WE SAT ACROSS from each other in a booth in a diner on Twenty-third Street. He took his coffee with a lot of cream and sugar. Mine was black. The only thing I ever put in it was bourbon, and I didn’t do that anymore.
He remarked again on my having recognized him, and I said it worked both ways, he’d recognized me. “Well, you said your name,” he said. “When you gave your day count. You’ll be coming up on ninety pretty soon.”
Ninety days is a sort of probationary period. When you’ve been clean and dry for ninety days, you’re allowed to tell your story at a meeting, and to hold various group offices and service positions. And you can stop raising your hand and telling the world how many days you’ve got.
He’d been sober sixteen months. “That year,” he said. “I had a year the last day of September. I never thought I’d make that year.”
“They say it’s tough right before an anniversary.”
“Oh, it wasn’t any more difficult then. But, see, I more or less took it for granted that a year of sobriety was an impossible accomplishment. That nobody stayed sober that long. Now my sponsor’s sober almost six years, and there’s enough people in my home group with ten, fifteen, twenty years, and it’s not like I pegged them as liars. I just thought I was a different kind of animal, and for me it had to be impossible. Did your old man drink?”
“That was the other secret of his success.”
“Mine too. In fact he died of it. It was just a couple of years ago, and what gets me is he died alone. His liver went on him. My ma was gone already, she had cancer, so he was alone in the world, and I couldn’t be at his bedside where I belonged because I was upstate. So he died in a bed all by himself. Man, that’s gonna be one tough amends to make, you know?”
I didn’t want to think about the amends I’d have to make. Just put that on the shelf, Jim Faber told me more than once. You’ve got two things to do today, and one is go to a meeting and the other is don’t drink. Get both of those things right and all the rest will come along when it’s supposed to.
“You went on the cops, Matt. Or am I mixing you up with somebody else?”
“No, you got it right. That ended a few years ago, though.”
He lifted a hand, mimed knocking back a drink, and I nodded. He said, “I don’t know if you would have heard, but I went the other way.”
“I may have heard something.”
“When I say I was upstate, it was as a guest of the governor. I was at Green Haven. It wasn’t exactly up there with the Brinks Job and the Great Train Robbery. What I did, I picked up a gun and walked into a liquor store. And it’s not like it was the first time.”
I didn’t have a response to that, but he didn’t seem to require one. “I had a decent lawyer,” he said, “and he fixed it so I took a plea to one charge and they dropped the others. You know what was the hardest part? You got to do what they call allocute. You familiar with the term?”
“You have to stand up in court and say what you did.”
“And I hated the idea. Just flat-out hated it. I was looking for a way around it. ‘Can’t I just say
and let it go at that?’ But my guy tells me no, you do it the way they want, you say what you did. Well, it’s that or I blow the plea deal, so I’m not completely crazy and I do what I’m supposed to do. And you want to know something? The minute it’s out, I got this rush of relief.”
“Because it was over.”
He shook his head. “Because it was out there. Because I said it, I copped to it. There’s the Fifth Step in a nutshell, Matt. You own up in front of God and everybody and it’s a load off your mind. Oh, it wasn’t the last load, it was just one small part of it, but when the program came along and they told me what I was gonna have to do, it made sense to me right from the jump. I could see how it would work.”
AA’s twelve steps, Jim Faber had told me, weren’t there to keep you sober. Not drinking was what kept you sober. The steps were to make sobriety comfortable enough so that you didn’t feel the need to drink your way out of it, and I’d get to them in due course. So far I had admitted that I was powerless over alcohol, that it made my life unmanageable, and that was the First Step, and I could stay on that one as long as I had to.
And I was in no great rush to get past it. They began most of the meetings I went to with a reading of the steps, and even if they didn’t there’d be a list of them hanging on the wall where you couldn’t help reading it. The Fourth Step was a detailed personal inventory, and you sat down and wrote it out. The Fifth Step was confessional—you shared all that shit with another human being, most likely your sponsor.
Some people, Jim said, stayed sober for decades without ever doing the steps.
I thought about the steps and missed a few beats of what Jack was saying, but when I tuned in he was talking about Green Haven, saying it was probably the best thing that ever happened to him. It had introduced him to the program.
“I went to meetings because it was a chance to sit in a chair and zone out for an hour,” he said. “And it was easier to stay dry inside than it was to drink the awful shit cons brew up for themselves, or buy pills that the screws smuggled in. And, you know, I can’t say I blame alcohol for the turn my life took, because I chose it myself, but going to meetings it began to dawn on me that every time I got my ass in trouble, I was always high. I mean, like, invariably. It was me making the choice to do the crime, and it was me making the choice to take the drink or smoke the joint, but the two went together, you know, and I was seeing it for the first time.”
So he stayed sober in prison. Then they let him out and he came home to New York and got a room in an SRO hotel a couple of blocks from Penn Station, and by the third night he was drinking blended whiskey around the corner in a place called the Terminal Lounge.
“So called because of its location,” he said, “but the name would have fit the place even if it had been in the middle of Jackson Heights. Fucking joint was the end of the line.”
Except of course it wasn’t. The line ran its zigzag course for another couple of years, during which time he stayed out of trouble with the law but couldn’t stay out of the bars. He’d go to meetings and begin to put a little time together, and then he’d have one of those oh-what-the-hell moments, and the next thing he knew he’d be in a bar, or taking a long pull on a bottle. He hit a few detoxes, and his blackouts started lasting longer, and he knew what the future held and didn’t see how he could avoid it.
“You know, Matt,” he said, “when I was a kid, I decided what I was going to be when I grew up. Can you guess what it was? You give up? A cop. I was gonna be a cop. Wear the blue uniform, keep the public safe from crime.” He picked up his coffee but his cup was empty. “I guess you were dreaming the same dream, but you went and did it.”
I shook my head. “I fell into it,” I said. “What I wanted to be was Joe DiMaggio. And, but for a complete lack of athletic ability, I might have made that dream come true.”
“Well, my handicap was a complete lack of moral fiber, and you know what I fell into.”
He kept drinking, because he couldn’t seem to help it, and he kept coming back to AA, because where the hell else was there for him to go? And then one day after a meeting an unlikely person took him aside and told him some home truths.
“A gay guy, Matt, and I mean gay as a jay. Obvious about it, you know? Grew up in a lah-de-dah suburb, went to an Ivy League college, and now he designs jewelry. Plus he’s more than ten years younger’n I am, and he looks like a wind of more than twenty miles an hour could pick him up and whisk him off to Oz. Just the type I’m gonna turn to for advice, right?
“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.”
“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.
© 2011 by Lawrence Block
Lawrence Block is a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America, has won multiple Edgar and Shamus awards and countless international prizes. The author of more than 50 books, he lives in New York City. Learn more at www.lawrenceblock.com.
Mulholland Books will publish A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF on May 12, 2011.