TUESDAY NIGHT CLUB
For Brynn, who’s got her own stories to tell.
The man formerly known as Daniel Anthony McAlister, Esq., Attorney-at-Law, sits in a circle with twenty-five other souls, members in good standing (more or less) of the Judson Memorial Hospital Codependency Group. He wears a charcoal-gray Armani he purchased for a big trial a few years back. Though he can no longer afford to have the suit dry-cleaned, he rescues it from his closet for special occasions, to remind civilians of his identity. Others, patients and their codependents, are dressed more comfortably—in jeans and OSU sweatshirts, camouflage pants and Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare T-shirts, acrylic slacks and fake down vests, pilled sweaters and Wayfarers, slick running suits and shoes with a swoosh. In a room barely large enough for this circle of friendship, fluorescent lights wink as the seconds stretch to minutes. Patients and their guests, spouses and parents mostly, stretch, stare at the ceiling, hide their faces behind Styrofoam cups filled with burnt coffee, smack chewing gum, mouth unlit cigarettes, slouch forward with elbows on their knees, and pick their teeth.
Daniel taps his watch crystal. It’s seven thirty-three on the first Tuesday evening in November. He might be a drunk, an alcoholic, an addict, but his time is valuable. Where the hell is Group Leader Martha, a recently minted MSW, the freshest face in the rehab biz? Daniel wants this meeting finito. No matter how late she arrives, Martha demands they work a full hour. Her tardiness merely prolongs the agony. One more night to endure before he can reclaim his life.
And where is Judith? A fellow patient due to graduate next week, she alone interests him. Only she has done as many opioids and fallen as far. Once a head flight attendant and supervisor for a big airline, she was demoted for drugging, then fired for slapping an unruly male passenger. The union went to bat for her before—got her reinstated after failed drug tests, missed flights, and shouting matches with coworkers. But the union’s patience ran out. Several times outside of group he’s tried to talk with her, but she’s shy and elusive. Her mother, a sweet lady, is constantly at her daughter’s side.
If Judith would lighten up, they’d make a great pair. When she was telling the group about the passenger she assaulted, Dan interrupted. “Man, you’ve got a big career ahead of you in mixed martial arts.”
She shook her head. “Really? You think I’m proud of that?”
Later, at break, he sought her out to explain that he was only making a joke, trying to keep things loose. He asked if she liked bagpipe music, told her he’d started a group, and suggested she come to one of their practices. She walked away. Wouldn’t even make eye contact. Stuck-up bitch. What would it have cost her to accept his apology and show a little interest in his hobby? Still, he’s always been attracted to women who ignore him. When Kate divorces his ass, he and Judith will become better friends.
Beside him, Kate stirs. Her neck is taut, her mouth is drawn into a permanent look of displeasure. Knee-length leather boots firmly planted on the soiled beige carpet are braced for a roller coaster’s plunge. Her hands vise-grip the edges of the chair. If she’d acknowledge him, he’d tell her to chill. Group is an hour. Even she can put up with an hour of this bullshit. But his wife hasn’t spoken since they left the house. Except, that is, to tell him to fuck off: “I have to drive because you lost your license, but I don’t have to talk.” He doesn’t want to be here any more than she does. He could be playing his bagpipes in the basement rec room—filling the sacks, squeezing, his fingers dancing, working the chanter, losing himself in the poignant skirl. He conjures his bagpiper self in full regalia, the McAlister tartan on display.
If only Betsy were here, he thinks, Kate would have to suck it up and behave. Their fifteen-year-old daughter wanted to come. “I can help him,” she told her mother. “He listens to me.” Kate said she was naive. “A room full of drunks and addicts with their pathetic stories is no place for a girl your age. And besides—what’s the point? Your father is hopeless. Far beyond your help or mine.” They argued right in front of him, as if he were invisible. When he did begin to speak, did begin to say that having Betsy at group wasn’t such a bad idea, Kate shook her finger at him. “Shut up, Dan. You don’t have a vote. Not in this you don’t.” Well, okay then. The soulful Otis Redding vocal “Try a Little Tenderness” popped into his head. He had half a notion to sing it: “Oh she may be weary, them young girls they do get wearied…” But he didn’t. After all, Kate flat out disenfranchised him. So, as she turned away in a huff, he hummed a few bars instead.
