One Pure Thing – Originally published by Prick of the Spindle.
—for Richard Bausch
When I drank vodka I felt something pure was running my life. Bringing vodka to my lips was a godly act that took me to the best part of me. Vodka, cranberry with lime: The Cape Codder. Absolut. Stoli. Smirnoff. Ketel One. Top Shelf. Rail. The best I ever felt in my life was when I was drunk. The best days I’ll ever have were spent ordering a drink at a bar. My best jokes told with liquor spittling off my lips. My best sex—a dream state—all night long, out of touch, but I’m there. I’m pumping away. I’m staring up at the crossroads of faked orgasms and a hard-on that wouldn’t quit. Looking back up, I’m still there. I’m still there.
* * *
The student is full of doubt. He’s about to meet his idol in his MFA program. He’s new to the school. Doesn’t know his way around campus. He’s read the professor’s work in magazines like the Atlantic Monthly and the New Yorker and anthologies all over the place. Owns four of his novels, read every short story that he could get his hands on: Richard. Fucking. Bausch.
He stamps his cigarette out. The lake glitters. It’s time.
“Hey, I know I’m a few minutes early but I’m your 5:30.” The professor is sitting in a beaten green chair that creaks as he turns. Many of the chairs on this campus look as if their retirement parties passed without them, years ago.
“Yeah, hey, come on in. Sit down. I was just writing an e-mail.” The student walks into the room, notices a large pink bear with smeared lipstick on its mouth suspended from the ceiling. “We’ve met before,” the professor says, pointing to a chair.
“We have?” The student asks.
“Sure, we have! At orientation, someone introduced you to me.”
“I don’t think so.”
“No, I’m sure of it.” The professor leans back and examines the student. “Damn, your memory is worse than mine.” They share a laugh at this.
The professor sits, leg crossed, turns and speaks, “This is going to be a class all about writing. I’ve got a lot going on, but it’ll be a good time.”
He’s wearing a pair of jeans and a flannel shirt, he looks relaxed and is wearing a maroon “Got Wine?” hat. There’s a bottle of Evian sitting next to his computer. He takes a pull, then recaps it. The computer screen on his desk is small, smaller than you think he’d put up with. The student thinks about flat screen monitors and the department pitching in so their Prize Writers’ eyes won’t be strained. The student reverts back to thinking about the idiosyncrasies of a writer, their needs. Their reluctance against change, the hunger for that typewriter or that pen.
“Have you met the other people in the class, do you know ‘em?”
“Yeah, I’ve met them. In class, a few hellos. I don’t really know them,” he says, “at least not yet. I’m new to all of this. Do you want to see my portfolio? I brought it with me.”
There is an old award on the wall, it’s weathered and cracked but its singularity on the wall seems to hold everything up. Papers are scattered, books piled everywhere. There is no order. This is just a place. It isn’t an office, it isn’t a home, and it isn’t a place of power to intimidate. It is a stop-off. The student feels safe.
“Your portfolio?” There’s a pause and the professor looks out the window past the student. “No, God no, why would I want to see that?” The student is relieved and allows himself a deep breath.
The professor pushes his chair back, then leans forward toward the student and nods. “See that out there?” The student turns around. The sun is shining through the window. There’s a tree next to the window. The trunk of the tree and the branches take up most of the view. The professor’s window captures all of it.
“Raccoon,” the student says. A black mass of fur is shaking on a limb.
“Yeah, Raccoon—he’s sick, dying, been there for hours. He went up there to die.” The professor says die again like it’s the saddest word the student has ever heard.
“Not a bad place to go. He’s got a view. The sun in his face.”
“On a branch though? I called animal control. That was 5 hours ago.”
“Yeah, they’re not going to do anything.”
“No. Probably not, had to try,” he says.
The professor holds a tin box out.
* * *
Why would you want to stop? What the fuck is the point in quitting? Why slow down? Why bother trying to find a tolerance level ?
You drink. You keep on drinking till you can’t drink anymore. Simple. Till the bottle is done. We had this thing. Fraternity thing. Drink a bottle with someone to get to know one another. I drank vodka. It was a race to me, fastest I ever did it was 15 minutes. That’s what I did. Why not? Why not drink quickly? Why pace? Why just milk a beer for hours? Why let it go like that, get warm. Drink drink drink. Beer, whiskey, wine.
