Issue No. 6 – December 2014
I sat with Anne all afternoon the day she got out of detox. Anne is a good Irish Catholic woman and it pained her to talk about her homeless days, twenty years all told, of living in a corrugated cardboard box somewhere in Queens (I didn’t register the street name) and shooting up, losing her teeth along the way, and all the other sordid details, including sex for drugs. So she talked instead about her daughter’s wedding and showed me pictures, raving about the girl’s sterling history, her brief experience with substances and how she quickly found God and the program, and about the daughter’s husband, who looked stout and unremarkable in the pictures. It was a miracle that her daughter had come back to her — and here there were more tears and me holding the box of tissues for Anne and taking one myself, not for tears but because my nose was running.
The apartment where Anne lived was cold (the reason for my runny nose) and dark, but would have been nice because it was in an old brick house but her furniture was shapeless and had no flare. The house had been divided into four such apartments and the old wood floors were scuffed and probably had been painted at some point. Anne’s neighbors brought her dinner when they cooked, coming up the stairs with the plate of food in one hand and a beer in the other. They had no concept of sobriety.
One neighbor, Adam, a young saturnine type who sporadically drank and went to meetings, stopped by and made a show of concern for Anne’s welfare. She said Adam spent his free time studying greenhouse gases and took any opportunity he could to talk about the gas’s deleterious effect on the ozone layer. He was an expert, a fanatic. She called him the god of greenhouse gases. He was tall and in fact towered over us like a gloomy Greek god.
We sat on a couch with a pattern under a spread thrown over to cover stains, and I kept my jacket around my shoulders. This was my first twelve-step call. I felt nervous and honorable, both at once. I was also glad that Anne made excellent coffee.
Getting there had been an operation. We left the meeting and stopped at the ATM, where Anne had arranged for a ride with Grateful John, an older program junkie with a gray braid who was said to smoke a lot of pot and abuse his wife. Inside the bank lobby they made a cash transaction, in which Grateful John gave Anne dollar bills wrapped in a paper receipt, Anne teared up, and outside we had to climb over a dirty snow bank to get into Grateful John’s car.
Anne helped me into the passenger seat because people think I’m more fragile than I am and that my bones will break if they so much as look at me. I’m neither old nor breakable but I have to admit I’m not the rough-hewn type. My friends, all rugged, fear for me in bad weather and rush to protect me.
Anne has the lumpy peasant features of a character in a Thomas Hardy novel. Her skin is ruddy and marred from years of living on the street and in shelters. Her cat, by contrast, is a young beauty, tabby striped with glittering eyes and an anxious cry. She ran from room to room, stopping to rub against our legs, then setting off again.
When Anne talked about the cat she cried, and as things turned increasingly mawkish I asked what kind of coffeemaker Anne had. That was when I learned about Gevalia’s free offer of a coffeemaker you could buy over the Internet in exchange for signing up to receive Gevalia coffee, all delivered free of shipping cost, to your door.
She’d sign me up, Anne, said. Did I want one? No, no, her treat for the one-time cost, she insisted, it was the least she could do, seeing as how I was spending all this time with her. Anne is generous. She could easily be one of those supporting Hardy characters who’ll give you their plate of potatoes and go hungry themselves. I couldn’t talk her out of the Gevalia offer so while Anne was at her computer I walked down the hall to use the bathroom. It was a long room with a low window from which you could see some of the large, trembling fir trees in the driveway. I was satisfied. I have the fatal flaw of needing one element of grace every few hours or I’m lost.
We drank more coffee, which could have been hotter, anything could have been hotter on that frigid day, but I concentrated on keeping myself a vessel into which Anne could pour her confessions without shame. I, in turn, would insert what I hoped were brief but usable fragments of wisdom into the conversation. These were program slogans or better, excerpts from the Big Book and the Twelve and Twelve, intended to comfort and guide us broken-down souls when we faltered: one day at a time, keep it simple, a Power greater than ourselves, the key of willingness.
Anne is a chronic relapser, in and out of the rooms so she knew what I was talking about when I made these quotations. I hoped that I had it in me to soothe her, trusting in the power my own unanswered questions to make my statements solid enough for her. I took heart and tried not to view the flashing images of myself as a paper doll, light enough to blow away in the wind and consequently empty of any wisdom at all. I’m not a chronic relapser. I have long and good sobriety. It’s my relationship with God that’s the problem.
We forged on with our coffee and our first steps toward Anne’s new sobriety. She was willing, raw, and humbled by her recent bender. She told me that her neighbors had called an ambulance when they heard the thud. She had fallen against the formica counter, knocking herself out and cutting a bloody gash in her head. The EMTs had to restrain her when she came to. The cat had run out, terrified. My cat, Anne said. So your life became unmanageable, I said, dotting the i’s and feeling like a fraud but glad that I could comfort this person, two feelings at war with one another but not altogether unlike.
