To Love and To Fall

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TWENTY-TWO

It is the day before Thanksgiving. Mandy is gone from my life completely by then, she’d taken off with some guy from K-Mart the day after Serena’s birthday and I hadn’t seen her since then, so she isn’t an option. The stupid store isn’t even open, on a day that I could really use the distraction. The idea occurs to me that I should work on my dissertation before I realize this is a moot point. I am really living in a dream world now.

I settle on a little party crashing in Troy, hoping that they haven’t taken off to Rochester; sometimes they leave on Friday after Thanksgiving. But as I drive I wonder if is a good idea. Traffic is unbearable. You’d think I lived in Queens and not upstate New York for all the congestion I endured. I brought a joint for relaxation and start to smoke it to calm down as soon as I am on I-86. I’ve sworn of booze. My tolerance to alcohol has gotten lower, I think, or maybe I’m just drinking a lot more, I don’t know anymore. A joint will calm me down without wiping me out. As I smoke I feel eyes on me. I wonder if I am paranoid again, because I have been getting that way, but there is a child in the back of a station wagon looking right through me. She has a mound of gold curls and a big round face. I feel like an angel of God has been appointed to hand me the guilt trip. The child gives me a look of alarm then disappears. I cover the joint with a random tissue and put it in an ashtray. The joint didn’t even calm me down.

It is nearly four o’clock when I get to Troy. The city is like a ghost town when I reach it. It is like an omen for when I reach Denise’s empty house and find the tan Maxima gone. I still go to the house and ring the doorbell anyway; I don’t know what I’m expecting. Once, twice it rings, and then I kick the door for good measure. I should go to Rochester. But I am just about ready to fall asleep. I may as well go to Owl Motor. Fuck it, I may as well as get good and stinking drunk now. There is no reason for me to stay sober now.

I spend the rest of the afternoon nursing a six-pack in the Owl Motor. I have the best room in the house, which is a dilapidated king bed but at least it doesn’t have cigarette burns. No one else is here; everyone wants to blow the joint for the holidays, and here I am. When the beer is gone, I have nothing to do. The bar beckons to me, and I am tempted, but I know I can’t afford it on my meager salary. But hell, I can’t afford being here either, so I may as well enjoy what little I had before me. Maybe I’d run into that asshole Gary. I could use a good fight.

But he isn’t there. Hardly anyone is, except for a couple of glazed over old men watching obscure soccer teams and Quick Draw lottery. Even the bartender looked like a dinosaur relic. I smelled mold and I felt sick to my stomach. But I had nowhere else to go. I spent the rest of the night drinking to nurse my wounds. They hurt just as much when I was done, which is when I ran out of money.

It was cold when I left, so cold that my bones felt frozen. Winter was coming, but for me winter had arrived a long time ago.

I drove around the next day, with no particular place to go. It didn’t feel like a holiday at all. As far as I was concerned, there was nothing to celebrate. Denise still wasn’t home. It must be nice to have family, now that she was too good to hang out with her own brother.

My meandering takes me to a graveyard. It looks vaguely familiar to me, and then I recognize it—I had seen it in the newspaper the other day. This is where Carla was buried. I see her face again in my head and I run cold inside. A real man would at least go to her grave now. I do not. I drive away as fast as I can.

I need a beer. But I have run out of cash. There is about eighty-five dollars in my savings account. It was never terribly high but now it is really running on empty. So I have made a promise to myself to not access it until I get more money. But this one time won’t hurt. Besides it is the holidays. And I need the beer really badly.

I buy a six-pack and drive to a park, a Beaver Cleaver job with swingsets and a baseball diamond occupied with little boys and their gleeful parents. It was so squeaky clean I wanted to puke. All it needed were some violins playing in the background and the scene would be complete.

I get out of my car to stretch my legs, blinded by the sun. I hate when it’s too bright. Then in the distance, I hear a familiar voice. I walk in the direction of the voice, unable to place it. I see a bearded fortysomething man with reddish hair. Where have I seen him before? He is vaguely familiar. His hands slip around a buxom fortyish blonde. A boy of eight runs to him and the man twirls him in the air. The three of them laugh together. I am close enough to hear the woman say to the man, “I’m so glad you’re back, Gary.”

