On a White Flag Group Commitment to the Tough Shit But You Still Can’t Drink Group down in Braintree this past July, Don G., up at the podium, revealed publicly about how he was ashamed that he still as yet had no real solid understanding of a Higher Power. It’s suggested in the 3rd of Boston AA’s 12 Steps that you to turn your Diseased will over to the direction and love of ‘God as you understand Him.’ It’s supposed to be one of AA’s major selling points that you get to choose your own God. You get to make up your own understanding of God or a Higher Power or Whom-/Whatever. But Gately, at like ten months clean, at the TSBYSCD podium in Braintree, opines that at this juncture he’s so totally clueless and lost he’s thinking that he’d maybe rather have the White Flag Crocodiles just grab him by the lapels and just tell him what AA God to have an understanding of, and give him totally blunt and dogmatic orders about how to turn over his Diseased will to whatever this Higher Power is. He notes how he’s observed already that some Catholics and Fundamentalists now in AA had a childhood understanding of a Stern and Punishing–type God, and Gately’s heard them express incredible Gratitude that AA let them at long last let go and change over to an understanding of a Loving, Forgiving, Nurturing–type God. But at least these folks started out with some idea of Him/Her/It, whether fucked up or no. You might think it’d be easier if you Came In with 0 in the way of denominational background or preconceptions, you might think it’d be easier to sort of invent a Higher-Powerish God from scratch and then like erect an understanding, but Don Gately complains that this has not been his experience thus far. His sole experience so far is that he takes one of AA’s very rare specific suggestions and hits the knees in the A.M. and asks for Help and then hits the knees again at bedtime and says Thank You, whether he believes he’s talking to Anything/-body or not, and he somehow gets through that day clean. This, after ten months of ear-smoking concentration and reflection, is still all he feels like he ‘understands’ about the ‘God angle.’ Publicly, in front of a very tough and hard-ass-looking AA crowd, he sort of simultaneously confesses and complains that he feels like a rat that’s learned one route in the maze to the cheese and travels that route in a ratty-type fashion and whatnot. W/ the God thing being the cheese in the metaphor. Gately still feels like he has no access to the Big spiritual Picture. He feels about the ritualistic daily Please and Thank You prayers rather like like a hitter that’s on a hitting streak and doesn’t change his jock or socks or pre-game routine for as long as he’s on the streak. W/ sobriety being the hitting streak and whatnot, he explains. The whole church basement is literally blue with smoke. Gately says he feels like this is a pretty limp and lame understanding of a Higher Power: a cheese-easement or unwashed athletic supporter. He says but when he tries to go beyond the very basic rote automatic get-me-through-this-day-please stuff, when he kneels at other times and prays or meditates or tries to achieve a Big-Picture spiritual understanding of a God as he can understand Him, he feels Nothing — not nothing but Nothing, an edgeless blankness that somehow feels worse than the sort of unconsidered atheism he Came In with. He says he doesn’t know if any of this is coming through or making any sense or if it’s all just still symptomatic of a thoroughgoingly Diseased will and quote ‘spirit.’ He finds himself telling the Tough Shit But You Still Can’t Drink audience dark doubtful thoughts he wouldn’t have fucking ever dared tell Ferocious Francis man to man. He can’t even look at F.F. in the Crocodile’s row as he says that at this point the God-understanding stuff kind of makes him want to puke, from fear. Something you can’t see or hear or touch or smell: OK. All right. But something you can’t even feel? Because that’s what he feels when he tries to understand something to really sincerely pray to. Nothingness. He says when he tries to pray he gets this like image in his mind’s eye of the brainwaves or whatever of his prayers going out and out, with nothing to stop them, going, going, radiating out into like space and outliving him and still going and never hitting Anything out there, much less Something with an ear. Much much less Something with an ear that could possibly give a rat’s ass. He’s both pissed off and ashamed to be talking about this instead of how just completely good it is to just be getting through the day without ingesting a Substance, but there it is. This is what’s going on. He’s no closer to carrying out the suggestion of the 3rd Step than the day the Probie drove him over to his halfway house from Peabody Holding. The idea of this whole God thing makes him puke, still. And he is afraid.
And the same fucking thing happens again. The tough chain-smoking TSBYSCD Group all stands and applauds and the men give two-finger whistles, and people come up at the raffle-break to pump his big hand and even sometimes try and hug on him.
