“My name is Charles. I’m an alcoholic. Tonight, I’m drinking.”
He glared at his reflection in the cracked rear-view before punching it hard, snapping it off the windshield and sending loose shards of mirror showering into his lap. A tap came on his window; one of the security guards, who pointed to the gate and motioned him to leave. The other security guard stood in front of the car with arms crossed, trying her best at one hundred twenty or so pounds to look intimidating. Charles started the car, backed out of his spot, flipped them the bird and left the premises where he was, apparently, no longer essential.
He eased out onto Main Street and began mulling his meager finances as he drove through what passed as the heart of town: a church, a coffee shop, and a beer distributor. All the fast food places were up by the highway now. Everything else, the few small shops and restaurants, were corona casualties: in hibernation, open under restrictions or just plain gone forever.
He had forty-one bucks and change in his checking account until his last full paycheck hit on Friday. The check after that would just be for today, but he wasn’t thinking that far ahead. He only cared about this day and what he could do with what little money he had left. If he spent twenty-five bucks on gas, that left him enough for a cheap bottle of something. He didn’t much care what. He just wanted to do as much damage as he could as quickly as possible. It was a year and three days since he’d last had a load on, and he needed this one. He wanted this one.
The gas station was two miles down the road, where his small town began giving way to open country. There was a state liquor store in an otherwise all but abandoned plaza a quarter mile further down the road. A pair of swipes with his debit card for gas and booze and then home to disappear into oblivion for a while.
Fired. Over a fight about jelly. Who does that? Stupid. Stupid!
He hadn’t thrown a punch since junior high and he’d lost that fight, too, and earned three days of in-school suspension. Three days of shooting his mother’s pencils into the ceiling of the auditorium with a rubber band. For months afterwards, his mother would search the house in vain for those pencils.
“Chuck, have you seen my pencils? I swear I had a bundle of them wrapped in rubber bands, right here in the kitchen drawer. Did you take them to school? Are they in your desk?”
“No, Mom. They’re not in my desk.”
“Are you sure?”
“I swear, mom, they’re not in my desk.”
“I’ve looked low and high…” she’d said, voice trailing off.
Not high enough, Mom. Try the ceiling of the Riverview Junior High auditorium, far beyond the reach of the janitor, Mister Purvis, and his rickety old ladder.
He and Jenny went to a school board meeting in that auditorium a few years ago, and he’d glanced up. Still there, a small thicket of pencils, far more than he’d shot over his brief internment. His mom’s collection of No. 2 pencils in assorted lengths and at least a dozen others were embedded firmly in the acoustic tile. Apparently, he’d inspired a legion of pencil archers. He’d burst out laughing and had to leave the room. Jenny was not amused at the time. Neither was the school board. Jenny laughed later when he told her the story. Not the polite laugh she showed the world, but the deep, full-throated laugh she only let loose around those she loved. It ached to think about how much he missed that laugh.
Today’s fight got him fired. They told him they’d pay him for the day, then security escorted him out of the building. No second chances for probationary employees. Out the door you go, and don’t let it hit you where the good Lord split you.
The fight started because there was just one grape jelly left in the break room, and the guy behind him wanted it.
“It’s mine…seniority,” the jackass told him, pushing him aside and grabbing it out of the battered old straw basket on the counter. Without hesitation or warning he’d knocked jackass-mister-seniority right on his tail. But jackass-mister-seniority, Butch Walker, got right up and began pummeling Charles until several coworkers broke up the impending homicide. They both got shit-canned: Charles because he was less than three months on the job, Butch because he had one fight too many.
He pulled up to the light at Water Street. His mouth tasted like old pennies. He rolled his tongue around in his mouth. All his teeth were there, but one seemed loose. His nose felt puffy, and he was sure it was bleeding down the back of his throat. There was fresh blood on his right thigh, which puzzled him until he realized his hand was bleeding and dripping on his leg. Rear-view’s revenge.
He wanted that first pull on the bottle. He could almost taste it, almost feel the razor-sharp burn as it rushed down his throat. He’d remember that first one. The rest would quickly become a blur. And no sir, he wasn’t calling Mark to keep from falling off the wagon. No indeed. He was hurling himself off, no sponsor needed for that, no sir. The abyss beckoned, and he’d rush into its embrace.
The Water Street light changed, and he drove to the next light at Columbus Circle, where two old men were planting American flags around the Columbus statue in the fading daylight.
He looked down: the gas needle lay flat on empty. Don’t you run out, you bastard. The light changed, and he eased down on the accelerator, milking the fumes in the tank.
