Billy Kennedy felt something racing in him, a mix of anticipation and unease. He was on the couch in his parents living room. The television was on and the air was cold through the walls of the old house. A bright December day lay shining beyond the windows, the end of the year close by, the famous ball in Times Square about ten hours from dropping. Sitting up, Billy straightened his bony frame. He was twelve years old and bright eyed and pale. His parents hosted a party every year on New Year’s Eve. The house was going to be packed in a couple of hours. Billy wanted to have fun. It wasn’t something he was always able to do: he worried too much about what other people thought, believed sometimes that almost anyone was better at living than he was. Luckily, a lot of neighbors would be at the party, and his best friend, Ray, and his other best friend, Ritchie, who both lived on the block, were coming with their parents. Ritchie’s sister, Meg, was probably coming too, she said she was anyway. The noise, the yelling, the celebrating, it always got pretty raucous. Billy and his friends had been talking about it all week. They figured if they wanted, they could sneak some beer, or a few drinks from a bottle. No one was going to be paying attention to anything. Billy had been drunk, or kind of drunk, two or three times already. His father usually kept a case or two of Budweiser outside the basement laundry room, in the extra fridge his parents had down there. He’d taken cans from the fridge and shared them with Ray and Ritchie. The beer made Billy loud and happy; it kept him from worrying about every little thing, stopped him from feeling awkward and foolish. He’d talked to Ray about an hour ago; he could all but hear his friend smiling through the phone. It would be some night all right, especially if Meg came. It was just a week ago the two of them happened to be alone together, using the short cut in the alley behind Red’s Deli at the same time. They’d almost kissed then. At least Billy thought they’d come close, that if he’d only made a move they would have. She was just a year older than him, and he could still smell the candied scent of the lip gloss she’d put on while they’d stood close to one another, leaning in, the sleeves of their jackets touching.
The television started blaring a jingle for a soda commercial and Billy’s mom came into the living room and flicked the set off. She told Billy since he didn’t have anything productive to do he could run down to the store and pick up a couple of jars of maraschino cherries for that night. She said they were out of them and asked Billy if he could believe it. She made it sound like it was impossible to imagine not having such a thing on hand always. Billy grumbled about the cold, complained that his sister and brother were around doing nothing too, he wanted to know why one of them couldn’t go instead of him. His mother just frowned and handed him a five dollar bill and told him not to get lost in his travels, and to bring her the right change back. The thought of maraschino cherries made Billy’s stomach flip. The brightness of the red of the cherry, the goopy liquid they lived in. To him they were like a nasty experiment in a lab someone decided to take out into the world and sell to people to eat. Grown ups liked to put them in their drinks. He’d never know why.
Winter kept the city pretty desolate, the cold moving people indoors, or hurrying them back home whenever they had to go out. There were only a few trees on Billy’s block, and even with the sun in a clear sky this time of year they looked crooked and raw, bent apparitions a kid might see in a graveyard in a horror movie and want to run from. Billy scuffed his way up the block to Red’s, but they didn’t have any maraschino cherries. Burying his hands in his thick blue parka, he forced himself to walk all the way to Twenty-first Street, six blocks down Claymore Avenue, to the liquor store, where he found the jars of cherries on a shelf next to olives and packs of swizzle sticks. On his way back, he spotted his father outside Koval’s Bowling Alley, a place with a bar his dad spent time in. Mr. Kennedy was pointing a finger at a woman Billy didn’t recognize. The old man sounded gruff, hovering over his companion, telling her the holiday’s were for family. The woman, her hair in a wild friz, her overcoat flapping open in the wind, looked cowed at first. Then she seemed to grow a little crazy. She screeched back at his father, cursing and spitting on the sidewalk, as if to tell him that’s what he was, a wash of spit on the concrete. Billy thought his dad might hit her, it looked that way anyhow, from across the street. The tall, bespectacled Irishman eventually threw his arms up in the air. It was like he was asking the sky for a favor. Taking it as an opportunity, the woman forced her own arms around him, crowding the man in a kind of half formed bear hug. Pressing her face into his heavy wool coat, she began to cry. Catching sight of Billy on the opposite corner, Mr. Kennedy waved an angry hand at the boy, signaling him to go away. Later, when his father returned home, he explained the woman was a barmaid at Koval’s, that she was in her cups half the time, always causing trouble. Mrs. Kennedy seemed puzzled by the explanation. Then she seemed upset. It made Billy feel weird inside, listening to his parents discuss it. After a while, he went to his room and put on some records and forgot about the whole thing.
