Table of Contents

Chapter Twenty-Six

AA’ers, start the clock. That little clock there on the card table in the back with the urn of melted-tar coffee and stale donuts and the donation basket and the chip basket filled with cheap-ass plastic coins that are meant to be the souvenirs of this, our celebration of however many days of sobriety we’ve managed to claw out of the calendar. I don’t know about yours but my calendar bears claw marks that if you hung it on the wall you’d think resembled exposed biological ganglia.

Now here’s what I want. I want my full 15 minutes up here and not a minute less. I won’t be cheated this time. Tony, Big T, I don’t mean to cast into doubt your clock watching ability, but last time I spoke here at the podium justice was not served by whatever lapse you fell into when you allowed the clock to rudely ring at 12 minutes. You fell into a lapse on your way to the full unconsciousness of a jelly-smeared sugar coma, would be my guess. Maybe a little less attention this time paid to the jelly donuts and a little more attention paid to the clock. Not too much to ask. What? Well, damn, I’m sorry. How could I forget my favorite part of the evening which is the privileged moment of introducing myself to my fellow bottle-emptying Ak-a-holics?

Hi, my name is – some of you have objected when I use my full name, Raymond Datcher – and I am not a pill popper or gas sniffer or hypodermic injector, I am not a hyphenate addict-alcoholic like some of us feel obligated to use that qualification, no thanks I am just your authentic last-centimeter-from-the-bottle-vacuuming alcoholic, thank you.

And for that rousing welcome, thank you. “Hi, Raymond!” – I just always look forward to that.

Nothing against my cross-addicted brothers and sisters, I was only trying to stress but that this is not an NA meeting it is an AA meeting. Last month I listened to that little girl up here talk about how she would pipe up in her tiny apartment and I couldn’t begin to relate to what the hell she thought she was talking about. I could relate to the lonely apartment aspect of it somewhat but then that was it. As I recall she kept referring to something she called “putting out neck fires,” as I recall. Her lighting up the pipe and reaching back all the time under her hair because she was convinced she felt something there, but nothing would be there, it was apparently just her hair’s heat, but slapping at the neck anyway, over and over every time she would hit the pipe, until she was convinced the neck had somehow combusted and caught on fire and she was putting it out, compulsively slapping at the neck over and over again even though she realized there was no way the neck could just spontaneously combust like that. But then 10 minutes later, starting the same sorry ritual again anyway.

Big T, fair’s fair so shave a few minutes off that damn clock until we have all settled down. I think the time for the ritual of settling down is past, Double A’ers. The hallway leading to the church’s kitchen should be a clear passageway with no bodies straggling in and out of it, I’m sure the fire marshal would agree with me, a man I had the opportunity to meet in my own incendiary time of need some years back. You’ve all familiar with the story of my trailer burning like the ignited raw Plastique of hell itself. This constant straggling obstruction of the hall leading to the kitchen is an example of the kind of purposeless back and forth meandering that spotlights one of our, excuse me, my worst character flaws, in my opinion, of not being able to just sit still and take whatever needs to be taken one moment at a time like an earnest sobriety seeking man or woman. The bathrooms aren’t back there, you go back out the front and around the side yard past the rusted lawn mover in the side yard where you’ll see a door that says B – A – T –H - room. The kitchen which is now dark I would say very much indicates that there is nothing to be found there except a battened down kitchen. Irma I think her name is I see has straggled back there and she’s a first-night newcomer so that’s her excuse, but when I see Maurice straggling back there behind her well, I can’t help this festering of suspicions now can I? Hey, Maurice? Ak-a-holics Anonymous is based on the 12 steps, how about you try that 13-stepping after you get a nice one-year chip and a relationship is more than just something to just bounce hang-over throw up off of? My man Maurice!

No cross talk, my for-the-time-being-juiceless comrades. Isn’t that what you’re always so quick tell me? How’s about let’s apply the time-honored goose-gander principle, here.

If I have a burning desire to share at the end of 15 minutes I just might go a bit over. I realize that when we have a full house time is of the essence and everybody should have the opportunity to share, and so limiting the sharing to 15 minutes is essential. But I have invoked the Burning Desire clause, which allows the speaker to go over to finish if it’s important. I’m just letting you know preparatory to the desire I can already feel positioning itself for full burn.

So settle down now and just listen, now. Because that’s all you have to do. You have already suited up and you have shown up, that’s 90% of it, and now it’s just the listening for the other 10%. Expectations are modest and can be easily met in this room, Twin A’ers. Unlike in other rooms in other places. Like the rooms you work in, or the rooms in your home. The rooms in your head. Many of us have rooms that still hold against all odds jobs and families. Confidently I say it’s a miracle when you consider what goes on in some of those rooms while you’re still in the grips of the disease and the disease is walking all over you and all you can do is lay beneath it like a sidewalk that just got its ass kicked.

