25 Jan One Helluva Headache
“Three shots of rye whiskey, five vodka sevens and seven beers. All that gives you is one helluva headache,” says Syd. The wrinkles in his face would make a person guess he’s sixty. But he acts as if he were a teenager, wearing aviator sunglasses to hide his shiny, stoned eyes. A black shirt that in red letters has the word Obliterator scrawled across it. Around those letters are skeletons swigging rum into their skulls as they hang off the sides of a pirate ship. It’s one of the many metal band shirts you’d catch him wearing on any given work day.
He shoves a box into the back of a shelf. The product inside clinks together. Twelve bottles of gin tinkling against one another. He dips down to grip another cardboard box.
And he says, “If I didn’t have these sunglasses on, my eyes might melt into the back of my head like in those movies when Dracula sees his first sunrise.” Whispering to me, “One helluva headache, man.”
Some would call Syd a party animal. Others might call him an alcoholic.
His aviators reflect the image of a person. Me – frowning under the great duress of taking inventory with a man who all he does is brag about his alcohol intake. It’s my turn to work the shift in the back of the Liquor Boutique, hefting boxes onto shelves all day. And listen to Syd list off the casualties of his booze cabinet.
Syd says, “Tequila Sunrise. I forgot I had one of those.” He pushes his sunglasses to the tip of his nose, his glassy eyes bloodshot. “Probably ‘cause I have one helluva headache.”
He pushes another box onto the shelf.
When you’re assigned to the store’s backroom, you’re going to be lugging around product for your whole shift while Syd tells you about how he tied one on last night. This will happen for the entire six to eight hours you’re there. He’s been a stock boy at the Boutique since he was a kid. Now he’s at the age when his skin hangs off his neck the way a turkey’s wattle hangs. Repeating the same routine. You lift boxes and shove them onto shelves. And Syd, in his stoner drawl, drones on about his mid-week binge. Drones on. And on. And on.
The shelves fill up as he scribbles on his clipboard and says, “Gin, gin, the more you drink the more you spin. Which reminds me, I had a Gin Rickey last night too.”
The last time he told me this was about an hour ago. He’s been reciting the same list of drinks for the past six hours he’s now he’s back around to the beginning again.
“To make a Gin Rickey, you need simple syrup,” Syd goes on, “you can buy it at the farmer’s market. Or you can make your own by boiling water and sugar. The next step is you squeeze a lime. Half of one should do. Sift the pulp and seeds out of it as it drops into your martini shaker. Full of ice. Make sure you have lots of cubes. The shittier your gin tastes on its own, the colder you want it. Pour in soda water. Add your room temperature syrup. Shake it all for less than ten seconds or you’ll bruise the alcohol. Then serve.”
This is maybe the fourth time he’s told me this recipe today.
The last two times he forgot to add the lukewarm syrup.
I move a heavy box and Syd checks off the tiny boxes on his paper as he says, “Enough of them will give you a headache, man, but it’s worth it.”
In the reflection in his sunglasses, you can see the rippling muscles in my clenched jaw. They are wound so tight, I can barely breathe. They hold back the words shut up from running off the tip of my tongue and trampling over supervisor Syd’s ego.
The rows and rows of shelving in the storage room surrounding us are like prison walls. There is no sunlight or other signs of the outside. Everything here is grey. Syd’s been ticking off the liquor inventory. Ticking off the list of drinks he consumed the previous night which was a Wednesday. And ticking me off.
He says, “Three shots of rye whiskey.” Chuckling to himself as if there were a joke somewhere in there that I should get.
And he says, “Pick up the pace. I wanna get all this counted before the end of the day. To give me enough time to throw back a few vodka sevens before the work whistle goes off.”
Standing there, I’m sweating from hefting glass and liquor. The water bottle next to me has been empty since our unpaid lunch break. And the rusty pipes of the Boutique spit only mud. But work is almost over so I push through a spinning, dehydrated fatigue. Swig back the bitter dregs from my coffee cup. Then return to lifting.
Syd drags his pencil across his clipboard and says, “Oh crap, we were so lost in conversation, I think I lost count of this stack. We might have to take all these off and do it again.”
I say, “Are you serious?”
“Let me see, if we lost count. Let me see. Let, me, see.”
We’ve been shifting the same heavy cardboard cubes up and down and up and down and up and down the shelves for the whole day. My trapezius muscles and hamstring muscles and all the other ones in my face and neck are wound tight enough to simulate the density of hard rubber.
