Ralph Benton

Spring Cleaning

He woke to the stench of vomit. The stink made him sick all over again. He barely managed to get his head over the side of the sofa before his guts churned and heaved and twisted. His stomach was empty, of course, so all he could do was spasm uselessly and bring up clear yellow bile and spit. This went on for several minutes.

He wiped his mouth on the cushion, then lay back and breathed. His whole torso ached with the effort. He blinked at the ceiling. How could his gut burn so badly? Ulcers were for middle-aged suits, not dudes like him.

This has to stop. It has to.

He rolled over, sat up on the sofa, and took a deep breath. His nose filled with the smell from the pail on the floor. The deep, musty funk of the sofa, his sheetless bed for the last nine months. There was something rancid in the sink he hadn’t wanted to look at for at least three days. And his own self. His own bitter, acrid stink. He didn’t move for a long time. At least he wasn’t spinning. That was the worst. He opened his eyes and looked at the coffee table.

Sometime last night Billy’s dip cup had spilled, and foul black saliva was drying on the cracked glass. Empty cans of Bud Light, an empty fifth of Fireball, and two empty plastic bottles of Popov vodka, the cheapest stuff they could find. When did Billy leave? Two? Four? No idea. He had a vague memory of the two of them on the sofa, staring at some titty flick on mute, drinking vodka out of coffee mugs.

He found the remote between the sticky pillows of the sofa, but the TV wouldn’t come on. What the fuck. No TV? It was Sunday, at least let him watch some football. The little blue light stubbornly refused to illuminate. He tossed the remote across the sofa.

He decided to risk standing up. If he stood too fast he might black out. Or throw up. He put his hands on his knees and levered himself upright. Slowly. Not so bad. He had to empty the pail or he’d lose it again. He picked it up with one hand and held it as far from his face as he could. Head turned, he made for the bathroom. Just dump it down the drain, wash it out, you’re good to go. You got this.

He put his bare foot in a puddle of Bud Light or piss or something, and sprawled. The bucket bounced and spilled. Fuck me. Fuck. Me. He lay there. When did this become his life, lying on the floor of a filthy bathroom, watching a yellow puddle spread across the floor? He stood up, careful to avoid the now-mingled fluids, and closed the door. He went to the kitchen and pissed in the sink. Maybe this will kill whatever’s living in there.

He looked down at his bare torso, the sparse hairs, the scabs and pimples. So white. Like those cave animals in that video. Eighth grade? When he sat next to Monica Tullerio, and tried to peek down her shirt when he stood up. “Jesus, Todd, how about just one day without you eyeballing me, huh, can you go one fucking day?” He laughed it off, but didn’t look again all semester.

From eighth grade to now, and still a nasty little piece of shit. Self-loathing and rage swirled into the hangover headache and made his brain shriek. He grabbed his head with both hands and tried to squeeze his skull into a little ball, because somehow that made it feel better.

He let go to pound his fist on the sticky kitchen counter. He had to change. Make his life different. Please. He looked around his apartment.

The garbage can was filled to overflowing, because of course it was. He found trash bags in the pantry. Cleo had bought those months ago, but she didn’t come over anymore. He jammed everything he could find into the bags. Beer cans, cups, the dishes in the sink. He got an old t-shirt and wiped up the vomit and threw that away. He made three trips to the dumpster. The work gradually burned through the headache. Damn it felt good. 

After hours of work the place didn’t smell as bad, especially since he had opened the window. The TV flickered with football once he figured out that the remote’s signal had been blocked by a beer can. Like a goddamned rocket scientist.

But most of all, the booze was gone. Right? That was the important part. Some nagging part of him that didn’t trust him – Cleo? his mother? – told him to look again and make sure.

He opened the freezer door. A Popov bottle lay on its side. What was it doing in the freezer? He rewound the clip in his mind from when he cleared the coffee table. All the bottles were empty, weren’t they? No, not all. This one still had a couple of fingers left. He couldn’t remember what happened next, but he must have put the bottle in the freezer. He turned the bottle to the light. The clear liquid, now icy cold, oozed and flowed, more like oil than water. Why had he kept it?

