Henry said he was giving it all up for a very good woman, whom he had only met six months ago. He said he had to for her, and that the long nights and cement-nail hangovers were killing him anyway.
But it made perfect sense to all of us that he would want to have a party. Hell, most nights we drank with Henry was a party. That was part of the problem, and part of the reason we loved him so much. We were sad, but we understood his reasons. Most of us approved.
So, one final time we would gather and drink to Henry, and drink to the woman, and drink to happiness. If we didn’t feel happy, we would fake it for Henry. I was somewhere in between, like a cat on a fence separating two yards, each with an angry dog in it.
I had my own problems.
When I say most of us, the ‘us’ was only six guys. The youngest of us had known Henry for ten years, the rest of us longer, and had hired him to work in various capacities many, many times. We all lived in Brisbane, just outside San Francisco, and the six of ‘us’ owned or ran various businesses in construction, auto repair, heavy printing, things like that.
I think I was the first of us to hire Henry, in 1989, to do one day’s labor helping me clean out a garage attached to my house in which I was setting up my first photography studio. Yeah, I guess I have always been the artsy one in our group. Still take some shit for that. Anyway, I didn’t seek Henry out. I met him when he walked up to my garage as I was starting the clearing-out project and offered his services for as long as I needed.
He scared me a little at first, or his appearance did. I learned this later, but when he worked or was looking for work, he always wore the same oil-stained Giants ball cap and 49ers stadium coat. From working on cars, he said when I asked. But until you got him to smile, which became quite often once you were his friend, his face was in a perpetual scowl. Like he wanted to punch something, or you. And he had the bumpy nose and vein-streaked cheeks of a long-time whiskey drinker. Henry was also about ten years older than me, and typically had a three or four day growth on his face. Frankly, to a guy in his late 20s, Henry looked like a sour mess that first day I met him.
But we negotiated a fee, and after the first hour watching him work beside me I knew he was going to do whatever reasonable thing I asked of him and do it very well. In twenty years of friendship and jobs of ‘various capacities’, Henry’s ability to do things very well never wavered. That and the whiskey were the two greatest constants in his life.
And this is how our group started. Henry worked for me, I recommended him to a pal, who referred him to another pal, and so on. Six of us all connected by the nexus of Henry, who worked for us in various capacities when we needed him. His one certifiable skill, for which he had received formal training, was in auto mechanics. So this is what he did for Bill, and most of the time. But sometimes things were slow at Bill’s shop, so Henry would seek out me and the other four, and usually exactly when we needed an extra hand for a day or a week. When Henry wasn’t around, we often discussed how uncanny his timing was when coming to us to offer extra help.
The other things we discussed about Henry were his background and the booze, and how the two were intertwined. He’d been a AAA ballplayer once, in his early 20s, and married. Happily, Henry said, to a wonderful gal (his words). And he had just about been good enough to get called up to the majors. This basic framework, Henry volunteered freely. In generalities, he warmed when he spoke of it.
But when you asked him for the details, about what happened with the woman and getting called up to the majors, his smile slowly closed and the typical working scowl returned to his face. And he would take a huge gulp of whatever well scotch he happened to be drinking. If you let him sit in silence after this, that silence could last a very long time. It didn’t mean that he was mad, just that he was thinking on the questions about his life and why he didn’t answer them. We had been friends for about two years before he told me this was what he did during his scotch-sipping silence.
Sometimes, the silence would last so long you knew Henry had forgotten you were there. He’d just sip his scotch, gulping it sometimes, and stare at whatever football or baseball game happened to be on the television in the bar. It was easy to sit next to him and do the same. Sometimes me or some of the other fellows or all of us would sit seven across the bar, watching TV and drinking in silence because one of us had gotten Henry thinking about questions he did not want to answer.
I wasn’t going to let that happen tonight.
No silence, no uncomfortable questions; just the company of men who would always be friends even though one had found a love that made him decide to make some changes in his life. Apparently.
