Spring, Part Two
A Solstice story
Start at the beginning of the Solstice series
Bacchus checked his watch, glanced toward the Northwoods Inn, looked up to the top of Ridge Road, then checked his watch again, looking for all the world like an anxious parent waiting for his errant child to come home. He could feel Vulcan's eyes on him; feel the unbending stare that had watched him for two full days, keeping him from seeking an evening's comfort.
They'd played Scrabble, watched television, played dominoes and penny poker over endless cups of thick, black coffee. Every morning Vulcan drove him to Solstice Community College in his rusting pickup, and waited for him directly outside the door in the afternoons. Some of his students had mentioned it, the second day - wondering who the guy waiting for their English teacher was.
"An old friend," he'd muttered, ashamed to look into the eyes of the girls he taught, ashamed now to meet their dancing eyes. Children, as Vulcan had said, errant children he'd summoned to mind regardless in the late watches of the night. They were older than Venus by years enough, but still ... children, really; even by the reckoning of one who had never known immortality. He'd seen in their long limbs and high breasts the memory of nymphs and bacchante alike, knew them by the names of flowers and hills and islands that dotted his ancient, weary dreams.
Since Vulcan's violent fit at the suggestion that he sought to bed his wife of older days, Bacchus had known a greater shame than any this mortal life had visited on him. He wanted to forget it, forget that shame and drown the days in a pleasant, mellow and drifting dream, to drink the women and song from his life with the help of his oldest and truest friend.
Vulcan was as good as his word, though, and had poured all his cabinet into the drain. He'd been a man fond of plain, straight drinks, of Manhattans on payday and sidecars on others, of straight beer or sambucca in the house where such fussiness as mixing a cocktail seemed too much like work in the pursuit of his own forgetfulness. The rye, the sambucca, the beer - all gone, leaving nothing but their tannin-stained puppet shows on the chipped porcelain.
If it weren't for the emergency flask in his locker at the college, Bacchus wasn't sure how he would have coped with these past days of planning.
"Listen, we know they'll be throwing the party at the Northwoods. Jenny will be tending bar that night, she knows me, she'll let me into the bar even if she won't vouch for me."
"No. You'll slip up and start in too soon if I'm not there to watch you."
"You can't be there, Vulcan." Bacchus jerked a thumb toward a fresh hole in the plastered walls of the apartment. "Just thinking about him makes you do that, what do you think would happen if you actually saw him?"
"I can handle myself."
"And so can I. Believe me, I'll be ready when the time comes, and I'll go down quick as you please. The plan's fine. It'll be easy."
The look Vulcan would give him then - hard and drawn, with tombstone eyes. "You're going to be tempted. I know you will. Just don't overdo it."
"I owe you," Bacchus would shrug, and lay down another game piece. He'd meant it, too - at the time. Meant every word. Now, though, with the Northwoods so close, with the cool air tickling at his neck and the cigarette between his lips ...
"Fuck it," he said, "he's not going to come down from the hill if I go in five minutes early." Walking across Ridge, he heard the angry blast of the truck's horn from above, and waved it off with one errant hand. One extra drink wouldn't spoil the plan. If anything, it would sell the whole routine even more effectively.
"Hey, Johnny." The woman behind the bar wore a black long-sleeve tee and her mouse-dun hair in a ponytail tighter than Bacchus', speaking loudly to be heard over the din. "It's a private party tonight. Sorry."
"Aw, come on, Jen-Jen." He spread his arms wide. "It's me, and just me. Got no plans to meet the crowd, and I'd love to see Mike come back home."
"You know him?"
"Knew him in high school. He was a little behind me but damn if he didn't throw a wicked dodgeball."
She shook her head. "Why don't you go to the Bridgeview tonight, if you're not planning anything?"
"Katie's pissed at me again, and will be another couple days."
"What about the Cottage?"
"Jen-Jen, c'mon. I'm a churchmouse, honest, and I won't stay too long. Is it so wrong to want to get a look at the only war hero we're likely to get back home?"
"Fine, fine." She shook her head again. "I've got too much to do to argue. Cabernet tonight?"
"Yeah, but with a side of club soda, okay?" She looked up quizzically, at which he spread his hands. "Best behavior, like I said. I'm not ordering a wine cooler in front of these guys, but nothing says I can't build my own."
He took his drink reverently in both hands, glanced at the club soda, and took a mouthful of rough house wine. The soda remained untouched the rest of the evening, an evening that seemed to go on forever.
Bacchus watched Mars as he moved through the crowd, wondering now if the plan was such a good idea after all. Mars - Sergeant Monroe - was in even better shape now than he had been in Greece, with modern nutrition and hard work replacing the feasts and fights of ancient days. His arms seemed as big as Bacchus' head, and the set of his jaw was hard and unforgiving even as he gave tight smiles to his old friends beneath the coal-black buzz cut and three-day shadow along his cheeks. For their part, they pressed bottle after bottle on him, ignoring his terse refusals as he sipped carefully at his beer.
