When they brought me in it was the night of Marty’s funeral. Whether the overdose was accidental, no one knew and no one talked about it. I’d been drinking since at least dusk with all of these guys I had gone to high school with in Adam’s dad’s backyard and I’ve spent years trying to remember when I would have understood that I was too drunk to drive. But at that time there didn’t seem to be such a thing as too drunk. It was always not enough.
With everything in the news about cops nowadays, I also try to remember the demeanor of the officer that arrested me. The gravel in his voice made him seem curious if he could get away with some rough stuff, but that could have been my adrenaline talking. What I can remember is my limp body shaking in the nocturnal summer wind under the pressure of the field sobriety test, claiming dyslexia when asked to recite the alphabet backwards, and the gauntlet-like clench of the handcuffs around my wrists. The pain stiffened my spine to a level of attention no drunkenness could overcome.
Not believing in God or angels then, I was fumbling with the idea of Marty’s ghost sitting beside me on the ride downtown. The face was in profile, pensive, without dimension. All I could conjure was a death mask. Back in school we would sniff glue and make faces at each other. He had this signature face where he would stick his index fingers in his eye sockets and his thumbs in his cheeks, pulling them apart to create this exaggerated Chelsea grin that would either tickle or frighten you. That would depend on the high.
This ghost I’d conjured wouldn’t respond to me when I told it to make the face.
The city lights were flickering as if the grid were unstable. The cuffs, I thought, were choking my airflow. I only wanted to sleep and to wake up unaware of how I’d gotten home just one more time. I’d admit to my Claire I’d been drinking behind her back again, delete the numbers of women I’d been texting on the sly, and start clean again. If only this could be a dream.
The officer ordered me to smile and the great flash overtook me. He yanked me to a chair where he loosened the cuffs and another officer, a woman, took my fingerprints. She tried to make small talk, asking me how my night was going.
“Smile, you’re alive,” she said.
Then the officer took me to the cell. I’ve still never seen my mugshot.
There was a clock on our row, but it was beyond my window and I couldn’t make it out. My right eye was dry and I rubbed it to the point where my contact lens fell out. My cellmate was a thin, short Black man who slept comfortably on the iron bench he’d claimed. He slept with his palms open—saintly, airing these large scrapes out, as if he’d fallen, or had been knocked down. Later when he awoke he told me they picked him up for unpaid tickets and his girlfriend was coming for him. It was then I noticed the cuts on his knees within the tears of his jeans. He told me they’d just let me go once I’d dried out. That didn’t end up happening.
The judge wouldn’t be in until ten that morning. Once I’d accepted I couldn’t conjure Marty without the cover of darkness, that light shone on everything in a jail cell, I was able to lay down.
The judge did come in the next morning. My cellmate was gone when I woke up. A guard brought me a mostly thawed burrito from the vending machine and watched me eat it. He answered my attempts at small talk with monosyllables and eyed my cell like a pit of booby traps. Then came the phone call to Claire, who had to call her friend Zibba for the bail money. The end was near.
“Don’t come back,” the lady at the desk told me as I walked out into a stabbing afternoon light. I came back twice.
Mornings are different now. When I have a headache, it’s because of bad air circulation, a change in the weather, or I slept in a crooked position. My dog—a drooling, handsy Saint Bernard— barks in my face demanding that I take her out. I let my wife sleep and do as the dog tells me. I remember going to sleep in this room. I remember my dreams.
Christmas was two weeks ago and I met Adam at the VFW. He was drunk. I met him coming fresh from a meeting. The Highway Group is mostly old timers whose musings on going “back out there” make it sound almost fun. With the pool drained, all the old veterans and their grandkids—those old enough to drive them home—were hanging around in the cool air. A hard freeze was predicted for the weekend.
Adam sat in a beach chair in a stained thrift store fedora, smoking a cigarette and sipping a jack and coke. We talked over the usual annual things: how our parents were doing, marriages come and gone, how old was too old for fatherhood, what year music stopped sounding good.
Whenever Marty comes up, a pregnant silence sets in, which Adam always initiates. He never wants to talk about it. This time I had to know why.
“Call it survivor’s guilt,” he said. “You don’t ever feel that?”
“Not so much anymore,” I said. “When I quit drinking I guess I had to find a way past it.”
I don’t know why I lied.
Adam looked at the spot he’d indicated with a drip of snot forming in his nostril. He pressed his nose with his finger and shot it out. He has tried a lot of different lives out. He went to film school in Portland. He got in with some avant garde circle up there, bottoming out during a shoot in some coastal Oregon village. He made his way to Aberdeen and lived somewhere near Kurt Cobain’s mom’s house. He sent me a postcard one autumn. Then he eventually settled in Austin, doing research for a docudrama on Blaze Foley and playing open mics while gigging as a bouncer on Sixth Street.
If it weren’t for his natural muscularity and thin strawberry goatee, he could pass as Blaze.
The cigarette I bummed from him gave me a vague and ghostly thirst for a shot of bourbon and to go have a lost night. My fist gripped the side of the chair.
