Content warning: sensitive content
“Listen, this isn’t a long story,” Tom said, nursing his sixth beer while the rest of us had yet to finish our second. He lifted his drink, polished it off, gestured to the bartender. A bottle clinked open behind me. When Tom returned to our table, fresh drink cradled in both hands, he looked first at Chet, then Vick, then me. Slurring, he said, “But it isn’t a happy one either, this story.”
Tom was usually reserved, a speak-when-spoken-to kind of guy, but when he drank his voice got this wild, belligerent tone. I figured it was because he was new to alcohol. He’d gone twenty-seven years without a drop of the stuff, didn’t even drink wine in church. Hell, he’d only been barhopping with us for about a month. He had a lot of catching up to do.
“But it’s true, this story. All of it’s true.” Tom paused to consider us with baggy eyes.
“Go on,” one of us might have said, because we learned quickly that this was Tom’s usual approach, his M.O. He issued the same proviso whenever he started one of his drunken accounts, right before launching into a story about how so-and-so’s missing cat had actually been hiding behind the fridge for a week, or how he’d witnessed a homeless man getting beat up in broad daylight. Tragic, I suppose, but not heartbreaking.
I guess that night we wanted to hear what inane story-of-the-week Tom had for us, so someone said it again: “Go on, Tom. We’re ready.”
Tom craned his neck, moved his head in reverse—me, Vick, Chet. He guzzled half his beer. His eyelids drooped when he brought the bottle back down. “All right,” he said. His voice was quieter, furtive. I leaned in to hear him better over the sound of the two men playing a game of pool by our table. “You guys remember Anthony, right?”
“Sure,” Chet said, like the answer was obvious. And it was. We’d all been there three months ago after Anthony was born, when Tom and his wife, Connie, brought him home from the hospital in a bundle of blue. I’ve always thought babies were ugly, and Anthony was no exception. But seeing Tom and Connie smiling and holding him, the first couple in our group to have a child, made the experience bearable.
Vick twirled his bottle in circles. “Yeah, we remember Anthony,” he said, “though we ain’t seen him in a while.”
Tom’s grip on his bottle slackened. He studied Vick. “Hold on a minute, I was getting to that,” he said. “Just hold on a goddamn minute.”
Vick shrugged, took a drink, eyed Chet.
Between the three of us, I’d known Tom the longest, so Chet and Vick designated me the default referee, reining Tom in whenever damage control seemed necessary. “Go on,” I said to Tom, keeping my voice conciliatory. “Don’t mind Vick. Otherwise we’ll be here all week.”
Tom took a breath, eyes still trained on Vick. “This happened last month,” he said. “Connie had put Anthony to bed in his crib at eight that night. Then Anthony started to cry. She tried to console him for a good hour, but she was too tired, so she came back to bed.
“We thought it would end soon—the crying, I mean. That’s what usually happens. We thought that eventually Anthony would wear himself out with the noise of it all and fall asleep. We were still thinking that around midnight, after four goddamn hours of crying. He would stop for few minutes and we’d think it would be over, but then he’d start up again. We were too exhausted to do anything about it.”
Tom cleared his throat. “Connie nudged me, told me that it was my turn to get Anthony to pipe down. I said that if he was still crying in an hour, I’d get on it. Well, at one in the morning, guess who got called in to bring the peace?”
“The Ghostbusters?” Vick asked. The joke seemed to relax Tom, who finally looked from Vick to his hands.
“Yeah, right,” Tom said. “Dan Aykroyd ain’t got shit on me.” A smile crossed his face, one of the ones from years ago, back when we still had things to smile about. Then it was gone.
“Anyway, I go into Anthony’s room, right, and of course he’s still crying. I called for Connie. No answer. I think she was pretending to be asleep or something.
“So there I am, standing there listening to him crying, and I’m thinking of all the things I can do to stop it. So I pick Anthony up and start rocking him in my arms.”
Tom shook his head. “Nothing. He’s still crying, he just won’t stop. I’m tired and I want to go to sleep, right? So I push him to my chest and start to rub his back up and down, like a massage. I closed my eyes and just kept rubbing his back, and then it happened. He stopped crying. Anthony just...stopped.”
Tom’s lip quivered and he held his head in his hands. Chet, Vick, and I exchanged glances. I thought about what Vick had said. It hadn’t occurred to me before, but it was true: the first and last time I saw Anthony was the day he came home from the hospital.
Chet pointed his thumb Tom’s way, and I figured he wanted me to say something, but I was speechless. What the hell are you supposed to say after a story like that? The black eight-ball sank into the corner pocket at the pool table behind Tom.
“I’ll be back,” Tom said, standing and abandoning his half-empty beer. Chet whispered something I couldn’t hear to Vick, who nodded. I gazed over my shoulder and saw Tom lurching toward the bar, signaling the bartender. The bartender looked at our table. His eyes fell upon the array of bottles in front of Tom’s empty seat. And in the buzz of the room, I thought I heard him say, “No can do, pal. I think you’ve had enough already,” and I thought I heard Tom say, “Yeah, so do I.”
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As you know, I've been reading The Collected Stories of Zack Powell for a while now, though I've been doing them backwards. This time I decided I should try the one that started it all. Well, talk about one hell of a debut. A superb lesson in restraint, and why less is more. So I'll just stop there.
This is like a super late comment but I injured myself and am stuck at home. The boredom is real!!! So I decided to go back and read older stories from people I follow. This story is like: 😢🥺🤩! This left me speechless for a minute. So well written and so so real! Fantastic job Zack!
I have ADHD and I often find trouble in reading most stories, but yours I had no problem. There were no sensory details like the smell - I can imagine Tom's breath smelling like beer from where the main character was sitting, but other than that I felt so engulfed in the story. You did a great job with the dialogue and making it sound real. Tom sounded just like a real, drunk person, having grown up around a few in my life. As for the story itself, I thought it was emotional and it dealt with a very heavy issue, which I appreciate. I know I'...
There was something about this story that evoked the 90's for me. That grittiness but also the stagnation that masks a great deal of tension. Good job.
Zachary, Welcome to Reedsy and way to go on this shortlist of yours. The title was the chef's kiss of the entire piece if you ask me. When I started reading it I thought for sure it was a setup for war buddies about to tell us about some time during the war. Maybe some skeletons coming outta the closet regarding time served or whatnot. Then you took me on a trip to sad town with a dead baby, and I'm slightly mad about it but here we are. I'm not unfamiliar to families that have lived through losses like this or something relatively similar...
Oh Zachary, My heart BROKE while reading this piece. I love how you created the characters in the bar and I love how you created such depth in a short piece. This twist was not only well executed but tragically unexpected. I love how you expressed the other characters’ reactions to Tom’s story. Congratulations on getting shortlisted and thank you for writing this piece.
Wow, powerful story and well told. I'm glad it ended when it did, without more explanations of how the others acted after that, it leaves the reader to think about it all deeply.
Hi- this is a good story and well-constructed. The characters and the situation are elegantly defined and the understated emotion makes the ending shocking. I am curious whether you intended to hint at culpability on behalf of the parents. Tom clearly viewed the child as a chore. Were you portraying the parents as inexperienced and exhausted or something more....
A tragic story and well placed in a bar with guys who would look at that situation in a clearly different light than the women would. No amount of joking or off-side comments from his friend could stop him from getting the story out! Well done on the pacing too.
Wow. That was heartbreaking. The two main characters, Tom and the narrator were well defined, in particular Tom. Thanks for this.