"C'mon, Mike, one shot, one shot of tequila ..."
"What's the weirdest thing you ate over there, man?"
"Bet you're happy to be home, huh? Bet you couldn't wait for a chance to see the Fox again."
"One little shot won't kill you, man, nothing else could!"
"You know, my cousin, Tammy, she was asking about you again ..."
"Now that you're home, you got to get on Facebook, make it easy to stay in touch ..."
"... bought the whole bottle of tequila, you got to have just one ..."
The rounds were passed each time Mars refused, and soon Bacchus decided the plan was solid after all. If the man wouldn't drink, why, he'd be in better possession of himself. Might not even throw the punch Bacchus was dreading. He might not do a damn thing, in which case he could tell Vulcan he'd tried, the plan hadn't worked, and they'd have to come up with something different - something that wouldn't put him in harm's way.
When he stood, the floor felt only a trifle unsteady. The way to the men's room was crowded, but navigable, and along the way another welcome home shot was put into his hand. He thought of Vulcan, lifted the glass, and let it work its golden magic.
"Closing time, gents." Jennifer flipped the switch to bring the lights up, simultaneously flipping the jukebox to a recording of moose calls. "Northwoods is closing down 'cause it's long past the sundown. Thanks for coming but you just can't stay."
She looked to the darts alley, frowning a bit. "Hey, Johnny! Say goodnight to your new friends, huh? You've got classes tomorrow."
Bacchus turned unsteadily and smiled. "Sure, Jen-Jen, sure thing. Sorry about that, got distracted, lost the time ... totally." He blinked. "Can I get a last shot for Mike?"
"No." Her voice was firm. "Out, Johnny. I've played nice, but everybody out."
"Where ... hey, where is Mike, anyway?"
"He left a minute or two ago." She wiped at the bar. "Couldn't actually ask him to leave but he's got more sense ..."
Bacchus leapt toward the door, muttering "Shit, shit, shit ..." He swung out on the brass door handle and instantly looked across the street, where Vulcan's pickup sat at one edge of the streetlight. Blue smoke curled from the open window, and Bacchus turned quickly to the parking lot, looking wildly around for Mars' car.
There he was, still surrounded by well-wishers, taking a proffered cigarette. Bacchus swore again under his breath and moved toward the group, fishing a cigarette of his own from one pocket.
"Hey Mike, got a light?" Weaving only slightly, he smiled as broadly as he could. "Wanted to get you a drink in there, but I'm out of lighter fluid now."
Mars looked up, one eyebrow raising. "Hey. Eric, give John a light, huh?"
"Thanks, Eric, thanks a lot, guys. Man. So. Iraq, huh? Crazy."
"Yeah." Mars' lips tightened. "Thanks for coming tonight, John. Have a safe trip home."
"Yeah, sure. But Iraq. I mean, fuck." Bacchus grinned broadly. "It's a damn good thing you weren't actually fighting, huh?"
The group stared at him now as he took a drag on the cigarette. "I mean, you know, not really fighting. Not really a sergeant, right?"
"You're drunk," Eric said. "Get the fuck out of here."
"I mean, you're mostly ... equipment and shit, right? And watching the guys. You know." Bacchus gave an exaggerated wink. "The ones who do fight."
Mars shook his head slowly. "John, you crashed my party, and I didn't say anything about it, because the bar girl said you needed the bottle. And I figured you were kind of a fuck up, and that was okay. But seriously now, shut the fuck up. And go home."
"I'm the fuckup? For teaching at a community college? Shit, it's babysitting, Mike. Same job you've been doing for the past ..."
Nobody moved to stop Mars as he stepped forward and slammed his right fist into Bacchus' stomach. His mouth and eyes went wide as he fell to his knees, vomiting up a rust-colored mixture of red wine, tequila and bile.
"Now. Go home," said Mars, grabbing him by the collar. "Before you get puke on my car."
"Fucking hippie," said one of the men. "Come on, Mike, I'm dee-dee tonight."
"I'm fine." He shoved Bacchus away. "Gonna let off some steam down Countryside."
Bacchus staggered off, mumbling "Sorry, Mike ... sorry, man, Jesus, sorry ..." He was partway across the street when the pickup growled itself awake, and the passenger door was opened from within. Vulcan shook his head.
"I knew you'd get drunk."
"Worked, though." Bacchus wiped at his lower lip. "That guy can hit. Get it all?"
Vulcan smiled, raising a digital camera. "Got it all. You don't owe me any more."
"Good, because there's something better to tell you."
"He's going for a drive." Bacchus picked up a bottle of water from the floorboards and rinsed his mouth, spitting out the window. "After that party."
"Drunk?" Vulcan's voice shook with eagerness.
"Probably not. Seems sober." He drank the water. "Lucky bastard. Still, a call to the cops wouldn't hurt our lawsuit, would it?"
Story and image by Ivan Ewert, Copyright 2009