordan. “No, just put it on that bill before you run it. And miss, I’ll have a Macallan.”
Jordan took the pickle from his empty glass and bit off the end. “Tom, I didn’t want to tell you on the phone, not that you would have picked up if I’d called. I’m sorry that you had to come all the way out here. Get back to me in the new year, alright?”
The waitress came back, handed Jordan the holder with his credit card peeking out the top. She set down a brushed glass tumbler filled with the sticky amber of good scotch in front of Tom. Nothing was said.
“Listen, man, I have to head off to a meeting. So go home, enjoy the holidays. The book business will still be around next year. That I can guarantee.”
“Don’t sell me any more promises, Jordan.
“Always good to see you, Tom. Maybe we’ll have a reason to celebrate next time.”
With that, Jordan slid out of the booth, picked his phone off the table and clapped the suddenly aged writer on the shoulder before walking out the door.
Tom drove home a few rounds later, chain smoking in the car through rush hour traffic, something he would hear complaints about from Sara when her supernatural nose next sat in the passenger seat. In his clouded mind, there was only one thing left to do.
Perhaps his father had been right. Being a writer meant having to pull worlds from thin air, along with fictional people, hardships, and victories. When had the line between fiction and reality begun to blur in his eyes? When would he stop living in the drunken nostalgia of Hemingway and Dickens, scribbling his fantasy in notebooks and pounding his dream into inky life?
He swung his car into the driveway just after six and stumbled out onto the grass. He pulled his bag from the back seat and hastily stuffed the stray corners of his manuscript back inside.
With an unlit cigarette still dangling forgotten from his lips, he opened the front door, took off his coat, and hung it in the hall closet. He closed the door quietly, and walked straight through the kitchen into his office. Tom could hear the muffled sounds of footsteps and conversation upstairs. The house smelled of roasting chicken and, oddly enough, scotch.
He flipped the light switch and stopped. Something was wrong. His chair had been pulled out and the hardwood floor beneath his desk was shining, freshly scrubbed. The room smelled like sour lilacs and stale booze. His typewriter had not been moved, neither had his ashtray, or anything else in the room.
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“Tom”, a meek voice said from behind him. “I didn’t think you’d be home so early. I figured you and Jordan were making a night of it. You never called.”
Tom turned slowly to face her, the woman who had been there from the beginning. Sara who had always stood slightly behind him, picking up his crumbs and ironing his shirts, emptying his ashtrays and nursing him through hangovers for nearly seven years. Sara, who had given him a son four years ago. Sara, who had given him a home. Sara, whose eyes were now rimmed with red, as though she had been crying, or drinking as heavily as him.
“James was playing with his trucks in the kitchen and I was cooking, so I told him to play somewhere else. He bumped your desk in the office and the bottle fell. He cut his hand on some glass, but he’ll be fine. I was just coming back down to finish cleaning up. I’m so sorry. I know that bottle was expensive.”
Seeing that her eyes were refilling, preparing for another stream of tears, he took her into his arms and kissed her on the head. Sara, who had been there to celebrate his first novel all those years ago. Sara, who would have been there to celebrate his second.
“But, Tom, why are you home so early?” she pulled free of him, and as though seeing his own haggard eyes and the cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth for the first time, she looked concerned for more than the mess on the floor.
“I wanted to come home for one more round,” Tom replied, turning his head away from the gleaming spot on the floor.
“Well, is everything alright?”
“No, Sara. It’s not.”
Find more tragic tales in Sheriff Nottingham 1 – available on Amazon!