Think of coming home to one such room to a spouse one evening, after you’ve put up with your boss’s stale-data breath who likes to get dead up in your face to tell you that the report you’ve run has a column of information in it that’s suspect, and on the way home driving you hear a thump and suspect you just hit a cat running across the road, and your feet are hurting as you come in and see your spouse sitting on the couch with that glazed look on his face, three days after he promised you wouldn’t ever come in and see him with that glazed look again, on his face. You can’t confront him yet because he’s chewing Juicy Fruit gum angelically and pretending to read the paper, and what you need is definitive proof of glaze.

Without wanting to seem to search the place, you do just that, you begin searching. Thank god you don’t have a backyard or a garage. Not anymore you don’t. The back yard and garage was the place five or six houses ago, and the current place represents the culmination of a decline, though not the absolute lowest point, obviously, because it’s still a roof over your head. My friends, AA’ers, you and I both know volumes could and should be written on the bizarre psychology behind the places wily Ak-a-holics come to designate as cunning hiding places. You, as the searching spouse, are aware of all these demented tricks of hiding bottles in places that are so obvious that you, as spouse, would hopefully ignore them in favor of searching for other more esoteric hiding places.

The more esoteric places would include for example, inside the toilet tank, which place you discovered because the toilet kept running all night and you kept shaking the handle to make it stop, but it did not stop, and finally in frustration you raised the heavy lid off the tank to see a fifth of Popov vodka tangled up in the apparatus of the floating bulb and the chain, making the water continuously hiss and run as though all it needed was the shake of the handle. Lo and behold, Duel A’ers, the spouse finds the Popov there. Or more esoterically, inside the television. The screws on the back of the television having been unscrewed so that the back can be pulled straight off, and inside the television is a pint. Random sparks jetting from the rear of the home entertainment center in the middle of Sex in The City was the tip off in this case, where it turns out the pint, wet with spillage, came in contact with a certain wad of no-nonsense wires. A fifth or a quart wouldn’t fit, otherwise you would have found a fifth, or a quart.

The obvious places for hiding the bottle are audacious and cunning, and your glazed spouse hopes that you’ll be blinded by the familiarity of such places. Like right there in the kitchen in the spice rack over the stove, between the oregano and the paprika for example. Lo and behold. But tonight you seek, almost biblically, and you cannot find. Hmmm. It’s possible your spouse may have simply consumed the bottle, went outside, and tossed it in some bushes somewhere, but this is problematic for your spouse, who after a while will mightily desire another drink, so the bush toss tactic is unlikely. How many times in one night can a person slip outside to check on a bush to see if everything is as it should be with the bush? One night you discovered your spouse, outside, at midnight, deep in the bushes, with the poor prop of a pruning shears in his hand, so the bush is off limits, to him, remembering that failed attempt. But tonight you watch him with biblical hawk-like eyes but see nothing.

Tonight he goes to the bathroom and leaves the door open. He does this and that, all of it in plain sight. But at the end of the night, he’s more glazed than ever. After the fourth night of coming in to find the spouse more and more openly glazed and in fact almost so defiantly glazed that he is now asleep on the couch and drooling, you are touched by divine intuition which leads you to ponder the sight of a straw next to the fish tank. The fish tank hasn’t had fish in it for months. The fish died and floated to the top of the tank and you’re the one who scooped them out, one by one as they died, and flushed them down the toilet. Because there’s a straw there, and your mind jumps up a notch.

And yes so you go over there to the bookcase, you haven’t really been watching him over there the past few nights because he just kept coming back with a book, you go over where the tank is and as you’re bending to pick up the straw, you get a whiff. A good strong one. That’s one unmistakable whiff. You feel lo and beholdness itself lurking, waiting to burst into full revelation. You follow the whiff and it leads you to the tank.

And you’re truly amazed. Spouse, you are … just absolutely amazed to the extent that you want to congratulate him for his wily and cunning, but he’s passed out on the sofa and wouldn’t appreciate this heartfelt acknowledgement. What the spouse has done is filled the fish tank up with vodka. You’d both kept the water in there because any day now he was supposed to bring back another black molly to put in it so it could eventually float up to the top and be dispatched without ceremony to the toilet’s sluggish vortex. The fish tank still has coral in it, and sand, and a plastic mermaid with a bad paint job that makes it seem that the mermaid’s eyes are a little cockeyed, and the filter is running, and the little clam shell ornament that the filter hose is attached to is bobbing open and shut with the rising bubbles. It’s all per normal except that the whole damn thing is a substitution of water with 5 gallons of Popov vodka.

You’ve never in your life seen anything like it. In many ways, it’s amazing. And then, as sometimes happens with stone Ak-a-holics, your spouse rises in a dead blackout and doesn’t see you’re standing right there and staggers over and picks up the straw, right in front of you sucking vodka from the fish tank so greedily that the straw collapses and he begins lapping at the tank’s booze with his face lowered into the tank. A few grits of coral have somehow been sucked up through the straw and are now caught in his throat and the choking begins.

