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Ralph's Last Call

by Peter Anderson

Another round came. The glass was placed before him, as it had been so many times before, and even in his fogged vision Ralph noticed that the glass was smudged a bit on one side, and badly poured. He stared intently, as intently as was possible at that late hour, as some of the mildly flat Pabst trickled down and spread slowly across the top of the bar.

As he reached for the glass, Ralph began to feel a distinct trembling in his hands and arms which caused him to draw back. Trembling wasn't an unusual occurrence for the regulars at the Whale, not at one in the morning and especially not for Ralph, but this time it felt different. The trembling intensified, and soon it was all that Ralph could do to hold still without being noticed. None of the other regulars likely would have noticed it anyway, through the cigarette haze of the dimly-lit tap room. For it was the time of evening, or morning, that the room became quiet as the men drew into themselves in bourbon- and beer-soaked reflection.

Whether or not anyone else had noticed, Ralph decided that this bout of trembling was his signal that the evening was over. He pushed the untouched glass away and tossed two dollars on the bar to settle up, then slid off of the stool and walked unsteadily to the door, his urge to get home precluding any of the formalities of saying goodbye.

"'Night, Ralph," the bartender called after him.

Ralph made no answer as he pulled open the door and stepped into the street.

A biting gust of November wind rudely greeted him, and he shivered slightly in his too-thin jacket. He stood, hunched away from the wind, and drew a matchbook from his pocket. Without looking, he tore out a match and lit it, cupping the cigarette in his hands. While not trembling quite as much as before, his hands were still unsteady, and he could not hold the match still long enough to get a light. He continued trying, tension rising inside of him, until another gust blew the match out. With mild disgust he threw the spent match to the ground and reached for another. But his nervous fingers couldn't find any, and he realized the matchbook was empty. He knew he could easily get another matchbook by just walking back into the bar, but as he thought this he shivered again, this time only partly from the cold.

"I'm not going back in there again....tonight," he thought aloud.

Again hunching his shoulders, he turned towards home, walking east into the Belmont Avenue darkness. He made his unsteady way down Belmont, staring at the sidewalk as it moved beneath his feet. He walked without any conscious effort, finding himself mildly amazed at the way his feet alternately, left and right, reached forward and then slid backward as if the sidewalk was propelling him ahead. He tried to keep from wavering too much from side to side as he trudged onward.

The trembling in his arms had passed and was by then forgotten, his mind thinking only of how he would soon be collapsing into the warmth of his unmade bed. He gave no thought to any sort of divine guidance as he blindly crossed Elston Avenue against the light and made it safely to the other side. Safely, except for the taxi that nearly swiped him as it came careening around the corner, slowing only momentarily to allow the cabbie to shout an obscenity---unheard by Ralph---before continuing north. Safely, except that in his oblivion, Ralph failed to step high enough at the opposite curb, caught his toe and plunged toward the sidewalk, reflexively reaching out to catch himself and suffering a bloody scrape on his left hand, a wound which he barely felt.

He righted himself and the sidewalk resumed moving beneath him, leading him away from the brightness of the Elston corner. He turned onto his shrouded side street and soon was plodding heavily up his creaky front steps, and as he pulled open the screen door and pushed open the unlocked inside door, he paused to stare with sudden fascination at the doorbell. It was a cheap imitation brass plate, mounted loosely on the doorframe and surrounded by flaking paint, and through the haze of his thoughts Ralph realized how long it had been since the bell had rung. As he instinctively reached out for button, he noticed, for the first time in what seemed to him like years, a lacquered plaque reading "Wilkommen", the old words of a distant past.

As the doorbell rang weakly, a chuckle rose in his throat, and with a smirk on his worn and aged face he muttered a bemused "Welcome" and crossed the threshold into the darkness within.

Copyright © 2006 Peter Anderson

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Peter Anderson is Associate Editor of The Angler.