I never considered myself enthralled.
Held in bondage.
Truth can sting sometimes.
The worm started to turn after the Gulf War began. I had never thought my drug use and drinking was that big of a problem, that is, until I actually had to manage some real responsibility. Running a business and staying high, staying high and running a business. It was fast becoming apparent that keeping a buzz going and keeping a business going was like trying to mix oil and water. I had an intimation that I was not doing well at either. No matter how much I stirred.
The inkling began with a accusation and ended with an epiphany.
Really, remaining inebriated was becoming a career all on its own. An expensive endeavor, it was also impairing what little scruples I had managed to hold onto. I had been increasingly violating my own principles for the last couple of years. Whether it was stealing beer from The Villa, or sleeping with women of a questionable nature, I quickly discovered how much of my own virtue I was willing to discard for a moment's nirvana, and it was starting to eat at me.
"Hey man, we need to talk," Frank said taking me aside.
"Ok, what's up, Frank?"
"Not here man, in my office," Frank loved acting mysterious, or maybe he just didn't want people eavesdropping. Whatever it was, he always dragged me over to The Italian Villa for little "meetings" about this or that. On this day he looked serious, so I let my Dad cook and left the counter to this girl Kelly who I had hired a month earlier. I followed Frank over to the Villa office.
"What's going on Frank?" There was a half empty glass of liquor on the table where Frank sat.
"That girl Kelly. You trust 'er man?"
"Yeah, why'd you ask?" He didn't offer me anything.
"What about her two friends?" He looked at me sideways, taking a piece of folded paper out of his pocket and sprinkling the powdered energy on the table in front of him.
"Yeah man, they're cool." I said, mouth watering.
"I think that Kelly chick has been stealing." He cut two lines and snorted one up. Then to my relief handed me the rolled-up dollar.
"Naw, I woulda seen it Frank." I snorted my share.
"Well, I got one of the guys from J. Arthur's down the street to back me on this. He'll say he saw her lift a 10 from the till and put it in her pocket. I'm gonna have to have a talk with her. You're gonna be there too." I was surprised, Kelly and the two guys I hired with her were always good workers.
"Uh, ok. Why me?"
"You need to learn what being an owner of a business is all about. I'm gonna teach you somethin'" My stomach did a little roll. "Now run over there and get her and bring her over here."
I went to Rockit's and asked Kelly to come over to the Villa's office. I played dumb when she asked me what was going on. I knew Frank didn't like her, but I didn't think he'd make up something like this. He apparently had a witness, although I, myself, couldn't recall any J. Arthur's employee coming over while Kelly was working. I could've been wrong, I spent a lot of time cooking in the back and didn't scrutinize every customer. I also knew there was a half a dozen ways to fish from the till and not get caught. Hell, I'd done it enough myself.
When we came in, Frank made a big show of giving us both a beer and sitting us down in our seats. He had arranged the chairs so he and I were facing Kelly. Frank acted like more of a big-shot than normal, it was kind of embarrassing. Then he let her have it.
"It's come to our attention, Kelly, that you've been stealing from the Rockit's till." Frank sounded like some cheap imitation of Robert DeNiro, like a mobster having a "sit-down" discussing a murder or something. It was nauseating.
Kelly stood upright so abruptly that her beer sloshed out of its glass all over the carpet. She nearly screamed her denials. "That's a lie!" Her eyes were wide and disbelieving. I could tell she felt trapped and helpless in the confined space. Frank had planned for this.
"Ok, ok, that's enough," Frank said.
"I've never taken a penny! I've only ever given pizza to the war protesters in the meadow. That was with Burd's permission."
She was right about that, I told Frank, when he looked at me weird. He hated when I gave away food.
"That's all! I swear Frank." Kelly was clearly rattled.
Frank held up his hands, palms out, and asked her to sit back down. He was calm and had a small smile at the corner of his mouth. He explained that he had witnesses, telling her exactly what he had said to me earlier. Then came the amnesty. Chicanery.
"I like you Kelly," he started, in a more than condescending fashion, "So I'm gonna let this slide. I'm gonna give you one more chance. Anymore fuckups though, and I'm gonna bust you and your friends over there. I'll call the fuckin' cops if I have to."
"Frank! Kevin! I didn't steal from you. Swear to God!" The funny thing was; I believed her.
"I said all I'm gonna fuckin' say. You can go back to work." Dismissed with a wave.
Kelly and I got up to leave.
"Kevin, you stay," Frank said. I sat back down. He watched her leave the Villa and then came back and stood behind the bar. I sat there uncomfortable. "Want a drink?"
Frank took down a glass and filled it halfway. He handed me the drink and sat opposite. Big "Frank" smile on his face.