The choking grows to become a matter for your serious concern, and you think about applying the Heimlich, yes but you associate the Heimlich with dislodging more substantial clots of edibles and wonder if a few feeble coral grits could even be forcibly ejected from the throat. Breaking out the heavy artillery of the Heimlich with its possibility of a broken rib or two seems overkill for one or two grits, and in the middle of your debating, luckily, the coughing and choking subside. After that, he pisses on the floor next to the fish tank. It’s the suggestion of fish =’s water =’s water =’s toilet =’s urination, in his mind, that leads him to think that he’s in bathroom, looming over the toilet’s sluggish vortex. These are the kind of things that take place in the rooms that have the misfortune of being places the Ak-a-holic occupies.

These have been my rooms.

Deuce of A, tonight I went to Kenbrook Liquor because I was in a state, and I am still in that state, and I did something I haven’t done for 4 months. I slapped my hard-earned money on the counter and told Mr. Kenbrook himself that I wanted a pint of vodka. Old man Kenbrook himself. Popov’s, please. Mr. Kenbrook, I now know, is a man who will do anything for money. Because I know for a fact that my wife has personally spoken with Mr. Kenbrook, telling him that her husband, Raymond Datcher, is a Ak-a-holic and that under no circumstances should he, Mr. Kenbrook, sell any liquor to Raymond Datcher or to anyone even remotely resembling Raymond Datcher. And I believe Mr. Kenbrook agreed. It’s hard not to agree when you’re facing a woman who asks you that, and you see that as an added inducement she’s holding something in her hand that looks like a hockey stick and is staring at your head like it’s a potential puck. But I put my money down and Mr. Kenbrook looked over his shoulder at the door, like he expected the Missus to come bursting in, and when he was satisfied she wasn’t, he winked and served me the pint of vodka.

Which pint is now in its bag snugly in my back pocket. Wait. All right. Let me present this pint as exhibit A, as in, yes, Ak-a-holic. Some of you right now have that wrestle-the-poor-bastard-to-the-ground look, especially you, Maurice, but remember in my younger days I had welter-weight champion aspirations, and I’m bristling with resentments. Resentment is my middle name. I live to resent. Cogito ergo I resent. If I’d had, as a welter weight on the circuit many years ago, the seething resentment I carry around with me now, I would have been able to use it to successfully bash through the requisite number of skulls to become the welter weight champion of the U S of A, which is to say, The World. I’m 57 now but head bashing is like riding a bicycle, you never forget how to do it. When I went into the ring, I was sober as a stone, but by the time 3 rounds had transpired, I was a juiced-up specimen of fuming Ak-a-holic fury. Between rounds, sitting on the stool, my corner man would hand me my water bottle, which was filled with raw pugilistic vodka. I would take a mouthful, throw my head back, swish, and pretend to spit, all the time swallowing. If you’ve never tried it, it’s difficult to pretend to spit, it does takes some practice, but you eventually get the hang of it.

At the sound of the bell I would charge into ring to meet my opponent with something that to those watching must have resembled a kind of gladiatorial spasticity. My footwork, never fancy to begin with, became absolutely balletic, AA-ers. Many a time my opponent would simply stand there, mouth agape, transfixed as he watched my feet describe a frenzied tic-tac-toe of flurry and feint, and with his guard down, I would pirouette, which isn’t a movement you see too much in the world of professional boxing, I would pirouette in and dispose of the astonished fellow with a thunderous and satisfying crack to the jaw, which would then hang on its hinge loosely and sometimes even garishly. Sometimes. At other times my footwork, taking on a cartoonish life of its own, became so complex and speed-ridden and blurred that I would be overcome with a debilitating nausea from the sloshing booze and almost freeze from the waist up, while my feet still swirled under me. The freezing from the waist up was so as to still and contain the nausea, and my opponent, if he wasn’t utterly hypnotized, would take advantage of the stationary target I presented to him from the waist up and smash me in the side of the head and I would go down.

This happened more and more. Given that the opponents I faced had done their homework and came to expect the footwork aspect of my game, they were no longer hypnotized by it and in time I lost the advantage of my surprising footwork, and I received more and more blows to the side of my head and that, as they say, was that. I became one of those guys who tells his son to hit him as hard as he can in the stomach and the son never really wants to do it, but he finally does it, after many drunken exhortations on the father’s part, he does it with his childish eyes gigantic with persecution and grief, a single half-hearted, limp-wristed blow more like a tap, and then immediately retreats to his room with his head hanging low, and who can blame him, who can blame the boy’s attitude toward the whole sorry ritual of fucking misguided masculine compensation?

