by Carl Pardon
Cort Hatcher hadn’t always been a drunk, but a drunk he was and there was no denying it. He opened the door of his mobile home and stepped out onto the plank porch in his bare feet. It was cold, the first cold morning of the season. Soon the frost would come and coat the landscape with brown. His was a small lot but private, with trees of varying species dotting his yard. Fall was his favorite time of year but it never failed to plunge him into melancholy.
He eased himself into the wooden swing that hung from the rafters by chains and cradled a hot cup of coffee between his massive hands, hands that had once been hard and calloused. A gentle breeze blew right through his white cotton t-shirt and green checked pajama bottoms.
“It’s cold this morning.” Sometimes Cort talked to himself. He raised the blue cup to his lips and took a sip. “That’s hot. Feels good, though.”
The coffee warmed him but his system needed more. “Not today. We’re not giving in this time.” Even as he spoke the words, his mind slipped through the door, to the kitchen, and into the cabinet beside the refrigerator. Whiskey. “No. It’s Halloween and I can’t be drunk when they come this time.” He remained in the swing and took a deep breath. It was not quite cold enough yet to see his breath when he exhaled. “Not this time.”
Every year Cort decorated his yard with square bales of hay and jack-o-lanterns. Ghosts and goblins hung from his trees by the dozen. Some people go overboard with Christmas decorations but not Cort. Halloween was his obsession. When he finally rose from the swing he descended the concrete steps, three of them, and made an inspection of the decorations. It wouldn’t do to appear sloppy tonight.
Each tick of the clock brought Cort one second closer to nightfall. His hands trembled as his internal organs thirsted for alcohol. By noon his head pounded. Even his eyes ached. “Just a few more hours. We can do it. A promise is a promise.” He paced the floor, ate a sandwich for lunch, then went out into the yard and checked the ghosts and goblins again. Not a second passed that the bottle in the kitchen didn’t cross his mind. At two o’clock he drove to town and bought a single bag of miniature Snickers and a dozen red roses. When he returned home, he placed them on the coffee table and stood back to admire them, then sighed and checked the clock again.
At long last the sun began to slide below the tree line. Inch by inch it fell until all that remained was a faint splash of orange in the western sky. They would come soon. He had to be ready. How surprised they would be to find him sober this year. He made one more pass through the yard, this time lighting the candles inside the jack-o-lanterns. Nine glowing pumpkins would greet them. Last year there were eight. Next year, ten.
Cort stepped back inside and turned off the living room light, leaving the porch light on of course, lest they think him not at home. There was no bottle on his mind now, not now. Sobriety felt strange to him, though, like some long lost recollection that can no longer be. “They should be coming any minute now.” He waited.
An hour passed. They were late. Then another. Perhaps they weren’t coming this year. Suddenly he wondered if their visits had been no more than drunken fantasies? His heart raced. His throat grew tight. He needed a drink. “No! Not yet. They’ll come. They have to come.”
Fifteen more minutes and still no lights in the driveway. The tremble in his hands was violent now, so violent he could barely hold a glass of water without wetting the floor. “Just one little drink. Something to calm me. They can’t see me shaking like this.” He rushed to the kitchen and pulled open the cabinet door. There it sat. All day it had taunted him. He reached in and grabbed it, then hesitated. “Just one drink. One! Not two.” He twisted the cap off and raised the bottle to his lips. The aroma of the dark whiskey calmed him. The doorbell rang.
“Trick or treat!”
Cort jumped at the sound. “They’re here! And to think I almost ruined it.” He recapped the bottle and returned it to its spot beside the crackers then hurried to the front door. On the porch stood a boy of six and a woman of twenty seven, both dressed in costumes. Cort knew their ages because he knew their identity.
“Ah, look at you! You’re a pirate this year. Grand.” Cort pushed open the door and stepped out onto the porch and immediately fell to his knees in front of the boy. “I was afraid you weren’t coming.” He reached out but the boy withdrew. “Yes, I’m sorry. No touching.” He looked up at the boy’s mother and strained to see her face behind the black veil. Her costume never changed. She wore the garb of a lady in mourning.
“Take off your mask, Timmy, and let me look at you,” Cort said to the boy. The boy raised the pirate mask and smiled. “I’m sober this year,” Cort said. “Just like I promised. Are Snickers still your favorite?”
“Yes, daddy,” the boy said.
“Oh, look at me,” Cort said, fighting back the tears in his eyes. “I’ve forgotten to bring them out. Wait right here. Don’t leave.” He pushed himself to his feet and quickly retrieved the bag of candy and the roses from the coffee table. When he turned back toward the door his visitors were gone. He ran outside and called for them, yelled for all he was worth, then fell to his knees and sobbed like a child, clutching the bag of Snickers and the roses to his chest. Almost an hour passed before he righted himself and began to walk down the driveway. When he reached the road he turned left. Gravel crunched beneath his feet with every step.
With nothing but the moon to light his way, Cort walked for two miles then turned right into a narrow drive, then through a metal gate. He could navigate the cemetery with his eyes closed, as the moon was not always so bright when he came here. There is nothing more private than a cemetery at night. He walked leftward, along the fence for twenty paces, then right for fifteen more. Sometimes he counted them off as he walked, but not tonight.
Two headstones stood side by side, the bottom dates the same. Nine years ago today. Halloween. “Timothy Ray Hatcher. Born June 23, 1995. Died October 31, 2001,” he said aloud. There were no tears now. He had cried himself dry. “Janet Ann Hatcher. Born August 3, 1975. Died October 31, 2001. In God’s loving arms.”
Cort stared at the granite for a long time, then placed the bag of candy before one and the roses before the other. It was a slow walk home. At times he forgot where he was or what he was doing, such was his grief. When he reached the end of his driveway, the eastern horizon had an orange glow. The nine jack-o-lanterns in his yard were silent, their faces dark. The ghosts and goblins hung motionless out of respect as he made his way up the driveway, onto the porch, and into the kitchen. “Three hundred and sixty five more days,” he said, as he opened the cabinet beside the refrigerator.
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