The Money’s Gone

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The house on the farm that wasn’t a farm had the cold feel and smell that uninhabited houses have, like faded memories of people, their presence gone stale and uncertain. JJ thought of that town in Japan where the earthquake caused the reactor to melt down, breakfast bowls still on tables and backpacks still in neat circles on classroom carpets.  He turned on the heat to move some molecules and get rid of the chill. They had gone to the bank on the way over. In all his accounts, not counting the value of the farm and the ranch, he had just over $1100 to his name. He was…what’s the term? Illiquid? Yes. He was illiquid and reliant on the ranch rent of an equally poor and unreliable brother and sister in Colorado.

“Hey,” Lila said. “We’re going to be all right.”

“Yup.”

“Really,” she said. “We’ll go back to work.”

“Yup.”

They walked together through the rooms of the house. The last people who lived here were Lila and Carl, who were caretaking. And taking care of each other. A tiny ember inside that he was not even aware of glowed suddenly and started to smolder. The resentment, kept at bay by motion and drama, now flamed up.

“Don’t,” Lila said.

“He hasn’t even called.”

“He’s afraid.”

JJ knew this was true, but the resentment was flaring and consuming the oxygen of his reason. He tried to stifle it for fear of letting the blaze get out of control. Too late…

They drove him away. They drove him out to Colorado where he got drunk and blew the rest of his money. She came to rescue him and tricked him into declaring love. He was dimly aware that he was being consumed by a lie of his disease and he know that he had to do something. He turned away and looked out the kitchen window.

The old view. The barn and the hill sloping down behind. The steeples and water tower in town, visible because the leaves were mostly down. The moodiness of the fall. It reminded him of the previous falls, disappointments, false starts and…rebirths?

“I have to make a call,” he said.

“Oh. Okay.”

He walked out the door to the porch and dialed the number. Two rings. Three rings. A mixture of relief and despair. He had tried.

“Hello.”

“Marty, it’s Jason. From the meeting.”

“Hey, what’s going on?”

And JJ shared the resentment. How Lila, who he loved, and Carl, his best friend from forever had shacked up when JJ got erratic, drunk and angry. How he couldn’t forget it and how it was consuming him. How he loved Lila. Yes, he had told her. But how could they be together with this this…thing, between them. It all came pouring out of him, spilling over like water in an overfilled vessel when it actually raises above the brim before spilling and flooding a table and floor.

“Listen,” Marty said. “Get down on your knees, right where you are. Right now.”

“…”

“Are you on your knees?”

“You mean while we’re on the phone?”

“Yes. Right now.”

JJ looked in the window to see if Lila was watching. He couldn’t see her so he got down on his knees.

“I’m down,” JJ said.

“Good. Now repeat after me. God, I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing.”

“What?”

“Repeat it!”

“God,” JJ said. “I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing.”

“I don’t even know if you’re real or not.”

JJ repeated, “I don’t even know if you’re real or not.”

“But please help me not to drink today. I beg you to help me not to drink today.”

JJ repeated it.

“Good,” Marty said. “Now go inside, hug your girl and tell her you’ll see her after the 6:00 meeting.”

“You’ll be there?”

“You bet. I’ll see you there.”

“Ok, thanks.” JJ got off his knees and went inside to hug his girl.

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JJ in AA, Again

 

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A church basement. Upstairs is for those who fear going to hell. Downstairs is for those who’ve already been there. At least that’s what some people say.

After the meeting, Professor Tom stood with some members, laughing at the absurdity of the drinking life and the miracle of getting to live a sober life. JJ waited near the exit door, nervous, feeling he was lying in ambush. The meeting was good, his third since returning from Colorado. Lila was at the Al-anon meeting down the hall, her third since the return, too. It was early, but so far, so good. He hadn’t seen his old sponsor yet and was resolved to clean things up and get back to recovery work.

“I’m glad you waited,” Tom said as he approached JJ at the door. JJ put an awkward hand out but Tom brushed past it and embraced JJ. “Some never come back,” he said next to JJ’s head.

“I’m back for good,” JJ said.

“Or just for today.”

JJ smiled. “Yeah, just for today. A daily reprieve, right?”

“Based on the maintenance of our spiritual condition.”

“Yeah, about that. I need to get back to work on the steps.”

“Listen,” Tom said. “I’m really glad you’re here, but I can’t sponsor you anymore. I’ve got three other guys and I can’t take time from them.”

“Oh,” JJ said and tried to disguise his disappointment. It was one of those moments, so common for him, when the path forward looked straight and clear, but then the world was revealed as more complex and contrary than assumed. He felt like a child discovering that all that stuff- the house, the car, the water(!)- actually cost money. There was always a price to be paid.

