12 STEPS (OR: HOW TO BE THE SON OF AN ADDICT)
Call to Order
The idea of baring your soul in an essay is a kind of fallacy. There are no degrees of honesty. There is only, as the court says, “The whole truth and nothing but.” Anything less than this hundred percent is a kind of lie. Do not bring connotation into this. I am only stating the obvious – that, in the words below, I am ascribing truth. But this truth? Well, it’s handpicked by me. I am hiding behind my words, a sort of coward. Take from this what you will. Believe me, or believe the space between the words, where you can linger for as long as you want. Where I call rest, and not-being-able-to-sleep. Or believe both. If you want something less than manipulation, dig a grave to bury your own body. Pack the dirt tight to refuse the light. Even this earth, this shimmer-shadow of play – even it, with all its good grace, comes down to a trick of the senses, sunlight on a wet leaf. Make believe.
I am almost twenty-five and twisting the cap off a High Life before the last one is even finished. The champagne of beers. I buy the bottles, take them out of their cardboard, place them on the top rack of my fridge, just under the light, and, before the first drink, I watch them standing, catching the light, bottling it, little lanterns. There is gold in everything. My friends jab at me for my love of certain beers. Once, in a ground floor apartment in Alabama, I got ribbed by Southern strangers when I ranked my preferences. Genesee, the beer of the river that flows right by my grandmother’s, High Life, the champagne of poor folk, Yuengling, the oldest brewery in America. In other words: shit, shit, shit. I am outside now, though, drinking alone on a deck that extends just out my bedroom window. Harlem sleeps. Someone, in some corner no map can jive a location towards, blasts Adele. Has been. Forever will. The stray cats of this collection of back windows and bedrooms fight, murmuring and meowing before the battle, which lasts as long as gunshot – a quick second of cawing violence before the come-down. I drink and listen. I drink to listen. I settle. I am powerless. I do not know how I have come to be here, the son of an addict, who swore, at the tender age of 13 in a letter I wrote to myself, that I would never touch a drink as long as I lived. That I would honor the memory of violence in a house I can no longer throw a stone towards. I caress the long neck of the bottle as if it is a body. To become familiar with something or someone, to lose the perception of difference, to forget where you end and it or she or he begins, to rather die than lose – some would call this love. I think I, too, call this love. I also call it danger. A cat, mauled from battle, comes soft-whimpering by my legs. I reach my hand toward it, and it runs away.
Tucked in a crevice at my old high school, under an archway hardly any student walks through of their own accord, sits a chapel. I grew up Catholic. I donned the white robes with my brother as a child, stood by the altar at mass on Sundays, poured holy water over the priest’s liver-spotted hands. I once held the staff of a bishop, which is called a crosier. I carried it with boyish dignity and grace in my white robe through a sea of white folk. I once slept in my great uncle’s rectory after walking with his stiff Joycean figure through Jersey City to get pizza, his long hands dabbing at grease with a napkin, his mouth alternating tongues – speaking the Spanish of his neighbors to his neighbors, turning to me in English to tell me he could still take me in a fight. I was young then, chubby, in awe of the way his wired frame wore the black vestments. When he died, years later, a dozen bishops gathered around his coffin, other children holding their crosiers. Coming to believe something is easier than holding that belief, which is why we pour our beliefs into what we hold. A staff. A bottle. A body. God becomes carnal, the consummation of the body. At 16, in the wake of my father telling me “if you want to talk to someone, talk to someone else,” I began to talk to God. I arrived at school early, near dawn, ate a Pop Tart, did homework, and went to mass in that small chapel. A few teachers gathered there. We sat nearly one to a pew, listened. A story can do so much if you are silent, still, if you give it the respect of having your body. God walked through me then. I had faith that my mother would stay free from the bottle because I was a good son, because I was giving my life to something higher, unseen, forever distant and untouchable.
God as the silence after a fight. God as the morning after violence. God as mourning, resurrection, light through the slatted blinds. God as years later. God as quivered hesitance before sex. God as come-cry, exaltation. God as back then. God as stranger. God as stranger bringing mother home, body propped against a door. God as doorway, archway, entrance to or out of life. God as mother’s face in dark, heaven-light around the pupils. God as at least blood means she’s alive. God as broken home. God as wind that blows father’s cap off his head in the hospital parking lot. God as moment of laughter choking out the sorrow. God as her promise of something better. God as years, years, years. God as tears, tears, tears. God as no one will ever know. God as no one will ever get it right. God as the dog that ran away. God as Chuck Taylors in the rain. God as the space between two memories, a sort of death. God as another marriage. God as a shit poem you write to make your mother smile. God as not being able to deal with not being loved. God as always asking are you okay? God as fear of failure. God as refusal to clean the blood from the door. God as time that ages the blood into stone. God as washing away. God as digging up. God as it was like that, wasn’t it? God as was it like that at all? God as bottle. God as breast. God as whatever night does not stretch into morning. God as subtraction. God as addition. God as the “o” needed to make God good.
