To Love and To Fall

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EIGHT

I made it to the third day before I had to go to Owl Motel. It was the day before Serena was making her great trek to the rehab. When I visited Serena, it seemed like Denise had more to say to her than I did. They were of a world that I knew nothing of, the two women who I thought I knew best. The walls were closing in on me, going to the rehab and hearing about the famous twelve steps, and coming back to Denise’s home where she existed in a culture that I did not understand, full of meetings and Higher Powers and strange phone calls in the middle of the night. I could deal with Denise better when she was drinking. When she was sober, I felt like I was an ant under a microscope, much as I did when I was with Arbuckle. So on the third day I left her house before anyone got up, and left a note saying that I would see them tomorrow at the rehab. Tell Serena I said hi. I felt like I was sending a salutation to a distant co-worker.

The first few hours I am at the motel, I an happy. It isn’t the Waldorf, but it is functional; the place smells like an ashtray, and the sheets on the queen-sized bed are almost as yellow as the bedspread, but it is comfortable to lie in. There is a small dark brown desk with a matching chair that in its prime had a probably had a plush red cushion. Now it just has a red cushion. But it will do. It is quiet and peaceful, a relief after the claustrophobia from the last few days. I even get a working outline done for my dissertation. By the time I lift my head from my work, night has fallen hours earlier. The alarm clock reads eleven fifteen. I stand by the window, watching the still nothingness below me, hearing nothing but the buzzing neon hotel sign. The dark hole that had visited me a few days earlier when I realized Serena was missing comes back. I wanted peace to work, so I could think. Now that I could think, I do not have peace. The demons follow me everywhere.

I hear a low rumble of laughter coming from somewhere on the ground floor. Startled, my eyes and ears pinpoint its source, recognizing the tavern that is adjacent to this place, which I had pointedly ignored up until then. It is a pretty run down place; gray from neglect, erosion and time feeding on it. Not a place worth remembering, but in my lonely state, it seems inviting. Besides, maybe a couple of beers would stimulate my thinking juices so I could pull an all-nighter and get Arbuckle off my back, and dispel the uneasiness that is growing in me. I take my notebook and go.

When I arrive there, I happen upon a loud dart game in progress, owing to the noise I heard in my room. They barely notice me as I make my way to the bar. I sit at the far end, away from the game, and order a Michelob. The bar section itself is empty. Most people in here seem intent on gambling their paycheck on the dart game, except for one person besides me; a bearded fortysomething man, who is so ensconced in hair and flannel I can’t tell what his size and shape are, sitting several seats away from me. He gives me a cursory nod which I return. I scan the bar again. Much to my relief, there are no women. No trouble for yours truly to get into. I feel like I am in enough already. After a gulp of beer, I open my notebook, looking forward to a night of beer-drinking and work.

I just begin writing notes when the Bearded Guy speaks. “You a writer?” He gestures to my notebook with his drink, which looks like a rum and coke from where I am sitting.

“Nah,” I reply without looking at him directly. I go back to writing. Maybe he will take a hint and go away.

He doesn’t. “Oh. Too bad. I thought I was meeting a celebrity. So, what are you? College student? Nah, you look too old. Though they go to college real late nowadays, right?”

“Yep. No age barrier to go to college,” I say, sipping my beer, my eyes still riveted upon my work. I have no idea what the hell I am writing.

“Yeah. Unlike construction.” He gulps his drink. I can hear it from where I am sitting, and I realize with all the noise this guy is making I am not going to get anything done. I sigh, putting down my pen. The bartender refills bearded guy’s glass with rum and coke. I congratulate myself on my earlier presumption of the guy’s drink. Maybe I could forget this whole thing with Reincroft and become a bartender on a tropical island, away from it all. Bearded Guy has gotten himself on a roll. “I just got laid off last week. After nineteen years, just like that.” He makes a feeble attempt at snapping his fingers. “Now I’m here. The whole rest of my fucking life ahead of me.” He snorts. It sounds like he is coughing up phlegm. I take another gulp of my beer, surprised when I notice that I have already reached the bottom of the glass. Bearded Guy notices my dilemma. “What are you drinking, sonny?” he asks.

“Michelob,” I reply.

“One Michelob for the gentleman,” he announces to the bartender, raising his glass, “on me. And give me a Coors while you’re at it. Can’t afford too many of these fancy drinks on an unemployment check.”

“Thanks,” I say as the beer arrives, resigning myself to spending the rest of the evening with this guy.

“Name’s Gary,” he says, reaching out a hairy hand.

“Tom,” I introduce myself as I shake it.

“Nice to meet you, Tom.” He gulps his beer. When he comes up for air, he says, “Don’t see you here too often, do I?”

“No. Last time I was here was three years ago. For my sister’s wedding.”

“Oh. You visiting again?”

I nod. “I’m staying at Owl Motor.”

“Oh. Three years. Don’t come around too often to see your sister, I take it.”

“No.” I hope the plan isn’t to excavate my personal life. Luckily it isn’t. The conversation was just an excuse to get into his.