I’m hoping, times two A’ers, that by the time I’m through I will willingly and willfully deposit this bottle in that trash bin by the door. We tell each other our stories, well why not add a little suspense this time? Will he dispose of the bottle? I make no promises. This is the sort of suspense I think a writer might appreciate, which is another thing I wanted to be, and that now, outside of the ears of my wife, your ears only have heard, are now hearing. Yet another thing I thought it would be a good thing to be, especially because writers had in the past been notorious boozers and drug takers, and let’s be honest, that held just a tremendous resonance and appeal, for me. It seemed a very attractive occupational incentive at the time, one I’d only have to halfway prepare for, the writing half, because I had mastered the other half, or quarter, the boozing quarter, since I had neither interest or experience in the drug taking quarter – though for the sake of the writing, I might have gone ahead and explored that quarter. There but for the grace of the raging neck-fire god Raymond Datcher might well have gone.

So what I did, I bought myself some good Bond paper with sufficient rag content, this was back in the days when people used typewriters, and I set about the task of writing a novel I called “The Girl With Two Left Breasts.” Catchy, id’nit? A true life saga based on the experiences of yours truly, based on a booze-fueled infatuation I had before I met my wife with a girl who had serious issues of a mammary nature. Morbid issues, I think it’s fair to say. For reasons I never quite understood she was convinced that both her breasts, which I have to admit did both incline a little to the left, she thought that through some … genetic mishap, maybe, that she had one genuine left breast and a second genetically mutated breast that was also a left one in the right one’s place. Oh, now it’s finally quiet in here? It’s more quiet in this room now than it’s been all night. What does that tell you? Like that ad I used to see years ago in the newspaper want ads that said SEX in big bold letters and then continued with NOW THAT I’VE GOT YOUR ATTENTION and went on disappointingly to talk about a goddamn used car stereo or whatever that some desperate bastard was trying to unload. Well NOW THAT I’VE GOT YOUR ATTENTION I’ll go on to say that this girl … the obvious thing would have been for me to deny that she had two left breasts, but I didn’t want her to think that I was just humoring her, you know, that I didn’t take her obsession seriously. I wanted to demonstrate empathy. I wanted her to know that even if she did have two left breasts, she was still worthy of love. I wanted this to create a bond between us and for her to feel the same way about me, that even though I was a piss-on-the-floor alco – Ak-a-holic, that I wanted and deserved to be loved unconditionally. That maybe even given her imagined deformity, she would feel grateful that anyone could love her and cling to me in gratitude while accepting my drinking.

I know we’ve all seen that movie, what was it, Leaving Las Vegas, where the drunk tells the angelic prostitute that she must never try to get him to stop drinking, and she agrees. In the beginning, at least. And who here in his secret heart of hearts hasn’t wished for the same, a blind eye turned away from our deepest most passionate though self-destructive act? So there we were, living on the houseboat – did I mention that she lived on an old peeling plaintive houseboat moored to a broken down Mississippi River dock, in some little Mississippi hamlet, that she had inherited from her grandfather? – she speculating endlessly on the causes and deeper meaning of being stricken with a sinistrally-afflicted bosom, and me drinking Wild Turkey every second the clock tick tocked. Which, I know because I can see, has registered my full fifteen minutes, and I’m well aware that the clock’s alarm hasn’t gone off, Big T I thank you for your consideration. We’re now officially in overtime, the Burning Desire To Share segment of my time at the podium.

She also forbade me to touch Doris and Daisy out of a fear that whatever it was that had engendered the affliction would somehow be stirred from dormancy, is the only way I can really explain it. The source of the leftwardness might somehow be aroused and other wayward anatomical manifestations might take place. Moles might appear, or some such, sprouting to the left. Doris and Daisy were names she had given the breasts, so as to personalize them and render them less abstract, more knowable, less prone to inspire the blind fear and terror she felt when she contemplated the mysterious source of the leftwardness. I couldn’t touch the breasts, Doris and Daisy, like I said, I was forbidden. And so like anything that was forbidden to me, I longed to plunge forward into it.

I stole opportunities to brush against Doris and Daisy, but secretly, slyly, on the down-low. For example I would fling my arm out to swat at some imaginary fly – Mississippi seemed to have more than its fair share of them, real ones, in the months I lived there – and oh so carelessly brush the bosom with my fingertips. Gradually I became inflamed, and tried to find more and more excuses to accidentally touch the bosom.

I came back once from the library with a book on sign language, telling her that I had a cousin who was deaf, and I practiced making the signs while she stood near, signing with a fake gusto and passion that allowed me the excuse I needed to cast my hands out and collide with the bosom as I finger-flicked long multi-syllabic words. Any excuse, any reason. And the thing is, it was completely non-sexual, this sense of being inflamed was. The whole thing, twain A, became a sort of ritual with me, a compulsion equal to the compulsion of drinking, if you can imagine that. Frankly, it was horrible and I was drenched in the horror of the weirdness of it. And so was she, so was she.

