Lonnie had, in this dingy room where people met to learn to stop drinking and become productive members of society, been subject to thousands of lies. They hummed through the air on various frequencies, some painful to her ears. Sometimes, bristling from the static, she stubbed out her cigarette with such force that sparks flew into her lap. At least a dozen times she swore she would never come here again. To hear them talk, there were even more fabulously wealthy and successful ex-businessmen in this room than there were in prison. Before alcohol reduced them to trading in their late-model Cadillacs for the Schwinns they now rode to their jobs pumping gas, that is.
A couple of times, in the beginning, she’d had a few drinks before coming and told one or two of these liars what she thought of their stories. The overall group reaction to that had been an enthusiastically condescending chorus of “Keep coming back!”, accompanied by a lot of knowing nods, which irritated her nearly as much as the lies, the implication being she too was an alcoholic and would realize it sooner or later—with their help, of course.
Despite her disappointment in the miniscule number of men she considered even remotely suitable for surrogate fatherhood, she’d kept coming. At one point, she’d had high hopes that a man called little Bob, who spoke eloquently of all things spiritual, would prove to be a worthy candidate. She’d accepted his invitation to coffee, where in the midst of a discussion about paths to spirituality, he’d leaned towards her and said in a confidential tone “I have to confess that I’ve sometimes pictured you naked.” She’d paid for her own coffee.
The reason she’d kept coming was Ralph, who had recently come to town. He was apparently as disgusted with the lies as she was because usually when he talked, he never referred to any lost fortune, or even how getting sober had restored his job and his self-respect. Instead, he would impatiently explain why everything that everyone else had just said was nothing but happy horseshit. Ralph was firmly against any sort of happy horseshit. Then he would go on to shout and curse about the truth. Once, he said this:
“You might not believe this, but I was once not only even more handsome than I am now, I was also one intelligent son of a bitch. In case you haven’t learned this yet, you can’t walk away from love without killing yourself. The last time I tried, I sustained a nasty head injury and broke almost every bone in my body, which just goes to show you the lengths that people will go to to make their outsides match their insides. Hell, I forgot more than most of you will ever learn, but I remember the important things.
Anyway, I was laid up for over a year. I couldn’t do a damn thing for myself. Day after day, for weeks, the group catered to my every need, bringing me coffee, emptying my ashtray. They couldn’t do enough for me. Why? Because I was hurt? Hell, no. Because they could see physical evidence that I was hurt. After about a month, they started getting impatient with my helplessness and wanted me to hurry up and heal already. They didn’t want to keep being reminded about hurt and the long-ass time it takes to heal.
Now, say I come in here without having a motorcycle accident, and just say “I hurt because I’ve got a broken heart and I can’t do a damn thing for myself” You bunch of lying bastards ain’t gonna run around getting me coffee. You’re gonna give me a god-damn week to get over it and get a fuckin’ job. You’re gonna try to make me cover it up with a new car and a house and a lot of speeches about how wonderful life is because I’m sober. I’ve got sixteen years sober and I got no fuckin’ job and it ain’t wonderful. My heart is still broken and it’s going to stay broken until I stop saying fuck you to God long enough to let him heal it.”
Lonnie had the distinct impression that when Ralph was born, he’d started screaming and had been steadily turning blue ever since. As if he believed that eventually, he’d get his way and everybody would stop lying. Blue is his color. With the exception of fastidiously white T-shirts, his entire wardrobe consists of blue jeans and lighter blue shirts that match his eyes. Looking at Ralph, with his cottony white hair and silvery clipped mustache over all that blue was, for Lonnie, like looking at the sky.
The first time she heard him speak, she felt as though he were a newsman on assignment, coming to them live with an in-depth report on the deplorable living conditions within her. To her surprise, she didn’t mind the exposure. Since he had put those particular words together in the only order possible for them to be true, she was satisfied that he understood. She sank deeper into her seat with a sense of relief, thinking that at last, she may have found a suitable candidate.
Ralph was a man on a mission. His credibility in certain circles suffered somewhat because he also lived at the mission. It suffered, too, because of his language, which so often included the phrase “bunch of lyin’ bastards”, and which a lot of people assumed referred to them personally. The only circle Lonnie concerned herself with after that was the one in which Ralph served as the center. That circle came to be known as the meeting after the meeting. She stayed there until after midnight sometimes, watching and listening to Ralph, hoping that he would speak directly to her. For a week, she watched as he played countless games of cribbage while he advised those who sought either his counsel or an argument. Usually, they came in with an argument and left with counsel. To her surprise and amusement, many of them were the same well-dressed, productive members of society who had, earlier in the evening, spoken at great length about their happy productive lives and walked out when Ralph began to speak.
She waited for him to speak to her, but he never did, so she began formulating an argument against his contempt for people who got sober and got a job, when, according to Ralph, they were supposed to be working for God. During a pause in his argument to that effect with a well-dressed real estate agent during the meeting after the meeting, she piped up with “So, Ralph, what are the terms and conditions of this new employer of yours? And what about benefits?”