“Family. Can’t live with them, can’t live without them.” Gary shakes a hairy head. “My old lady took off with my kids last year. I’m not allowed to see them unless she’s there ‘cause of the courts, but I always get a bill from her. She says she’s afraid of me, but when it comes to money, she sure as hell ain’t scared.” I look at Gary and he looks at me, answering my unasked question. “Not that I ever hit her, mind you. I never hit her or the kids. Never got close. But she says they’re all scared. It’s because of this.” He raises his glass. “Loni says I become someone she don’t recognize when I drink. I can’t even see the kids if I drink. Not even one beer. They all smell my breath now when I visit.” He finishes off the brew. “I don’t get it. She and I met in a bar. We had all our dates in a bar. Fifteen years of marriage, she tended bar. Now all of the sudden, she don’t like me drinking. Doesn’t think it’s good influence on the kids. I say, big deal if they copy the old man. Loni and I were kids when we met, and we turned out okay. But no one listens to me anymore. I’m just the one paying the bills.” He scowls. A roar comes from the dart game. We both turn to look at it; some guy is slapping some other guy’s chest in a good-natured way. I’m not sure what they’re happy about, but I am glad someone is. Gary is looking at me, so I look back at him. “What about you, Tom? Do you have a family?”

“I live with someone.”

“Oh. Do you.” Gary nods. “You love her?”

“Sure I do.”

“I love Loni. Always have, always will. I’ll never love a girl the way I do my Loni.” He fixes a glassy glare on me. “We’re still married, you know.”

“Really.” I polish off my beer. It is promptly refilled.

“Yep. She still hasn’t filed for divorce. I keep thinking it’s because she still loves me. I mean, wouldn’t you think so?”

“Yes,” I concede.

“She wants me to stop drinking,” he laments into his glass, finishing it off.

The empty glass is promptly refilled.

I leave the bar at four-thirty in the morning. Gary and I are the last ones there. Rich the bartender stays after closing time and has a few drinks with us before kicking us out. He has to be back at eight to open, he explains, otherwise he would be glad to have us stay as long as we liked. He always likes customers like us.

I can’t get to sleep when I return to my room, even though I am dead tired and my whole head feels like a cotton ball. I want to call Serena; then I remember I couldn’t call her where she was. I am angry at her for not being there for me, for being the recovering junkie she was becoming. She doesn’t even sound human anymore, as far as I was concerned. She spoke in rehab-speak. “First things first,” “keep it simple, stupid,” etc. She sounded stupid. Now she teamed up with some kind of sponsor to tell her what to do. She was so vulnerable, and this rehab cult marched right in and took her over. I am scared for her. I can’t get her out of my mind. I spend a sleepless night staring out at the neon sign, suddenly looking forward to eight o’clock when the bar opened again. It was strange, I forgot what the name of the place was, but I didn’t care. I needed a friend.

Seven forty-five. Fifteen minutes to the opening bell. I take a shower. A painful shower. I bump my head on the shower head twice, and the water pressure is so low it takes forever just to wet my head. I forgot to buy shampoo, and the Owl is too cheap a dive to provide shampoo, so I am stuck using soap. My head will itch all day all day now. Not something I want to deal with after getting no sleep, but I have no choice.

I looked through my backpack for clean clothes. There are none. I feel like a disgusting bum as I put on clothes from two days earlier. Why hadn’t I washed my clothes at Denise’s house? Why had I been so disorganized? I see Serena smiling her rehab smile, telling me “first things first.” I tell her to fuck off.

I go down to the bar wondering the whole time as I was going there why I was going so early to a bar. I hardly ever did anything like this. It was a beautiful day, the crisp dawn giving birth to a warm late summer day, the leaves showing just a hint of color, birds announcing the arrival of another day, but inside where I was falling apart, it all meant nothing to me. Rich is just unlocking the door when I get to it. I feel relief, like I am a desperate drunk. It makes me sick to be this way.

“Oh, good thing you’re here,” Rich said. “You forgot your notebook here.” He goes behind the bar and hands it to me. I am relieved and embarrassed, toying with the decision of whether to have a beer or not. The smell of alcohol at this hour of the morning makes me nauseous, but maybe a beer will take the edge off of it. I got a Michelob and am surprised by a phlegm-like snort coming from next to me. I turn to see Gary. I say hello, but only get a grunt in return.

“Surprised to see you here,” I begin, somewhat uneasy in the change of behavior from last night, sensing a fight. “I didn’t see you. I thought I was the only one here.”

“Gary’s special,” Rich explained. “I always let him in as soon as I get to work. He’s always here. Right pal?”

“Where the hell else would I be?” His speech is slurred. Even though I could take him down easily, he makes me feel nervous. I could see where his wife was coming from. “So you’re a fancy college boy, huh?”

“Shut up. You’re drunk.” I snap.

“Oh, fuck you Ivy League. Look at your smart-ass self. In here at eight in the morning sucking a beer like it’s your mother’s tit. Fuck yourself.”

“Look,” I shove my face in his, anger rising. “You can be a fucking idiot if you want to be, but keep it to yourself. Shut your mouth. It isn’t my fault you’re an unemployed asshole.”

“You’re an asshole!” Gary slams his beer down. “I worked fucking hard my whole life! Now you fucking kids with your fancy educations fucked me in the ass and put me on the street!” Just as he is ready to push me off my chair, I jump up and grab his arm. Rich springs out from behind the bar and wrestled Gary to his chair, admonishing him to keep quiet. I finish off my beer, wanting to get out of there as soon as possible. I stick my finger in Gary’s chest, my heart flooding adrenaline through me like a rushing flood. “You’ve got a fucking problem,” I say.

He returns my stare. I feel like his eyes are seeing right through me. “Look at yourself, Ivy League. Look at yourself.”

I walk out of the bar only to be blinded by the morning sunlight. I hate this world.

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