My father and I are in his car. I am driving and he is in the passenger seat, his shirt unbuttoned to his navel, his hair on one side matted forward against his temple. He is drunk again, or perhaps he is still drunk.
This morning at his apartment we talked. I have come at a bad time, but the doctor said such a time would be good to confront him. I told my father that I knew from his voice during our phone conversations recently how much he was drinking. I told him that as we spoke, he appeared drunk. I told him I thought we should try to do something about it.
He shook his head while I spoke, as a child might. “I don't deny it. I'm a lonely man,” he said in slurred Spanish. And after a pause: “It wasn't bad when I was dating L., or when I had a job. I want to leave behind something for you and your brothers and sisters.” It's true he has nothing to do all day; he has nothing to do at night. He is waiting—to get a job, to get a woman. I am afraid that neither will ever happen.
Miami is a swamp filled in. My father lives in the southwest section. The houses are pink, the sunsets are orange, and the Christmas will surely be green. A police car passes and I am worried, but then I realize that I am doing nothing wrong. Beside me in the passenger seat, my father says, “I just don't want them to make me stand up in front of everybody and tell them that I am an alcoholic; I don't want to do that.” I turn into a parking lot full of cars, still wet from the afternoon rain.
When I was a child, my mother would tell me I had a new brain. She and my father were still married, and my mother would say I had a clean soul. “Pray for your father,” she whispered to me when I returned to the pew after receiving my first Communion. “Your prayers are worth very much.” To her, there were no prayers more valuable, more surely at the top of God's daily list, than mine that first day I wore my light blue shirt to take His wafer body and wine blood on my tongue.
Before flying down to Miami I met my mother for coffee. She spoke to me across the small tabletop about seeing friends, about the counseling she is getting. Her friends all tell her she looks terrific. She does. I told her that I was going to Miami to visit my father. Only when she changed languages to speak to the waitress did I realize she had been speaking Spanish the whole time. When our cups were empty she mentioned suddenly, as if she were indifferent, that she might be interested in speaking to my father again. I stirred the coffee, saying, “Perhaps, perhaps.” As I thought about what she said I repeated only these two strange syllables: perhaps. I did not want her to hear the hum of my eagerness, my hope. I did not want to hear it myself.
My father and I are in a dark, smoky hall full of tables covered with ashtrays and soda cans. A microphone is getting passed around. People say their first names and everyone in the hall echoes their names back with a “hi.”
The people speak candidly, fluently about their problems. My father and I sit in a corner. He is drunk, but they told me on the phone that it was OK to bring him that way. A young man at our table leans in close, clasping my father's shoulder, and says to him in an anxious whisper, “Are you tired of being tired?”
My father, slouching forward, says, “What do you mean? I'm not tired.” The young man has no knowledge of my father's past, of my family's struggles. I want to say, Do you know what my father has gone through to provide for his family, the things he had to do when he came over to this country?
The young man keeps talking: “If you want to stop, you've got to make a decision to stop. If you want to, at the end of the meeting, take a white poker chip. When they ask if there's anyone who's made a decision to try to go clean for thirty days, you can go up and take a chip and that chip will be your symbol. You can keep it to remind you that you made a commitment.”
My father tells the young man, “I just don't want to have to stand up and say my name and I'm an alcoholic.” The young man assures him that he does not have to do anything like that, just take a chip and make a commitment.
As the meeting is ending, a young woman stands up in front and says into the microphone, “Now is the time when we celebrate anniversaries and new beginnings.” She asks if anyone has been clean for a year. The hall is quiet, people lean forward in their chairs and turn their heads, but no one stands. The young woman says, “Ninety days?” and a middle-aged woman immediately stands up. Everyone claps as she walks to the front, and the young woman embraces her and gives her a red chip. She returns to her table holding it tightly in a fist. When the young woman says, “Thirty days?” two men come up from the back and again there's applause. Each of the men takes a blue chip back to his table.
