one less bottle

It was surprisingly easy to go through my dad's things, after he died. Occasionally, I'd stumble into a moment of paralyzing nostalgia. Some ostensibly harmless personal effect of his - a handkerchief, a slide rule, a Zippo lighter - would reach my hands and burn as if on fire. Just some thing, with the power to trip up my pragmatism, to laugh at it. This is so him, I'd think. Emblematic. Representative. I'd recall its place in my father's life, delicately fingering every facet of the memory. And the breath would be knocked out of me for a few minutes while I let grief wash just over me, unchallenged.

But for the most part, I maintained an attitude of stoic resolve. All this shit has to go.

You can't keep everything, after all.

The liquor posed a problem. Not the stuff that was still sealed - A. and I didn't have to think twice about what to do with that. We packaged it up and shipped it back home to LA (though sadly, it never made it here). But there were several bottles of entirely decent (even decent plus) alcohol that, as established and accomplished lushes, A. and I were loathe to drain down the sink.

So we started giving it away.

One afternoon, the cable technician came to collect some equipment. He was somewhere solidly in his sixties, a man whose stooped demeanor and perceptible limp belied an otherwise rugged vitality, and an earnest face. He'd probably seemed sixty-something for the past twenty years, and would probably continue to for another twenty.

As he was putting together some paperwork for me to sign, A. ambushed him in the friendly way he does. "Sir," he said, "I don't suppose you're a whisky drinker?" He assured A. that he was, in fact, precisely such a man. And before the technician could say "nonrefundable deposit", his erstwhile customer's daughter's boyfriend was presenting him with a two-third's full bottle of Dewars.

The man accepted the gift with grace. He must have been putting two and two together already, what with the boxes, the general disarray of the house, and the cancellation order he was there to fill. A. probably confirmed his suspicion when he told the man that the liquor's previous owner would appreciate passing on the bottle to a worthy and appreciative trustee. The man looked at me. He said some kind words. I wish I remember them exactly. Or maybe it's better I don't.

A look came across A.'s face, and he stepped out of the room with some unknown purpose. He returned a moment later, a roll of blue painter's tape in hand along with a black Sharpie. He tore off a small piece of tape and carefully stretched it across the bottle of Scotch. He spoke as he wrote on it. "The only requirement is that when you pour yourself a glass tonight at home after work, you have to raise a toast and say this." He smiled and looked up from his handiwork to me. I read what he'd written. To Norm. I swallowed and smiled back.

More warm words from the technician. "Wonderful young woman", "good souls" - something like that. Small dabs of salve on a freshly blistered heart. We walked him down the driveway to his truck. He asked my name and shook my hand. Then he had an idea. "I'll tell you what," he said. "I'll do you one better than just a toast. If you give me your phone number, tonight when I'm ready for my drink, I'll call you guys up, and all three of us can drink to your father at the same time."

I looked at the man. I looked at my boyfriend. I felt, straining its way through the clotted, hard dirt of loss, a tiny shoot of joy. How had they done that, these two men from different worlds, with nothing in common but big hearts and a gift for awing me with their thoughtfulness? They made it look so easy.

He called us promptly at the appointed time. A. took the call, and put him on speakerphone. He had the man hold while we scrambled to pour our own drinks. All we had on hand was vodka and apple juice. It was perfect. We lifted our glasses and told the stranger on the other end of the line that we were ready. And that's when my heart, already squeezed to near suffocation by this moment, was clenched just a bit more: the man said, "What sort of man was Norm? Tell me about your father."

I made a sound, something like "Ohhh," a mixed exclamation of surprise and laughter and I don't know what else. Oh, wow, I wasn't expecting that and Oh, wow, if you only knew just what a character he was. "He was an engineer," I began, carefully. "He loved to read. He...taught me to question everything." I was grasping, falling. A. saw it, and chimed in cheerfully. "He was a ladies man, too." We all laughed, and something came loose inside of me. Some knot of sadness, born of the fact that there was next to no one around to mourn my father's death. Next to no family, next to no friends. It had broken my heart on his behalf. But here, now, an utter stranger was honoring my dad in the purest way possible: truly caring about who he was. Making him matter, if only for a moment.

After our clinks and drinks, the man again offered his sincere condolences. He praised me as a daughter, from the little daughtering he'd witnessed that day. He invited us, should we ever find ourselves back in his small town again, to dine with he and his wife. I thought wistfully of that dinner, which I knew would be lovely and probably somewhat life-affirming, but which I knew would never happen.

We said our goodbyes, rinsed out our glasses, and continued sorting late into the night. We had one bottle less to pack.