I’ll be honest. The last place I expected to end up this afternoon was the Anchor. It’s not wise. No, that’s too tentative a word. It’s not prudent for me to be standing at the threshold of one of the places that laid me low. Still, here I am. Go figure.
Late autumn sun backlights me in silhouette as I ponder the situation.
You go in that bar, I say to myself, you walk over and talk to Connie and the whole damn business might start all over again.
Connie is my wife. I’d like to say, my ex. But there’s no truth behind that, no legality to the statement. It’s true: We’ve gone our separate ways for nearly a decade. My stuff is my stuff; hers is hers. We haven’t made love in over eight years, after our last drunken pratfall into bed together. Satisfying? Hardly. Quick. Painless. Without consequences. Hell, after all, we’re married so there was no sin to the thing. And certainly no harm to anyone outside of our weird little dance. She lives in Superior. I live, or should say, lived, at the Kozy, across the Bay in Duluth. Until the damn place went up in flames after some bastard fell asleep with a cigarette in bed. Some say it’s not much of a loss, having the Kozy burn down. Those folks didn’t live there, didn’t need the cheap rent like me and the others who called the run down, vermin infested old building home. Now what? For a while, when I was getting my bearings after the fire, I caught a night here and there with friends, staying on their couches. Then I found another place to live. I use my VA and Social Security money to buy a few groceries, take care of the few bills I owe. Since drying out three years back, I haven’t had to worry about wasting what little I’ve got on booze. But now, standing in the autumn breeze, looking into the dimness of the Anchor, an old fear, the fear of failure, wafts over me like smoke drifting off a campfire.
Connie tilts her head at me in that critical way she has about her. I can see her drink, a rum and Coke, in the dim light of the dark bar. The amber of the booze and the dark syrup of the soft drink aren’t mixed very well: The booze is floating near the brim of the glass.
If she doesn’t stir that, I think, her first sip will be a doozy.
I know this about my wife: She doesn’t drink cheap. There’s no bar booze in her glass: It’s top shelf Jamaican sitting in front of her. That’s a certainty, a truth you can take to the bank.
I’m nervous about the situation as I stand in the open doorway, cool air slowly migrating into the warmth of the room. My hand is poised at the right pocket of my blue jeans, where I keep my wallet. The back fusion, the result of my helicopter gunship being shot down by a Viet Cong RPG (in my very first battle as a machine gunner on a Huey) and the resultant crushing of every vertebrae in my spine when the chopper crashed, prevents me from keeping a wallet in my back pocket.
Pain. There’s always pain.
“Hello, Max,” Connie says, her words clear, alcohol not yet coloring her enunciation. “It’s been a long time.”
I’m a little surprised. Normally, by this time of day, Connie would be slurring her words, spilling drinks, and making goo-goo eyes at any guy who came within ten feet of her. It’s a good sign that she’s still standing at the rail of the bar at the Anchor and not sitting on a stool: She seems sober, capable of understanding what it is I have to tell her.
I remain at the threshold. Part of me wants to go back to who I was, what we had: That soft, velvety high of near constant inebriation we shared for the twenty-seven years we were together.
Twenty-seven years. Three kids. A son and two daughters. Kyle, Lila, and Jennifer. Despite our failings, despite foreclosure, bankruptcy, my two DUI’s, and Connie’s felony conviction for stealing from the Red Cross (she managed that charity’s pull-tab operations in three bars including the Anchor) our kids have stayed out of trouble. Helps that not a one of them is a drunk. Or an addict. Or a thief.
“We need to talk,” I say in as quiet, as deferential a voice as I can muster under the circumstances.
“Come on over and have a bump with me,” my wife says invitingly, pointing to an empty stool to her right.
Connie knows me. Knows my whole unattractive history. The rages. The fists through television screens and windows. My attempts to medicate the constant aching of my spine; a mess of rods and screws and wires that some Army surgeon in Saigon cobbled together like a Rube Goldberg device to keep me upright; with prescription pain killers chased by straight bourbon. The raised voice. The stormy temper. Oh, Connie knows me all right, and despite it all, despite the distance we’ve forced upon ourselves, she loves me in spite of it all.
