By LESLIE WHATLEY
Otto hauled me up out of the passenger seat of my mother’s Buick and slung my arm over his shoulder and dragged me over the grass because my legs weren’t working properly. Halfway across the lawn I looked up at his shiny red face, awash in Old Spice, and said, Get the fuck off of me, you fat-assed faggot. And I spit right on his cheek, a few white flecks of spit. Otto dropped me on the lawn and went away for a while, while I lay in the grass with the world spinning around me. My mother looked upside down, standing by the curb next to her Buick, crying into her hands, like she was praying.
I’d left home at 16, but I’d mostly stayed in Opelika. Every time I got in trouble, my mother had rescued me, bailed me out of jail or picked me up at the hospital or wired me bus fare back to Opelika from wherever I’d ended up, and each time she helped me I got a little more angry at her, until finally, no matter what kind of dead-end I might’ve been heading toward, I started to wish she would get out of my way and leave me to it. But as I lay in the tall grass on the lawn of the Union Hall, I hoped that she’d change her mind, that she’d see what kind of people she was handing me over to now, that she’d come over and pick me up and help me back to the car so we could get the hell out of there, but she just stood crying and didn’t make a move.
Then Otto came back and hoisted me up again and took me inside the Union Hall and dumped me into a folding chair next to an old lady who looked like a stick figure with an oxygen mask strapped on her face, a steel oxygen tank on a little stroller parked beside her. She smelled like the sebaceous funk that you find under a long toenail. This, I would learn, was Miss Elizabeth, a wizened little woman with watery red eyes and white hair parched yellow, her saggy skin all blotchy and covered with liver spots. She turned to me and said, You don’t look so good, kid. She only had about five teeth left, and they were all brown. And I said, Fuck you, lady, and then I wet my pants.
And you might say that, right there, was the bottom for me; that was when I truly achieved low self-esteem. Even when the stain spread down my pants, I couldn’t move, and nobody asked me to. And when they started the meeting, I said, My name’s Sonny, and I’m an alcoholic, and I haven’t taken a drink since that day.
That was my first AA meeting, at the Beauregard Group, in February of 1993, back before we got kicked out of the Rubber Workers’ Union Hall and had to start meeting in the basement of St. John’s Episcopal. I was 20 years old. The only people I can remember from that first meeting are Otto, Scott T, Disfigured Dan and Miss Elizabeth, all of them dead now. I’d been arrested the night before for causing a disturbance at the pool of the Econo Lodge on Highway 280, though I have no idea how I got there or what, exactly, I was doing to get arrested. I have no memory of the arrest, only that the pool in the parking lot of the Econo-Lodge, surrounded by a chain-link fence topped with concertina wire, which I’d somehow surmounted, was empty but for a black sludge at the bottom, spiked with dead branches and an old grocery cart, half-submerged. The cops had dropped me off at the East Alabama Medical Center, just down Opelika Road, where I started off in the emergency room with alcohol poisoning and ended up in the psych ward.
They’d given me a shot of Thorazine or something to calm me down and belted me to a gurney. I came awake in the middle of the night to find that I’d been lashed down with thick leather straps and parked in a hallway. Two orderlies, large men, were standing over me, one on either side—I’d been hollering at them, apparently, before I passed out—and when I came to I started cussing them again, as loud as I could—I’ll kill you fucking goddamned motherfuckers! I shouted, over and over again. One of the orderlies leaned over me, a big boy brimming with menace, bringing his face close to mine, and said, If you weren’t tied down like that, kid, I’d beat the living shit out of you.
And oh, it hurt my feelings so bad, I started to cry, and I was thinking, why doesn’t anybody ever like me?
They called my mother, woke her up. And when they released me to her late the next afternoon, she put me in her car and drove me straight over to the Rubber Workers’ Union Hall off the Pepperell Parkway, a bit farther still down the road. The Union Hall was an old clapboard house in the Mill Village, two big rooms lit by fluorescent tubes, particleboard tables and folding chairs, a brown couch, a couple of coffee percolators going in the kitchen, coffee cans full of cigarette butts on the porch. There was a closet where they kept all the Big Books and Twelve and Twelve books and the little aluminum rack of pamphlets (“Too Young to be an Alcoholic?”) and the banners with the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions printed on them. There were also a couple of bulletin boards with union announcements and a banner that said, Rubber Workers’ Union 37, Opelika, Alabama, in cut-out felt letters. In the backyard there was a barbecue pit, and we used to sit on the picnic tables beside it before the meetings got started, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee from Styrofoam cups.