His response was “That question just shows your head’s full of baby-shit because you’re pissed off at God. You must be a Sagittarius, right?”
“Yes”, she said, thrown by this accusation and his sudden shift to astrology, “but what’s that got to do with working for God?”
“Nothing. I just have a thing for blonde Sagittarians.”
“Define “a thing.” she demanded.
“I love ‘em. Aries and Sagittarius have a God thing, you know. He set it up that way.”
“Astrology is full of shit.”
“And you’re pissed off at God”.
“What makes you think that?”
“You’re here, aren’t you? That means you don’t trust anybody or anything and God’s been at the top of your shit list ever since you were a little girl, which you still are, by the way. I don’t care how much eyeliner you wear or how many times you’ve rubbed pee-pees with some little boy pretending to be a man.”
At this, her face reddened. “You’re an arrogant son of a bitch, you know that? You think you can just look at somebody and tell them all about their own life, as if you knew something they didn’t, when they’re the ones who’ve lived it. You don’t know a damn thing about me or my life!”.
“Are you saying I’m wrong?” he asked, rising from his chair and walking toward her.
“Okay, prove me wrong. Come over here and let me hug you.”
“What’s that going to prove?”
“You’ll see. Now, either let me hug you, or shut up until you have something besides baby-shit to say”.
Getting up from her chair, she walked toward him, saying, “It’s not like I’ve never hugged anybody before.”
He opened his arms and she walked into them. He closed them around her. She embraced him for a moment and then let go. He didn’t. She felt her body stiffen. He held her. Almost every fiber of her being began to revolt; most of her wanted nothing more at that moment than to wrench herself from his embrace and flee. But there was one fiber that wanted to win this argument and not have to go away with counsel, and that one fiber wouldn’t allow her to do that.
He pulled her closer, and she began to imagine that at any moment she would feel a stiffening between his legs pressing against her. Frozen against him, she waited. She could feel him feeling her heart thumping wildly against his chest and closed her eyes against his misunderstanding. She began to feel faint.
Through her terror, she heard him whisper in her ear “Breathe in”, and then realized that she had been holding her breath. She breathed in slowly, filling her lungs to capacity. “Now breathe out”. She exhaled. “Again”. As she did as she was instructed, her muscles began to relax. Still he held her. Suddenly panicking at the realization that she had begun to relax; that for the briefest of moments, she had left herself unprepared and defenseless against what this contact with her female body would surely cause, had always caused, she stiffened once more.
“Just breathe”, he murmured gently into her ear. “That’s the only job you have, the rest of it was lies. It wasn’t your fault.” he murmured gently into her ear.
His words raced along some limbic pathway towards her knotted center, bypassing reason and will. At the moment of impact, her body began to tremble. Tears fell from her eyes without her permission.
“Just breathe, all the rest is God’s job”, he said, still holding her to him.
She breathed in. She breathed out.
He held her.
She breathed in. She breathed out. She breathed in more deeply. She breathed out in resignation, which was as close as she could get to surrender and still survive.
He released her.
“Fuckin’ awful, wasn’t it?” he asked.
She nodded, avoiding his eyes.
“Now what was that crap about getting a job again? Who else is going to hire an impotent old bastard like me but God? And what work am I going to find that’s more important than hugging cute blonde Sagittarians—there’s a fuckin’ benefit for you.
A week later, she invited him to her house for dinner on an impulse, knowing Brian wouldn’t mind. He’d been to a few meetings with her and said he thought Ralph was the only one worth listening to. “I get a kick out of seeing him piss so many people off at once. He’s got a gift.”, he’d said once. Ralph positioned himself around his plate like he thought somebody might suddenly remember a better purpose for it and take it back. He ate so much that after dinner, he fell asleep on the couch until he woke himself up crying out in his sleep. Brian and Lonnie watched television and exchanged glances that said they’d discuss this later, but they didn’t. Not that night. At the end of the evening, Ralph shook Brian’s hand and said “God, but you’re an arrogant little bastard. You need to work the steps.” In his best faggot voice, Brian shot back with “I bet you say that to all the boys”, which was true. After that, Ralph started showing up at their house around dinner time a couple of times a week.
By the time he’d been in town a few more months, Ralph had a half a dozen young men whom he was guiding through the twelve steps. They’d show up at meetings with bags under their eyes from lack of sleep, crazed with emotion, screaming and cussing. Ralph would glance at his watch and nod his head approvingly as if to confirm that this insanity was to be expected, and that furthermore, they were losing their minds right on schedule according to his calculations. Lonnie had heard Ralph tell people not to come back until they’d lost their minds and were good and pissed off before he would agree to take them through the steps.” Using that criteria, one of these young men, Jeff, was certainly qualified, but Ralph would have nothing to do with him. Although Jeff always stayed for the meeting after the meeting, Ralph treated him like a party-crasher he was too polite have escorted out by security.
