Whenever my life seems to be getting back to normal, things get screwed up. That's my story, short and simple. I finally got myself to admit I had a drinking problem and I went to my first AA meeting. So what happened? I got into a fight at a bar while drinking club soda.
I went to the meeting because I felt my life had gotten away from me. I was going through the motions, like I was sleepwalking or something--waking up, going to work and drinking until I passed out. I had just lost my girlfriend. And my family, especially my mother, seemed to be tugging at me like I was a marionette. Mom was in her own hell with my sister into crack the way some people get into Jesus. I had to act strong, but what I really wanted to do was find a quiet place to hide and lick my wounds.
It was Arnie Caruso, from the old neighborhood in Brooklyn, who got me to go to an AA meeting. I ran into him a while back as I staggered out of an East New York bar. He suggested we get some coffee and catch up on old times.
We talked about the old days for a while. Then he said, "Paulie, you and me go way back. What happened to you? When we were kids, you had plans."
"Life is what happened to me."
"Bullshit," he said, making a face like he just smelled a fart. "Where'd you get that crap?"
I laughed. "Probably from some movie."
"You're becoming a drunk, Paulie. Hell, you are a drunk."
I almost took a swing at him. But something in his voice said he wasn't making fun of me. "I got responsibilities, you know?"
He didn't say anything for a while. We just sipped our coffees. Finally, he asked, "How's your sister doing?"
"Not too good. You know how it is with drugs. But I'm gonna try to help her."
"Make sure she doesn't drag you down, Paulie. You can't help her if she doesn't want to be helped."
"Where'd you hear that? Maybe you're watching the same movies I am."
"No. I go to the same meetings you should go to."
That's when he told me about AA and gave me a printed list of meetings in the area, along with his cell phone number. "Call me if you need to. Anytime"
I folded the list and put it in my wallet, and didn't think much about it. A few days ago, hungover so bad I hardly knew my name, I happened to find the paper and decided to go to a meeting just for the hell of it.
It was corny. They really say, "Hello. My name is So and So, and I'm an alcoholic," but it was kind of interesting, too. It had me thinking about what I could be doing to get out of my mess instead of just going along with it. People had much worse stories than mine, but they seemed to be doing all right. Even if it was just one day at a time.
After the meeting, everyone wanted to talk to me, like I was fresh meat or something. I told them I needed to be alone to think about what I had heard, so I went to Manny's Tavern, where I always go when I want to think. I figured I'd get a couple of club sodas. Really. I didn't want to go home and I couldn't think of any other place to just sit and mull over what they talked about at the meeting, especially the part about giving yourself over to a higher power. I hadn't been in a church since I was a kid.
I probably would have had had two sodas and left, if not for this fool drinking next to me. I didn't like the things he was saying about a black dude minding his own business at the other end of the bar. I could have walked away, I know, but if I walked it would have eaten me up inside for days. I hate that feeling even more than a broken nose.
So I told him to shut up. "The guy ain't bothering nobody, which is more than I can say for you." I can usually get away with saying stuff like that because I weigh about two fifty and I'm over six feet. I used to get extra work as a bouncer. Most guys take one look at my hands, that a Polish friend told me looks like I've been making sausage all my life, and they back down.
But he kept on talking, and not just about the black guy. He was going on about gays and Arabs and Jews. Then he said only fags drink club soda.
So what could I do? I popped him one. I heard his nose crack and he'll probably need to see his dentist, too. But I got to give it to him, he came back at me like a champ dead set on keeping his title. Got in some good shots to my face before he went down.
Anyhow, the guy finally collapses. The bartender was a friend, so no big deal. But somebody called the cops and they show up like there was some kind of riot taking place. You want to laugh? It was the black dude that made the call.
I knew one of the cops and he talked to the loudmouth with a broken nose, who wasn't happy when he came to and saw the police. He decided not to press charges and got out of there so quick he didn't even pay his bill.
The cop I knew talked to me about how I should clean myself up. I told him I went to an AA meeting and that I'm going to be all right.
"Then what the hell you doing here?"
"No booze for me," I said. "From now on I'm walking the straight and narrow."
He looked at me like he knew I was full of it, but he told me to pay my bill and the loudmouth's, and go home. He even offered me a ride, but I told him I wanted to walk and clear my head.
Now that should have ended it. Right? My eye was swollen almost shut and my head felt like something was rattling around inside it. I don't know what came over me, but I stopped at a liquor store and bought a bottle of Old Granddad. I started drinking it before I even got home.
