The Changeover

I’d been paying a lot of attention. Obnoxious noise and behavior tends to cause that in me. Probably from hanging with cats.

This old, bewhiskered guy was weaving around the ballroom, bouncing off and over furniture and people. Shouting matches would explode as some took offense and yelled obscenities. Several fights almost erupted.

What the fuck? I kept thinking. What the fuck? I hadn’t seen the guy drink anything but he was stumbling and had become ‘the old drunk’ in my conversations with my friends and other patrons. He’d been doing it all night but it was clearly worsening as the hours progressed. Looking like a bum and smelling horrendous, personal demons surely stalked him. As I wined, dined, partied and danced, I kept an eye on him, creating his personal story from snippets overheard.

They were easy to overhear. From them, I decided, this is one who is without friends, someone unloved. He was clearly ‘down on his luck’. I figured, he must be unemployed and speculated, which had happened first? Drinking — or perhaps, drug — problems? Or the unemployment? Or something else, like personal loss?

“The worse,” he shouted at a late hour. “They think I’m the fucking worse. That is such bullshit. It’s bullshit.” Slumping back against the bar, he kept whispering, “Bullshit,” while staring at interior moments.

People had given him space. He was close. Strands of thin, unwashed gray hair hung off his head. His face, thought tilted down and shadowed, was etched against the lights. Snot dripped form his nose tip. His cheeks were weathered in the manner of fallen, worn oak. Poorly healed scars crossed that skin. A long gray and white beard, worthy of being described as withered brambles, drooped from his jaw and draped down his chest. I couldn’t tell his eye colors but those eyes were weary and bleary. He’d once been big but now he was shriveled. I wondered, what shrivels a person so? In that face and those eyes, I thought I also saw…hate…and indifference, a remarkable blend to notice in another.

A man in a white robe and hood went up and offered a consoling hand to the old drunk. The old drunk tried shaking it off, movement that caused him to almost fall over. He caught himself. The other tried helping. “I don’t need no fucking help,” the old drunk roared with sneering drunkenness. “I don’t need no one’s fucking help.”

“It’s almost midnight,” someone shouted. A ragged countdown began, gaining strength and harmony as the last five seconds were called out. As the clock struck the hour, a trio of security  guards scythed through the crowd and across the room to the old man. A human wall formed around the meeting. I jostled for space to see what was happening.

Tears streaked down the old drunk’s face. “It wasn’t supposed to be like this,” he said. His voice was hoarse. “What happened? What happened?”

Recognition came to me. Twenty-sixteen,” I said, disbelieving. He didn’t look anything like the year I’d met twelve months ago. I hunted confirmation. People were exclaiming, “Yes, you’re right, it’s the old year.”

“Time to go,” one colossal guard said, firmly gripping the old drunk’s forearm.

Shaking his head, the old drunk muttered. His head shaking seemed more like denial than it was protest. He was crying. His pain touched me. “Let him stay,” someone suggested.

I turned toward the voice. He was wearing a Cubs hat and jersey. “He’s not so bad,” the man said as others considered him.

 

Smiles of understanding flitted through the gathering. A film star stepped up to help the old drunk, followed by musicians, and then an elderly man with orange skin and blonde hair.

“Let’s go,” a guard said to Twenty-sixteen. “It’s time.”

 

Accompanied by a coterie of disparate classes, the guards guided Twenty-sixteen across the quiet room to the exit. The Cubs guy looked sadly introspective while that orange-skinned freak was grinning, an ugly look. Of course, I couldn’t see what the man in the white hood looked like.

Silent tension held  us until they were out the door and it closed. Relief flowed across the room like fresh winter air through an open window. “I’m glad he’s gone,” someone said. Others tittered.

The lights went off, dropping us into darkness. “Ladies and gentlemen,” an announcer said over the loudspeakers. “Please welcome the new year.”

The lights went up. Twenty-seventeen bound into the room like an unleashed young dog. “Teenagers,” people said, laughing and clapping.

“Looks like a greet year,” others said as Twenty-seventeen ran around the room, slapping hands with well-wishers. Cheers rose.

“I hoped they’re right,” I said into my drink, eager to finish it off and hop off to bed. But I chanced to look across the room in time to see the man in the white robes and the smirking, squinting orange-faced man enter, and I wondered.

An aura of dark satisfaction seemed to embrace them.

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