A drop of the hard stuff, p.3
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       A Drop of the Hard Stuff, p.3

         Part #17 of Matthew Scudder series by Lawrence Block
 
Page 3

  “Well, he sat me down and told me I was using the program like a revolving door, and I’d just keep going out and keep coming back again, only each time I came back I’d have a little less of myself left. And the only way I was ever gonna break the pattern was if I read the Big Book every morning and the Twelve & Twelve every night, and got really serious with the steps. So I looked at him, this wispy little queen, this guy I got less in common with than a fucking Martian, and I asked him something I never asked anybody before. I asked him to be my sponsor. You know what he said?”

  “I’d guess he said yes. ”

  “ ‘I’m willing to sponsor you,’ he said, ‘but I don’t know if you’ll be able to stand it. ’ Well, fuck, man. Come right down to it, what choice did I have?”

  So he went to a meeting every day, and sometimes two, and a three-meeting day wasn’t unheard of. And he called his sponsor every morning and every night, and the first thing he did when he got out of bed was hit his knees and ask God for one more sober day, and the last thing he did at night was get on his knees again and thank God for keeping him sober. And he read the Big Book and the Twelve & Twelve, and he worked his way through the steps with his sponsor, and he made ninety days, not for the first time, but he’d never made six months before, and nine months, and, incredibly, a year.

  For his Fourth Step, his sponsor made him write down every wrong thing he’d ever done in his life, and if he didn’t want to include something, that meant it had damn well better be there. “It was like allocuting,” he said, “to every goddamn thing I ever did. ”

  Then the two of them sat down together and he read aloud what he’d written, with his sponsor interrupting now and then to comment, or ask for amplification. “And when we were done he asked me how I felt, and it’s not exactly an elegant way to put it, but what I told him was that I felt as though I’d just taken the biggest shit in the history of the world. ”

  And now he had sixteen months, and it was time to start working on the amends. He’d made his Eighth Step list of the people he’d harmed, he’d become willing to take steps to set things right, but now it was Ninth Step time, which meant actually making the amends, and that wasn’t so easy.

  “But what choice do I have?” he said. And he shook his head and said, “Jesus, look at the time. You just heard my entire qualification. You sat through three speakers and now you had to listen to me, and I went on almost as long as all three of them put together. But I guess it did something for me, talking to somebody from the old neighborhood. It’s gone, you know. The old neighborhood. They went and ran a fucking expressway through there. ”

  “I know. ”

  “It probably means more to me. The neighborhood, I mean. You were there what, two years?”

  “Something like that. ”

  “For me it was my whole childhood. I used to be able to work up a pretty good drunk out of it. ‘Poor me, the house I grew up in is gone, the streets where I played stickball are gone, di dah di dah di dah. ’ But my childhood wasn’t about the house and the streets. And it’s not gone. I’m still carrying it around, and I’ve still got to deal with it. ” He picked up the check. “And that’s enough out of me, and I’m paying for this, and you can call it amends for talking your ear off. ”

  When I got home I called Jim Faber, and we agreed that Jack’s sponsor sounded like a real Step Nazi, but that seemed to be just what Jack needed.

  Before we parted, Jack had given me his phone number, and I felt obliged to give him mine. I wasn’t much on picking up the phone, and Jim was the only person I called on a fairly regular basis. There was a woman in Tribeca, a sculptor named Jan Keane, with whom I generally spent Saturday night and Sunday morning, and one of us would call the other two or three times a week. Aside from that, I didn’t make many calls, and most of the ones I got were wrong numbers.

  I copied Jack Ellery’s number in my book, and figured I’d run into him somewhere down the line. Or not.

  III

  THE NEXT TIME I saw Jack Ellery was several months later, when I ran into him at a meeting. By then we’d spoken a couple of times on the phone. The first time was a few days after I made my ninety days. I spoke that night at my home group in the basement at St. Paul the Apostle. The church was at Columbus and Sixtieth, a few short blocks from my hotel, and I’d gone there in my drinking days to light votive candles for the dead and, while I was there, enjoy a few moments of quiet. Back then I hadn’t even known there were AA meetings downstairs.

  So I sat at the table in front and told my story, or twenty minutes’ worth of it anyway, and everybody congratulated me, and afterward a bunch of us went for coffee at the Flame, and I went home and called Jan, and she congratulated me herself and then reminded me what comes after ninety days. Day Ninety-one.

  It must have been Day Ninety-three or -four when Jack Ellery called to offer his own congratulations. “I was a little anxious about calling,” he said, “because I figured you’d make it, but you never know, do you? And how would you feel if you had a slip and here’s this asshole calling to congratulate you on ninety days that you haven’t got? And I said this to my sponsor, and he reminded me I’m not the center of the universe, which never fails to be news to me. And that, if God forbid you did pick up a drink, you’d have more to be upset about than some guy on the other end of the telephone line. ”

  He called again a week or so later, but it was Saturday and I was downtown at Jan’s loft on Lispenard Street. The following morning we caught an early meeting in SoHo, a favorite of hers. Afterward we went out for brunch, then walked through some galleries on West Broadway, and I had my standing Sunday dinner date with Jim. We always had Chinese food on those evenings, though not always at the same restaurant, and afterward we’d fit in a meeting. So it was late by the time I got back to my hotel and collected my message, and I didn’t return Jack’s call until the following day, and when I called he was out and there was no way to leave a message.

  We played telephone tag for a few more days, and then one of us reached the other, and it was one of those awkward calls where neither party has a great deal to say.

  I remember he talked again about the problem of making amends. “For instance,” he said, “there was this buddy I ran with. We knocked off a couple of stores together, then hunkered down with a fifth of Johnnie Black and told each other what heroes we were. Then one time, we did this little store in the Village, pots and pans and household shit. I mean, what were we thinking? How much cash were they gonna have, you know?”

