To Love and To Fall

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THIRTEEN

I meet with Arbuckle early the next day about my dissertation. He reviewed it last night so he could discuss it with the advisory committee today. I think of all the creative impulses I have had over the last few weeks since Serena has left, and I am proud of all that I have gotten done. I even have the cross-studies he wanted. I am sure that Arbuckle and the rest of them will be impressed.

If the rest of them are impressed, Arbuckle isn’t. He wears a scowl on his face like a bad jack-o’-lantern when he walks into my office. I vainly hope that the negative look is because he caught something in his eye and has nothing to do with my work. “Come in my office,” he bellows. Well, so much for the having-something-stuck-in-your-eye-theory. I pass Melissa, Arbuckle’s secretary. We exchange knowing looks. This is not going to be fun, I think as I venture into his office.

“Close the door,” he barks. I wonder what his problem is. I have given him what he has asked for. I shut the door.

He does not invite me to sit down. “What is this shit?” he asks, throwing my dissertation down on his desk. Only it doesn’t look like my dissertation. It looks like a pre-schooler’s scribbling book. This must be some kind of joke. Then I recognize something I have written, and am baffled. I never remember writing like that. I can barely make out the words myself. I look to Arbuckle my mentor for help. Icebergs stare back at me.

“You have embarrassed me enough, Hauser,” he says levelly. The room is swimming. I hold onto the desk for support. Suddenly I get a horrid stench of alcohol in my nose that knocks me back. I look at Arbuckle, thinking it is coming from him. He points at the book, a sardonic gleam in his expression.

“That’s what you expected me to hand to the board.” He says flatly. “I didn’t even bother. I canceled the meeting, and they want to meet with you, nine-thirty sharp.” I pull away. Arbuckle is a stranger to me. “Now get the hell out of my office. I don’t want to see you all day. Why don’t you get some real work done. Without the beer bash.” He grimaces at the notebook. I take it and leave, avoiding Melissa’s questioning eyes as I pass her desk.

I try to work on the ad-drops for several hours, each minute going by like it is a century. I feel like an overeducated secretary. Last semester at this time, Arbuckle and I were going over syllabi together. This year, high school clerical work. Arbuckle really had a real complex about me this year. I don’t know what his problem is. After several hours of this menial crap, I decide to have it in with him, but his door is locked. Melissa is gone as well. He was probably taking the divorcee out on the town. And I always thought Melissa had the crush on me. I sigh and head out for lunch break. There are visions of beer bottles dancing through my head. I certainly can use one right now.

I head for a little steakhouse that is known for its prime rib and serving my favorite brand by the bottle for a buck. The place is packed. I feel a little strange walking into the restaurant by myself in the middle of the lunch crowd, though I am not sure why I would. I feel eyes staring at me even though I can’t pin anyone in particular. When the host asks me how many are in my party, I say two. I begin to wonder if this is a bad idea.

My server comes over to me as soon as I am seated and introduces herself as Sherry. Her name makes me salivate. She asks if I want a drink while I wait for my companion. The way she says “companion”, I wonder if she is on to my ruse. I am on the spot, my palms becoming sweaty. Sherry is waiting for an answer, looking at me directly. Then a thought comes to me that I can get really plastered if I don’t eat. I could just sit here and drink and drink under the guise of waiting for my companion. The idea of oblivion seems comforting to me. I order the first of many beers.

The next time I glance at the clock, it is one fifteen. Over an hour has passed. In a blink, it has zapped by. There are no plates in front of me to indicate that I have eaten at all, but there are several glasses with melting ice. I feel lightheaded. Terry, no Sherry, like the wine, asks if I want another rum and coke. I had no idea I was drinking that all this time. I tell her that I want a beer.

“Looks like your companion finally showed up,” she says, writing on her pad. I am confused. My eyes go to the person behind her, a dark haired bearded bespectacled guy. He looks like he is in his late thirties, the same age as Arbuckle. I wonder if Arbuckle sicced him on me; he is wearing a grin on his face that I don’t like. He has a bit of a paunch, and I decide that if I have to I can take him down fairly easily. But I have met him before- something about his person seems familiar. Sherry departs, and I have a sudden pit hollowing my stomach. The guy sticks out his hand. To be polite, I take it.

