Family Man, by Wayne Scheer
Whenever it seems like my life is straightening out, things get screwed up. That’s my story, short and simple. I finally admitted I had a drinking problem and went to my first AA meeting. So what happened? I got into a fight at a bar while drinking club soda.
I went to the meeting because I was tired of working all day and drinking until I passed out at night. I had just lost my girlfriend. And my family, especially my mother, seemed to be tugging at me like I was a damn marionette. Mom was in her own hell with my sister into crack the way some people get into Jesus. I had to act strong, but I really wanted to find a quiet place to hide and lick my wounds.
It was Arnie Caruso, from the old neighborhood in Brooklyn, who got me to go to an AA meeting. I ran into him as I staggered out of an East New York bar. He suggested we get some coffee and catch up.
We talked about the old days for a while. Then he said, “Paulie, you and me go way back. What happened to you? When we were kids, you had plans. You always wanted your own business, remember?”
“Life is what happened to me.”
“Bullshit,” he said, making a face like he just smelled a fart. “Where’d you get that crap?”
I laughed. “Probably from some movie.”
“You’re becoming a drunk, Paulie. Hell, you are a drunk.”
I almost took a swing at him. But something in his voice said he wasn’t making fun of me. “I got responsibilities, you know?”
He didn’t say anything for a while. We just sipped our coffees. Finally, he asked, “How’s your sister doing?”
“Not good. You know how it is with addicts. But I’m trying to help her.”
“Make sure she doesn’t drag you down, Paulie. You can’t help her if she doesn’t want to be helped.”
“Where’d you hear that? Maybe you’re watching the same movies I am.”
“No. I go to the meetings you should go to.”
That’s when he told me about Alcoholics Anonymous and gave me a printed list of meetings in the area, along with his cell phone number. “Call me if you need to. Anytime.”
I folded the list and put it in my wallet, and didn’t think much about it. A few days later, hungover so bad my tongue hurt, I happened to find the paper and thought I’d go to a meeting. It couldn’t be any worse than I was feeling.
It was corny. They really say, “Hello. My name is So and So, and I’m an alcoholic.” But it was kind of interesting, too. It had me thinking about what I could be doing to get out of my mess instead of just accepting it. People had much worse stories than mine, but they seemed to be doing all right.
After the meeting, people drank coffee, smoked cigarettes and gathered around me like I was fresh meat. I told them I needed to be alone to think about what I had heard. I went to Manny’s Tavern, where I always go when I want to think. My plan was to order a couple of club sodas. I didn’t want to go home and I couldn’t think of any other place to just sit and think about what they said at the meeting, especially the part about giving yourself over to a higher power. I hadn’t been to church since I was a kid.
I probably would have had two sodas and left, if not for this fool drinking next to me. I didn’t like the things he was saying about a black dude minding his own business at the other end of the bar.
“I hope the bartender throws away the fucking glass after those lips been on it.”
I should have walked away, I know, but if I walked without saying something it would have eaten me up inside for days. I hate that feeling even more than a broken nose.
So I told him to shut the fuck up. “The guy ain’t bothering nobody, which is more than I can say for you.” I can usually get away with saying stuff like that because I weigh about two-fifty and I’m six two. I used to get extra work as a bouncer. Most guys take one look at my hands, which look like I’ve been making sausage all my life, and back down.
But he kept on talking, and not just about the black guy. He was going on about Spics, Arabs and Jews. Then he said only fags drink club soda.
I popped him one and I heard his nose crack. Blood shot out like a son of a bitch. But I got to admit, he came back at me like a champ dead set on keeping his title. Got in some good shots to my face before he went down.
Anyhow, the bartender was a friend, so no big deal. But somebody called the cops and they showed up like some kind of riot was taking place. You want to laugh? I think the black dude made the call.
I knew one of the cops and he talked to the loudmouth with a broken nose, who wasn’t too happy when he came to and saw the police. He decided not to press charges and got out of there so quick he didn’t even pay his bill.
The cop I knew talked to me about how I should clean myself up. I told him I went to an AA meeting and that I’m going to be all right.
“Then what the hell you doing here?”
“No booze for me,” I said. “From now on I’m walking the straight and narrow.”
