Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Last Storm of the Season

All she really wanted was a 'normal life'; but she might as well have wanted the moon.
It was Thanksgiving Day night and it had just started to rain. We were sitting in her car at the railroad station waiting for the train to come, that fateful train that would take me out of her life forever. The mournful beat of the raindrops drumming heavily on the roof, the windows clouded over with steam, bathing the interior of the car in a wan, bluish haze. She was crying; but she had never looked so beautiful. "It's not just tonight," she sobbed. "It's everything."

The dinner at her parents' house that night had been uncomfortable and strained. I'd had a few drinks at home before going, to fortify myself for what I knew was going to be a long, unpleasant evening, dealing with these people who just didn't like me, who didn't even go out of their way to hide it anymore. And I suppose that by the time I finally got there I was already a little abstract, just a little faraway, but enough for them to notice, and of course they did. And, as usual, I drank a little too much wine, and laughed a little too loudly at my own jokes. But it was hard for me and I was nervous. Couldn't she understand that?

We were so different. She was always so composed, so confident and deliberate. When she moved, she moved slowly, with an unhurried measured grace. When she spoke, she spoke softly, a cool, gentle, lingering sound. She chose her words carefully and meant just what she said.
I was torn apart by my own frantic energy. I was never sure that I meant what I said, I was never really sure of what I wanted. I wanted her and I needed her desperately and I wanted to be left alone. I was living in a dim lit world of half-truths and fanciful illusions, making promises that I knew would never be kept, devising improbable plans that were inevitably doomed to fail.

Oh, she knew I had a problem, she'd probably known it for years. She, like me, had been surviving on hope, that meager sustenance, that last resort of reason, hoping that things might change, that she herself might actually change them. But slowly, inexorably, that simple and preposterous dream of hers, that dream of a normal life, was slipping further and further from her reach.
I knew I had a problem, too. I knew it every morning when I looked in the mirror. I knew it when I took the Bufferin, and the Librium, and the Alka Seltzer, and tried with shaking hands to get that damned Visine into my bloodshot eyes, and missing, the salty liquid streaming down my cheeks like tears. I knew it by the ever-present guilt and the ever-present sweat in my palms. I knew it despite all the lies, and all the excuses, and all the empty self-righteous denials. And I knew it that night in the car, as clearly as I knew just what she was going to say before she said it. And, God help me, a part of me wanted her to say it, that part of me that just wanted to be left alone, to drown myself in peace.

She had stopped crying now and was sitting there watching me, getting ready to say what she had to say. Behind her, the raindrops slowly sliding down the window pane, etching transparent little pathways through the crystal. She looked so sad, so fragile and pale she seemed almost translucent in that vague silvery light. And those eyes, so hurt and gentle, like the eyes of a wounded deer. Can I ever forget those eyes? That look? Those words? Spoken not in anger but in sorrow: "You drink too much. You're never going to amount to anything. I just can't go on like this anymore."
From somewhere came the low, woeful sound of that inevitable train.

People like me tend to arrange the history of their lives into two separate, distinct, and totally unrelated eras: Before (they quit drinking) and After. The events which I am about to relate all took place in that dark, chaotic era of the Before. This is not a story about addiction and recovery -- I feel I have nothing new or insightful to say about either of those subjects. And although I actually experienced these events, this is not really a story about me. Perhaps it's a story about redemption.

I shivered and pulled my chair a little closer to the small electric heater, the only source of warmth in the deadly coldness of the room. It was the last day of March and the third day of an unexpected blizzard, which showed no signs of abating. In fact, it seemed to be getting worse -- it was snowing harder now than ever and the wind had become so strong and violent that my windows constantly rattled and the building itself shook and shuddered under the strain.
I was living at that time in a third floor apartment, high on a hill, overlooking a small New England seaport. From my kitchen window I could look out over the rooftops, past the church steeples and the Town Hall clock, by which I told the time, to the busy little harbor and the open sea beyond. My apartment was as haphazard and illogical as my life. The kitchen, where I spent most of my time, had a gas stove (which no longer operated), a small round table and a couple of chairs, and a small refrigerator, which I had painted a rather bilious avocado green, the entire contents of which consisted of a half quart of beer, a half quart of milk for my coffee, and the sorrowful remains of a ham and cheese sandwich. There was a small bathroom, and two other rooms: a tiny 'den', with a TV set and two chairs, and a large slope-ceilinged room (which she sardonically referred to as the Ballroom), with nothing much in it but a small metal cot, a wooden bar with two bar stools, and an old upright piano.

