The Devil Knows You're Dead Page 10

 “Is good dish,” the waiter said.

 “I’m sure it’ll be fine. And we’ll have brown rice with that, if you have it.”

 “On’y white rice.”

 “Then we’ll have white rice.” He handed back the menu and refilled our teacups. To me he said, “If you and I lived in China, would we be going out every Sunday night for Gen-eral Schwarzkopf’s chicken? Somehow I doubt it. Matt, that’s horrible news, just awful. It’s an absolute certainty? There’s nothing at all they can try?”

 “Evidently not. According to her the diagnosis is a death sentence. Worse than a death sentence, because you can’t delay it by filing appeals. It’s like frontier justice in the Old West. They pronounce sentence in the afternoon and hang you at sunrise.”

 “What a hell of a thing. How old is Jan, do you happen to know?”

 “Forty-three, forty-four. Something like that.”

 “That’s not very old.”

 A little older than Elaine, a little younger than I. I said, “I guess it’s as old as she’s going to get to be.”

 “What a hell of a thing.”

 “Afterward I went back to my room and sat by the win-dow and watched it rain. I wanted a drink.”

 “Now there’s a surprise.”

 “I never entertained the idea of having one. I knew it wasn’t something I wanted to do. But the physical desire was as strong as I can remember it. Every cell in my body cried out for alcohol.”

 “Who wouldn’t want a drink under the circumstances? Isn’t that what it’s for? Isn’t that why they put the stuff in bottles? But wantin’ ain’t drinkin’. And it’s a good thing, or there wouldn’t be but one AA meeting a week in New York, and you could hold it in a phone booth.”

 If you could find a booth to hold it in, I thought. They didn’t have them anymore. But why was I thinking about phone booths?

 “Nothing easier than staying sober when you don’t feel like drinking,” he went on. “But what amazes me is the way we manage to stay sober even when we do feel like drinking. And that’s what strengthens us, too. That’s where the growth comes from.”

 Oh, right. I’d been thinking about phone booths earlier in the day, standing on the corner of Fifty-fifth and Eleventh and looking at the phone Holtzmann was using when he died. Where would Superman change his clothes, now that the city was out of phone booths?

 “I don’t think I’ve ever gone through a difficult time without getting something out of it,” Jim was saying. “ ‘I must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.’ I forget who said that.”

 “Samuel Beckett.”

 “Really? Well, it’s the whole program in, what, ten words? ‘I must stay sober, I can’t stay sober, I’ll stay sober.’ ”

 “That’s eleven words.”

 “Is it? ‘I must stay sober, I can’t stay sober, I’ll stay sober.’ All right, it’s eleven words. I stand corrected. Ah, cold noo-dles with sesame sauce, and not a moment too soon. Here, help yourself to some of these. I can’t eat the whole thing.”

 “They’ll just sit on my plate.”

 “So? Everything’s got to be someplace.”

 When the waiter had cleared away our dirty dishes, Jim said I’d done pretty well for a man with no appetite. It was the chopsticks, I explained. You wanted to look like you knew what you were doing.

 I said, “I still feel empty. Eating didn’t change that.”

 “Have you cried for her?”

 “I never cry. You know the last time I wept? The first time

 I spoke up at a meeting and admitted I was an alcoholic.”

 “I remember.”

 “It’s not that I make an effort to hold back the tears. I’d be perfectly willing to cry. But it’s evidently the way I am. I’m not about to rip off my shirt and go beat a drum in the woods with Iron Mike and the boys.”

 “I think you mean Iron John.”

 “Do I?”

 “I think so. Iron Mike’s the fellow who coaches the Chicago Bears, and I don’t figure he’s much of a drummer.”

 “Strictly a bass player, huh?”

 “That would be my guess.”

 I drank some tea. I said, “I hate the thought of losing her.”

 He didn’t say anything.

 I said, “When Jan and I broke up, when we finally called it quits and I got my stuff from her place and gave her back her key, I remember telling you how much it saddened me to see the relationship end. Do you remember what you said to me?”

 “I hope it was profound.”

 “You told me that relationships don’t end, they just take a different form.”

 “I said that?”

 “Yes, and I found the words very comforting. For the next few days I was running them through my mind like a mantra. ‘Relationships don’t end, they just take a different form.’ It helped me keep from feeling that I’d lost some-thing, that something valuable had been taken from me.”

 “It’s funny,” he said, “because not only don’t I remember the conversation, but I can’t even recall ever having had the thought. But I’m glad it was a comfort.”

 “It was,” I said, “but after a couple of days I thought about it, and I decided it was a cold comfort. Because this particu-lar relationship had changed its form, all right. It had changed from two people who spent half their nights to-gether and spoke at least once a day to two people who made a particular point of staying out of each other’s way. The new form the relationship had taken was one of nonexistence.”

 “Maybe that’s why I didn’t remember the line. Maybe my unconscious mind had the good sense to spot it for the horseshit it was.”

 “But it’s not horseshit,” I said, “because when all is said and done you were absolutely right. Jan and I were cordial when we ran into each other, but how often did that happen? Once or twice a year? I can tell you the last two times I spoke to her over the phone. That lunatic Motley was run-ning around killing any woman he could find who’d ever had anything to do with me, and I called my ex-wife to tell her to lay low, and I called Jan, too. Then I called her again afterward to tell her the coast was clear.

 “But she’s always been there whether I see her or not, whether I talk to her or not, whether I consciously think of her or not. Relationships change their form, yes, but there’s something about them that doesn’t change. I’ll tell you, I hate to think of a world that doesn’t have her in it. I’m going to lose something when she dies. My life’s going to be a lit-tle smaller.”

