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Bill

man-remains-calm-and-stands-ground-in-intense-showdown-with-charging-elephant“If you need a rooftop, Buddy, I’m your guy. Game recognizes game.”

Bill is cooly draped over his chair, lengthy limbs like tributaries of an oceanic torso, oceanic in that it is at once broad and seemingly charged, and he is wearing an athletic Henley which emphasizes his swimmer’s build. He is sixty, but a Paul Newman sixty, just with a longer face, lips drawn over his front teeth in a manner that suggests he’s wearing a mouthguard at all times, a pugilist in repose, and to that effect, he dons a beanie drawn low over his brow, which he wears indoors, his eyes beneath something of perambulation while he is thinking, the chair he sits in too small for him or he too tall for it, and everything looking like he is about to speak.

“Game recognizes game,” Bill repeats in a genteel fashion that betrays his Southern roots. He shifts casually, legs crossed far away and at the ankle. Absently, he scratches his left pectoral and leans back in his seat, mouth puckered in self-satisfaction, nodding. The way Bill speaks: there is an antebellum quality to it, vaguely rhotic, with an emphasis sometimes on first syllables. His vowels are glideless and how people end their interrogatives with a rising intonation, Bill seems to end every sentence in an almost evaporative fashion, his words like dissipating steam. He gives the constant impression that he is marveling something, the way his exclamations are half larynx, half lung.

“You looked like you were mad-doggin’ me from across the room,” Bill later says, chuckling, and it’s true that in group session I often try to telepath William from my own position in the circle, there being something unspoken between us, a matching vulnerability, and he always catches my eye without ever looking at me directly–neither indirectly for that matter. We share a tacit acknowledgement regardless. It’s said that plant roots sometimes speak to each other in subsonic intimations, what exists underground amounting to a subterranean Babel, but the language Bill and I share is more altitudinal, far and above the ground, why Bill mentions rooftops. When he was a kid, Bill would climb a tree to its highest point, the point being to just sit as high as he could, ignoring his mother’s entreaties to come down. As an adult, the trees could be overhead waves twice his swimmer’s skillset, or speeding white river waters, and I don’t know if he’s a billy-goat but I’d imagine scarps of mountainous basalt, too; insurmountable things made assailable, else reckless situations he’d simply reclassify as ‘adventurous’. These look-God-in-the-face type undertakings–‘status quo’ he’d call it–constant elevation with the sidewalk unfamiliar.

“I haven’t had a rooftop recently,” I confess—we hug—and it’s true, the stars are recently far away. It was last year when I knew what Bill knows, and I knew it in a noradrenal way, not an adrenal one, were one to consider the brain a cloud and the volley of neurons flashes of coruscation, unlikely and all-directions lightning. I talked too loud then, I talked too fast; where Bill’s voice is soothing, long in the vowels, mine was rapid-fire, my decisions as fast, impetuous.  Sleep was an inconvenience: I’d have missed the light show where the fulgurations of brain-sparks were like a million wax candles encapsulated in tiny glass globes, my own Rue de Montmartre of serotonin street lamps. It was all light, in luminescence and in velocity, wattage and speed. Every day was the best day and how could I close my eyes? The light show, after all, would still have been there—it existed behind my eyelids.

I texted my friend one night imploring him to look at the stars, ‘John Oh my God the sky’, and were it the fact of the sky I don’t know, or simply the great sheet of the universe acting as a convenient mirror to my synaptic goings-on, but I felt compelled to fold myself into the velvet divinity of the moment, if the sky a cathedral ceiling, one that I could touch with outstretched hand. The stars, however, were frustratingly distant, our prescient connection interrupted by the inopportune placement of a heaven between us. I placed John in my pocket and looked around the backyard. A rusted patio chair appeared suddenly as makeshift Jacob’s Ladder and, with caution something of an afterthought, I mounted the back of the chair to hoist myself onto the garage roof. I half-jumped from the backrest and found handhold on the tarpaper shingles, legs dangling and chair toppled backwards. Elbow by elbow, I pulled myself onto the roof, maybe a mere eight feet off the ground, quixotically but somehow satisfyingly closer to the stars. I flopped onto my back and tucked myself close to the attic, soon the constellated sky and the insides of my eyelids one in the same, a communion of pinpoints where the fireworks of my brain matched the cosmos, me asleep, smiling, with the moon on my chest. I set to snoring.