The day after Thanksgiving I quit my job in Boston. Sometime in December they shut off my phone. The following month they shut off the gas. Now they were threatening to shut off my electricity. And my meager savings had just about run out.
What had happened? Where did it all go? What had I done to myself? I suppose you could say I went on a binge, a very long binge -- although that word always conjured up for me a certain wild, raucous behavior (which by its very nature implies the participation, or at least the presence, of other people). But this hardly seemed an appropriate description of my uneventful solitary withdrawal. Of course I drank. I drank every day and I got drunk every night. But mostly I just sat. I sat in my chair in the kitchen and looked out the window. I remembered every word we had ever spoken, every look that she had. And of course I hurt. And I felt bad. And I felt sorry for myself. And sometimes I felt sorry for her. But mostly I just sat. Just sat there looking out of the window.
And four months went by.

I know now of course that there are words for all of this. Words like alcoholism , and recurring major depression. But back then I didn't know any of this; all I knew was that I couldn't, wouldn't, didn't go out. Ever. Except late at night, when no one would see me, down the hill to the corner store to get my beer and my cigarettes. And I knew that I was in trouble. And there was no way out. No way but one. The final exit. And sometimes it actually seemed kind of appealing, not too bad really.
However, earlier that day, for some inexplicable reason, I had somewhat belatedly come to the conclusion that I needed help. And I needed it right away. But where do you go for help when you don't know what's wrong? I didn't have a doctor. My parents were long gone. My friends had all drifted away. Finally, in desperation, I decided to call a church. I was, after all, I reminded myself, a confirmed Episcopalian. The fact that I hadn't been inside a church since I was fifteen years old, I reasoned somewhat speciously, didn't necessarily alter that status.
So I bundled myself up in my raincoat, and made my way down the hill through the snow to the phone booth outside the grocery store, down at the corner. I looked up Episcopal churches in the Yellow Pages and called the first one on the page. The minister himself answered, and I let it all out in what must have been a pathetic, mostly unintelligible torrent of words: My fiance had left me and I had lost my job. I was broke and living without heat and running out of food. I had a bad drinking problem and they were going to shut off my electricity and sometimes I felt like there was no way out but suicide. He paused for a moment, then agreed to see me that night at eight. I went back up the hill to my apartment and I didn't drink for the rest of the day.

I got up from my chair and, leaving my little island of heat behind, walked over closer to the window. The Town Hall clock was barely visible in the blackness through the swirling mass of snow. I could just make out the time. It was a quarter to eight. I put on my raincoat, pulled up the collar and left.

It was wild out now. The roaring wind had whipped the falling flakes into a frenzy and transformed the darkened streets into a weird surrealistic world of illusory shadows and shifting white dunes. I braced myself against the buffeting white waves and plodded on through the deep snow, down the hill towards town. At the bottom of the hill I turned off the road and took the shortcut along the railroad tracks behind the supermarket warehouse. I was coming out of the darkness, trudging through the high drifts, when suddenly I heard the awful unearthly groans and saw the old man sprawled out on the deserted loading dock like a pile of discarded rags, half-buried in the snow. I recognized him immediately. One of the town characters. A hopeless disgusting old drunk.
"Oh, Jesus!" He cried out. "Somebody help me...I'm freezin' t'death!" He was obviously dead drunk.
"Crazy old bastard", I muttered out loud. "What the hell do you want from me? Why don't you just shut up and die?" I ignored him and continued pushing my way through the heavy snow.
"Jesus.." He moaned pathetically, "somebody...help me..."
"Help yourself, you stupid old drunk! I'm the one who needs help. I'm on the verge of goddam suicide!"
I crossed the parking lot and stopped at the edge of the street. Squinting my eyes I looked up through the falling snow flakes to the Town Hall clock. It was five minutes to eight. I listened for a moment but all I could hear was the roar of the howling wind; the old man's voice had blown away. I was disgusted. Something always went wrong. Every time I tried, something always went wrong.
I turned around and went back.

The old man's beard was frozen solid with dribble, his ragged overcoat encrusted with stains. The stench was unbearable. He was coughing horribly and muttering meaningless gibberish. After a long awkward struggle, somehow I managed to get him to his feet, whereupon he promptly vomited directly onto my raincoat. Finally, I got him off the platform and down into the snow. "Where do you live?" I shouted at him. He pointed off into the darkness.

Half carrying him, the two of us slipping and falling into the cold wet snow. Down all the wrong streets, then back up again. Desperately trying to follow his mumbled, all but incoherent instructions, until, at last, we found the right street, and the right house, and I knocked on the door.
Eventually, the door opened to reveal a huge round barrel of a woman, who quickly assessed the situation through beady and malicious little eyes.
"Well, ain't this sweet!" She snarled. "Jus' lookit'ya!" A great white fleshy arm flashed out, grabbed hold of him and dragged him inside like a sack of potatoes. Then she turned on me. "I suppose you're one of 'is drinkin' buddies. Well, I hope yer proud of yerself -- gettin' a poor old man drunk out of 'is mind!"
Dumbfounded and speechless, I stood stupidly in the doorway. "Thank you!" She said sarcastically and slammed the door in my face.
"Jesus Christ!" I said. "Jesus Christ!"

