Lord, help me make it through the morning.
Maybe it was the wine. Whenever I drink white wine, I end up with a Class A mind fuck hangover. And that's if I can manage to keep it down. White wine – even the more expensive ones – turn my stomach like sour milk. The only thing I can do to keep from puking up whine wine and stomach acid is to throw some beer on top of it.
I could tell by the way she was talking to me that she knew I felt like shit. There was a time, not so long ago, when she probably would have given me a hard time about it; she would've made some comment about the mandatory Alka Seltzer cocktail , or the fact that even my sweat smells like booze. Or, she would've just given me that look she used to give me – the expression of her deep disappointment in my lack of impulse control. And there was a time, even before that, when she would've tried to exploit my frail condition by trying to say things that would make me throw up. She never did understand why I considered losing my lunch to be a mark against my manhood; and for that matter, I never understood it either, other than the fact that every man's man I ever knew thought of it the same way.
Some might consider her relative acceptance of my condition as something resembling progress, and I know more than a few old drunks who might say I have it good and that I shouldn't bitch about it too much. And if I didn't know better, I'd think that maybe she had achieved some level of enlightenment about the general condition I would prefer to be in.
But then I'd have to forget what she told me. Maude told me last week that she had come to terms with the fact that I was going to end up killing myself.
And the part of it that really fucked with me – as if such a statement in and of itself wasn't enough – was that there was no hint of attempting to guilt me into changing. No manipulative tone. No sidelong glance. No heavy sigh. Not even a qualifying remark about how, if I cared about her at all, I'd try and go more than a day without a drink. There was none of that then. And none of it this morning, when I was clearly hung over and trying to put myself together so I could go cover the monthly county board meeting. I desperately wanted to avoid the meeting – being locked up in a small, inadequately ventilated back room of a dilapidated county courthouse that's built like a goblin's labyrinth with 15 county board members, two other reporters, the County Clerk, and whoever else decided to sit in the peanut gallery. Didn't want to go and listen to the posturing and the pandering. Arliss County is a decidedly conservative county; but like most staunchly conservative corners of the country, there's always that freak underbelly. It's the physics of political karma. For each ass tight narrow-minded stooge there is a direct and opposite version within a three mile radius. Maybe that's how the world keeps from imploding on itself, collapsing like a burned out star. And as it happens, I'm always more comfortable with the freak contingent. I don't know why; I think maybe it just helps me maintain some sense of balance.
There's also always that sense that the uptight crowd is just as fucked in the head as the freaks and lunatics are, except that freaks and lunatics are a bit more at home with themselves and with the world. Total apathy come with a certain freedom; I think of it as something similar to the Buddhist concept of enlightenment. Attachment causes suffering. Complete detachment causes Enlightenment. Beautiful. Simple. Next to impossible.
“Where are you going today?” She was standing in front of the bathroom mirror, checking her hair. She must have to be somewhere, or have to talk to somebody. Did she mention it to me? Was it something I needed to remember?
My stomach turned just a little. Maybe from the wine. Maybe from talking out loud. Maybe from the thought of having to deal with the county board meeting. Sometimes I missed having a bullshit 8-5 straight job... some anonymous cubicle to hide in and nurse my hangover until lunch. It had been so easy. But I had long ago proven to myself that I had neither the prerequisite personality of a domestic abuse victim nor the overwhelming fear drive that kept most people in jobs they hated.
At that moment, I chose to blame the wine.
“What about after that?”
“I don't know. The usual. Probably come back here and work on the story.”
No indication that I was supposed to remember anything. Anniversary? Nope. Still had a few months. Birthday? Nope. That'll come in the summer. I tried to think of all the dates on the calendar that I was supposed to remember. Nothing stuck out as likely. It was Thursday. Was this Thursday any special day in particular?
Thinking was making my head swim and my stomach swim. “Fucking wine,” I muttered. “That's the last time.”
“What'd you say, Jay?”
“Do you want me to drop you off by the courthouse?”
“I'm going to be ready to go in a second.”
“'Kay.” I looked down to make sure I had all the usual requirements. Shoes, check. Socks, check. Pants, check. T-shirt, button down, sweater, check. All I needed to do was grab my coat. I'd have to walk back, though, so grabbed an extra layer. Old habits die hard. You'd think for as much walking as I do, I'd be a skinny little son of a bitch. Maude says I would be if I drank less. Ah, sweet irony. That karmic balance that keeps all fools in line. My sluggish Germanic blood fighting my Irish liver. Every single time.