The Mill Village was a neighborhood of Sears kit homes built in the ’40s and ’50s, when everybody worked at the cotton gin or the textile mill. If you’ve ever seen that Sally Field movie Norma Rae, it was made here in Opelika, a lot of it shot in the Mill Village and at the mill down the road, which is still running, the weedy margins of all the streets for a quarter mile in every direction covered with a layer of cotton fluff, like dirty snow. There were also a couple of scenes at the Golden Cherry Motel, on the highway, which is still here too. I’d been an extra in that movie, a small baby in my mother’s arms, in the scene where Sally meets the hippie union organizer at the baseball game.
The houses in the Mill Village used to all look alike, but over the years people had made additions, put in garages and planted little gardens with whitewashed tires sunk in the ground for borders, filled their yards with junked-out cars and put up flagpoles to fly Old Glory and the Southern Cross, and now each house looked different from the others, though they were really all the same.
From anywhere in the Village you could look over the rooftops, between the trees and the electric cables and phone wires, and see the lights on the smokestacks over at Diversified Products and American Plastic Exports out by the highway, chugging black smoke into the sky, red lights winking like stars against the purple clouds in the evenings before the meetings. Now everybody in the Mill Village worked for DP or Ampex, and the whole neighborhood smelled like a fresh, burning tire.
I hadn’t seen my mother in probably six months before that night, since the last time she’d picked me up from jail. We pulled up in front of the Union Hall and Otto came out to the car and stood on the lawn by my mother and spoke to her, then opened the car and leaned in over me and said, Sonny, do you think you can walk or am I going to have to carry you?
Otto frightened me. He looked mad—hopping mad, Saturday-morning-cartoon mad, red-faced, and I didn’t like the surly interest he took in me. He chaired the meetings at the Beauregard Group a lot back in those days, and the first time I ever spoke at a meeting, a couple of weeks after that first night, he cut me off and said, We don’t want to hear about all that dope shit, about huffing spray paint and sniffing glue, kid. This is an AA meeting, Alcoholics Anonymous. If you want to talk about that other shit you should find yourself an NA meeting. I went up to him after the meeting and said I really was interested in finding those NA meetings. Otto goes, There ain’t any NA meetings in Opelika, and then he got in his pickup truck and drove away.
A lot of the older guys used to be really condescending about how young I was when I arrived at AA. They just assumed I must be a real high-bottom drunk. Sometimes I’d think that they must be right, that I was just a kid, that I hadn’t really hit bottom like everybody else. I imagined I’d go out and get good and drunk and come back in a wheelchair or missing an eye or my front teeth, the way I’d seen some of them come back, and then they’d see that I was the genuine article, a real alcoholic.
By that winter, I’d gotten down to about 110 pounds, my eyeballs were yellow and my liver was swelling out under my ribs. I had low blood pressure and I’d had diarrhea for about two years straight. I went to see a doctor for the first time since my mother had last taken me to the pediatrician. The doctor took a blood sample and said I’d gotten a toxic concentration of some kind of illegal pesticide in my blood from all the pot I’d been smoking. It had torn up my kidneys and my immune system; I’d never recover from it, he said, and I’d have colds and bugs for the rest of my life. And I had an ulcer, had been shitting blood for over a year. For years I’d been having seizures and thought I must be a schizophrenic or epileptic or something. At least schizophrenia or epilepsy would have been interesting, would have given me some kind of excuse for my inexcusable behavior.
The first person I could really relate to was Sad Scott T. He would just fall apart like a greasy paper sack of trash at every meeting, and it wasn’t long before I knew his whole pathetic life story. In that first meeting, Scott told us about his wife, Candy, who as far as I know still shows up at the Turning Point Group over in Auburn every now and then.
She had started messing around with this long-haul truck driver and brought him home to the trailer, and when Scott came home from work that night, the trucker wouldn’t let him into his own house. So Scott and the trucker had a fight in the yard, all of Scott’s little kids standing around watching. He’d gotten away with a busted lip and a black eye and the littlest boy, a grubby little 3-year-old named Eli, who was asleep out in Scott’s truck while we sat in the Union Hall drinking coffee. Now Scott was hunkered over in a folding chair with dirt on his shirt, figured he’d spend the night at the Golden Cherry Motel, still the cheapest place in town, cheaper than the Econo Lodge.
