A drop of the hard stuff, p.8
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       A Drop of the Hard Stuff, p.8

         Part #17 of Matthew Scudder series by Lawrence Block
Page 8

  “Just a few. I get asked with some frequency, but before I say yes or no I’ll spend an hour over coffee with the person, and more often than not we’ll conclude that it wouldn’t really work too well. Or we decide to give it a try, and after a month or two one of us fires the other. I’m what they call a Step Nazi, and even when someone thinks that’s what he wants in a sponsor, the reality’s not always what he thought it would be. We keep walking past coffee shops. ”

  “I know. ”

  “I’m not hungry myself. Are you?”

  “I filled up on cookies at the meeting. ”

  “Precisely why I’m no longer hungry. I don’t know who brings those boxes of Entenmann’s chocolate chip, but I wish he’d stop. I can’t stay away from them, and I may have to put them on my First Step list and cut them out altogether. And just thinking about it makes me shudder, which suggests it’s something I have to do. ” He grinned, his face lighting up. “But not today,” he said.

  “Like St. Augustine. ”

  “Exactly! ‘Lord, make me chaste, but not yet. ’ I wonder if he actually said that. Matt, since we’ve established that we’re not hungry, do you want to come up to my place? I’ve got something there that I probably ought to show you. And I promise you I make better coffee than the Greeks. ”

  This wasn’t the first time I’d heard Greg refer to himself as a Step Nazi. He’d used the term after the funeral, when he told me he’d gotten Jack killed. He’d been pushing him through the steps, working him hard, and Jack had given himself over wholeheartedly to the process, rushing headlong into the amends called for in the Ninth Step. We made direct amends to such people wherever possible, the step read, except when to do so would injure them or others.

  Or oneself, I thought. But I couldn’t remember any warning to that effect in the literature.

  Greg’s apartment was on East Ninety-ninth between First and Second, three blocks above the unofficial boundary between Yorkville and East Harlem. Irish and Italian Harlem, it used to be, but the Irish and Italians had long since moved a little closer to the American dream. There was still an Italian restaurant whose customers found it worth a special trip, and there were a few Irish bars left on Second Avenue. Well, bars with Irish names, anyway. The clientele looked to be largely Hispanic and West Indian, and it was Red Stripe and not Guinness advertised in neon in the window of the Emerald Star.

  I hadn’t been here in years, and I could see that the neighborhood was changing once again. Between Ninety-seventh and Ninety-eighth, we passed a couple of five-story brick buildings undergoing renovation, with Dumpsters at the curb piled high with plaster and lath and flooring. And across the street they were throwing up one of those needle high-rises, a twenty-story glass-and-steel building on the site of a tenement.

  I said it wasn’t what you expected to find in Harlem, and Greg reminded me that they were calling it Carnegie Hill now, the latest invention of the Realtors who’d thought up Clinton as a new name for my own part of town. Until then we’d been happy enough calling it Hell’s Kitchen.

  He reminded me of Thoreau’s observation. “ ‘Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes. ’ And of neighborhoods that feel the need to change their names. ”

  The city kept reinventing itself, creating more and more places for its prosperous citizens. There’s nothing new about this, the process has been going on for more than a century, but when I looked at the buildings getting a gut rehab, I wondered what had become of the people who lived there before somebody got rid of their walls and floors.

  I told myself to think about something else. Sure, an inner voice said. Forget the poor bastards. The city’ll take care of them, find ’em a nice Dumpster to live in.

  What was it Jim had told me? It is your dissatisfaction with what is that is the cause of all your unhappiness. The wisdom of the Buddha, if not the one from the midnight meeting. Something to think about, on my way to Greg Stillman’s apartment.

  “Mice,” he said, and sniffed the air. “But no cabbage. No wet dog with garlic either. Indeterminate cooking smells. Not too bad, all in all. ”

  Not as bad as the stairs themselves. The building code calls for an elevator in any structure of seven or more stories, and as a result there are a lot of six-story buildings in New York. This was one of them, and he lived on the top floor.

  “I don’t actually mind the stairs,” he said. “I’ve been here long enough to take them for granted. When I came to New York I had a share on Eighty-fifth and Third, but I wanted my own place, and after a few months I moved in here. I got sober in this apartment, after having spent several years getting drunk in it. When I think of navigating those stairs drunk and stoned, I remember how they say God protects drunks and fools. I qualified on both counts. ”

  The apartment was small but well-appointed. I think it must have started life as a three-room railroad flat, but he’d removed the nonbearing walls to create one long room. He’d stripped the exterior walls to the brick, which he’d rendered glossy with some sort of lacquer. He’d painted the mortar black, and here and there among the red bricks was one he’d painted white or blue or yellow. There weren’t that many of those, just enough to provide an accent.

  The chairs and tables were different styles, but somehow went together. Except for a couple of thrift-shop finds, he said with some pride, everything had been salvaged from the streets. In New York, he said, you found finer goods and furnishings out on the curb for trash pickup than other cities displayed in their shops.

