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The Big Night

This is a story from a guy I know; I’ll call him Ernie.

…..

I get up in the morning around 5 a.m., if I’m working or off. If I have been drinking the night before I get up and eat a little breakfast and watch the news some, then take a nap until like 10. It was a Halloween (on a Friday) and I had been up early, eaten what I could, slept again, and was awake for real and watching TV with still a fuzzy hangover when this show came on.

I’m not big on shows. I’ll watch whatever is on until there is sports to see. But I don’t follow anything, per se. But this half-hour show about a little girl who lost her mother in a car wreck comes on. The little girl is in a plain ankle dress with an old-fashioned bow to tie her hair back.

She is so small her feet don’t touch the floor and she rocks gently and stares at the camera while the theme music plays. When the host (a white man about the same age as my father) starts talking to her, she begins messing with the fingers of one hand. You can see she is wearing a bunch of little rings.

“Terry, how much did you love your mother?” the host asks. The little girl stretches out her trembling hands as far as she can, like the wings of a plane.

…..

I was fourteen when I got drunk for the first time. I was twenty when I got fired for being drunk on the job. I didn’t go to college. So I had to work whatever jobs I could. You can come and go from shit jobs no problem. Most of my buddies were drunks I met at these jobs. Some were drug addicts, too.

I was always in jail until I hit thirty, and then cops stopped arresting me for public drunk. They started rubbing me on the back and telling me to go home and sleep it off. Drunk driving was another story. They never let you off for that. I sat in jail one weekend with a ninety-year-old man who was so drunk that he drove his car into the side of a bus. The bus was parked at a stoplight. He had been going slow, since he was real drunk.

I know a guy who killed somebody in a car wreck. He cried all the time and said it would have been better if he had gone off to prison.

…..

“Terry, what would tell the driver of that car that killed your mother?”

Little Terry peeps shyly at the camera and wipes her nose.

“God loves you, mister. And so do I. And so does my mommy.”

I think the guy’s name was Hank. You figure a guy named Hank is going to be a drinker. Hank ended up taking his own life in the bathroom of a rehab center in Tennessee. I believe it got even worse for him when he finally sobered up. The reality kicked in. The real deal of it all.

…..

The show ends with everybody applauding and the host bends down to hug Terry with a crew member holding a big check behind them. A check for $100,000, courtesy of some television network.

I get a tiny tear in my eye when the credits roll. I decide tonight is the big night. This is when I do it. When I walk into St. Francis on Meriwether Road and plop into a metal chair and tell everybody that my name is Ernie and I’m an alcoholic.

Couldn’t hurt. First thing though is to make a couple calls and tell people not to stop by to pick me up for tonight. Halloween drinking is a big thing. You can sit at Stimey’s Bar and drink and watch kids go by the plate glass windows in their costumes. Then Stimey will play spooky music and everybody will get shitfaced and then you’re lucky to make it home without stepping into the street and getting run over.

Dude named Marcus died that very way, three Halloweens ago.

…..

I don’t have a clean shirt so I have to put on a jacket over a dirty shirt. I walk along the sidewalk right after sunset, when the sky is still blue in the corners. There is an old fella mowing his little patch of front grass, sweating into a bandana he wipes with. I have seen him at Stimey’s in the past, sitting in a dark booth in back with a couple of other war veterans, glowering and nursing glasses of beer silently. He has a Frankenstein boot instead of a shoe on one foot. The little runt of a porch is littered with clay turtles and rabbits, all painted brightly. A fat woman drinking a canned soda sits on a slant there, watching Mr. Vietnam Veteran hack away at the curb.

“Nice costume,” she tells me in this high Northern voice.

Everybody is a comedian in this neighborhood. My landlord likes to tell me to make friends of the roaches in my kitchen and bathroom. She says teach them to order out pizza so I won’t keep having to use the phone next door.

St. Francis has its side door to the fellowship hall propped open with a brick. There’s already a crowd inside. I stand up next to a tiny Asian man drinking instant coffee from a paper cup and listen to him talk to a young fella about the cost of health insurance at his job, how it don’t cover vision nor dental.

“My kids have bad teeth,” he chirps. “Like me.” He opens his mouth wide and shows off these teeth like gray propellers.

I grab a seat in the back and settle in, listen to this skinny old woman tell us she’s not even forty and look how bad she looks. She says it’s from twenty years of rum in Puerto Rico, where her husband (god rest his soul) was in the Coast Guard.

“You’ll look better as time goes on,” a voice growls to my right. “You’ll be pretty again, Mary. Mark my word.”

It is my Vietnam Vet buddy, a late-comer, still wiping sweat from his neck and ears. Mary smiles into her neck and wags her head like a sad puppy.

“All I care about is that I feel better,” she says.

The next guy is the main speaker, a businessman type who has come from work downtown with only enough time to loosen his tie. He smooths his hair and scrapes his expensive shoes on St. Francis’ floor tiles while he talks. He has the voice of someone you hear calling out the scores and such at ballgames. He could’ve been a singer in a different life.

“Hank was my brother,” he says, catching my attention. This guy knew Hank, the drunk who plowed into that car with Terry and her mother in it. He talks a little bit about Terry, whose feet won’t even touch the floor. He says his whole family is drinkers. He says his mother died in a nuthouse (he calls it something different) and his grandfather was shot in the back of the head in Las Vegas, when Vegas was what it used to be.

“My name is Brian,” he says, “and I am an alcoholic.”

…..

Bill. This is the grass-cutting Vietnam Vet’s name. Bill, with a vigorous handshake. Me and Bill and Brian and Mary and the Asian with the wild teeth are standing around talking afterwards.

“I saw you this afternoon, didn’t I? On the way here. And I’ve seen you at Stimey’s, too.”

I give Bill that nod and look-away like my generation does. All of us are either Clint Eastwood or Steve McQueen. You only make eye contact when you make love or talk to the judge.

“Nice to have you here,” Mary says. She and Brian are holding hands. The Asian fella, Shin, gives me a soft punch in the shoulder.

“You come back,” he says. “It gets better all the time.”

Big Bill swipes at his neck one last time before he puts his damp bandana away. He clears his throat and turns to Brian. He says he saw that little girl on TV and it broke his heart. He offers his condolences all around, knowing how hard it is to lose somebody. Brian says thankyou and Mary squeezes his hand and smiles a little.

This little kid in a mask pokes his head in the doorway next to us and looks around. He just assumed.

“You not old enough to be in here kid,” Shin says. “Come back when you’re older.”

Bill clears his throat again and turns to the kid, a superhero I don’t recognize.

“No don’t,” he orders. “Don’t come back, kid. Turn out to be one of those who doesn’t need to come here.”

Mary talks now. She tells the kid not to listen to these men, who must sound confusing. She lets go of Brian’s hand and hurries off to her pocketbook which hangs on the back of her chair.

“Hold on a minute, sweetie,” she calls back, “I’ve got some candy in my purse.”