Lonnie thought he must know something she didn’t about Jeff because he had so much experience with insanity. One of his duties in his job for God, which kept him supplied with pocket money for food and cigarettes, was escorting prisoners from the jail to the state mental institution.
“They’ve got those poor bastards so drugged up that they don’t have room in them for God”, he’d told her. “I get a few hours to tell them what they’re in for in this institution and that God can heal them in a heartbeat if they’ll just believe. Some of them actually hear me, but most of them are too far gone already. They believe all that American shit.”
Lonnie felt sorry for Jeff because his insanity was the loud kind. He didn’t seethe, he ricocheted and boomed. Somebody would be crying their eyes out talking about how protective services had come and taken their baby that morning and suddenly he’d start laughing out loud. He had a big, hearty laugh. Jeff was oblivious to infuriation, hers or anybody else’s, and totally disregarded the poisonous looks she shot in his direction at such times. In fact, Jeff showed no sign of having any knowledge of where he left off and other people began, and often behaved as though he were conducting experiments which would finally settle this matter once and for all. The results of these experiments were sometimes violent and sometimes hilarious, like the times he sat on people’s laps in meetings.
Once, Jeff tried this stunt on a relative newcomer, a man almost as large as he was and considerably older, who promptly threw him to the floor, jumped up and would have punched him when he tried to get up if he hadn’t been held back by two men on either side of him. From the floor, he was yanked up by the hair by a big biker known as the Reverend Elvis, who said with great formality in his Louisiana preacher’s voice “Gentlemen, allow me”.
Jeff was drug outside and advised loudly to stay away from meetings until he could learn how to act. The Reverend Elvis had no opposition in this matter. He had about the same size circle as Ralph did, but he specialized mostly in people who were as fond of wearing leather as he was, or those who would be once they could stay sober and hold a job long enough to buy any. The Reverend Elvis had a pretty good success rate, and about once a month, somebody would come in to get a ninety-day chip wearing a new leather vest. When he came back inside, there was a lot of clapping, started by the guy who’d been speaking before this interruption. For a while after that, Jeff only came to the meeting after the meeting.
Ralph despised the Reverend Elvis and his sunglasses. He said he wore them so nobody could see his lying eyes that he’d never taken the steps, and that furthermore, he was a Nazi who thought he was God. But he didn’t despise him enough to come to Jeff’s defense, which Lonnie thought he might, just on principle. Instead, he clapped along with the others even though he had often declared that clapping at meetings was one of the things that clearly constituted happy horseshit.
Every night, after the meeting, Lonnie was amazed to come home and find Brian still there. When she’d told him she wouldn’t marry anybody who drank, he’d quit, just like that, for her. She hadn’t expected that. She’d expected to walk away from him like she had the others who hadn’t quit, and whose rings she kept in a little box in her underwear drawer. Her amazement began when she pulled into the driveway and saw his truck, increasing incrementally until it reached a crescendo when she actually saw him lying in their bed waiting for her, arms outstretched. She snuggled next to him as he read her to sleep each night.
He’d check to see if she was falling asleep by leaving off reading and making up a different story as he went along. If a character who had just been leaving a Dairy Queen suddenly began shouting orders to a submarine crew, she’d say “Hey!”, and he’d say “Just checking.” Sometimes, it would take her ten minutes to realize that he wasn’t reading anymore, and sometimes, the things he had the characters do was so hilarious that she didn’t care. She needed the way Brian made her laugh, the way he kept her sorrow outside the realm of her awareness where she could be safe from it. They’d filled every inch of their king-sized waterbed with laughter all the way through Texasville.
She knew she’d been neglecting him. She’d asked him if he wanted her to stop spending time with Ralph and just try again with the father she already had. He’d shaken his head and said “No. I don’t know who you are when you come back from seeing him, but it’s not somebody I like very much. You do what you have to do.”
One night, coming home at almost one in the morning, again, she did not find Brian in bed with his arms outstretched. She found him in the living room looking angry. “So, what did Papa Smurf have to say tonight?” he spat, and didn’t even let her answer. “Ralph says this, Ralph says that”, he said, rolling his eyes. “You’d think Ralph was the Delphic oracle instead of an old con man living at the mission as much as you quote him”.
“Why do you say he’s a con man?”
“Well, think about it. What does he do for a living?”
“He works for God!”, she said triumphantly.
“Oh, really. Then why is it that we’re the ones who seem to buy half his food? How many times has he had dinner here this month?”
“I don’t know. A few.”
“Try every other night. And I happen to know that when he’s not eating here, he’s living off the rest of his followers. Good thing for him that everybody’s not working for God or how would he maintain that pot belly of his?”, he said with a note of disgust, and walked out of the room.
She followed him into the kitchen, saying “I’m not his “follower”. Jeez, you make it sound like he’s some kind of cult leader. I thought you liked him. You know, you’ve even quoted him yourself at times.”
