A Reason to Celebrate
By Jayme Middleton
His boots slid and caught on the cobblestones, his gait shaken by the rough surface of the road. It had been a long day at work, but going home was always the hardest part of his day. That is where the monsters and the voices were.
Bill didn’t always dread the walk home. He used to love it. He enjoyed going this route by the bright lights and musicians with their open cases and lilting notes. They would call out to him, inviting him closer to where they sat on the curb or propped against doorways. Bill would always find an extra dollar or so to give them, paying them so he didn’t feel bad about why he was on this street in the first place.
But tonight—the past few months, in fact—had been difficult. The musicians weren’t as friendly if you didn’t stop by or join them when they took a break to wet their throats. They turned their faces when he walked by, frowning at him sympathetically while Bill nearly ran down this street. Now, their friendly voices followed him as they looked away, urging him to stay a while, just to say hello again. Just to be polite.
This walk home was different. There was good news waiting for him, news that he couldn’t wait to see. Yet terror still loomed on the avenue. Bill refused to look behind him, knowing that if he stopped it would be that much harder to start walking again. The late rains of the previous night had brought on low hanging clouds and sweltering humidity that made his neck sticky and prickly. The corner lamppost’s light struggled to cut through the fog. It only cast a sallow orange circle that did nothing to dispel the things hidden in the shadows. The whispers urging him to stop and chat carried that much further.
He thought of his daughter, only a few months old but already beginning to walk. Sabrina was the spitting image of her mother, Kathy. They had married when he was twenty-four, and they had Sabrina a couple years after. Around the same time, Bill broke his routine of drinks with the guys on Fridays. It became drinks on Friday, then darts on Tuesday, a last-minute birthday party and a “Sorry, honey, I’ll be late coming home tonight” call on a Wednesday. Bill had just happened to see a birthday balloon in the window of Lula’s Bar, and he had bought a round for the birthday revelers, people he had never met in his life.
Bill paused a minute, looking into the dark windows of the boutiques, bistros, and businesses to his right. He could just make out his reflection from around the ghosts of tables and chairs and painted logos. No one else was on the street at this time of day. Bill had switched to night shift when he stopped drinking, figured it had to be easier to walk down the street if the other guys weren’t inviting him in as they stumbled out. But the bars were still open at this hour, always there with warm doorways and ice-cold drinks.
Even in the deserted streets, he could hear laughter. The sound of a happy pool game between friends came from two doors down. His shoulders jerked that way, but he turned back around when he heard the discordant notes coming from an out-of-tune piano. The owner of The Bronco hadn’t had the piano looked at in years, but once he had a few drinks, it sounded like the best music in the world.
Bill hummed a tune of his own in nervous defiance. It was a song that Kathy sang while she cooked, a melody passed from her mother and her mother’s mother. The song reminded him of warm Sunday mornings and the smell of French toast. An easy way to remember just exactly what he was walking home to.
“Mate, come on over!” called a voice from the bushes on his left. “It’s been too long!”
Bill shook his head. “No, I have to get home,” he whispered, more to himself than the voice. “Sabrina took her first steps today.”
Whoops and cheers roared from the doorway, drowning the out-of-tune piano in a vocal tidal wave. “That’s even more of a reason to stop and celebrate,” cried a voice from the balcony overhead.
“I remember when my boy walked the first time,” called a rocking chair creaking back and forth on the patio. “We had one helluva celebration. Come in. Let us buy you a round. To fatherhood!”
Bill stood in the middle of the street, picturing his baby girl’s face. The small nose turned up a just a little, those innocent green eyes, the fingers that clutched his own like they were shiny treasures. This bundle of life was something to be celebrated, wasn’t it? God knows Kathy, who was supposed to be part of this celebration, wasn’t throwing parties. She wasn’t congratulating him and encouraging him to enjoy this time. She only nagged at him for working overtime.
A warm, pungent smell of liquor seeped into the air, wine wafting through whiskey clouds. The smell made Bill’s eyes water. Once again, he thought of his daughter’s nose, how Sabrina would smell this same fragrance on his breath. How her eyes would water with tears until they would be as bloodshot as his. How her hands would not clutch anymore but hit and push because that is not what her father smells like, that this similar looking man was actually a stranger.
But that baby’s cry, that shriek of life that would turn into laughter, that was something to celebrate. Wasn’t it?
Jayme Middleton is originally from Hogansville, Georgia. Though a first-year English major, Jayme has earned enough credit hours to be a junior. She is a regular contributor to The Hillop News.