Got wine? I always had wine. The tannins would seep into my head and make me dizzy with the knowledge that Dionysius had something more to share than just this. I heard his secret, and I believed in it. I was bigger than me. I was more. Yeah, I got wine. I got wine in the afternoon. I got wine in the morning. I got wine during dinner and in the afternoon with lunch. Reds, whites, ice wine, port wine. A Merlot for me, any Merlot please. Fuck Blush, but I’ll drink it if there’s nothing else around.
Only time I was ever honest with my dad he sat me down and said:
“Son, we’re going to drink this bottle of wine, and when we finish that one, we’re going to drink this bottle of wine and if we’re still not drunk we’re going to drink the other bottle of wine and so on. When we are drunk you’re going to tell me everything that you’ve ever wanted to say to me. I never got that chance with my dad, understand? Everything you’ve ever wanted to say to me—just get it off your chest.”
So we did, pounded all of the wine we had in the house—all the reds. My teeth were stained. I looked. Every time I went to the take a piss, I would stare at myself in the mirror. I’d smile my bloody smile and say to myself, “How wonderful that I’m getting drunk with my father.”
My father divorced my mother when I was in 5th grade. He divorced my mother so he could be with his mistress. When he introduced us to her, he’d said they just met. Sure. Wonderful. She’s in the other room, as we drink, sleeping. This is my spring break, sophomore year of college.
Turn off the light.
And then I walked back from the bathroom, with my bloody smile, and tossed back another glass of wine with him. Finally we were drunk enough; drunk enough to bare our emotions. The pastoral of mutual inebriation. The Secret is revealed. The beauty of having someone else by your side as drunk as you are. The comradeship. Fuck Communism, Marx and Engels. They were into getting drunk together, nothing more, and nothing less—believe it.
And I said it all. Everything. I let out all those secrets. Everything that I’ve ever wanted to tell him: I must’ve let it go, my anger, my pain, my frustration. I remember the empty bottles lined on the countertop of that humid kitchen next to the University of Miami. Crying with him; I am sure there were tears. There must have been tears. Stumbling off to bed. Hugs. Climbing into bed afterwards. Crying with a father. A son who got it off his chest. There was an apology, I’m sure there was an apology, an explanation. The emotion of a son to a father was laid bare—all of it. But I don’t remember any of it—not a fucking thing. The proudest moment of my life, and I don’t remember a thing about it.
* * *
“Tell me about it. I had wine with lunch, and enough coffee to last me,” the professor says. They both pick out mints from the red, tin Altoid box. They crunch together. The professor puts the tin box back to the right of the keyboard and swivels the chair back.
“So, most of the people are working on other things while they take this class,” he says. “Don’t let the assignments get in the way of what you’re working on outside of class. Are you working on anything right now?” He smacks his words at points and looks around. He is not bored; he is just there in the moment with you and is trying not to think of a million other people, a million other things at the same time. He gives you that moment though. That is more than enough.
“Well I do a little bit of everything, poetry, fiction, non-fiction. One of the big things I’m working on is a book of travel stories. I was in the Peace Corps for two years. I’m calling it the ‘The Transylvanian Hitchhiking Tales’.”
“Good. Good. That’s non-fiction, but you’ll be learning the trade of all prose, so you can do it. He picks up his pen and begins twiddling it on his fingers. “You like to take walks?” The professor asks.
* * *
I had no bottom, I had no worst night. I never coughed up blood. I had no moment where I stared up from a street corner where I passed out and had an epiphany. I did pass out in places and not remember where I was, with people I didn’t know, drinking something that I couldn’t remember. I never got into drugs. Why would I? Booze was enough. With booze I did it right. I was good at it. Really good at it. Better than I’ll be at anything else in my life. I know that. So I wanted to keep doing it because I could never fail, never fall short. The booze accepted me and I never had to apologize. It was the reason, the solution and the problem, I wish I could tell you more than that.