Still no Martha. He’s thirsty as hell. He closes his eyes and imagines the taste of an icy martini with no vermouth. He shakes two Percocet from the vial in his pocket and washes them down with vodka. He smacks his lips. Yes. He finishes the martini and sucks the olive into his mouth.
Beneath her camel-hair skirt, his wife’s legs flap like butterfly wings. As they gather momentum, her fingers tighten on the chair till her knuckles are white. She’s about to jump from the roller coaster, screaming hateful things at him as she tumbles to the ground. Kate thinks he can stop drinking and drugging if he wants to, as if there’s some magic sobriety lever he can pull. You’d think she might’ve learned something all these years in all these meetings. His wife can’t figure out why she’s here, what she’s done wrong. “My mistake was to marry you. You’ve screwed up again, and now I’m being punished.”
“You’re not being punished,” he told her. “Group is part of the drill, one of the hoops we have to jump through.”
“We? Screw we, sweetheart. I’m not your trained seal.”
He can see her side. Up to a point. Tonight he needs her to stay calm, to keep her mouth shut. Otherwise, she’ll draw Martha’s attention and they’ll become the evening’s entertainment. Easier said.
Hugging an accordion file, a yellow legal tablet, and a bottle of water, Martha bursts through the door and takes her seat. Out of breath, she apologizes. A white headband restrains tight ringlets of dirty-blond hair. She has a large sloping forehead, pale skin, and blushes easily when a patient jumps in her shit, which happens often because she is so young, dresses in preppy skirts and sweaters, and, in spite of her training, has absolutely no clue what they’re going through. Dan supposes her large black frame glasses are meant to disguise her age, but she looks like a teenager nonetheless. Her soft nasal voice is difficult to understand.
She clears her throat, welcomes the newcomers to the group, and reminds them of the rules—first names only, be constructive, treat everyone with respect, don’t interrupt, and don’t ever, ever repeat what we discuss this evening. “Understood?” Heads nod. “Well, then, let’s begin. Who would like to go first?”
Eyes look down, up, sideways—anywhere but at Martha. A distant siren’s wail grows louder and louder. An ambulance pulls up to the emergency room entrance two floors below. Dan pictures the rear doors opening, medics pulling him from the van into the bright lights of the hospital canopy, wheeling his gurney through double glass doors, a doctor asking what and how much he’s taken. He can barely recall several such trips, the last two months ago. Seventy-two hours in detox—sweating, shaking, his body begging for a hit. Was Kate in his room then? He thinks so. Did she say, “This is it, Dan. I’m leaving for good, taking the children, and moving in with my parents”? Perhaps. He knows she’s seen a divorce lawyer. She left the bloodsucker’s business card on the kitchen counter for him to discover. Her parents, never charter members of the Daniel McAlister Fan Club, are cheering her on. They’ll gladly pay her attorney’s fees, let her and the children move in. Whatever it takes to get rid of him.
“Dan,” Martha says, “we haven’t heard from you in a while. Is there anything you’d like to share with the group?”
Crap. He knew his turn was coming, that he couldn’t hide forever. But he shakes his head anyway, reluctant to speak, though he’s certain what to say and how to say it: He owns his addictions now. He’s hit bottom and wants to change. This time will be different—he’ll stay sober. These lyrics play in his head like a country-and-western ballad—the music Martha likes, the old vinyl record Kate despises because he’s spun it again and again. He’ll do whatever he has to do to get his old life back—admit he’s an addict, an alcoholic; go to group every week; see his therapist, Little Miss Sunshine; attend AA meetings, get a sponsor, and make amends with the people he’s supposedly hurt. He’ll play the recovery game. But it’s one thing to write the song, another to climb up on stage and sing it. Tonight, performing doesn’t feel quite right. He’ll wait until Kate’s in a better mood.
“This is an important part of your treatment.” Martha furrows her brow and snaps the band on her file. “Your wife is here. You can’t just sit and say nothing.”