“No—I haven’t had a rooftop in a while, Bill,” I admit, and in saying so, feeling very much like a burnt match. “But I heard you in meeting today,” and I pull out my phone. “Even wrote it down: ‘Anxiety is the bellwether.’”

“Ho-ho-ho, Thom,” Bill’s eyes widen, “That’s right. The surf advisory is up and let me just say”—he nudges me with a shoulder—”my affairs are in order.” He claps his hands and rubs his palms together. He giggles, too, which always seems odd counterpoint to his sighing drawl, not quite a blemish but a fleck in his otherwise mahogany.

Bill intends to go swimming, and it’s the kind of water that demands a skillset, which he—in his broad chest—seems to encompass, still it’s the anxiety that is enervating and which, more than the machine of his body, is better part to his adventurousness, the ‘bellwether’ as he puts it which indicates the ocean is his for the taking. “I’m not reckless,” he always clarifies, one finger extended, “I’m never reckless.” What Bill knows is that anxiety is chemical twin to excitement, and when given to invulnerability, you answer every call.

Bill, mind you, is not an adrenaline junkie. Bill is not a thrill-seeker. Bill just knows that once you’re running at breakneck speed down a mountain, dodging skree, without looking at your feet, that it’s impossible to fall. This is not looking to feel alive—this is simply being alive, how it is. There’s a difference. Existential. Chemical.

Bill leans in, conspiratorially: “I’ll tell you what,” and he pronounces the ‘h’ of ‘what’ like a celluloid cowboy, “You weren’t here last week, but the counselors got on me, said I should maybe be seeing someone, medications—y’know the whole lot, like they was needing to take down a charging elephant.”

I think of the blue pills I’ve been taking the past half year, the ones that took the stars away. “Well, all that’s needed to stop a charging elephant, Bill, is for someone to stand stock still in front of it,” I say. “Elephants respond to fearlessness.”

“I like that, Thom, I like that,” Bill muses. He leans in close again. “They don’t get it. This is the reality, the status quo.” Bill smiles self-assuredly, and I envy him. The brain is a restrictive organ, the manuals written on its workings necessarily more restrictive, and to be like Bill in this minute, to counter what could be considered an episode—“I’m bipolar as fuck” Bill has told me—to own one’s mania as preferred and higher conscience, is to not so much be a charging elephant in need of the takedown, as to be one in need of the letting alone. Bill shakes God’s hand on the regular; it would be anathema to shake out a daily scrip. Bill’d lose God’s address.

I think to a doctor I recently had, we were seated side by side in utile chairs, no office, the only two people in the hallway of a residential facility, and it was a long way from the rooftop, an even longer way from the stars.

“So,” he said, reviewing my chart, “You’re on a mood stabilizer, but no antidepressant.” He stroked his beard in doctoral fashion while helicoptering his pen over the paper.

“The last psychiatrist wanted to treat my hypomania,” I offered as explanation. The hallway was appropriately sterile, purposefully washed of color, nothing too excitable and everything suggestive of interior. It made me feel similarly taupe, were I myself a color. This was probably the intended effect, but when, however, you’re used to feeling orange or gold or yellow—any Crayola more vibrant—taupe may as well be proof of your erasure.

“When you were manic,” the doctor asked, “Did you go on massive spending sprees?”

“No.”

Engage in reckless sexual behavior?”

“No.”

“Endanger yourself regularly?”

“No.”

“What were your symptoms?” he asked finally.