But Connie also knows that I’ve been sober for three solid years. Three years of daily struggle, living in an apartment above a bar, resisting the soft, warm glow of whiskey that, on a nightly basis, called to me from beneath the moldy floorboards of the Kozy like some Siren beckoning a lovesick sailor.
Damn you, Connie Sturges. Damn you to hell.
My right hand twitches. Fingers strain against denim. I ball my left hand into a fist. Not as a threat but in an attempt to control my anxiety.
I look around the bar. The other patrons near Connie, two men I don’t know and who are too young and far too good looking to be interested in my wife, stand sipping flat tap beer from murky bar glasses, their conversation muted and unintelligible to me as I consider my next move.
“What’s wrong, Max? You turning all shy and thoughtful on me in your old age?” Connie says coyly before taking a hefty sip from her drink.
My right hand leaves the safety of my jean pocket and adjusts the Stetson on my head so I can look at my wife without obstruction.
“Nice to see you too,” I say quietly, walking into the bar.
I find space to the right of Connie and stand next to her. I watch her watch me.
She’s gained more weight, I think, studying her as her pale gray eyes study me.
She raises her drink to her lips, lips that, when we were young lovers, did things with me and to me that no other woman has ever done. Uncharacteristically, she’s not wearing lipstick. There’s a hint of rouge on her cheeks and the standard bright blue eyeliner she always wears below her eyebrows. But there’s no lipstick.
“You don’t like me much, do you?” she asks, returning to the familiar, exhausting dialogue that eventually wore me out and caused me to leave home.
I look away, feigning interest in a college football game, the Gophers and the Badgers, on the flat screen behind the bar.
Angela, the bartender, a woman a few years younger than me and a high school classmate of Connie’s from Superior High School, slides over and gives me a nod.
“Haven’t seen you in here in a long while,” Angie says, the wear of years of bartending in a rough neighborhood of a rough town, etched on her face. “What’llyahave?”
The question comes out as a single word. I bite my lip. Connie is waiting for an answer to her question but, with Angie standing across from us, it’s not the time to engage my wife.
“Sprite, if you got it.”
“Seven Up OK?”
I glance at Angie. There are age lines around her eyes; small, slight, nearly Asian slits of blue; and around the corners of her mouth. But beyond that, in comparison to Connie, who has ballooned to a weight she never saw during her pregnancies, Angie Marquart is in great shape. Her breasts sit, not like Connie’s, poised for collapse to the floor, but high and perky. I can discern the small nipples through her blouse and bra and her cleavage strikes me as youthful and inviting. I know, from a romp or two with Angie years back, that she’s a distance runner; that she stays in great shape. She’s also sober, ten years or better. And single; a facet of her situation I never really acted upon.
Maybe it could have worked.
“That’ll do,” I finally answer.
She pats the back of my hand like a parent approving a child and moves deftly towards the soda guns at the end of the bar.
Probably for the best I never made a serious move. She’s got her shit together, that girl. Why draw her into my hell?
“You are so obvious,” Connie mumbles.
I sense my wife’s mood shift. There’s more than mere observation in my wife’s words. I know her too well. I can hear the needle of criticism, the adjective “fuckin’” unspoken but lingering before “obvious” in the sentence, as she slams the base of her empty glass against varnished pine.
“Calm down,” I say quietly.
Connie’s eyes, the same eyes that once looked up at me in ecstasy from our marital bed, lock on mine. There is no love in those eyes as she considers my appreciation of Angie at her expense.
There it is. The alcohol has freed Connie to be who she really is: a mean-spirited drunk who has lost it all. But then, isn’t that who I was? At least, before my most recent month-long stay in the local spin-dry, my fourth trip to treatment, the visit that finally brought me freedom. I study the woman who gave me three beautiful children, kids who, as I’ve said, have done all right for themselves despite Connie and me. It’s tough, thinking about them at a time like this, with what I have to tell my wife. But there’s pride in the knowing, in the appreciation of them. And not even Connie’s foul mouth is going to diminish my fondness for our kids.
After my last CD treatment, I was able to find a part-time job at the Duluth YMCA working with kids of color in the Central Hillside as a mentor in math and English. It’s ten bucks an hour, twenty hours a week. The gig’s enough for me to reclaim some sense of self-worth, something I hadn’t possessed since ‘Nam, when I went on the dole. And the amount is small enough that it doesn’t impact my VA benefits or my Social Security Disability. Plus, with my three kids grown and gone from the Twin Ports (wisely leaving behind their wreck of a family to make their own ways) I kind of like being around kids again. Keeps me optimistic, if you know what I mean.
