I first met Frank on a Thursday, in the basement of St. Alphonsus at the midweek AA meeting. It’s always a popular occasion, when the strain of four days in the working world bleeds into the impending weekend. Plans are made, plans that to the average social drinker seem tame—dinner, Bluegrass Night at the Silver Dollar, a ball game. But to a drunk these all turn into one long bar waiting for elbows to put a shine on.
I got to St. Alphonsus late. I had a small buzz that was on its way to blossoming. You see I don’t really subscribe to the twelve steps. Not yet anyway. This is not to say they don’t work. The results speak for themselves. Genius really, grouping together adrift obsessives and giving them a mantra, a community where they can replace their damaging obsession with another fascination, hopefully one more and less intoxicating. A higher power. Chain smoking. Shooting back coffee like it’s cheap bourbon. I understand softer compulsions and their orbiting pull. I have this nervous tick, must have kicked in around my late teens when biting my nails wasn’t cutting it. I scrape my thumbnail against the side of my index finger. A small thing. The callus on the edge of my finger cracks and hardens—the lines rubbed clean off this patch of skin. But my thumbnail keeps moving. Also I can’t sleep unless I’m facing a window. This habit dates back to early childhood when I thought that, since the doors to our house were locked, then, logically, burglars would have to come in through my bedroom window. I was going to be ready. Then there’s the cigarettes. We smokers are conditioned by tradition. Driving home in daylight, I pass the old bankrupt Elephant gas station. Each time my right hand slips from the wheel to grope for my pack. Walking past that certain park bench, a filter graces my lips even after the original impulse to smoke is forgotten. Second set of lights before I reach the bar, I light up, knowing I’ll have just the right amount of time to exhale the final plume before hitting the door to order. Nothing will ever be able to fill the hole left when a drinker puts a cork in it. The fact that AA realizes this and instead offers distraction, outlets for our personalities, is something I could never bemoan.
But now you’re asking, if you don’t belong to the program why attend? Or not, maybe you’re asking what the fuck is Frank’s story already? Could we please get there? We don’t even have a description of the man and already we like him better than you!
Why I attend, and I promise to be brief, is simple. I’m on the fence. A functioning alcoholic, as I’ve heard it described. So I’m prone to terrible moments. Awful benders where I wake up with the chalkboard erased and a vague notion of foreboding, that something terrible has happened and I’m the first atom to split. It is after these hauntings that I go to a meeting, a means of reminding myself that I’m still riding with training wheels, that everyone in that room has it worse than I do. That I’ll live to drink another day, and another, and another.
Entering the meeting in progress, I take care not to divert attention from the man speaking behind the podium, chewing the inside of his cheek in a fight against tears. I pour myself a cup of coffee from the urn, mostly to mask the liquor on my breath, as the coffee served at AA is legendary for its putridity. No mater what over-lit basement, no matter what city, another unifying talisman is proclaimed, “The coffee’s no good but there’s plenty of it.” I find myself a spot near the exit. The man is wrapping up.
“This one-day-at-a-time stuff, I never…I never thought a cliché could have that much power…have that kind of beauty, active day-to-day, present-in-your-life beauty.”
And we applaud loudly. He smiles with a hard-won innocence that suddenly becomes aware of itself, as the group rallies round him. He is very young.
The moderator approaches the podium, eyes glassy with reminiscence.
“Thank you for sharing Paul. It’s so important to hear someone speak who’s just starting. Not just for others like you but the veterans here too…we need reminding. I think though now would be a good time to hear from one of those veterans. Frank, you wanna say a few words?”
A throat is cleared and turns into violent coughing. Then a cheap fold-out chair scrapes against linoleum tile. Frank makes for the podium. He looks anywhere between forty-five and sixty-five. The thick grey hair appears uncombable. His slightly jaundiced face bears heavy creases, some so deep they could be mistaken for scars made from cuts left to heal unstitched. He has the frozen expression of whiskey drinkers after shooting their stuff—hints of pain and undertones of breathlessness. He’s short but well built. His head could have been a Hollywood feature.
“Hello everyone, my name’s Frank and, surprise, I’m an alcoholic.”
“Hi Frank,” the room replies. There’s a smattering of hushed laughter. It’s apparent this man is seasoned. We can relax. He’s done this before. He’ll laugh instead of weep, and laughter is the prism of his knowledge, which he holds up to our eyes.
“There’s this old Japanese proverb. Goes: ‘First the man takes a drink; then the drink takes a drink; then the drink takes the man.’ I’m with this proverb, you know, conceptually.
