Beginning of the End
Ten days without a shower. Seven days wearing the same bright blue t-shirt depicting an angry milk carton with the caption “We are the 2%!” and the same grease-stained, urine-rich pair of faded beige carpenter’s pants. No more beer in the refrigerator. Past due on rent (again) and no sign of a check from my newest employer. No acknowledgment of the work I’d done around the trailer park, undertaken as a sort of second job and meant to at least partially reduce the amount I owed on said rent. My friend-slash-new-roommate John owed me about a hundred dollars for something or another but he and his girlfriend worked at the same place I did and their pay was getting screwed with, too. Any money we did have, we’d already smoked it and drank it and junk food-ate it—because we were supposed to get paid, dammit!
Total chaos in my mind. Everything falling into place, everything falling apart: Remembering that I’d told the boss-lady (all eighty-four years of her) the night before, that I cannot continue working for her, if she’s not going to be able to pay me; recalling her reassurance—that I would get paid tomorrow, as would my roommate and his girlfriend—coupled with yet another not-entirely-incorrect accusation of drink….Chaos perhaps in mind, but still: Relative determination—relative because in truth it was a drunken determination—that, there being no government (at that time in one of its many shut-downs), neither should there be any need of employment, nor rent, nor anything much that previously I’d thought to matter.
We had no more beer after the one I had in my hand. I think because I had already consumed whatever else we’d left for ourselves in the morning, my roommate telling me that I needed to quit drinking so much before work, me replying that it didn’t matter anyway because I wasn’t going to work because there was no government and in any case they weren’t going to pay me, so what was the point. My roommate’s girlfriend, then, telling me that I will get paid, we all will get paid, but the bosses are having a fit about the amount of hours we wrote down. Therefore instead of the eighty I documented, and for which the bosses were there, watching me work, they were only going to pay me for twenty or thirty hours.
I was already half-drunk when I woke up, and the few beers I’d had only served to make me feel a little closer to normal-drunk, but in any case I was not in my right mind when I heard her words and I redoubled my resolve not to go in to work that day, along the lines of something like, “Well, sscrew-ew that. I’m shtill not go’n’ da work; wi nid more beer!”
The girlfriend kind of shook her head, the way people sometimes do when they know the specter before them is nothing but smoke and mirrors, yet the specter believes itself real and tangible as life itself. Sad, because I was helpless. There would be no reasoning with me, not without a long and drawn out conversation, during the course of which I would probably repeat myself or ask the speaker to repeat, and during the course of which I would almost inevitably end up more drunk. Or at least fuzzy. No one, at the moment, was up for such a conversation with me, so they let it be. Asked if I was going to call the bosses and at least formally quit, but of course I said, “No! Hell no! Sh-shkrew dat!” And took another sip of beer.
Exactly what took place in the following hours is really quite blurred. That whole day is fairly blurred, as a matter of fact, and so are the two or so weeks preceding. And the two weeks before that, and the month before that, and much of the many years before that.
I know not at what point in the course of the foregoing I strode down the narrow hallway to the master bedroom, where my roommate’s girlfriend was sitting on the bed drinking “prickly-pear wine” (it tasted of pure rubbing alcohol but I drank it anyway), but it certainly happened and when it did it was to ask if I could use her phone. I couldn’t keep going on like this, I told the girlfriend, and I needed to get right the hell out of there. I truly believe that if I stop suddenly—go cold turkey—I might just die. My body just can’t handle it. Shaky, paranoid, unable to talk, unable to fully maintain or command my motor skills, unable to eat, hardly able to drink anything but more alcohol-laced beverage. She seemed confused, like I was overreacting; but proved acquiescent nonetheless.
Thus did I manage to get in contact with my mother and beg for salvation, of some sort. A ride out of that Godforsaken Cochise County, anyway. Nothing but a bees’ nest of alcoholics, aspiring alcoholics, meth heads and gossipers (who, in such small towns, are almost worse for one’s reputation than a history of continual drunkenness). Actually that is not entirely true, I must say; but those with whom I found myself in fairly constant and close contact, either fit into one of those categories or was but once removed from another who did.