I sure as hell can. He wants to set her straight, but doesn’t. Careful now. He needs Martha to put in a good word with the lawyer disciplinary committee and the judge. He’s sick of washing dishes at the men’s shelter, his wife treating him like excrement. He’s tired of peeing on command. Trying cases is his life’s work. No one is better in a courtroom. Not every lawyer has saved a physically abused wife from lethal injection, representing her pro bono, much to his partners’ dismay. Back when battered wife syndrome was just some cockamamy theory, he’d convinced a jury—after multiple broken ribs, arms, and teeth; after contusions and permanent scars; after a nose splattered all over her face; after her jaw had to be wired shut for two months; after her husband cut her with a knife—his client justifiably shot and killed the bastard. For months his case was all over the news. Judith must have read about it. Surely she’s seen footage of him on TV or his photograph in the newspaper. The Junior League voted him Person of the Year for his efforts on behalf of abused women.
“I have a cold.” He wills his voice to sound phlegmy. “Next time. I promise, Martha.”
The addicts snigger.
Screw you all.
Judith and her mother enter. There are no empty seats, so they stand by the door. Judith leans sideways against the wall. As always, she wears comfy gray sweats and a black baseball cap pulled down over her eyes. Her tea-colored ponytail sticks out in back. In spite of her baggy clothing, something quite wonderful lurks.
“Okay,” Martha says. “How about you, Kate? Since your husband won’t participate?”
The room is silent. Attention shifts to Kate. Sweat trickles from Dan’s armpits. Usually Kate’s double-barreled-shotgun stare is sufficient to warn off intruders, but there’s no telling how many times she’ll pull the trigger once she gets started. He wants to loosen his tie and unbutton his shirt collar. He covers his mouth instead, closes his eyes, and sends her a message via tin cans connected with string: Say no, baby.
“Actually, you’re lucky Dan won’t talk. Fortunate to be spared all his bullshit.”
“In this room we speak truth,” Martha says. “Nothing is spared.”
Fuck. Dan wishes he were anywhere but here, but the lawyer disciplinary committee he once chaired continues to insist. The judge who sentenced him three times for driving under the influence insists. Kate and his children insist. Completing the program is a condition for getting back his law license. Along with community service, proof of long-term recovery, restitution of the money he stole from his clients to buy drugs, and a few other things he can’t remember right now. The disciplinary committee took a dim view of his larceny and was hell-bent to make an example of him.
Martha presses Kate again.
“Eighteen years we’ve been married,” Kate hisses, “and he’s been an addict the whole time.”
The depths of his wife’s hatefulness never surprises him, but Dan smiles to himself, thinking, What if I actually told her the truth? I like drugs. I don’t want to quit. Have a problem with that? How much fun would that be, to flummox his wife and her sidekick, sweet little Martha?
“He hid his habit from me when we were dating. Back then he took quaaludes and amphetamines, smoked dope. Booze of course. Vicodin. Prozac. And as it turned out, those were the good old days, before cocaine and heroin. After we got married, he didn’t even bother to cover it up.”
He has to grab the shotgun before it’s too late. Before she reloads. He starts to interrupt, but Martha puts a finger to her lips. “You know the rules. You had your chance. Let her speak.”
“He makes drunken calls to our friends late at night. We were supposed to go to our neighbors’ for dinner to watch the Oscars. He never showed, never called. I made excuses. When I went home, I found him passed out on the bed. The front of his car was caved in. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about leaving him. We have a son, Will, in junior high school, and a daughter, Betsy, a sophomore. For years they’ve begged me to do something about their father. Do you know how helpless that makes you feel? I’ve told them it’s up to him. He has to make the decision to get sober. We can’t force him to do anything. They’ve never believed me. Still don’t.
“Now he’s out of work and we have no money. I’ve got a part-time teaching job. On my way to work every day, I drive by empty houses with “for sale” signs and imagine how much better our lives would be without him. This is the fourth program he’s been in. He says he’ll make changes, but doesn’t mean it. He agrees to rehab to humor the kids and me, the court, and then goes back to his old ways. Three months ago, in the middle of the night, I found him comatose underneath a bush in the front yard. I tried to get him up, but he wouldn’t budge. Finally, I said, ‘If you want to die out here, be my guest.’ Frankly, it would have been a relief. In the morning he acted as though nothing had happened, as if sleeping in the shrubbery was the most normal thing in the world.”
