My friend Roy asked me, as we drove down Southport in his black 1965 Mustang, if every time I saw a woman standing on the side of the street, I imagined seeing my hard dick in her mouth. I ignored him, hoping it was just his usual bullshit; but knowing Roy the way I did, I knew he probably meant it as a fervent, unholy desire.
I need to back up and explain that Roy hadn’t always been a sick fuck. When I’d first met him in 1979, we were both training to be bus drivers for Continental Air Transport Company in Chicago. Roy had already driven for Trailways in his native Oklahoma, so he was very comfortable behind the wheel. I, on the other hand, suffered from constant anxiety attacks, and could always feel the cold sweat dampening the sides of my polyester work shirt whenever I drove those MCI Crusaders.
We’d stop at bars on Rush Street after training. My favorites were Hotsie Totsies and the Zebra Lounge. Roy, a recovering alcoholic, would order a coke and nurse it through the evening as the rest of us downed shots and beers until closing time, when we’d stumble out onto Division Street and try to find our cars. Other times we drank at Charlies on Randolph because it was closer to the garage, much cheaper than Rush Street, and also because it served greasy fried perch dinners well into the night.
One almost forgotten afternoon after we’d gotten off early, Roy was playing the Sinbad pinball machine and drinking his Coke. Roy, I said, are you some kind of pussy? C’mon man, let me buy you a beer. And that magical afternoon, he finally said, sure, and I watched the booze transform him from tired working man to foul-mouthed asshole. And, it was my fault. I can see again his semi-toothless smile, the reddish brown mustache, the matching curly hair. In the always burning present of memory I see him raising the Old Style draft, drinking it in one breath, and then following it with a bourbon chaser.
I watched his full-fledged descent: In his late thirties at the time, he married an eighteen- year -old named Kim, quickly got her pregnant, and had a little girl whose name is lost to me. I do remember their basement apartment below a frame house on Wayne Street, the three cars parked outside in various stages of disrepair: an old Mercury with a bad transmission, one of those unfortunate early ‘70s Mustang Twos, my 1971 Pinto with its broken timing chain. It was only a two-block walk to Roy’s from my apartment on Addison Street, so I’d go over there and drink E&J brandy from juice glasses and listen to Roy and Kim yell at each other. The place was always a mess; but worse were the bruises on Kim’s face. Roy often got really pissed off when he was drinking.
Is there punishment in the next life for our wrong-doings in this one? If so, I am really fucked. Poor Roy was sober and unmarried when I met him. Due to my intervention, my cajoling at Charlies on Randolph, my drunken pleadings at Hotsie Totsies, because I kept after him to just have one beer, it’s only a fucking beer. It won’t hurt you. Ah, but it did. Roy drank himself out of a job, left Kim and two kids behind as he moved back to Oklahoma, and disappeared into dust and memory. But my memory is a troubled place, and here I take responsibility for my sins, and here I pray for Roy, for Kim, for the children who are now grown and wandering this troubled world.
Booze is bad. Multiply my own life, my own sins by millions, add the suffering children, the abused spouses, the highway deaths, and the bloated livers that float within our bodies like grey balloons, or tiny jaundiced seas of regret, divide that by the trackless wilderness we wander at last on full moon nights when the wolves are howling, then subtract a morning of absolute clarity when the winter cracked the very air into splinters of holy light—yes, subtract those moments when the drunken mind temporarily awoke and recognized itself—broken container of the soul, if indeed the spirit hides in the darkest places of the brain as Descartes speculated.
I, too, eventually joined Roy on the suffering train. I drank myself into an eight year stupor. I woke up in emergency rooms, psychiatric hospitals, even the driver’s seat of my Pinto when I’d pulled over on Clybourne because I was too drunk to drive home.
And there were mornings I’d wake up in that rusted vessel, looking out the dirty windshield with the kind of wonder that comes when the sunlight surprises us, when the dark buildings glow to red brick, when the hot dog stand at Southport opens early for breakfast. I’d watch the early risers get their coffees and rolls, then I’d shake off the numbness, drive home for a shot and a nap. But, man, those naps were haunted by howling wolves and spiders that crawled up and down the peach walls of my tiny bedroom.
Twenty five years later, twenty five years without drinking, twenty five years that have bridged a new century, and here I am, still thinking about Roy. In the early years of sobriety, especially, there were many whispered voices urging me to have a beer, just one beer. Other friends suggested pot as a good substitute for the booze that had almost killed me, but then I remembered the only year I stopped drinking was my second year of college when I smoked pot every day, including those spaced out mornings when my roommates and I fired up our trusty bong and watched Sesame Street. We salivated over sweet Maria. Then I’d head off to class, the Blue Ridge Mountains filling the Virginia sky—sometimes the foothills were green, other times they were filled with the blazing reds, yellows, and oranges of autumn. But mainly I remember winter, the brown peaks pushing against a shivering blue sky.
Twenty five years later, I’m still struggling with what it all means. And I’m looking at my scorecard and seeing a lot of bad stuff, of which the Roy episode is a single, vivid entry. If there is a God, I will certainly be punished. If there is not a God, this earthly punishment will have to suffice. But I have to say, that even on my worst days, I’ve never imagined putting my penis into the mouths of strangers, brushing it against the lips of women whose only sin was walking in broad daylight on Southport Avenue in Chicago during a time when I was trying to drink myself to death and they had the misfortune to share a city with people like Roy and me.
And here I confess more sins: a night at the tavern drinking, followed by successive nights spent at bars until closing time; the drunk-drives home past Cabrini-Green and its concrete gardens of hopelessness; the time I blew the turn into the garage at my two-flat on Addison and knocked down the support beam for the door; that winter night I dropped my keys in the snow and my ex-wife took too long to answer the back door, so I peed in my pants. The list goes on and it adds up to misery. For myself, for my accomplices, for my ex-wife, for the woman with the baby stroller I almost ran over when I was afternoon drunk and headed to the liquor store on Southport.
And let me end with Roy, who was trying to save his own life from booze, who even went to AA meetings and talked about God in those days before I lured him into drinking again.
That God he prayed to is the deity who waits for me. Not at the end of my life, but at the end of many sober days when I try to fall asleep and the movie starts playing and I see the days of pot and booze, I see the younger me stumbling through his life. I see the bars and taverns glimmering all over the West Side of Chicago, neon lights flashing like beacons for lost ships in the night, for those of us traveling the dark waters of alcoholism. I ask for forgiveness from those I have sinned against, from those whose lives I made worse. It was as if I lived the opposite of the Golden Rule, and even though these days I try not to injure others and live with more compassion and humility, I am still haunted by the sins I inflicted, by the pain I brought to others, by the complete and fucking waste of fifteen years of my life, my only life.
Jesse Millner’s poems and prose have appeared or are forthcoming in the Florida Review, upstreet, Conte, River Styx, Pearl, The Prose Poem Project, Tinge, The New Poet, Cider Press Review, Real South, The Best American Poetry 2013 and numerous other literary magazines. He has published six poetry chapbooks and two full-length collections, most recently Dispatches from the Department of Supernatural Explanation (Kitsune Books, 2012). Jesse teaches writing courses at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, Florida.