“There’s no need to swear,” I say to Connie.
Angie brings me my Sprite and puts another drink in front of Connie.
I was wrong, I think, studying the bloated, blotchy face of my wife. She’s already toasted. I guess she’s getting better at holding her booze.
Connie swigged from her glass and stared hard at me.
“Why the fuck are you here? I don’t need a fuckin’ sermon, if that’s what this is about. I don’t need you all sober and righteous telling me how to live my life. Is that why you’re here, Max? To preach to me?”
The weight of knowing what I know presses down on me. I’ve been dreading this moment since yesterday, when I answered the door of the little efficiency I’m living in at the Seaway Hotel, in Duluth’s seedy West End. It’s all I can do to look at the woman I once loved, who, in some ways, will always be part of who I was, who I am. I gulp air. The room spins.
Kyle didn’t ask. He is, after all, twenty-three years old, old enough to make his own decisions, old enough to choose his own path. Laid off from his job at the foundry he worked at in St. Paul (he was one hell of a welder, I’m told), with one kid at home, a pretty Hispanic wife (Rita, a girl I met only once, at their wedding) carrying their second, Kyle apparently felt he’d run out of options. As a kid growing up in our home, Kyle learned early on what kind of hell breaks loose when a repo man shows up with a tow truck for the family van; when bills sit on the kitchen counter because there’s no money to pay for bad habits. He didn’t want that for his wife; a girl he cherished so much, you could see love cascading off Kyle’s face like glory light in a religious icon whenever she was present. He didn’t want that for his daughter, Hester, or the kid about to be. We didn’t talk, not at all, not since the wedding. But I know Kyle. And I know how his mind works.
Worked. Past tense.
Had he asked, I would have told him there were other options, other ways to make a go of it. But he is, was, a stubborn kid. A good kid. But pigheaded like his mom. He wouldn’t have listened; not to me, the often-drunk daddy who once hit Kyle so hard, in a fit of stupid, alcohol-induced rage that I put him through a screen door. Sobriety hadn’t healed that wound, or the many others incurred by Kyle and his older sisters over the years. Still, I wish he’d asked.
“Something’s happened,” I say, my eyes focused on the game on the bar television, cowardice preventing me from delivering the news candidly, like a man should.
I remember Connie at Kyle’s wedding. A joyful affair held in St. Paul. Rita’s family didn’t have much, being that they were recent immigrants to the country from Mexico and all. But the church wedding was beautiful; the bride was a quintessential study in Latin grace and elegance. Her dark skin set off by the pristine white of her wedding gown; her raven hair tied up; not even a hint of her pregnancy with Hester to be detected in her slender waist. The reception at the local Knights of Columbus went without a hitch; mainly because Connie, my once-beautiful wife, had pulled herself together and remained sober for probably the first time since puberty. She drank straight Coke all night long and acted the part of the groom’s dutiful mother. I was so damned proud of her. That night, the thought occurred to me as I drove Connie to the Super 8 we both were staying at (in separate rooms), that maybe, just maybe she too could kick the booze. But as soon as Connie was back in her room with the door still ajar and me standing expectantly at the threshold, she was into the mini-fridge, mixing herself a rum and Coke, and offering me the chance to undue my recently-achieved sobriety. Didn’t happen. I kissed her cheek, said goodnight, and left. I won’t say it was easy. She looked splendid that night in her expensive, low-cut gown, her mature breasts hoisted into place and forming a welcoming “v” of flesh that, since I hadn’t been with a woman in months, got my undivided attention despite our history. But I resisted Connie and the promise of steady nerves that a first drink would have provided. Until today, until I walked into the Anchor, Kyle’s wedding night was the last time I’d seen her. And the contrast between the woman I left in that motel room and the woman standing next to me today, well, it’s remarkably sad.
“What are you babbling about? What’s happened?” she asks.
Connie’s attitude has become an attitude.
I drain my soda, take a deep breath, and begin to tell.
“A Captain and a Master Sergeant from the Marine Corps Recruiting Office in Duluth came to my apartment yesterday…”
(c) 2013, Mark Munger