Quadrangle 68 prose

Ritual
Victoria Saeli

The man, before he died, stopped at the liquor store every night. He was a dentist by trade, and he liked a few drinks after a day at the office, which you certainly can’t blame him for. Looking at teeth all day is about as deadly as staring at the sun, he would say, but it pays better, so you won’t see me complaining! 

By some cruel twist of fate, his eyes were naturally drawn to the mouth instead of the eyes while speaking to someone; in every conversation he ever had, he found himself assessing the other person’s teeth. His wife would be telling him about their daughter’s middle-school graduation plans and he would be thinking, as always, about her slightly crooked canines, that one incisor she chipped when she was eight. He’d feel this pang of guilt deep in his belly, and the only thing that’d dull it was wine. 

His purchase, every day, was identical: a ten-dollar bottle of Italian white wine. It was his one indulgence, his one joy. Not the wine––he took that like medicine. No, his joy came in the act of visiting the liquor store itself. He would walk through the door, tip the old grey flat cap he wore every day, ask how’s business tonight, folks? and someone would answer him not too bad, not too bad. 

He would linger in the Italian aisle, taking his time, pretending to mull over his options. He had an arsenal of excuse mes and let’s see heres and well how about thats that would make your Grandma envious, honed over years of practice and dedication to his craft. After a sensible minute or two, he pulled the same bottle of Pinot Grigio that he always bought off the rack. He then pondered a few other aisles; South Africa always seemed interesting to him, and he’d always wanted to try Vinho Verde. Once a week––maybe, if an employee was nearby––he’d ask them about a random bottle and nod along with a warm smile as they filled him in on its tasting notes and its profile. He’d say well, thanks for your time, and then proceed to the cash register with only his usual bottle in hand. 

He’d set the bottle down on the counter with a dull clunk and then smile. Holdin’ down the fort? he’d ask the cashier, usually either an older woman with horrifically cheap dentures or this wiry tall girl with a snaggletooth who worked weekends. The older woman would say hardly. The tall girl would say you know it. The dentist would chuckle either way and ask the cashier how their day was. The older woman would grunt and not say much; the tall girl would deflect and give broad answers. He had this exaggerated way of listening—leaning forward, nodding intently—that might remind you of an extremely encouraging and mildly terrifying second-grade teacher listening to a kid explain their latest fingerpainting. There was a real genuine warmth in it; the tall girl never once doubted his sincerity. 

When it came time to pay, he’d plaster a bewildered look on his face and say these card readers these days, they’re all different, you know? even though he must’ve known every step by heart. He’d always mess up exactly once—he’d pull his card out early and mutter hey, sorry, I always get that wrong, it’s been a long day. This drove the older woman batty, but the tall girl found it charming, in a deeply annoying and bizarre way. After it finally went through, he would grab the bottle theatrically by the neck and say hey, if there’s no law against it or anything, I’ll skip a bag and then after a beat: well, take care, and have a blessed night. 

It took three weeks before the tall girl noticed. Hey, we haven’t seen the Pinot Grigio guy in a while, right? she asked her coworker. He shrugged and said maybe he’s dead. The tall girl shook her head. C’mon, he was nice, she said. Hope he’s doing well.