Faith, and love, in a recovering alcoholic, are shot through with an element of surprise and soggy with mercy. I have a big empathy in me for the ones at the door, trudging through the early weeks and months of sobriety. I remember the difficulty, and I remember how ‘difficulty’ wasn’t even the half of it. The emotions – disgust, anger, deflation, depression, fear, elation, hope, sing-song – that you pass through in the first year of sobriety are fuel enough for a lifetime, or half a dozen soap-operas, and you get them all at once, without any ground under you nor a handrail for safety.
But what happens afterward is even more strange: the rawness and violence of the emotions ebbs some, with time. But the tongue of them crawls deeper, like veins into stone, sounding out a sweet and resonant harmony across the chords of your very being. Quiet and slow and steady, like an acoustic guitar played in the middle of the night. Haunting, as if the whole big galaxy had taken with the idea of playing you a love song.
An alcoholic still drinking is dying for nothing. That same alcoholic, recovered, lives with more meaning than he deserves.
I belonged to a row of barstools and began the work week every Sunday night. Matt worked Sunday nights. Sometimes I pretended to read. Sometimes there was another regular or five and we’d talk. I’d talked about every song on the jukebox and every politician worth any mention with one or another of them. Gossiped lightly about each other’s family lives, the old cabby who bet on the ponies, the train driver who’s ex wife was psychotic, the sculptor who had a tendency to hit on the prettier girls.
We’d answer all the questions on jeopardy before the contestants. A wise ass crew and eclectic. Once, during jeopardy, which means the sun hadn’t gone down yet and the jukebox wasn’t on, I heard that the old deaf guy who sat at the end had died. Had died a month previous. We reminisced. We drank a great big whiskey in his name, and tipped the shot glasses downward when we’d done.
I left there and went to another. jeopardy on at this one, too. The answer was Count Vronsky; it was Vronsky who sent Anna under the train in Tolstoy. There wasn’t any prize for knowing that. Meanwhile in my life, I was being expelled from university and had gone to see a doctor about depression. I was despondent following an abortion, and spent days in a row half wasted. If I sat down to write, I stared at the page for hours. I think it was a Sunday night I ended up on a couch in Brooklyn Heights. Poked about the kitchen wondering if this person had any booze. I found a liter of vodka on top of the fridge and stood over the kitchen sink to drink it. That’s where this person, whom I vaguely remembered playing his guitar for me a few hours early, flipped on the light and asked me what the hell I was doing. Called me crazy, said it was seven in the morning, and pushed me out his front door. Without my jeans on. The jeans he threw out after me.
I’d been supposed to meet a friend for brunch. he called when I wasn’t there. i was sitting on the guys steps, still, trying to figure out where I was and how I’d get home. Smoking a broken cigarette. This friend came to get me and his face went white and long when he pulled up. He asked what I wanted to do. I heard there was some kind of challenge to this. There was a right answer. Like on jeopardy. I said I wanted to go back to the bar. This wasn’t the right answer. He said something about treatment. I whined until he submitted. He sat with his arms crossed, looking straight ahead, while I pulled at that first beer, looking at him in the mirror behind the bottles.
That would make it Monday around noon I made it home. The key loud in the lock, the apartment quiet. If it was Monday, I was supposed to be in class three or four hours before. I lit another broken cigarette, leaning over the gas stove, and I sat down to think about the deaf guy who had died.
For some reason, I thought of the alcoholics that die outside in the winter.
I wanted there to be some kind of presence, watching, But there wasn’t a damn thing. The apartment was empty. Dust in the sunlight. I laid down, and I slept.
A few months ago, I heard of another alcoholic who died alone. Was in his apartment so long his dogs had started to eat him. Alcoholics can collect these death stories. I can wonder at how many times I didn’t die. What am I, some kind of cat? The cockroach you smash with a book, a bigger book, a shoe, a hammer, without effect?
I went to a meeting tonight, but I didn’t stay. Something in the early moments hit me and I felt dizzy. I saw a man I knew. His wife had died. At the funeral, there were some four hundred people, most of them recovering alcoholics. He’d touched my shoulder tonight and smiled. That was what had made me dizzy. I drove home, watching rags of cloud pull across the full moon, listening to the tyres on the pavement, knowing there’s a coming snow. The phone buzzed in my coat pocket, and I could see in my minds eye the list of names in there. Hundreds. Of people who would be there, if I died. A woman who’d knitted me a hat. A woman who talked with me until dawn. People who drank coffee with me six times a week. People who’s kids sit on my lap, their fingers sticky and hair smelling of Johnson and Johnson. I started thinking about that deaf guy who died and remembered how my phone, then, had little in it but people who had fucked me or wanted to fuck me. That friend who picked me up in Brooklyn Heights gave up. I didn’t ever hear from him again.
Alcoholics are dying for nothing.
I am in love with the moon, and the moon’s light like silk on the wide spread out fields, the dark standing woods like the more secret places of the body. I am in love with the bent grasses, kneeling against wire fences, and the nightbirds thrown up with a little scream. I love the crunch of the old snow under my boots, and I love my boots which are a romance with non-existent cowboys. And I love the real cowboys, who wear jeans and sports coats, have black lines deep in the lines of their hands, and deeper lines at the corners of their eyes, and prairies in the light of their irises. I love the green light of the dashboard and the sighs it brings out of country radio, and I love the traffic lights reflected on ice. I love the steam rising from the malt-o-meal factory, and the smell it has of burnt sugar, all year long, and the river falling through town, dragging in bits of silt and hardwood, churning itself under red tailed hawks and cottonwood trees and whirling to the Minnesota, where it will foam over granite, and roll on bigger, until they become the Mississippi.
I love the dog who’s at the door before I’ve turned off the car, yawning and stretching and shaking his tail so hard his whole butt dances. I come in from the cold and I follow the dog and we go into the bedroom and I sit on the edge of the bed without taking off my hat or my mismatched gloves or my coat. And I put my face in my hands, beginning to cry, and it’s as if I’d never cried before, I have to cry so hard. I love the lamplight, small in the corner, sheltering my notebook that is heavy with words now, pregnant like moon, guarded by dog, scribbled words that say ‘winter’ and ‘crow’ and ‘skin’ but what they really mean are love, a love so ripe and sharp it breaks you into a million pieces and glows you back together again, different. Everything, everything means more than I deserve. More than I understand. More than I know what to do with. Everything glowing like moon.