It seems like every time he forgets himself and publicizes how he’s fucking up in sobriety Boston AAs fall all over themselves to tell him how good it was to hear him and to for God’s sake Keep Coming, for them if not for himself, whatever the fuck that means.
The Tough Shit But You Still Can’t Drink Group seems to be over 50% bikers and biker-chicks, meaning your standard leather vests and 10-cm. boot heels, belt-buckles with little spade-shaped knives that come out of a slot in the side, tattoos that are more like murals, serious tits in cotton halters, big beards, Harleywear, wooden matches in mouth-corners and so forth. After the Our Father, as Gately and the other White Flag speakers are clustered smoking outside the door to the church basement, the sound of high-cc. hawgs being kick-started is enough to rattle your fillings. Gately can’t even start to guess what it would be like to be a sober and drug-free biker. It’s like what would be the point. He imagines these people polishing the hell out of their leather and like playing a lot of really precise pool.
This one sober biker that can’t be much older than Gately and is nearly Gately’s size — though with a really small head and a tapered jaw that makes him look kind of like a handsome mantis — as they’re massed around the door he brings a car-length chopper up alongside Gately. Says it was good to hear him. Shakes his hand in the complex way of Niggers and Harleyheads. He introduces his name as Robert F., though on the lapel of his leather vest it says BOB DEATH. A biker-chick’s got her arms around his waist from behind, as is SOP. He tells Gately it was good to hear somebody new share from the heart about his struggles with the God component. It’s weird to hear a biker use the Boston AA word share, much less component or heart.
The other White Flaggers have stopped talking and are watching the two men sort of just awkwardly stand there, the biker embraced from behind and straddling his throbbing hawg. The guy’s got on leather spats and a leather vest with no shirt, and Gately notices the guy’s got a jailhouse tatt of AA’s weird little insignia of a triangle inside a circle on one big shoulder.
Robert F./Bob Death asks Gately if by any chance he’s heard the one about the fish. Glenn K. in his fucking robe overhears, and of course he’s got to put his own oar in, and breaks in and asks them all if they’ve heard the one What did the blind man say as he passed by the Quincy Market fish-stall, and without waiting says He goes ‘Evening, Ladies.’ A couple male White Flaggers fall about, and Tamara N. slaps at the back of Glenn K.’s head’s pointy hood, but without real heat, as in like what are you going to do with this sick fuck.
Bob Death smiles coolly (South Shore bikers are required to be extremely cool in everything they do) and manipulates a wooden match with his lip and says No, not that fish-one. He has to assume a kind of bar-shout to clear the noise of his idling hawg. He leans in more toward Gately and shouts that the one he was talking about was: This wise old whiskery fish swims up to three young fish and goes, ‘Morning, boys, how’s the water?’ and swims away; and the three young fish watch him swim away and look at each other and go, ‘What the fuck is water?’ and swim away. The young biker leans back and smiles at Gately and gives an affable shrug and blatts away, a halter top’s tits mashed against his back.
Gately’s forehead was wrinkled in emotional pain all the way up Rte. 3 home. They were in the back of Ferocious Francis’s old car. Glenn K. was trying to ask what was the difference between a bottle of 15-year-old Hennessey and a human female vagina. Crocodile Dicky N. up riding shotgun told Glenn to try to fucking remember there was ladies present. Ferocious Francis kept moving the toothpick around in his mouth and looking at Gately in the rearview. Gately wanted to both cry and hit somebody. Glenn’s cheap pseudo-demonic robes had the faint rank oily smell of a dish towel. There was no smoking in the car: Ferocious Francis had a little oxygen tank he had to carry around and a little thin pale-blue plastic-like tube thing that lay under his nose and was taped there and sent oxygen up his nose. All he’d ever say about the tank and the tube is that they were not his personal will but that he’d submitted to advice and now here he was, still sucking air and staying rabidly Active.
Something they seem to omit to mention in Boston AA when you’re new and out of your skull with desperation and ready to eliminate your map and they tell you how it’ll all get better and better as you abstain and recover: they somehow omit to mention that the way it gets better and you get better is through pain. Not around pain, or in spite of it. They leave this out, talking instead about Gratitude and Release from Compulsion. There’s serious pain in being sober, though, you find out, after time. Then now that you’re clean and don’t even much want Substances and feeling like you want to both cry and stomp somebody into goo with pain, these Boston AAs start in on telling you you’re right where you’re supposed to be and telling you to remember the pointless pain of active addiction and telling you that at least this sober pain now has a purpose. At least this pain means you’re going somewhere, they say, instead of the repetitive gerbil-wheel of addictive pain.