He skims his pencil along the inventory tally form, snickering as he says, “Five vodka sevens, dude. I swear they’re the culprit.”
I don’t know who’s more annoying, the vampire off that kid’s show my son watches. The one who all he does is count then laugh. Or Syd, the stockroom supervisor. They both laugh at simple numbers. The vampire more so. But at least the purple puppet is committed to the number of the day. Unlike Syd. Who could have fucked up our tally. Syd is worse than the irritating puppet. He’s a vampire of time, whose rationality melts at the thought of a Tequila Sunrise.
“Which numbers are which,” Syd whispers, lowering his face to his clipboard. “Damn, did I forget the numbers of that shelf too?”
His poor concentration may have lost us hours of work. The muscles around my skull are squeezing tighter. It’s difficult to breathe in anything but short, quick breaths. It’s cutting off the oxygen flowing into my brain.
When I massage my scalp it’s as soft as a giant raisin.
I’ve stopped breathing.
All I can think about is analgesics. Acetaminophen. Or codeine. Pills with little numbers stamped on them. To treat the pumping hot veins punching me in the temples. I’d cut off my pinky finger to pop an ibuprofen.
Chugging a bottle of gin would get me fired. Or worse, Syd might ask to sit and drink with him. He’d want to be friends. Then I’d be stuck in the storage room past the closing hours as he goes through tonight’s drink list. Seven beers, maybe, eight.
“Three, five, seven,” he says to himself.
And the sound of my heartbeat pumps loud in my head. Like the beat of a song at a rave. Like the thump of a helicopter’s spinning blades at take off. Like when you’re underwater and running out of air. When it sounds like your brain is knocking against your skull trying to escape the pressure of drowning.
“Three, five, seven,” he continues, “Rye, Vodka, Beer.”
Packing anymore might further mess up our tally. So, I’m just standing there, not inhaling the stale atmosphere between us, holding the cardboard box as it tickles my sweat drenched fingers. It’s getting heavier.
“Three shots of rye. Five vodka sevens. And seven beers. All gives you,” he taps his pencil on the metal shelving. A piercing, pinging sound comes off it each time he does. Tapping, he says, “One, helluva, heada-“
The box slips away from me. It crashes to the floor. Glass shatters.
And I scream, “ONE HELLUVA HEADACHE.”
Cheap vodka soaks through the holes in my shoes. Into my socks. I say, You’ve been saying the same thing over and over since we clocked in.
And Syd calmly says, “It’s seven-“
And I say, “It’s seven beers, I know, five vodka sevens and three shots of rye.”
And I say, “Don’t forget about the tequila. Ooh, the Tequila Sunrise. That’d kill a person. It’d kill even Nosfuratu or whatever. With one helluva headache, right?”
“No, it’s seven o’clock,” he says, “Our shift is over. And it turns out I didn’t lose today’s count, so we can go home. We’re done. Except for the mess on the floor. We’ve gotta clean it up before we go.”
“Tell you what,” he says, “You clear off. You sound like you need a drink. I’ll tell the boss I smashed a box of three hundred and sixty dollars worth of vodka. He’ll let me off, he owes me. Insurance will cover it anyways.”
“If,” Syd says, “Only if, you don’t tell him about this.” And he disappears into the janitor’s closet. Rolling out a mop and bucket. Attached to the squeeze bucket where you would ring the mop out is a screen filter. “It’s for cleaning up spills and sifting out the glass so you can drink the leftovers. Pretty cool, right?”
I say, “Yeah, yeah. It’s cool.”
He says, “I may have enough spillage here to make White Russians all weekend.”
My neck relaxes. And the sides of my head loosen up on my brain. I look at the clock that reads seven. It’s almost orgasmic to take those first few slow breaths as you calm down.
Syd mops the glass and cheap vodka and squeezes it into his fancy filter bucket.
I say, “Next time, can we talk about how much the boss sucks. Or even the weather. Anything but the list of what made you drunk last night.”
He stares at me from behind his sunglasses, “Got the message loud and clear.” Then he lifts the bucket for a sip of the vodka remnants just cleaned off the laminate floor. Slurps a bit down. The way he wipes his mouth is the way a little kid wipes his mouth after chugging down juice. And he says, “No need to repeat yourself, dude.”
Josh Ackermann escapes his desk job by writing in his free time. One of his short stories, One Helluva Headache, was published in the English Bay Review. He’s currently revising two of his first novels. And he’s is the creator of the Falling For Stories podcast; among many other titles.