I would pretend not to touch while touching and she would pretend not to feel while feeling, but the weight of the pretense was too much for her. One night I came staggering into the raggedy wretched houseboat – from where, I don’t know, I’d probably been outside wandering with these pigs that didn’t seem to belong to anybody, through the decaying woods that skirted the river – and there she was, sitting cross-legged on the floor, with a bloody kitchen knife in her hand. The houseboat was rocking sluggishly in some feeble backwash of muddy little waves driven by a miserable wind that might as well have been hot exhaust spat out of a tailpipe. Doris, or maybe it was Daisy, was cupped in one hand, the dripping blade was perched above it in the other.

There’s no need to go on with what I saw. I’m not feeling a burning desire to share that particular detail, at this time. But I’d certainly driven her to this, with my shenanigans, to the point where she was always focused on the bosom she was trying so desperately to deny, when she wasn’t going on and on about it. Relatives appeared, in the night, and she was whisked away, to an institution of some kind, I later found out.

The relatives allowed me to linger in my grief on the houseboat for a time, then I was evicted. How long had I been there? All together, with and without the girl, maybe 6 months. I stood on the bank and watched them unload garbage bags full of empty pint and quart bottles, hundreds in bags that were wheeled down the dock in wheelbarrows. Then, they herded the pigs I’d been wandering with in the woods onto the boat, why I don’t know. The pigs finally had the home they deserved. The whole long time of my uninterrupted blackout became the basis for “The Girl With Two Left Breasts” – hundreds of pages chronicling my time with the girl, with Doris and Daisy, and the flies, and the pigs. Rejected by dozens of publishers. Though one publisher did take the time to personalize the rejection note and told me that the title was a keeper and that I should think about rewriting it as a screenplay. I bought a cat I named Lefty solely for the purpose of having the cat go into a litter box I had also bought so that I could line it with the rejection slips instead of litter, and then I took the rejection slips, reeking of cat shit and piss, and put them in envelopes and sent them back to the publishers. All 135 of them. Including the editor who’d thought the title held some promise. I’d have rather sent them envelopes filled with pig shit, but the pigs were no longer readily available.

Shortly after is when I met my wife. Which is why I’m here tonight with a bottle in my back pocket. Not because of the story you’ve all heard before, the Alzheimer’s. I won’t stand here and say I went to Kenbrook’s because of that, because you’d all see though it. If ever there was a reason that might sound like a justification to drink, watching her lose herself a day at a time to that disease would be it. But we all know how easy it is to find a reason to drink. Lose your job? Drown the sorrow in booze. Just found out you got a promotion? Celebrate with booze.

No, this frame of mind wasn’t caused by the usual watching her wander around in a pretense of remembering things she can’t remember anymore, and getting mad if I don’t go along with the pretense and questioned her about some discrepancy or other. It took me a long time to understand why she’d fly into a fury if I corrected her and told her that no, her mother was not coming to visit, unless she was coming in the coffin she’d been buried in, transported by sorely confused pallbearers.

The doctor, or maybe it was my son, told me that the whole behavior of denying not being able to remember things was typical behavior for Alzheimer patients at a certain stage in the disease, but I still had a hard time not saying that her mother wasn’t coming over for dinner, hefted on the shoulders of pallbearers, in her coffin.

No, it’s because last night I was listening to her singing, and the sound of it slammed me back to a specific incident where because of my state of drunken belligerence I ruined an opportunity she’d had to become a singer with a record company that at the time, it was then one of the biggest labels, RCA. And the man who had the power to make her famous, the bastard’s name was Joe Glazier, I’ll just say that he’s on the long list of individuals that, who deserve amends from me because of what I did. My wife being another, of course. In fact I so chose last night to make amends with her regarding the terrible thing I did, after I’d been sitting listening to her sing. She sings the way I drink, putting everything she has into it, in a style that when you listen to it, your first impulse is to say she sounds a little like Etta James and a little like Ella Fitzsgerald and a bit like some others, but then you realize that although these others have all influenced her, she has something that’s hers exclusively, and that’s the mark of a true artist, id’nit?

Her mother sang and so she sang, from the time she was a little girl, and when I met her she was practicing everyday, recording her practice sessions on a Bell & Howell tape recorder. She’d take a line to be sung, and begin tearing it apart, looking for a way back in, a way to phrase it, she told me she would practice singing one line a hundred different ways, even in her sleep, until she found it.