We sit in a room so dark it could be the back of my closed eyelids. There is a lamp on the table and my mother’s face nesting in the light. Those in rehab with her sit around us, chairs against the wall. If this were another dream in the same kind of light, I’d be in a boxing match with Rocky. If this were another dream in the same kind of light, I’d be on a stage with Springsteen. But I’m 11, and outside this room is something akin to Tucson, Arizona. Emboldened sun caught spent and hanging over wide sky and earth – light too bright to be beautiful, a night that cools the sand to ice. I had a turkey sandwich in a bleached cafeteria before this, slathered with Heinz 57 sauce. I will never have Heinz 57 sauce again. But mother will get better. And I will have her hair in my hands, her slyness, her side to take in arguments, her microwave dinners on nights father is not home, her books she buys me. I’m not chubby, she always reminds me. I’m husky, big-boned. I will lose the weight later, quite literally run away from it, but mother is sitting in front of me, apologizing for something I do not know. I know little of circumstance. I know a voice pitched high, cracking attic floorboards. I know a night spent humming a car through a city I am trying to forget, my father playing Willie Nelson as we go and find her. I know the bottles found later. This space between the words – do you see it now? Go back to the beginning of this paragraph and read the spaces, not the words. Then you will see what I mean. There is so much I do not know. I am a life of pausing, searching for the right thing. I am this pause, and another, and another. I am the pause I mask with words. In front of me, mother shows me a painting I think I will keep forever but will eventually lose amidst the clutter of growing up. It is me and her, in front of Robert Frost’s house. We never go. I could write about how we did. How we tiptoed upon the New England leaves fresh-fallen and stiff, full of the blossom smell of death, the beauty of their color. How we touched the stone, sat on a fallen tree, ran our fingers along what remained of a life. But I would be lying. Instead, last week – near-fourteen years after that table and that failure of a promise that I sometimes do not think about but when I do it is heavy, fog-like, a cardigan of sorrow – I walked hungover and throbbing early on a Saturday morning through the still-sleeping Bronx as the winter wind burnt the skin off my nose to teach a class on poetry to seventeen community college students. Before we spoke of the creaking acoustics of Hayden’s winter Sundays, we spent too much time on Frost, his knowing of how way leads on to way. How sometimes, it’s too difficult to come back.
Dear mother, how often I forget. Dear mother who I often forget. Dear mother, I am sorry I forget. Dear mother, I am sorry I have missed as many of your calls as you have missed mine. Dear mother, I am sorry for all those times you told me to speak up on the phone and I did not. Dear mother, I am sorry I sometimes forget about the time when father was gone and the plane struck iron-cold-then-hot into his office and decorated our sky with flames and you came rushing to find me in your turquoise car with the seats that faced out the back window (I was just 10 and you had not left yet and how could I know I would never want you to?) and that night after we ate mac n cheese and watched the news which was simply a moving picture of flame or some might say a house on fire or some might say a horse running from the fire of its own tail you sat in the rocking chair no one had ever sat in with the quilt no one had ever lain across their skin and watched me sleep and though your tears were silent and though you never said you were scared aw hell mom I could feel it the way I feel your blood soft-shivering through me when I walk home alone some nights from a bar and the city leans its tower over me and leans more and leans again and I am only the quivering ash of your son the last living thing that left your body or will leave it before you die. Dear mother, I am sorry I forget the time we waited in the airport terminal for you to arrive back from Tampa, your first stint in rehab. Dear mother, I am sorry I just now remember your tears on your arrival, the cat you held we had never seen before, its toe broken into over twenty pieces, and how the next day we took it to the vet (I had not seen you in so long and your body in the car next to mine was a kind of grace I am ashamed to forget) and came home with this new still-breathing thing, a leg wrapped tight in a pink cast. Dear mother, I am sorry I forget all we cared for. Dear mother, I am sorry I forget the night we wrapped our bodies in black – that same bruised shade of night – to bury the cat under the cathedral. You were smiling then, and strong. I still believed in God, then. And.
