After three anxious months of prideful sobriety I started seriously thinking about beer again. Smooth announcer voice: Wouldn’t a Nice Cold Beer taste great right about now? Wouldn’t it? Wouldn’t it? The thought was an earwig burrowing into my brain. There were greasy fish swimming in my peripheral vision. A lot of things don’t seem real, true anymore. When did my thoughts become hallucinations? Or are my hallucinations merely thoughts? And what’s the difference?
I have to admit up front, I am not a fun person, whether drunk or sober, I am not fun. I am not a barrel of monkeys.
I had to go to Walgreens to pick up my prescriptions: Paxil and Abilify, Lithium and Thorazine. I set out walking at 10:32 a.m. on Tuesday morning. The weather was fair, warm, what most people regard as a “nice day” but every time I venture outside I feel like a war correspondent. I always expect to encounter gaseous, flyblown corpses on the road, bullets like gnats whizzing by my dizzy, confused head. A world full of murder.
See how not fun I am?
I walked quickly, my mind in a state of nervous chaos. I was thinking of beer again. It would calm me down, dilute the hallucinations. I would no longer feel as if I were darting through a mental minefield. It would crystallize my thoughts, you see, filter out the cruel pollution in my brain – that was me trying to convince myself. I needed convincing because guilty AA-type feelings made me question myself. My aims.
By the time I reached the Walgreens I had halfway made up my mind about the beer. I entered the cool, bright fluorescence of the store. Places like this give me a feeling of heightened highspeed lucidity. I headed straight for the pharmacy, trying not to look at things. Products were painful.
There was a beautiful young woman behind the counter and I immediately wanted to be affectionate toward her. She wore a too-big white coat. She was adorable. Her nametag said, Kelly. She smiled at me and said, “May I help you?” She had large blue X-ray eyes.
I told her my name. Facing her bright, perky, efficient appearance made me feel doomed. She looked like a taste, a flavor. Something to be savored, like sorbet. I really needed that beer.
She looked at the computer screen and said, “Four?” meaning four prescriptions. I told her, “Yes.”
We traded money for drugs. Her practiced warmth and benevolence shook me to the root. I was the same way around nurses and dental hygienists.
I stuffed my prescriptions in my jacket pocket and then got the hell out of there. Across the street was a delicatessen that sold beer and wine. I headed there, feeling guilt like a blood-soaked bearskin; a symptom of my abstract disease. You’re going to do this thing, I heard myself think and I entered the deli. The ruthless air conditioner made the place icy. I almost expected to see frost on the floor, my breath coming out in vaporous trails. I went to the coolers, selected an 18-pack of Budweiser and then made my way to the register. The guy behind the counter knew me from before. I had the acute impression that he didn’t like me.
There was a guy ahead of me also buying beer. He was tall, thin, with long gray hair. He was buying a twelve-pack of Heineken. He paid with a handful of crumpled bills that the guy behind the register had to straighten and smooth before he could file them away. I thought to myself.
Then it was my turn. I thumped the case of beer on the counter and he rang it up and I handed him my last twenty dollar bill.
Then I was one of those pathetic alcoholic guys you see walking down the street carrying beer because they lost their driver’s license.
Beside the deli stood a crummy-looking duplex and I saw the long-haired Heineken guy opening the front door with a key on a huge, crowded key ring. He looked at me and saw me looking at him and said, “Looks like we both got the same idea, hey buddy?”
I shrugged. “Yeah. I guess so,” I said, the timbre of my voice transmitting (I hoped) reticence. Meeting people causes me despair.
“Guess so nothing! We’re gonna get fucked-up, buddy!” He was wearing a Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band T-shirt, gray sweatpants decorated with stains, and flip-flops. I felt absurdly kindred, don’t ask me why. Two aging drunks reflecting each other, I guess. “Hey, y’wanna come in and drink a couple brews with me?” he said.
“Oh, no thanks. I have to get going.”
He frowned at me. His face was craggy, heavily-lined. Rosacea was there, probably due to late-stage alcoholism. He looked about sixty. His gray hair was greasy, dripping down to his narrow shoulders. “No you don’t.” he said. “C’mon in and have a beer with me. Don’t insult me.”
I pretended to think a moment. “Well, okay. Just one.” I have a really hard time saying No. It’s a problem I’m working on, mentally.
“Yeah! There you go buddy!” He opened his door and held it for me. I entered his house. It smelled awful. Like feces and sour milk. I’d stepped into the dank belly of a foul and dark dimension. It took my eyes a few seconds to adjust to the meager light inside, all the shades were down.
“Take a seat buddy!” he said.
There were two seats, a kitchen-type wooden chair and a car bench-seat (green). I chose the wooden chair.
He came over to me (standing way too close for my comfort) and handed me a green bottle of Heineken. “Let’s trade for the first one, Buddy! Gimme a Bud!”