He looked at me like he knew I was full of it, but he told me to pay my bill and the loudmouth’s, and go home. He even offered me a ride, but I told him I wanted to walk and clear my head.
Now that should have ended it. My left eye was swollen almost shut and my head felt like it was attached to the bottom of my shoes and I was walking on it. Instead, I stopped at a liquor store and bought a bottle of Old Granddad. I started drinking before I even got home.
The next morning I was in no shape to go to work so I called in sick. I’d only been working at this body shop since Jack Kazinski closed his place. I worked with Jack for almost four years. He was an older guy and he watched out for me. But he liked the ponies and lost his shop. And I lost my job.
My new boss said, “I’ll give you an hour to show up sober, or don’t show up at all.”
I thought of all the banging and clanging in the shop and in my head. I said, “I choose the second option.”
So I spent the day feeling sorry for myself. I was entitled. Hung over with no job and no woman. All I needed was to run over my dog with my truck, and I’d be ready for Nashville.
I would have laughed, but my face hurt too bad.
When I was with Joanna, I hardly drank. That’s also when I started working for Jack. He even sent me to school to work on transmissions. Paid for it and all. “The guy that does my transmission work is dumber than a water pump,” he said. “If he could do the job, you can.”
And Joanna worked as a waitress and went to school at night taking art classes. What she really wanted to do was design clothes. We paid our bills, even saved a little money, and made plans for the future. I talked to Jack about buying part of the shop and Joanna worked on her portfolio. It was like my dreams were coming true.
But, like I said, whenever my life starts to go good, I can count on it getting fucked up. Usually, it involves my family.
At first, Joanna liked that I was good to my mother and my sister. “A man that’s good to his mother makes a good husband,” she said. I liked that she thought I was a good man. But Mom kept calling for me to do this for her or that, and then Polly hooked up with Raphael and lost her freaking mind. I tried explaining I had my own life, but Mom said, “First you got your family. Then you got your life.”
When Joanna left, she said she still loved me but my family was too much for her. She even wanted us to move. She had friends in Arizona. But I couldn’t do that. “I’m no cowboy,” I told her. “My family’s here.”
“I know,” she said. “You want to keep your family and I want to keep my sanity.” She packed and left.
I knew she’d be staying with her friend, Gloria, until she finished college. She only had two semesters left. But I didn’t stop her because she deserves a normal life. And there was no way she was getting that with me.
She left just about the time Jack lost his shop. I was feeling about as low as I thought I could feel, but I didn’t give up. I still had my dreams. I got work at a body shop in Canarsie and thought I could start over. But it’s rough coming home to an empty apartment when you’ve been sharing it with someone you love.
Me and Joanna would sit in front of the television at night. When I’d start dozing off, she’d grab my crotch or tickle me until I woke up. We’d laugh like two kids playing house and make love right there on the couch.
But with her gone, I started drinking myself stupid every night. I felt alone. Not just because Joanna left, but because I didn’t have dreams anymore. The job at the body shop was going nowhere. Just me banging the shit out of dents on wrecks that should have been junked.
The morning after my bar fight, I looked in the mirror and saw my eye all swollen and purple. I felt a stinging in the back of my throat, like I wanted to cry. I thought maybe this was rock bottom, like the guy at the meeting said. Maybe now I could start picking myself up off the ground. It almost made me feel good. Then Mom called, saying she was worried about Polly and it was my responsibility as her big brother to make sure she was safe.
So instead of looking for work, I did some asking around and found Polly turning tricks for Raphael. She was standing by a bus stop, her tits hanging out through a mesh top. When I tried talking to her, she could hardly focus on who I was. I told her to go sit in my car. She was so strung out, she did what I said.
Then I went to find her asshole-pimp-crackhead-boyfriend, Raphael. I knew he wasn’t far away. I found him in an alley down the street, a cigarette hanging from his lips like some tough guy he’d seen on TV. I banged him around a little and the punk begged like a baby for me to stop. When I let up, with him still on his knees, he tried pulling his knife and swatting at me. I stomped on his hand and kicked him in the head. For good measure, while I had my size thirteen on his chest, I pulled out my dick and pissed on his face. Then I gave him a goodbye kick in the balls and left him there in the alley, squirming and stinking and spitting piss.