The next morning I was in no shape to go to work so I called in sick. I'd only been working at this body shop since Ted closed up his place. I worked with Ted for almost four years. He was an older guy and he watched out for me. But he liked the ponies too much and lost his shop. And I lost my job.
My new boss said, "I'll give you an hour to show up sober, or don't show up at all."
I thought of all the banging and clanging in the shop and in my head. I said, "I choose the second option."
So I spent the day feeling sorry for myself. I was entitled. Hung over with no job and no woman. All I needed was to run over my dog with my truck, and I'd be ready for Nashville.
I would have laughed, but my face hurt too bad.
When I was with Joanna I hardly drank. That's when I started working for Ted. He even sent me to school to work on transmissions. Paid for it and all. "The guy who does my transmission work is dumber than a water pump," Ted told me. "If he could do the job, you can."
And Joanna worked as a waitress and went to school at night taking art classes. She sure could draw. What she really wanted to do was design clothing. We paid our bills, even saved a little money, and made plans for the future. I talked to Ted about buying part of the shop and Joanna worked on her portfolio.
But, like I said, whenever my life gets normal, that's when I can count on it getting screwed up. Usually, it involves my family.
At first, Joanna liked that I was so good to my mother and my sister. "A man that's good to his mother makes a good husband," she said. I liked that she thought I was a good man. But Mom kept calling for me to do this for her or that and then Polly hooked up with Raphael and lost her freaking mind. I tried explaining I had my own life, but Mom said, "First you got your family. Then you got your life."
When Joanna left, she said she still loved me but my family was too much for her. She even wanted us to move. She had friends in Arizona, she said. But I couldn't do that. "I'm no cowboy," I told her. "My family's here."
"I know," she said. "You want to keep your family and I want to keep my sanity." She packed up and left.
I knew she'd be staying with her friend, Gloria, until she finished at the college. She only had two semesters left. But I didn't stop her because she deserves a normal life. And she sure won't get that with me.
She left just about the time Ted lost his shop. I was feeling about as low as I thought I could feel, but I didn't give up. I got work at a body shop in Canarsie and thought maybe I could start over. But it's rough coming home to an empty apartment when you've been sharing it with someone you love. I started drinking myself stupid every night. Working in a body shop with a hangover is no picnic, believe me.
The morning after my bar fight, I looked in the mirror and I saw my eye was swollen and purple. I felt a stinging in the back of my throat, like I wanted to cry. I thought maybe this was rock bottom, like the guy at the meeting said. Maybe now I could start picking myself up off the ground. It almost made me feel good. So what happened? Mom called, saying she was worried about Polly and it was my responsibility as her big brother to make sure she was safe.
So instead of begging for my job back, I did some asking around and found Polly turning tricks for Raphael. She was standing by a bus stop, her tits hanging out through her top like she was offering them for some kind of two-for-one special. When I went to talk with her, she could hardly focus on who I was. I told her to go sit in my car. She was so strung out, she did what I said.
Then I went to find her asshole-pimp-crackhead-boyfriend, Raphael. I knew he wasn't far away. I found him in an alley down the street, a cigarette hanging from his lips like some tough guy he'd seen on TV. The punk cried like a baby after I banged him around a little and showed him my knife. But I wasn't about to cut him. As much as I hate him for what he did to Polly, I sure as hell won't do hard time over him. Instead, while I had my size 13 on his chest, I pulled out my dick and pissed all over his face. When I was done, I gave him a good-bye kick in the balls and left him there in the alley, squirming and stinking and spitting piss.
Meanwhile, Polly was in my car waiting for me. I think that was the saddest thing. Polly always had a mind of her own, real independent. Now she just sat there like a dog waiting to be told what trick to do next. I couldn't take her home to Mom looking like that, so I took her back to my place. I took off her clothes, this mesh top and short skirt, but kept on her underpants, and I washed her with a towel. She smelled like puke, some was crusted on her face. I got her as clean as I could. I even washed her hair in the sink. I put her in an old pair of jeans Joanna had left and one of my shirts. The clothes were big on her, but she looked more like the Polly I used to walk to elementary school than the whore who did blow jobs to feed her and her crackhead boyfriend's habit.
She slept in my bed and I slept on the couch. The next day, I made her toast with jelly and peanut butter, the way I did when she was a kid. After she ate a little and drank some coffee, she started screaming at me and cursing, like I was holding her prisoner. When she screams, her voice gets almost squeaky. I hate that sound.
I slammed my fist on the table and made her toast jump off the plate. "Shut the fuck up!" I shouted.