None of us did it necessarily “on purpose”—we didn’t want meth head managers or drunken owners or horribly gossiping coworkers, and we didn’t want to be them; but we ended up with them, or were them, anyway. It’s a small town, and it can be quite hard to extricate oneself from the barbed wire of daily life. Our reputations became descriptors for others’ actions: If a couple were fighting like cats and dogs, they were “pulling a Kim and Charlie” (in their mid- and late twenties with four children and another on the way, and quite constantly—and vehemently—arguing, any place and anywhere, only to eventually make up and agree to get along or agree to disagree (and then, apparently, make babies)). If someone showed up to work drunk or threatened to kill or fight someone while intoxicated, they were “pulling a Daniel”. If you were a hypocrite and blatantly lied to your supposed friends’ faces, you were said to be “pulling an Annalee”. And so on.
Small town, intended for the retiring or retired, houses built around an aging nine-hole golf course that had been opened and closed many times over. The main drag consisted of approximately one mile of storefront along state highway 191, but my main focus was usually the Family Dollar, the gas station, or the bar. There was also a closet-sized bookstore specializing in hand-me-downs, right next to a Mormon church, and rather a large storage facility somewhere in the mix. Elementary school was a few more miles down the highway, hang a right and pretty much follow to the end. High school, you got choices but they were dozens of miles away no matter which one you chose. As might be expected, extracurricular activities for the youth took place in the schools; but outside of these, there was plenty of marijuana to buy and sell and smoke, and everyone’s parents drank, and all anyone really did, no matter what age or rank, was sit around. Inside or out, many or a few, cigarettes or not, generally with at least one or two of the crowd partaking of Miss Mary Jane and generally all but one or two partaking of beer, wine, liquor, or any combination of these. Sometimes the booze was homemade—one of the few hobbies available to the adults.
There once had been a community pool, but that got filled in and grassed over, turned into a putting green at the golf course. If you wanted to see a movie—in a theater, that is—you had to go out of town. The corner store clerks and the bartenders knew everything about everyone, and it was very likely no matter where you went you’d end up seeing someone you knew.
For myself, I got to know the people by way of their palate and dining preferences: This guy doesn’t like his food served in plastic baskets lined with wax paper, he always wants it on a plate; this guy typically orders a Sonora-style hot dog; this guy asks if we have sweet potato fries and when we don’t, he orders chicken strips with barbecue sauce and two ranch dressings. One couple always came in half-lit and ordered something fried, like the mushrooms or the mozzarella sticks; another couple always came in and sat in the same booth, drank the same drinks and, if they ordered food, it would only ever be a corn dog for the lady; and a little trio, of grandparents and grandson, always looking to get her mozzarella sticks with no marinara sauce, his patty melt with fries, and either corn dog or chicken strips with fries for the grandson.
Everything is, to a certain extent, predictable, when it comes to small town life. At least, life in this particular one had become quite predictable to me, and it just wasn’t big enough for me: Friday night was the big steak night at the bar, but all in all it was a sleepy place in the summertime, in which one might easily become desolate. For a few months the biggest talk around town and at the bar centered around the grand re-opening of the golf course and its restaurant (general consensus was that it would fail yet again). In the early stages of the re-opening process, I was actually approached by the owners and asked to clean up and manage the restaurant part of the project—hire my own crew, get the place cleaned up, get the food in, get the customers coming in, so on and so forth. Fortunate or not, circumstance prevented that from happening, and the position was filled by another person instead. A month later, another person. A month later, it went to still fourth person, which was the frail-looking but hard-as-steel, eighty-four-years-old woman to whom the night before I’d said I could not work without pay.
The one thing just about everyone had in common was inebriation. Whether by plant, baggie, or bottle everyone, it seemed, whether fixed-income or the owner of a business, partook. It was really quite excusable and excused. Certainly there were plenty of sober folks to be counted among the population, but I wasn’t one of them and I didn’t usually find myself in their company because I didn’t care to be.
I could like to think things might have been different at that time eight, nine years ago—if I had not got in trouble with the courts years before that, nor had to go through an alcohol/drug screening within a certain time-frame; maybe if I’d smoked a little more pot a bit more often, maybe I would not have spent so much time drinking.
