Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Theme Story - A Milestone Birthday

Brian took another swig of his drink, grimacing as the cheap bourbon set his mouth on fire yet again. He preferred the smoother Irish whiskeys, but in a bar in Kentucky your drink choice was more or less a foregone conclusion – particularly when someone else was buying. He looked over his glass at John and, catching his eye, raised it in the traditional salute of thanks. Niceties achieved, he set the beverage down to give the ice some time to melt and mellow the flavor.

Thirty. He couldn't believe it had been so long. By some accounts his life was half over, and even the most optimistic estimates only reduced the deduction to thirty-three percent. Sixty years if he was lucky, of which the last fifteen to twenty were likely just biding time. So call it forty years reliably. He took another swig – too soon, as the heat on his tongue was happy to inform him – and tried not to dwell on how he was spending yet another night punishing his liver in the same tavern. Perhaps if they had tried to class up the place a bit he could have stood the monotony – sand some of the walls smooth, maybe stain the wood a darker color than the tannish-brown that didn't so much reflect the light as absorb it before casting it out into the world. Of course that would offend the clientele, the hearty salt-of-the-earth folk who liked their bars slapdash, their camaraderie boisterous, and their whiskeys blazing.

And their music twangy, as Brian was reminded by the jukebox happily blaring the latest blues-inspired nothing from a country-western group whose last chart-topper was released a decade ago. His melancholy allowed him to scoff at the clear efforts of musicians past their prime, but his past years in the country had helped him to develop an appreciation for the style, finding some small comfort of home in the chord structures if not the banal lyrics. He'd tried once, a couple years ago, to get the jukebox to do more than lament the lives of cheating boyfriends and lost tractors, but the death glares that he'd earned as the opening bars of the one Rush tune that was available on the machine played had been enough to abash him of any future attempts at culture.

He took another swig, this time more satisfied with the spirit. Sure the ice watered it down a bit, but sometimes that was the only thing that made the drink tolerable. He smiled to himself as he remembered the hazy days of college, the quantity-versus-quality binges Friday after class. Had that really been nine years ago? It was odd – the gray hairs didn't bother him at all, but when Brian realized how long it had been since he'd been a student he shuddered with the weight of age. He still felt like that wayward scholar most days, no idea where he was headed but doing his best to not appear that way. Somehow fake-it-til-you-make-it never made it past step one, and one of his more pervasive ridiculous fears was that someone would expose his attempts at maturity for the pathetic facade that they were.

Someone asked him a question, and Brian took a second longer to process than was proper. With a small shake of his head he gave a non-committal response, and received a hearty clap on his back to go with the chuckles at the birthday boy who was showing his inebriation so soon after the party's start. Conversation resumed, and Brian went back to staring at his glass. Was this what forty would feel like? Fifty? He went to take another swig, but suddenly noticed that the glass was empty. Setting it down, he leaned forward on his hands as he pondered.

Thirty years gone. Seven years a professional, and what did he have to show for it? A slice of the American dream, sure. For what that mattered, at least. The small house on the edge of town was often a harsher task master than his manager, with the grass that never stopped growing and the vermin that never stopped burrowing. A job that was decidedly middle-class, which in essence meant he was able to come out enough ahead every paycheck to set aside a meager amount for those waiting years in the coming autumn of his life. No loving wife, but a parade of women of increasing age, with accelerating desires and relationship goals that never seemed to align with his long-term plans. Plans towards which he had, so far, made zero progress.

Another contained puddle of bourbon had materialized at his elbow, and he gave a grateful smile to Katy – the kind purveyor of the current round, and even kinder woman who was the most recent of those trying to find a place to fit in with him. Not that he had women lining up, but rather he understood what they were looking for and how to provide it. He took a sip and shook his head. That last bit was unnecessarily harsh. Katy was sweet, and even if she felt the same pressures that had been put on him by others of the fairer sex she gave no indication of the pushiness that others had been all to happy to unlimber on him once things started to show signs of progress. He thought he appreciated that more than anything – sure she was looking for a future, but she wasn't using the strong-arm to make it happen.

Brian took another swig, smiling again as raucous laughter filled the table in response to some joke or another. He'd never been much for birthdays, he realized that, and his friends seemed to tolerate that well enough, but he knew he was on the edge of stretching patience. He grit his teeth, smiled, and jumped into the conversation – feeling out of place and awkward, but still knowing what was expected of him and fulfilling those expectations as best he could.

Perhaps the next thirty years would hold the wisdom he seemed to be missing, or the sudden achievement of greatness. He sipped the bourbon, made a random joke. Doubtful, but he figured he'd give 'em his best shot.

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