Martha stops her note-taking. “Dan? Anything you’d like to say?”
“No. I’ve heard this stuff already. Do I look like a man who sleeps in his yard or who’d miss a party? Me, miss a party? Really? Use your common sense, ladies and gentlemen of the jury.” He raises his eyebrows and looks around the circle, hoping the group appreciates the humor. No one chuckles or even smiles. “I love my children and they love me.”
“We’re not judging you,” Martha says.
“Right!” Immediately Dan regrets this. In the old days he’d have let her remark slide. He looks at Judith, hoping she’ll cut him some slack. She’s saying something over her shoulder to her mother—possibly shaking her head—he can’t quite tell. If only she’d spend a little time with him, he’d convince her that he’s not the man Kate thinks he is.
Across the circle, close to Judith and her mother, Peter begins to hum—a loud monotone that resembles a monk’s or a Krishna’s incantation. In black leggings, an ultrashort black gauzy skirt, a sequined turquoise jacket, and red Chuck Taylors, he tilts his chair and rocks back and forth in synchronicity with his atonal droning. Painted crimson lips sparkle. Gold hoops dangle from his ears. A turban matches the color of his jacket.
“Shut up, Peter,” Dan barks.
“Lay off Peter,” someone says.
“Yeah, leave him alone.”
“All right, settle down,” Martha interrupts. “All of you… Dan, this is about rewiring your brain. Cognitive behavior modification. Genetics aside, drug and alcohol habits are learned. We’re helping you unlearn them, changing your neural feedback loop. It’s all about biology.”
Kate laughs. Throws back her head and laughs some more.
Martha’s neck and face flush. She moves her lips for a moment, then stares at Kate. “Our program is science-based, state-of-the-art.”
“Congratulations,” Kate says. “Good for you.”
“We need your buy-in.”
Kate opens her purse, grabs a tissue, and blows her nose. She points at Dan. “Talk to him.”
Dan cops another look at Judith. There’s a sadness about her, as if she’s endured the unspeakable. He guesses it has to do with her father, who’s never shown up here, some problem in their relationship, perhaps a misunderstanding between them on account of her substance abuse. Noticeably large ears, her only defect, are hidden beneath the baseball cap. Her dimpled chin, nose, and cheekbones are perfectly formed. And the drugs haven’t messed with her complexion—pure white and soft. She has the face of a twentysomething and doesn’t wear makeup. Not even lipstick. Amazing. He wonders if he can catch her alone sometime this week, at the daytime sessions Kate doesn’t attend, when Judith is separated from her mother. At a break, maybe, or on the way to the restroom. Just a few seconds to say hello and ask her to lunch: We ought to compare notes.
Peter’s chair falls backward, his head recoils, and the turban unwinds from his shaved head. His humming ceases. He rolls onto his side, draws himself into the fetal position, and doesn’t move. The third or fourth time this has happened. Martha pretends not to notice.
“Dan,” Martha says, “why did you start using drugs?”
He knows what she’s getting at. She thinks he’s broken like the others. Believes he loathes himself. Thinks he finds solace in the substances he takes. But she’s wrong. He doesn’t hate himself. He started using because his friends used. He likes getting high. “I was thirteen. Smoking pot was cool. All my crowd smoked.”
Judith raises her hand.
“Yes?” Martha says.
“Kate is right. Dan intends to kill himself. He doesn’t want our help. He’s wasting our time. I’m getting a little bored back here. Can we move on?”
“Nicely put, Judith,” a father says.
Several in the group clap their hands. Kate takes a deep breath and snaps her purse closed.
On the floor, Peter pushes himself into a seated position and starts to hum.
Dan jumps up and opens his mouth. He wants to shout, No! Please hear me out. Judith, please. You and I aren’t like them. We have nothing in common with these people. The appeal dies in his throat.
“Dan, is there something else on your mind?” Martha asks. “If not, please sit down.”
He feels a sharp pain in his gut and can’t move. He watches as Judith turns to her mother, cups a hand to her mouth, and whispers. They link arms and exchange a look. With the back of her hand, Judith’s mother brushes her daughter’s cheek.
“Judith.” Dan has remained standing. He hunches his shoulders and turns up his palms. “Judith…”
“What?” she snaps.