Young and still chubby and forever a son, I sit in the backseat of the car as father drives us all to the cathedral where years later we bury mother’s cat. That night, another man will replace father. This night, we split to separate rooms. Mother to her AA meeting upstairs. Father to his meeting with the spouses, girlfriends, troubled others. Brother and I to the small downstairs room where children gather, but not before I sneak to grab a sleeve of cookies from the alcoholics. I do not remember if I share them. There are men there to guide us, tell us which book to read before they ask us questions. Brother remains forever silent and I want to say I speak for him. I want to say there is something more than silence I remember. The scent of dusted catechisms. The hair in other children’s eyes. A single freckle I may have stared at for too long on the face of a girl across the room. I leaned my chair back on the wooden haunches of its legs, tilted it upon a bookshelf, and crumbed my shirt with cookies. Let me interject here into the now of then. Let me open the mouth of a boy who knew nothing but sugar and the quiet that comes after violence. Let me shut it to listen. There are and will forever be other mouths more deserving of voice. Brother, if you are there, speak. Freckled child, if you still live, weighted down or free, speak. God, if you exist, even less than mighty, speak.
I spend tonight twisting the branches of the tree so I can see the stars and count them as they disappear. I spend tonight with my bottles of beer packed caked and cold into what remains of the snow. Grandmother has just died, and I am just realizing a family is a thing that can be lost, that blood removed of whatever metaphor binds it between people is just a mess of hemoglobin and oxygen. I think often of Christ, how, in another bible, that day when he stayed behind from his parents, the two of them went home and had dinner alone. How Joseph must’ve sat still at the table brooding over his wine, and Mary lost by the window, waiting for a child to return. How Joseph might’ve spat and Mary might’ve clenched her fingers round what was near – the wax of a candle, the nubbed arm of a chair. In another bible, there is no salvation, only the long night of waiting, followed by another, and another, until the story becomes a story of what happens when what is lost never returns. In another bible, there is a chapter of a man tallying up the stars until he realizes that the infinite cannot be given a number or a peace of mind, that what is eternal has no words, only a stare you cannot pin down with letters. My grandmother is an old body in a sweater locked inside a box inside a cold columbarium. Her lips turn up to hint the slightest smile and her hands fold across themselves in a way they never did in life. If there is a heaven, it is only each memory we hold onto, a wound filled with the sigh of what was once life. The stars have disappeared behind the forever light of city. They must be hiding. The beer is colder than snow. My hands, too, are cold. I fold them across the bottle so my fingers intersect, and blow. Dear god of whatever bible, of salvation and its opposite, do not remove what keeps me tied to this earth.
Father speaks too. Father speaks too much or not enough, his voice gentler than his meaning, his quiet full of sound. His beard scratches like a needle on vinyl. Behind him, still just a child, I sit as we drive the long curve of the American highway toward a somewhere that is not home. When he speaks of mother, I grow red, clench my fists, become a potted plant bending blindly toward a violent sun. I lean forward, wrap my limbs round his neck, try to kill him. In a dream, I do, and I do not cry. In a dream, the car spins out, a flat-headed screwdriver twirling between the motors and the men. In a dream, I never do what breaks me down. I never pop a bottle of pills, pretend to kill myself on the other end of the Internet from my high school girlfriend when she leaves me. I never tell the next girl I love her and sleep with someone else. I never live to be 21, 22, 23, 24…I never die. From a dream, I forever wake. One morning, a child I teach tells me her biggest fear is that she will become her father. She writes it in a poem and misspells three words. I think there is poetry there, that a mistake is only an absence of perfection, and perfection an absence of originality, a line drawn so straight it is easy to forget. I think of my father that day, his head not even turned to meet my eyes, the road becoming grass, then dirt, then the space between two bodies. Where we end and someone else begins, where a body stops being a body and starts becoming a soul: draw the line for me, if you can. Think of holiness, how hole is the emptiness of space and whole is its fullness, and ask yourself what it means to be holy. And think of this: how nostalgia can be little more than the whinny of a horse, the breath of silence after speaking, wind between your eyes. Father, I am sorry I ever thought I had to be better than you. Father, if I take out the vowels in tndrnss, will you fill them back in for me? Take a deep breath, blow out, and give me strength and shape, the smooth curve of kindness.
You take your mother by the hand. You walk from the place of your birth to New England to help her fulfill her promise, tell her that you forgive her, even though you know nothing of forgiveness. Love most days is a soft ache, a fear of choosing the wrong thing, a fear of having to make a choice at all. You want to be as rooted as a tree, as flexible and pliant as its wood. You hold her hand tighter, walk the path between. You have never been here before. There are more colors, and mother’s breath, when she leans in to kiss your cowlick down, smells like hazelnut, vanilla. You stand in front of a house that seems to have emerged out of the dust of ashen leaves, a plume of stuff caught in the light streaming sliced-up through the branches. There are no plaques here, nothing to mark a having-once-been. You are ageless. Your mother is more beautiful than before. She has always been so beautiful. Whose woods these are you think you know. He will not see you stopping here. Do you want to begin again? your mother says. But you are always beginning. When it ends, you will say how fast this happened, how quick, I was only just… Mother opens the door, and it creaks like a newly-discovered consonant. You stay up all night, looking up toward the stars, forming new letters with your fingers. Do you see it, you say. Yes, mother says. You form this new sound with your mouths. You teach each other a different language. It sounds so beautiful. Around you, the trees, spent and stiff from the season, sound it back to you. You call this family. I am sorry, you say. For what, mother says. You have both already forgotten. In another story, this is called forgiveness. In another story, this is called salvation.