I thought about being a charging elephant crashing through the savannah; the fact that momentum increases given greater mass, greater velocity; that I could endlessly multiply myself by operating in the forces at my disposal, by merely moving in transfer. I thought about exploding my own environs, the way the elephant kicks up the ground in four-legged run. I thought about being comfortable, hurtling forward, in my own bulletproof and elephant skin. But I said nothing to that effect.

“I was happy,” I finally settled on. “Every day was the best day.”

The doctor leaned back in his chair and clicked his pen. “Well, he said, clipping his ‘l’s in a Punjab accent, “There’s nothing wrong with being a little happy from time to time.” He took momentary pause, then scratched out a line in my chart.

“I think we can find something more agreeable to your situation.”

Bill dons an upholstered vest on his way out the door, with a fur lined collar that is faux angora—he sometimes wears this with shirt sleeves, which is wild—and, as is custom, dips his shoulder slightly when exiting the room. It’s as if he’s displacing the universe necessary to his departure. He wears flip-flops.

“Game recognizes game….”

I follow shortly afterwards, drafting Bill as it were, though without as much brio, my ensemble consisting of spent match black and sensible shoes. I walk out into the parking lot where the lights are the kind that leach the color from the cars. The stars are barely perceptible, and even were they present—face-of-God present—I can’t find the matching cosmos in my head. I close my eyes momentarily and hope that the nothing I see is just intermissive rest, that the light show will 3-2-1 restart, and soon. But my eyelids refuse to act as screens, and instead return to being the simple shutters they otherwise were. I shrug, and, Buddha on a biscuit, it’s all I can do in the minute. The sky, after all–as the parking lot lights serve to accentuate–has presently gone out.

Oh, Bill, I smile as I get into my car, my genteel friend. I imagine him following the bellwether tomorrow, he cooly acting out his magnificence, and were that bell available to my ear,

I’d probably not pursue it to his lengths, but our affinity is there, and if ever there a rooftop to share with the sky begging a need closer, I know the guy who happens to have God’s address.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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No Simony; But Simon

simonHannah leans over the counter and, proffering a demitasse, whispers conspiratorially: “Do you want an extra shot?” And not one to pass up on an opportunity for café collusion, the barista after all being a sweetheart and why not four shots of espresso in my Americano, I raise an eyebrow and say, “Certainly.” I drink coffee alcoholically these days as is, so Hannah is unknowingly being an enabler, but we enjoy a harmless relationship, me and the barista, and the coffeeshop is better a Friday hang than what could be a hangover. Hannah winks and places a finger to her lips while she pours the espresso. My sponsor waits outside.

The café still smells of Christmas, a sparsely decorated pine in the corner, and the gathered patrons are either stuck on 52 across or deleting e-mails. No music plays—this is not Starbucks—and music shouldn’t be played at a coffeeshop anyway, James Taylor’s Greatest Hits being reserved for those simulacra of cafes, where Baudrillard could scribble busily in the corner.

I’m in a good mood, which a quadruple mathematically compounds, and my sponsor has picked a table in the sun because he, despite twenty years expatriated from Seattle, still chooses to wear shorts in forty-degree weather. Chris is my sponsor’s name, either short for Christopher or Christian, I don’t know; but were it the latter, it would be ironic, seeing as Chris has made a Jefferson’s Bible out of the Big Book, striking all miracles from its pages and replacing words like ‘spiritual’ and ‘God’ with agnostic lexis more appropriate to his skeptical bent. He has twenty-one years, so his sobriety is of drinking age, long enough, he professes, that were science to one day accomplish a cure for alcoholism, say some magic pabulum or pill, he’d forego the cure and stick to his monastic ways. He even uses the word ‘monastic’, which, again, is ironic, as deism is something he finds of nuisance—blah blah blah, he’ll say, with a dismissive flip of the hand—but monastic it is, fitting as he lives a caustral life with his cats in a studio apartment, as long without a lover near as long as he’s been without a drink. But ‘we are not a glum lot’ the saying goes, and Chris always exudes the air of a man at ease with himself, down to the ever-crossed arms behind the head and a chin tipped upward just enough to reveal when he’s been lazy with the razor. I don’t get the sense that he is lonely; regardless, I know I’m good company for him. We’re both happy with the red pens as evidenced by our respective Big Books, and both examine rhetoric as through a jeweler’s loupe, happy sometimes with a particular turn of phrase, other times not, this discernment necessary when wading through a text that less than coquettishly flirts with dogma. Bill W., after all, was not exactly a shrinking violet in the grand posy of things.

