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Last updateTue, 06 Aug 2013 2am

Monday, 28 February 2011 23:32

Teetotaler

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Kathy’s jaw clicks with each clench on her nicotine gum - a rapid double barrel noise.
Squish-snap. Squish-snap. Squish-snap.
Add the erratic flicker of an overhead fluorescent on the fritz and you've got the saddest nightclub simulation Nathan has ever experienced. He's on day four hundred and forty-one. His fingers lock on a dangerously full Styrofoam cup, he manages not to crush it and spill lukewarm sludge all over his hands and the sad linoleum. To do so would be to interrupt, to trivialize the words that spill from the current sharer’s tearstained face.


And Nathan would never do that, especially not to Gerald. Gerald is bald and forty and fat and stopped drinking a day late. The others in the sad circle of folding chairs are learning:
"She gave me a month." Gerald’s head gleams, hands dangling between his knees, "but I blew it off. She wasn’t lying, wasn’t lying." First time to speak in fourteen weeks, and Gerald spills it. She left with full suitcases. He followed, banged on her elderly mother’s door - called them cunts and cursed his (now) ex-wife’s barren womb - vomited in the lawn and said if they had kids he wouldn’t drink. It was her fault, her fault, he’d said -
Normally an avid and sympathetic listener, on this particular Tuesday evening Nathan listens with one melodramatic ear - the other is full of Kathy’s nervous chomping. A sideways glance at her, shuffling his feet, but she won’t look over. The gum pops and snaps erratically, then her jaw commences rhythm at double speed.
Guilty, guilty, guilty. Kathy's off the wagon and she doesn't want to tell. It’s only been five weeks since her tacky skirts began spreading over the metal seats, and she broke her promise. Breathalyzer tube in her car and she broke her promise. Drove through her neighbor’s yard and over their cat, and she broke her promise.
And there she sits - Squish-snap. Squish-snap - because she knows that Nathan knows. Bitch wouldn’t say a word, wouldn’t blink at her hypocrisy if he hadn’t slid into the chair next to her. If he hadn’t busted her. Has everything she said been a lie, besides the fact that she was court-ordered to attend? He's hated her always, hates her fat ankles and the discreet way she glances at her watch during prayer.
Five fucking weeks, and she wouldn’t say a word or even have the decency to look distressed if she hadn’t been caught.
Nathan kept boxes under his bed, boxes of pictures and scraps of material to remind him why he quit. He lays in the dark with the half-open blinds slicing him into uncertain pieces, remembering that drunk girls laughed if you bit them on the shoulder in a public place. With alcohol, every body part gleamed and expected to be touched. Clothes practically fell off, consent was variable. Boxes under his bed so he would remember, so he would remember consent was NOT variable. Keep your hands to yourself. Stay out of bars. Stay out of convenience stores after dark.
Those boxes - his increasing inability to blanket his guilt, to rest above his reminders, his legacy, his insurance against falling off the wagon - were the reason he started roaming.
Day three hundred and ninety-two, he'd started walking the nights away. Shouldering through laughing groups of girls, chin to his chest, hands in pockets. The ghost of his face reflected back in the windows of pubs. His heart thumping out of time to the thump of bass from the clubs he passed.
Nathan could stay out, but he couldn’t stay away.
Streetlights throwing circles in the dark, he began to measure progress from circle to circle as much as day by day. Jack the Ripper fog clung to him from summer into autumn, a cloak of guilt; still he walked.
The reliable click of his own footsteps was the very reason for Kathy’s distress.
Day four hundred and thirty-eight, Nathan’s soles were nearly worn through as the sidewalk ate his shoes. Four hundred and thirty-eight days, the boxes under his bed struggling against him, turning to dreams instead of nightmares. Four hundred and thirty-eight days, he plowed into Kathy as she came out of a corner dive, hard enough to knock her drunken frame off balance and flat on her back on the cracked concrete.
"Jesus Christ!" she shrieked as she pushed herself upright, hair in her eyes and one shoe gone.
He’d put out his hand to help her to her feet, answering quietly, "No, just Nathan, Kathy. But if you feel like hearing a bad joke: I could arrange for you to meet him." Wide smile.
The bitch was drunk enough to laugh, and dumb enough to take his hand. Nathan hauled her up, the first time he’d felt the weight of a human against him in four hundred and thirty-eight days.
"I think you broke my ass," she slurred, audacious enough to grin mischievously while she struggled into her black high heel. "Think there’s a crack in it."
Nathan let her go, all thirty-odd years of her wasted breath, wide ass, unlovable and very warm body. Kathy had emerged alone, and it was close to 2am.
"I’ve never really looked at you before," she said. "You’re tall - and a lot younger than I thought."
He replied, "I’ve been told I’m all hands and eyes." No one else on the street. Faint honky-tonk beyond the door, she’d fallen through like a last-minute gift.
Lipstick gone, eyeliner smeared, dignity nowhere to be found, Kathy pushed her hair back from her eyes and blinked faux-Bette Davis. "I’ve had quite a bit to drink, Nathan. Do you think you could take me home?"
Polaroids of breasts and hands tucked into boxes under his bed. Painfully clean, painfully lonely apartment. Liquor stores closed, but there were other ways to skin a cat.
