This month I offer excerpts from my two memoirs, Masterpiece: A Love Story and The Lie Called Cancer. If you want to buy them, you may. If you want a free copy, tell me in the comments.
Surprisingly, I had a credit card in my pocket (these are very useful for procuring alcohol) and could have chosen the University Inn, a new upscale motel nearby, but my heart was set on the Value Motel, a seedy, rundown complex adjacent to Interstate 5 in a less desirable part of town about five miles away. I was, at that moment, beyond pretence.
It was stiflingly hot when Matt pulled into its gravel entryway, just at dusk. We rolled up under the Value Motel sign pylons. Everyone along the Interstate for a mile in both directions could see its neon glory: VALUE MOTEL. BREAKFAST. ENTER HERE. $21/$23.
He switched off the car, still saying nothing, pulled away the shoulder belt to create some slack, and turned in his seat to face me. As the sunlight faded, we were bathed in the intermittent flash of the directive arrow urging Interstate drivers to EXIT NOW!
Several families, clearly in residence, not on vacation, ignored us as children ran around the parking lot: loud, unruly, violent. The adults were too busy with their own argument to notice, or perhaps care. A pair of men stood off toward the corner of the two story row engaged in what looked like a drug deal or some other hook-up; three more nearby were throwing back some cheap beer. Everyone and everything appeared to have experienced better days, so I knew that it was the right place for me. Nevertheless, I was frightened, but if you had asked, I would have denied that as well.
I mumbled a thanks and started to get out and felt Matt’s hand on my arm as I turned to leave. I looked back at a caring face with a pair of raised eyebrows under curly brown hair.
‘See you at the morning meeting tomorrow?’
‘Yes. No. I doubt it. Probably not.’ It was an involuntary settlement on honesty. Not my default, but why lie? I had no idea what Monday would bring. Besides, the only thing on my mind, it being Sunday night, is that the liquor stores were closed until 9:30 the next morning, and I had to somehow nurse what I had until then.
Matt let me go with an AA cliché. ‘Easy Does It,’ he said.
Matt was experienced enough to know that I was in no shape to have a conversation, or receive any real kindness from him beyond the lift. Redemption would have to wait for another day. It didn’t even occur to me that he would call my family on his way home to let them know where I was, and that I was, presumably, tucked in safely for the night. I didn’t care about that (’Leave me alone!’). My only need was to negotiate the transaction for a safe and private place to continue my liquid self-immolation.
My burden of guilt and sense of valuelessness only gave me enough strength of will to spend $21, for the cheapest room (’I don’t need more than this. I don’t deserve more than this’). There was no room for my personal value at the Value Motel, only my person.
‘I deserve to be sleeping out in the weeds somewhere,’ I thought, out on the edge, like some of the hard cases who told harrowing stories of ruin and redemption in the thousand-some AA meetings I had attended.
These were guys who rode around the western USA for years in boxcars, or who drank or fought themselves out of one town after another. Guys who lived in dumpsters. Guys who would get tired of a logging or construction job after a while and pick a fistfight with the foreman. One guy who camped out in an empty corn crib and tried to drink himself to death after being fired as a useless farm hand. Another who got sober while living for an entire winter in an open horse trailer, becoming a successful entrepreneur and business owner. Yet another who struck and killed a child while driving in the kind of drunken blackout that was a regular feature of my life.
All true stories, all told by guys I knew and admired. They had made it out of the darkness I was still living in. They had stepped into the other side of life, the side where the sun shone, and the birds sang and there was a spring in their step and life’s equation was factored with joy, fulfilment and peace, rather than depression, restlessness and strife. In their moments of truth, they came to AA and found a relationship with God.
It was the place of my childhood, that relationship. It was what I had had as a boy, but it was now a place I no longer could imagine. My world had long since turned to black and white, all beauty washed out. And God was nowhere to be found.
But these sober guys were all in four-dimensional living color. They showed up in AA after torching their lives. I stood amazed as they grew from the ashes into dependable men, seemingly overnight, while I continued to drag my tired body down the road toward death. I had to acknowledge how they had changed, because seeing was believing. I saw them recover and become men of faith, but didn’t believe I could.
They had results, while I could only muster excuses. ‘God is fine for you’, I thought, but not for me. If God worked for you, good on you, but faith couldn’t work for me. It had failed me long ago. If God was real, He was only real for you, not for me. God answered you, not me. I didn’t deserve anything from God anyway. Not after what I had done, and what I had been, and what I was.
In retrospect, it’s no wonder that I was taken in by such a pack of lies. My worth had long before drained out of me like spent dishwater when the plug is pulled, leaving only a scummy residue. My life needed a good scrub, but instead I chose to protect my freedom to drink. And so it was that I drifted into the Value Motel, knowing it would give what I thought I needed for one more night. (’Leave me alone!’)
Tomorrow could wait. That was my powerless and repetitive excuse to avoid facing the guilt and shame that filled my life.
For $21, I had a room with no frills, a view of the freeway and no TV. Heavily stained carpet. No air conditioning, but a window with no screen (too close to the ground for an effective suicide attempt). A sink but no towel. A cracked sink. There was a mirror over the sink, to be ignored. A button lock on the door but no deadbolt; a security chain whose missing receiver was marked by four damaged screw holes on the plastic door frame. A door to a shared toilet. The lingering stale smells of cigarettes and urine. The room had been painted white once long ago and superficially cleaned, possibly within the last week.
The evening’s entertainment was liquid, which, as always, produced a bad movie inside my head. It was the same old plot with the same old cast of characters, a seemingly endless string of complaints, resentments, assessments of victimhood, lists of unfair circumstances, people who had turned against me or who simply didn’t understand, angry diatribes, mournful memories and unresolved problems. I was very engaged in mental conversation with people who weren’t there, but who made my life miserable nonetheless.
My victimhood was complete.
At last the bottle was as empty as my heart, and my anger was spent, and I passed out of myself into a restless, dreamless, uneasy sleep. I came to with a start hours later, sweating, vaguely sick but not yet craving more booze, although that would come soon enough. It was maybe sometime shy of five in the morning, the time of day when the body is at its lowest ebb. I had no watch or clock, but as I lay staring at the ceiling the slowly growing light told me the day would begin soon enough. Another long, hard, empty day with no hope beyond the knowledge that the liquor store opened in less than five hours. I didn’t plan to be late.