January 18, 1906
Van Sant & Wilson
The clock in the outer office chimed 8 pm. I had been reading the newspapers in the package from home for almost two hours. I admit it; I was homesick and lonely. I devoured everything in all of the newspapers from Pensacola, Marianna, and Stetson, including the want ads.
I cracked the seal on the bottle of Scotch on my desk and poured a hefty amount into the glass; I held the glass in both my hands for a few minutes.
The last time I had a drink was the night of my going-away party at Cephas’ house in Marianna, on December 30. Who am I kidding — I had had several drinks.
And there was Jeanet McKinnon, in my face upstairs in a back room, hissing at me that I was a wastrel. She’d said everyone in town was saying that about me. She was sneering at me, as she was quickly pulling her dress back down and arranging her clothes, calling me a useless fool and a drunk. I could only stare at her; I didn’t care. I knew she was mad that in the middle of what we were doing that I’d called her by another girl’s name. Funny. That wasn’t the first time that had happened.
To hell with Jeanet McKinnon.
I wasn’t a wastrel. I wasn’t a drunk, I said to myself. I have been able stay away from alcohol for almost a whole month. It’s all a state of mind.
But it has been hard to block out the fact that I am lonely as hell.
I missed the sounds of my family eating dinner around the dining room table; the stupid pranks my brother Julian liked to play on Lula or the unsuspecting housekeeper or anyone he thought needed a good laugh.
I missed walking down the main street of Marianna, seeing people who have known me all my life, people I am comfortable with even though I was always bored silly with the same old news, same old faces. At this point, I even missed the irritating Jeanet McKinnon.
Everyone back home was going on with their lives. They were all interconnected; they were going on with their lives, things were normal —
Then I realized a truth that I haven’t wanted to admit, even to myself:
I’d made a mistake coming to Illinois. I thought that I needed to free myself from the everyday crap that was standing in the way of my progress. But it wasn’t crap — it was just everyday life, a life flow, if that made sense.
And now, I realized, being here in Sterling, though it was a good opportunity, meant I was cut off from that flow. For all the opportunity in front me, here, with Nick, it doesn’t mean anything to me like my life in Marianna did.
I close my eyes, as I feel sadness and sorrow wash over me. My eyes were stinging with tears — I was about to give in to my grief —
“No,” I said out loud, firmly. “Stop it. Get a grip.”
And without thinking, I pick up the glass of Scotch and toss it down in one gulp.
At that moment, I choke. The Scotch burns all the way down. I gasp, my eyes water.
“Oh shit,” I mutter out loud, as I pant in response to the feeling that my throat was on fire.
Then I feel a warming sensation in my chest, working its way down to my stomach. Almost immediately, I feel myself getting lightheaded; my shoulders feel more at ease —
— I take a deep breath and surrender to the sensation. I lean back in my chair once again; my breathing slows down almost to normal.
I begin to relax — and then, I realize that I’ve not felt relaxed the entire time I’d been in Sterling. I’ve been working long hours studying for the upcoming bar examination, and trying to acclimate myself to the Whiteside County legal community — fit in, really — and it has been a lot harder than I thought it would be. It isn’t the law so much as it is the prejudice I feel at being an outsider. Imagine that — I used to like being a bit of an outsider back home because — why?
My eyes fill — it’s not the Scotch.
I’m terribly unhappy.
I have never allowed myself to admit that. But it is the truth. And I realize it, feel it fully, for the first time since my Mother died.
I feel a tear move slowly down my face, as I sit alone, in the semi-darkness, holding the empty glass in my hand.
I turn in my seat and looked out the window.
The saloons across the street are lively tonight, doing a brisk business. There are four just across the street from me — Deetz & Maxfield’s saloon at 101 East Third is directly across from my office, on the corner, opposite our building.
I watch the men going in and out; the lights go bright and dim as the doors of the saloon open and close; I can also hear some of the laughter and loud conversation as the doors open and close. I can sense the camaraderie, the lightheartedness, the sense of belonging in those rooms, even from where I sit in my empty office.
I pour another finger of whiskey into the glass, and drink it slowly this time; I pickup the Stetson Weekly Collegiate from the box.
I turn immediately to the back page, which has school gossip items — nothing about Pearl there. If she had written to me, Lula would have put the letter in the box; but Pearl isn’t going write to me, not ever, not after what happened that last week at Stetson. Not that I blame her. Funny though: It has been over between us for at least a year, but I still look for her name.