“I remember when I first fell in love with alcohol. I was at a party talking to Sara Stein, and I was making her laugh. Or rather the drink was making me make her laugh. We all have that moment as alcoholics, that perfect tantalizing experience where it all comes together in pristine mistake-free Mozart melody, and we’re more than the sum of our parts. I call it the Beatrice effect, Dante’s vision of perfection, the reason he travels through hell, up purgatory’s mountainside. But, like most readers, alcoholics only make it to the Inferno.”
A confused laugh. He’s losing most, but I’m right there.
“Yet we all chase the splendor of that perfect feeling, that immortality we grasped briefly. We add fuel and come close at first, but it never is as potent. Then it turns. Years go by. I drop out of school, work as little as possible, mostly general labor gigs. Round this time I meet Jane. The only thing we loved more than each other was drinking. We were wild. We amplified one another. She married me to win a bet. Our appetites grew. My occasional jobs couldn’t foot the bill, so I started stealing from houses, and, if we were ever really desperate, she’d pick up a John. This life dragged on for what now feels like several hundred years. Then the accident. It’s still hard for me to talk about. The stupidity, my complete lack of…just fucking brainlessness. I was hammered, took a corner too fast, the truck jackknifed, then we crashed into the store window. I stayed in the car. Jane was flung fifteen feet and left most of her distinguishing features on the road. I know this because I was the only one who could ID the body. I did it in handcuffs. Guilty plea. Five years involuntary manslaughter and impaired driving. I dried out in prison. Went to court-ordered meetings. Finished up my degree, mostly just so I could be away from myself. When you’re alone, in your cell without lights, and you’re this person you can’t understand, can’t acknowledge—Because how could you? How could you let yourself turn into that kind of man?—you become an abstraction out of preservation. If you saw yourself truly, you would throw your body against the wall until there was nothing left that a mop couldn’t take care of. And you’d be right in doing it!”
He pauses. I think of my own isolation. The one-bedroom apartment I can’t settle into. My most expensive possessions cooling in the fridge or resting in the cabinet. The job I work. The job I searched out based on the ratio of brainpower needed to succeed verses how hungover or drunk I could be while still maintaining the company line. Mostly I think of the solitude. I’ve never been to jail, but I am forever locked up. Each lie, no matter the size, removing me a half step away from understanding. “How many have you had already?” A question I’ve been asked many times early in the afternoon and it never matters the real number, my answer is always “just two or three.” The phrase is so ingrained that I’ve spoken these words with my very first drink of the day still in hand. The secrecy pushes, carves a hollow between your personality and your projection. You’re the kind of person people like in doses or from a distance because, upon closer inspection, they get a nagging feeling. Something’s broken, something’s hidden, some taint skims the top of my smile. The imposter. The drunk in the middle of an AA meeting. The shame I should feel. The shame that’s there. The difference between the two.
“Okay. That’s the darkness taken care of. We all ready for some redemption? While I was taking my classes there was a professor. She gave me a copy of the Tao Te Ching one day. She had dog-eared a passage. That passage started me on the road back to my better self. The passage goes:
Can you coax your mind from its wandering
And keep to the original oneness?
Can you let your body become
Supple as a newborn child’s?
Can you cleanse your inner vision
Until you see nothing but the light?
Can you love people and lead them
Without imposing your will?
Can you deal with the most vital matters
By letting events take their course?
Can you step back from your own mind
And thus understand all things?
Giving birth and nourishing,
Having without possessing,
Acting with no expectations,
Leading and not trying to control:
This is the supreme virtue.
“I fell in love with her of course. I started going to meetings not out of duty but out of compulsion. I worked the steps, then worked them over. I got early release for good behavior and a custodian’s job at a factory through the parole office, a job I still have. I called the university where the professor worked. We talked amiably, but when I asked her to dinner she politely declined—and hung up pretty fast. Years past.
“Then two years ago I met her at a bookshop. I said something like ‘Hi my name’s Frank Shau’— whoops a decade sober and here I go almost breaking the first rule. Let’s try that again. ‘Hi my name’s Frank. It’s nice to meet you, and thank you for putting my life back into my own hands.’ She smiled, laughed even, and replied, ‘You AA guys sure are good at saying your names, little melodramatic, though, don’t you think?’ We started seeing each other, taking things slow. It was six months before I met her son. He was three, name of Jake. He wore this skeptic’s furrow everywhere, even when he was laughing, like he was weighing the merit of each new experience against those from his shallow well of knowledge. It was the best year and a bit I’d ever known. Then I went to the doctor.