“What I can do is introduce you to a few guys.”

“That would be good.”

“Marty,” Tom called across the room. “C’mere for a minute.”

A guy, younger than Tom, closer to JJ’s age, broke off from another group of people and came over.

“This is Jason,” Tom said. “He just got back from…”

“Out there,” JJ finished, gesturing with his thumb out the window. “And Colorado.”

“Oh yeah? Welcome back,” Marty said, and they shook hands. “I lived there for seven years. The greatest and worst times of my life.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, man,” Marty said. “Listen, a few of us are going to get coffee. You’re welcome to come.”

Once again, a fork in the road. Take the easy way and scurry home to comfort with a residue of shame and self-loathing? Or go out and brave the company of actual people who are trying to do better?

“Last suggestion,” Professor Tom said. “Discard that first instinct. That’s usually your disease.”

He was right, of course. That’s the thing about these sober people, at least the ones who actually work it. They’re always fucking right.

“All right,” JJ said. “I’ll go. I just have to tell my girlfriend.”

“Great,” said Marty. “We’ll meet you in the parking lot.”

Detoxing in the Mountain Air

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Withdrawing from alcohol. A mesh of electricity humming just under the skin, complete with unpredictable twitches, some lunatic doctor behind the one-way glass delivering voltage. Also, the feeling (the certainty!) of impending doom and imminent threat. Shadows behind rocks are crouching gargoyles, vigilant and silent. There is a lurking monster behind that tree right over there, some stick figure, an upright mantis keeping very still. And this woman, Tess, next to JJ in a sleeping bag under the mountain stars. They are camped on his land apparently, JJ’s land, in this valley in northern Colorado.

JJ lays on his side, shaky and alert, watching the trees and rocks, and wonders how the hell this happened. He knows the what, where and when. With the last of his lottery money, he bought this old mountain ranch that had once been in Tess’s family. But how? Why? Whither?

Next to him, Tess shifts in her sleeping bag, the nylon rustle amplified in the deep quiet. Is she asleep? JJ can’t get comfortable in his sleeping bag. He’s warm, he’s cold, he’s hot. Clammy nylon sticks to his cheek. His breath is fetid and there is a weird smell coming from his body, like the smell of an examining room in a hospital, some antiseptic cleaner trying hard to cover up the smell of human excreta- sweat, blood, urine, etc.  Also, there’s this rubber glove smell coming from God knows where. He must be getting better if he can catalogue these smells and place them in a hospital. Though, of course, he does feel more like a patient than a healthy human. He is detoxing.

This woman, Tess. Something is off but he can’t put his finger on it. She certainly smiles a lot. That’s never a good sign. She’s attractive, at least physically. Fit and glowing and endowed with…endowments. But, there’s an aura of disaster and chaos around her, an untethered feeling that infects JJ. He feels the same way when watching news footage from the scene of some explosion- whirling police lights and silhouettes moving and milling in a smoky background. You kind of want to be there, to see it, to have a part in it. To help out. That can’t be good. What did Dr. Shays once say to him? “Your attraction to a certain kind of person is automatic. It is machinery that you can’t see working. It chooses what it needs and by the time you catch up, it’s too late. You’re being ground up.”

JJ’s machine likes chaos. That’s why he could never stick with Lila. She’s crazy, but not crazy enough, too grounded to feed the beast.

But this Tess. She’s not right but she’s also very…very…alluring. Mysterious. Unpredictable?  More like erratic.

A voice, muffled coming from inside the horizontal lump of sleeping bag next to him. “Are you thinking about me?”

JJ shifts onto his back and looks into the vast mountain sky. Stars and stars and stars.

“Yes,” he says.

Tess sighs and again the voice muffled, coming from somewhere hidden, beneath the surface.

“That’s good,” the voice says. “That’s really good.”

Side Door, Ajar

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JJ got home, walked onto his side porch, and noticed the door was ajar. He froze. What the hell? Did I leave it like that? Did someone go in there? Is someone still in there? He made himself very still and listened as hard as he could. Insects in the woods and field. A slight breeze in the leaves. A truck in the distance and some leaf blower off to the left, down the hill, near the cemetery. But, what about the house? He thought he heard a creak inside but the house was old. “Old houses settle”, his father had told him when the old house of his childhood unsettled him with its creaks and groans. Then Knuckles the cat slithered through the ajar door and he almost jumped off the porch. His heart pounded. “Fuckin cats,” he said as the cat came over to rub against his legs. He wanted to kick Knuckles but, as he calmed, realized it was good to be with someone.

