Ezra Magee had a sudden premonition that he was about to break his neck. Standing at the top of the stairs, he queasily watched their menacing undulations. Never once, in 10 years, had the staircase displayed a murderous intent, but there was a first time for everything. He considered going back to bed, but the bourbon was down in the kitchen, and he desperately needed a shot of the hair of the dog.
He gripped the banister and took the first step, landing heavily. The floorboard creaked in protest: a noise so unnaturally loud that Ezra paused, one foot still in the air. Then he realized that it was not that the sound was overly loud. It was that there was an absence of other sounds in the house: the clink of spoon on cereal bowl, the murmur of mother and child, the scramble of dog paws across the hardwood floor. Ezra did not wish to contemplate the lonely silence of his house. He descended step by jarring step, his head pounding along in rhythm.
He arrived in the front foyer and sagged against the front door. Squinting through the sidelight, he saw a collection of newspapers on his porch. The one on top was fatter than usual. It must be Sunday, Ezra thought dimly. Where the hell had the week gone? He fumbled with the lock, opened the door, and breathed in the muggy, West Virginia summer perfume of hay and mildew with overtones of pine. The fresh air made him long for a cigarette.
His front lawn was ankle-high, with weeds coming in. The soldierly row of pink, orange and white impatiens that lined the front walk was brown-edged, the plants shedding their petals. The petunias Celia usually kept blooming well into autumn were dead in the planters by the mailbox.
Dead from neglect - just like his marriage. Feelings of self-loathing and self-pity started to overwhelm him, but just then a green minivan backed out of the driveway across the street. The McCarthy family was heading to church. Hoping they hadn't spotted him, Ezra groped vainly for the missing belt of his bathrobe and ended up just clutching it closed in front with one hand. The other hand ran through his unruly brown hair. The last thing he wanted right now was to engage in neighborly small talk with Chip McCarthy or, even worse, his wife, Sally, who was a close acquaintance of Celia's.
Lucky for him they were in a hurry and only tooted the horn and waved. When they turned the corner, Ezra let go of his bathrobe and bent over to pick up the newspapers, which was a bad idea, because just then a goodly portion of his previous night's alcohol intake spewed out onto the welcome mat. He braced himself on the handrail while he finished vomiting and wondered how he'd managed to sink so low.
Up until a few months ago, Ezra had only ever experienced two memorable hangovers in his four decades of life. The first one occurred during his senior year of college - he could no longer remember what had motivated him to drink an entire bottle of Jack Daniels - and the second occurred the morning after his bachelor's party.
There was a water hose hanging on a bracket on the west side of his house. Weak and light-headed, Ezra tried to muster the energy to go get it and wash the stink off the front porch. But he was overtaken with extreme inertia. He put his head in his hands and moaned. Could he be any more pathetic?
If recent history was any indication, the answer, depressingly, was yes.
His mind wandered to an incident that occurred when he was first hired to teach history at Cunningham College. There was a start-of-the semester faculty party at the dean's house. Toward the end of the evening the chair of the Sociology Department, well into his cups, stood on the living room table and proclaimed his loathing for everyone there. The sociologist then unzipped his pants and proceeded to piss on a potted palm. The dean was remarkably composed,