But that’s not really the truth: I aspired to an overly intoxicated lifestyle—which typically unfolded following a sort of pattern, or at the very least a rather discernible sequence of events which thoroughly explained how I’d got from Point A to Point Where-the-Fuck. The sequence or pattern wasn’t always the same throughout my risings and fallings, but that, at the time I made that call and got a ride out of what had become my own personal hell-hole, was something like this: Go on a hard drunk for a week or five and then feel like shit for at least half a week when my body finally decided it couldn’t take any more and forced me to agree to its plea of cease and desist. Once the mind and body cleared, I might take a few more days off, or at least most of a day, and then go at it lightly—just a couple beers tonight, and for probably the next week, week and a half. Sustain to maintain, no need to go overboard just keep it real and keep it raw. I didn’t exactly recite this mantra to myself, but it certainly describes my overall mentality. In any case, it made it easy for the Fuck-All to either creep back in or simply carry on (don’t know if it ever really went away or if it just got pushed back every once in a while).
Fuck-All creeping in made it easy for the first beer to be down and out before I’d thought twice about it, quickly followed by the second and third. Despite the fact that I didn’t like beer the very first time I tried it, I do in fact enjoy it as a beverage. So it was a thing to drink, and I was literally thirsty because because I drink coffee throughout the day and hardly even consider water as a beverage; a thing to drink because I liked the way it tasted but being literally thirsty I would drink it down fairly quickly and want not necessarily more of the drunken side effect (because that may or may not have begun to kick in, depending on how quickly it went down), but simply the liquid in the mouth. I’d probably start feeling the first drink by the time I’d got to number three or four, depending on whatever Fuck-All it might be (hot day, rough day, no work day, long work day, short work day, work on the car day, write a book day, go to the library day, go to the mall day, whatever fucking day);—and usually at this point I still might not exceed more than four or five a night, because the third would get the buzz going real good and the last two I usually drank more conscientiously: Do that for a week or two, maybe as many as three or more but all in all just at quote-unquote very heavy drinker status.
Then all hell would begin to break loose. Maybe I don’t think I’m going to feel like going to the store tomorrow, so instead of the usual daily six-pack I’d get a twelve. Or, if it was my Friday and I had two days off to look forward to, I might just get an eighteen, with the idea that it ought to be able to last me until I had to go to work again. But that quick three and slow fourth and fifth would become a quick six and a slow seven through ten. The mornings are getting rougher and the days are a bit more janky, the end-of-day drink has become not exactly a necessity but a few drinks might not make me feel any kind of intoxicated at all, especially if I’ve eaten: At which point most folks might be prone to simply put an end to it, but the whole point was to alter the perception for a little while, and although “normal”, by which I really mean sober, might have been fairly uncommon in and of itself, it was certainly not the place to be. That was the middling ground as you teetered from feeling like shit to feeling awesome and having a good time. Meanwhile if I was hanging out with friends and we were playing cards, it might be as many as twelve or fourteen, depending on how late we decided to stay up—which itself was usually (even if barely) coupled with the time we had to go to work the next day.
And this kind of harder drinking, as a result of hanging out with friends (we were partying, after all) happened maybe once or twice a week, for a couple-few weeks, until at length I might decide I’d been spending too much on beer at the bar and this time I’d just go home and have a few and go to bed. But I might also strongly suspect that a six pack might not be enough, so I’d buy a six pack and two tallboys. Drink the tallies first, get a fairly decent buzz going on, and then sip on the sixer. If I felt like crap in the morning, there was almost always one or two left over for a little hair o’ the dog.
Then I’d hang out with friends. Or watch an emotional movie, or hear a particular song that just struck the right chord; or ponder the seeming impossibility of any of my dreams ever coming to fruition. Whatever the means, I’d get locked in a room in my head where all the memories are of times that were good and find myself sad because they were times I could never have again; knowing, at that level in between consciousness and unconsciousness, that something was wrong, something was seriously wrong, happy memories should not make me sad, most people don’t do what I’m doing just to maintain a sense of normalcy, most people don’t lose jobs like a lesser army loses its men—but taking another sip, crushing another can, grabbing another beer, watching another movie or listening to yet another song; maintaining a semblance of consciousness, but a forgetful sort of consciousness, one to which that half-thought, that something was wrong, could not rise; and one that was too weak to push it down into the deeper subconscious. A hazy, shaky awareness existence globulance, such that in the morning I cared little to be the half-drunk awake that I was because I was awake because I had to go to work but I hated my job, and I did not want to shower or dress or brush my teeth because I didn’t care to care about my appearance at my job, I’d hardly even managed to prepare the coffee in the first place—and had a beer and a cigarette while waiting for the damned coffee to brew.
