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Fiction issue: Whiskey'd

May 1, 2014 | 12:00 a.m. CST

Hannah’s hands ran up the wooden neck. She was tired but knew that it was no time to be giving up. She could remember the words of her old music teacher: “Persevere! Push through! Persevere or give up and be nothing!” So she put her fingers in place and started again. It had been most of a decade since she last played, but she was sure that if she tried hard enough, it would all begin to come back to her. Like riding a bike, except it was a matter of retraining her fingers to feel for the notes, of arching her back to properly align the bow, of leaning in to get the right amount of pressure on the strings. Maybe it was a bit more complex than relearning how to ride a bike.

Hannah was sweating despite the chill that permeated the house. She had pushed the dining room table against the wall so she could sit center stage in the room. The usually comforting floral wallpaper looked mockingly comedic in the dead of night. Hannah’s hands shook. A bottle of whiskey sat by her pale, stockingless feet. She steadied herself for another attempt.

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The run of notes was unsteady and raw. Rather than singing, the notes screeched. She chastised herself inwardly. “Ah. No. Not right. Again.” And she tried. Her wrists moved quickly, but her fingers fumbled about. The strings cut at her soft hands. She readied herself, starting from the beginning.

She had been sitting at the dining room table when the idea to play her old cello struck. There was much that needed to be done around the house. She had laundry to fold and dishes standing in the sink. There were bills that needed to be looked over. But she could not bring herself to do any more than just sit at the table, privately lamenting over how everything had changed in the past year.

Hannah stared absently into the corner at her husband’s whiskey cabinet. She had fought with him about it, initially. She felt it gave visitors the wrong impression and was unnecessary. He countered that she used to be more fun and a younger Hannah would have loved the cabinet. She yielded, of course.

She opened the doors and peered amongst the bottles. A fine bourbon sat behind the others. It had been a wedding present from her late father-in-law, and her husband was waiting for a significant occasion before opening the fine liquor. Tonight was as good as any other.

His humidor sat on the top shelf. Eight fat cigars lay on top of each other. Hannah had never smoked in her life, not even a curious puff of a cigarette. She had seen her husband and his father share many late nights together, talking about nothing, while smoking a cigar. She had always been envious that men could so easily bond over something as simple as tobacco.

Hannah picked the largest, prettiest cigar in the box. She trimmed it carefully, just as she had seen her husband do dozens of times before. She turned it in her hands a few times, then set it down. She pulled a glass toward her and half filled it with the whiskey. Her preference for liquor had always been a joke to her husband. She had always indulged in the sweet delight of piña coladas and weak cosmopolitans. Her husband mocked her girlishness, saying she “couldn’t handle a dignified man’s drink anyway!”

She raised it to her lips and took a sip. There was a hard burn to it, but she enjoyed the rich sweetness as well. She picked up the matchbox and struck a light. She raised her cigar to her mouth and sucked in her first mouthful, letting the earthy perfume play inside her cheeks. “Why had men prided themselves by indulging in these?” she thought. Surely few amusements are as boldly feminine as whiskey and a cigar.

It was this musing, over being boldly feminine, that made Hannah remember her cello. She remembered how her husband thought strings too dull of an instrument, too old for a young woman and too classical to compare to Top-40 hits. And so, gradually, the cello made its way to the attic.

But Hannah was determined. She was an impressive woman. She could drink lofty whiskeys and smoke foreign cigars. She stomped up the staircase and pulled down the attic hatch. She grabbed her instrument and returned to the dining room. She had been reunited with her cello, the sacrifice she had made for her happy marriage.

But it wasn’t happy. She remembered the evenings where not a single word would pass between them. But he would always come home the next day, bouquet in hand, promising that she was the one thing he cherished above all else.

Then, the bouquets and sweet words stopped. And the boys were getting older. And the wordless evenings stretched into wordless days. Wordless days turned into nights spent in separate rooms without objection. Weekends were spent with just her sons, no father. There were no harsh words; there were no fights. Just a disinterest that grew in them both. She wasn’t surprised when he stopped coming home.

After a few weeks, she received a postcard. There was a happy cactus on the back. It was addressed to her and succinctly stated, “Let’s not bother.”

And so she knew her husband wasn’t dead, and she knew he wasn’t home. She couldn’t just go looking for a man who didn’t want to be around. She got a job when the savings ran low.

Hannah rested the instrument as she took a long drink from the bottle. She resituated herself. She worked her clumsy fingers over the loud instrument. “Oh tsk. Disjointed, bad tone, untuned, off the beat. Typical Hannah Douglas, typical Hannah, typical Hannah!” Her teacher’s voice was relentless.

She had all night to try again, over and over, until she got it right.

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