“Dry January” by David Daniel
By David Daniel
A few sips into the second martini Alan wonders if this has been a good idea.
“We don’t have enough money saved,” his wife says out of the blue, but not a total surprise. It has become a theme lately. “We’re losers.”
“Come on, we’re out having fun.”
“No. No, look on any website—to retire comfortably you need to have at least a million and a half dollars saved. Two million is better.”
“And every website is talking about Dry January, taking a break from alcohol.”
“What? What’s that got to do with anything?”
“Exactly. Forget the websites, that’s just opinions. Point is we’re not ready to retire. We’ve still got some years.”
“It doesn’t matter. Our numbers are lousy. Our numbers suck.”
“A five-count pour of Grey Goose. A half ounce of vermouth? Those are very good numbers.”
“It’s not a joke. We don’t make enough money.”
“Come on, this is supposed to be a night out.” He squints toward the bar TV where the Celtics are playing the Suns.
“I’m being serious. As a couple we don’t make enough.”
“Compared to what?” Now he is perplexed. Why this, why now?
“We’re losers, Alan.”
“Come on, let’s enjoy ourselves.”
“We’re just spending money. Money we haven’t got.”
“For appetizers and few drinks? Of course we do.”
“Everyone makes more than us.”
“So, should we go for Dry February? Save a few dollars that way?
“Don’t act stupid.”
It goes on this way several minutes, his weak parries against her sharp thrusts. He is growing self-conscious in the restaurant bar. Are the other patrons all so much better off than them? He feels his gut twisting with each volley. Feels himself diminishing. He signals for the check.
In the car, it resumes: “We’ve been losers our entire lives. People have taken advantage of us.”
“What people? What are you talking about?” But he is suddenly aware of other vehicles in the parking lot. Are they fancier, newer?
“All thieves. Ripping us off. Everyone.”
He puts on the radio, hoping to derail the tirade. Warren Zevon is singing.
“I love that part,” he says. “‘His hair was—perfect!’ And that little ‘hupt!’ he does.”
“Everyone’s out to rip us off. That bill was ridiculous.”
“Four drinks. It’s what you pay,” he defends weakly, but he is no longer thinking this has anything to do with him.
“And a tip on top of it? Everything’s inflated. They’ve all got a hand out to take our hard-earned money. They’re all thieves.”
Riffing, he sings, “‘Gypsies, tramps and thieves . . .’” trying to get her to laugh.
“It’s not funny. I don’t give a shit about that. I’m talking about our money, which we work hard for, and people are ripping us off. We’ve worked for thieves our whole lives. Crooks!”
“Well, that must be everyone these days then, ’cause everything’s expensive.”
She gives a spurt of dismissal. “I know,” he tries, “that kind of high-level thinking and the Federal Reserve isn’t calling me up to consult? Amazing.”
As he wheels out of the lot, he turns the radio louder, maybe it will bust her out of this track. But it isn’t working. Any more than speed. Only when he’s zoomed past the turn they would normally take to go home does she take note. Soon he wheels into the parking lot of a liquor store.
“What are you doing?”
“Let’s get a bottle.”
“And waste more hard-earned money.” Her tone leaves no room for debate.
He does a three-point turn and gets back on the road, still heading away from home, though watching the speed limit now. He is trying the tenuous logic of martinis. Her rant goes on, gnashing at the same theme, like teeth in a picking machine. They’re losers, unlike couples they know, whom she names, one by one, speculating on how much money they earn or have inherited, what they are worth. Finally, his anger mounting, he draws into another parking lot, a sushi restaurant on the town line.
“What the hell’s this?”
“One more drink,” he says. “To get us out of this.”
“I don’t want another drink. I want to go home, go to sleep.”
I’ll sleep when I’m dead, he thinks, channeling Zevon. “One drink. The hell with everything.”
“It’s wasting more money. Everyone’s a thief.”
“Gypsies, tramps, and thieves,” he croons again, though he’s pretty sure that wasn’t the gist of the song’s meaning.
“Cher’s a multi-millionaire,” she says, “what does she care?”
“She’s got cares,” he says, feeling some need to defend Cher, defend himself. “Everybody has. Anyway, the song’s not about her, it’s . . . it’s art, it’s trying to—”
“Screw art. It’s nonsense.”
“C’mon. One more drink. Let’s forget all this.”
He gets out of the car. Reluctantly—it’s too cold to remain outside—she follows. Inside, navigating by dim light among chrome furniture that seems too tall, they take a table near the wall.
“Anything for you?” he asks.
“Come on—one more.”
“No, it’s just more thieves.”
“Let’s split one.”
“I don’t want anything. I want to go to sleep.”
The waitress comes over, sensing the tension. He asks what the house vodka is. He orders a martini.
“Thirteen bucks for a drink?” she says when the waitress goes. “She’s ripping us off.”
“It doesn’t all go to her.”
“It’s robbery. Everyone’s stealing from us.”
“Who is? C’mon.” He’s trying to hang onto some shred of a good mood, still thinking he can jar her out of her bleakness. “Look,” he says, “sure, there’s a bit of larceny in the human heart. I get suspicious of some people sometimes, but—”
“—they can surprise you, too.”
“Ripping us off.”
But there is no surprising her tonight; not with music, not with cocktails, not with epiphany either. He finishes the drink, which has taken on the raw taste of grain alcohol, and they make their way wordlessly out into the winter night. They’ll be home in fifteen minutes; before the stack of drinks inside him will dull him. But after that the remainder of the evening will grow heavy, heavier. How’d the Celts do, he wonders. Briefly wonders if Dry January works? On one thing he hopes she’s right. Sleep might help.
7 Responses to “Dry January” by David Daniel
Tight. Complex characters and situation. In a minimum number of words, a vast array of feelings and thoughts that pierce time and circumstance and may make the reader slightly uneasy. Unsettled at the echoes of those moments coming across the page.
I believe the 18th century dictum for writing is “to instruct and delight.” Daniel changes that to “consider and delight.” Consideration far more disturbing than instruction. The delight, of course, in the way the words go together.
Dave Daniel knows his art and craft.
As taut and sculpted as the abs I always wish I had. As I wish I had David Daniel’s flair for prose.
This is a genre I have to try. Or should I leave it to Americans, who do it best? It’s basically a short unstaged play with (stage) directions breaking up blocks of dialogue. In the hands of David, who realizes the cadences of his characters’ speech with total authenticity and assurance, the dialogue becomes music.
Good story. Dave Daniel gets into Russell Banks territory when a married couple go out on the town. Their world is filled with capitalism’s tough winners-and-losers ethos mixed with alcohol. It’s a drink you can find in any bar and fits perfectly into an American tale of woe.
All the drinking dialogue reminds me of Raymond Chandler. It makes me want to scream, which was probably your intention.
I like my martinis and the heat of July dry. And being a New Englander like Dave Daniel, I like my humor dry too. Cheers!
Interesting glimpse into the life of couple. I think of the famous opening sentence of Ana Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” There may be better alternatives than unrelieved pessimism and drinking to forget, but neither one can imagine what those alternatives might be. I find myself hoping that sleep will help, but…