A scratched-out inventory written on an old receipt
I have almost 25 years.
Today, I spent 13 dollars on beer, 14 on smokes, 3 on sweet potatoes.
I am less 30 dollars.
There is a basketball game happening somewhere in the distance.
My brother and I would play basketball as children.
Whenever he won, I threw the ball at his face and ran away.
My brother and I barely talk at all.
My brother is so many miles away.
I do not own miles.
Who owns the miles?
Who owns the air between two bodies? Three? A family?
I grant god the right to exist in this space.
I grant my lover the right to kiss my lips.
Does my lover know she makes me feel less alone?
Somewhere in loneliness is the word own.
I ordered a loneliness for breakfast.
It came with coffee, two eggs sandwiched between bread.
I own 1 loneliness.
Also, 1 coffee, 2 eggs, some bread.
Own means to have.
Own is also a noun (ie. to be on your own).
This receipt on which I write is infinite.
I am the sum of the additions of so many others.
I am other people’s math.
I am my own division.
The word meditation comes from the Latin meditatio, which comes from the Hebrew word hāgâ, which, in the Bible, means to sigh (think Frost again, “I shall be telling this with a sigh…”). Think of meditation as resignation, meditation as resolve. Think of the sigh of Christ when Judas kissed him on the cheek. All that looking back and wondering. Think of the sigh of wheels on a track, the sigh of a beer bottle’s mouth wetted with a finger. Think of god’s sigh when we first fucked up, and then again, and again. Meditation as repetition. Repetition as a necessary construct of human living. I am outside, still. I raise the bottle to my lips. And again. And again. The cat comes and goes. The world circles around the light, only to come back, or arrive again. Now think of the word again. Split it in two. A/gain. Repetition as addition. Coming back as and. And. And. And. And. And. And. And. I am drunk again. When mother relapsed, I did not know what to do. Brother and I, we were just boys. We could have made a living out of crying, no stranger to the other’s tears. I think I may have bent down to touch her body. I think I may have made an altar of her flesh, kneeled and mouthed the words of prayer. I think I may have sat so still, thinking fear would find me empty, leave me alone. Brother, where have our years gone? We do not talk of these things anymore. We never did. I raise the bottle to my lips. And again. And again. The places we return to, the bodies we use to get there, the people we bring or fail to bring along: I want to know there is meaning here. I look at my body in the night. Someone has been here before, this cracked spindle of finger, this boyish nose. Someone will be here again. What in me is worth returning to? Reader, stop what you are doing. Find yourself in the nearest mirror. Stare until you become what you surround. See how you are made whole, how in becoming a hole, you are filled up, turned holy. The world will throw its ands at you until you are a vessel cracking at the aged ceramic of skin. You will overflow, bend to gather yourself back into you. You will be a night sky with too many stars. I cannot count them. You. I cannot count you. Mother, too. There are so many of you. I love all of your many’s. Each and, I press each and to my lips. The bottle, too. Your lips. Your body I came out of. An and you birthed into this world. How beautiful to be some sum of your equation.
I remember little of the spaces between the words. Mother comes home with the cat. After the surgery, she wears a pink cast, covering her whole length of arm. On the wooden floors, she signals the syncopated drum of her movement. Thump. Thump. Thump. Is mother in the room when I pet her. Is brother. Is father. I want them to be, so I make it so. Mother is in the room, leaned back against a chair, brown hair in eyes, smiling. Brother is kneeling with me. Father stands in the doorway, and I am small, so he feels magnificent, huge. Do not tell me what we will become. Do not tell me where I really am. I am with my family, in this sentence. I am petting the cat. She will not run away. Mother, stay. Brother, stay. Father, stay. Where we end and someone else begins? There is no space there. There is only and. I and you. I and you. I and you. Do not make me repeat myself. You know I will if you let me.
Devin Kelly earned his MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and co-hosts the Dead Rabbits Reading Series in New York City. He is the author of the collaborative chapbook with Melissa Smyth, This Cup of Absence (Anchor & Plume) and the forthcoming collection, In This Quiet Church of Night, I Say Amen (ELJ Publications). He has been nominated for both the Pushcart and Best of the Net Prizes. He works as a college advisor in Queens, teaches poetry at Bronx Community College, and lives in Harlem. You can find him on twitter @themoneyiowe.