In advance, Henry told me he wasn’t going to drink well scotch this night. He had asked me to procure for him, at a cost for which I would be reimbursed, a bottle of Johnny Walker Blue. This was to be his ‘jug of the last’, as he called it. The term had something to do with a practice on his long-dead father’s Irish side of the family. What it amounted to was making your last booze your best booze, a drink you were not only willing but proud to share. Not the normal stuff you drank every day, or something some slob acquaintance from your wife’s office brought to a summer block-party cookout. No, it had to be booze of such superior quality that its cost or rarity made all the other liquor of its like seem common, and therefore unappealing. I told Henry I saw the logic in it, but that I also thought it sounded like some bullshit Irish mind trick.
He said it was, and therein lay its power and magic.
I hated it when he pulled that shit on me, but it was his party so I didn’t argue this time.
Another requirement for Henry at his party was that he dress in his finest clothes. And I don’t mean the nicely-tailored grey or black utility suit which all seven of us owned and had seen each other wear at various weddings and funerals over the last twenty years. For this Henry dressed in something special: a deep blood-crimson, almost black, wool gabardine gentleman’s suit which Henry said his great-grandfather had made by the finest tailor in Dublin around the first year or two of the 20th century. None of us even knew he owned such a suit, and hardly expected to see him in it since he didn’t mention any dress code for his special night. We were all in jeans or khakis and button-down or polo collars. Bill and I wore sport coats. Nothing fancy.
Not like Henry, who walked into the bar through the double front doors in his blood-crimson Victorian suit like had he passed through a membrane from another reality and was slumming in ours.
He was stunning, really. Not just for Henry, for anyone. And it didn’t look like a costume or a get-up. Henry looked like he dressed that way for every special occasion, perhaps even for every day. I don’t know if he had practiced for this night or if he had just been hiding this naturally dignified way of carrying himself all this time. Or maybe after twenty years of seeing him almost exclusively in his motor oil-stained ball cap and stadium coat we just hadn’t noticed.
I hated that possibility, and myself for not looking closely enough at my friend to see the effortless grace and superior confidence I was seeing now. These things had to have always been there. Bill had been saying for years what a natural, effortless and efficient auto mechanic Henry was. The best he’d ever seen. Everything Henry did for us he did effortlessly, efficiently. Confidently. Like a man who could wear a blood-crimson, hand-tailored Victorian suit into a bar with The Pogues, Metallica and most of the country Top 40 on the jukebox.
How do you expect to happily help a man drink away his old life so that he can start a new one when you suddenly realize you’ve been taking him for granted for twenty fucking years?
Since we hadn’t made any special arrangements for privacy in the bar, all the regulars could see Henry and our group. So after we six greeted Henry with hugs and handshakes I determined the best way to compensate for the shame I was feeling was to crack open Henry’s bottle of Blue and pour him his first drink. I knew the scotch was going to be my present to Henry. I promised myself I’d bite either of his hands that offered me payment for it.
And so we toasted Henry, with him holding his first scotch and the rest of us with our favorites in hand and raised. We had our usual rear corner of the bar staked out, but the other regulars and their friends also toasted Henry loudly enough to make him smile at the gratifying background noise they made.
Bill made the actual toast, which was to Henry, his lady Till (short for Matilda, who waited for Henry at home), and to Henry’s sober life of happiness with her and all the good things that would come of it. I followed up by telling Henry that we would miss him at our gatherings at the bar three nights a week, but he was setting a fine example for the rest of us. I also said it was a rare and wise man who knew when to make an important change in his life before making that change was no longer an option. Henry clapped me on the back for that, and for a second I thought the look in his eyes showed not only appreciation but an understanding that I may have said that last part as much for myself as for him.
And from there on into the night, which proved to be a long, happy one. I am glad Henry told me shortly after the toast that Till would either be waiting up for him or asleep, depending upon when he got home. I would have worried about making him go home as early as possible had he not said this. Henry said he explained to Till, and she understood, that this was his last night of being someone who was with her, but not hers. Henry said Till viewed this night as Henry’s divorce from the long years of drink, and the fuzzy head and horrible hangovers he let himself feel when he wasn’t working. Henry also told me he had perhaps been a good man for me, Bill, and the others, but he had not always been a good man for himself. As I said, this was early in the evening, and in private so the others wouldn’t have to be worried or concerned.