All that mattered was making sure I didn’t get too drunk to go to work, but not so sober that I actually sobered up. I would drink my coffee to be awake, I would drink my beer to stay the sobriety, and I would buy more beer on the way home, every night. Eventually I’d find that I found it relatively necessary to bring some beer with me to work, because it seemed that the intervals during which my body could last without alcohol were becoming shorter and shorter; mornings were getting shakier, nights were getting drunker, judgment cloudier. It was easy to conceal the booze, because I carried a backpack all the time. Ostensibly it was to carry my chef’s coat, knives, hat, and apron. But beneath that were usually anywhere from one to four beers; which, when no one was looking, I would remove one at a time from the back and slip into the side pocket of my baggy carpenter’s pants. I always had bulging pockets anyway, and my apron also helped to conceal any odd bulges. I often went to the bathroom while on shift but instead of flowing into the urinal I would lock myself in a stall, usually the one farthest from the door, pop the tab, and guzzle that disgustingly warm beer. Crush the can, hide it in my apron, dispose of it in the course of washing my hands; return to the kitchen, avoid burping and avoid talking to people from less than four feet away.
I tell myself to maintain until I get some days off. Then I can wean myself off and everything will be kosher once again. Then come my days off and I say screw it, buy a twelve- or an eighteen-pack, hang out with friends or a movie or an album, and spend most of my time away from work only slightly more drunk than the last few days have been at work. And yes, at this point I’ve generally realized my growing dependency, the horror of everything as it begins to crumble and come down on me—people’s looks at work, shake of friends’ heads, shake of hands, distaste unto disgust for the taste of beer. At one point in my drinking career I would likely have been in the company of others often enough that none of this would have progressed to this point, but by this time I’ve generally commenced to drink alone, at home. No one can stop me, no one can help me, except for me. When I try to talk to people about it they say, “Oh, it’s not really that bad, is it?” to which I, realizing the relative futility of carrying on the conversation, reply, “Yeah, no, it’s not that bad,” even as I know in truth, in heart and mind, that yes, yes it is that bad. At the very least I think it is, and that’s bad enough.
If I got around to talking about it with anyone, I might then make a conscious effort to slow down, wean myself off, take a break. All while maintaining a smiling face and telling people I liked my job and laughing at appropriate times and shaking my head or offering praise, and otherwise feigning all the right emotions as needed. But trying to control my public presentation and maintain some semblance of normal relations with my friends and co-workers, while also trying to regain control of this apparent dependency, was often a heavy burden to carry, and a very hard set of things to balance. One way or the other scales would tilt, and bottles of alcohol and thirty-packs of beer tend to be pretty heavy. Truthfully, in trying so hard to control it, this time had seemingly become the ultimate Fuck-All that led me to give in and go as hard as I could for as long as I could.
But all good things must come to an end, and I was really at quite a loss as to how to continue. And I knew that it was no way to continue, because everyone knows that alcohol is poison and poisons are deadly. Which is what led me to call my mother. That, and I had no one else to call because I’d burned every other bridge or they weren’t available and I needed to GET OUT OF THERE as fast as fucking possible. That’s how I felt, anyway.
And she came and got me. Many times before had I called her, or other family members, or friends, asking for help or babbling about my father’s death or declaring my very serious intention of leaving for Louisiana, no matter what the cost, no matter if I had to literally walk across half the United-freaking-States to get there. Often, I think, when one of my family members received a call and they knew it to be from me, they must have rolled their eyes and said to themselves or their company, Hold on, it’s my [brother, nephew, son, etc.]—this could take a while, knowing that the only reason I was calling was because somehow I’d got hold of a phone after having got hold of too much booze.