He wasn’t surprised he’d finally snapped. The phone call to Jenny two days earlier set everything in motion. He’d been on edge ever since he spoke to her. A couple drives through the country did nothing to dull that edge.
“It’s been over a year,” he’d pleaded, “A whole year, and not a drop.”
“Well, it’s not enough, Chuck. We’re not coming home yet,” she sighed into the phone.
“Well what is enough, Jenny? Two years? Ten?” In the end, they were shouting at each other and she hung up. He never even got to say hello to his boys. Later that same evening, he heard heavy footsteps on his porch: firemen. A fire truck was parked in front of his apartment, lights flashing.
“Got a complaint your car’s leaking gas,” said the chief.
He hadn’t denied it. The Taurus leaked if he put in more than half a tank. He must have pumped in a hair too much. Someone caught a whiff and called the fire department. They threw cat litter under the car to soak up the spill after confirming it was no longer leaking.
“Next time, it’s a fine and we’ll have it towed,” he was warned.
His neighbors sat on their porches watching it all, some chuckling and pointing, some just shaking their heads and frowning. He felt like a five-star idiot. He took the Taurus to the garage the next day and got a used gas tank installed. He’d paid his rent earlier in the week, so the repair chewed up most of his bank account. He was a stick of dynamite with the fuse already lit by the time he crossed paths with Butch in the cafeteria.
He frowned and shook his head as he dodged the endless succession of potholes. Why was every damned road in Pennsylvania a mini Ho Chi Minh trail? He swerved to miss one and a new one that wasn’t there the day before swallowed his left front wheel. Wham! He looked up to the rear view to see if anything had fallen off the car, but there was only a ring of epoxy where the mirror used to be.
A year of AA meetings, two a day sometimes, standing and introducing himself: “Hello. My name is Charles. I am an alcoholic…” Almost three months of slaving away at a shit-job to show Jenny he was back on track, all that time dying for a drink but holding his own somehow, and still it came to this: his wife and kids remained a state away. He was broke, newly fired and driving a piece-of-shit car sporting a brand new used gas tank he couldn’t afford to fill unless he stayed sober.
He had no such plans. No, sir.
In less than an hour none he’d have half a bottle in his belly. Nothing would matter for a day or so. Lord, yes, tonight I will drink.
He’d started each day for more than a year the same way: staring into the bathroom mirror and swearing by God he wouldn’t drink. He ended each day standing before that same mirror and swearing he wouldn’t drink tomorrow, either. Last night and this morning, he’d skipped these rituals. He’d already made up his mind to break his vow. He just wasn’t brave enough to say it to his own face.
If Jenny and the boys were coming home maybe he’d still have a job. He’d probably be on his way to a meeting right now. But they were in Ohio. When Jenny got word about what happened this time, and she always found out somehow, she’d stay away all the longer.
“Why, Jenny?” he’d asked the day he came home to find her packing.
She said it was the abuse.
“What abuse? I’ve never laid a hand on you.”
“Well, sometimes I wish you had, Chuck. I’d have done this a lot sooner. Maybe you don’t hit us, but you certainly hurt us. You’re a nasty drunk. Your words do more damage than your fists ever could.”
She was taking the kids to her mom’s place in Ohio, she said. He could call her there in a month or so, she said. Not before, she said. He didn’t know what to say, and figured it was wisest to stay quiet while she packed. It simply wasn’t possible to move Jenny off a decision once she’d made up her mind. Her baby brother Hank, a bench-warming linebacker at Ohio State, stood next to her as she zipped shut her suitcase. Hank put a supreme effort into looking as menacing as possible while his sister packed. He ignored Hank. When she closed the suitcase, he walked past Hank, who twitched a little, and softly pleaded for Jenny to stay, to give him just one more chance. She ignored him and called the boys into the bedroom.
“Give your daddy a kiss.”
He kissed them, circling his arms around both and hugging them. They looked confused, tears filling their eyes. They were herded away to Hank’s silver Honda where they waved as Hank pulled away from the curb. He watched as the car disappeared down Gouge Street before turning onto Abbot. He’d seen his two boys just three times in the year that followed: their birthdays and at Christmas. He’d driven to Ohio each time, stayed in a cheap motel, and spent a few hours with his boys before driving all the way back. He’d worked so hard since then to convince Jenny to come home again. She always took his phone calls, and that always gave him hope. He swore he could hear that same hope in her voice as well. He was sure of it. She’d never once told him she no longer loved him. That counted for something. It had to.
Now his family seemed farther away than ever.