She got real quiet. She looked at me, expecting me to hit her or something. And then we laughed. I think I started it, but for like the next few minutes we laughed so hard snot dripped from our noses. It was disgusting, but it was also about the best damn time I could remember in a long while.
Polly wasn't even mad about what I had done to Raphael. She made me tell over and over the part about me pissing on him. She laughed the way she did when she was a kid, with her eyes bulging like they were about to pop out.
Later that day, I took her back to Mom, and Polly even thanked me. I felt so damn good about what I had done, I stayed late and we played Monopoly, just like in the old days. But soon after I left, Mom called and said that Polly was gone. She took whatever money she could find. She even took Mom's ring, the one she got from Polly's Daddy.
Now Mom was mad at me for bringing Polly to her place. She was cursing at me like I was the one who took her stuff. Cursing and crying. She also started in repeating her story about how my father walked out on her when she was pregnant and how Polly's father did the same. "Men are no good," she said. "I raised you to be different. I raised you to take care of your family. But when you got with Joanna you abandoned us, just like your father. Look at what you let happen to your sister."
That did it. It took thirty-two years, but blaming me for Polly set me off. "Hold on one goddamn second," I shouted into the phone. "Don't blame me for Polly. She's a crack whore and she'll be a crack whore until she decides not to be. And you're a booze whore and you'll be a booze whore until you decide not to be. And I'm an alcoholic. And I'll be an alcoholic until I decide to change." I slammed down the phone so hard, the receiver cracked.
My hands were shaking. I had never spoken like that to Mom. I knew what she was since I was a boy, but I always figured this was my family, and I had to make the best of it. For the first time in my life, I didn't feel like I was holding back the whole fucking ocean. I let it go. I also felt something I had never admitted before. I felt scared. I was shaking like a crazy man and crying like a baby.
I called Arnie Caruso and told him my story. He said he was proud of me for standing up to my mother. He also said he had friends who could try to talk with Polly, if she was ready to listen. He told me about a meeting on Linden Boulevard and said I should meet him there in an hour or he'd tear me a new one.
"You and what army?" We laughed like it was old times and we were back in high school.
So I figure I'm off the hook for the time being, but I know Mom's gonna call again and Arnie can't save me from her. She's my mother, no matter what. I have to deal with her.
I think of Joanna and me going off to Arizona. It sounds wonderful going out west and starting all over with her, but I still can't see myself as a cowboy. I want to call her, just to hear her voice. But I don't want to complicate her life until I get mine in order. Instead of cowboy boots, I put on an old pair of sneakers, make myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and get ready to go to a meeting.
After teaching writing and literature in college for twenty-five years, Wayne Scheer retired to follow his own advice and write. He's been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and a Best of the Net. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Notre Dame Magazine, The Pedestal, Pindeldyboz, Eclectica Magazine, and Triplopia, among others. Wayne lives in Atlanta with his wife and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
by Gary Beck
"Ten....Hut," Gunnery Sergeant Hanson ordered in a firm, confident voice.
He ran his eyes over the starting to fray full-dress uniforms of the honor guard platoon. One marine, an upstate New York redneck, hadn't snapped to attention as smartly as the others and his uniform wasn't neatly pressed.
"Wilkins. Why are you once again the only marine who isn't properly turned out?" Hanson asked, with a tinge of exasperation.
"By the time it was my turn to use the iron, gunny, we had another brownout," Wilkins whined.
"Do you always have to be last?"
"It's not my fault, gunny. It just works out that way."
"Then you're assigned outside rear-door duty."
"Aw, gunny. It's cold out there."
"Next time be prepared."
"Aw, gunny. What difference does it make? The docs and them U.N. bigwigs'll never notice us and I'll be dead before things get better."
"United Nations Day is going to be a big event," Hanson said, "whether we like it or not. When the troubles are over, we'll have our own holidays again.."
"The snail'll even be late for his own funeral, gunny," someone in the formation yelled, and the men and women cracked up with laughter.
"Silence in the ranks," Hanson ordered, with a hint of a smile. "Don't forget that Bellevue Enclave
is a good duty station and we're here to guard the hospital complex. Now squad leaders take over. Dismissed."
Hanson watched attentively as the men moved out to change into camis, the uniform of the day, before going to their posts. Staff Sergeant Jed Davis joined him. Davis was a tall, powerfully built, light-skinned African-American from Georgia, who chose the Marines over primitive cotton farming by hand. He became one of Hanson's most trusted enlisted members of his battalion during the bloody retreat from Riyadh, in 2009.
"Why do you tolerate that clown, Sam?" Hanson, a lean, taut-muscled six footer, with black hair, cold blue eyes that had already seen it all and a controlled expression on his sharply chiseled face, smiled warmly.
