I sat this morning with Clara drinking milky cups of coffee from my thermos and smoking cigarettes. She kept pouring a small flask of liquor into her hot drink. Soon, her hands quit shaking and she was feeling no pain. She was dressed in a warm, teal green sweat suit. Her blonde hair was pulled up into a bun upon her head covered with a New York Yankees baseball cap. Old, tattered Nike tennis shoes adorned her feet covering light pink socks. She reminded me of Rosa when we first met. It was uncanny, the resemblance.
The sky was overcast, threatening rain -- the rising easterly sun obscured. It all felt rather dreary and dreamy. The first eager shoppers of the day were gracing the front doors of the shops in the shopping center. I watched as countless older black women came parading out of the Piggly Wiggly with carts of groceries – bags filled with big green bundles of turnip greens and bottom cart shelves harboring cheap Piggly Wiggly sodas. I musingly thought about the fact that soul food would be had for Sunday dinner. Cornbread. Creamed corn. Turnip greens and Ham hocks. Fried chicken. Green beans with fatback. My stomach growled in protest, longing for such a southern treat of a meal.
“Drink?” Clara asked me, thrusting the liquor flask towards me.
“No thanks,” I said, my stomach turning at the thought. I won’t lie and say it wasn’t tempting, though. I wanted to drink badly this morning.
“How did you get sober?” Clara then asked me as she sat smoking one of my cigarettes. She was already slurring her words.
“The hard way,” I replied, wincing at the thought. “Through sweat and tears. A.A. has given me a safe place to go every night. I couldn’t afford to go to rehab, nor would my insurance pay.”
“George says A.A. is a cult.”
“I used to think the same thing as well,” I replied. “I realized I had no other recourse. I needed help something terribly and gave in and went. If you can’t beat them, join them as they say. George shouldn’t be going around saying all that. He has tried A.A. as well. He just never gave it a chance.”
“What does A.A. teach you? How do you stop drinking?”
“Stopping drinking is just the beginning of the process,” I replied. “It teaches you a new way of living – that you only have to abstain for one day at a time. It also teaches you how to handle situations in life without getting drunk over them. The people of A.A. are always there to help you.”
A thoughtful look overcame Clara’s face as she sat and pondered what I had just told her. I didn't stop her from taking another drink, though. I left Clara to walk down to the rail yard to catch some trains. The long wail of a train’s horn could be heard far off down in the valley making me grow excited with anticipation.
The rail yard is full of old relics from railroading’s past – a rusting museum for us train lovers and fans. I climbed aboard an old Seaboard Coast Line caboose from the seventies, opening the unlocked door, and sat in the brakeman’s torn leather seat in the cupola. Looking out the square, small window, amid a peeling lime green interior, I watched as the train signal turned from green to yellow and then to red down the tracks. Excitement ensued. Soon, a ponderous freight came rolling down the tracks at a slow pace as if the engines were struggling to pull all that weight -- a perfect speed to jump aboard a hopper car and journey the rails, jumping off at the next town. Blaring it’s horn, it reminded me of all the times I spent down here as a child taking photographs, hopping freights, and sketching trains. It is times such as these that I wish I had Clara’s flask of whiskey to enjoy a few stiff drinks and lose myself in the moment. I am such an incorrigible old drunk. I shouldn't wax nostalgically about my addiction.
Last night I fell asleep dreaming of my childhood. Drunken dreams – the bane of an alcoholic’s existence. I dreamed of the first time I drank wine and got drunk. Shut in my bedroom and hiding in the crawlspace under the front steps of our house – the little wooden door leading to my secret place that hid all the Playboys and Penthouses I had taken from my father. Warm and laughing, that first feeling of alcohol enveloped me. It was the first time I had felt truly happy in all my childhood years. Inside my dresser drawer was hidden a pack of Winston Lights. I pulled out a cigarette, lit it, and sat in that crawl space, lit by candlelight, smoking, as that alcohol went coursing through my bloodstream. Soon, an empty, green wine bottle was sitting next to me upon the cold concrete floor as I smoked cigarette after cigarette. I was only thirteen or fourteen at the time. I started young.
In high school, I learned that the hobos and vagrants that hung out down at the river, drinking cheap wine and fishing, would share their good fortune and wealth. I would ride my bike down to the woods behind the tracks to join these raggedy men -- the very same woods that Ferret now resides in homeless. I became their young mascot. “Pull up a seat and have a drink,” they would tell me. I fit in and felt a camaraderie I had never experienced before. I was accepted and welcomed. Bottles of Thunderbird wine would be passed around a campfire as these burly old men would fry fish, warm cans of pork and beans, and talk. Tales of riding the rails and journeying across the countryside would captivate me and entice me. I didn’t realize then that it was the start of a lifelong love affair with alcohol that would take almost everything I ever owned. At the time, I felt so grown up and adult. It was so sublime.
I just reminded myself that thinking of bad stuff can, well, make me feel bad. I thought of that sad and solemn soul sitting in A.A. last night looking so forlorn. He was a newcomer. We see them often and they never come back. Hands shaking. Sitting in the back of the room. Furtive glances at all those laughing and happy people gracing the A.A. meeting hall. I realize now that I should have reached out to him – to bring him a cup of coffee and welcome him for coming. “You are not alone in this,” I wanted to say after turning back time. It is in this service to others that our own all encompassing desire to drink and get drunk is quelled. I remind myself of that and try to focus on good things -- things that bring joy to this old soul. Times spent with Rosa. Wholesome meals cooked with loving care. Watching Maggie chase her tail or fetch a stick. Squirrels tussling in the big pine tree in my side yard. The call of a cicada on a hot southern day. The ever changing weather. All things that bring joy to my heart.