  An abstract painting, all vivid colors and sharp angles, hung on one wall. It was the gift of the artist, a friend he’d lost touch with. Another oil, a pastoral scene of barefoot nymphs and satyrs in an elaborate carved frame, he’d acquired by trading jewelry he’d made.

  By the time he’d finished pointing things out, the coffee was ready, and it was as perfectly done as his apartment, even better than what Jan made on Lispenard Street. I wasn’t surprised to learn that he ground the beans himself.

  He said, “Matt, I have an ethical dilemma. May I ask where you are on the steps?”

  “I’m concentrating on the first one,” I said. “And thinking some about the second and third. ”

  “You haven’t done a formal Fourth Step. ”

  “My sponsor says I shouldn’t be in a rush. He says there’s a natural progression of a step a year, and I’m in my first year, so my focus should stay on that first step. ”

  “That’s one school of thought,” he said. “And there’s something to the step-a-year principle, in that it takes a year for a step to really sink in. But the people who started all this back in the thirties and forties, they’d haul prospects out of hospital beds and get them on their knees, proclaiming their powerlessness over alcohol and their faith in a Higher Power and all the rest of it. They didn’t even wait for the poor sons of bitches to stop shaking. They were the original Step Nazis, decades before anybody came up with the term. ”

  “So you’re not the first. ”

  “I’m afraid not. And, as I’ve said, I’m not the sponsor everybody’s looking for. But I wouldn’t have made it in this program if I didn’t have a sponsor who was every bit the hard-liner I’ve turned into. He made me write everything out, which I hated, and he made me pray on my knees, which I considered demeaning, and likely to interfere with the buddy relationship I’d been hoping to have with God. Two reasonable men, you know, working things out on an even footing. Lord, what an arrogant little prick I was!”

  He shook his head at the memory.

  “Up until the day he died,” he went on, “I’d have told you I was the right sponsor for Jack. We had next to nothing in common—he was almost twenty years older, he had a much rougher life, he was straight and even a little homophobic. But he wanted what I had and he liked the message I carried, and I could tell that the only way he was going to stay sober was if he was forced to do the program the way they laid it out. Prayer every
morning, prayer every night, a minimum of a meeting a day, and you do the steps in order and in writing. Can you see my dilemma?”

  “He wrote it all down. ”

  “Everything he told me, and everything he wrote out, was in strictest confidence. I’m not a priest and the seal of the confessional wouldn’t protect me in a courtroom, but that’s how I’d regard it, irrespective of the law. But now…”

  “Now he’s dead. ”

  “Now he’s dead, and what he wrote might point the police in the right direction. So where does my responsibility lie? Does his death release me from the obligation to keep silent? I know it’s generally considered okay to identify a deceased person as a member of Alcoholics Anonymous. To paraphrase a syrupy book and film, death means never having to maintain your anonymity. But this is a little different, wouldn’t you say?”

  “In some ways. ”

  “And not in others?” He sighed. “You know what I miss about drinking? The many opportunities it gave you to just say, ‘Oh, what the hell. ’ Sometimes it’s a pain in the ass to think things through. ”

  “I know what you mean. ”

  “Jack has a lot of people on his Eighth Step list. He didn’t just write down the names of the people he’d harmed during his drinking years. He wrote a paragraph about each person, what he’d done and what effect it had had and what action he could possibly take to make things right. Some of the people on the list had died, and it bothered him that there was no way to make amends to a dead person. ”

  “He told me about his father. ”

  “How he hadn’t been there when the old man died. I suggested some things he could do. He could go someplace quiet—a church sanctuary, a park. The old neighborhood in the Bronx might have been a good choice if they hadn’t run an expressway through it. The venue’s not important. He could go there and think about his father and talk to him. ”

  “Talk to him?”

  “And tell him all the things he wished he’d been able to tell him on his deathbed. And let the old man know he was sober now, and what that meant to him, and—well, you know, I wasn’t going to compose a speech for him. He’d think of plenty of things to say. ”

  “And who’s to say if the message would get through?”

  “For all I know,” he said, “the old fellow’s off on a cloud somewhere, and he’s got ears that can hear a dog whistle. ” He frowned. “I mean one of those whistles only dogs can hear. ”

  “I knew what you meant. ”

  “It could have meant, you know, a dog whistling. Not even the dead can hear that. ”

  “So far as we know. ”

  He gave me a look. “There’s more coffee,” he said. “Can I get you another cup?”


  JACK WAS SITTING in your chair when he took the Fifth Step. He’d written out his Fourth Step, spent several weeks on it, making sure he got it all down. Then he sat there, and I sat where I am now, and he read it out loud. His voice broke a few times. It was hard going. ”

  I could imagine.

  “I would stop him now and then, you know. For amplification. But mostly he read and I took it in, or tried to. It wasn’t easy. ”

  “Heavy going?”

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