“Well, I used to think he was pretty smart. But when a person answers every question in Trivial Pursuit with “Who the fuck cares?”, I start to suspect that maybe they’ve got a problem. I think he’s just read every self-help pop psychology book ever printed so he knows how to make people think he’s some kind of fountain of wisdom. But let’s forget about what he knows and what he says, let’s talk about what he does. Do you want to be living at the mission and going to three AA meetings a day when you get to be his age?”
Suddenly, as he sometimes did when the conversation got a bit heavy, he went into one of his voices. This time it was the surfer. “I mean, dude, does he like, you know, have a life? Or does he, you know, just, like, hang?” Lonnie didn’t laugh like she usually did when he went into one of his characters. Then he added, in his own voice, “Actually, I kind of feel sorry for the guy.”
At work the next day, while she was busily gathering tiny pictures of pork and beans and bananas for the sale page of Wednesday’s edition, she thought about what Brian had said. It had never occurred to her to feel sorry for Ralph, to question his motives, or ask about his life. Ever since Ralph had first said to her “I love you, you know, for no particular reason—and there isn’t a damn thing you can do about it”, followed by one of those five minute hugs which no longer made her cry, she didn’t see Ralph the way other people did. She felt him instead. He’d said that same thing to her every day for months now. She resolved to ask him about his life even though she was almost sure that she didn’t want to know. There might be something in it that would disqualify him just when she had begun to believe that he was the one.
The next time she saw him, she said “When are you going to tell me about your life?”
“Ask me when you get a year”, he said, taking out his wallet. “Nobody can hear until they get a year. For now, I’ll show you a picture of my daughter.”
He handed her a photograph of a beautiful young woman dressed in an ice skating costume, saying “She’s not one of us. She’s a real woman, not a female like you see in these rooms, and she’s getting married next year to a real man. She’s down in Sacramento and the only words she’s ever heard are words of love. She’s not fucked up in any way. It would never occur to her to take a drink. She’s busy being alive.”
As Lonnie stared at the confident smiling face of the daughter Ralph already had, whose sunny path to perfection had been carefully cleared and strewn with powerful and potent magic words, while her own had been a tangled underbrush seeded with the sins of the fathers, her anger the machete with which she hacked her way to sunlight, she began to weep. Suddenly, she too wanted to be a real woman and not fucked up in any way.
Ralph drew her to him and held her as she wept silently. He whispered “I’m not breaking your heart, you know. I’m just reminding you that it’s already broken.”
She wrenched herself away from him and ran to the bathroom where, trying not to make any noise, she alternately held her breath and sobbed into her sleeve until her body decided it had had enough and vomited into the sink.
When she came out, Ralph said “You know, doing that by yourself is what’s keeping you so sick. Now, where were we? Oh, yeah, it was my turn to ask you about kids”.
“I can’t have any.”, she said lifelessly.
“Some kind of medical problem?”
“No, I had my tubes tied.”
Ralph’s eyebrows shot up, and she felt a smug satisfaction in saying something that actually seemed to surprise him. He claimed he had already heard everything.
“Oh, you decided you knew better than God, huh? Kind of a permanent decision for a little girl like you to make”, he said.
Suddenly brave in her anger at his picking at her scabs when he was supposed to be trying to stop the bleeding, she said “Yeah, I decided I knew better than God, and the doctor who said it was against his “usual policy” to sterilize somebody so young decided I did too. When I told him I’d come back and hold him personally responsible if I had a child and did those kinds of things to it, all of a sudden, he saw it my way.”
“Well, you’re just full of delusions of power, ain’t you?” Ralph said, looking amused. “I’ve got news for you. If God wants you pregnant, you think any dumb-ass baby-shit decision you make is going to stop him?”.
“Fuck you!”, she screamed.
“Well, I was wondering when you’d finally get around to that”, he said calmly. Then, to the others, who were trying their best to be invisible, as they had all, including Lonnie herself, learned to do when Ralph was focusing on somebody in particular, he said “Look, she finally said the f word! There might be hope for her yet.” With that, she got up and stomped out the door, their knowing laughter trailing her home.
When she got there, Brian looked at his watch and said sarcastically, “Well, you’re early tonight. Did Ralph and all the young dudes crap out on you tonight or something?” His face softened when he saw her red, swollen eyes, and he said “Did something happen?”
“Yeah, Ralph happened.”
“What did he do to you?”, he asked, in a curiously hopeful tone.
She didn’t want to talk about it. Looking at the floor, in a small voice she said “He asked me about children.”
“Oh.”, he said, understanding everything at once.
“Come over here and let me tell you a little-known fact”, he said in his Cliff the postman from “Cheers” voice, opening his arms to her.