By eight o’clock the doorbell at the Kennedy’s had started ringing. People arrived with plates of food, Swedish meatballs, potato salad, dessert dishes no one would end up touching. Liquor bottles and glasses, set up neatly on the white formica top, turned the kitchen table into a bar. Beer had been stocked in the fridge, and packed in a cooler of ice on the floor by the back door. Billy’s brother, Danny, who was two years older than Billy, had been made bartender, an idea of their father’s— to give the boy some sense of responsibility, for christ sake— that their mother didn’t particularly care for. The Kolkaski’s, Billy’s friend Ray’s parents, came in around nine-thirty, Ray in tow. Mr. Kolkaski seemed a bit tipsy already. He sang lines from Molly Bawn, greeting Billy’s mother. He twirled her around while he belted the sad old Irish ballad, making her laugh and flush red at the neck. Mrs. Kolkaski swatted her husband on the shoulder. Scowling, she told him to behave. Ray and Billy called Ritchie on the phone and he came over. Meg wasn’t with him, but Billy was too uncomfortable about the subject to ask after her. He hoped she’d arrive with her parents, whenever they managed to get themselves there. People had started making their own drinks, and Danny had stopped trying to serve them. When Billy and his friends went into the kitchen, Danny set up four shot glasses and bet Billy he couldn’t drink sixty shots of water, one after the other, without stopping. Billy double checked, making sure his brother meant only water, then agreed. Partway through trying, his lungs and belly seemed to distend and he couldn’t breathe. It was a horrible feeling and all at once he vomited a gush of water into the sink. Both Billy’s friends were laughing. With a smart aleck grin on his face, Danny told Billy he was an idiot. It’s like drowning, he said. Don’t you know anything.
The bottom floors of the house had filled with the swing sounds of Frank Sinatra singing, “You Make Me Feel So Young.” The coffee table in the living room had been moved out of the way and a few people had started dancing. Mrs. Byrne from down the street did a little jig in the center of everyone, her drink in her hand, held above her head. The kids in the kitchen could see the grown ups from the little pass through window in the wall beside the sink. Looking out, Billy spotted Meg, eating peanuts from a bowl, talking to his younger sister Jeannie, the two of them standing near the couch. Turning back to the kitchen, he told his brother they ought to try something else in the shot glasses. Danny decided to make life miserable for Billy. He told the three friends they’d just get sick if they tried drinking anything. He said they were too young, that they were just kids. Ritchie bet he could out drink anyone. He claimed to have finished a whole bottle of gin last weekend without even getting drunk. Danny asked what kind of gin and Ritchie said the kind his father kept under the sink behind the garbage pail. They all laughed at that one. Danny, still playing the elder statesman, took a bottle of Seagram’s whiskey from the table. It had a weird red cap on it that corkscrewed into the bottle. The corkscrew thing formed a cup on the outside that allowed the pourer to measure a perfect shot. Danny made a shot and drank it. He said it was too strong for the rest of them. He held onto the bottle, keeping it from anyone else. They started pleading for a chance and he made each of them step up while he tipped the bottle for them. When it was Billy’s turn, Danny made it so the liquor kept coming, until Billy began to gag. His eyes were watering when Meg and Jeannie came in, wanting to know what was going on.
The boys were proud of themselves. They kept talking about the taste of the whiskey, how it burned their throats going down. When a man came into the kitchen, the bottle was quickly hidden behind Danny’s back. Emboldened by his first taste of Seagram’s, Billy waited for the grown up to leave, then got the bottle away from his brother and took a second drink. He went over to the cooler and rustled three bottles of beer out of the ice. Billy and Ray and Ritchie each took another bottle and hid two beers under their shirts, tucked in the waistline of their pants. Laughing at the cold against their bellies, they made their way, fast as they could, through the dining room and front parlor, up the stairs to Billy’s bedroom. Meg and Jeannie followed them up. After he closed the bedroom door, Billy warned his little sister not to say anything about the beer. Humiliated by the accusation, she snarled back she wasn’t going to tell anyone anything. The walls of Billy’s room were decorated with rock posters. One showed Jim Morrison without a shirt, in leather pants. Another had Alice Cooper with a giant snake draped around his neck. Looking around, Meg said the place was creepy. Knocked off his stride by the comment, Billy sat on his bed and started drinking. Ray twisted the cap off a Budweiser and offered Meg some. When she finished taking a sip from the bottle, he started laughing and asked her if she’d stuck her tongue down the hole. She tried to hit him but he ducked out of the way. Jeannie said she wanted to drink some too. They all told her she was too young, that she’d only get sick. She made an ugly face and told them they were stupid and stormed out of the room.
