Courage

“God,” the old woman said, and the word echoed in the high-ceilinged sanctuary.

“God,” the others joined, and then there was a collective breath.

“Grant me the serenity, to accept the things I cannot change, the courage, to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Keri’s small, tight mouth was immobile, the only person in the whole room who didn’t know the words.

“I will now read the definition of Alcoholics Anonymous.”

The old woman was too tall, and louder, Keri thought, than she should be. As the crackly voice bounced around the room, Keri looked down, her brow creased and folded, her right leg shaking imperceptibly. She counted the tiles she could see. Seven. Count again.

“I have asked Shauna to read How It Works, from the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous.”

Do they have to keep saying that word? Alcoholics. So many open vowels, you sound like you’ve had a stroke. Keri remembered a creative writing class she’d taken half of. There was a word for that type of vowel. Plosive? That meant something else.

“With all the earnestness at our command, we beg of you to be fearless and thorough from the very start.”

A chill came over Keri, and she pulled the lapels of her coat across each other. The woman sitting down the pew from her smiled hesitantly. Keri looked away.

“Two. Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

Keri scooted farther down the pew from the smiling woman. She was old, too. I’m surrounded, Keri thought, by old, fat women, pretending they know me. The one near her was particularly grotesque, her harlequin grin exposing decaying, pitted teeth, like a lunar landing site. She looked up at the crucifix hanging over the altar, and narrowed her eyes.

“Eleven. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of his will for us and the power to carry that out.”

Look at him up there, moping about some splinters. Jesus took the easy way out.

“Many of us exclaimed, ‘What an order! I can’t go through with it.’ Do not be discouraged.”

I need a cigarette, Keri thought. That broke a dam in her consciousness, and a flood of urges crashed into her mind. Her legs began trembling up and down, of their own accord.

“And our own adventures before and after make clear three pertinent ideas. A: that we were alcoholics and could not manage our own lives.”

Keri felt the kick, somewhere below her belly. She shifted her torso away from the leering woman down the aisle, and pulled her coat on tighter.

“It is the custom of this group to ask if there are any newcomers with us tonight. A newcomer is defined as anyone in their first thirty days of sobriety.”

Keri fidgeted nervously. Fortunately, another woman stood up. Hi, she said, haltingly. I’m Krista, and I’ve got 13 days. She sat, quickly, as the room intoned, Hi, Krista, and everyone applauded. There was a long silence. No one else? The woman at the front croaked. Alright, then, welcome, Krista. As the old woman scribbled something on a paper, Krista’s name hovered in the air over the room.

“I have asked Roseanne to read The Twelve Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous.”

Only suckers would stand up for that, Keri thought. Why would you want to have your name out there, for all these people to know? And I bet they’ll be coming up to her afterwards, too. She made herself a magnet for freaks. At least, Keri mused, she’ll pull the heavy hitters. I probably won’t have to contend with anyone on my way out.

“The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.”

Keri spotted a younger woman sitting towards the front, leaning over and whispering in someone’s ear. As she leaned back, Keri saw a smile on her face, and a mischievous shine in her eye. The woman she had been talking to also laughed, and flashed teeth. Keri looked away.

“There are no dues or fees for AA membership. We are self-supporting through our own contributions.”

Keri realized that the woman who had smiled at her was now waving a basket towards her, and started. So this is how they get you, she thought. They send a basket around, like dirty beggars on a curb. I don’t have any money, she told the woman. She hadn’t lowered her voice, and her words caught the corner of an echo in the booming hall. The woman smiled apologetically. That’s okay, honey, she whispered, but you’ve gotta pass it on. Scooting down to take the basket, Keri put it down on the pew to her left and slid it towards the next woman. Turning back to the front, she studiously avoided eye contact with anyone. I can’t believe how loud I said that, she thought.

“Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our Traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.”

Now everyone’s going to know I’m here. She suppressed the urge to shake her head in disgust. No point in drawing any more attention. She slouched down in her seat and tried to look ordinary. Jesus, I could use a smoke. There was a momentary lull as the old woman up front collected all of the baskets, and put them off on a table to the side. Then she looked up, and beamed.

“It’s my pleasure to introduce a very special speaker tonight. As many of you know, I’m a mother of three, and I’m so thrilled to have one of my daughters, Natalie, chairing for us this evening. Natalie?”

The old woman had tears in her eyes as she looked up at her daughter, who had stood while her mother was talking. Natalie cleared her throat and smiled nervously.

“Hi everyone, my name is Natalie, and I’m an alcoholic.”

There was a dull chorus of, Hi, Natalie. Keri settled in, and wished that the church were warmer. She squinted up at Natalie. She was pretty, in a little sort of way, her blonde hair pulled back in a simple ponytail. Her voice had a fragile lilt to it as she began to speak.

“I have a sobriety date, which is March 17, 2008, and a sponsor who I talk to almost every day, and I’ve finished my steps. I guess I’ll stick with the format, what it used to be like, what happened and what it’s like now.”