So that who it was. Gary from the gin mill. But he looks different. Happy. With someone who was glad to have him back. His wife? I thought she dumped him. It was like I made up the Gary that I remembered and this was someone else.

Like radar, our eyes met. I start to walk away but he was already waving at me.

“Tom!”

“Hey! Gary, right?” Play stupid so he won’t think I’d been spying him. I was just Joe Average out for a holiday walk. (Right.)

“Yeah, that’s right. Whatya doing out here, visiting your sister for the holidays?”

“Yeah,” I lied. “How’s your holidays?”

“Great!” He motioned to the woman behind him. “Loni, come and meet my friend. Tom, this is my wife Loni, Loni, this is Tom.”

“Hello,” Loni warmly extended her hand with a shy smile. She had a firm grip. A tiger hiding under the kitty.

“How do you do.”

“And those two monsters running around are my sons, Eric and Sam. They don’t have enough manners to meet a friend.” Gary cajoled warmly as the two boys tackled each other in the distance.

“I’d better keep an eye on them before they kill each other. It’ll give you two men a chance to catch up. It was nice meeting you,” Loni intones towards me.

“Nice meeting you.” I reply. She kisses Gary on the cheek. He watches her as she reaches the boys. “Your wife seems like a nice person,” I compliment him.

“She’s the most beautiful woman I’ve ever met,” Gary beamed, his eyes still on her.

“So you’re definitely together again?”

“Yeah. I moved back about two weeks ago. Just in time for the holidays.”

“She lets you drink now?”

“No way. I haven’t been drinking. I stopped drinking a couple of weeks after I met you. September twenty-fourth, to be exact.”

I feel cold inside. Another sober junkie. Drones falling for the bait. “Great. Good for you.” Even I can hear the sarcasm in my voice.

So can Gary, it seems. “Nah, you don’t mean that. When I was drinking I hated it when one of my cronies stopped drinking. Nothing’s more threatening than a reformed drunk to someone who’s still drinking.”

I feel the beer churning in me. “How’d you stop?”

“AA did it for me. One day I looked in the mirror and I saw my whole life in front of me, what I had become and what I had done to my family because of booze. I tried to stop on my own but I couldn’t even get through one day without drinking. I called AA, started to go to meetings, and I’ve been sober since. I haven’t been sober this long since I was twelve years old. Wasn’t exactly last year, you know. Calling AA was the best decision of my life.”

“John must miss you at the bar,” I joked.

“Are you kidding? He kept telling me to straighten my act and get back with my family. Funny thing is that I thought no one knew how much I drank. Truth is, everyone knew but me.”

Everyone knew but me. Where had I heard that before. “So what about me? You said I had a problem back then. Still believe that?”

“Can’t really be the judge of that, son. Besides I barely know you. But I reckon that not too many social drinkers have to ask a question like that.”

I look at this man, remember the downtrodden bum I knew in comparison to the clean cut family man before me. I wonder what Serena looks like now. She must be beautiful.

“Hey Tom. Come over for lunch at my house tomorrow. I live right near a lake, and the trout are still biting. We can catch some for the family. What do you say?”

I am conscious of the beer on my breath, feel rancid. I don’t belong with them, though I ache for the decent company of these people. I can almost see the fish jumping. But I say, “Thanks anyway but I have to go to my sister’s. Out of town company and stuff.”

“Okay, sorry to hear that, but I know, holidays. Can’t live with them, can’t live without them. Oh hey, I started my own little contracting company. Not much right now, but people are willing to hire me, aren’t afraid I’m going to steal from me. It’s a small miracle. But I meant to say, I’ll give you my business card. You can call me anytime. By the way,” he said as he fished through his wallet, “I meant to apologize for my conduct that morning in the bar. I was a real jerk.”

“Oh. It’s all right,” I say, taking the card. “you were drunk.”

“Well, it’s good to clear the conscience. I like to travel light today.” He smiles and extends his hand. “Take care of yourself.” I watch him as he goes to his family. I feel so alone.

I go to my car. There is still half a can of beer waiting for me. Disgusted, I pour it on the ground. It seeps into the soil and disappears, and somewhere inside I feel I have taken a new turn.

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