A cat. Day four hundred and thirty-eight. He blinked and frowned at her, disgusted. "There’s a dead cat in the alley over there. Round as a balloon. Remind you of where you should be Tuesday night? Want to come with me to look, poke it with a stick? Bet it pops."
"Fuck you. What are you gonna do, tattle? Who the fuck are you? You’re not even my sponsor." Kathy swung her purse, backing away, nearly losing her balance.
He threw a longing glance into the alley - those little pockets of dark, designed for secrecy, rape, drug deals, the popping of cat carcasses, all forms of deviance - and sighed. "No. I’ll give you the chance to tell on yourself." His shoulders folded against her gaze as he turned; she might have called after him.
Day four hundred and forty-one.
Squish-snap. Squish-snap.
Nathan’s sponsor Gerald has long since dried his eyes, and fifteen people who are trying their damned best - plus Kathy - say goodbyes, gathering empty cups and jackets.
"Thanks for not ratting me out," a voice in his ear, and Kathy clinks her folded chair into his in the row along the wall. Nathan looks up blankly. Shakes his head.
"Not my job," he answers. Stabbing his arms into his long coat, he snatches hers off the rack. "Walk you home?"
The space between themselves and the bright light of the YMCA grows. At the crosswalk he stops abruptly. Ahead, the rings of the streetlights stretch in a perfectly feasible path to...
Path to...?
Wrinkling his eyebrows, Nathan veers right, Kathy with him. They walk in silence for perhaps five minutes while he takes odd lefts and rights into darker and darker streets, past the bars, past barking dogs. Kathy’s lack of hesitation is her certainty they're going back to his place to fuck: she's matched her footsteps to his.
"To be perfectly honest, I really don’t get this whole AA thing," she finally begins, laughing.
He locks a hand around her upper arm and ducks into the alley to their right, heart in his throat, dragging her with him. Her bone twists beneath the flesh, he presses her against the wall. Dirty wall. Rougher than sandpaper, more interesting in its variability. Broken glass under their feet, recognizable by the teeth-grinding scrape it makes on the asphalt. Thumb and forefinger working into her grimace, he drags the slimy wad of strawberry-stinking gum from between her teeth and flattens it onto the wall.
"I do," Nathan whispers into her mouth. Sometimes the thing you love most in the world is the one thing you should avoid at all costs, because it’s bad for you, bad for others - but it still feels better than anything. So you need to be around people that understand that feeling, to know you are not alone, that every day you have to remind yourself why you don’t give in.
Unbuttoning her blouse rapidly, other hand around her throat, Nathan is suddenly uncertain what he has shared and what has been inner monologue. Her pulse jumps beneath his thumb. He doesn't remember slipping on the gloves.
And that there are other people fighting just as hard if not harder than you. Nathan cannot see her face in the dark and does not want to. He hates her face. It's a lie.
"Four hundred and forty-one days. I burned the boxes under the bed Saturday night after I saw you. But I told myself if you confessed, if you would just try, I would let it go." He shapes his mouth carefully to be sure he voices this.
A choked sob escapes her with a waft of strawberry, and he removes his hand. "I’ll still tell," she hisses hopefully. "Next week. Next week - or - or right now. Not everyone is gone. We can go back. I can start over. I can start over tonight."
The tone of voice so familiar, the words don’t matter. Always the strained calm, the assurance of whatever is needed to make him stop. Knees weak, he places his hand carefully back over her windpipe. No reason to explain he was on the fence already - that no matter how fast or how far he walks, how many streetlight paths he follows, he still needs the alleys. Still needs the flutter and the struggle. Running into her - literally - on Saturday had been the last sign. "I just need a little break," he mumbles. She begins to cry, but he continues. "The important thing to remember is that I can start over."
In the dark, in the alley, under the faraway moon, the smell of piss and rot nearly make him cry with the sense of home. The familiar last ditch flailing of Her. All these things must be what the others feel when they slip into a bar. Climb onto a stool. Watch the bartender touch the neck of the bottle to the lip of the glass, gently, gently.
Shot glass reaching the mouth. Needle piercing the vein. Penis touching just the edge of the vaginal lips, almost, almost. Quarter half in the slot machine.
The firm handle under his gloved palm, the upward thrust of the blade, slipping through her skin and upward under her sternum, delicious resistance and a completely unique slurping, tearing sound. Her body stiffens and Nathan covers her mouth smoothly to stifle the scream of pain and surprise. Takes two steps back with a dancer's fluid movement to keep the blood from pouring onto his shoes.
She shakes, bleeding out, body vibrating against his fist, under his palm. Burying his face in the shoulder of her jacket, Nathan cries with happiness and despair. Cries with relief.
An hour later he is still walking, fingering the polaroids deep in his pocket. He will not look at them, at the ghost illuminated.
Dropping his gloves into a trashcan as he passes, Nathan finds the circles of streetlights that lead home. More ashamed by the stillness inside than failure, he sets his worn soles back on the path.
Tomorrow is Day One.




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amanda gowin

Amanda Gowin lives in the foothills of Appalachia with her husband and son. She has always written and always will.

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