War and Pieces
I caught sight of him as soon as we rounded the corner. His appearance and display of pain were gruesome enough to set him apart from all others on the street. I’ve seen this kind of pain before; on my brothers’ face…I reached for my wallet.
“What are you doing?” She asked, her long, pink fingernail pointing at my cash. “Don’t give him money; he’s just going to spend it on alcohol.”
“I hope he does,” I said, “I’d hate to see him waste it on lottery tickets.”
My girlfriend is quick in her judgment of others, with a single glance she diagnoses this poor bastard with “undisciplined decision making,” as though his entire life he could’ve exercised more control, he just simply decided against it.
She likes her evil packaged neatly, a simple point and click system devoid of real emotion; a display of horns and pitch fork is best for ease of identification; she doesn’t like her tragedy to linger either, an addict makes his own chemically induced bed so it’s only right that he should have to lie in it. She’s sure that soon the family will intervene, then it’s off to rehab; forty minutes later,” POOF!” a productive member of society…as seen on reality TV and none of it splashing on her.
To me she has a vision problem in that she can only see what’s presented, unable to reach for a single thought of who this poor guy might have been before he cursed himself with alcohol. For her it matters his pain is self-inflicted, it’s justification, somehow making it less painful pain, while advertising exactly what she needs him to be to fit the narrative, which is a drunken loser and nothing more.
My thoughts surge past him, and while I don’t know who he is, I told you, I’ve seen his story, wincing in a bit at the sight of him and thinking ‘How bad does it have to get until you’ve lost the ability to see how bad it’s gotten? Are there any stops along the way to becoming an absolute violation of self?’
In my view the beginning of addiction is akin to a ride on an emotional rollercoaster meant to capture souls, tricking them initially with the feeling of immortality and at some point revealing the true nature of its ride which is usually a sickening ride in an ambulance to the morgue.
Ted’s the new guy in line. As he casually views the landscape awaiting his turn on the rollercoaster he’s happy to see friends, at least those with the adventurous hearts. His group is young, and although they’ve been warned repeatedly they’re not afraid; they feel like adults standing in line, there’s strength in their number and as the party gets started none seems to take serious the name of this particular roller coaster…which is “Personal Hell.”
There are cocktails here, not real cocktails just the ones made from whatever Ted found in his fathers’ liquor cabinet. In the beginning they mix drinks that match who they are…amateurs unconcerned about taste. Kahlua and diet coke, Bailey’s Irish Cream and orange juice, Ted always brings something, and they drink it all for the sake of drinking it all…no context; just mindless binge drinking to the point of vomiting and passing out. They feel emboldened because the alcohol continues to approve of the flashes of bravado they’ve mistaken for real strength, making them unable to see the difference. Ultimately they’re assured by their youth they can handle it…which is how one initially obtains a ticket for a ride on their own personal hell.
It doesn’t take long for Ted to become the life of the party, working on his image as the “crazy guy.” In sober times, his friends regale him with accounts of his self-distructive behavior, as though it’s to be revered. “Man, you were SOOO drunk” and “I can’t believe you did this or that.” Ted collects the “hard partier” accolades as trophies, constantly self-competing for bigger slices of local fame pie. As his drink and drug escapades get bigger and more renowned, so too does the encouragement from friends.
It takes years, but Ted finally claws to the top of his game, making all the personal concessions necessary to ensure that everyone understands “Crazy Guy” is his identity. He wallows in it for some time and asserts himself daily to remind his adoring public who he is.
More years pass quickly since Ted first jumped in line for a ride on his Personal Hell. And in those years, despite his best efforts to keep the party alive, the line got smaller. Many of the friends, who started with him, are no longer in it, and by proxy no longer with him. Many got out, went on to graduate college, start careers and families; totally content to step out of line for good. But not Ted, he’s got staying power; he’s the trophy winning crazy guy, earmarked to see this party through, even if he has to do it alone (Alone is an often misunderstood requirement for a ride on Personal Hell).
More time passes and Ted’s ideals begin to change, as does his personality. All things Personal Hell become a priority and he gets irritated with those who try to get in his way…wives and counselors and such. His jovial nature has been replaced by an angry one and rational has given way to irrational. His life is changing for the worse, ultimately begging him to change. Angry and indignant, Ted refuses.
Much of his adult life has taken shape while he stood in line for a ride on his Personal Hell. Some bumps and bruises along the way, maybe even a brush or two with the jailors, but even so, Ted’s mantra remains “it’s all good.”