Sinatra had been replaced on the turntable with the album, “The Very Best of Artie Shaw.” The adults weren’t dancing anymore, but they were laughing, talking loudly, yelling to one another across the rooms. Jeannie had come downstairs and told her mother she wanted some cake. Her mother explained the cake was to be cut at midnight, for the new year. She told her youngest she needed to behave, or she wouldn’t be allowed to stay up to watch the ball drop. Remember your promise, Jeannie’s mother said. Don’t be a nuisance, or it’s bedtime. Mr. Kolkaski came over and palmed the top if Jeannie’s head and mussed her brown curls. He started laughing for what seemed like no reason to Jeannie. Raising his eyebrows, he winked at her mother. You need a little topper on that drink, he told Mrs. Kennedy. In a sing song voice he repeated himself, shimmying his hips this time in a hula like dance. Walking away with her glass, he tripped on some invisible thing on the carpet and almost fell. Steadying himself, he started laughing again, continuing on toward the kitchen. Mr. Kennedy arrived at his wife’s side looking slightly off kilter, his dress shirt loose around his belt, his glasses down further on his nose than was his custom. Eying his bride of twenty years, he wondered in a stern voice if everyone was behaving themselves. Finishing the sentence, he turned abruptly to little Jeannie, making it seem as if it was only her he’d been questioning.
Battling above the music, raised voices suddenly came from the kitchen. The only one anyone could see was Billy’s brother, grinning by the pass through window, watching whatever upheaval was taking place in there. Without warning or reason, Mr. Kennedy let out a fog horn sounding, Hey ho, hey ho. Ignoring the commotion, one of the guests turned the stereo off and clicked the television on. Guy Lombardo came into focus, Mr. New Year’s Eve, live from the Waldorf Astoria. Those closest to the television set cheered, but it wasn’t time yet. A moment later, people in the dining room began shouting hooray, and, that away, their boisterous encouragements peppered here and there by mutterings of disapproval. It was Mrs. Kolkaski. She’d entered from the kitchen, clad in high heels, thin straps clasped at her ankles, below a satiny half slip and black lace bra. Her husband, following behind her, held a drink in each hand. The dress his wife had arrived in now flowed down his back from the top of his head. He’d started shimmying again, but instead of laughing now, he looked grim. When they reached the living room, Mrs. Kolkaski looked at the television and started to cry. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, she muttered, pushing with the back of her hand at a line of mascara that had started running below one of her eyes. Stomping across the room, a heavyset woman with rhinestone bedazzled eyewear snatched the dress off Mr. Kolkaski’s head and draped it over the shoulders of his wife. She helped the crying woman back into her clothing, and gave her a small hug. Mrs. Kennedy came over then and said something into her distraught neighbor’s ear. The two women hugged as well, and Mrs. Kennedy kissed her friend on the cheek.