Despite similarities, Chris and I differ in one marked way: we are very dissimilar drinkers, and it shows in the manner that I veritably osmose my Americano while he takes his cup like a gentleman–he could very well extend a pinkie—and you wouldn’t have guessed that he’s the binger of our lot, whereas I’m the marathon imbiber; you also wouldn’t have guessed, though, by our disparate ages, that I’ve got ten years residence on him when it comes to dwelling at the bottom of a glass (albeit with occasional changes of address). This accounts for his impressive lack of relapses, also the fact that his disease never had the chance to graduate with honors to the so-called middle stages.

“I quit after only four months of nightly drinking,” he informs me, “So I never experienced withdrawals,” and he says this last part with a hint of reckoning, as if remarking, ‘can’t say that I have’ in response to a casual query. Withdrawals, of course, are as casual as a cotillion, which is to say they’re not: they’re what happens when alcohol stops making you sick, but the lack of it does.

“I’ve had a bit of PAWS the past few days,” I offer, “Sucks.” Except for today, I’m sure to add, because it’s a refreshingly crisp day even with the sun shining, the coffee is strong, and the sidewalk-goers outside the café are like Christmas ornaments on the tree inside, wrapped in Yule-colored sweaters and still merry despite the holiday passed.

“You know, I never heard of that until recently,” Chris confesses, “Came up in a meeting the other week. Like I said, I never had anything resembling withdrawals. What’re they like?”

PAWS is post-acute withdrawal syndrome, which is essentially the body collecting its dues for past and injurious behavior. Symptoms can show up in Whack-a-Mole fashion, a carnival of ugly heads playing popcorn in the body, ping-pong: hypoglycemia, malnutritive disorder, cortical atrophy, autonomic nervous system dysfunction, brain amine depletion—the laundry list which, though syllables long, and originating in the corpus, can best be described in simple emotive terms.

“Ennui, Chris. I get irritable. Depressed.” It’s a serotonin thing. My blood chemistries are within normal limits—it’s testament to how well the body heals–and I am fresh-faced just two months abstinent. But my head still resides in Purgatory, and there’s no simony for that–not even the errant dollar bills in the meeting collection plates impress the angel who guards entrance to Limbo.

“Ah.” Chris nods and looks at me sympathetically from behind wire-rimmed glasses. He never has to adjust his spectacles, they seem soldered in place, while I’m constantly punching at my nose bridge as if tapping out Morse code to some unseen—or unseeing—third eye.

“At least I know what it is I’m going through,” I concede. “I mean, if I didn’t…” and I trail off, because this is where physiology and psychology get confused, there being the intermittent phenomena of craving; what if this means there’s an insufficient adaptation on my part, on a symbolic level, to an otherwise alcohol-free life. The mind despairs while meantime the body repairs. Suddenly all the needlepoint samplers on the walls of the Alano clubs make sense: ‘Easy Does It. First Things First.’ I take a swig of coffee, in the abstainer’s version of a heady quaff and—“Excuse me, Chris—you’ll get used to this”—I excuse myself to the restroom for what’s probably the first of many times. I mean, four shots of espresso.