Suddenly exhausted, she fell into them and allowed herself to be held. She was glad to hear one of his voices. Lately, they had been reduced to one that was unfamiliar to her, one tinged with disappointment and resignation, a voice she had come to dread in her suspicion that she was partially responsible for it. But she knew that part of it was his job at the gravel pit. At first, they had laughed about him sliding down a Brontosaurus’ tail at the end of the day, shouting “Yabba-dabba-do!” They even referred to the town as Bedrock and his boss as Mr. Slate. It paid good money, but he never told her about the shades of pink in the early morning sunrise over the mountain anymore. Now, when she asked him about his day, he’d say “Same old, same old—another day, another fifty cents.” She felt that way herself sometimes, but this wasn’t one of them.
At this moment, she looked forward to going to work tomorrow, where everything was neat and orderly on the desk where she would write the kind of advertising copy she would run if she were allowed to tell the truth, and show it to her proof-reading cubicle-mate Charlotte. There, in their tiny cubicle, they would laugh until they’d both have to run to the bathroom. After she had purged herself in this way, she’d set to work in earnest, writing the sort of advertisements her customers expected, ads that would make their products seem like something nobody in their right mind could live without.
Lying on the couch in his arms, she smiled, remembering the corrupt southern cop’s voice he had used on their last drive in the woods. They’d taken the new Toyota truck with the chrome rims and tires jacked up so high he had to give her a boost to get into it, (one he’d wanted badly enough to agree to five years of hard labor in a gravel pit, a choice that she could not begin to fathom) for an off-road drive down an abandoned logging road. The sun was shining to the tune of the Fine Young Cannibals in quadrophonic sound and she had just taken off her top to feel the sun warm on her breasts when he’d suddenly stopped the truck. He got out without a word and walked over behind a tree. She assumed he had to pee, but he just walked around the tree and headed back towards the truck. Only now, he was swaggering military-style and wearing mirrored sunglasses. He came up to her side of the truck and rapped on the window, looking down at something imaginary in his hand. He made a motion for her to roll down the window. She did.
“This your ve-hi-cle, ma’am?”, he asked in a slow Tennessee drawl.
“Yes, officer.”, she said, delighted. She kept telling him he ought to be doing stand-up comedy for a living. She hadn’t yet realized that that was exactly what he had been doing all his life.
“Aam afraid I’m gone have to aysk to see your panties”, he said.
“I’ve got them right here, officer”, she said, slipping them off beneath her skirt and handing them out the window to him.
He held them up, then brought them closer to his face for further inspection, turning them this way and that. Finally he said ‘Yep. I suspected as much. Ma’am, I’m gone have to place you under arrest for the crime of crotchial fondulation, right here in article two-four-seven of the pe-nile code. Now, here in this pinko state, that’s just a misdemeanor. In the state I come from it’s a downright felonious act. Now, if you’d just step out of the truck, real slow-like, and lift your skirt, so’s I can confirm the evudence…..She’d started laughing as soon as he’d started inspecting her panties, but at “crotchial fondulation, she laughed so hard she pulled a muscle in her stomach. All she could say for several minutes was “Ow, ow, ow”, as wave after wave of laughter doubled her over. Later, when they’d finished the game and lay side by side chewing grass stalks, he sat up and looked down at her, tipped his ball cap and said “Much obliged, ma’am.” Somewhere beyond words, she’d smiled up into the sunlight surrounding his face.
She decided to stay home the following evening and make a special dinner, just for the two of them, no Ralphs allowed. As she drifted off to sleep, she made a mental note to remind Brian that he could take the truck back and get out of the gravel pit if he wanted to, it was all the same to her. She didn’t care about trucks and credit anyway. Actually, she’d become a little uneasy about the existence of the truck since some of all the young dudes had started referring to it snickeringly as Brian’s “penis extension”. She felt somehow that she ought to say something in his defense in response to these remarks, but decided that to dignify them with an answer would only start something she wouldn’t know how to finish. She was not accustomed to having a family in her life worth defending and was not quite sure how to go about such a thing.
About this time, Jeff started bringing his guitar to the meeting after the meeting. He’d play the opening theme to Batman over and over, watching Ralph out of the corner of his eye until Ralph was fairly vibrating with fury. Then he’d stop. When Jeff played, Ralph, whose current job for God included playing the organ at the mission as its residents received their daily dose of non-denominational religion, wore a tortured expression as if this noise was just too much for his musical sensibilities to bear and was causing him actual psychic pain. Lonnie, on the other hand, thought it was hilarious. One night, she joined in with “Da da da da—da-da-da-da, Batman!” towards the end. Ralph looked at her and said “You know, when you’re done with the steps, you won’t find this evil shit they call fun so funny anymore.” She didn’t like the sound of that and said so. “It doesn’t matter what you like”, he said. “God is no respecter of persons.”