Meanwhile, Polly was in my car waiting for me. That was the saddest thing. Polly always had a mind of her own, real independent. Now she just sat there like a dog waiting to be told what trick to do next. I couldn’t take her home to Mom looking like that, so I drove her back to my place. I took off her top and short skirt, but kept on her underpants, and I washed her with a towel. She smelled like puke, some was crusted on her face. I got her as clean as I could. I even washed her hair. I put her in an old pair of jeans Joanna had left and one of my shirts. The clothes were big on her, but she looked more like the Polly I used to walk to elementary school than the whore who did blow jobs to feed her and her crackhead boyfriend’s habits.
She slept in my bed and I slept on the couch. The next day, I made her toast with jelly and peanut butter, the way I did when she was a kid. After she ate a little and drank some coffee, she started screaming at me and cursing, like I was holding her prisoner. When she screams, her voice gets almost squeaky.
I slammed my fist on the table and made her toast jump off the plate. “Shut the fuck up!” I shouted.
She got real quiet. She looked like she expected me to hit her. And then we laughed. I don’t know who started it, but for the next few minutes we laughed so hard snot dripped from our noses. It was disgusting, but it was also about the best damn time I could remember in a long while.
Polly wasn’t even mad about what I had done to Raphael. She made me tell over and over the part about me pissing on him. She laughed the way she did when she was a kid, with her eyes bulging like they were about to pop out.
Later that day, I took her back to Mom, and Polly even thanked me. I felt so damn good about what I had done, I stayed and we played Monopoly, just like in the old days. But soon after I left, Mom called and said Polly was gone. She took whatever money she could find. She even took Mom’s diamond ring, the one she got from Polly’s father
Now Mom was mad at me for bringing Polly to her house. She was cursing at me like I was the one who took her stuff. She also started in about how my father walked out on her when she was pregnant and how Polly’s father did the same. “Men are no good,” she said. “I raised you to be different. I raised you to take care of your family. But when you got with Joanna you abandoned us, just like your father. Look what you let happen to your sister.”
That did it. It took twenty-six years, but blaming me for Polly set me off. “Hold on one goddamn second,” I shouted into the phone. “Don’t blame me for Polly. She’s a crack whore and she’ll be a crack whore until she decides not to be. And you’re a booze whore and you’ll be a booze whore until you decide not to be. And I’m an alcoholic. And I’ll be an alcoholic until I decide to change.” I slammed down the phone so hard the receiver cracked.
My hands were shaking. I had never spoken like that to Mom. I knew what she was since I was a boy, but I always figured this was my family, and I had to make the best of it. For the first time in my life, I didn’t feel like I was holding back the whole fucking ocean. I let it go. I also felt something I had never admitted before. I felt scared. Scared of losing my dreams and scared of losing my family.
I wanted a drink bad. Instead, I called Arnie Caruso and told him what had happened. He said he was proud of me for not drinking and for standing up to my mother. He also said he had friends who could talk with Polly, if she was ready to listen. He told me about a meeting on Linden Boulevard and said I should meet him there in an hour or he’d tear me a new asshole.
“You and what army?” We laughed like it was old times and we were back in high school.
So I’m off the hook for the time being, but I know Mom’s gonna call again and Arnie can’t save me from her. She’s my mother, no matter what. I have to deal with her.
I think of Joanna and me going off to Arizona. It sounds wonderful going out west and starting all over, but I still can’t see myself as a damn cowboy. I want to call her, just to hear her voice. But I don’t want to complicate her life until I get mine straight, and I can offer her a home. Instead of cowboy boots, I put on an old pair of sneakers, make myself peanut butter and jelly on toast, and get ready for a meeting.
Wayne Scheer has locked himself in a room with his computer and turtle since his retirement. (Wayne’s, not the turtle’s.) To keep from going back to work, he’s published hundreds of short stories, essays and poems, including Revealing Moments, a collection of flash stories. He’s been nominated for four Pushcart Prizes and a Best of the Net. Wayne lives in Atlanta with his wife and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Tags: break ups, dysfunctional, family, relationships, wayne scheer