They neglect to tell you that after the urge to get high magically vanishes and you’ve been Substanceless for maybe six or eight months, you’ll begin to start to ‘Get In Touch’ with why it was that you used Substances in the first place. You’ll start to feel why it was you got dependent on what was, when you get right down to it, an anesthetic. ‘Getting In Touch With Your Feelings’ is another quilted-sampler-type cliché that ends up masking something ghastly deep and real, it turns out. 178It starts to turn out that the vapider the AA cliché, the sharper the canines of the real truth it covers.
Near the end of his Ennet residency, at like eight months clean and more or less free of any chemical compulsion, going to the Shattuck every A.M. and working the Steps and getting Active and pounding out meetings like a madman, Don Gately suddenly started to remember things he would just as soon not have. Remembered. Actually remembered’s probably not the best word. It was more like he started to almost reexperience things that he’d barely even been there to experience, in terms of emotionally, in the first place. A lot of it was undramatic little shit, but still somehow painful. E.g. like when he was maybe eleven, pretending to watch TV with his mother and pretending to listen to her P.M. nightly monologue, a litany of complaint and regret whose consonants got mushier and mushier. To the extent it’s Gately’s place to diagnose anybody else as an alcoholic, his mom was pretty definitely an alcoholic. She drank Stolichnaya vodka in front of the TV. They weren’t cable-ready, for reasons of $. She drank little thin glasses with cut-up bits of carrot and pepper that she’d drop into the vodka. Her maiden name was Gately. Don’s like organic father had been an Estonian immigrant, a wrought-iron worker, which is like sort of a welder with ambition. He’d broken Gately’s mother’s jaw and left Boston when Gately was in his mother’s stomach. Gately had no brothers or sisters. His mother was subsequently involved with a live-in lover, a former Navy M.P. who used to beat her up on a regular schedule, hitting her in the vicinities between groin and breast so that nothing showed. A skill he’d picked up as a brig guard and Shore Patrol. At about 8–10 Heinekens he used to all of a sudden throw his Readers’ Digest against the wall and get her down and beat her with measured blows, she’d go down on the floor of the apartment and he’d hit her in the hidden vicinity, timing the blows between her arms’ little waves — Gately remembered she tried to ward off the blows with a fluttered downward motion of her arms and hands, as if she were beating out flames. Gately still hasn’t ever quite gotten over to look at her in State Care in the Long-Term-Care Medicaid place. The M.P.’s tongue was in the corner of his mouth and his little-eyed face wore a look of great concentration, as if he were taking something delicate apart or putting it together. He’d be on one knee knelt over her with his look of sober problem-solving, timing his shots, the blows abrupt and darting, her writhing and trying to kind of shoo them away. The darting blows. Out of the psychic blue, very detailed memories of these fights surfaced one afternoon as he was getting ready to mow the Ennet House lawn for Pat in May Y.D.A.U., when Enfield Marine P.H.H. withheld maintenance services in reprisal for late utilities. After the little Salem decayed beach-cottage with Herman the Ceiling That Breathed, the little like tract house by Mrs. Waite’s tract house in Beverly’s good dining room chairs had fluted legs and Gately had scratched Donad and Donold in each leg with a pin, low down. Higher up on the legs, the scratches became correctly spelled. It’s like a lot of memories of his youth sank without bubbles when he quit school and then later only in sobriety bubbled back up to where he could Get In Touch with them. His mother used to call the M.P. a bastuhd and sometimes go oof when he landed one in the vicinity. She drank vodka with vegetables suspended in it, a habit she’d picked up from the missing Estonian, whose first name, Gately read on a torn and then fuckeduppedly Scotch-taped paper out of her jewelry box after his mother’s cirrhotic hemorrhage, was Bulat. The Medicaid Long-Term place was way the fuck out the Yirrell Beach bridge in Point Shirley across the water from the Airport. The former M.P. delivered cheese and then later worked in a chowder factory and kept weights in the Beverly house’s garage and drank Heineken beer, and logged each beer he drank carefully in a little spiral notebook he used to monitor his intake of alcohol.