“Oh, okay.” I opened my 18-pack and handed him a can of Budweiser.
“Cool compadre,” he said. “Here you go!” A bottle opener had materialized in his hand. I took it and opened the bottle. I stashed the cap in my pocket, handed him back the opener and took a sip of beer.
“So what’s your name, buddy? I’m Gale.”
“I’m Henry,” I told him, looking around at the emerging details of the house.
Here’s what the place looked like: the carpet was light green, worn, and stained. Beer and soda cans and clothes and various wrappers littered the room. I noticed several mysterious crumpled balls of plastic wrap. Microwave meals? There were no books but there was a large collection of LPs stacked on metal, industrial-looking shelves. The kind of shelves you store tools on. On the bottom shelf was a stereo, two huge rock concert speakers stood like sentries on either side of the shelving unit. I looked at the albums. A Chicago album faced me. The walls were lime green. There was a torn Eagles poster on the wall opposite me. A mangy-looking black cat dozed by the shelves. It looked at me, yawned, and then went back to sleep.
“So, you from around here, Henry?” he (Gale now) asked after a slurp of Bud.
“Uh, yes. I live just down the street. Just around the
“Yeah? How long?”
“How long?” I couldn’t make sense of the question.
“How long you lived there?”
“Oh. Three years.”
“Huh! It’s weird we never ran into each other before now! I been living here for eight!” He spoke in yells. I wanted to flee. I drank the Heineken, taking a long, rushed pull from the bottle.
“That’s it Henry! Drink up, dude!” He went over to the shelves and started going through the albums. “You like The Allman Brothers, man?” he asked.
I didn’t but said, “Yeah, sure.”
Gale pulled out an album. “Fillmore East, dude!” he said, putting an album on the turntable. There was already an album on the turntable, he just plopped The Allman Brothers on top. He moved the needle over. The music filled the place, punctuated with hissing whispers and pops. An aged, well-played record. Gale collapsed into the car seat. “You married, Henry?”
“No,” I said, then finished the Heineken.
I shook my head. “Where should I put this?” I held up the empty bottle.
“Look around Henry! Just drop it on the floor! Ha ha ha!”
I placed the empty bottle on the floor by the chair. For the first time I noticed peach pits and pistachio shells on the carpet.
“Crack a Bud, dude!”
He jumped up, reached into my 18-pack, and handed me a can. I was just about to say “Goodbye” too. Shit. I cracked open the can instead. “Thanks,” I said.
“Dude! It’s your beer! You don’t have to thank me!”
I shrugged. “Thanks anyway.”
For the first time he seemed uncomfortable. I felt buzzed already. The long hiatus from drinking had lowered my tolerance. I took a guzzle of Bud. He returned to the car seat. “So what’s your deal, Henry?”
“Yeah, you’re not married. You work?”
“Oh, yeah. I work at FedEx.”
“Yeah? That’s cool! You a driver? A delivery man?”
“Um, no. I’m a just a package handler on The Sort.”
“That sucks dude! I’m on disability myself! Bipolar!”
I thought, This is my punishment for drinking. The deadening thought that now that we’d done this, we’d have to stop and talk whenever we came across each other. We had set a dismal precedent. I prayed he wouldn’t want to exchange phone numbers because there was no fucking way. I didn’t need a friend.
I nodded and took another long swallow of Bud. My best escape was to get drunk. Then maybe I’d have the courage to leave.
Gale’s eyes were closed and he was moving his head to the music. “Don’t you just love this shit?!” he asked, meaning, presumably, the music.
“Yeah, it’s good,” I lied.
He drained his can and then tossed it on the floor, opened a Heineken.
“Hey, dude,” he said, eyes closed again.
“Wanna see a magic trick?”
Silence gathered around the question.
“Wanna see a magic trick, dude?” he said again.
“Okay,” I finally answered, already fearing the worst.
The worst was what I got. He placed his beer on the floor and then stood up, facing away from me.
“Abracadabra, dude.” He pulled down his sweatpants, mooning me. My buzz evaporated fast. Then he leaned forward and spread his buttocks apart. I heard him grunt and a glob of shit came out and plopped on the floor. He grunted again and one of those little armless, legless Fisher-Price Playskool people came out. It hit the floor; the green, balding “dad,” figure. I stood up, horrified.
“Wait! There’s more!” he said and then grunted again. This time, the little blue “mom” figure with the blond bun came out. This was followed by the little pig-tailed girl figure. He kept grunting and pushing.
It was then that I decided to get the hell out of there. I was halfway to the door when I heard him yell, “Dude! Wait! I’m gonna levitate next!”
I darted out the door, thinking; The farmer, the dog, the
freckled little boy, etc... I was down the street and almost home before I realized I’d left my case of beer behind.
I didn’t go back for it.