I'm in line at the convenience store where we buy our milk, waiting to buy our milk. I'm a long way from the register. Busy time of day. Five or six people ahead of me, buying their milk. Young manager working the counter alone and getting frazzled. Man enters the store. Tall, broad-shouldered, middle-aged, but stooped, slumped, and looking elderly. Missing his front teeth. A sad, unfocused, lightless look in his eyes. Goes to the coffee counter and lifts two large cups from the stacks. Holds them up high and calls to the manager in a voice meant to be friendly and cheerful but sounding cringing, apologetic, already expecting to be turned down.
Man: Can I take a couple of these?
The manager doesn't look up from ringing out a customer, but from the way his head and shoulders stiffened at the sound of the man's voice it's clear he knows him and knows what's coming.
Manager (discouragingly): What do you want them for?
Man: I just want a couple.
Manager: I know. Why do you want them?
The manager plainly knows why. The man doesn't answer. He's trying to think of a plausible answer. His eyes grow moist, like a little kid caught in a lie he didn't mean to tell.
Manager: You're going to pour your booze into them?
The man looks around him. He's still holding up the two cups. He tries to speak again. Can't. Goes to put them back. The manager isn't looking at him though. He's still too busy. He seems to think the man's going to argue, or walk out with the cups anyway, because he sighs and shrugs.
Manager: Take them.
Manager: Take them and get out of here and go get drunk.
Man (pretending not to have heard the last part): Thank you! Thank you! God bless you.
Manager: Yeah, yeah.
The man leaves with his cups.
Manager (muttering half to himself): Take them and pour your beer into them and give one to your brother, that's what you usually do. (Looks up at the rest of us standing in line. He's frustrated with himself. He thinks he's done the wrong thing but doesn't know what the right thing would have been. He speaks to us as if we want to know, which we do, of course.) He and his brother, they'll sit down by the river, and get drunk until they get sick. That's what they do every day.
My turn comes. I buy my milk. The convenience store is right by the river and as I pull out of the parking lot I can see down to the riverbank where there's a picnic table under a tree. Sure enough. Facing the river, two hunched, gray-haired figures sit on the table top, their feet on the bench, and one is passing a large white coffee cup to the other.