The listening spell broken, JJ chuckled and reached for the door knob. He must have left it ajar when he rushed out that morning. He was forgetting a lot of things lately. But, before he could open it all the way, a car turned into his driveway and a horn tooted in greeting. JJ squinted at the windshield of an old Toyota or Honda sedan, but the sun glare was strong and he couldn’t see inside. The driver threw something out the window which landed with a thud on the driveway. JJ heard the gears shift to reverse and the car backed away into the road and continued on up the mountain. Now he was torn between opening the door and checking out the driveway package. He knew it was probably a phonebook but, the way it had landed, it sounded weightier, too dense for a mere list of names and numbers that nobody used anymore. Books that land on your driveway with a thud are hard to ignore.

JJ chose the door over the book and opened it, pushing through his unease and stepping over the threshold. He went into the kitchen and saw the remains of his rushed breakfast, English muffin crumbs on a plate and an OJ glass, still on the kitchen table. He knew for a fact now that when he rushed off that morning the latch didn’t engage all the way. The door had popped open from the cat or a breeze. Or some kind of settling.

That morning his cell phone buzzed as he lay in bed warming up to masturbation, that 7-11 cashier with the pink hair and those jeans on his mind. He hadn’t recognized the number and almost didn’t answer it. But, he was trying to do the opposite of what his instincts told him to do these days so he took the call. It was a guy named Kurt he met two weeks ago.

“I need help,” Kurt said.

“Are you OK?” (Did you use? Are you gonna drink?)

“I’m OK but I just found out my sister’s in the hospital and I can’t talk to my family and I need someone to just hang with. You’re the only one who answered.”

“Where are you?”

“Home but I want to go out. I need to go out.”

“OK. How about Dunkin Donuts. Half hour or so.”

“OK, great. That’s good. Thanks. I’ll be there.”

And JJ had pulled on some clothes, made a quick English muffin, had a glass of OJ, brushed his teeth, and rushed out the door, not engaging the latch, thinking of someone else for a change.

Present Day JJ: Under the Microscope, Squished on a Slide

 

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“Hungry, angry lonely, tired. Are you any of those things?”

“No.”

“Those are the things to look out for,” Professor Tom said. He chewed a cheeseburger, bun crumbs catching in his patient academic beard. Tom taught biology at the university. Or was it physics at the college? JJ wasn’t sure.

“I feel ok,” JJ said.

“You should feel like shit. Most people, and I doubt you’re the exception, feel like shit when they hit bottom. There’s the physical agony, sure. But mostly the pain of losing you’re best friend whiskey, or whatever you’re into.”

“Ok, I feel like shit.”

“That’s the spirit. It’s good to feel like shit.”

JJ picked at some fries. It was all he could stomach in this terrible Burger King. Professor Tom worked on his second cheeseburger with gusto. A piece of bacon stuck out the end of the bun opposite from Tom’s mouth, pointing at JJ, a mocking tongue of BK Bacon. JJ couldn’t take his eyes off it, even as his stomach rolled. He pushed the fries away and sipped his Coke.

“Are you willing to go to any lengths for your sobriety?”

JJ had heard this question before and it still alarmed him, like the first overtures of a cult to a potential convert. He had said yes before, too. And no. It didn’t seem to make a difference. “I don’t know,” he said. “I just don’t know.”

Professor Tom stuffed the last piece of cheeseburger, with the floppy bit of bacon, into his mouth and looked at JJ. He chewed and kept looking as JJ squirmed, a specimen under the Professor’s microscope. JJ felt squished and helpless, a bug on a slide, open for scrutiny. Horrible.

“’I don’t know’ is a good place to start.” Tom wiped his mouth and shook his beard free of crumbs. “People sometimes answer too quick. They say yes, but don’t know what that means. But you’re aware of the leap. That can be good or bad. What’s your work situation? Where do you live?”

“I get by for now. Money’s ok.” He did not want to get into the lottery winnings, always in the background, solving nothing, soothing nothing.

“So, you don’t have a job?”

“No.”

“OK, you’re now a fulltime alcoholic in recovery. You will build your day around a meeting, arriving early, helping set up, going for coffee after, no matter how painful. Do you have a girlfriend? Are you married?”

JJ hesitated. What was Lila, exactly? Not his wife, obviously. His girlfriend? More like his ex-girlfriend, now a benefactor, with the potential to move forward to…what? Girlfriend? It was so far beyond words now. They had been, if not together, aware of each other, careening, sometimes touching, since 1989.

“I have a friend,” JJ said. “It’s complicated.”

Professor Tom sighed and gathered up the trash onto his tray. “It usually is,” he said. “Let’s get out of here.”