It’s mid-January at the liquor store. The holiday season is over. Wine has already been bought for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. Gifts of scotch and bourbon and schnapps have been rung up and wrapped or shoved in gift bags weeks ago. Bulk purchases for parties, full cases, and splits are a memory.
There are few customers. They are all stocked up on Dewar’s and Jack and Canadian Club given as gifts or left over from parties. Lake Erie is colored like lead and matches the sky during the day. It’s dark when I wake and dark when I drive to work. It’s the time of inventory, of counting bottles on the shelves and full cases in the backroom. It’s the time of washing and dusting and vacuuming and ticking off days until March 17th and Easter and Mother’s Day when customers will return.
A mix of sleet and rain pisses on the city. Chet Baker plays on the radio under the counter, his trumpet cool and slow. The door opens, the bell above it ringing for the first time in hours, and an ancient Polish woman waddles in dressed in black, a babushka wrapped around her head. She blinks, startled by the fluorescents and glass bottles lining shelves and catching light, and unwinds her headscarf. Her face is deeply wrinkled. Dark circles raccoon her eyes. She asks me in a voice thick with Warsaw, or Krakow, or Treblinka if I have a good wine for cancer.
Hail is pelting the front window now, driven slanted by wind coming off the lake. I’m eighteen years old, working at the family store, and doing the best I can. There is no wine that’s good for cancer, and I don’t know how to respond. My dad clears his throat, looks at her with tired eyes, and says, “Right this way, missus,” delivering the line like he’s said it a thousand times before. He takes her over to the discount bin. He walks with a limp from a broken leg that healed shorter after a fall in the parking lot two Januarys earlier. His right shoulder is higher than his left from years of carrying cases of booze on it. He picks out an inexpensive Merlot past its prime. He tells her, a couple glasses after dinner will do the trick.