The wanton and somewhat startling disregard for his liver began promptly at 11am. It rarely deviated. The dedication he applied to his self-annihilation was morbidly impressive to the average onlooker; the ritual with which he went about it had an almost religious fervor to it.
It began with the same drink: a stiff rye Manhattan with very sweet vermouth—sweet enough to border on unpalatable—served without ice and garnished with a single cherry, thrown back in precisely two gulps. While this was being consumed, a glass of water, a liberally-poured dram of whiskey and a small bowl of well-salted peanuts were laid out on the bar in front of him by the barkeeper, with a reverence normally afforded to the laying of sacrifices on an altar. Once everything was in position, he would place his cellphone on the bar, face up, off to the far right of the offering. When the glasses were empty and the bowl was picked clean, the curious ritual would repeat one more time.
Aside from the clink of the glass on the bar or the quiet crunch of the peanuts, this portion was conducted in silence: at no point was a word spoken by either patron or barkeep.
He had been coming to this little hole-in-the-wall at the western edge of the city once a week for well over a decade. The proprietor knew the liturgy well and played his role flawlessly, and had instructed others working the bar to do the same. Once this stage was complete, a far less reverent, hooch-fueled assault on his senses would begin, unabated throughout the lunch-hour and well into the afternoon, seemingly supplemented with food for the sole purpose of drawing out the attack. When the end was near, he would signal to the bartender for a small snifter of brandy, reach down and jab at the screen of his phone – and some while later, his dutiful driver would appear as if by magic to take his well-sauced ass home. For fifteen years, we did this, each and every Tuesday.
The only variation was the greeting I would receive when I arrived, a greeting entirely dictated by the particular demon he came to do battle with that day. On some days, it was like seeing a long-lost friend at the door; he would pull me close with tears in his eyes, eager to retell the stories he had told that afternoon, in the fleeting moments before the alcohol finished beating his senses into submission. On others days, it was clear he was on the wrong side of the conflict: these were the tricky days. He would be pacing behind his barstool when I entered, muttering occasionally under his breath at the troublesome fiend that was clearly disinterested in being sedated. Despite his age—and despite often being blindingly drunk—he was formidable. Losing sight of his clenched right fist would reward you with a swift, painful trip to the floor.
But, punctuating the sadness and the pain were the reflective days. These were the days I would arrive and take the seat he reserved, just for me, and we would sit quietly. At a casual glance, one could easily miss the resemblance; rituals aside, the way he waged war with our past had aged him on the outside in ways I had managed to avoid. But up close, when you looked into the chasm behind our eyes, it was unmistakable. And while it amused us to watch people try to reconcile how these two men sitting side by each could appear so physically different, it was in sitting there, quietly in those moments, that it became clear that we were one and the same. The different paths we took to this place in time would merge again: we would share a pain-filled glance, or burst into fits of tears and laughter about things only we could understand, as we sat contemplating our past and future until he would tip the glass back and finish that last sip of brandy. He would give me the nod, I would pay the bill and take us home.
Despite all the things we had collectively lost over the years, those days let us feel whole again. On those nights, we felt as if we had earned a moment of absolution. Our demons, although not exorcised, were calmed: numbed into a passivity that would perhaps last until morning, after what we hoped was a well-deserved sleep.