 “And a little closer to the end.”


 “All our mourning’s for ourselves.”

 “You think so? Maybe. When I was a kid I couldn’t un-derstand why people had to die. You want to know some-thing? I still can’t.”

 “You were young when you lost your father, weren’t you?”

 “Very young. I thought the whole thing was a colossal mistake on God’s part. Not my father’s death in particular but the way the system worked. I still don’t get it.”

 Neither did he, and we batted that one around for a while. Then he said, “Getting back to my words of wisdom about relationships enduring. Maybe death doesn’t change things, either.”

 “You mean the spirit lives on? I’m not sure I buy that.”

 “I don’t know that I do, either, although I keep an open mind on the subject. But that’s not what I’m getting at. Do you honestly think Jan’ll stop being a part of your life when her own life comes to an end?”

 “Well, it’ll be a little harder to get her on the phone.”

 “My mother died over six years ago,” he said, “and I can’t get her on the phone, but I don’t have to. I can hear her voice. I don’t mean that she’s necessarily out there somewhere, in an afterworld or on another plane of existence. The voice I hear is the part of her that’s become a part of me and lives on in my mind.” He fell silent for a moment, and then he said, “My father’s been gone over twenty years, and I’ve still got his voice in my head, too, the old bastard. Telling me I’m no damn good, telling me I’ll never amount to anything.”

 “I sat at the window and watched it rain,” I said, “and I thought of all the people I’ve lost over the years. That’s what comes of living this long. It’s a hell of a choice life gives you. Either you die young or you lose a lot of people. But they’re not gone if I still think of them, right?”

 “More cold comfort, huh?”

 “Well, it’s better than no comfort at all.”

 He signaled for the check. “There’s a new Big Book meeting Sundays at Holy Name,” he said. “If we leave now we should be right on time for it. Want to check it out?”

 “I went to a meeting this morning.”


 There are several different formats for AA meetings. There are speaker meetings and discussion meetings, and there are formats which combine the two elements. There are step meetings, which center each week upon one of the pro-gram’s twelve steps, and tradition meetings, which do the same for AA’s twelve traditions. Promise meetings focus on the benefits of recovery, which are presumably assured to everyone who follows the directions. (There are twelve promises, too. If Moses had been an alcoholic, I’ve heard it said, we’d be stuck with twelve commandments instead of ten.)

 The Big Book is the oldest and most important piece of AA literature, written by the first members over fifty years ago. Its opening chapters explain the program’s principles, and the rest of the book consists of members telling their personal stories, much as we tell them now when we speak at meetings, telling what our lives used to be like, what hap-pened, and what it’s like now.

 When I was first getting sober Jim kept telling me to read the Big Book, and I kept finding things I didn’t like about it. The prose style was leaden, the tone was deadly earnest, and the sophistication level was that of a Rotary Club breakfast in a small town in Iowa. He said I should read it anyway. The writing’s old-fashioned, I said. So’s Shakespeare, he said. So’s the King James Bible. So what? When I complained of insomnia, he told me to read the Big Book at bedtime. I tried it, and reported that it worked. Of course it works, he said; some of those chapters would stop a charging rhino in its tracks.

 At a Big Book meeting, members typically take turns reading a couple of paragraphs of the sacred text. When the week’s designated chapter has been completed, the rest of the hour is given over to a discussion of what was read, with people relating what they heard to their own personal histo-ries and current situations.

 This particular group, Clinton Big Book, had been meet-ing for the past eight Sundays in a first-floor classroom at Holy Name School, on Forty-eighth between Ninth and Tenth. There were fourteen of us and the chapter was a long one, so most of us got to read more than once. I didn’t pay much conscious attention to the reading, but that was all right. It wasn’t exactly new information.

 It was still raining when the meeting ended. I walked a few blocks with Jim, neither of us saying much. At his corner he clapped me on the shoulder and told me to stay in touch. “Remember,” he said, “it’s not your fault. I don’t know how Jan got cancer, never mind why, but there’s one thing I do know. You didn’t give it to her.”

 I was only a few blocks from Grogan’s, but rather than walk past it I cut over to Ninth Avenue. It was no night for me to be sitting at a table with a bottle of good whiskey, even if another man was doing the drinking. Nor did I feel much like talking. I’d had enough conversation for one night, for all I’d left unsaid.

 I hadn’t said a word about the gun. Jim never asked the reason for Jan’s call, assuming she’d just felt the need to share significant news with an old friend. If he’d asked I’d probably have told him about the mission she’d assigned to me, and that I had accepted it. But he hadn’t asked and I hadn’t mentioned it.

 I called Elaine from my hotel room, and I didn’t mention it to her, either. I didn’t say much about my visit to the mur-der site, or about the rest of the day. We weren’t on the phone all that long, and what we mostly talked about was her day, and the show she’d seen uptown at the museum. “Early photos of New York, and it’s really a wonderful show,” she said. “I think you’d enjoy it. It’s up through the middle of next month, so maybe you can get to it. I walked out of there thinking I’ll buy a camera, I’ll walk around the city every day and take pictures of everything.”

 “You could do that.”

 “Yeah, but why? Because I like to look at photographs? Remember what W. C. Fields said.”

 “ ‘Never give a sucker an even break.’ ”

 “He said women are like elephants. ‘I like to look at them but I wouldn’t want to own one.’ ”

 “What has that got to do with photographs?”

 “Well, I like to look at them, but . . . I don’t know. Forget it. Does everything I say have to make sense?”

 “No, and it’s a good thing.”

 “I love you, you old bear. You sound tired. Long day?”

 “Long day, cold day, wet day.”

 “Get some sleep. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

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