It didn’t matter what he thought an hour ago, now he was cleaning! Spring cleaning his life. Unscrew the top, tilt it over the sink. No, scratch that. Start the water running first, so he wouldn’t smell the booze when he emptied the bottle. The smell might make him throw up. Or want one. Just one. To take the edge off.

He stood there with the bottle poised over the sink. Christ, he had heard of this. Alcoholics, real alcoholics, with a bottle of vodka stashed by their bed. Yes, vodka, probably Popov. For when the withdrawal kicked in and woke them up in the middle of the night.

When was the last time he was sober? Not buzzed, not drunk, not hungover, just… sober? Three weeks? No, longer than that. One of his dates with Cleo. Yeah, about a month ago, right? Yeah.


He always had a couple before he saw her. Steady his nerves. Settle him down. He didn’t want her to think he was weird.

So how long had it been? Months? This year? Had he been sober just one day this whole goddamn year?

The bottle trembled in his grip. He knew what would fix that. Just one. The last one, for a while. Just have one, then dry out for a bit. Lots of guys did that. Billy, even Billy went sober for three months, last year, right? Court-ordered, maybe, but still.

Just one.

And then he was pouring it down the sink. Like it was nothing! His hand still shook, but now with relief. He breathed into his hand and sniffed it, just to make sure he hadn’t accidentally taken a drink without knowing it. Clean. He was clean. Sober. And hungry!

He knew the fridge was empty. He went through the pockets of his jeans. He found a twenty and some ones. He walked over to the Perfect Market. It wasn’t cheap, none of these Whole Foods knock-offs were, but they made good sandwiches and hipster mac-and-cheese.

He walked inside and grabbed a basket. A pyramid of yellow-green apples greeted him. “Why, hello there apples, I believe I will.” He made a show of selecting one and placed it in his basket. Yoga Pants Girl smiled at his silliness as she stacked tomatoes with a practiced hand. He smiled back, then became intensely aware of his mouth. How long since he had brushed his teeth? He found the Personal Care aisle and dropped a toothbrush and some toothpaste made by a farmer in Maine in the basket.

He didn’t look as he passed the Liquor and Wine aisle. He made an extra turn to avoid the Cold Beer! cooler. Not today, not today, not today. Maybe not ever.

Beard-Net Deli Guy made him a Reuben, an honest-to-god Reuben. Just like his dad used to make on Sunday afternoons. How long ago had that been?

It all starts fresh today.

He dropped his basket on the conveyor belt.

“Hey, Todd, isn’t it? How you doing?”

John, the checker, gave him a smile. An older guy, but friendly, always friendly. 

“Yeah man, I’m good, I’m good. Kinda, starting fresh today, you know what I mean?”

“Fresh, that’s always good.” John flicked open a paper bag. “Maybe you’ll get laid, huh?”

“Aw man, one thing at a time. But thanks!” It felt good to talk to someone. Someone sober.

“Let’s see, comes to $24.81.”

He dug into his jeans and pulled up his cash.

“Twenty-four, huh, I didn’t think I had spent that much.” He was counting out the ones.

“Yeah, adds up quick, that’s for sure. Even with my discount I can’t shop here. How much you got?”

“Uh, twenty-three.” Jesus, what the fuck was this? A sandwich, an apple, and some toothpaste? “What can I put back?”

“Well, that apple would do it. Or the booze.”

“The what?” His vision flickered. He hadn’t picked up any booze.

John reached into the bag and pulled out the pint of Popov. “Four bucks, with the tax.”

His tongue had gone dry so fast it was hard to speak.

“I didn’t put that in my basket! I didn’t! I’m, I’m sober. Yeah, I’m sober!”

John looked at him and shrugged. “Suits me, man, you do you.” He stuck the bottle in the returns bin.

“Wait.” His apartment, empty. Football tonight. Maybe he’d text Cleo. Cleo. He didn’t want to act weird around Cleo.

He pulled the apple out of the bag. “Put this back instead.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s