  I remembered the woman at the lineup.

  “And I guess he got drunk and ran his mouth in front of the wrong person, or maybe I did, because who remembers that shit? But I got picked up, and the woman blew the ID, picked out the poor mope standing next to me. And when they went to pick up Arnie, Jesus, he went for his gun, the crazy son of a bitch, and they shot him full of holes, and he was DOA at Beth Israel. Now I didn’t lead him into a life of crime, and I didn’t rat him out, but he wound up dead and I didn’t have to do any time, I didn’t even have to give back the money, and what do I owe him for that? And how do I make it even?”

  There was another call later on, and he left a message. He’d be speaking at a meeting on the Upper West Side, and if I wanted to come hear his story maybe we could grab a cup of coffee afterward. I thought about it, but the day came and went. I liked him okay and wished him well, but I wasn’t sure I wanted the two of us to become best friends. The Bronx was a long time ago, and we’d taken very different paths since then, even if we’d managed to wind up in the same place. There wasn’t much chance I’d ever be a cop again, although I sometimes thought about it, but I couldn’t be as sure about Jack. If he stayed sober he’d be all right, but if he didn’t, well, pretty much anything could happen, and I didn’t want to be that close to him if it did.

  The next time I saw him was at a meeting of the Sober Today group on Second Avenue and Eighty-seventh Street. I
d never been there before, and went because someone had booked Jan to speak. I had never heard her tell her drinking story, although I’d been around for some of it while it was going on, so we arranged to meet there and go out for dinner afterward. I found the place, got myself a cup of coffee, and on the other side of the room I saw Jack Ellery in conversation with a studious-looking man in his twenties.

  I had to look a second time to make sure it was Jack, because he was a mess. He was dressed well enough, in pressed khakis and a long-sleeved sport shirt, but his face was swollen on one side, and he had a black eye. There was a conclusion available, and I went ahead and jumped to it. People who stay sober generally don’t get to look like that unless they’re overmatched prizefighters, and I figured all his focus on the steps hadn’t kept him from tripping over the first one.

  It was a shame if he’d had a slip, but that sort of thing happened, and the good news was he was at a meeting now. Still, I was in no rush to go over and talk to him, and purposely chose a seat where he’d be less likely to get a look at me. And then the meeting started.

  The format featured a single speaker, followed by a general discussion. First, though, they read “How It Works” and the steps and the traditions and a few other selections from the wisdom of the ages, and I let my mind wander until they were doing day counts and anniversaries. Somewhere along the way I shifted in my seat so that I could get a look at Jack, and sure enough, his hand was raised.

  No surprise there, I thought, and waited for him to get called on so he could tell us how many days he had this time around. But they were done with the day counters, they were on anniversaries, as I found out when he said, “My name is Jack, and the day before yesterday by the grace of God and the fellowship of AA, I was able to celebrate two years. ”

  They applauded, of course, and I joined in as soon as it all registered, beating my hands together and feeling like an idiot. Where did I get off looking at a man and assuming he’d been drinking?

  Then the chairman introduced Jan, and she started telling her story, and I sat back and listened. But I leaned forward once or twice and caught another glimpse of Jack. He was sober, and that was all to the good, but why did he look as though someone had beaten the living crap out of him?

  I caught up with him during the break. “I thought that was you,” he said. “You’re a long way from home, aren’t you? I don’t think I’ve ever seen you here before. ”

  “The speaker’s a friend of mine,” I said, “and this is the first chance I’ve had to hear her qualify. ”

  “Well, that’s worth a trip, isn’t it? I enjoyed hearing her myself, and all I had to do was walk a couple of blocks. ”

  “We’ve got a dinner date afterward,” I said, and wondered as I said the words why I felt compelled to share that information with him. On the way back to my seat I figured it out. I was cutting him off at the pass, letting him know we wouldn’t be available for coffee.

  I hadn’t asked about his face, not feeling it was for me to raise the subject, and he hadn’t chosen to bring it up. I couldn’t avoid wondering about it, though, and thought I’d get my curiosity satisfied when I saw his hand go up during the discussion. It took her a while to call on him, despite my efforts to influence her by force of will, but eventually she did, and he thanked her for her qualification and found something in it to identify with, some common element in their blackouts or hangovers, something that ordinary. Nothing to explain the lumps and bumps he’d taken as he reached the two-year mark in his sobriety.

  After we’d closed the meeting with the Serenity Prayer, he and the fellow who’d been sitting next to him were among the ten or a dozen people who went up to shake Jan’s hand and thank her for sharing her story. I hung back, helping with the chairs, and I was still doing that when he and his friend headed for the door.

  But he stopped in midstride and came over to me. “Now’s not the time for it,” he said, “but there’s something I’d really like to talk to you about. What’s a good time to call you?”

  Jan and I would be having dinner, probably at a German place she’d said she’d like to try. Then I’d see her home, and I’d most likely stay the night on Lispenard Street. She’d want to work in the morning, so I’d clear out after breakfast, and then what would I do? Catch the subway back to my hotel, unless I decided to take my time and walk home, maybe stopping en route at a noon meeting. There’d be one at the Workshop on Perry Street, or I could keep walking and go to the bookshop meeting at St. Francis of Assisi, on Thirtieth Street.

  I thought of something, and I guess it showed on my face, because Jack asked me what was so funny.

  “I was just thinking,” I said. “Something I’ve heard people say. How the literature tells us sobriety is a bridge back to life, but sometimes it’s just a tunnel to another meeting. ”

  “Greg says that,” he said, and his friend approached at the sound of his name, and Jack introduced us. I wasn’t surprised to learn that this was Jack’s sponsor. He was wearing an earring, and I’d already decided he had designed it himself.

 
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