At that moment, Lonnie wanted to tell him everything his words had done to her, but she didn’t dare. She wanted to tell him she believed. To make him know that now, each month as the moon pulled her closer, swollen with a hope which surpassed all understanding, she waited and prayed for God’s will to prove her wrong. And how she wept in secret each time she bore witness to the hope flowing from her in bright red streams from the never-ending fountain of her unworthiness, leaving her empty and dry and right. She wanted to tell him how at these times, she wanted to run to him, to place his healing hands upon her belly, to merge the power of his belief with her own and reap the rewards of all his good deeds as God’s power surged through her, righting all her wrongs in a blink of his all-seeing eye. And how only her fear of what God might expect in return had stopped her. But oh dear God, sweet Jesus in heaven, how she believed.
Nearing the end of a year, Lonnie was surprised to find herself excited at the prospect of receiving a chip, even though she always mocked the chips as silly little behavior modification rewards, and often said that she’d prefer cash as an incentive for being modified.
Are you coming to my party?”, she asked Brian.
“They’re giving me a party for getting my year chip next Friday.”
“Oh, and I’m actually invited?”
She winced, and said “Of course. Why are you being so sarcastic?”
Brian had been sarcastic a lot lately. She had discovered that being the object of the mockery he so often employed against others for her entertainment was a highly unpleasant experience. Remarks she would have once found hilarious now seemed tinged with an element of cruelty and disdain that made her uneasy.
“Why am I being so sarcastic?! How the hell would you feel if it was me out there almost every night of the damn week until past midnight, sitting around with a bunch of women, with one of them resting her head on my shoulder?”
“Jeff? He’s just a kid! I’m almost old enough to be his mother”, she said, taken by surprise at this sudden display of jealousy. She’d never seen Brian jealous before. In fact, he rarely displayed any emotion this intensely. She wondered how long this had been building up and decided it had probably been months.
“Look, I know I’ve been gone a lot. But don’t I tell you enough what it means to me to be able to come home to you every night? You’re the most important person in the world to me, and it wouldn’t even count as a party if you weren’t there.”
“You might see Jeff as a kid, but I guarantee he doesn’t see you as any kind of mother.” he said. “I think he wants to get in your pants.”
“You’ve got to be kidding”, she said, laughing. “Jeff probably still has trouble getting into his own pants.”
“Look, I’m just telling you what I see. You can say I’m full of shit if you want, but I’m a man, and I know what a man trying to seduce somebody looks like. I was a horny little nineteen year old with hormones where my brain should have been once too, you know.”
“Why, Brian, are you saying you think I’m cutely seducible?”, she asked, smiling, relieved when she saw him smiling back.
Lonnie was even more excited about Ralph’s promise to tell her about his life than she was about getting a chip. She intended to hold him to it. For the last week, he’d been down in Sacramento, visiting his perfect daughter, but he’d promised to come back in time to present her with her chip. When the day came, she couldn’t keep her mind on her work because she was busy rehearsing what she would say at the podium when she got her chip. She would sure that Ralph and all the young dudes would appreciate “Thanks a lot and fuck you all very much”, but doubted she’d have the guts to say it.
That night, after work, she showered, put on her best dress and took extra care with her make-up.
“You’d think we were going to the Academy Awards”, Brian said. “Does this mean you want me to wear a tie, too?”
“Well, with all the acting that goes on down there, we might as well be”, she said laughing. “But under the circumstances, I should think black tie would be optional”
“Well, maybe I’d better wear one, or they’ll have me out there doing valet parking for all those Schwinns.”
When they arrived, Ralph was not there. Brian, seeing her disappointment, leaned down and whispered “Hey, if he doesn’t show, I’ll give you your chip if you want me to. And by the way, I am proud of you.” She hugged him, then kissed him on the cheek and went back to get him a cup of coffee. In the back near the coffee, there was a cake, iced in yellow and violet butterflies and the words “Happy Birthday, Lonnie”, with a single candle in the center. Tears came unexpectedly to her eyes and she smiled.
Carrying two cups of coffee, she maneuvered her way to her seat and handed one to Brian, who gave her a look that shone so that for a moment, she forgot about Ralph altogether. But still, all during the preamble, the steps and the traditions that were read at the beginning of every meeting, she kept her eyes on the door, subjecting herself to dozens of small disappointments as, one by one, all the people who were not Ralph came in, smiled and waved at her, and sat down.
She clapped and hooted along with the others as people came up to the podium to receive their chips for thirty days, sixty days, ninety days, all dressed in their Sunday best, which for some meant their cleanest pair of jeans and a shirt with actual sleeves, for others, slacks and a sport coat or a skirt and pantyhose.
She got up and walked to the podium amidst deafening clapping and cheering when the leader said “Do we have anybody here tonight who’s got a year?”, even though he knew full well that Lonnie did. As she was standing there, waiting for the clapping to die down and trying to think of what to say, the door opened and Ralph walked in. She almost didn’t recognize him in all that black and white. He wore a starched white shirt beneath his suit coat with matching slacks, and his black leather shoes gleamed with polish. He carried a small black velvet box and a single red rose, which he presented to her.