His mantra is a lie…Ted is a liar.
There’s a cost to the continued wait for Personal Hell. It’s no big deal to Ted; in fact he chalks it up to bad luck and misunderstanding. A short time later he’s required to give some of his lesser “life wins” back. Teds wife left him for a strong, sober man his children try to call daddy. He’s also been fired from a few jobs but he’s convinced the reason is simply this; all along no one has taken the time to truly understand him, and worse he’s sure they’re no longer interested enough to try, not even his own flesh and blood, not even when he’s sober…and it’s so simple to understand; he’s the crazy guy who has a destiny with Personal Hell. He’ll get to their needs, shortly after he’s finished getting to his own…which is his ride.
Ok, maybe it’s true; maybe it has cost a little more than Ted initially realized, but who cares? And maybe he had to give up his “practice wife and kids,” but “they don’t get it, or they never really loved him, or they didn’t try to understand his side of the story,” or whatever else is allowed by the alcoholic and drug erred excuse of the day. And while we’re there, SO WHAT if some of his alcohol and drug “crazy” rubbed off on them, and SO WHAT they’ve been broken beyond recognition; they’re all gone now THANK GOD! Now he can finally tend to the business of Ted uninterrupted. It’s all about the ride! He already told them, REPEATEDLY for shit’s sake; “NO ONE gets in the way of the crazy guy when he’s on this mission!”
Ted sees a crumbled pile of discarded hopes and dreams where there once stood his shot at a great life, but he doesn’t initially recognize it as horror. What he sees through his selfish, fermented lens amounts to newly found freedom, which looks a whole lot like the ticket he’s been waiting for.
Family, friends, self-worth, real love, it’s all gone; Ted is now ready for his ride on his own Personal Hell…
As he climbs aboard his cart he quickly notices it’s bigger and scarier than he initially thought. To prepare himself he tries to get rid of his drinks and pills, but somehow every time he empties his glass and veins they become full again.
Ted tries repeatedly, each time with more resolve and a growing bit of anxiety, smashing his glasses on various dreams and vomiting on hope. He even tries going to a few meetings and a therapist or two, but somehow all the chemicals see their way back into his hands, into his veins…into his mind.
“Have a seat” the attendant says.
In the beginning the attendant seemed like a crusty, malnourished game show host, a frail but disgusting court jester that didn’t require Ted’s respect or fear; in fact, the younger, “crazy” Ted used to laugh at him. But standing next to him now it was clear something got missed.
Gone was the laughter and charm the attendant greeted riders with when they were first enticed to get in line. Gone also was the comfort and understanding he’d shown as he continued to supply drinks and drugs while Ted and his friends waited for their ride on Personal Hell.
Early on the attendant had been a companion of sorts. Through it all, the lack of compassion and fights at home, the police, the divorce, the betrayal of his wife and kids…the attendant had been the voice of wisdom, surely the only one who understood Ted to his core, the only other being who knew that most things, especially pain, can always be resolved with drinks and drugs. When did the attendant become a rotting pariah?
“I can’t get rid of my drinks or empty my veins” Ted quivers to his old friend.
The attendant, now evil crass, is staring violent hatred through hollow eyes. His words are devoid of his usual compassion and a nauseous froth of the lies and deceit gathers, dripping from the corners of his cracked and foul lips. His teeth are jagged and clenched as his gravelly voice accuses. “You can’t ride without em’ Mr. Crazy,” and you’re ridin’.”
A sharp seize of his throat, the fear stricken Ted is flung hard and sits frozen in his seat; with eyes large, breathe short and heart racing, panic sinks its claws into his flesh. Ted does not understand what’s happening.
“How do you like the cart Mr. Crazy? Made it special, just for you…only one like it” the attendant scoffs.
The cart is freshly painted and tacky. It’s an eerie color red, sorrowful, with the word “daddy” carved through the paint on all four sides by a child’s finger.
“It’s indelible. It won’t ever wear out, and it won’t ever dry”. “Care to know where the paint came from? We got it from your family you selfish prick! We mixed the blood and fears from every acid filled, alcohol induced lash you delivered em.’ All the harm you did-every physical and emotional torture, every scar you left em!’ This cart was fired, forged and painted over the years with the despair and blood of all those who spent every drop trying to get you to love em’ and trying keep you sober! Who even now…any one of em’ would settle for just keepin’ you alive. This is the blood we got from the personal heart transplants you did on your wife and kids! You carved their hearts out and ate em’ right in front of each one of em’ didn’t ya? You bled em’ good Teddy boy; shoved the whole blade in and twisted. Bled em’ right into your selfish bucket…ain’t it beautiful?”