It’s funny about Anne but I can’t place her. She’s a peasant but with some finish. She speaks well and her manners are so perfect you don’t notice them, which, I learned, is a mark of refinement. I was raised by my two maiden aunts, both school teachers, who taught me all about manners and now I verge on snobbism. I’m used to placing my acquaintances on the social scale. When Anne laughs, however, a whole barroom seems to be laughing with her — beery and hale and rowdy. It could be Anne’s voice that gives her away. It’s rutted like a dirt road.
Anne confided to me that she wanted to go back to dental hygienist’s school, a sad thing to contemplate on a sunless day when your body is broken down by hepatitis C and you’re not too far from fifty. She spoke of her aspirations and I encouraged her, reminding her of the promises in the Big Book. One day at a time, I said.
“I’m feeling tired,” Anne said.
“I can imagine.”
“How ‘bout if I drive you home?”
I was flustered by her manners, so fine they were painful. How long had Anne been waiting for me, the supposedly well-bred one, to leave? I hurried to shrug my arms into my coat sleeves, further embarrassed and at a loss for phrases I could construct in apology for staying so long.
“I’d like to walk,” I said.
Was I sure? I was sure. I said goodbye to Anne and the cat, Miranda. What a nice name. Miranda. Would Anne be okay? I was gushing, still flustered. I kissed Anne. I wanted to kiss Miranda more but the cat was too skittish. I walked down the driveway and out into the street. It was raining. The rain turned to sleet and freezing rain as I walked. But I put up the hood of my parka. I was testing my faith, pressing hard to see where it would give and where I would have to shore it up.
I walked up Division Street, which, appropriately, separates the village in two, intersecting with Main Street and housing shops and restaurants on the upper two blocks. Coming from the other direction in winter, you got a stark view of the stone bank of the Esopus, and beyond, the metal framework of the bridge. Below, near the bridge, where I began my walk, the street is residential, typically storefronts converted to apartments. I passed the display cases, some decorated with a few potted geraniums, short on light in the northeastern winter, others with figurines or religious icons, dusty and in need of care. On nice days, the owners place a chair on the sidewalk and sit to watch the traffic speed up and down the thoroughfare.
The weather was ugly. I turned a corner and stopped at Lorraine’s house on a side street, opening her outside door and passing through the entry room, which was a clutter of cardboard boxes and lamp shades. Lorraine was sitting at her kitchen table looking at a thick restaurant cup half filled with coffee. Lorraine takes heavy medication, which causes her to lack affect and fall asleep while you’re talking to her. When she speaks, only her mouth moves. I can’t remember when I last heard Lorraine laugh. She’s short and overweight, and her face is puffy, but otherwise she still carries this girlish and pretty air, with her bobbed hair and her bangs, which were once blond and are now a neutered gray color with hopeful blond highlights.
I greeted her, smiling through the fog on my glasses.
Lorraine has ALS in remission and if you ask her how she is you may be surprised by the grimness of her disease. I told her I’d just come from visiting Anne.
“Has she started drinking yet?”
“You’re not optimistic.”
I offered to make coffee for us, looking to cheer things up. Lorraine directed me to the jar of instant in a top cupboard. We each had a cup, and Lorraine asked if I was sponsoring Anne. I said I was, temporarily.
“Uh-oh,” Lorraine said.
“Why uh-oh?” I said
“Just don’t take it personal if she slips,” Lorraine said.
“I won’t,” I said.
“You better not,” Lorraine said.
We exchanged chitchat.
“Bobby went out,” Lorraine said.
“I guess he doesn’t have very good sobriety,” I said.
“You better believe it.”
The light was turning muddy in Lorraine’s kitchen and I visualized the trees as black lace against the sky from the windows of my upstairs apartment. I felt restive but still I sat. I could never tell if my presence made any difference one way or the other to Lorraine, yet people said she appreciated a visit. She didn’t get out much. A brown globule of coffee had accumulated at each corner of her mouth.
Lorraine’s husband drives an ambulance and he comes home between shifts, bending over her stiffly seated form to kiss her. He places the kisses with tenderness. I imagined him scraping up parts of the dead from the tarmac after gruesome car wrecks, and returning home to his depressive wife. I wondered if he dreams of that girlish blonde woman with the bobbed hair and bangs, wearing slim little skirts over bare legs.
I left Lorraine and continued up the hill, passing three gift shops, a jewelry store, an antique store, and our one Mexican food shop. Some of the men in town air grievances about the Hispanics who run the shop. If they aren’t illegals, they’re coyotes. One way or another, they’re bilking good American folk out of their money. I passed faces that looked familiar because this is a village and you see the same people every day, and most of the people here are related, at least through cousinship. If they aren’t related, they come from the same Italian or German stock. They look alike and might as well be cousins.
There was a storeowner outside one of the gift shops, smoking his hourly cigarette under cover of his fedora, his gaze blank. The rain and sleet had cleared up, but the air had a cutting chill to it. The sky was a sharp blue with an edging of salmon at the horizon.