From the podium, he said—“I bet you all think I’m late. But God is never late. He’s never early, either, which really pisses me off.. He’s always right on time. Me, I just try to show up when God tells me it’s time and not when I think it is. That said, I’ve got something special for Lonnie here, who I am privileged to know and love.” He opened the velvet box and held it toward her. She took the shining silver-plated chip with the Roman numeral I on one side and “to thine own self be true” on the other from the box and held it up over her head with both hands like Muhammed Ali holding up a title belt for them to see. As Ralph embraced her, they applauded, then grew silent, waiting for her to speak.
“I’m happy”, she said, shining into the microphone. No more words came to her after that so she just stood there. “I think that’s all there is. Oh, yes, the cake is beautiful”, she added, and then walked over and sat down. Everybody clapped some more. Ralph sat down in the seat she had saved for him on the other side of her. Holding Brian’s hand in one of hers and Ralph’s in the other, she basked for the rest of the meeting.
After the meeting, while they were eating cake, Lonnie said “Well, I’ve got a year now. When do I get to hear your story?”
“Damn, but you’re persistent. Actually, I’ve been giving it a lot of thought. I haven’t done a fifth step for a while, mostly because I don’t know anybody in this damned town with enough brains to understand, or ears that aren’t so full of shit they can’t hear the truth. What would you think about hearing my fifth step, you know, the one where you tell everything in your whole life you’re ashamed of– I figure somebody needs to show you how it’s done, so when your time comes….”
Lonnie was floored by this suggestion. She could hardly believe, that he, Ralph, with sixteen years, would ask her, Lonnie, with only one, for help. Flattered beyond words, she was suddenly afraid. What if, at the end, he concluded that she too didn’t have enough brains to understand and was deaf to the truth?
Lonnie said “I could try it”.
“There’s no such thing as try. Either you do it or you don’t”
She considered this, then said “Okay, I’ll do it.”
“Tomorrow night, here, after the meeting after the meeting”, he said.
“I’ll be here.”
Lonnie didn’t go to the meeting the next night. At home, on the couch watching Jeopardy with Brian, she prayed silently for the strength she would need to bear the weight of Ralph’s shame. While contestants spun the Wheel of Fortune, she requested divine intervention, or at least a little guidance, in the performance of what she believed to be her first assignment from God, her new employer.
When she arrived at the meeting hall, Ralph said loudly “Okay, everybody out. We need the room for some serious step work” On their way out, they all either gave her a look of condolence or said “Good luck”, assuming it was she who was about to do a fifth step. Ralph said nothing to correct this misperception. When they had gone, she waited for him to pull out the piece of paper on which he had listed his resentments and the exact nature of his wrongs, and to which she would listen attentively as he read it to her, but Ralph had no such paper in his possession.
And Lonnie could have prayed without ceasing for ten years and remained just as completely unprepared for what followed. Or for the violence which served as the only peephole through which he could allow his dirty pictures to be viewed. Without the violence he used to enlarge it wide enough for her to see, the peephole reduced itself to the size of a pin-prick through which tears squeezed themselves slowly and painfully from his eyes. Tiny tears that seared his soul into her being and closed the salty wounds behind them.
Ralph began with real sentences, in which he told her about his proper Bostonian upbringing. But after the sentence in which he was nine and his younger sister died while he remained alive to hear his mother praying to her Episcopal God to bring her back and take Ralph instead, his sentences deteriorated to those of his nine-year-old self which had died to make her happy. This voice from the grave could not speak in sentences, but only in disjointed phrases, unconnected by any thread of living continuity. “No more mama for me.” he said, and then closed his eyes and was silent for many minutes. She had just closed her own eyes against this oppressive silence when the cry, beginning with a tone of fearful urgency and then trailing away into a sorrowful echo filled the room with an unspeakable sadness. Hearing it, she wanted to clap her hands over her ears so it couldn’t get inside her and carry her to the place it came from, where Ralph was. When it subsided, she called out to him.
His eyes flew open and when he saw her face, that she had seen him there, buried, alone in the dark, he was reborn in a rage. In a single motion, he grabbed his coffee cup, leaped up from his chair and hurled it through the air. It flew past her, missing her head by only inches, and smashed into the wall. She waited to see what he would do next.
Recovering himself, and speaking in sentences again, short ones, Ralph said “Jesus, I’m sorry. I wasn’t aiming at you. I’d never hurt you. Are you okay?”
“Yes”, she said, not wanting to appear weak and afraid. But she did not feel okay and almost hoped he would call the whole thing off.
But he didn’t. Instead, he said “I’ve got to get rid of this shit. It’s killing me. What about you? If you don’t think you can handle it and want to back out, I won’t stop loving you, you know.”
“No, I’m okay,” she said. “But seriously, maybe you ought to cut down on the coffee, or at least stay away from the cups, until we get through this.”
Ralph laughed, lit a cigarette and said “Now, where was I?”
“Judging by how it felt to me, I’d have to say hell”, she said.
