A drop of the hard stuff, p.23
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       A Drop of the Hard Stuff, p.23
 

         Part #17 of Matthew Scudder series by Lawrence Block
Page 23

  “You want me to go with you. ”

  “Would you?” She put her hand on my wrist. “Not as a favor. I mean it would be a favor, a major one, but I’d want to pay you for it. In fact I’d insist on it. ”

  “You’re a friend,” I said, “and it’s the sort of thing friends do for each other. I don’t think—”

  “No,” she said firmly. “My sponsor was the one who suggested this. And she was very clear that I had to pay you. ”

  She had the time picked—Saturday afternoon—and had arranged our transportation. Did I know Richard Lassiter? Bald Richard, gay Richard, speed freak Richard? He had a car, and everything of hers in Cobble Hill would fit easily in the trunk and backseat. He was going to pick her up at Eighty-fourth and Amsterdam at three sharp, and they could stop for me on the way to Brooklyn. I said it would be simpler if I met the two of them uptown, and that three o’clock would be fine.

  “I’m paying Richard too,” she said. “He put up an argument but I insisted. ”

  “Sponsor’s orders. ”

  “Yes, but I think I’d have insisted anyway. He says he’ll come upstairs with me, in case Vinnie is there. I left a message on his machine, I’m coming Saturday afternoon, please don’t be there, di dah di dah di dah. But what do they call it when you take a sleeping pill and it keeps you awake?”

  “A slip,” I said.

  “Ha! Very good. No, I remember now, they call it a paradoxical effect. Very common with alcoholics. I think my phone message could have a paradoxical effect on Vinnie. ‘Stay away? The fuck I’ll stay away. Whose place is it, you toxic bitch?’ ”

  “If Vinnie’s from Bensonhurst, you do a good imitation. ”

  “He is, as a matter of fact, and thank you. But if he’s there, well, Richard’s a sweetheart, but his is not the world’s most intimidating presence. ”

  “For that you want a thug like me. ”

  “An ex-cop,” she said, “and a man who can take care of himself on the mean streets of New York. ”

  “Including Brooklyn. ”

  “Including Brooklyn. ” She gave my arm a squeeze. “A thug indeed,” she said. “Hardly that, my dear. Hardly that. ”

  After the meeting I joined the crowd at the Flame, and at one point the conversation centered on my share. “Do a lot of any substance,” a fellow named Brent said, “and something happens. If you drink, sooner or later you fall down a lot, you have accidents, you pick up DUIs, you crash cars, you wreck your liver—I could go on, but you get the point. If you do enough cocaine, your septum rots away and your nose caves in, and you damage your heart and God knows what else. Shoot speed, and it finds a variety of ways to kill you. Drop enough acid, and you go on a trip and can’t find your way back from it. Everything you do, it’s always got a price tag on it. ”

  Someone quoted the oil-filter commercial. “ ‘You can pay me now,’ ” she murmured, “ ‘or you can pay me later. ’ ”

  “With marijuana, what happens is subtler than that. What happens when you smoke enough marijuana is nothing happens. Your whole life just stays where it is, treading water. ”

  They batted that around a bit, and I said, “Yeah, that’s him, all right. The women in his life even stay the same age. His first girlfriend was twenty-five and they’ve all been twenty-five ever since. He’s living in the same apartment—”

  “Well, that’s New York, Matt. Who moves out of a rent-controlled place?”

  “Granted, but he’s using plastic milk crates for bookcases, and I’ll bet he’s had them performing that service for twenty years. On the other hand…”

  “What?”

  “Well,” I said, “I know the folly of comparing my inside to somebody else’s outside. And I know people have good days and bad days, and maybe I just caught him on a good day. And God knows this isn’t the life his parents had in mind for him when they paid his tuition at NYU. And if you check the dictionary you’ll find his picture next to arrested development. ”

  “But?”

  “But I have to say the son of a bitch seems happy. ”

  I would have called Jan when I got in, but it was late and I decided to let it go until morning. I was up early, and when I came back from breakfast I called.

  “I was just about to call you,” she said.

  “But I beat you to it. ”

  “You did. ”

  “I want to confirm our date for Saturday,” I said. “But with the proviso that I may be late getting to the SoHo meeting. I’ve got a few hours of work, doing my impersonation of a thug. ”

  “I beg your pardon?”