I didn’t know the people in the Stetson paper these days anyway. I folded the paper and tossed it aside.
The brown bottle was a little less than a third full. I debate whether to put it back into my desk drawer, or to pour myself a third drink when I hear the door to the outside staircase slam, and heavy-sounding footsteps pound up the stairs.
Panicked, I force the cork back into the bottle, and shove it into the bottom drawer of my desk, scattering papers on top of it, and quickly locking it.
The glass on the desk — it has a small amount of Scotch in the bottom; I cup my hands on my face and exhale — yes, I smell of alcohol.
I quickly drink what was left in the glass; and take the glass to the bathroom — I hear the footsteps coming down the hall towards the our office door.
My hand shakes as I open the tap, and begin to rinse the glass.
There is a jangling sound and a scrape as a key is inserted in the lock of our office front door. Nick.
Impatiently, I turn, and at that moment, I knock the glass on the porcelain edge of the sink. It slips from my hand; it hits the ceramic tile floor and shatters, broken pieces of glass and tiny shards everywhere. A small piece has cut my left hand, which begins to bleed.
The light in the outer office is suddenly switched on.
Emmett! Are you in there?
“Yes,” I say unevenly, as I grab one of the embroidered linen towels from the rack and press hard on the cut on my hand.
Nick opens the door to my office, and turns on the overhead light. He looks at me with a curious expression, as I stand in the darkened bathroom, pieces of the broken crystal drinking glass on the floor at my feet.
“I heard glass breaking. Is everything all right?
“Yes,” I say, shakily. “I was trying to get a glass of water and I — I dropped the glass. I’m sorry —”
“Are you injured?” Nick says, coming over to me, concern in his voice. He looks closely at the cut on my left hand, on the index finger. He replaces the towel over the cut. “It doesn’t seem to be too deep; I don’t think stitches are in order. Still, it might be a good idea to have a doctor look at it.”
“No,” I say. “No, It will be all right. See? The bleeding is already slowing down,” I say, gingerly removing the towel and looking at the cut. Indeed, it wasn’t too serious. “It looks worse than it really is,” I say, with what I think passes as a reassuring smile. “I wasn’t expecting anyone, and I was just startled when I dropped the glass,” I say. “That’s all.”
“Mmm…well, of course, I can understand that. I’m sorry for startling you,” Nick says, still looking at me with concern. “But you are here awfully late this evening. Is everything all right, son?”
I nod. “Yes, of course,” I say, as I go back over to my desk and sit down and gesture at Nick to have a seat as well. I wave at the pile of papers and the letter on my desk. “My family sent a package from home; it arrived late this afternoon. I just sat down and started looking through it; mostly reading the old hometown newspapers. I just forgot about the time,” I say, with an embarrassed chuckle.
Nick reaches over on the desk and picks up the Stetson Weekly Collegiate. “Ah, yes,” he says, nodding, and with a fond smile. He looks over the front page for a few minutes, and glances at me with a smile. “I completely understand. Catching up.” He reads over the front page of the paper silently for a few minutes, as I busily put the other newspapers back into the box.
I don’t say anything as Nick continues to read, but I am feeling relieved — and feeling the buzz from the alcohol. I tell myself all is well, but I won’t risk a chance like that again. I’m swearing off of the stuff for good.
“What brings you by tonight, Nick?” I ask.
“Miss Delp had a folder of correspondence relating to a bankruptcy case; I said I’d pick it up tonight on the way home.”
There is a sudden loud shouting in the streets — I turn to glance out the windows of my office at the noise; I watch as two men are fist-fighting outside of the saloons below.
Nick gets up and watches the scene with me from the office window, as a small crowd of men gather around cheering the fighting, then suddenly trying to pull the two apart as a police office comes upon the scene.
Nick shakes his head, tsk-tsking, as he turns away from the window and hands the Stetson Weekly Chronicle back to me.
“Shame, isn’t it?” he says, looking down on the street scene, as the police officer collars one of the men, and another is breaking up the crowd and shooing them back onto the sidewalks, into the saloons, or on their way. A few obviously drunk men start shouting obscenities at the officers and other innocent bystanders, but before they can be arrested, one or two men pull them aside and appear to calm them down — and take them back into one of the bars.
Nick then turns to me, saying briskly, “Well, I’ll pick up the folder from Delp’s desk and be on my way. But let me give you a ride home. It’s late, and there’s no reason for you to have to walk along the streets with the active saloon life out and about tonight.”
The University of Maryland Global Campus