Rising, Kate says, “Excuse me. I’m done here.” She navigates across and through the circle to the door and disappears. Judith and her mother follow.
Dan drops onto the chair and lowers his head. He imagines Kate and Judith outside in the hallway, Judith telling his wife she’s known a hundred men like Dan—pilots, passengers, old boyfriends, her estranged father—fraudsters one and all.
“Let’s take five minutes,” Martha says.
Dan and the group filter out into the hallway. Kate has vanished. Where might she have gone? He takes the elevator to the lobby. Outside, in the parking lot, he looks in vain for her navy Volvo SUV. He phones her on his cell, but the call goes to voice mail. He leaves a message: “Can you please pick me up at the entrance? I’m sorry.” How pathetic he sounds. There was a time when… He waits for her inside the glass hospital doors for five, ten, fifteen minutes. She doesn’t show or even return his call. He texts her: Waiting for a ride. Will you come?
He looks at his watch. Group will be over in another ten minutes. He must be gone before they file out past him, heading for their cars while he waits in the hope that Kate will relent. He can only imagine their looks of disapproval, as if they’re better, stronger, more amenable, while he is beyond salvation.
He waits five more minutes, then starts to walk. Turning his topcoat collar to the chilly air, he needs a drink, just one, then he’ll call a cab from the bar. He limps down Prospect Street toward the Alley Cat Tavern. Only fifty-three and his hips and knees are arthritic. Marching with his bagpipers, he tries to disguise the limp, but his effort only makes the pain worse. There will come a time when he can’t march, when this thing he loves so much, his remaining purpose, will be taken from him. Then what?
As he quickens his pace, an ancient bagpipe tune plays in his head. He learned it as a boy: “Lament for Mary MacLeod.” Mary, the tale goes, was banished from the Isle of Skye for writing a song that displeased Chief Roderick MacLeod. When Roderick died, she apologized to the new chief and begged that he allow her to return. He agreed on the condition that she write no more songs. She complied, but on her deathbed, Mary regretted her apology and asked to be buried facedown, in shame for her submission. He pinches his nostrils, imagining Mary’s nose slamming against the bottom of a hard, rough-hewn coffin. Blood leaks from the orifice. Cartilage splays. Her dead eyes bulge.
Facedown? Not me. Never. He fancies writing his own postmortem: Weary of reading obituaries about this or that person’s courageous battle against drug addiction, Daniel McAlister wanted everyone to know that he enjoyed a wee nip now and again and made no apologies. Founder and past president of the Legal Eagles Motorcycle Club, founder and director of the Loch Lomond Pipes and Drums, he practiced law masterfully until the do-gooders took his license. He is survived by his beloved parents Stuart and Irene, devoted (ex-)wife Kate, son Will, and daughter Betsy. He wanted especially to bid farewell to the lovely Judith, wherever she might be: If only, my dear. His in-laws can kiss his ass.
* * *
The Alley Cat is dark and nearly empty. A covered pool table sits in a corner. Neon Budweiser and Miller signs give off the only light. A couple sits at a table in the shadows. Wearing a silver and blue Detroit Lions jersey, the bartender is bent over, his elbows on the bar rail, checking his cell phone. When Dan takes a seat and orders a dry martini, the man makes a sour face, as if mixing such a drink were a serious violation of his manhood. To underscore the point, he serves Dan’s drink in a beer glass. “Got no martini glasses,” he says. Dan doesn’t care. The lemony taste of cheap grocery store vodka is what he wants. A second drink might be in order, so he runs a tab, intending to pay with an off-brand credit card, the one he hid from Kate when she cut his American Express, MasterCard, and Visa into little shards of plastic.
By his fourth (fifth?) martini, Dan’s electric circuits buzz intermittently. He remembers he hasn’t eaten today. Kate was so upset about group, she refused to make dinner before they left. He asks the bartender for a bag of chips, some nuts perhaps, or even a dill pickle, but settles for a Slim Jim instead and another glass of vodka. He hadn’t intended to get drunk. His falling off the wagon tonight is Kate’s fault. If she’d picked him up at the hospital, he wouldn’t be here, sitting on this barstool, trying to have a conversation with a bartender who’s ignoring him.