The thing is, when she won this national contest that was sponsored by RCA and she came in second place on the strength of a piano-vocal demo she’d made, I knew she was going places. I’m telling you, my ex-libating friends, that I should have been happy, and in a sense I was, but I was paranoid more than anything else. An attractive woman in an attractive sort of gownish piece of apparel standing on stage with the spotlight shining on the split in the gown, revealing the long expanse of cinnamon-tinted calf and thigh, is how it was summed up for me. The microphone, I’d be thinking as I drank, was a hell of a device, a device invented by someone who clearly who couldn’t keep his phallo-centric obsessions from intruding upon the very design of the device he’d invented, the microphone held up to those lip-sticked lips O-ing and Ah-ing as she crooned, with the band behind her, the drummer pounding all over his little drum kit as he took in the view of the singer’s ass swaying to the rhythms he pounded out, and more, the men involved in every step of promoting her career hitting on her at every opportunity.

And there I’d stand, off to the side, smiling like I wasn’t noticing what was going on before my very eyes. Like I needed another layer of denial in my life. The proof that I wasn’t imaging the probable titillation and allure of her standing there on the stage in the thigh-revealing gown was that I myself, thinking of it, would become unmistakably aroused. Do I have to spell it out, A-raised-to-the-second power? The details of the arousal, the intricacies of what we refer to here in our genial little club as the worst example of ‘stinking thinking’?

I read an article in Newsweek talking about the benefits of masturbation. It’s in the open and it’s okay, now. The past is past, gone are the days when the act was demonized, when engaging in it was thought to result in blindness and handlessness or whatever.

Now in every other movie if you subscribe to TMC you see women masturbating gracefully on beds, or in bathtubs, or in cars or elevators, in classrooms and in closets. Men, not so much. Maybe because for men the act does not translate so appealingly and lacks the gentle aesthetic quality seen in women asprawl on beds? Because since when is the motion of a demented piston in any way appealing? Whatever.

What I’m saying is I won’t bother to paint a picture of Raymond Datcher heavily drunked up in his own bathroom, on fire with images of his own wife, the titillating image she’d without a doubt present to strangers, men – and many women, yes, that too – Raymond Datcher drunked up in his bathroom engaging in an act that for men just doesn’t come across with the graceful sighing sprawling flair that women convey, although I’m sure that there must be plenty of women who go at it with a man’s stripped-of-all-aesthetically redeeming single-mindedness and aggression. I’m sure there are some women here tonight that, who could attest to that. I see Dora nodding, there, by the coffee urn. Honest to a fault, eh Dora? Well, why not? It’s okay these days, it’s even commendable. Secrets are safe in this room, or at least that’s the party line. Hell, I’m sure even the neck-fire girl had other fires she vigorously tried to extinguish, when she wasn’t busy with the neck.

But the point I’m trying to make is that, all the how healthy it is aside, in Newsweek and everywhere else, it didn’t feel healthy to Raymond Datcher, it felt pathetic. If you’re reduced to engaging in the act, you at least want some faceless breast-implanted pornographic image in your mind to do the deed by, not your own wife.

But that proved something to me, or so I thought: if I was driven to such an act by an image so powerful that it pushed aside more visceral ones, revealing my own imaginative poverty, centering on my own wife rather than some garter-belt wearing … then how much more … broadly and all-encompassingly would other men be driven to it, seeing her? So on Monday, February 23, 19 hundred and 50-something, I think, we traveled to Chicago, Elizabeth and I, for a meeting with this hot-shot executive-type Glazier fellow, to discuss the possibility of a recording contract.

The first-prize winner had been awarded one, a white girl from Idaho who couldn’t hold a candle to Elizabeth and who sounded like one of the Andrew Sisters without the rest of the Andrew Sisters, I mean she sang in a voice that was built for providing only background bolster, a straight-arrow sort of voice that sounded its best buried in 4 or 5-part harmony. I’d preyed on Elizabeth’s fears of being taken advantage of, drawing a picture of a world full of white men just waiting for a beautiful black woman to prey on as they quote helped her unquote climb the ladder of success. So I was accompanying her in the capacity as husband and manager slash agent, so she wouldn’t be taken advantage of.

You’re seeing where this is headed, bifold A, I know you are. AA’ers, we’re nothing if not experts in tragic endings.

His office was at the top floor, many stories up, in a building full of shiny glass. His office was so big it was just fucking ridiculous. And the man himself, as we sat on a little couch adjacent to his big desk, looked like he had walked off a used-car lot and into the office. I saw that he was wearing a toupee. As expensive as they are, you can always tell – eh, Charlie? Oh, come on now Charlie, lighten up. Don’t hate the player, hate the game. You borrowed my copy of the Big Book, remember, and never returned it, and I’ve never asked for it back, remember? So just sit back down. Laughter’s the best medicine, and there’s no sharing that’s been done here tonight that’s more pathetic that my own. That’s better.

I’m wrapping it up now, 3 minus 1 A. I’m deep in the flames of the burning desire.

So in Mr. Glazier’s office, he’s going through the motions, asking what her career aspirations are, drawing pictures of the career that’s waiting for her, what he has in mind, and how does she feel about it, about traveling everywhere, and etcetera. I’m the one who’s doing the talking, I mean the answering. And he doesn’t like it one bit, this whole husband-manager-agent thing.