"He's a fighter when the time comes and he keeps the boys and girls diverted from some of their troubles. If he crosses the line, I'll remind him gently."
They grinned at each other in appreciation of the understatement. A troubled look crossed his friend's face.
"What if he's right, Sam? What if things get worse?"
"We survived the desert, Jed. It can't get worse then that. I'll see you later. I've got to report to Captain Beasley."
"Is he still brown-nosing the docs?"
Hanson went to Captain Beasley's office and his clerk, a young, bright looking Sergeant named
Danowski, announced him. He heard the click of a bottle being quickly put away, then a high-pitched voice called: "Enter." He stood in front of his commanding officer's desk without showing a hint of the contempt he felt for him. Beasley was a short, over-age, well-fed officer who bulged out of places in his uniform that were not intended by design. He always had a sly, sneering expression on his small, chipmunk-featured face, except when he was with his superiors.
"Is everything ready for U.N. Day, Hanson?"
"Well what, sir?"
"Details, man. Details."
"What would the Captain like to know?"
"Don't give me that high and mighty attitude. Just because you were an officer once, doesn't mean you can forget your place now. I know about your being reduced to the ranks for disobeying orders."
"Is that all you have to say?"
"Well in that case, since I have a few moments, I'd like to hear your side of the story."
"I'd rather not, sir."
"That's an order, Sergeant."
Hanson suppressed the urge to smack him in his over-stuffed face. He knew that Beasley ached to get him dismissed from the service and striking a superior officer would give him an excuse. Beasley belied the adage: 'Every Marine a rifleman'. He had deeply embedded himself in food services and had always managed to avoid discomfort, until he was assigned to command the Bellevue Enclave detachment. He resented Hanson's confidence and competence and hated him because he was dependent on the ex-officer.
"Speak," Beasley ordered.
Hanson ignored the tone of the degrading command and reluctantly started.
"When President Beaumont signed the truce of Amman, she ordered all the troops in the field to surrender."
Memories of that shameful time flooded his mind as he remembered the terrible predicament their orders had forced on them.
"We knew the arabs were butchering and beheading our men and raping and mutilating our women, but the army obeyed, even though she was condemning them to horrible torture and death."
Beasley smirked at him. "So you chose to disobey a presidential order."
The words poured out of Hanson in a burst of anger.
"She should have been tried and shot for abandoning our troops."
Beasley shook his head smugly.
"All our allies had deserted us. We were retreating everywhere. Korea, Europe, Iraq, Columbia. We didn't have the equipment or supplies to resist anymore. She had to make the best deal she could."
"She had an obligation to the troops to bring them home safely," Hanson insisted. "She made a political decision," Beasley said admiringly.
"That took guts." Hanson stared at him in amazement.
"She betrayed us. Marines aren't sheep to be left to be slaughtered like dumb beasts."
"So you led your battalion into the desert. Who did you think you were, Moses?"
Hanson ignored the sarcasm.
"I knew the arabs wouldn't honor the Geneva Convention and I wasn't about to let my good men and women get massacred, so we fought our way across the Au Nafud desert, until we finally reached the Red Sea. We commandeered a small freighter and sailed to Eritrea. When we disembarked at Asmera there were three hundred and forty five survivors left, out of a battalion of six hundred, but we brought our dead and wounded with us. If we had obeyed the president, we'd all be dead."
Beasley stared at him resentfully. "I guess you thought you were some kind of hero?"
"No. I was fulfilling my obligation to the men and women in my command."
The intercom buzzed and Beasley snapped at his clerk for interrupting them, then switched to the unctuous voice that was reserved for his superiors when he heard who it was.
"Captain Beasley here, Doctor." He listened respectfully, then said: "Yes, sir," and hung up.
"I have to see Doctor Carver immediately," he announced pompously.
"We'll continue this discussion another time. Dismissed." Hanson turned and left without revealing the rage he was feeling. It took him a few minutes to calm down, but then he consoled himself that Beasley would get his comeuppance some day, either because of his gross incompetence, or for not licking Carver's boots sufficiently.
He had to smile when he pictured Beasley fawning over the doctor, or any other authority figure, trying to ingratiate himself to insure that his complete lack of ability would remain undiscovered. The thought of Beasley roasting on a spit while Carver took his temperature rectally partially restored his good spirits.
