[Eleanor]: 668.Contest entries.Famous First Lines.December 2007
“I can’t cope with this while I’m drunk,” he said. “I’m going to sober up.”
Arthur McGruder slammed his empty pint onto the the top of the oak bar, the solid glass bottom splashing a drop of spilt beer onto the back of his hand. The bartender glanced over at the sudden sound, assured himself nothing was broken, and went back to wiping out glasses with a tea towel. Arthur unsteadily rose from his stool and, using the bar as a support, slowly made his way to the door.
Once outside, the cold night air hit him in the face with its welcome briskness. He breathed deeply, willing the fresh scent to cleanse the alcohol from his lungs and blood. He looked up at the winter sky and squinted at the sparkling bits of light twinkling down at him from their usual constellations
What had he done? He’d gone back to Livia’s, he’d asked her to marry him, and she’d said yes. She said yes! Wasn’t that what he’d wanted? Isn’t that why he had asked her? She was on the verge of packing and leaving forever otherwise, wasn’t she?
Arthur dared not let go of the door. He feared he would fall down in the snow, and yet he knew he had to step forward. He let his hand fall and took a tentative step into the parking lot, his alcohol-laden breath forming clouds in front of his face in the freezing air. He was so drunk he couldn’t feel it, and yet a part of his brain told him this was not a good thing, that he wasn’t dressed properly and shouldn’t linger.
Instead, he started walking towards his truck, trying to remember where he’d left it. It was so late, there were very few cars left in the tavern parking lot; he found his and climbed into the cab, thinking he might sleep off this bender right there. He couldn’t drive home, that was for sure.
Sitting in the cab, his breath fogging up the windows, Arthur tried to sort out the thoughts and emotions churning around inside his befuddled mind. He’d been in this same bar earlier that evening, listening to a maudlin country song asking where love went wrong, feeling sorry for himself and then coming to the life-changing realization that he couldn’t let Livia leave, that her presence in his life had immeasurably changed it for the better and that her absence would make a hole that he was ill-equipped to deal with.
He had never had a woman in his life apart from his mother and sister, both dead now for many years. He loved his nieces, but saw them rarely. Women were just one big mystery to him, an unnecessary complication up to now, when he realized that his heretofore simple existence had suddenly become very complex, and he didn’t know how it had happened.
When did he first notice Livia? She had been living next door to him for years, a quiet spinster keeping to herself for the most part. It wasn’t until that other neighbour, Tabitha, who couldn’t stay out of people’s business, had had them both over for that Robbie Burns evening two years ago. He had never been so bored and uncomfortable, forced to listen to Tabitha’s brother’s recording of some old guy reading Burns’ poetry in a thick, incomprehensib
But then he’d walked Livia home afterwards. It was a night similar to this one, crisp clear air, twinkling stars, their breath condensing in clouds in front of their faces in the stillness. He recalled how Livia’s glasses had frosted up as they laughed about what a terrible time they had both had; and when he’d arrived home, hadn’t he felt a warmth inside that was totally unconnected to the small serving of Scotch?
Suddenly he was very aware of his next-door neighbour. Livia began bringing him home baking: pies, fresh bread, quick breads, and preserves from her summer foragings: blackberry, service berry, wild raspberry and farm-picked strawberry. In return he had gifted her with a haunch of venison and she had surprised him by inviting him over to share a meal of the best stew he had ever tasted.
Arthur didn’t know what had happened. He went from being a confirmed bachelor, eschewing all female company, to looking forward to seeing Livia. He enjoyed her visits; her smile lit up his day. If she hadn’t gotten into the habit of dropping by unexpectedly, he had no idea who would have found him that time he’d fallen off the ladder in the barn and broken his leg. She had called the ambulance that took him to the hospital, and she’d visited every day, not only when he was sedated and under the influence of morphine, but afterwards, when he was at home, hobbling around on crutches, making his life easier by preparing meals, doing the things his housekeeper never seemed to get around to. She read to him in the evenings, or just kept him company, knitting or crocheting or embroidering while he rested with his afflicted leg on a hassock.
His leg had healed and the cast was removed. Livia had ferried him back and forth to his physiotherapy sessions, and as he’d regained mobility, she had quietly given him more and more space until he felt independent again. He hadn’t even really noticed it at first, and then realized that his evenings were emptier without her joining him. He’d felt her absence keenly.
But Arthur had done nothing about it because he didn’t know what to do. He’d never been in this situation before, and so he continued on in his bachelor ways, never thinking that there was some action he was supposed to be taking. At least, that’s the way he looked at it. But then Tabitha had told him, almost by chance when he met her at the post office, that Livia was moving to live with a cousin a couple of provinces over, and that was when he’d felt his heart drop into his shoes.
That very evening he’d been in this same bar, the bar he had just left weaving, trying to figure out what he was supposed to do when he’d heard that song and it hit him that he loved Livia, that she couldn’t leave, and he’d driven to her place and asked her to marry him and she’d said yes. Now he didn’t know what was supposed to happen next. On one hand he felt relieved; on the other, he was suddenly gripped with a terror he had never experienced before. His life was going to change in ways that he couldn’t imagine.
Arthur sat in the cold cab of his truck, feeling the fog in his mind lift as the windshield got cloudier, and realized that he couldn’t go back now. He could only move forward. If he couldn’t live without Livia, he’d better get used to the idea of living with her. God help him, he thought, he was surely going to need it.