The speaker at the evening meeting was a large man with a fat face and a fat Buddha belly. He took off his tweed cabby hat and put it down on the table. He was tan, having just returned from a visit to relatives in Florida, with whom he was reunited. He was a retired butcher. He could drink a bottle of beer underwater and come up standing. Now his Higher Power was always at his side. He went to bed with a smile on his face and woke up with a smile on his face. I could see how that was possible: his face was broad enough to accommodate such a smile. The topic for discussion was attitude.
After the meeting I stood on the sidewalk and lit a cigarette. I took a puff, felt shaky, and felt a hard cold bump as I hit the sidewalk. The man in the cabby hat helped me to my feet. He took out his handkerchief and blotted my face.
“My wrist, I said.” I held out my hand.
“Lemme see,” he said. “Your wrist is broken. Listen, my car’s right here, I’ll drive you to the hospital, you’ll get it set —”
I protested, he prevailed. In the car, which was not a big Buick town car as I expected, but a Toyota Corolla, he was gigantic behind the wheel.
“You’re safe now, you don’t have to cry no more,” he said.
“Was I crying?”
“It’s all right, Constance,” he said, “you’re safe now.”
I said, “I didn’t feel unsafe before. I broke my wrist, was all.”
“You were hurting real bad,” he said.
“How did you know my name?” I said.
“You shared it at the meeting, remember?” he said.
“I’m sorry but I can’t remember yours,” I said.
I was moving toward the door on my side of the car.
“It’s Robert,” he said, “but call me anything. Bob, Rob, Slob, you name it — it don’t matter.”
The car sped toward Kingston or across the river. I was dizzy, I couldn’t tell which direction.
Inside the hospital, Robert sat beside the gurney. I thought it must have been for hours, although when I was alert again he said that it was just a few minutes. While the doctor was casting my wrist, I had the idea of asking if there was another exit I could use that would allow me to bypass Robert and the waiting area. I was so busy developing this scenario that I didn’t notice the pain until the doctor was finished. By then I was dizzy again, and a nurse was pushing me through to the waiting area in a wheelchair.
“See, Constance? Good as new,” Robert said.
I mumbled that yes, it was.
On the drive home, I thought about Robert’s use of my name, which was formal and correct. Usually, I introduced myself as Constance and people called me Connie. Could he be smart enough to use my full name while taking other greasy liberties with impunity?
I was still mulling the name issue when we got to my house. Robert helped me out of the car and asked if he could come in and use the bathroom. It had been a long day and I was in pain, exhausted, and thinking unkind thoughts about another member of the fellowship.
I sat on the sofa in the living room, waiting for Robert to leave, when he called my name. I thought he might be ill, needed help, or was having a heart attack. Who knew why a man would call from the bathroom? I went in. He met me at the door, ready. He had a small, not quite hard penis. I wasn’t prepared to defend myself.
We wrestled on the floor, and my sling fell off in the scuffle. He couldn’t come so I had to blow him to get him out of my apartment.
Over the next few days my sober women friends came to stay with me. They brought soup and hot tea, and sat on the cane rocking chair in my room until I fell asleep. Anne was among them, and Lorraine.
Anne said, “One bad apple doesn’t spoil the barrel.” This old homily made me think about the smell of apples from our neighbor’s orchard at my aunts’ summer house. I tried to remember if there were any rotten apples at the bottom of bushel barrel the neighbor gave us each September.
My sponsor Polly came, wearing her cascading necklaces and turquoise bracelets, her silk tunic and red leather flats, heavily made up as always and wearing some exotic scent on her skin. When she left my house, Polly would drive back to West Hurley and her nineteenth century farmhouse, where she would go to bed in her bedroom without a door. She had insisted that the house be left just as it had been when her late husband, who had been in the process of restoring it, died of a coronary. None of the rooms had doors so when you put your hand out for a knob there was nothing, only empty space. Her house was like that: full of empty spaces. Drafts blew through the house into the bedrooms without doors and from one bedroom to another and to nowhere.
On the first night that I went to bed alone in my apartment, I picked up my old King James Bible. It seemed as good as anything to keep me company until sleep came.
In the morning, the FedEx delivery person came to my apartment door with a large square box. I opened it to find a shiny stainless steel Gevalia coffee maker, two packages of Gevalia coffee, and a stainless steel coffee scoop. The preprinted note inside the box said, “Best wishes from Anne.”
When I called Anne to thank her, I heard the barroom tone of her voice, amplified by the telephone. Her words were unintelligible.
Judith Goode was born and raised in New York City. She attended the High School of Music & Art, with a major in music, and Bard College with a major in languages and literature. She received a Fulbright and an Italian Government Award to study in Italy. She received a full fellowship to the Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa. Goode’s short stories have appeared in Calliope, Forge and the Bangalore Review.