Sad Scott kept relapsing and couldn’t ever string together more than a few months of clean time. He had tried to hang himself with the cord from a set of plastic Venetian blinds and blacked out with the cord around his neck, but the aluminum rod he’d tied onto behind the panels in the bathroom ceiling of his trailer had snapped and sagged and eased him down to the floor, where Candy found him a few hours later. Another time, he’d blown out the pilot light on the stove and tried to gas himself. He wrote a sign on a piece of loose-leaf paper that said, No Smoking! The Gas is On! and stuck it to the door of his trailer. But the guy in the next unit saw the sign and called the fire department.
And yet another time, Scott drove out to Chewacla State Park and hooked up a hose from the exhaust pipe of his car to the window, but when he passed out, he somehow slumped against the door latch and fell out of the car and woke up that night lying in the wet weeds and had to walk back to town because his car had run out of gas.
This time, Scott had put together almost eight months of sobriety, and he said that he had finally started to work the 12 steps. He said that every time he had relapsed in the past, it was like he’d fallen into a trance. He wouldn’t even be able to remember driving to the package store or buying the beer. It was as if his truck had driven there all by itself. He’d sort of wake up with a half-finished can of beer in his hand and realize that he’d blown it again. And now that he’d had the first drink and trashed his three months of clean time, or whatever time he’d managed to put together, he might as well do the job right and get good and shitfaced.
I wouldn’t have noticed Disfigured Dan that first night if he hadn’t been smoking a cigarette through his nostril. And it took me a little while, maybe even two or three meetings, to realize that his beard was a fake beard. That’s how out-of-it I was. The beard was this long, shiny black thing, cheap, like a kid’s Halloween mask, strapped under his baseball cap. And he wore black glasses, like a blind man. He’d tried to kill himself with a shotgun and taken most of his face off.
Dan hardly ever shared in the meetings, but when he did, he’d always say that he didn’t understand why he couldn’t drink. He’d shot up his vocal cords and most of his lower jaw, and he had a mechanical voice box hidden under the fake beard. He’d reach under the beard to press the box, but his words sounded like mud washing through a sluice, and it took a while before you could understand the sounds he made. Drinking was the only thing that made him happy, he’d say. He’d see people drinking, and it didn’t matter to them. And he’d get angry and go home, where he lived with an elderly sister, and he’d break things: furniture, dishes, windows. He didn’t understand why he had to be different from everybody else.
Miss Elizabeth would take the oxygen mask off her face and say, Nobody’s stopping you, Dan. You just go on ahead and have that drink. You’ve done it before, and I guess you’ll do it again. But one look in the mirror ought to tell you what that drink is going to do to you. One look at that old mess in the mirror ought to tell you that.
It was because of Disfigured Dan, I think, that attendance at the Beauregard Group started to decline. At most there were a dozen people at the meetings, but after a while, it got down to just five or six of us most nights. People said Beauregard was a bunch of hard-asses and went to the other groups. To tell the truth, we were sort of hard-assed. We didn’t hold hands when we said the Lord’s Prayer at the end of the meetings like other groups do, and if nobody had anything to say after Otto opened up the meeting for discussion, we’d just sit in stony silence, which made a lot of people uncomfortable, especially with Dan wheezing on the other side of the table, holding that cigarette in his nostril.
Back then the Beauregard Group was one of the last smoking meetings left in town. Then we got kicked out of the Rubber Workers’ Union Hall and had to move to the basement of St. John’s Episcopal Church, where we weren’t allowed to smoke anymore. A lot of newcomers, when they saw Dan stick a cigarette in that one nostril of his, they’d get rattled, get up and walk out before the meeting even got started. One look at Dan, and it was easy for a guy whose main complaint was that his wife had taken the kids and gone to her mother’s or that he’d finally been fired for coming to work drunk to think that maybe he was overreacting, maybe he didn’t really need AA after all.
It was hard, as a group, to figure out how to deal with Dan. He would come to meetings drunk and he always smelled bad, execrable I guess would be the word. He could be disruptive. Otto said that every time we let him come back from a binge and acted like it was okay we were loving him to death, though I couldn’t see that Dan was getting much love from anybody. Otto wanted to have a group conscience meeting to figure out how to deal with Dan. Really, he wanted to ban him from coming back to our meetings, pawn him off on some other group. The 11th tradition, which is really about the principle of anonymity, says, Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio and film. Attraction rather than promotion: we weren’t trying to sell anything; we were just trying to be an example for other drunks who might need our help.