Hannah’s still at work behind the counter and, being a Friday, the gran turismo that is the espresso machine is at an idle, Hannah instead tending to the accumulated utensils her work necessitates, the portofilters and compressore tamps, whisks and muddlers, and it occurs to me how alike her job is to that of a mixologist’s, the Torani syrups with their quick pour spouts the virgin equivalent of varied liqueurs, espresso being the antemeridian workhorse spirit. How it is we begin every morning already under the influence. Hannah is party to this, she looking very much like a cocktail herself, with hair dyed a curious shade of curacao, and tattoos like vintner stamps. She smiles again, my caffeine conspirator, and the café with its distressed wood is instantly less distressed as I pass through the back hallway toward the restrooms.

A picture of Billie Holiday hangs just inside the door above a small decorative stool. It’s an old photograph, when Lady Day was still young and singing in nightclubs, this before the state of New York took away her cabaret card for heroin possession in 1947. Ms. Holiday was an alcoholic, too, hers a painful life which, many have remarked, is obvious in her voice, disillusioned yet still childlike in its intonation. Sad as her life was—and it included rape and prostitution, needles, drink, and the slammer–the saddest thing, and I think about this every time I see the coffeeshop photograph, is that she had her record player taken away from her when she died. Billie Holiday, singer of arguably the most important song of the twentieth century—‘Strange Fruit’—died in a hospital room cleared of all flowers and all well-wishes cards, her record player too, because when she was admitted to Metropolitan for liver and heart problems, she had heroin on her person. Authorities placed her under arrest on her death bed, drug possession charges, and she left this world by way of empty room, with empty veins, most likely in withdrawal, with no music to guide her home. She had forty-four cents in the bank, and another 750 dollars strapped to her leg.

The photograph at the coffeeshop shows her smiling, famous magnolia blossom pinned to her hair, when she was alive and vital in the nightclubs. It was said that when Billie sang, men stopped drinking, something she herself never did. Her addictions sadly, robbed her of her freedoms: when her cabaret card got taken away, she was disallowed from singing at the NY jazz joints and, although she was to later grace Carnegie Hall, it was the club scene that was her life blood, not the lavish venues. When her literal life blood was coursing its last, Billie victim to the ascites and edemas of late-stage cirrhosis, her liver a diseased orange from years of acetaldehyde abuse, there was an armed guard posted outside of her hospital room—an armed guard!—to insure her arrest was lawfully overseen and that every last iota of freedom Billie had belonged to the state of New York.

“It’s freeing,” I tell Chris upon returning outside, this time to a table in the shade where the glare is less and the traffic more subdued, “Despite.”

“What is?”

“Well there are a few words that show up from time to time in literature. One, ironically, is ‘arrest.’”

“Opposite of freeing.”

“Right, but it comes up in two manners.” Chris readjusts himself, interested, which always entails readjusting his Big Book too, turning it sideways, else flipping it upside down. Rubber-banded to his book—always—is the recent copy of the NYT crossword. He, to my satisfaction does the puzzle correctly, by which I mean in pen.

“Listen,” and I point to me and him. “We got this shit.” And I pause for a second, because that’s actually hard to admit.

“We got this shit, right?” I dip my finger in my drink and it’s tepid. Fuck, I want it hot; fuck I want it alcoholic.

People walk by on the sidewalk and there’s the sudden sense that we are not in a safe space, but that, really, any place can be one.

“We got this shit, Chris. And it’s arresting for one.”

This cannot be exactly new to Chris, were we to play with words, or review criminal files from one score and a month ago; Chris had a DUI, and through the magic of deferment came to realize he was arrested before the handcuffs had even been slapped on his wrists. A few months in the Program is what it what it takes, sometimes, to see that images in the rear view are truer than they appear.

“We’re arrested. Done-zo. Ka-fucking-put. It’s the most maddening disease on the planet: our livers can’t process what we deliver, the body likes the side effect, and our brain—oh our brains,” and I talk out of mine in defiance of my own—“Says wrist-cuff me, please.

“Just, dammit.”

My coffee is cold.

I look up. “I’m arrested, Chris. Even when I’m not drunk, I’ll always be under the influence.”