Hanson did a quick swing around the hospital complex to make sure the guardposts were properly manned. When he was satisfied that even Wilkins was alert, he walked across First Avenue to the apartment building where he had his quarters. The private security guard, Greg, nodded politely and opened the door for him. When Hanson had first moved in with his sixteen year old son, Kyle, the guard had been really unpleasant. He was resentful that Hanson had a spacious apartment, nastily remarking that the three bedroom apartment was supposed to be for a large family unit. Hanson didn't know that the Guardwell security men and their families were quartered in small apartments, in sub-standard buildings that were once public housing. He tried to explain that the apartment was assigned to him, but it didn't seem to make a difference. He finally ran out of patience and took him aside and offered to rearrange certain of his bodily parts gratis. After that, Greg was always on his best behavior, even with Kyle.
Other non-commissioned officers from Hanson's company lived in the building and Hanson was seriously considering having marines guard the premises instead of the private security force, who were often less than diligent in carrying out their duties and whose abilities were questionable. The only problem was Captain Beasley, who would automatically oppose any request of Hanson's that didn't benefit him. Hanson decided to make friends with Dr. Carver. Once that was accomplished he would have him suggest to Beasley that a marine guard detail would be appropriate for their building. Until then, he regularly took the building security staff to the PX for bargain shopping. In return they kept an eye on Kyle.
Except for Jed and his other close friend, Staff Sergeant Alexandra Kent, no one knew how much he loved his son and how much he worried about him. Ever since his wife, Celia, and his older son, Warren, died in the great flu epidemic of 2010, Kyle had started showing a wild streak. If an incident came to the attention of Beasley, who was always alert for a chance to get Hanson, he would send for the boy and give him an insulting lecture, hoping to provoke his father.
Kyle had been a bright, outgoing boy, until the death of his mother and brother. The closing of
the United States military academys, as stipulated in the Treaty of Damascus in 2011, dashed Kyle's hope of going to Annapolis and becoming a marine officer. He became morose and lost interest in school and other activities. Hanson wasn't sure how he felt about Kyle's desire to be a marine, especially in this time of degradation of America's military, but he respected his right to choose and tried different ways to reach him. In desperation, after a year went by without much improvement, Hanson asked his friend Jed to start a karate class and one way or the other get Kyle to participate. It had worked out well so far. Kyle was going to the class three or four nights a week and showed a renewed interest in his schoolwork. He even rejoined the Marine soccer team that played on Saturday mornings and seemed to be enjoying himself.
Hanson's military duties frequently compelled him to be on call around the clock, so he snatched any opportunity that allowed him to spend a few extra minutes with his son.
Hanson noticed that Kyle quickly blanked the screen of his computer and suspected what he had been doing.
"What was up on the screen, son?"
"Just an old video game, Dad," Kyle responded vaguely. "You know we're not allowed to have computer or video war games anymore," Hanson remarked.
"According to the Congress of Tehran, war games stimulate American aggression and are therefore banned."
"I know, Dad, but I'm not online. No one can monitor what I'm doing."
"Don't be so sure. The occupying powers have sophisticated monitoring capabilities, especially this close to the U.N. They hate the Marines more than anyone else and they'd love to use you to get at me and the company."
Kyle stiffened in anger. "How long are they going to regulate everything we do?" he demanded.
"Until we can change things. You have to be patient, son."
"I know, Dad.. I was just studying an urban warfare tape that's really instructive. You know I still want to be a marine officer."
"I know, son. We just have to be careful."
"Do you think they'll ever let us open Annapolis again?"
"I hope so. In the meantime, you might want to consider becoming a doctor. These days they seem to be the only ones with any privileges."
"I want to be a marine," Kyle insisted.
"Even if you can't be an officer?" A bitter look flitted across Kyle's face, but he answered resolutely: "Yes, Dad."
Hanson impulsively hugged his son. "We'll see what we can do. In the meantime, meet me for dinner at the mess hall at 1800 hours."
"Aye, aye, sir."
"You don't call N.C.O.'s sir."
"I know, sir."
They smiled at each other for a special moment, then Hanson nodded goodbye and left for the hospital
complex. The thought idly drifted through his mind that he might have lost almost everything, but he
still had a wonderful son, who would help make the world a better place.
Bio: Gary Beck's recent fiction has appeared in Enigma, Dogwood Journal, EWG Presents, Nuvein Magazine, Babel, Vincent Brothers Review, L'Intrigue Magazine, The Journal, Short Stories Bimonthly, Bibliophilos and many others. His poetry has appeared in dozens of literary magazines. His chapbook, 'The Conquest of Somalia', will be published by Cervena Barva Press. His plays and translations of Moliere, Aristophanes, and Sophocles have been produced Off-Broadway. He is a writer/director of award-winning social issue video documentaries.