Last call. He looks at the clock over the bar. It’s a quarter to one. He phones for a cab, but gets a busy signal. No problem. By now the snowy sidewalks have mostly been shoveled off. He should walk a while to clear his head, then he’ll ring dispatch for a taxi again. Besides, it isn’t that far to his home, three or four miles tops, and he’s in no hurry to see Kate. He slides off his stool, loses his balance, and grabs onto a table to steady himself. His body parts are functioning better than he expected, except that outside in front of the bar, he can’t get his bearings. To the left or right Prospect crosses Fulton, he isn’t sure which. Damn, he knows this neighborhood well. If he can get to Fulton, it’s a 5-wood and a wedge shot to his house.
* * *
The cold awakens him. He’s lying on a bench. Leafless trees tower above. A familiar empty fountain sits a few feet away. He knows this place—Prospect Park. He used to bring his kids to play here on the swings and the monkey bars and the pirate ship. Home is only three blocks away. He sits up. His nose, ears, fingers, and toes are numb. How long has he been here? He must have stopped to rest and fallen asleep. The grind of rehab has made him especially tired lately. Thank God he has time to get home before sunrise, before the children are up to get ready for school.
As he approaches the front door, he remembers he has no key. He checks the flowerpot on the stoop where they keep a spare. No go. Kate probably took it to spite him. He checks the back door just in case, but it’s locked. Returning to the front, he has no choice. He can freeze to death out here or press the doorbell.
The porch light comes on. The door opens and daughter Betsy is there in her quilted turquoise robe and bunny slippers. “Where have you been? I’ve been sleeping on the couch in the living room, waiting all night for you.”
When, he wonders, did his little girl acquire this authority? He mustn’t have been paying attention.
Betsy’s porcelain face is fissured with worry. He’s touched. If only Kate were as concerned. He wants to crush his daughter in his arms, but she’ll smell the alcohol. Always the precocious child in this way: No matter what he drinks or what he takes, he can’t fool her.
He steps inside. The enveloping warmth nearly makes his knees buckle. “Your mother left me at the hospital without a way home.”
“She told us you had an argument. You jumped out of the car and walked away. I was going to call the police to report you missing, but she told me not to bother. You don’t care, she said, so why should we?”
A new low, he thinks, even for Kate.
Betsy tells him to follow her to the kitchen. She’ll fix him hot chocolate like he used to make for her. She fills the teapot and sets it on the stove. He sits and watches her—best work he’s ever done in his life. Crossing her arms, she turns and faces him.
“So, Dad, this was your last chance.”
“Yeah, says who? Your mother?”
“Pretty much everyone.”
“Never trust consensus, Betsy.”
The teapot whistles. As she pours the hot water over the powdered hot chocolate mix, his daughter ticks off the things he’s going to miss—her swimming competitions; junior prom; high school, college, and law school graduations; her wedding; winning her first big case; the birth of her first child. “Is this what you want?” Tears glisten on her cheeks.
“Come here.” He beckons her to sit on his lap.
She obliges, leans her head on his shoulder, and lays her hand on top of his.
There’s a bottle of Bailey’s Irish Cream in the back of the cupboard above the fridge. Would you mind, he wants to ask, if I add a shot to the hot chocolate? Nothing would taste better after so many hours in winter’s grasp.
She slaps his face. “Jesus, Dad. Forget it!”
How does this fifteen-year-old know what he’s thinking? Why has she hung in there with him? Until now, that is? The idea that he might lose her is unbearable. But were he to embrace his last chance, he might not. Were he to revise his story, convert the past tense to present, change Dad was getting sober to Dad is getting sober, she might give him a pass on his backstory. So easy too. Move his computer screen icon to Find and Replace. Click. Type the words. Click again. Done. Directions so simple, so straightforward, any old drunk can do it.
As an undergraduate, Dean Jollay, studied history and went on to earn an MA from the University of Chicago. His law degree from Capital University propelled him into a career that has ranged from legislative aide and researcher to lobbyist and CFO of a manufacturing company. Jollay has continued to hone his writing skills by studying at Kent State University and attending writers conferences at the University of South Florida, Chautauqua, and Eckerd College.