  I outlined my task in a couple of sentences. “So we’re leaving for Brooklyn at three,” I said, “and we can probably get there in half an hour, and get her things packed and loaded in the car in another hour, and a half hour to get home would put me under the shower around five o’clock. But. ”

  “But it could take a lot longer. ”

  “We might not even get going until three thirty or later. And Richard could easily get lost on the way to Cobble Hill, or hit heavy traffic. And there might not be a hassle with the drunken boyfriend, but if the possibility didn’t exist she wouldn’t need to bring me along. And the longer it all takes, the more I’ll need that shower. ”

  I waited for her to say something, and she didn’t. If I hadn’t heard her radio playing in the background I’d have thought we’d been disconnected.

  “Well, that’s what I wanted to call you about,” she said.

  “About Donna and Vinnie?”

  “No, about Saturday night. I have to break our date. ”

  “Oh?”

  “I’m getting together with my sponsor. ”

  “On Saturday night. ”

  “That’s right. Dinner and a meeting and a long talk that we really have to have. ”

  “Well,” I said. “I guess it’s not going to matter how long it takes me to get back from Cobble Hill. ”

  “Are you upset?”

  “No,” I said. “Why should I be upset? You do what you have to do. ”

  XXIII

  AROUND NOON I walked over to the Y on West Sixty-third where Fireside meets. They have two meetings going at once, and I’d generally gone to the beginners meeting. This didn’t mean that it was reserved for people who were still using training wheels, but that members were encouraged to keep the discussion focused on basic topics—i. e. , staying away from a drink a day at a time. This rule, such as it was, was often honored in the breach, but in the main the sharing was about alcohol, and the art of getting through the hours without it.

  Sometimes I went to the other meeting, generally making my decision on the basis of which room was less crowded, or whether I felt like climbing an extra flight of stairs. On this particular day I noticed that the woman in the speaker’s chair at the beginners meeting was one I’d heard elsewhere within the past week, so I went upstairs. It was Thursday, so the upstairs meeting was a step meeting, and they were on the Eighth Step. If that was a coincidence it wasn’t an extraordinary one; there are only twelve of those particular pearls of wisdom, and two of them have to do with amends, so that made it, what, a five-to-one shot?

  Still, it struck me as the right step at the right time. I grabbed some coffee and a couple of Nutter Butter cookies and took a seat on the right, and heard the speaker explain how his perception of the step had changed over time. The first time he made his Eighth Step list, he said, there were just a couple of names on it—the wife who’d stayed with him despite what his drinking had done to their marriage, the kids he’d neglected. Most of all he’d harmed himself through his drinking, wrecking his health and costing himself jobs, and he figured he’d make sufficient amends to himself and to his family just by staying sober.

  But with time, he said, he began to see how his drinking and his alcoholism had undermined every relationship he’d ever had, and how his actions or inaction had made him an emotional loose c
annon, caroming around the deck of the pitching ship that was his life, smashing into everything nearby.

  I tuned out for a moment, thinking about the metaphor; until he’d explained it, I hadn’t understood what was so dangerous about a loose cannon. I’d always pictured an artillery piece in France, say, during one of the wars, raining shells on the enemy position. Was the aim off if the cannon was loose? But an unmoored cannon on a warship—well, sure, I could see how that could be a problem.

  You show up at these meetings to stay sober and you walk out with a fucking education.

  After the meeting, I decided that the coffee and the Nutter Butter cookies covered enough of the four basic food groups to add up to lunch. I went back to my room and tried to find something on TV, but nothing held my interest. I’d already read the paper at breakfast.

  So I sat down and started making a list. All the people I’d harmed. I wrote down a few names—Estrellita Rivera, obviously, and my ex-wife, obviously, and Michael and Andrew, obviously—and then I stopped.

  It’s not that I’d run out of names, just that I didn’t feel like writing them down. Or looking at the ones I’d already written, thank you very much. I turned over the piece of paper with the four names on it, but that wasn’t enough, so I tore it in half and in half again, and kept going until I’d created a small handful of confetti. If I’d had matches handy I might have burned the scraps, but I decided the wastebasket would do.

  I called Jim and told him what I’d just done.

  “You know,” he said, “there’s a reason they gave each of the steps a number. It’s so that a person can do them in order. ”

  “I know. ”

  “Which doesn’t mean that you can’t think about them when they come to mind. And that’s what you were doing, thinking about Step Eight. So you wrote down some names and realized you’re not ready for the step yet, and that’s fine. ”

  “If you say so. ”

  “I do,” he said, “but if you’d rather see this as further evidence that you’re a rank or two below pond scum on the evolutionary continuum, be my guest. The choice is yours. ”

  “Thanks. Jan broke our date for Saturday. ”

  “Oh?”

 
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