a novel by Janet Ference
Meg came prepared to speak. That was the point. Why else drag yourself to an AA meeting at six o’clock in the morning? She’d been sober again for twenty-four days now, and she figured it was high time she bragged about it.
This motley bunch held their meeting in something called a “community space” for artists. It was a hive of lofts carved out of an old, abandoned textile mill that was just like the one where her Daddy used to work. The “gathering” room had a small stage, weird unframed art on the walls, all kinds of splotches of paint on the floor, and stacks of beat-up folding chairs and tables. Avis would have loved the place. June would have wanted to clean it.
The alcoholics assembled for the meeting were facing one another in a circle of about a dozen chairs set up in the customary way. A table of coffee, donuts and ashtrays was out of reach by the door. Meg had been late and she hadn’t stopped to grab anything. She had to watch the others sipping their coffee and smoking up the place with Raleigh cigarettes. She was dying for a cup of bad coffee, but it was rude to get up and go get some in the middle of somebody speaking her piece.
The one who was talking now, this Marcia person, was crying too damn much and going on way too long. It was time the leader put a stop to it, but the leader of this meeting was one of those guys who only had a one-way switch. It was all go and no stop. He opened his eyes wide and gave a good impression of opening his fool heart to each and every sap who said, ‘I’m so-and-so, and I’m an alcoholic.’ His ‘Hello, so-and-so,’ sounded like Jesus simpering in a movie, and his nodding head looked properly solemn the whole time the so-and-so told his such-and-such a story. Then each and every sorry tale went on like that and didn’t stop until the so-and-so sputtered out of gas.
Marcia was practically wailing, and she had a full tank of gas. She’d come to the meeting drunk, not freshly drunk straight from the empty kitchen of her empty house, but drunk enough to keep reaching for a bottle that wasn’t there. Her hand kept fluttering back to her side when it came up empty. She was a sight. Meg knew this woman didn’t know she looked like that. There were five guys to every one gal in the room, and Marcia’s five guys looked disgusted. Her make-up wasn’t even bad enough to make her look rolled-out-of-the-wrong-bed sexy. It was just a half-assed job. The woman hadn’t even made a middling effort to get her face on before she showed up here in public.
Meg thought it was stupid that people claimed these meetings weren’t public. It was all supposed to be so private. The truth was, an ax murderer could walk in the door, sit down, say, ‘my name is Jack and I’m an ax murderer,’ and tell the story about how he killed his Mama when he was six because he lost his first tooth and she didn’t give him a nickel from the tooth fairy so he had to teach her a lesson about being stingy.
Every last man of them was a stranger until you let them not be a stranger, if you ever let them not be a stranger, which actually wasn’t a stellar idea. So, if a girl had a lick of sense, for instance, if she showed up sober in the first place, she’d let them come strangers in the door and go strangers out the door. Meg couldn’t begin to understand how strangers coming and going was somehow not public.
Meg wasn’t so sure she wanted to spill her beans to these people, after all. They were too young, too eager, and too earnest. They weren’t fidgeting toward the door like they should be. They weren’t staring at their wayward feet. The ones who weren’t leaning precariously off their chairs toward Marcia were staring at Meg. She knew they were speculating about what she had to say. They were undoubtedly imagining something juicy. She knew full well most people took one look at her and thought of sex. It was just a hazard of being a looker.
Some of those eyes were giving her the creepy crawlies with so much wild curiosity and compassion.
Marcia was winding down now, saying her cockapoo got shot in the yard by an old half-blind codger with a BB gun who said he was aiming at squirrels, and that was just the last straw, and anybody would probably have a drink or two after that. She was at the part where they look up and expect every other drunk in the room to know exactly how it is and make it all better by acting like it could happen to anybody. The thing was, Marcia said the dog got shot on Wednesday, and this was Monday morning, so Meg figured that drink or two was more like two hundred, and while it could happen to anybody, somebody ought to pipe up and tell the gal the dog was just a dog and she should have buried it in the yard and gotten on with life. Not everybody gets drunk over idiotic stuff.
Meg kept checking the ancient little Timex that Mama had given her. She had picked this meeting because she thought it would start and end early enough to get her to work in plenty of time. That was the only reason she was there.
She hadn’t been to a meeting in six years. Until Daddy died last August, Meg had been sober six years, ten months, and two days. Now she had been a drunk for over five months. She would have been well into her seventh year of sobriety if her family hadn’t started dying and getting cancer and being Avis.
She had to admit, she also picked this meeting because it was a brand-new one. It hadn’t been around back in the old days. These were fresh drunks. At the time she made her choice, that seemed like what she wanted. Meg had gotten sober-to-stay four times before in her life. There were plenty of other times she’d tried hard enough but couldn’t do it. She’d been a friend of Bill’s for days or a week or months or years at a time at one meeting or another around town for near about twenty years. She wasn’t about to parade herself back into one of those mounds of fire ants any time soon. They’d be all over her. Drunks loved to save the ones who ricocheted back again and again. It meant the person wasn’t experimenting with being an alcoholic. The person was well and truly a dead drunk and one of them, with a carload of chips at home in the panty drawer to prove it.
