by Foster Trecost
Seems like we were in the car more than anywhere else – a few days driving followed by a few days driving back. So it went with family vacations, the minutes crept by just like the miles. My dad chose the hotels and he always chose the cheapest, but when a marquis advertised free champagne at the five o’clock happy hour, the less expensive hotel next door somehow seemed too cheap. We checked in at four forty-five, fifteen minutes to spare. He disappeared into the bathroom and emerged as someone we barely recognized. He had slicked back his hair and it looked stiff, like it might crumble if he ran his hands through it. He’d shaved so fast, red nicks dotted his neck.
A few others had gathered in the lobby, but not many. He grasped his glass as though his hand was accustomed to the shape and took tiny sips, not because he thought he was supposed to, but because he wanted it to last. A goofy grin settled across his mouth and he mingled with the others, toasting them like privileged members of an elite club. We watched from a corner, often unsure who we were watching.
I knew his glass was empty when he tipped it upside down and tapped the bottom. He shrugged his shoulders and tilted his head in an oh-well sort of way. One glass per guest, no refills. His music had stopped, but it didn’t go gently; the needle scratched across the grooves telling him it was time to go. He set the glass on a table and walked right past us. During dinner he smiled in an unfamiliar way, just a hint, but I could see it and I’d never seen it before. The next day it was gone. We crammed in the car, and so were we.
Years later I told this story to a group of men, each holding a glass of champagne. Free champagne. I said my father would’ve wanted it this way and to enjoy because life doesn’t give refills and neither did I. They seemed to understand and tipped their glass toward the casket. I thought more about that happy hour and wondered if it was the happiest hour he’d ever known.