Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Exit, Pursued by a Bear

Chapter Fifteen

“I don’t know what your problem is, Mitch,” the dapper-looking man in the front row interrupted me, “but you sure aren’t one of us.” He had an anomalous gray end-of-the-day stubble on his wrinkled face. His nose bore the blotch campaign ribbons or acne roseacae. “I know alcoholics,” he said with overstated modesty, “and you sure ain’t one of us.”

A swell of agreement erupted throughout the room, a damp basement in a neighborhood church, in which some twenty-five men and women sat resolutely on folding chairs.

“I’ll tell you what it is,” a skinny, pageboy blond in a K-Mart worker’s tunic said. “He came here looking to get laid.”

This observation brought forth a chorus of agreement from both sexes, all of whom ratified their negative response to my opening statements.

Alcoholic or not, my presence in the meeting had been fueled by one good bottle of pinot noir with dinner, about half a bottle of plonk, and a good deal of self-pity at the Harbor View Grotto. “I came here,” I said, trying to make myself heard over the rumble of discontent, “hoping to find some understanding.”

Strike two called on Howard Camden. This last admission, seen as egregious grandstanding, was greeted with hoots and catcalls. The “here” I had come to was the nine o’clock AA meeting at the Lighthouse Fellowship Church in Crescent City, California.

“Sympathy is more like it,” someone in the group insisted. “Got any spare sympathy?”

Nearly at a shout in my defensiveness, I countered, “What is so awful about sympathy?”

Called strike three. It is okay to ask some rhetorical questions at AA meetings, questions such as What could I have been thinking? But even that is open to suspicion. Even the vaguest hint of self-pity doesn’t make it.

The mobile home park twenty-five miles north in Brookings was to have been our home for at least four months. I had a good deal of work to catch up on and Rae had felt another bout of reading coming upon her. With Rae gone, my feelings for the place and my plans in general were in a riot of conflicting emotions.

Brookings is far enough away from anywhere else to require a cable service or dish antenna. Replays of long-forgotten sitcoms, adventures, and game shows dominate the regular scheduling, making it possible to see The Fonz jumping the shark, Groucho mischievously baiting a mother of six children, and the iconic moose wandering through the fictional domain of Cicely, Alaska, a unique version of the Greek chorus.

After two days of housecleaning, rearranging my computer files and reading every paperback novel available from the rack at High-Time Liquor and Groceries, then watching enough ancient television to give me for a doctoral thesis in sociology, I made a list of new priorities:

Get out of Brookings.

Find someplace else to live.

Settle in.

Loose self in work.

Find creative ways to get over Rae.

I began by driving south to Crescent City with the plan of treating myself to a crab or lobster dinner and a bottle of the best wine available. Thus fortified, I’d be able to address the specifics of my priorities.

The luck of the season favored fresh crab, my own luck further enhanced by the presence of a pinot noir from Santa Ynez. The succulent crab and rascally wine led me toward a calculus wherein a second bottle would produce greater equanimity yet and the imagination with which to give my new priorities a practical shove.

Or so I told myself.

A sympathetic waiter kept my wine glass filled and inquired with solicitude about the temperature of my coffee while I made an inventory of my current resources, considered places I might go to begin this new life I was to lead, then spent some time considering the projects in which I’d immerse myself while working off my grief at having blown it with Rae. This is what I imagine it would be like to make the arrangements for one’s own funeral. We can offer you our New Age options, Dr. Camden. There is, of course, the straightforward burial at sea with an actor reciting Father Mapple’s eulogy from Moby Dick, your choice of before or after the scattering of the ashes. There is also the option of scattering the, er, remains in some mountainous area such as the Rockies, the Cascades, and the Adirondacks. If you have a particular mystical bent, we have arrangements with several Native American tribal organizations, giving us access to even more remote areas for the, um, scattering…

In hindsight, I realized I should have stayed with the agreeable buzz from dinner and the pinot noir, but the second bottle gave my sanguinity about the future an enological equivalent of a rabbit punch. When I lurched out of The Harbor View Grotto I had as companions those most unreliable carouse companions Self-Pity and Maudlin.

It was not long before I found the small sign, the A.A. circle-within-a-triangle logo, followed it to the meeting hall I the basement of a wood-frame church.

“I didn’t come here to be ridiculed and shouted at,” I said. “I came here for understanding.”

The meeting leader, a balding, avuncular man with frameless glasses and an encouraging smile, spoke in a raspy voice. “Listen, Mitch,” he said. “Sometimes you have to be ridiculed and shouted at for the understanding to work.”


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