Now the young woman speaks in a hushed tone. She says, “Is there anyone, new or old, who would like to try, with the support of us all, to make a commitment to try and go clean?” The smoky hall is silent. People lean forward and heads turn. The young man at our table looks at my father. He is still drunk. A moment before he seemed almost asleep, but now he feels people watching him and raises his head. He looks into my eyes. I cannot tell if he is afraid or annoyed. His wide eyes seem to say he wants me to make the decision for him.
I hear myself say, “Would you like me to help you?”
My father says, “Sure.”
My mother tells a story of coming over from Cuba. A man wearing a cast on his arm was boarding the airplane in Havana. The soldiers stopped him and interrogated him. He was not, of course, allowed to take any money or valuables with him, and they had seen the trick with the fake cast. The soldiers took off the cast and found nothing. His arm really was broken, and the man was sent back to the hospital in great pain. He returned to board the plane the next day, wearing a new cast. The soldiers waved the man through, and the man came to this country with $10,000 wrapped tightly under the fresh plaster. The hardest part for him, my mother tells me, had been breaking his own arm.
Now we are up, weaving between tables and chairs, my hands on his shoulders, guiding him, supporting him. People clap and pat my father on the back as we pass. They say things like “We're all behind you!” and “Good luck!” When we reach the young woman, I let go of my father and crouch down in front of the first row of tables. I watch my father, who once was my hero and who now drinks loneliness into forgetfulness, hug the young woman. She smiles, squeezing the microphone beneath her armpit, and presses a white chip firmly into his hand, holding my father's hand for a long moment between both of her hands.
The noise of applause is like hard-falling rain, and all the bright, sympathetic smiles have bedazzled us, my father and me. I am crying. Tears are streaming down my face, and I am weeping uncontrollably, gulping for air. My father is asking the young woman something, cupping his hand to her ear. The young woman seems unsure and looks over her shoulder to a man standing in front of the PA. The man nods to her. My father wants to say something into the microphone.
My father takes the microphone and says his name. The clapping stops and the hall is silent except for the sound of my soft sobbing. My father, with his loose collar and wrinkled pants, looks out over my head, his wide-eyed gaze darting about at all the faces, and says, “I am an alcoholic.” The applause thunders back, and I weep out loud again. Someone from one of the front tables reaches out and places a firm hand on my shoulder.
We are driving home, my father in the passenger seat. My head feels empty from weeping. My father, his voice sounding more peaceful than I've heard it in years, says, “You know, it would be so much better if your mother and I were still together.” I stare straight ahead through the windshield. “We would save so much money. So much more for your brothers and sisters and you.”
We return to his apartment, both exhausted, and I decide to stay and sleep on the sofa. My father insists on getting it ready for my bed. I go to the bathroom and think through what has happened. I think of the swamp beneath the vast, thin crust of white cement they covered it with to make a city. I come out of the bathroom and find my father sitting on the edge of the couch in his underwear, a stiff pillow pinned between his boney knees, working clumsily with the pillow cover. He looks up at me. “It's a good pillow,” he says, struggling with the cover. I return to the bathroom and cry for the second time this evening.
I have slept, slept long. I feel refreshed. I am confused upon waking, but I know where I am and remember the night before. I can tell through the closed shade that the sun is shining. The rooms are warm and fragrant with the scent of wet grass outside.
The telephone rings and I remain in bed, thinking my father will answer it.
It keeps ringing and I swing my feet over the side of the bed, rushing into the hall to answer.
It is my mother. From her first words I can tell that she is upset about something. She says that it is good that I'm the one who picked up the phone. She tells me that she does not want to talk to my father after all, that I should forget about arranging a meeting for them. I ask her what is wrong, what happened. She tells me she has been speaking to her friends and that they don't think it would be a good idea. She speaks as if she were angry at me, as if I had tricked her to consider visiting my father.
I carry the telephone into my father's room and he isn't there. I do not know where he is. I sit on his bed. It is unmade. The shade in my father's room is closed. I walk to the window. In front of the shade there is a wooden valet where my father hangs his jacket and a shallow tray on top where he puts loose change. There in the dish, along with some pennies and a ball of blue lint, I see the white chip. My mother keeps talking into the telephone.
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El Cid | April 2015 | Cañoncito @ Dique