I sat down and waited for Maude to finish. She wasn't much of primper, not like other women I'd known. But she did have her morning ritual. I wondered sometimes if she was even aware of how consistent she was. I suppose I'm the same, and I suppose that most people are. My grandfather on my mother's side always took a cup of coffee and the newspaper to the bathroom and didn't leave for a half hour. He drank, he read, he shat, he smoked. And that was the start of his day. He was a carpenter and could work 12 or 15 hours straight with barely a break for lunch as long as he had that uninterrupted half hour in the john.
Nothing happens for me until I have the first sip of coffee. And that, was another part of the problem. My stomach was so turned around that I didn't think I could keep coffee down. And without coffee I'd melt into a puddle of a remanded bridge troll within a 10 minutes of getting to my meeting.
The solution was an easy one. All I had to do was puke. But I didn't dare do it in front of Maude.
For some reason even the shortest ride seems longer when you're trying desperately to hold your stomach in. You start to notice every pothole, crack or uneven space in the street. You begin to notice which side of the street slopes more than the other. You begin to take notice of the excessive number of stop signs and the unreasonable amount of traffic. Everything conspires against you. It's almost like having to take a shit in the worst way but you're nowhere near a bathroom. Pressure builds up in your body; muscles tighten; heart starts pounding; if it's warm enough, or you're in bad enough shape, you begin to sweat profusely. There's a point – right before your guts tell you you're going to be losing what ever passes for the contents of your stomach – that you consider stepping in front of an oncoming car. Avoidance through pain has a long and heralded history. Not familiar? It's the idea that if your head really hurts the solution is to smash your thumb. Then you're not thinking about your head anymore.
Hangovers are your body's way of telling you that sobriety is overrated. It's a built in caution sign of what the world will feel like if you never take another drink. This, in those abominable 12 step programs, is often referred to as a moment of clarity: that moment when you realize that the Buddhists and the Baptists had it right. That life really is about suffering.
Maude stopped at the corner. The jolt made me nearly lose it on the passenger side dash.
“Thanks,” I said, trying to sound genuine. “Have a good day.”
I opened the door and got one foot out the door when she said “I have a board meeting tonight.”
“Do you remember me telling you about it?”
Fuuuck me. “Sure. Of course.”
“So you remember that there's a dinner thing before and that you promised you'd come with me, right?”
No. “Sure, baby sure. No problem.”
“You need to wear something nice.”
“Ok,” I said. “I will.”
I almost made it out of the car. I was reaching a crisis point and wasn't even sure that I'd make it much farther than the sidewalk.
“What are you going to wear?”
Christ!Why did she have to pick that exact moment to micro-manage my wardrobe. “I don't know. Something nice. I promise. I'll try and match and everything.”
“Ok...” She didn't sound convinced. “I'll have to change at the office and then come pick you up.”
Great.“Okay, babe. Gotta go.”
“6 o'clock,” she said.
“Ok. 6 o'clock.”
Both of my feet made it to the side walk. Surprisingly enough, something about being outside settled my stomach. I made it up the steps fine and walked carefully towards the County Court House. I'd be a little early... plenty of time to splash some cold water on my face, settle down. It would give me time to hurl in the downstairs bathroom just inside the door if I needed to. I was starting to feel a little better about my prospects and my day.
That was when I ran into Johnny Franz, the County Board Chairman. We had sized one another up several months before. He thought I was a liberal stooge and I knew he was a Class A Prick. He was one of the richest farmers in the county and he stayed on the county board to make sure it stayed that way. I'd been trying, bit by bit, to eat away at his Napoleonic control. It was probably all but pointless. But it was something to do. And he made it easy. Whenever he opened his mouth and said something stupid – which he did often – I put it in the paper. Last month during the Zoning Appeals Committee report he made a comment about how he dealt with undesirable neighbors. “If I don't like somebody who's living around me,” he said, “I just buy them out and knock down the house.”
We arrived at the door at the same time, briefly made eye contact. Could he tell I was hungover? He always looked slightly stoned anyway, so it was difficult to tell whether he was paying attention or not. He was dressed the way he always dressed – jeans, a button down work shirt, and dirty cowboy boots. I tried to imagine how those worked in a corn field; but then I reminded myself that men like Johnny Franz didn't work in the field; men like Franz underpaid hundreds of other people to do that for him while he fucked the secretary and played the commodities exchange in an attempt to manipulate the price of corn.
“Rafferty,” he said as cordially as I'd ever heard him speak to me.
He reached for the door, maybe to let me walk through first. And I was about to say something... didn't know exactly what... but instead of words, I puked all over his cowboy boots.
And you know, there's never quite an appropriate apology when you need one.