Wednesday, August 07, 2013


The man who said the prayer for the young couple at the meeting was named Charles Dunlap. People called him Charlie.

Later that evening, as Charlie unlocked the door of his home, he was still thinking about the young couple. He had said the prayer because it seemed the right thing to do at the time. He meant well, but now in hindsight he saw it as an ineffectual gesture, empty words when what the couple needed was something more—a real-world solution. Not that he had a solution. He just wished that when the meeting adjourned, he had been able to talk to them privately—but they had bolted from the meeting and disappeared before he could get to them.

And now he could not stop thinking about them. They stayed on his mind as he took out his teeth and got ready for bed, and when he lay down and started to read, their story weighed so heavily on him he could not concentrate on his book.

Usually he did not invest a great deal of emotion in the people he encountered at meetings. He had heard so many hard stories over the years, so many terrible things, that he had learned to detach. You had to, because if you got too caught up in other peoples’ problems, it tore you up inside and put your own serenity at risk—and then you couldn’t help anyone, not even yourself.

So many hard stories, and so many from people with criminal backgrounds like that young man Jim—so many because of all the parolees and people on probation who had been stipulated by the courts to attend AA.

God what a mess, thought Charlie. Half those people aren’t even alcoholics, they’re just there because some judge told them to be there. A bunch of losers and hustlers using the meetings to vent and take time away from people who really need help.

And it's gotten worse, Charlie reflected, now that our group is the only one in the area that allows smoking. People come from as far away as the south side of the city just to smoke. And vent, and bitch, and waste everyone’s time instead of following the rules or working the Steps. Jesus, what a zoo.

But the young couple were for real. The young man Jim had no doubt been stipulated to be there, but he was sincere about wanting to stay sober. And he was desperate, and needed help. He wasn’t just venting.

And all I had to offer was a prayer, thought Charlie. Empty words. I’m just an old bag of wind.

He glanced at his wife’s picture by the bedside, and smiled because that’s what she would call him sometimes, an old bag of wind—teasing, of course.

He missed her teasing. He hadn’t always been in the mood for it and it had irritated him sometimes. But he missed it now.

It also used to irritate him when she would talk while he was trying to watch the news. But now he would give anything to hear her voice again and he didn't give a damn about the news.

All at once, he got out of bed and went down the hall to the room where she had done her crafts. He turned on the light and stood over her little table.

Everything was exactly as she had left it. She had been making funny little animal dolls that day to give away for Christmas. One doll, an owl made with purple fabric, was unfinished. It had pink ribbons on each pointed ear, but its button eyes had not been sewn on yet. Around it lay multi-colored stacks of fabric, cotton balls, a can of buttons, a needle pad, black marker, scissors, and all the other items she had been using that day, none of which had since been touched. The can of buttons was still open and always would be. He did not have the heart to close it or touch anything, because looking at this table frozen in time made him feel she had just stepped away for a minute and would be right back. But it also made him sad.

I’ll need a sleeping pill tonight, he thought. He went to the bathroom, took the pill, then got into bed and turned off the light. To hell with the book. He had lost interest in it.

He slept fitfully, with strange disjointed dreams—a chaos of confusing events, long tedious tasks that could not be completed, thoughts that made no sense.

Then, around three o’clock after waking briefly to go to the bathroom, he went back to bed and had a dream that he was walking through a dark wooded area down a dry creek bed. Nothing happened in the dream, but the strange, quiet, dark mood was disturbing and he woke up.

Then he went back to sleep and dreamed some more and found himself talking to Margaret, his wife. It was so real and he could see her so clearly, and he was happy and relieved she wasn’t dead. It had just been a passing health scare like so many times before. They still had years ahead of them. Then he woke up.

It was five o’clock. He got up, made coffee, and sat in the kitchen drinking it while the sun came up.

It had been months since he dreamed about Margaret. He wondered why now, and supposed it was because it had been a year since her death. Anniversaries like that are hard, Charlie thought. And so is Christmas. More people fall off the wagon at Christmas time than any other time of year. Wow, that’s a double-whammy for me. I may not survive this Christmas. She used to do a lot of baking this time of year. The kitchen was always full of wonderful smells, and she was so happy. She would smile and hum to herself—

I don’t think I’ll be able to stand Christmas this year, he thought. I might drink, and that would be bad. Thirty years sobriety down the tubes ... No, I won’t drink. Margaret wouldn’t want me to. I’ll white-knuckle it, do whatever I have to just to honor her memory. But it will be hard.

I should take a trip, he thought. Get out of the house. Too many memories here. But he was not up for a trip. He did not have the energy and did not know where he would go. And even if he had the energy and had a destination he cared about, it would be no fun by himself. He preferred to stay home, even though home was full of too many memories.

He had been told he should clean out the house, get rid of her things. Benny and Carol had said so just the other day. You’ve got to move on, they said, and he wondered if he could. I could empty out her craft room, he thought. I could rent out the room. Extra money wouldn’t be bad. Hell, I could give the room to someone who needs it … like that young couple who are going to end up on the streets unless the wife works in a strip joint.

I’ll probably never see them again, he thought. But the spare room would be there next time I meet someone in trouble.

But could he do it? Could he empty out the room? Could he touch those dear objects she had touched moments before she died?

He was agitated. He got up and went to the room and stood over the table, and while he was staring at it noticed something. The box of buttons that had been open for a year now—and was open last night, he was sure of it—was now shut.

(To be continued)