They want blood when you tell them you quit. That’s all they ever want from us. T o hear about a pancreas bursting, or a liver caked with moon craters pulled out by an EMT with a butter knife. Or hacking up blood all over a cigarette at the bar, then lighting it up anyway, letting it sizzle with the mix of tobacco and blood swathed on your lips, smiling. Those things don’t happen if you know how to drink. Those things don’t happen till the very end—not that it matters—because you wouldn’t remember anyway.
Here’s what I want to say. What happens is the DTs, Delirium Tremens. You hear things; you feel things that aren’t really happening. Every day. Every minute that you don’t have alcohol in you. I can’t say that though. I can’t tell you.
In the morning I would wake up. I would give thanks for my God given talent. That gift of being able to drink. A small cross over the bottle of wine. All night long. This was the one thing I was any good at and I prayed for another day of more of the same. When my prayers were done, I would turn and get off the bed, and that is when I would start to count. I would count how long it would take me to think about it. Some days I lasted till I reached for the shampoo, other days I barely made it past my prayers. On the really bad days, thinking about it was enough to start thinking about it. There were voices. They were watching me, debating my every move, my every action. A massive paranoia that sunk into every pore of who I was and who I would be. From the glands that released the alcohol into the air to the bar of soap. The bar of soap was not just a bar of soap. There were a million voices about the soap. Ivory, Dial, Irish Spring. The shop owner from Omaha, Nebraska with the nasal accent would argue for Ivory with the Hindi cab driver from Newark who would favor Irish Spring. I would hear them, all of their opinions, and a million others.
What do you want to lather, your legs, or across the chest, or across the arms, which will it fucking be, huh? Which are you going to flip first, the hot water or the cold water? You’re getting fat, you know that, you’re going bald, you’re weak, and why don’t you see that, you should see that.
Then there would be a pause, a reprieve, the voices no longer discussed as actions. The voices themselves became the actions, and finally the reason. Every morning I would place my soul against the cylinder-mirrored reflection of the DTs. My own reflection, my single voice remained in the middle, splintered in every direction from one side to the other. We would all argue in the bathroom, or behind a locked door, or within the pages of my journals. I would reach out, flailing in every direction toward the reflection. My voice would shrink sitting there, wailing out at me, trying to be heard. Until it was time to drink again.
And when that time came. When I had that fresh drink. When I would rush out and open a bottle. Pop a cork. Grab a beer. Fresh ice, vodka and cranberry with a twist. A drink that, when I whiffed it, let me know all the sores in my world were instantly closed for business. My infection was slowly going to heal, the voices fading out. Once again, only my own voice would be heard. That voice I had struggled to listen to would now be seen clearly, and everything else, quiet. Finally, all the mirrors were shattered. Thank you God, I would pray again. Please pour that the bloody cranberry first over those ice cubes. Now the vodka, the bartender’s strong wrist pushing it through the black spout. Until. The dance began. The dilution of the two, stirring together. Finally a twist, we cannot forget that, no. Oh that beautiful thick green rind. Closer, it rises up as my holy trinity to cleanse. Thank you God for giving me something so pure, for this one Godly thing in my life. To my lips it arose for blessing.
* * *
“ So, you know the people in the class?” The professor asks.
“Yeah, I’ve met a few.” The student replies.
“Okay—listen, you have doubts right now. That’s normal. All writers have doubts.” The student nods his head. Inside of him are a million doubts, both imagined and unimagined. Voices that direct him in ways that the professor will never know. The student turns, catching a reflection in the professor’s glasses and turns to the window.
“He’s moving,” the student says.
“Yeah, I see that. Maybe I should’ve told them he had rabies.”
“They would’ve just come over and shot him though.” There’s a picture of the professor on the windowsill. It’s in black and white, all smiles in a wooden frame. “What you gonna do though? Look at him. He’s sick, real sick.”
“Yeah,” the student says, “he is.”
The raccoon is laid out, stretched on the branch, just tufts of black and brown. He is twitching slightly in front of the two of them. His back to them. They both would like to look in his face. They both would like to shake the tree and catch the raccoon and run off with it somewhere safe. They both have read about this scene in other places. This scene is in other stories, in other times, but they watch it anyway, and they can’t do anything about it. The raccoon twitches again harder, telling them both to shift their eyes away, as if to say to the two of them, enough already.