But how were we supposed to attract newcomers, Otto wanted to know, with Dan sitting there stinking to high heaven? And the fifth tradition says that Each group has but one primary purpose, to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers; how in the hell were we going to carry the message, Otto said, if nobody would come to our meetings?
But the first tradition says that Our common welfare comes first; personal recovery depends upon AA unity. It was true that Dan was not conducive to unity. He would stagger into meetings and fall into a chair in the corner and wheeze and sway and leak and croak unintelligibly, and he smelled bad, a hospital smell of urine and disinfectant and rancid alcohol leaking out of his pores. How long, Otto said, are we going to coddle that old bastard? You keep welcoming him with open arms every time he crawls back from a drunk and you’re just killing the lousy son of a bitch, Otto said.
But where the hell else is he supposed to go? I said. We can’t turn Dan away. This is the last stop for people like us. I wondered what I would do if they had a group conscience meeting about me.
How long you got now, kid? Otto asked me.
I told him six months.
Well maybe you don’t know what you’re talking about, he said.
Principles before personalities, I said. That’s from the 12th tradition: Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities. Just because you don’t like a guy doesn’t give you the right to kick him out of the group.
We were sitting in the backyard over at the Union Hall before a meeting, watching the bats flip and whirl in the dusk, the smokestacks over at DP and Ampex chugging black columns of tire smoke against the high bright clouds, stars coming out in the deep blue.
Every few minutes we’d get up and go inside to check on the coffee percolators, impatient to have cups in our hands. I’d asked Otto to be my sponsor, and he’d told me that I had to do some service work, so I’d started getting to the Union Hall early to make the coffee and staying late to wash out the ashtrays and put away the literature rack. Sometimes you had to spot mop a little, if one of the older drunks had been messy, or if someone had a shaky hand and couldn’t hold a cup of coffee.
There’s such a thing as wearing out your welcome, Otto said, even in AA.
I understood wearing out your welcome. I’d been kicked out of plenty of places, and for a lot less than spitting in someone’s face—or not having a face. I was ready to defend Dan. The third tradition says that The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. And I think Dan really did, deep down, want to stop. Why else would he keep coming back? He could just never quite manage to admit defeat or ask for help. Dan’s part of the group, I said. Who were we to close the doors on Dan? I’d only been sober for six months, but I’d read the Big Book.
I think there were a lot of reasons why the Beauregard Group got kicked out of the Rubber Workers’ Union Hall. The first thing that happened was that DP and Ampex started laying off workers and cutting wages. The companies were looking for ways to downsize. Eventually, both factories were shut down and moved to Taiwan or someplace. But that spring and summer, we’d get to the Union Hall in the evenings, and the place would be full of cigarette haze and the odor of sweat from the union meetings. Sometimes there would still be a few union guys there when we showed up, sallow rednecks with bad teeth and tattoos and leaden eyes, and they’d give us hard, sullen looks, as if we might be corporate spies, or strangers who’d shown up at their house with a notice of foreclosure, and they’d leave without saying a word as we puttered around the kitchen, filling our percolators and setting up our literature rack.
Up until then, the Beauregard Group had paid a nominal fee for rent, but now the Rubber Workers’ Union wanted to increase the rent to $150 a month. There are no dues or fees for AA, but the second tradition says that Each group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions. Every night we’d pass around the basket, but, like I said, attendance had dropped off. I didn’t have a dollar for the basket every night, and I know Scott didn’t. Most nights we’d end up with no more than five or six bucks, if that. And we still had to pay for the coffee, too.
And then, one night, we started a small fire. It got started because of Dan’s cigarette and Miss Elizabeth’s oxygen tank. Dan lit a cigarette and his fake beard caught on fire. Then a bloom of flame jumped from the beard to the nozzle of Miss Elizabeth’s tank, where a tube had worked loose, and from there into the curtains and then over the back of the old couch. Sad Scott T jumped across the room like a shot and twisted a nut to seal the nozzle on the tank, saving himself—and the rest of us—again. Otto and I grabbed the cushions off the couch and slapped at the curtains and the walls and at Dan himself until we put the flames out. The old-fashioned fire alarm had gone off, ringing like a school bell, and the Union Hall was full of smoke and smelled like burnt hair and plastic. Nobody was seriously hurt, but neighbors had heard the alarm and seen flames through their windows and called the fire station. Pretty soon the house was full of firemen and union members, who lived in all of the adjoining houses.