Billy and the other boys, Meg trailing behind them, came running downstairs and sailed by the adults, back into the kitchen. They’d finished all the beer they’d taken (Meg, not liking the taste, hadn’t wanted anymore) and were feeling brave, boisterous. Danny, having his own private party and not wanting it exposed, cursed them and told them they were acting like idiots. Ray started laughing and Danny thought of the boy’s mother in her underwear. Mrs. Kolkaski, a rather handsome woman, probably only in her mid or late forties at the time, seemed ragged and old to Danny. The roll of fat at her belly had made him wonder why she’d ever take her shirt off in front of anyone. He decided if Ray gave him any trouble, he’d gun him down, using Ray’s mother’s little show as a bullet. Ritchie spotted a glass Danny had on the counter by the sink. He asked what the drink was and Danny told him it was a whiskey sour. Why sour, the three friends wanted to know. Danny told them it was just the name of a drink. He said Mr. Flynn had wanted one and taught him how to make it using a bottled mix on the table. The boys wanted to have whiskey sours. Danny told them they were stupid, but he got the mix anyway, and some whiskey and a shaker. He cracked a raw egg into the mixer, along with the other ingredients. He added ice and shook the mixer vigorously. The drink frothed into the glasses when he poured it. Billy took a cautious sip of his. Grinning, he said it tasted like lemonade. Each of the three friends downed their drinks, ecstatic it didn’t taste harsh like straight whiskey. Billy leaned against the kitchen counter and stared at Meg. She made a face and asked him what he was looking at. Ray downed another whiskey sour and said he was going to join Meg and Billy in holy matrimony and they were going to go on their honeymoon tonight in Billy’s room. Smirking, he said he was going to go on the honeymoon with them. Ritchie said he’d just bet Ray’d want to go on a honeymoon in Billy’s room. You’d be right there with your flag flying, the boy told his friend. Full of liquor, the two boys threatened to come to blows over the comment. Danny intervened, making them stop, telling them they needed to cool it.
Red faced, Billy went into the living room. He came back with a plate of meatballs and poured a beer into a big plastic cup so anyone looking might think it was soda. He started in eating the meatballs, and drinking the beer. The clock in the kitchen read five to twelve. It must have been wrong though, because Auld Lang Syne began playing on the television in the living room and the adults started cheering and blowing the party favor horns that had been handed out. Hats spelling Happy New Year in glitter across the front appeared on the heads of some of the men and women. People were hugging one another and kissing. Mrs. Byrne let out a yell and Mr. Kennedy popped corks on several champagne bottles. He shouted for Danny to come in and help him pour. Excited, the kids in the kitchen began gathering pots and pans, along with the biggest spoons they could find. It was tradition in their city for children to go out at midnight on New Years and bang pots and pans, make as loud a racket as they could. Entering the kitchen, seeing what her son and the others were up to, Mrs. Kolkaski felt a wave of nostalgia for a thing whose time hadn’t even passed yet. Putting ice in her glass, she splashed vodka over it. Smiling wanly, she told Ray to behave. All of you behave, she said. Remember, you don’t need to be trouble. You don’t need to be ugly.
It was bitterly cold on the front steps. A cutting wind seemed to arrive every minute or so. Running back inside, Billy and Jeannie and the others, having left them off to begin with, put their shoes and coats on. Sets of firecrackers went off far away. Somewhere out of sight, there were others out banging pots. Wildly, Billy tossed the big soup pot he’d taken out up into the air. It crashed on the sidewalk and he ran after it. Falling, he rolled toward the gutter, laughing. Ritchie stood over him, banging a spoon on the bottom of a pan, letting the clanging echo as close to his friend’s head as he could make it. Jeannie complained they were ruining everything. She said they were supposed to stay on the steps. Ray had snuck a beer out with him and he tossed the half full bottle far up the street. The sound of it smashing somewhere in the darkness played back at them. Panicked by the noise, they all ran the opposite way, stopping when they came to the corner, near Red’s Deli. Full of boozy energy, Billy shouted Happy New Year. Grabbing hold of a light pole, he spun himself with one hand, fast in a circle around the pole. When he stopped, he was dizzy. Showing off, he let himself fall onto the sidewalk. Hey, he moaned, lifting his arms up in the direction of Meg. Help me. Help me help me help me. When she ignored him, he got back on his feet under his own steam. Walking over next to her, he whispered she should come into the alley behind Red’s with him. Tugging at her coat, he tried to start her in that direction, but she resisted, crying that he should leave her alone.