“I may have tricked you all with the happy ending I promised, but I don’t think so, not when you look at the thing brass tacks. I have inoperable pancreatic cancer. The thing that’s going to kill me has nothing to do with drinking, a little tidbit that makes me smile in my darker moments. I have about half a year left, give or take. When I found out the prognosis, I left Jake and Alice. I couldn’t let them watch me die. Those last moments would poison the few good memories I am going to leave behind to outlast me in this world. Now I work, live in a cheap little place downtown, read whenever I can, and go to meetings. I wanted a drink so badly when I found out the diagnosis—‘paper-bagged bottle in hand’ type of moment—but I didn’t, and I’m so glad that something stopped me.
“Remember that old Japanese proverb? Well I came up with my own version. It’s not spare like the original. Very expansive, full of wind, very Western. Goes a little something like, ‘First the man takes a drink; then the drink takes a drink; then the drink takes approximately twenty-seven more drinks; then the drink starts doing copious amounts of blow, so the drink can have another twenty-seven drinks; then the drink loses its job and runs through all of its savings faster than you can say, “A Money Mart loan seems like a good idea”; then the drink takes you to petty crime; then the drink takes a drive, spins out, ploughs ass first into a storefront window, throws its wife fifteen feet against the pavement, killing her, although not instantly; then the drink destroys the man.
“Well that’s it. Thank you all for listening.”
The room freezes, as if everyone had drawn breath together and held it. The story immobilizes us for half a second, that half a second when you acknowledge that something has crested. Then we clap.Outside with the smokers, I wait for Frank to emerge. I need more, an answer that his story didn’t quite provide. When he steps out, the extent of his maladies are apparent. He walks with a Sisyphean gait, beleaguered and ground down. In his eyes, beady little things but good-humored, I see the incarnation of Camus’ question. He stops to meet my gaze, a man at the end. I wonder at his resolve. I wonder, “Why not?”
“Frank, wow that was really something. I’m Sam.”
“Good to know you Sam. You working the steps?”
“Yeah…well no…listen,……you got a minute to talk?”
“Think I just talked for much more than a minute. What’s on your mind?”
“Can we go someplace? I don’t think it’s something you can tell me, more like something I’ve gotta see.”
“Sam, now I’m flattered, really, but…”
“No, nothing like that. Come to the bar and have a drink. Please?”
“We just came from a meeting.”
“I don’t really know what you’re after but I’m curious. You’re lucky I made myself a promise to follow all my curiosities till their resolution…or my own.”
We part from the alcoholics who occupy the lion’s share of the sidewalk cloaking their conversations under a thick cloud of carcinogens. The traffic has picked up again. It’s long enough after rush hour for plans to turn active. Dinner. A show. A date. A table. A stage. A bar. Frank walks tentatively, as if each step is being counted, not cumulatively, as in a total number, but insistently, as in a final countdown until it’s white sheets, Jell-O and a morphine drip, one last walk to the bathroom. The crowd swallows him time and again. I slow my pace.
The storefronts are lit up boldly so the night seems especially dark, a contrast that blows irises, fuzzes contours, and turns the Annex lovely, thematic, more than mere economy. I smell the season. I smell the sewage. I smell the shawarma. The collage of sensory stimuli, the ambiguous reflected pedestrians, the reason I walk in the city: a pace car for this frenetic mind. We get to the Red Room, a favorite spot of mine. Dark and eclectic. Three bars on three floors. A place that is big without being busy. A place with menus but never any food. A place quiet enough to hear the music and loud enough not to be noticed. Patrons are more interested in their drinks than each other. Tom Waits is playing. The album’s Small Change but I have to make the joke.
“Frank’s Wild Years?”
“Frank’s only year; Tom Waits for no man.”
I order two double scotches. He looks at me with a smirk.
“They can both be for me, but they don’t need to be.”
As I go to pay for the drinks, my copy of The Waste Land falls from my pocket down at Frank’s feet. He picks it up, turns it over, and says,
He who was living is now dead
We who were living are now dying
With a little patience
“You can recite The Waste Land?”
“Fourth year in. It’s true what he says about April and all. Especially in prison. You smell the change without seeing it. Absence of sight makes that season’s start more palpable. Small memories strike with surprising ferocity: cherry blossoms slick with rain on a park bench, willow branches that hang so low their tendrils graze the water, aspen glittering in mock flight against a breeze. Nature’s bloom nagging with every drawn breath. Of course he was saying that April is cruel because it exposes all of the shit in the world, the season’s naked raw nerve, but it is poetry so I’m allowed a little leeway.”
“You have less than a year, why don’t you take that drink?”
“I have less than a year, how can I afford to?”
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
Shantih shantih shantih