His mom’s special couch for TV was nubbly red chintz, and when she shifted from seated upright to lying on her side with her arm between her head and the little protective doily on the couch’s armrest and the glass held tilting on the little space her breasts left at the cushion’s edge, it was a sign she was going under. Gately at like ten or eleven used to pretend to listen and watch TV on the floor but really be dividing his attention between how close his Mom was to unconsciousness and how much Stolichnaya was left in the bottle. She would only drink Stolichnaya, which she called her Comrade in Arms and said Nothing but the Comrade would do. After she went under for the evening and he’d carefully taken the tilted glass out of her hand, Don’d take the bottle and mix the first couple vodkas with Diet Coke and drink a couple of those until it lost its fire, then drink it straight. This was like a routine. Then he’d put the near-empty bottle back next to her glass with its vegetables darkening in the undrunk vodka, and she’d wake up on the couch in the morning with no idea she hadn’t drank the whole thing. Gately was careful to always leave her enough for a wake-up swallow. But this gesture of leaving some, Gately’s now realized, wasn’t just filial kindness on his part: if she didn’t have the wake-up swallow she wouldn’t get off the red couch all day, and then there would be no new bottle that night.
This was at age ten or eleven, as he now recalls. Most of the furniture was wrapped in plastic. The carpet was burnt-orange shag that the landlord kept saying he was going to take up and go to wood floors. The M.P. worked nights or else most nights went out, and then she’d take the plastic off the couch.
Why the couch had little protective doilies on the arms when it usually had a plastic cover on it Gately cannot recall or explain.
For a while in Beverly they had Nimitz the kitty.
This all came burpling greasily up into memory in the space of two or three weeks in May, and now more stuff steadily like dribbles up, for Gately to Touch.
Sober, she’d called him Bimmy or Bim because that’s what she heard his little friends call him. She didn’t know the neighborhood cognomen came from an acronym for ‘Big Indestructible Moron.’ His head had been huge, as a child. Out of all proportion, though with nothing especially Estonian about it, that he could see. He’d been very sensitive about it, the head, but never told her not to call him Bim. When she was drunk and conscious she called him her Doshka or Dochka or like that. Sometimes, well in the bag himself, when he turned off the uncabled set and covered her with the afghan, easing the mostly empty Stoly bottle back onto the little TV Guide table by the bowl of darkening chopped peppers, his unconscious Mom would groan and titter and call him her Doshka and good sir knight and last and only love, and ask him not to hit her anymore.
In June he Got In Touch with memories that their front steps in Beverly were a pocked cement painted red even in the pocks. Their mailbox was part of a whole tract-housing complex’s honeycomb of mailboxes on a like small pole, brushed-steel and gray with a postal eagle on it. You needed a little key to get your mail out, and for a long time he thought the sign on it said ‘US MAIL,’ as in us instead of U.S. His mom’s hair had been dry blond-white with dark roots that never lengthened or went away. No one tells you when they tell you you have cirrhosis that eventually you’ll all of a sudden start choking on your own blood. This is called a cirrhotic hemorrhage. Your liver won’t process any more of your blood and it quote shunts the blood and it goes up your throat in a high-pressure jet, is what they told him, is why he’d first thought the M.P.’d come back and cut his Mom or stabbed her, when he first came in, after football, his last season, at age seventeen. She’d been Diagnosed for years. She’d go to Meetings 179for a few weeks, then drink on the couch, silent, telling him if the phone rang she wasn’t home. After a few weeks of this she’d spend a whole day weeping, beating at herself as if on fire. Then she’d go back to Meetings for a while. Eventually her face began to swell and make her eyes piggy and her big breasts pointed at the floor and she turned the deep yellow of quality squash. This was all part of the Diagnosis. At first Gately just couldn’t go out to the Long-Term place, couldn’t see her out there. Couldn’t deal. Then after some time passed he couldn’t go because he couldn’t face her and try and explain why he hadn’t come before now. Ten-plus years have gone like that. Gately hadn’t probably consciously thought of her once for three years, before getting straight.
Right after their neighbor Mrs. Waite got found by the meter-guy dead, so he must have been nine, when his Mom was first Diagnosed, Gately had gotten the Diagnosis mixed up in his head with King Arthur. He’d ride a mop-handle horse and brandish a trashcan-lid and a batteryless plastic Light-Saber and tell the neighborhood kids he was Sir Osis of Thuliver, most fearsomely loyal and fierce of Arthur’s vessels. Since the summer now, when he mops Shattuck Shelter floors, he hears the Clopaclopaclop he used to make with his big square tongue as Sir Osis, then, riding.
And his dreams late that night, after the Braintree/Bob Death Commitment, seem to set him under a sort of sea, at terrific depths, the water all around him silent and dim and the same temperature he is.