Keri glanced over at the woman who had smiled at her. She was leaning intently forward, hands in her lap and back straight, like an attentive school girl in some 1950’s Catholic boarding school. She seemed rapt.

“I grew up in an alcoholic household, and it seemed very normal to me that my parents would have four or five glasses of wine a night on top of a few martinis. I remember going over to a friend’s house and seeing their parents hanging out at 11 o’clock at night, and thinking, they’re not asleep yet? Of course, now I know that by ‘asleep,’ I meant, ‘passed out.’”

Keri looked at the younger woman near the front, who she had seen laughing earlier. She was not as focused as the rest of the room: her eyes seemed to be straying. Keri saw her glance back, and all of a sudden they were looking each other in the eye. Keri jerked her head away and began intensely examining the wall to her right, praying that this woman wouldn’t recognize and approach her after the meeting.

“I had had some drinks from my parents, of course, but my first drunk was with some friends when I was about thirteen. We were all staying the night at my place, and I opened up the liquor cabinet. We all grabbed various things and mixed them all together in big glasses. I think I got something like Jim Beam, Smirnoff, Jose Cuervo and, I don’t know, something else. It was so awful, everyone else basically spit theirs out as soon as they took a sip, but I drank my whole thing. Worst thing I’ve ever drunk, but I loved how it made me feel. It was like all the pressure was off, I could just be easy and fit in. I ended up puking in my sleeping bag, and then I had to try to clean it up super-secretly the next morning, hiding it from my mom. But I couldn’t wait to do it again.”

Keri felt her face burning with embarrassment. Maybe, she thought, I can just slip out now, and not have to talk to her afterwards. What if she comes up to me? She imagined the conversation. Hey there, are you new? My name’s- Keri tried to think of what her name would be. Wholesome, laughing, obviously upper-class. My name’s Emily, she’d say. I just wanted to welcome you. Can I get your phone number? I’ll give you a call and take you to some meetings.

“By the end of high school I was only hanging out with the kids who were into partying, and I’d gotten into drugs, too. I continued that for a long time. I never went to college, just got a crap job and a worse apartment and kept going with my drinking. I guess it was when I was 23, that summer, that I found out I was pregnant. Missing periods wasn’t really a big deal for me back then, since I didn’t eat much and I drank so much, but after what turned out to be three months I finally went to a doctor and he told me to expect a baby. I was so freaked out by it, I didn’t tell any of my friends or my folks. I had no idea who the father was. I just kept drinking. It was so insane, so completely insane, but part of me really did think it would just go away if I ignored it hard enough.”

Keri could feel her heart pounding in her chest. Where the hell did this chick get off, saying this stuff? Nobody wants to hear this shit. Nobody wants to hear this shit. She took a shattered breath, and dug her nails into the insides of her hands.

“I did everything to hide it, wearing baggy clothes and layers and always covering my neck and my head. When I began to show clearly, I went on a spin-dry for the last four months and claimed I had been sober the whole time. My son was born, on October 18th, 2006, with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.”

Keri was standing and moving towards the door before she was even aware of it. Down the long aisle and out the glass doors, she slowed to tackle the many steps down to street-level. She was almost on the concrete when she heard a voice behind her.

“Wait, you’re new, right? Why don’t you stay for the rest of the chair? The bar will still be there, when we’re done.”

Keri stopped, and turned to see the younger woman she’d made eye contact with. Taking this, apparently, as a cue, the woman walked down the steps towards her.

“I’m Sarah. What’s your name?”

Keri took Sarah’s hand, numbly. Keri, she said, and closed her mouth tight.

“That’s a pretty name. You want to talk, Keri? Or maybe come back in? You were out of there like a bat out of hell.”

Keri took a step back from her and tried to force a smile. I’m alright, she said, I just wanted some air. She contemplated turning and running, and felt a kick.

“You ever heard what ‘fear’ is an acronym for, Keri? ‘Fuck Everything and Run.’ That won’t solve your problems. You want to come back inside? And then I’ll buy you some coffee.”

Keri shook her head, firmly.

“You realize you only heard the bad parts, right? The great thing about AA is, we never have to go back to the way things were. Natalie up there, she’s by best friend. We got sober together a while back. Her son- I mean, it’s a struggle, but they get by, you know?”

Keri’s hand moved automatically down to her belly. Sarah’s eyes followed, and then grew wide.

“Oh, my God. You’re pregnant.”

A number of expressions flashed over Sarah’s face.

“Congratulations. And you want to get sober for your kid. Congrats, seriously. You wanna talk about it?”

Keri took a step backwards, then turned her back towards Sarah and walked purposefully away, listening intently behind her. After about eight steps, Keri heard Sarah swear, then head back up the steps into the church. Slowing, Keri took a sharp right and walked down the alleyway. Pushing open a door with BAR in big block lettering on the glass, she made her way to a stool.

“Just a shot of vodka to start with, please.”

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