The paramedics decided to take Miss Elizabeth over to East Alabama Medical, just in case she needed to be treated for smoke inhalation, so they loaded her up into the ambulance and took off. She never left the hospital after that. One of the doctors gave her some kind of antihistamine, which gave her an allergic reaction, so they gave her a steroid to fix that, which caused some new problem with her liver, which had been weakened by a lifetime of drinking, and eventually they killed her with all the different medicines they were giving her. All the regulars from the Beauregard Group went to her funeral, even Dan.
We were lucky, the fire chief said, that we hadn’t caused an explosion. Y’all could all be dead right now, he said, and you could tell he was disgusted by our poor fire safety habits. The chief had to know exactly how the fire had gotten started. And when it got around to Dan’s cigarette, one of the union guys looked over at Disfigured Dan, standing in the corner, and said, What the hell? Who’s this guy? And he reached over to take a snatch at Dan’s melted beard. Maybe the guy really did think Dan was a corporate spy or something, sneaking into the Union Hall disguised as an old drunk with a scheme to burn the place down.
The union guy made his grab at Dan, and they got into a scuffle, in which Dan’s baseball hat and dark glasses came off. And then the union guy ripped off Dan’s beard, so that everybody got a really good look at Dan’s face, or what was left of it. His whole head was like a featureless red stump of ropy scar tissue coming out of his neck, a few sparse hunks of gray hair and some yellow teeth mashed into it, dark holes in the wrong places. One orb of a bloodshot eye spun around in a panic, and a yellow-stained plastic tube drooped from the spot where Dan’s chin ought to have been, some kind of drinking straw, or drainage pipe, or both. Around the remaining nostril there was a dark star of orange nicotine stain, and strapped around his neck was the mechanical voice box.
Everybody froze, but I dropped immediately to the floor to retrieve Dan’s hat and glasses and beard and get them back into his hands.
And I think that was the real reason the Beauregard Group got kicked out of the Union Hall. Those factory workers probably spread the word about Dan, about what in the world must be going on at those AA meetings. Dan’s hands were shaking so badly that I had to help him strap on the beard. It wasn’t easy, because the thing was so natty I couldn’t find the straps at first, and Dan kept bobbing his head and gurgling. Maybe he was out of breath, or maybe he was crying. There was no way to know. The place cleared out about one minute later.
The official reason they finally gave for kicking us out came a couple of weeks after the fire, when it was discovered that Sad Scott T had been spending nights in the Union Hall. Candy still wouldn’t let him back in the trailer, and her new boyfriend, the trucker, seemed to have moved in to stay. Scott could no longer afford to stay at the Golden Cherry. At the end of each meeting, he’d go to the bathroom to make sure the window was unlocked. Then he’d leave the meeting and drive around for a while before coming back and climbing in the window.
On the morning in April when the Rubber Workers Union finally went on strike, all the guys from the third shift walked out of DP and Ampex and got in their cars and drove around the corner to the Union Hall to get ready for the picket they had planned. The folks from the first shift didn’t go to work that day. They all converged at the Union Hall around 6:30 in the morning, and when the first union officers arrived, they found Scott and his boy, Eli, in a sleeping bag under a folding table. If Scott hadn’t had his son with him, they might have roughed him up. But instead they just told him to leave, and later in the day somebody called Otto and told him that we had to find somewhere else to have our meetings. So we moved over to the basement of St. John’s Episcopal, where the Big Book Study Group was already having a Sunday night meeting.
About a year later, Otto got drunk and drove his pickup at more than 80 miles per hour into a tree on the shoulder of the highway between here and Montgomery and died instantly. He’d been my sponsor by then for almost two years. As much as anybody else, Otto saved my life. He’d helped me work the 12 steps, and he’d gone to court with me about the thing at the Econo Lodge and talked to the judge so that, instead of having to go to jail, I just got probation and a court order to keep attending AA meetings and do community service, washing the police cruisers on Saturday afternoons for most of a year. But I had to admit to myself that I’d never really liked Otto very much. That was my second AA funeral.
Not long after we got kicked out of the Union Hall, Disfigured Dan went back out again too. One morning he spilled whiskey down the front of his false beard and then put a cigarette in his nose. When he tried to light it, the beard and then his shirt caught on fire. Pretty soon he was fully involved, as the fire chief said, whirling around in his sister’s kitchen and then crashing out the back door into the yard, where he burned to death.