I turned away and walked back down the steps and up the street, hurrying in the direction of the church. It was twenty-five minutes to nine by the time I rang the parish house bell. Finally, the minister opened the door.

He was a small portly man with a shining bald head and a round reddish face, dominated by thick, ominous horn-rimmed glasses. A busy man, with innumerable obligations and limited time. A precise little man who obviously valued punctuality and abhorred irregularities.
"Wasn't your appointment for eight o'clock?" He asked, more an accusation than a question.
"Yes. I'm sorry. Something happened," I offered idiotically.
The minister shook his head and warily stepped aside to let me in. In grave silence, he led me down the long corridor to his study, an austere high-ceilinged Victorian library -- dark woods, muted colors, shelves stacked high with heavy, intimidating, leather-bound volumes, faded sepia photographs, unlovely dried flowers. The atmosphere was somber, close, oppressive, a heavy sterile sanctity hung over the room like an unpleasant musty incense. He offered me a seat and took his place, safely ensconced behind a great mahogany desk, covered with neat little piles of carefully-stacked papers. He sat there silently for a long unnerving moment, scrutinizing me mercilessly -- huge, bulbous, staring eyes, swimming hypnotically in those deep pools of glass.
I looked down at myself and saw the stains. What an impression I must be making! Half an hour late for my appointment. Soaking wet. My wild unruly hair dripping down over my palid unshaven face. My rumpled old raincoat blotched with the old man's stinking puke. Some crazy dishevelled vagabond blown in from the storm.
"You mentioned you had some problems," he began unenthusiastically.
"Yes," I stumbled awkwardly over the words. "I did...I mean, I do..." Something strange was happening to me. A kind of claustrophobia was setting in. I was starting to feel panicky and trapped. But, worst of all, I was beginning to feel a perverse but almost irresistible urge to laugh. How in the world could this cold-hearted little fat man ever really help me? The only thing I felt emanating from the other side of that desk was disapproval and contempt. It was such a ludicrous situation. I couldn't even remember his name, and he didn't seem to remember mine. We were two total strangers who didn't really want to meet. But the most ludicrous thing of all was that somehow I felt better. As though the problems I had so carefully carried with me through the blizzard had somehow slipped from my grasp and disappeared, making this whole humiliating interview seem intolerable and pointless. All I could think of now was how to get the hell out of there.
"I'm sorry," I blurted out suddenly, getting up from my chair, "I'm sorry I bothered you, but -- I feel better now. I think I'll be all right now."
Annoyed and confused, he shook his head, got up, and came out from behind the desk Then, once again, in awful silence, he ushered me back down that interminable hallway.

Finally, gratefully, I was outside again, walking swiftly, making my getaway from the parish house, as though the disgruntled clergyman might suddenly come rushing out after me. At the end of the street I slowed down and looked around. The storm had at last passed over. The furious wind had blown itself away. The dark empty streets were hushed and quiet. I stopped and lit up a cigarette.

The laugh bubbled up from somewhere deep inside, some long forgotten well. Suddenly it all seemed so ridiculous and funny. It had all gone wrong. It got all mixed up. The minister was mad at me. The fat lady was mad at me. And the old man would never remember who I was. I pictured the old man, safely home now, snug in his bed, peacefully dreaming his innocent childish dreams, and the laughter burst the surface. Oh God! It was all so funny! I let it all go and I laughed until I couldn't laugh anymore, until the pain had broken up and washed away, until I was exhausted. Finally, I wiped the tears from my eyes and took a long deep breath. The cold night air was crisp and clean and I drank it freely, nourishing my thirsty lungs with the sweet fresh nectar.

I was alive again. I had come back. Back from the icy regions beyond the great wall, back from the nothingland of nowhere. And the world was crazy. It was all absurd. But somehow it was wonderful.
I looked up at the Town Hall steeple, transfigured by the vibrant night, fixed in space, suspended in a perfect stillness like a luminous jewel. And directly overhead, watching over it all, a thousand friendly phosphorescent eyes, blinking in a deep mysterious sea.
"Welcome home," they said. "We missed you."

4 comments:

Debbie said...

Excellent Roger. When I start reading, I can't stop. I must finish to see what happens. This is the sign of a great author!

Debbie Hamilton
Right Truth

Faultline USA said...

I loved your imagery Roger. There were points where the pain was so vivid that I didn’t want to read further but had to. Excellent and the reality of the absurdity is what makes it so wonderful.

Roger W. Gardner said...

Thank you both. Your opinions mean a lot to me.
rg

Maggie M. Thornton said...

Roger, this man's pain must be real for many people. I loved the storm's role in the story.

Just excellent. You put even the most "uncomfortable" images, so beautifully on a page.

Maggie