“Doesn’t seem like you remember me.” His handshake is strong and firm. “I’m Artie. I met you a couple of weeks ago at United Presbyterian.”

It takes me a couple of seconds to figure out what he is referring to. Then I feel my heart drop. Artie is one of the weirdos from the AA meeting. I vaguely remember him shoving a piece of paper with his phone number in my face. I glance at the empty glasses in front of me. He follows my gaze. This is not going to be fun.

“Can I sit down?” He points to the seat across from me. I do not know how to get out of the situation, so I tip my head in assent. “Thanks,” he gestures. Sherry comes back with my beer and asks Artie what he would like. “Prime rib, medium well, baked potato, string beans, ranch on the salad, and a cola,” Artie rattles off in five seconds. Sherry nods as she jots this down. She turns her attention to me. I am sick of her bothering me so I order a prime rib as well, even though the idea of food at this point makes me sick. She takes this down with a smile.

“So you do eat. I was beginning to wonder.”

Wonderful last words as I am now stuck with a recovering wino. Artie is smiling again, not as slyly. I trust this even less. I begin to reach for my beer, but my hand flinches like it is on fire. I was annoyed that at twenty-eight I was allowing someone to bug me when I was just trying to enjoy myself. just like, so glad it was okay with him.

“Go ahead, drink it. I don’t care,” he insists.

I stop at first but then take a good gulp just to see his reaction. He still has the ain’t-it-grand-we’re-all-friends look on his face. Mr. Zombie.

“So do you come here often?”

My hand stops in mid-air. Wasn’t that a pick-up line? Was this guy gay? I sit back further in my seat as I say, “Sometimes.”

He nods matter-of-factly. “I used to come here a lot when I was drinking. Always got the prime rib but never got around to eating it. Filled up on beer instead. Bottles still cheap here?”

“A dollar,” I answer warily.

“Then it’s gone up some. When I was here it was only seventy-five cents.”

“It hasn’t been seventy-five cents for over five years.”

“Really? I guess that makes sense. I stopped drinking eight years ago, so I’ve lost track of the price of booze.”

I am irritated to hear his bragging about how long it is since his last drink. All the drunks at the meeting were big on this. Half the time they clapped for each other. I wonder if this dude expected me to clap too. It seemed like a pathetic thing to be going around bragging about the last time you drank. I was like normal people. I didn’t keep track of stupid things like that. It’s like those psychological tests that ask how often you defecate. They consider you a mental case if you can actually answer that. Running around telling people when the last time you drank pretty much fell into the same category as far as I’m concerned. But I try to be diplomatic.

“Eight years is a long time. You must be very proud of yourself.”

“Couldn’t have done it without the Program and the Higher Power,” Artie points to the ceiling. “I thank God every day for my sobriety.”

I feel like belting out Amazing Grace at the top of my drunken lungs. This is nuts. I try to be nice and give this bum an ego trip, and all he does is spout religious bullshit. I can tell that this guy is really an arrogant son-of-a-bitch at heart. He has this glint in his eye and a smirk that I want to wipe off his face with a good punch. “Look, I don’t know who the hell you are, but I’m not interested in your AA bullshit. You want to eat with me, fine. You’re stuck here already. But don’t bother trying to recruit me. Bad enough you got my girlfriend.” The last sentence just slips out. I instantly regret it: fresh ammo for this guy.

“Your girlfriend was the woman with you at the meeting?” Artie chats along like we are the best of friends.

“Yes,” I relent. Without thinking, I gulp down my beer. Artie is watching, sending shame running through me quicker than the alcohol. I am angry at my self-chagrin. There is no reason for it. I am acting like I have to answer to this guy somehow. I don’t even feel this way around Arbuckle, and I do have to answer to him. I hate this guy even more.

“Are you guys having problems?” he asks.

I hope the look that I give him is making him scared. Is he nuts? What business of his is my sex life? And yet I answer, “We’re drifting apart. Since she went to rehab we don’t have anything in common. All she does is talk to me about AA shit, and I really don’t want to hear it.”