Meg could tell these kids a thing or two about drinking and what it will get you. She could make a speech to set their hair on end. She was starting to think she might just do that. She could throw a whole life of disgusting mistakes in their faces, keep them there till noon, knock them off their wobbly chairs, and send them home driving like drunks to look for that hidden fifth they all kept handy.
Meg had lost track of what was going on around her. When it got uncomfortably silent in the room, she realized Marcia was done talking. That one-note wonder had finally shut her mouth, and now the crowd was waiting for the fat lady to sing.
This was her chance.
That baby-faced leader, with his Jesus eyes, was holding onto the silence, when any ordinary guy would call it a day, pass the hat, lead a prayer, and say toodeloo. This bozo was having none of that. He was looking searchingly into people’s faces, almost demanding that the silent ones speak. He settled a long gaze on Meg, without once dropping his eyes to her boobs. He meant business.
She sucked in a big breath, like she had a mind to sing or blow out the candles on a birthday cake. She held it, because when she let it go she was afraid words would rush out with it, and she no longer knew what words they’d be.
She told herself firmly that she could stay sober perfectly well on her own. She didn’t need a meeting three times a week. She certainly didn’t need these people. For the life of her, she couldn’t remember what she’d been thinking when she agreed to let herself submit to a higher power again. She was not ‘powerless over alcohol.’ She was not a helpless child like these drunks around her. She was Meg Bigsby, and she was an actual grown-up, and she could help herself right out the door. She might take a donut on the way. She’d missed breakfast.
She didn’t need to say, ‘I’m Meg, and I’m an alcoholic.’ She’d said it when they went around the room. She didn’t need to open her mouth and say it again. If she wanted to talk, she’d have to start with that, and she’d have to listen to them interrupt her train of thought and say, ‘Hello, Meg.’ It was a bogus tradition. It’s not like anybody could know anything about a person by hearing them say, ‘I’m so-and-so, and I’m an alcoholic.’ It sure didn’t prepare people for whatever came next. It was shocking what some drunks had to say.
When Meg came to this meeting, she only planned to say that her sister had cancer and it was really bad, and her other sister was a snobby artist just like the people in this building, and that she’d been to New York City and it was a city same as Greenville only bigger, and that was disappointing because it meant there was nowhere to go but here.
Now, though, she knew if she opened her fool mouth, she was going to say, ‘I’m an alcoholic all right. I’ve been an alcoholic since I was sixteen, started drinking hard right after I was raped by a boy who was too good for me, and I’ve known I was a drunk since I was thirty-one and another man raped me in my very own apartment when I was idiot enough to take him home from a bar, and I first got sober when I was thirty-five and sloppy drunk and almost died.’
Meg held her breath like a person who was drowning, which she was, and she stared right back at that boy who acted like Jesus, seeing right through him, knowing sure as hell when he had sex he finished screwing with a grunt like any other man. There was no earthly way she was going to open her mouth to be flooded by his pity, so if he thought he was going to win this staring contest, he was dead wrong.
The thing was, Meg knew in the end people didn’t care what you said or did, as long as you didn’t get it all over them. These people didn’t really want to know that once upon a time Meg Bigsby got drunk and tried to do like her Mama, not gruesome like that, but still. They didn’t care to hear how one day for no reason, Meg sat at the pinched little table in her converted RV home that was parked on a slab with hundreds of others like it, in the fair little town of Myrtle Beach, not spitting distance from the ocean, which should have stopped her right there, the beach being her favorite place and all, and she thought about the sand on the floor, the sand in her bed, the sand in the shower, the sand and the ants in her cupboards with the crackers, and she started out by taking only a couple sleeping pills, downing them with just a swig of Johnny Walker Red, but before she knew it, she had taken two more and poured a real drink, and then she had another drink because the first one made her thirsty like it will when you’re a drunk, and she was so sure she wouldn’t sleep that night, and she didn’t know why she wouldn’t sleep, but she was sure of it, so she took a few more pills, and there were plenty in the bottle because it was a brand-new prescription she got that very day from a kind old doctor who could see she needed rest, and her glass kept being empty, so she kept filling it again, and somewhere along the line the pills ran out, so she turned the pill bottle upside down on top of a couple of stray ants, and she drank to their demise because she planned to kill them as soon as she lifted that little plastic bottle, and that’s when her head started really, really swimming.
She couldn’t just say to these AA people that Johnny Carson was on TV when she did it, that Don Rickles was being an ass, calling his wife a dog, saying she’d go ‘arf’ in the bed that night and roll over away from him when he wanted to screw her.
These people would never sit still for it if she started to light into the whole story and tell them everything.