So we had drinks and told stories, of Henry the man in the Victorian suit. One story I told was how I thought that Henry, for a few months before we actually met, was the one vagrant homeless guy in Brisbane. As I told this story, the contrast between how Henry looked before me and the grubby, sour way he had usually looked for twenty years really struck me. And the others too, I think. But we all laughed when Bill asked Henry what he would be wearing tomorrow and Henry said Till had bought him a new Giants cap and a new 49ers stadium coat to wear every day.
Then Bill told the story about how Henry had taken Bill’s side in this very bar against about eight Oakland bikers who tried to accost a lady Bill had been with one evening. I hadn’t been there that night, but a Brisbane cop who was a friend told me privately the day after that when police arrived, Henry was between Bill and the bikers with a broken beer bottle in one hand and a huge, scary grin on his face. My cop friend told me the bikers looked scared. No one was taken into custody, and no charges were filed, but the part that made everyone laugh is that Bill’s lady met up with one of the bikers many hours later and went home with him.
We told stories like that for hours, while Henry drank his Blue and smiled warmly upon us like we were jesters of his court. I didn’t feel like he was looking down on us; it was more like he felt for us a kindly love for keeping him amused. But it was Henry who, surprisingly, brought things to a more civilized end than we were expecting. By two a.m. he had put away two-thirds of his bottle of Blue. I saw him look at it, and then look around the bar. I think I saw the same thing he did: that we were the last customers in the place. I also realized I was very, very drunk. I was very, very thankful tomorrow was a Sunday.
And so Henry said to all of us that it was time to wrap things up. Bill and I each asked him if he wanted us to walk him home. Henry said no, that he had spoken to the bartender who agreed to let Henry have a couple more drinks by himself and then lock the place up when he left. Henry had a key because another of his ‘various capacities’ was working as the after-hours janitor on weekends for the bar, even though he had this night off.
It was settled, so we all said very fond farewells to Henry in his Victorian suit and made our ways out of the bar. I remember smiling as I left, seeing Henry sitting back down on his barstool and pouring himself another glass of scotch. By himself, and not knowing I was looking, he still looked like a king.
It was afternoon the next day when the pounding on my door woke me up. I knew it was afternoon because of the angle of the sun through my bedroom window. When I opened my front door my friend the cop was there, and he asked me if I know about Henry. I told him he was the first person I had seen or talked to all day. He looked down at his shoes, then raised his head and looked me straight in the eye with a very sad face and told me:
When Henry didn’t come home last night, Till called the police and asked them to find him, to see if he was safe. The cops knew he had to be somewhere between the bar and his home five blocks away, so they started looking at the bar. They found him almost immediately. The cop told me every door to the place had been locked except the one in the very back used for small deliveries.
When they went inside, they found Henry slumped over the bar, dead. In front of him were two empty bottles, one of Johnny Walker Blue, and another of Johnny Walker Black. On the bar between the two bottles was a three-by-three black and white photo of a pretty young brunette woman and a little boy who looked about three. My cop friend told me “Sarasota, 1982” was written on the back of the photo in faded pencil. He said “I still miss you” was written on the front of the photo in what looked like very recent black ball-point ink. And Henry was still in his fine, antique, authentic Victorian suit when they found him.
The cops suspect, of course, that alcohol poisoning will prove to be the cause of Henry’s death.
I know better.
Whatever happened to the pretty woman and the child in the photo caused Henry’s death. Whatever happened to them, or between them and Henry. I wish I knew, and I know that I never will. But we buried Henry in his suit, with the photo in his breast pocket.
And I haven’t had a drink since.
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Image by Flickr user sierraromeo [sarah-ji], used under a Creative Commons license.
Dan Ryan earned BA in Journalism from Lehigh University in 1987, but is only now attempting to get into the serious writing game. He has, at various times, been a private investigator, a market research journalist, and a public school teacher. Most recently, he served as an editor for the Japan disaster-relief book project 2:46: Aftershocks, and he currently writes for Giant Robot Magazine. Dan has had an abiding love of Japan since living in Tokyo for two years in the late ‘80s and he currently lives in Brisbane, California with his wife and two cats. His text and picture stories can be found at Dan Ryan’s SmallStories.