“Why not?” Artie is playing devil’s advocate, I can see. My blood is boiling. He doesn’t seem to notice or care. “If she’s your girlfriend, wouldn’t you want to know what was going on with her? I would.”

I tap my finger. I am ready to snap.

“I mean, it’s none of my business—“

“That’s right, it isn’t.”

“But it strikes me as curious. I would think that you either don’t love her anymore or she’s saying things you don’t want to hear. Or both.”

I don’t reply. If I do, I might wind up in jail in the long run.

“Just to give you some food for thought. You seem like an intelligent guy; I’m sure you can handle it.”

I am not sure if this is a compliment or pure sarcasm. Luckily our food arrives and changes my train of thought. I wonder if I can eat this and keep it down. I decide to make a pretense of eating and opt for a doggie bag.

“So what do you do for a living?” Artie asks between bites- his bites.

“I’m a postgraduate researcher,” I exaggerate. Hopefully in two weeks I won’t be exaggerating. I’m sick of being a student.

“Oh? I know a lot of professors. Who do you work for?”

I am trapped. Or maybe he was just screwing with my head. “Scott Arbuckle,” I reply.

“Hmmmm. I never knew he had a researcher.”

What the hell is this? Is Arbuckle spying on me? “Right now I’m just assisting him.” Hopefully that will shut him up. I wonder how he knows Arbuckle. “What do you do?” I cut in while I have a chance.

“I’m an author.”

I wonder if he’s pulling the same big shot bullshit game I just did. Maybe he wrote a college dissertation and he wants to sound hot. I act politely as I have in these cocktail hour-type discussions, though I would do anything to get my hands around his neck and tell him to get lost. “What have you written?”

“History, mostly. I’m a big World War II buff. My dad was a lieutenant in the Navy. He fought in the Pacific. Because of him I grew up on a lot of war stories, and I got interested in the war myself. I started writing in college, and I was published soon after graduation. I’ve even tried my hand at writing novels, but I prefer the nonfiction so I’ve done that for a few years. Scott Arbuckle was someone I’ve dealt with for interviews. Don’t worry. I don’t know him that well.”

I am worried. I wonder if I know this guy. “What name do you write under?” I ask.

“A. T. Buckingham. I have a new book coming out. I should have a signing soon; my publicist still hasn’t given me a schedule.”

I heard of this guy. From what I remembered about him, he’d written about seven books. I even read a couple. He was pretty smart. That is, if he was really A.T. Buckingham. “So why’d you become an alcoholic if you’re so smart?” My mouth is dry. I take a swig of my beer.

“I don’t think I became an alcoholic. I believe I always was one. Once I drank, I couldn’t stop. I needed outside help. It took me a long time to accept that. I drank for over seventeen years; I didn’t stop until I was thirty-one.”

Fourteen was when I started drinking too. I remember that, my first year of high school. I started drinking because I wanted to impress the upperclassmen and shake the geeky image I had in elementary school, and to dull the pain of being an unwanted orphan. I wondered what Artie’s story was.

I was not destined to know that day. With a swift glance at his watch, Artie announces that he has to meet some media guy to give an interview. He insists on picking up the tab, and I don’t have the heart to argue. Then he is gone.

I am totally drunk, yet my conversation with Artie, mister A.T. Buckingham, stays in my mind no matter how many beers I drink. And no matter how much I drink, I can’t get rid of the knot that is in the pit of my stomach, the whole reason why I came here in the first place. I decide to call it a day. It is four-thirty. Arbuckle won’t even know the difference, I bet. Let him confer with Artie.

I get home, grateful to collapse on my own bed. My body aches, but not as much as my head does. I feel sick, and the idea of the leftover rum in my cabinet sounds good now. So I go to it, and it is strong enough to numb out my pain. I don’t want to think anymore.

The last time I look at the clock, its digital numbers read 6:47. The sun is getting ready to set, and as I watch the day’s dying rays seeping through the shades. I realize it is the end of a nice day outside and I hadn’t noticed it at all. A fleeting pang of sadness joins the thought, and I take another swig of the rum. And I do not feel a thing now.

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