Meg Bigsby had watched that TV show till the end of it, and by then she was very, very sleepy, and that’s when it occurred to her that she was going to die, and she immediately knew that was exactly what she had in mind when she looked up that old quack in the dilapidated office by the Kroger store, and she was glad it was all turning out to be so easy. She could tell that any minute she would fall asleep and that would be the end of that. As she headed over to settle down in bed, she tripped, sloppy drunk, on a broom handle that was somehow for some reason on the floor, and there was nothing Meg Bigsby hated more than a sloppy drunk. Back in the day, as a bartender, she’d had to tend to more than her share of them. From the floor, she tried to focus on the trail of ants coming in her door, because she thought if she could pick out the movements of ants, then she wasn’t an outright disgusting drunk. She couldn’t, of course. The floor itself was a wave she was riding and she could no more see the ants than she’d have been able to see churning grains of sand in the saltwater. That’s when she realized that she was indeed on her way to being dead. Meg Bigsby suddenly figured out that the last thing she was ever going to see was Don Rickles on Johnny Carson, and that bothered her, that it was Don Rickles, because the devil might look like that, and she knew she was going to see Satan soon enough, and maybe she wasn’t ready for Don Rickles in her face for all eternity.
No, these people here, surrounding Meg in this very quiet room, did not want to hear how she yanked herself up by the hair, literally, and found her way out the door surprisingly, and stumbled cock-eyed to the next door neighbor’s, and slapped on the door because she couldn’t make a fist to use her knuckles, and got on her knees because she forgot how to stand without falling, and waited for seventy-year-old Mrs. Nancy Planter to wake up and answer the door. They didn’t want to be told how Mrs. Planter screamed at her when she asked for an ambulance, when she said she was dying, when she explained she’d taken a whole bottle of sleeping pills, when she miraculously found a way to speak, how Mrs. Planter didn’t think it was a miracle at all, how Mrs. Planter thought she should have tried someone else’s door, because after all, Mrs. Planter had a heart condition and she couldn’t understand why Meg Bigsby was doing this to her, and she said so, just like that, ‘How could you do this to me?’ That was exactly what Mrs. Planter had said.
These recovering alcoholics in this paint-splattered room didn’t want to see how it was that night for Meg, crouching there, with Mrs. Planter screaming at her, how Meg wondered if that ugly old lady would ever stop shrieking and call the ambulance already.
Of course, they would guess that an ambulance did come, that the doctor pumped Meg’s stomach, that she survived it, because here she was sitting in the middle of their nice little meeting, living to tell it.
Still, they would never understand how the doctor complained about getting out of bed to report to the hospital at that hour. They wouldn’t believe that he told her she had done a good job and, by rights, she ought to have passed out and been well on her way to being dead already.
They would never listen to it if she said that at the time she thought he was right and wished she’d just laid down and died and been done with it.
The truth was, Meg Bigsby had never truly forgiven herself for failing.
She wasn’t about to sit here at this meeting and say that.
So Meg kept holding her breath and staring at the leader, waiting for it to be over.
He flinched first, of course. He cleared his throat like he’d been drowning himself. He reached for a Kleenex box. Meg thought the guy would cry.
It turned out the box was an empty one. It had “hat” written on the side in Magic Marker. This was what they used for the collection.
The woman next to him took it before he passed it, and she shoved a wadded-up dollar into it before she handed it to the next alcoholic.
Meg knew they were going to pray next. They always did at these meetings, start with prayers, end with prayers. They’d probably recite that ridiculous ‘serenity’ prayer.
She really had to go. She was going to be late for work.
When she stood up, they didn’t seem surprised. She scanned their faces for an objection. She didn’t know why she did that. She almost sat back down just to be polite, but these people didn’t look like they cared what she did, one way or the other. They’d apparently lost interest in her. She had to admit, she knew how they felt. Everybody hated Looky Lou’s at these meetings, strangers with nothing to say. Meg was the stranger here, in the door a stranger, out the door a stranger. It was time for her to go.
She didn’t take one of their donuts on the way to the door. After all, she hadn’t poked a plug nickel into their hat box.
By the time she reached the door, a door that went directly outside, the people inside were starting to pray.
Meg cracked open the door, and the morning light hurt her eyes, so she fished her sunglasses out of her purse. It took her a minute, and she tried not to listen, but as she slipped the shades over her eyes, she heard the people behind her saying the part that goes, ‘Trusting that He will make all things right, if I surrender to His Will.’
She hesitated in the doorway for another moment, letting daylight into the room. Then she flipped off her shades to plant them on top of her head, crowning her auburn upswept hairdo.
Meg pulled a tiny mother-of-pearl mirror and a couple of Maybelline lipsticks from her bag. She did a quick touch-up, using a light stroke of coral accented with a bit of true red, then flashing herself a bright, broad smile to check her teeth.
She lowered her head slightly to put everything back right where it belonged in her purse.
Meg had never seen God fix anything. Don Rickles could kill your cockapoo without a by-your-leave, while God just watched and sighed.
She was clear about one thing this morning, though. A gal still ought to fix her face before she went out in public.
Meg stepped away and let the door slam shut behind her. She didn’t think she meant it to be so loud as all that. She thought it was just a very, very old door, hanging on loose hinges, caught in a surprise gust of wind.
Some things can’t be helped, Meg told herself, with her freshly painted lips moving to form the words. Some things just are what they are.
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