He smiled weakly and then went on to describe the series of pain and rage-induced acts which had earned him the next sentence, the ten year prison sentence from sixteen to twenty-six that, bypassing words, brought him again to the brink of violence. He had jumped from prison to getting married when she made the mistake of interrupting him. “But what happened in prison?”
Almost before she had finished saying these words, he screamed “Would you shut the fuck up? You’re supposed to be listening, not talking, you dumb bitch”.
As he screamed, he got up and walked around the table, glaring at her.
“Damn!” he cursed, and picked up a chair and threw it to the floor.
“Fuckin’ shit damn you!” he screamed, picking up the next one within his reach and throwing it across the room.
Frightened, she jumped from her chair, ran around the counter and cowered behind the refrigerator as his anger elevated to a level of rage that she had not seen since she left home. She hadn’t known that people who were not drunk could behave this way. Picking up one of the cinder blocks people used to put their ash trays on, he hurled it into the table that ran the length of the room, shattering a glass sugar dispenser.
Purple-faced and sweating, he sat down and looked at her. “I’m starting to wonder if you’ve got what it takes to do this. I’m about ready to just call the whole thing off unless you think you can just sit there and listen like you’re supposed to without asking me any dumb-ass questions. Do you think you could do that? Do you?”, he demanded.
Angered by this cruel, condescending tone she had never heard from him before, she shot back sarcastically “Yeah, I think even I’m capable of just sitting and listening, Ralph.”
“Why are you back there behind the refrigerator? I told you I wouldn’t hurt you.”
“Let’s just say I don’t trust flying chairs, then”.
He lit another cigarette. She looked at her watch. Two in the morning. She couldn’t believe so many hours had passed. Brian must be asleep by now, and she would have some explaining to do in the morning.
“Come over here and sit down”, he said, patting the chair next to him. Wearily, she walked over and sat down.
Closing her eyes, she said “Okay, I’m ready to listen.”
For the next three hours, she listened. She listened as his first and beloved little daughter died before he could make it home from the casino and his wife would not look at him at the funeral. She listened as the image of her tiny casket in the rear view mirror as he drove away was etched forever in his mind, branding him powerless to protect that which he loved. She listened as the doctor prescribed the pills that made it possible for Ralph not to have to feel anymore. She listened as he washed down the pills with vodka through the years and the births of three more children, none of whom replaced the daughter he had lost, until, one night, through the haze, it became clear to him who and what he had become. On that night, she listened as he stood over the crib of his crying infant son, created in his own image and likeness, with a pillow in his hand and a quick and merciful death in his heart. She listened as he turned and fled, leaving them all behind that they might be spared. She listened as he wandered homeless and alone on his quest to earn God’s forgiveness for having survived.
Weeping noiselessly, she listened until at last he was silent. Opening her eyes, she looked over at him. He sat with his face buried in his hands, deep in the world of his grief. She wanted to bend down and cover his feet of clay with a blanket of kisses and tears. She wanted to be the baby daughter he had lost, to say “It’s all right daddy, here I am.” She reached over and placed her arm around his heaving shoulders and he let her. She drew him close and held him as the sun came through the window, illuminating the coffee-stained carpet and the dust motes falling endlessly in mid-air.
Too exhausted to care what he would do, she said “I’ve been wanting to ask you to adopt me.”
He took his hands from his face, looked at her and grinned. “Even after everything you just heard. I’ll be damned. Just when I think I know God. As honored as I am that you asked me that, I’ve got to ask you—does it sound like I need more guilt? I may be an impotent old bastard but I still have an occasional lustful thought or two. How about we just keep having this father-daughter type relationship, with me getting to reserve the right to an occasional harmless lustful thought so I can remember what it was like to be a man?”
Lonnie was busy trying to hide the tears that were quickly becoming too many for her eyes to contain by looking at the floor when she heard him finish by saying “Besides, you’re not going to need a daddy much longer anyway.”
“Really?” she asked, slowly raising her eyes to meet his..
“Really. I have it on excellent authority”, he said, grinning at her and pointing towards the stained plaster ceiling.
Her weak smile gained strength and after a moment her face reflected the sudden thought that soon, she would be a real woman, not fucked up in any way. It could happen any time now. Ralph had said so.
As they swept up the broken glass and rearranged the chairs, he laughed, saying “You see now why most people would rather drink themselves to death than tell the truth? If you think that was something, you should have seen how crazy I was ten years ago, before I took the steps for the first time..”
Unable to imagine this, she said “Well, it’s been something, all right. I don’t think I’d care to try and give it a name.”
He laughed until he started coughing, then lit two cigarettes and handed one to her. Taking it, she looked at her watch and gave him a mock look of panic. She thought of Brian, waiting for her in sleep, and looked forward to telling him she was home now.
“I gotta go. Brian is….”
“Hey, we can’t leave without a hug”, he said, opening his arms to her. She walked into them.
“Thank you”, he whispered, and released her.