Back in front of the house, the party noises from inside reached the sidewalk. The pots and pans and spoons were all still by the steps, where they’d been left, but no one picked any of them up. Dejected by the way the night was going, Billy laid himself down in the street. He promised he wasn’t going to move until a car came and ran over him. Playing their parts, the others implored him not to do it. You’re drunk as a skunk, Ritchie declared. When Meg and Jeannie tried lifting him up, pulling at his arms and legs, he resisted. The more attention they paid him, the more he wanted to stay where he was. Eventually, the others lost interest, and he got up and stumbled back to safety. Frozen and bored, they all trooped back into the house. The grown ups, scattered all over the downstairs, were eating cake and drinking champagne. The channel on the television had been changed. A brand new show, with Dick Clark, a thing called, New Year’s Rockin’ Eve, was now on. Mr. Kennedy, adorned with a big tinseled paper hat and oversized plastic green glasses spelling out the number of the new year, kept complaining the show on the screen was nothing but loud trash. No one else was paying attention, and he flipped back to Guy Lombardo. Mrs. Byrne, a third grade teacher in her work a day life, sat bleary eyed on one end of the couch. Calling to no one in particular, she asked if her husband, who was working that night as a baggage handler out at the airport and hadn’t come to the party with her, was in the bathroom. Patting the cushion beside her, she implored Mr. Kennedy to join her. You’re real black Irish, ain’t ya’ Dan, the school teacher said, after Mr. Kennedy sat down. Waving an open hand, she knocked his New Year’s hat off and combed her fingers through his thick black hair.
Ray and Ritchie were drinking whiskey sours in the kitchen again, and Billy was back at the beer. They were eating crab cakes and rolled pieces of deli meat without any bread. Danny mixed a vodka tonic for a heavyset man in a red and green Christmas sweater, a co-worker of his father’s the family didn’t really know well. The man pressed a dollar on Danny, pushing the bill into the boy’s pocket, inching his hand down inside and letting it linger, telling the boy it was a tip for good service. When the man had gone, Danny called him a weirdo, and Meg laughed. Danny asked Meg if she wanted anything to eat and shyly, sidling up closer to him, she said no. The next anyone saw of them, they were kissing on the back porch, Danny’s arms tight over Meg’s shoulders, hers around his waist. Billy saw them, but didn’t let on. Being a good and evil friend, Ray made sure to point it out to Billy, even after he’d watched his friend discover the passionate couple for himself. Grabbing paper plates and piling them with deli meat, the three friends hustled back up to Billy’s room. They sat on the floor, their backs either against the dresser or the mattress and frame of Billy’s bed. Searching his plate, Ray complained they hadn’t gotten any rolls. Billy stared at his plate, looking for rolls that weren’t there. Ritchie shoved three pieces of ham into his mouth to emphasize how little anyone needed a roll. He chewed and swallowed the meat. When he was done, he sprawled out on his back on the floor. Edgy with liquor, feeling ugly and angry, Ray threw his meal across the room.
Climbing off the floor, Billy rolled onto his bed. He tried reading the digital clock on his nightstand, but the numbers were somehow spinning in circles, whirling fast enough that all he could make out were blue and white colors. The room had started to spin too. He closed his eyes to avoid it, but the black world behind his eyelids spun just as much. He thought he was going to be sick and finally he was sick, vomiting over the side of the bed, onto the floor. Relieved momentarily of his queasiness by the emptying of his stomach, laying himself back down flat near the edge of the bed, he imagined his brother Danny as the leader of some great nation, the master of millions of people, with everything, trunks of diamonds, gold limousines, that kings might have. Meg was what Billy wanted, right there on the bed beside him, with her arms around him. She’d kiss him and hug him, she wouldn’t even care that he’d puked. If only he was good at life like Danny. If only he played guitar. Or pitched for the Yankees. Over by the stereo and bookcase, Ritchie had fallen asleep. A whistling noise squeezed itself out of his nose, and he was breathing heavily. Ray, getting himself up off the floor, fell a little against the dresser. He cursed and said he was going home. Turning from the horrible clock and its numbers, Billy held his pillow to him and kissed it, wishing it was Meg. The terrible upset in his stomach was back now. The spins too had returned, with carnival force. Wanting it all to go away, he practically willed himself unconscious, passing out longing for all of his agonies to be replaced, just once God please, by the soft skin of a female pressed against him, the beauty of Meg, or the new girl in geography class, or Mrs. Kolkaski even.
Michael Flanagan was born in the Bronx, N.Y. Poems and stories of his have appeared in many small press periodicals. His chapbook, A Million Years Gone won the 2008 Nerve Cowboy poetry contest. It is available from Liquid Paper Press.
Featured image on this post © Bennett North. Author photo © the author.