“…”

“…”

“What’s the second definition?”

“What?”

“The second definition?”

“Oh. Um. 61 Across is ‘sortie’ by the way,” I tap his crossword, pausing.

Chris smirks. “Smart ass.”

“Would you rather me dumb? That’s what people already think. Allow me to quote: “If hundreds of experiences have shown him that one drink means another debacle with all its attendant suffering blah de blah blah” I floof the air in fake nonplus.

“You bothered by that, Cowboy?”

“Who fucking wouldn’t be?”

“What’s your second definition? You were saying.”

I draw my coat in, and can’t imagine Chris is not cold, but he’s not, and Christ he actually left his apartment today which had a minor fire leaving him without heat and he still wears shorts.

“Restare,” and I say it with all the vowels.

“What’s that mean?”

“One thing you’re gonna learn about me—besides the fact that I go to the bathroom like every five minutes,” I say, “Is that I look up every word in the dictionary to see where it comes from. Restare. Rearrange the letters. It’s ‘arrest.’ Means either ‘to remain’ or ‘to stop’.

“Ok.”

“Not OK, perse. We’ve already acknowledged we have exactly 100% retention with regard to this disease and–yea!” I tap Chris on his shirt-sleeved shouder, “We win! We retained everything we learned!”

“So that’s ‘remain’…”

“Yeah. And the second definition is ‘to stop.’”

I sit back in my chair and fiddle with my scarf. “Yea,” I pretend cheer, “We stop.” I twirl the end of my scarf like a wet rally flag.

“We stop.”

“Yup.”

My coffee cup is empty, but I lift it to my lips out of habit anyway.

“We stop,” I say superfluously, “We stop we stop we stop.”

“Cheers,” I salud, “Aaaaand fuck this shit.”

61 across is ‘sortie’. 52 down is ‘sari’. ’Sari’ appears on most crosswords and so do other words that don’t have their fit in everyday life, as if life weren’t a puzzle already. ‘Fuck this shit,’ by the way, does not satisfy 4 down nor 14 across.

“It’ll get better,” Chris says, and he rearranges his Book again. “Listen, you could go home, be by yourself,” he passes his hands over an exaggeratedly sad face, signing rain with his fingers, “Or. There are alternatives. I mean,” and he scratches his throat–he missed a patch with the razor again—“This Higher Power thing: me engaging with this book, me talking to you. Oh, people say God all the time, blah blah blah, and I have to say, ‘Listen, ‘God’ can’t be used as a placeholder term, because it’s pretty specific. But engage with something—anything—outside yourself—by definition, it’s a higher power because it’s ‘one plus whatever’ equaling something greater than—” and Chris passes his hand over his face again—“Just this.”

“What if I’m a negative number?” I counter.

“I don’t think you believe that.”

“I was just testing your math.”

“Nihilism doesn’t become you.”

I flick my coffee cup. “And here I was, being so clever.”

“You ok?”

“Oh, nothing. Pink cloud is gone.”

The door to the café opens and the smell of the Christmas tree drafts outward; where we are sitting, it is in view of a liquor store and a beer bar under construction. I could so easily seed my cloud, were I normal, but—no—I flick my coffee cup again. Hannah comes out to sweep.

“There’s this quote,” I clear my throat.

Chris has cats to tend to; he has pictures he’s sent me, and they are white little slips of things that like his feet, the fact of which entertains him, even today when he threw his laptop against the wall because an electrical fire scorched his kitchen and fucked up half his studio; and he’s at odds with his landlord about it, he could seed his cloud too, but he’s got twenty-one years and somehow—somehow—he’s found one+one all these lonely days.

“There’s this quote, Chris. ‘Grass grows by the inch, dies by the foot.’

I pause when packing my bag.

“There’s no reason I actually said that, Chris,” reconsidering. “Sorry.”

I scratch my head.

He says: “Sure there wasn’t”, smiling.