I don’t know what happened to Sad Scott T. But after the Rubber Workers found him sleeping in the Union Hall and the Beauregard Group moved over to the basement of St. John’s, he just stopped coming around, and I can’t imagine that he’s still alive. But you never know. Scott, like a lot of alcoholics, had an improbable knack for staying alive. Maybe he left Candy for good. Maybe he stopped trying to kill himself and managed to stretch a few months into a year, and then another. It’s so implausible that any of us could have survived, given the kinds of things we’d done to ourselves before—and even after—we got to AA. Nothing would really surprise me. Miracles happen all the time. Scott could be sitting in a meeting somewhere right now, spreading the message. He could have a whole new life by now.
I’ve been sober now for longer than any of the ones who were at that first meeting my mother took me to at the Beauregard Group, except for Miss Elizabeth, who had been sober for almost 20 years when she died in the hospital, and I’ve never had a relapse—at least, not yet. I’m married now, with a baby boy, and I have a good enough job. My life now is basically manageable. But one night last week I got in my car to go to a meeting, and the next thing I knew I was back in the Mill Village, pulling up in front of the old Union Hall, just like the car had driven there all by itself. I guess I was lost in thought, though I don’t know what I may have been thinking of.
I hadn’t seen the place in years. DP and Ampex both shut down a long time ago and moved overseas, and the old Union Hall had gone back to being just another house in the Mill Village. It had a For Sale sign in front of it. All the windows were dark, and the neighborhood looked trashier than ever. There was a beat-up Ford pickup parked out front, and when I came up behind it, a fellow got out of the cab and stood there looking at me, a little unsteady on his feet. The whole neighborhood was a lot darker than I remembered it being. There weren’t any lights twinkling on the smokestacks over the rooftops anymore, and most of the houses were dark. And here was this guy, a big, rough-looking guy, standing in the shadows. He looked about my age, though with drunks it’s often hard to tell. I could smell the liquor sweating out of him from five feet away, and he looked like he’d been living out of his truck. He asked me if he was in the right place. He couldn’t even bring himself to say AA.
You often hear people say in meetings that they don’t believe in coincidences anymore. This is the kind of thing they’re talking about—showing up at a meeting that’s been canceled for over a decade and finding some guy parked there, waiting for an alcoholic to show up. And here I was. We sat on the tailgate of his truck and talked for a while. I told him a little bit of my story, just trying to carry the message, like the 12 step says. I told him about my first AA meeting, about pissing myself, how I had admitted that I was an alcoholic, how I realized that no human power, not my mother, or the police, or the doctors at East Alabama Medical or even Otto, my long-dead sponsor, could have kept me from drinking, that I had no choice but to rely on a Higher Power, which for me, at first, had just been the group itself. His father, he told me, had come to the Beauregard Group meetings at the Rubber Workers’ Union Hall years ago, before he’d died of liver failure, and that’s why he’d thought to come there that night. I didn’t recognize his father’s name.
Man, I just got to ask you, he finally said. How long’s it been since you had a drink? And I told him it had been almost 15 years. Fifteen years, he said. Are you serious, man? Fifteen whole years? He looked pretty surprised, and maybe he didn’t believe me. But I know that for a fellow like that, who can’t make it to sundown without something to drink, it’s a lot easier to believe 15 years than 15 days.
I got back in my car and watched him drive away. Then I just sat for a while in front of the old Union Hall, thinking how strange it was to have met somebody there waiting for an AA meeting after all these years. I tell myself that my Higher Power has some kind of a plan, even if there’s no way to keep track of it, no accounting for all the comings and goings. And maybe it was part of the plan that all the others died so I could learn to see what was at stake, so I could live, so I could carry the message. I don’t know. And who knows what will end up happening to that guy? Meeting him here, in front of the old Union Hall, might end up being one of the things that saves his life — or mine, for that matter. But, of course, I also felt sorry for him. Because if you show up at a place like this, one way or another, you’re coming to the end of your rope, and you just have to hold onto your ass and pray that when you do get to the end of it, there’ll be something else out there to grab onto.
Leslie Whatley is a graduate of the Florida State University Creative Writing Program. His poetry and fiction have appeared in Yemassee, Hotel Amerika, The Absinthe Review, The Atlanta Review, Segue and elsewhere.
Editor’s Note: This story was a semifinalist in the 2009 New Southerner Literary Contest.