Of course before we went in the office, I made a quick run to the bathroom and emptied my flask. I drank that flask down like a living advertisement for empty flasks, and in the mirror I cocked my hat on my head, snapped the lapels on the double-breasted Italian job I was wearing. Raymond Datcher could cut a dapper image, in those days. Look at me now. But no, look at me then.

We had a war of colognes going on in the room, mine versus his. Mine won. We had a war of the mustaches going on, too. Mine was thinner, more debonair. The hat that was cocked over my eye stayed that way, I didn’t bother to take it off. Glazier seemed to sense something. He produced a bottle of Bourban and poured himself one, and poured one for me. He didn’t offer any to Elizabeth, he offered her a tiny polite flute of champagne, which she declined in a lady-like way. He watched me drink mine down, and by this time, what with the Bourban piggybacking the vodka, I was good and drunked up. My laughter at his jokes began to sound like snarls. I felt Elizabeth kicking my ankle, little secret warning kicks. Music was playing, Elizabeth’s demo, and we all sat nodding our heads. He began talking contracts and had one ready to go. He didn’t expect us to do any signing, he said. We’d want to let our attorney go through it first, of course, he said. As I skimmed it, I said, damn right our attorney’s going to have a look at this. I can look at this and see right now that our attorney is going to have a field day with this clause, and this clause, and this one. I took out a pen and put stars next to the clauses the attorney we didn’t have would have a field day with, and by the time I was through, the contract looked like a sky on a cloudless night, full of constellations. Glazier saw what he’d have to deal with, dealing with me, this husband slash agent slash manager who’d always belligerently be in the way, and he got a look in his eyes that was shrewd and that said no way am I dealing with this guy.

But he played the game through, nodding as if I hadn’t blown it. I knew that when we walked out that office, we’d never hear from him. And then the coup de gras, my binary-A-ed brothers and sisters, the coup de gras. He was determined to keep everything civilized to the very end, he was determined to see us smiling out the door. The coup de gras: as we stood, I saw him glance at Elizabeth’s hips as she stood and made a little adjustment to the dress she’d worn, tugging it down in that discreet way that when it’s done out of genuine modesty and not coyness is almost touching. His glance happened in the blink of an eye, but I think he wanted me to see it, a sort of adding insult to unspoken injury.

He extended his hand across the desk for me to shake and instead of shaking it, I reached out to grab him by the lapel, but I missed the lapel and my hand slid along his neck and I ended up grabbing his hair, and the toupee came off in my hand. Redder a man has never flushed, deuce of A. Now, you all know me. If I know you personally, I’m saying I don’t care, you can be anything – white, yellow, green, I’ve got no problem with you on that account. In the abstract with Caucasians as a group, I’m the first to admit that I have some problems that I need to work on, maybe. Raymond Datcher is not a racist but I have to say that this flushing red business that such a rosy picture has been painted of in Victorian novels and the like is not all that it’s portrayed as cracking up to be. It’s not attractive to see a grown man or woman change into a vegetable right before your eyes, a beet or a tomato, I’m just sorry, but no. It’s just not a color that looks good on skin, no matter how much it might be romanticized to be. I may be black as midnight but it keeps my emotions where they belong – it’s skin, not a billboard for beets.

I hope there’s no hard feelings, here. I’m just saying.

So here is Glazier now, red as a baboon’s wiped-raw arse. Sputtering and trying to grab the toupee, which at this point I’m waving around a bit like a flag, out of his reach, teasing him forward so that he falls, sprawls out across his desk as he’s grabbing at it. And Elizabeth aghast, her hands raised up to her mouth. And as I’m walking backward, pulling Elizabeth in one hand and dangling the toupee in the other, Glazier is stumbling after us, still snatching for the toupee. Well, this is not enough for me. I want the bastard to remember this.

So I shove the toupee down the back of my pin-stripped pants and wipe my warm rump with it and throw it in his face. The man is so devastated he doesn’t know what he’s doing, at this point. Wouldn’t you be? He catches the toupee and puts it on his head, even though I’ve just done what I’ve done to it, and yells to get out, get out, get the fuck out and go back to bumfuck, Wisconsin! Oh don’t you worry, I’m going, I say to him when I reach the door, I say, by the way, nice toupee there, Joe, Mr. Glazier. I’m tempted to get one just like it, I say, but I’m afraid I wouldn’t look as good as you do in it, Joey.

Some of you are laughing and some of you aren’t, I see. It wasn’t my intention to bring racial polarization to the room. But I had to share that with you.