“I don’t want to ride anymore” Ted whimpers. “I can’t get rid of the drinks.”
“YOU GOTTA BE KIDDIN’ ME!” The attendant booms. “You spent their lives crackin’ their chests open and clawing at their tender little hearts with your pointed, selfish claws and now you wanna tell me that this ain’t EXACTLY what you ordered? It ain’t your choice anymore Teddy boy! It’s time to take the ride. You made a pact with this coaster and its creator…and now it’s time for you to pay up! Welcome to the ride you gave it all up for, you selfish PRICK! WELCOME TO YOUR PERSONAL HELL!”
Personal Hell has no safety harness, no bar across the lap or shoulder straps, no one on the loud speaker assisting as riders enter.
Ted rides alone, he didn’t see that was a condition while he was in line for all those years; but all riders ride alone.
Ted screams as the ride is about to start. “I don’t have a safety bar! I don’t have a safety bar! Please don’t start the ride! I don’t have a safety bar! The attendant is not my friend! Where are my friends? Where are my Kids? I need a safety bar! Please don’t start! I need my Kids!”
“WHAT’S THE PROBLEM?” The attendant screams in a stinging clash.
“I don’t have a safety bar!” Ted screams in tears “I don’t have my kids!”
“SAFETY BAR? THE BAR IS CLOSED PRICK! AND WHY ON EARTH WOULD YOU EVEN WANT YOUR KIDS YOU HYPOCRITE?”
Teds continues his cries, still oblivious to his fate. “I don’t want to die “comes his new mantra…”I don’t want to die….I don’t want to die.”
“WELL THIS AIN’T FUNLAND MR CRAZY, AND YOU ARE GONNA DIE! NOW SHUT IT, AND DON’T PRETEND YOU DIDN’T CHOOSE THIS!”
He propped himself up against a brick wall of a commercial building in down town Annapolis. Slumped over like a question mark, shaking and dirty, the smell of his own fesses wafting some twenty feet in front of him, advertising exactly what she wanted, his last bit of dignity. He was listing from side to side, trying to find a position that would offer the slightest relief. His pain is profound, garnering attention from all passersby. Some attempted to look away…attempted.
“Well it’s your money,” she said, “just make sure you tell him to spend it on food or coffee.”
The insanity that statement hung in the air, thick, almost three dimensional, they hadn’t fully rested in my ears before the barrage of sarcasm began to force its way free.
“Absolutely, food or coffee, I’ll tell him. Bet he looks me straight in the eye and says, no thank you sir, I was gonna spend this on a bottle but since you invoked the ‘food or coffee’ rule, I find myself unwilling to break the new found trust you’ve bestowed upon me, I cannot accept this money…sir.”
“You know what I mean!” she pushed back.
“I do,” I said. “I know EXACTLY what you mean, thinkin’ about askin’ him to run for Congress, you know…while I’m at it.”
“Why is everything a joke to you?” She asked “Look at the shape he’s in. Why do you wanna add to it? It’s like you want to help him die! Giving this THING money is exactly what he DOESN’T need. What he needs is food and tough love…somebody needs to finally tell him NO for once in his life!”
It wasn’t her words, although the “tough love” garbage was a bit much, since it was a talking point she’d learned from one of the afternoon “Oprah-fied sister-friend,” talk shows she’s dedicated to. It was the cavalier way in which she recommended treatment; “food and tough love,” like that’s all it would take; just a cheeseburger and perhaps if we could just get his mother turn her back on him… then he’d be fixed!
I became white hot irritated. “Do you honestly think there’s a chance he won’t spend this on booze? YOU look at him! He’s literally DYING in front of us and I can ease some of his pain without liftin’ a finger. If I thought for a SECOND he’d spend this on food or coffee I WOULDN’T GIVE IT TO HIM!”
She had one dismount from all arguments. “Well do what you want…YOU ALWAYS DO!”
We continued to walk the cobblestone street, my eyes fixed on him, hers fixed on me, and both standing firm in our thoughts of how best to travel the high road. Surprisingly, I began to feel haughty, almost puffed up, like a rescuer looking for a phone booth to don his cape. She was sure I was assisting in his decade’s long suicide attempt.