This time I was calling for help—help getting out of that tiny little town with its one bar and its predictable business and its population of alcoholics and its lack of economic growth. And this time I meant it. Somehow my mum knew that I meant it this time; that, yes, I was drunk and, yes, she would have to throw her whole schedule in skew and drive three or four hours round-trip to pick me up and take me to her house and, yes, it might be an ugly scene but, yes, there was something different in my voice this time. I really was tired of waking up hungover; of proceeding through the day wondering when I might next get a drink and whether I smell like booze and hoping no one notices how bad my hands are shaking. I’d hit a wall, having gained the apex of my drunken aspiration to be a drunk, and I’d really embraced the Fuck-All suck, because it used to be that I’d never compromise the roof over my head by spending the rent on booze and drugs, knowing that I may or may not get paid and that what I get paid might not even be for the full number of hours worked, for whatever Godforsaken reason or another.
* * *
I had no money but I had no beer, when she came and got me. We got the most important things from my trailer: A week’s worth of clothes, my laptop, my drums and my cat. I asked if she could, just this once, buy me some cigarettes and a twelve-pack, so the shock to my body might not be so great.
I was feeling fairly fuzzy so I passed out on the way out to her house, then passed out on the couch as soon as we got inside. When I woke the next morning I was fuzzy and she had gone to work, leaving me a hand-written card and a copy of Alcoholics Anonymous. I had five beers left. Throughout the day I smoked half a pack of cigarettes and made the beer last until about nine o’clock that night. Horrible heartburn thanks to a couple sodas; trouble sleeping, tossing and turning, feeling dizzy and woozy when I stood to walk to the bathroom, and uncertain overall as to whether or not I might make it through, this time.
The next morning I woke again after my mum had left, feeling still loopy and weak but not so loopy and weak. Relative determination—and certainly not a drunken one, this time—to eat pork. And eggs. And drink my mother’s nutritional beverages.
I knew I needed thiamin, or I thought I knew I needed it, because it had worked before (when? I have no idea; but somehow I thought it had, or I’d read something about it). Usually that’s something to do with the hangover—lack of the stuff, which we lose in our pissing shitting vomiting and do not replenish when adhering to the tenets of a liquid diet, because we’re not eating solid foods very regularly. Keep it up for too long and you end up with a “wet brain”, as they call it, and you experience a perpetual kind of drunkenness, with or without alcohol.
I also knew I needed to take a shower, either that day or the next; it had been nearly two weeks since my last. In the end I did not feel fully sober until I’d gone four full days without a drink. That fifth day I woke and I was groggy, but only that normal, just-awake kind of groggy. No more loopy vision, no more shaking limbs, returning appetite, a sharpening of the mental and fine mechanical processes.
And yes, I aspired to it. I wrote about it, I talked about it, I knew about it and couldn’t lie about it when I looked in the mirror. I’m a writer, I’m a cook, I’m a chef, I’m a musician: I’m supposed to live like this, even if it is excessive (especially if it’s excessive),—it’s one of the hazards of the job(s)! When you ask me if I have a problem with drinking my reply is, “No, I don’t have a problem with drinking; but it sure seems like everyone else does!”
If you need a moment to process that one, I can wait; but we’re almost at the end, here. And here is where I must make it clear that, although I may have “aspired” to a state of perpetual drunkenness, because I understood it to be the requisite and thorough expression of all that I stood for in cookery, literature, and melody; yet that is not whatsoever meant to imply that I had control at all times. I let go because it was easier than trying to hold on, and it was from a position of honesty and self-awareness that I was able to look at my situation and realize that I had hit that wall. Things had to change.
But if I am going to make note of all that, then I must also make note of the fact that I am not attempting to claim a current state of squeaky-clean goodness, and neither do I clamor to achieve as much. Some of these pages were written many years ago, just following the Great Rescue and the Great Freak-Out. I’ve cleaned up my act and I’ve gotten things (mostly) together—enough to manage multiple restaurant kitchens simultaneously, to get married, to pay off and get out from under “the man”, and now to be part of establishing, maintaining, and growing my own business along with my wife. Doesn’t mean things haven’t got a little out of hand, every now and again; like I said, I’ve gotten things (mostly) together.