* * *
When I first started my MFA I sat down with a poet. He barked at me that the real writers knew how to drink. Fitzgerald. Hemingway. He was raising an eyebrow at me, white guy with Asian eyes and thick black hair. He raised the eyebrow again and I looked down at my tonic and lime. “That all you going to drink?” he said to me. I had named him fuckstick in my head a while ago.
“What about Fitzgerald? He fucking died penniless and pathetic. Pissed his whole life away for the booze, man was a fucking king.”
Fuckstick stirred his Jack on the rocks and then took a sip. I woulda done anything to rip the drink from him and throw it down my gullet. To smash his head in with my fist and lick the alcohol-soaked vomit from his lips.
“Maybe that’s all he was ever meant to do. ” His words hung like the winning hand after the river.
My head spun. I clenched my fists underneath the seat. I could feel a bead of sweat descending slowly down my pit toward my torso. I slowly got up with my tonic and lime. I pushed my fist down into the table to steady myself.
“Fuck that,” I said and left him sitting there, staring at the wall.
* * *
I tried four different times over the course of six months to make it work. The first try was just drinking vodka, just me and vodka, and not too much. That didn’t work. I just got picky over what vodka would do me best.
Then came the rum phase—rum had always been vodka’s alter ego. A Latin drink for a Latin man mixed with Coca-Cola. Rum: Mount Gay and Coke please, with a twist. One of those turned into six of those.
Then came the wine, just a glass of wine. Why have just one glass? What was the point? That was the problem with all of it. Why just one? Why stop early?
Then came the beer phase. An Amstel Light at the beginning of the night—by the last call I would have a bottle with the label torn off in 500 perfect wrist flicks and five lukewarm driblets of backwash at the bottom. When there was celebrating there were pitchers. Pitchers led to more pitchers. More pitchers led to shots. There would always be a time. There would always be another place and I couldn’t say no.
* * *
The young student looks back again at the raccoon.
“He’s still moving,” the student says.
“Uh huh,” the professor says, “He’ll be like that for awhile, I imagine. I’ve been watching him all day.”
“Well, so, you’re gone this next week, but the week after you’ll be back?”
“Yeah, got this thing in Paris, the French really dig Hello to the Cannibals, so I gotta fly over and then I’ll be back. We’ll talk more then.”
“Alright, I’ll let you get back to your letters.” The student gets up and collects his things.
“Yeah, damn shame too, otherwise we could go out for a drink, there’s a bar right across the street from campus. They’ve got some nice wines, good selection,” the professor says.
“Yeah, some other time,” and he walks out, walks out of the office. Out of the office and out of College Hall. Out of College Hall, into the campus. He sets his bag down and reaches into his pocket and pulls out his cigarettes and then drops them on the ground. Cursing himself, he reaches down and opens the box. His hands are shaking. Lights up. He pulls out his cell phone. Calls his pseudo-sponsor and best friend. He dials. He gets his voice mail.
“This is Josh Campbell, please leave a message.”
“Yeah it’s me. I just met him for the first time. It was weird. There was a dying raccoon in the tree. Shit was beautiful, pure. He invited me for a drink. I couldn’t tell him. I wanted to, I wish—Josh, there was a raccoon dying in the tree,” he inhales the smoke, “call me back. I’m shaking.” He exhales the smoke and hangs up.
He looks up at the tree next to the professor’s window. The reflection of the resting place is still present. Knows he’ll tell him one day. He’ll tell him clean. Tell him pure.
He walks past it, says a prayer and goes on, like he’s been doing for the past six years, and he’ll keep on doing it as long as he can hold out. As long as he’s writing he’ll be fine. Some day he’ll tell him about how the writing became the only thing that could make it go away.
Some day I’ll be ready to give him one pure thing.
Author’s Note: I would like to thank Robert Warren and Paul Cody for my first interventions. Josh Campbell, for always being there and my family who loved me through my darkest days. And finally, Cynthia Reeser for believing in publishing this. I have been sober since the 4th of July, 1999, and I pray for many more years of sweet and pure sobriety.