Because the worst part has yet to come. So you guys who aren’t laughing will have the last laugh anyway. The worst part was last night, when I could hear Elizabeth singing in the living room when I was sitting on the bed in the bedroom untying my shoes. You see, we never talked about what happened, not once in all these years. But I know she hated me for it. Like Mr. Glazier, she never came out and said anything, but she blamed me and had a right to. I ruined what she could have become. Greatness was in her, and I fixed that, didn’t I. And so last night I decided to make amends. Twenty-five years after the fact, twenty-five years too late to change a damn thing. All the damage was done and had sunk down to the bedrock and none of it could be undone. But I walked out into the living room and I went through the whole thing and I found myself on my knees. I begged for her forgiveness. I told her how I let my being jealous of the attention she’d get ruin things for her.

And here’s the thing, now. She looked at me like I was insane. She looked at me like she didn’t know what the hell I was doing. ‘Raymond, what in the world are you talking about? Get up, right now. Are you drunk? Foolish question.’ Then it came to me: she didn’t remember any of this. The Alzheimer’s had taken it from her. She had no recollection of it any longer. All she had was this feeling toward me of resentment and bitterness and rage and she had no idea why or where it came from or what had caused it. She didn’t have to live with it any longer. Only I did. It was over for her, but it’s not for me. I can’t even make amends, it’s too late. And so I’ll go to my grave with it.

So I suppose what I’m saying is, if you have amends to make, make them. Just make them, though God only knows what for.

Deuce of A, it would be a shame to subject you to this and then to have you know that I’m going home with this bottle, so here it is. Maurice, just toss it for me, would you? What can I say. Make your amends.

Time for me to say the words. Sometimes I like this part almost as much as I like the greeting. Not tonight, though, AA-er’s. Here it is: Thanks for letting me share.


Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday evenings the parking lot of The Calvary Community Church is a spittoon for the sort of slack, expelled-from-the-bottom-of-lungs exhaust only ailing old cars seem to copiously cough up. Clots of cars roll down the driveway’s broken-puzzle asphalt slope and onto Morgan Avenue like phlegm from a kid’s caked nose. I’m standing over by the rusted lawn mower when my father walks out.

He sees me and lifts in hand in a casual wave. At fifty-nine, he’s still full of bravura and cockiness. He’s small, 5’8”, because he simply doesn’t need height – height is something men with little minds believe they need. The ground reaches up to him, lifts him on its shoulders to another man’s eye-level, no matter how tall the other man might be. When he was young he was brashly handsome, always dressed to kill. He wore his hats tilted on his head like avant-garde sculpture, jutting at angles so precarious and gravity-defying that those who were in a conversation with him unconsciously tilted their heads in increments throughout the exchange to achieve a sense of alignment and congruence with the speaker. They returned to their homes with a sense of vague nausea and vertigo, reviewing the contents of meals recently eaten to find something they could attribute the nausea to. Finding nothing in the menu suspect, they sought out Pepto Bismol in their medicine cabinets, drank a double dose, went to bed with pinkly dyed lips and a chalky taste in their mouths. Some put two and two together, refused to speak again with Raymond Datcher so long as he was wearing a hat. The tilted hat was a source of implacable vexation for Mrs. D. She reasoned with him, and when that didn’t work, she would stand intimidatingly close and either jerk the hat straight or slap it from his head. Calmly he would pick it up and, smiling, slide his body suavely under the hat he was holding in both hands, drop it back on his heat, tap dance a yard to the left, finish with a slide to the right, strike a jaunty pose.

He’s wearing such a hat right now.

“Did you like that?” he asks, meaning his monologue. And I know he must have seen me sitting in the back of the room.

“I didn’t know about all that. The girl with two left breasts?”

“Cynthia Witt. Hell of a girl.” I let him sling his arm around my shoulders, father-and-son style. “Long time ago. But you knew about the Glazier thing because I told you.”

When he had told me the story a few years ago, he hadn’t been the villain. He’d been the guardian angel, protecting his wife from lecherous record company executive types with golden tongues and sleazy intentions.

“I didn’t know you wanted to write.”

“I wanted to do a lot of things, bucko. Wanted to be a lot of things.” He says this almost as though I’m to blame, then switches to a smoother tone. “Where’s Sage?”

“She’s around.”

“She’s something else and a half. Tell her I said to keep doing whatever she’s doing.”

I nod. “That’s more or less what everybody who knows her says.”

We’re standing at his car, a 1989 Thunderbird that wonders how it made it to 2005. It’s well maintained, considering the number of DUI accidents that have been this car’s sad fate.

“Well, your mom’s waiting.”

“She’s sleep,” I say. “Mrs. Baterman’s waiting.”

“Gives her something to do.”

“Dad, you’re all right, aren’t you? You’re not still thinking about drinking?”

“Hell, bucko. I don’t know what I’m thinking about these days.”

This is the awkward part, men who are related saying goodbye to one another. It tends to be a drawn-out affair, where farewell gestures are contemplated and in the end discarded: the kiss, the hand clasp, the hug, the slap on the back. He resolves the dilemma stylishly with a tip of his hat as he’s driving off, honking the horn, burning macho rubber.

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