My plan was to hand him the money subtly. No production, no judgment and without letting her see the exchange…He’s 30 yards away.
I could hear my heart pound and couldn’t shake the feeling that, even though I was bearing gifts, I was intruding on his life…He’s 20 yards away.
As I got closer, the details of the damage he’d done to himself became clear. On the outside, every manner of human stain saturated his clothing. On the inside, somewhere between the relentless ring of his pounding eardrums and dull ache at the base of his skull he can hear his own brain cells groan as the signs of the betrayal of sobriety began to show.
He’s dead already, although his mind has no idea; as though he’s awake at his own autopsy and unable to cry out when the cutting starts. He’s damaged his own reality with drinks and drugs, and now there’s a merciless hoard of flesh miners living in his head, constantly hacking and biting, burying their pick axes in the middle of his brain, slowly bleeding him. He knows EXACTLY why alcohol is called spirits; it has wrought an evil so foul as to have left him unable to participate in his own life. Everything, including the willingness to say no has been taken; even to defecate or vomit on himself…totally ripped from his ability to decide.
As I continued to approach, I could hear my own footsteps, and I’m suddenly struck again by the haughtiness I thought I was above. “I am better than you…see I have money for you,” my conscience whispers. The feeling was unavoidable but I try…He’s 10 yards away.
I used the space that remained to wage quiet battle against myself. If I claim “better than” what would be the difference between my girlfriend and me? Is he pathetic or is it me because I’ve just judged him as pathetic?
5 feet…3feet…He’s a mass of smelling rot from his own decaying body parts.
Unexpectedly, the exchange between us was deeply connected. He didn’t know I was coming, and as I approached, there came a better understanding of his wrecked body and how it didn’t matter to the Almighty. God allowed me a split second to see the value of his soul, and that for God, who is his father, the only family he has left; there IS no other value, no other beauty, regardless of how it’s packaged.
I hid the bill in my palm and reached slowly, trying not to startle him.
“How you doin’ friend” I asked? As if suddenly blind to the sore-seeping, science project slumped in front of me, “Here you go,” I said, trying to cut the air for a response if he wanted to make one.
His defeated eyes moved as an afterthought to his head, severely drooping to expose the raw, red flesh underneath his eye balls. At my voice, they searched from the cigarette butts on the sidewalk to my person, ascending slowly to my face; stopping at meaningless focal points along the way…his face was weather-beaten and emotionless.
“What?” His response staggered.
“Here you go,” I said again. My hands gestured forward, my mouth unable to draw other words.
His reach for me was a reflex-urgent and desperate; his body’s response to another human being willing to speak, willing to touch.
I cupped his outstretched hands which were cold and overly coarse, like beef jerky hung in a meat locker. It took a moment for him to understand that I was handing him money but as soon as he did his eyebrows arched and his face brightened in surprised relief. As his gaze dropped to check the denomination I could see his continence change from panic to possibility.
MONEY…without even having to con or beg! He wouldn’t have to face sobriety or the screaming cells any longer, no shakes or vomiting tonight, he came alive and tried to climb into my arms.
Maybe the reason for his happiness was distorted, but his show of gratitude was that of a small child surprised by a Christmas gift. As I stood there, wrapped in his hug, I was jolted by a different truth I also wasn’t prepared for. His touch…his cold, hard touch, in that instant brought me as close to real love as I’d ever experienced. Hard to explain except to say surrender, the very definition of giving yourself wholly, as you would in love.
I didn’t know him and wouldn’t recognize him if I saw him again…even if he is alive, but in that instant we sort of surrendered to each other. Without choice he presented himself totally vulnerable, seizing a chance to hold another human being that wasn’t afraid to touch him. It felt like a warm, comfortable hour…it was a brief frozen moment.
We shared the thank you with our hands still cupped in each other’s. His thanks for physical, liquor store salvation and mine for a better understanding of the real one…and then our hands dropped. He left quickly, with resolve and his “God bless you” was real.
I stood silent for a long moment, ignoring everything and everyone, quietly coveting the experience.
And then the devil I brought spoke again.
“I can’t believe you! He’s just gonna spend it on alcohol. All you did was throw away twenty bucks to make a sick man sicker…eeww, and he hugged you, don’t even think about touching me tonight!”
“Nice job, Mother Theresa!” she taunted, as she flipped her hair over her shoulder. “Now hurry up…we’re late for happy hour.”