The gas held out: He made it to the station, pulled up to the small pump island and got out of the car. A swipe of the debit card, and he started pumping the regular. He kept his eyes on the pump’s screen; he had to make sure he didn’t fly right by that twenty-five dollars mark.
The sound of wheels rolling over pavement, creeping up behind him, pulling up close. Don’t rush me, jackass. A car door opened. Footsteps. Someone approaching. He refused to look at whoever it was until he was done. Whatever they wanted, well, they could damn well wait. He finished pumping and slowly placed the nozzle back in its cradle.
“Sir,” came a woman’s voice, trembling and raspy like dry leaves in a stiff October wind.
Despite himself, he turned and looked. Blonde. About thirty, he guessed. Dark sunglasses above her mask.
“Can you lend me five dollars for gas? I just ran out. I hate to ask, but I left my purse home.”
Who the hell did she think she was, trying to cut into his bottle money? What woman goes anywhere …anywhere! …without her purse?
He was set to dress her down when he saw the car seat; saw the sleeping child tightly clutching a stuffed animal; the battered suitcase on the front seat of her car; the small spot of crusted blood on a corner of her plain blue mask.
His anger evaporated.
Her car had drifted to a stop at an oblique angle, the gas tank too far to reach with the nozzle.
“First thing, we need to get you closer to the pump,” he said calmly. “Let me move my car.”
After he parked the Taurus in front of the convenience store, he asked her to get back in her car and put it in neural. He told her how to cut the wheels, and then he started pushing the car backwards. As he pushed, he had her cut the wheels a few times until she was lined up with the island. He moved around behind the car and leaned into it, harder work this time because the ground wasn’t quite level. He inched the car forward until she was next to the pump. He opened the gas cap, swiped his debit card, and started pumping.
She reached in her glove box and grabbed a small notepad and pencil. She held them out through the open window.
“Please, give me your address. I’ll mail you five dollars when I get home.”
“You’re not going home,” he said, “…and five dollars won’t get you far enough.”
He looked away and kept pumping until he squeezed in every cent he had left. He put the gas cap back on, closed the fuel door, and walked up to her window. He could hear her crying, and he knew that tears were rolling down her cheeks and disappearing under and into her mask.
“He always says he’ll never do it again,” she sighed. “He always swears it’s the last time. But strong as he is, he’s so weak.”
She reached up and took off her mask and sunglasses. Both her eyes were blackened, a cheekbone bruised. She held out her hand. He took it, shaking it gently.
“I can’t thank you enough, sir. I don’t even know your name.”
“It’s not important,” he said softly. “I’m no one worth remembering. I’m just glad I could help. Pump that gas pedal some before trying to start.”
He started to pull his hand away, but she gripped it firmly.
“Wait,” she said.
She released him, then went into the glove box for something. She reached over and began cleaning his hand with a baby wipe. He didn’t realize until then how much he’d bled.
“You have a nasty cut. You might need a stitch.”
“I’ll be fine.”
“I have some bandages, too. I’ll cover it.”
He objected, but she wasn’t having it. She worked quickly and professionally.
“Are you a nurse or something?”
“Or something,” she replied with a slight smile, then said, “What’s on your shirt? I don’t think it’s blood.”
“Grape jelly. Don’t ask.”
“And the hand and your swollen nose; should I ask about those?”
“Do you need a mask?”
“No. I got plenty. I didn’t expect to be talking to anyone, is all.”
“Thank you again,” she said. “I hope things work out for you. Whatever those things are.”
“Well, you too,” he said, because he really didn’t know what else to say.
She rolled up her window, worked the gas pedal, and cranked the starter. It took three attempts before the engine finally caught. She smiled again, a slight almost imperceptible raising of the corners of her mouth, then slowly drove away. He watched her disappear into the gathering darkness and then he got back in the Taurus.
Something had happened. He didn’t know what, exactly. He knew he’d never see that woman again. She was gone and she’d somehow taken his rage with her. He glanced up the street to the liquor store. Right turn, oblivion. Left turn, a chance.
He turned left.
He’d gone one year already; he supposed he could keep trying if that’s what it was going to take. There was a meeting tonight in the basement of a church over on Swallow Street. He’d call Mark. They’d have coffee later, but Mark would have to buy tonight.
A year and three days behind him and, God willing, a long stretch of new days ahead, each lived on the knife edge, each a struggle, each a fresh chance to fail.
But tonight …tonight, for sure, he would not drink. This night was all he could manage right now. All of those tomorrows would find him soon enough.
* * *
...Be good to each other.