“My dad’s still on my ass about smoking,” he said. “Guess he’s got nothing to tell me about drinking. Jesus, I don’t remember a night in almost forty years he hasn’t been fucked up.”
I like to think of myself as a good listener, but really I just zone out when I sense someone about to launch into some spill about themselves, especially if I already know the story. This was no different. Adam blames his dad for the way he is, his own genes splashed with the aspergillum of whiskey and philandry. It brings him some kind of brief narcotic relief to let this out once a year when we meet here, so I don’t bother contradicting him. But I don’t know how to listen anymore.
An empty chair was with us at the table, its back facing the pool. I’d have brought up some memory of us and Marty raising hell one of many evenings years ago. But that would have gone nowhere, and even if it would have shut Adam up about the crushing misery of thirty-six winters, all that time still would have passed. And we’d still be checking in once a year, if not with our current set of losses, then some other.
When Adam’s dad called me this morning to tell me Adam had killed himself on New Year’s Day, it was clear that he felt the same weariness with the same conversations over and over. He hadn’t survived. There was nothing to feel guilty about.
Mom died of a mix of pinot grigio and hydrocodone seven months before I went to detox. I was sober and shaking at the funeral. It was now October and dad drove me out while I finished his bottle of American Honey.
We drove past unkempt farms where skeletal cows laid and stared at the rare passing truck. The pale sun was too weak to break through the fog and I was grateful to be drunk enough to find the landscape beautiful. Leaves launched from beneath the tires, rockets petering out before they could leave the atmosphere.
I looked over at my dad and noticed he was thin. All my life he’d sworn to get some weight off and now he had. He would let himself weep after he dropped me off, I knew.
Dad and my brother got drunk the night of mom’s funeral. I snuck vodka into my club soda as they sat on the porch and talked of vague good times. Then they talked about what went wrong and why. My feigned thirst and the humidity gave me an excuse to keep getting up for refills.
I have been told I have a natural scowl that makes it look like I’m always listening to something with indivisible attention. But I don’t listen much. Words just come and go. I’m daydreaming, losing life but not missing it.
“It was the doctor,” my dad said. “That son of a bitch doctor.”
My brother and I said nothing back. He went on.
“It was them that gave her the pills whenever she wanted them. They were a goddamn depository. By god, I should sue.”
Dad breathed and closed his eyes.
“I don’t remember the last time she and I sat out here together. She’d come out here high all the time. Alone.”
Across the pond a gaggle of geese slept under a spring moon. Sprinkles of light gathered on their backs in an unguarded moment. My brother hadn’t said a word all day.
On nights when winter was over, nights like this one, Marty drive us out into the country. One night he drove us to a fenced-in field where horses were banded together, ever watchful for coyotes. Christine, his girlfriend, was in a benzo sleep in the backseat, her snores a whistled transcription of a nightmare. I walked with him up to the fence and he gave me a handful of poppers he’d saved from last year’s Independence Day. He strangled the barbed wire, shook it and laughed.
“So fucking sharp, dude,” he said. He’d show me the puncture in his palm later, laughing as he did another whippet.
Then he went running along the fence. There was a crack and the rainbow glare of a roman candle shot across the field. Marty’s cackle formed a counterpoint to the whistle of the firework, his shadow coming and going in the flashes like a ghost. He laughed all the way back to the suburbs.
Dad helped me sign in when we got to the detox. Drunk as I was, my hands still shook and I gripped my forearms like siderails. Our eyes didn’t meet as he was leaving. He patted me on the back and walked out the door.
It was all voices and no bodies for at least three days. When I emerged from the Valium coma I had to ask the nurse what my name was.
“John,” she said with a sad, welcoming grin. “The beloved one.”
The summer before I met my wife I drove to the desert. Checking into a small motel in an unincorporated town, I slept late into the next day. The curtains were thick and the room was dark. The sound of a car passing only came once an hour. I’d been dry for a year.
The mountains had a painterly quality, such that I could not really believe they were of natural hands. The air was so clean it hurt my lungs and the lines along the clefts had the appearance of order. Time was something deeper than memory here. In the afternoon I drove until I found a gate leading into what looked like worthy hiking land. In the distance two curved hills formed a semicircle, inviting me to walk through the middle.
In the same backpack I’d carried since high school I’d packed water, beef jerky, and peanuts. Maybe I can kill something and cook it, I thought, though I had never done it before. For uncounted hours I walked between the canyons as the world darkened. A few times I looked back to the flatness I was leaving and thought about how there was nothing for me. Soon there was very little to see and a cold wind came in from the valley. As the chill overtook me I said a Hail Mary, almost earnest.
I laid under an overhanging crevice and ate some of the peanuts. Everything visible was blue under the moon. Though I was sure I was alone, a glimmer in the deep distance arrested my vision as I was about to close my eyes. Whatever it was out there, it could just as well have been a cowboy laying down, his fire the lone spark in all that emptiness, dozing beneath a sky unpolluted by light. Perhaps he hadn’t spoken to anyone in weeks, maybe months. Years. Someone lost, locked away from touch and speech. Something unspeakable had called him out there, away from the cities where nothing can be said or heard.
Marty, Adam, Mom.
Who’s out there?