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"Coffee Streaks," short story excerpt

Monday 7/12/21

You will see people of all ages at an AA meeting, which can be surprising to those who’ve never gone or had reason to. You’ll encounter children. They’re allowed. Boys and girls who are ten-years-old who have to tag along because their parent can’t miss a meeting and there’s nowhere to leave them. It’s a lot to hear for a kid. Lot to hear for an adult.


Sober eleven years and I was still going. Had an Iron Man streak of unmissed meetings. At least one a week. After a few years I stopped talking. Became a full-time listener. I’d said my stories, shared my tales. And they were tales, truly—about my oral consumption of a marriage, a well-paying job, a career I’d studied hard and long for, the love of my child, which I think I have back now, mostly, and some sort of friendship with her mother, but I still sense that she believes I could go at any time, and revert to the monster once more.


I was a monster of lethargy. Dispirited. Dispassionate. Checked out. Which in some ways is worse than a brimstone fiend of broken glasses and shouted invective.


At our daughter’s hockey games I drank whiskey out of a Dunkin’ Donuts coffee cup and though she scored a ton of goals and was good enough to play in college, I don’t remember one of them from when she was a girl, but I do break down the tape of every last shift of hers that she takes now at Colby, and I send her notes about how she’s playing and little things to look out for, such as when she’s reluctant to use her backhand, despite its obvious quality.


There was this one woman at my meetings who was dying. She’d be pretty open about it. She wasn’t that old—my guess is mid-sixties. But a very good-looking mid-sixties in that way that makes you understand how stunning someone must have been at thirty, though without undercutting or cheapening how attractive they remained.


My dad would have told you Barbara Stanwyck was this way. He was big time into Barbara Stanwyck. I think it was a fetish, and when he boffed my mom I wouldn’t be surprised if in his mind he was filling a seedier role that had to be cut out of Christmas in Connecticut.


I shouldn’t put it like that—it’s crass. It’s not how I’d express it in conversation. He loved this pseudo-concept of Barbara Stanwyck so much, but my mother didn’t seem to mind, and I don’t think anything could have threatened the security they each had in what they both shared. If I could tell you how often I’ve thought about that, you could tell me you made a point of counting to a billion every day, and I’d believe you.


The woman at the meetings had been sober for thirty-four years. That number I know exactly. Everyone tends to know each other’s number, and they certainly know their own number to the day.


She’d been told she’d be dead in a few months. Coming to those meetings was about all she could do on the physical side of what remained of her life, and most of her days were spent resting. A person—a cynic—might be tempted to say, “resting for what?” but I’ve found that it’s one of those terms that can mean a hell of a lot more than everyone assumes it does.


I didn’t want to be an asshole and say the wrong thing, and I was pretty hyper-aware of that. She probably heard the wrong thing all the time. “But you look so good!” Like all the doctors had actually been in error, a big ass whoopsie. She didn’t talk much at the meetings either, and I felt that we were comrades in witnessing, though I knew she was more likely to be classified a master listener, and I remained an apprentice.


One night she was outside waiting for her ride. Her daughter would pick her up. It was raining, and I was thinking, “Jesus, you can’t be late for this sort of deal, these are the days of needing to be on time,” kind of criticizing the daughter in my head, which was rich and ironic, considering how I’d been as a parent.


So I sat on the steps of the community center with the woman, same place where you’d go at Christmastime to see your fellow townsfolk—and the term, in this context, felt appropriate—in one of the high school English teacher’s rope-y little seasonal plays. She wouldn’t be there—be anywhere—come Christmas, and though it was only April, I figured I wouldn’t be going to the play that year.


We talked about coffee, for some reason. I was in the habit of getting her a cup before the meetings started so that she wouldn’t have to fetch it herself from the table that also had stale Danish or whatever the kindly guy at the bakery across the street was generous enough to provide from what he hadn’t sold that day, but the coffee was surprisingly, surpassingly good, such that if you were a regular, you were almost proud on behalf of the brew.


It was rainy and raw, one of those nights where it’d only been dark for a couple hours, but it seemed as if the evening had managed to stretch itself and live on for three days straight, was still going strong, thumping its chest now that we had come outside, so coffee would have been nice, and I wished I had a fresh thermos of it with me that we could share.


“Why do you still come?” I asked her, when it felt to me like her daughter would be there any second, and this would be my only chance to know. You can intuit what a person is—sometimes—so that who that is, what that is, shakes in your very bones. Wasn’t like she was going to embark on a bender and take her leave of this world in an alcoholic stupor. She was too solid. Too strong.


“To see things through,” she said to me. “It’s not just with one thing. It’s with everything. Process.”


I responded by saying that I understood, that made sense, but I’m not sure that she believed I really did. She was probably right.


I told my ex-wife about her after she was gone, and I still kept going to the meetings, though I only got the coffee for myself. There was no advance warning beyond what I already knew. What people call a final goodbye. No, “Hey, everyone, this is my curtain call, final meeting of my life, sober to the last, bitches.” A flinty fist waved in front of the fates, who could tempt no more, and were now, in this one matter, reduced to neutered dogs of the cosmos, looking for a leg to hump while knowing it wouldn’t be the real deal.