You think now of your fellow alcoholics. Not the tumblers or stumblers, those who feel they have nothing to hide. Like your father, evenings denting a blue wingback, finger curled into the lip of a plastic cup that wouldn’t break when it fell from his hand. (“Killing himself for 40 years,” your younger sister once said.) Those standing in a line snaking out the front of a liquor store, six feet apart, photo in the newspaper you’re flipping through, just now. How shameless, you think. Or courageous, another voice offers.
“You wish you might have been that shameless, that courageous, when you were still drinking,” the voice says. “Admit it, bub.”
You think, rather, of the quiet ones, more you than your father. You can picture it: hustling through the supermarket, trying to remain calm, to smile at others. Be kind, dammit. Be patient. Especially now, when people are elbowing one another for dried beans they’d never attempted cooking before all this, probably would still never manage to cook. Imagine, you think, imagine the hills of pinto beans mounded in the back of pantries during all this. Only to be tossed a year or 20 later, when the house is sold or cleaned out by the kids.
You’d be picking through apples and say, off-hand to your wife, as if you hadn’t been thinking of it as you drove to the store, before driving to the store, before you’d even mentioned you might want to stock up on a few things:
“I wanted to make that carrot soup with the white wine. The one you said you could eat every week. The one that takes way too long. May as well.”
She would nod. Fine. Okay. So far so good.
“Can you grab some onions and garlic, if they have it?” you’d say. “I’m going to get a bottle of white. I think we might be out.”
On to the wine aisle, you lingering on purpose, until she caught up.
“This is the one you liked, that we had last summer. At the river. It’s a great price.”
You’d glance around, for effect. As if the hordes are closing in.
“Maybe we just ought to buy a case,” you’d say, laughing, pathetic. “If we have to hunker down for the next month or two.”
Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. I mean: can you imagine? She might shrug, which would feel generous. But of course she knew. She knew the way people knew. Even if they didn’t know they knew.
This is the cruelest joke. The order to isolate, the thing the quiet ones long for, to shutter and drink the way you’ve always wanted to. To float along in a boat piloted by an old friend – a gossip, prone to setting you on a throne before dragging you down from it, face-first. (But consistent, oh, terribly consistent.) The punchline? Pushing the people you most want to hide from into the bunker with you. Spouses, children. Like when you were a boy, at Catholic summer camp, watching the toe-head from Spokane as he watched you and the other boys sneak out the door. Stuck on the upper bunk with the counselor, Saint Bernard, snoring in the bed beneath him. And now, no way to nab two bottles of wine on the way home from work, to replace the two taken from the rack above the cupboards in the laundry room. As if the swap equals the absence of a crime; I mean, if no one’s the wiser…?
You think of your father again but shove him away, lying in the boat, gliding into the dark. You think of the college student you sponsored a few years ago, the one who tapped his toes in time to the meeting. Spooked, waiting for the drink to sneak up behind him. A searching and fearful moral inventory, he’d read aloud from the book.
“Fearless,” you clarified, smiling.
Though nothing had ever felt so fitting as that – fearful – spilling out of this boy. Backed up against a wall of hunger so strange and powerful it made him shiver when the two of you would meet for coffee. You can still catch the lingering taste of satisfaction in the back of your throat. Buttery and bitter. That delicious, sour tang of gratitude that you’re on this side of the table, and he’s over there.
“You’re not the only one who lives here,” your mother said.
Drink in her hand. A delivery for your father, dying in the basement, for real now. You had said nothing but stood too long in the doorway to the kitchen, watching her pour whisky to the bottom of the lighthouse on the reused dressing jar, then 7-Up, splash of booze on top to make him think it was stronger. She’d turned to find you. You hadn’t lived there for 30 years, more, but it didn’t matter. She’d made her point.
You push that away too. Go further back to your first AA meetings, seven years before. Fidgeting, tapping to your own rhythm, throwing together your own fearful inventory. Uncomfortable, as the long-sober called it, in your own skin. But still/already glad to paint the differences between yourself and the man in the funny hat, the woman with the purse of rhinestone crosses. Those who’d lost everything and wanted to remind you of it. You never let it show, though. An attentive listener, nodding and cooing. Wasn’t that the important bit?
Catching your younger sister once eating the stuffing from a mattress, when she thought no one was watching. Don’t tell, she pleaded.
“You have to owe me,” you said, 11 or 12 years-old then.
“I’ll think of something,” you said.
Had you ever called that favor in? You can’t remember. You still taste the butter on your lips, holding this secret over your sister. Your mother would have found greater fault in this, the idea of your sister owing you anything. (Pathetic, the voice reminds you.) But, again, if Ma didn’t find out…
The floor under you begins to move, one foot shaking with the wood. Your wife comes running in from the bedroom, hair wrapped in a towel.
“What is that?” she says. “Oh god, is this an earthquake?”
“What?” you say.
You set the paper down and hold the edge of the table, watching her stand in the doorframe.
“No. It couldn’t be,” you think, but you know it is.
Reading recommendation? You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld
“The book recommendation I’ll give is Curtis Sittenfeld’s You Think It, I’ll Say It. Her first collection of stories, I feel like it’s knocked my head around in terms of what I think of when I think about short fiction. Not shy about anxiety and pettiness, regret and work – the mundanities, really – of regular life. It feels like I’m indulging in something too rich, something I’m supposed to feel bad about, only to have someone assure me, ‘Oh, it’s actually a healthy fat.'”
Joel Wayne manages The Cabin’s grants, adding a 10-year background in marketing, copywriting, and project management to the team. A past teaching-writer for The Cabin, his fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Chattahoochee Review, The Moth, and Salon, among other places. He is the recipient of a 2019 Fellowship in Literature by the Idaho Commission on the Arts, a Silver Creek Writer’s Residency, the Lamar York Prize, and a Pushcart nomination. Joel also produces the NPR-affiliate program You Know The Place for Boise State Public Radio and serves as a judge for the annual Scholastic Writing Awards. Joel holds a BA in English from the University of Montana and served five years of a three-year MFA at Boise State University.