Sunday, December 20, 2015

Christmas Double Shot

"I'll take a double shot of Jack on the rocks," Billy said.

I lifted two fingers. "Make that two."

Another bar, another time of year, this scene wouldn't have been so unconventional. After growing up down the street from one another, near constant companions, we found ourselves five years out of college and living 300 miles apart. We only got to hang out a few times a year, and more often than not those were celebratory occasions. New Year's. Birthdays. Concerts and festivals.

Christmas.

We were back home that Christmas Eve, a year when we were each single, before we had any nieces, and after each of our family holiday celebrations had deteriorated from large gatherings to quiet dinners--just me and my dad, just his nuclear family around the dining room table.

Ten, eleven o'clock rolls around on a Christmas Eve like that and folks leave dinner. Our parents went to bed. And there we were, in our mid-twenties and tired, but not for want of sleep.

We wound up at a dive bar a half mile from our street. The kind of place I'd driven past hundreds of times over the year, but never given a thought to stepping inside, back when I was too young to drink or when, if I were to drink, I would have gone to more exciting locales on bustling Varick Street or the bar and grill where we used to binge on fifty-cent wings and half-price drafts on Tuesday nights.

These more reputable businesses were closed. My hometown is an upright sort of community where you'll have no problem finding a party the night before Thanksgiving, but Christmas Eve is for putting the kids to bed early so they can dream about Santa Claus visiting the house; for the most righteous to find their way to midnight mass.

We sat in this bar. A portly, glossy eyed, unshaven behemoth of a man in a tweed sports coat sat at the opposite end, sipping rum and cokes and staring at his cell phone, while we kept to ourselves, save for visits from the bartender, clad in an unseasonably light charcoal tank top that exposed the tattoos along her upper arm. Daniel. Vincent. Perry. Three wise men, I mused, or more likely the names of her children. I didn't ask. She tipped the bottle and filled our glass tumblers to their brims. The surface of the bar was badly scratched and lined with rings and stains.

The only sign of Christmas in the place was a solitary, barren wreath over the cash register, set over a back drop of neon blue, probably intended to make the place look cool or hip, but now out of place. The lights in the window were the same ones that shone year round. From the bar stool they read Bud Light and Labatt Blue and Open, all in reverse.

I took a sip of whiskey and remembered out loud, "My grandma used to let us open one gift a piece on Christmas Eve. I'd always pick one of the small ones, because they were the Nintendo games, then they were cassettes, then they were CDs I asked for." My grandmother had always bought me what I wanted.

"We used to have a party at my great aunt's. There must have been thirty, forty people," Billy said. "My sister and I would wait on everyone and get them drinks or tomato pie or Christmas cookies and everyone would tip us. We'd walk out with fifty, a hundred dollars each and feel like we were rich."

"We used to eat petit fours," I said. "And we'd play Pitch because it was a good game for a lot of people, and it wasn't too complicated. And even my mom would play sometimes. And she hated playing games because my dad always gave her a hard time."

"Remember when we used to roll dice?"

My mind raced through a thousand images. Grade school choir concerts where we would sing a half dozen Christmas songs and one about Hannukah to be inclusive to the two or three Jewish kids at the school. Watching It's A Wonderful Life with my mom and my sister. My grandmother egging folks on for one more bite of dessert. One more drink. Hanging out with Billy's family when we were home from college, until people peeled off one by one and it was just the two of us left in the living room, stomachs full, staring at the flickering light of a fiber-optic tree and, even then, reminiscing about better days, without any concept of how good we had it right then.

"Another double shot?" the bartender asked Billy. His glass was already empty.

"You got it," he said.

I drained my glass, too, drinking too much too fast. It burned my throat. "Make it two," I said again. My voice was a croak.

We took our time on the second round and waited around to sober up before the short drive back, opting not to make it too late of a night. After all, by the time we were done with those drinks, it was technically Christmas. It was time to get home.

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