"You see her come outta that fuckin' chair?"
"That was some shit Frank."
"What? You gotta be prepared to do this kinda thing man. You have to get evil sometimes. It don't fuckin' pay to be nice. What're you gonna be they're fuckin' buddy over there? You're the fuckin' boss! You show any kind of weakness, they'll think yer a pushover, a pussy! That what you want?" He hollered.
"No, of course not. You gotta be fuckin' tough. She'll be over there now tellin' those two idiot friends of hers, and they'll all be shittin' their pants. Scared I'll call the cops. There's no loyalty better than the kind inspired by fear. You read that book I gave you?" Frank had given me the novel Shogun a couple of months earlier.
"No I haven't gotten to it yet. I've been workin' Frank." I answered.
"Read that fuckin' book. It's all in there. Gotta instill fear in them." Frank slid the folded up paper that was in his pocket across the table. My nose ran with anticipation. "Here. This is for you. You learned something tonight."
"How to be a boss." Frank looked like he was trying to be that old wise man on Kung Fu. He stared straight ahead, done with the lesson. I got up to leave.
"Was there really witnesses?"
"Don't fuckin' worry about it man." He turned his attention back to the TV, flipping channels.
I felt like shit. I had just participated in one of the lowliest of deceptions, one that clearly had no point other than to make Frank feel superior. I was deeply ashamed, but the powder in my pocket took care of my guilt very handily. A scar remained, however, a burn on my conscience that would start itching at a feverish rate. Making matters worse was the fact that my employees no longer trusted me. I had instantly become "the man" in their eyes. My relationship with the three friends remained awkward. They would slowly drop away, forced out of the pizza place, one at a time. It was not a pleasant experience for any of us.
I had started getting high in my teens because it was fun. That's it. Fun. A little getaway from the teenage angst and doldrums that permeated my young being. The fun soon turned to relief from boredom, which in turn was replaced with entertainment enhancement and then into medicinal uses (headache, heart ache relief) and finally; because I couldn't think of anything else to do. Now, it was to assuage my guilt. It definitely wasn't fun anymore, but I decided to give it one last try. Then another last try.
I spent the next couple of months trying frantically to feel like a kid again, but to no avail. Every drug I tried, every drink I downed made me feel worse and worse. I put up a good front and I'd be surprised if anyone, including the woman I was dating at the time (I was back down to one), could've recognized the misery festering inside me. To put it simply; I was unhappy. I was unhappy with the business and with myself. I'd lost some valuable part of me that I couldn't identify. Looking back, I know now it was my integrity.
I had traded it in for a shot of Jagermiester...
...a line of coke...
...a fucking bong hit.
I was determined to convince Frank that he should give me my remaining shares. I had worked for nothing long enough. Frank's response was to yell and then ply me with drinks, finally convincing me that I still had to "pay my dues." It started to occur to me that Frank was a little bit controlling and manipulative. I couldn't figure out how I missed that. We started getting into arguments daily. I screamed at him over the phone. It always ended with alcohol in my belly and a smile on Frank's face.
I was always lured back. The sweet promise of bliss, the delightful delirium that never came. Always feeling dirty and out of control. I lied, cheated and stole. Sometimes a little. Sometimes a lot. I strategized...
"Maybe if I just drink beer..."
"I'll only do a couple bumps..."
"One shot of vodka won't hurt..."
I saw people doing vile shit for dope. I knew I wasn't far behind. I traded the shirt off of my back one night for a line of blow. The shirt off my back. I owed drug dealers money all over town. The problem being I didn't have any fucking money. I had to pay them in pizza.
April 2nd, 1991, was a Tuesday. Frank was giving me one night off a week and I chose that one. The New Duncan Imperials were playing at the Bluebird and the Jagermiester was flowing like the River Jordan. They were a high energy, fun band. They were a drinking kind of band. I mean, their alcohol contained 10% blood. I drank and drank and apparently drank some more, although I wouldn't know, because the lights in my consciousness went black halfway through their set.
The way I understand it, I became obnoxious at the Bluebird and left to go to the Video Saloon across the street. On my way I stopped at Rockit's (next door) and berated my counter girl in front of a reggae band from Jakes. I promptly raided the register and went to the Video saloon where I was warned to calm down. I left and returned to Rockit's to abuse the counter girl some more. It must be noted here that the counter girl, Stacy, was and is a good friend of mine and the sister of my girlfriend at the time. I'm not sure why she became my target but I was particularly vicious on this occasion. She ran out of Rockit's in tears and up to the Video Saloon to escape me. The staff at the Video knew me and were hesitant to give me the ass kicking I so richly deserved, instead they called my Dad.
Let me ask you this; how fucked up do you have to be for a bar to call your Father to come and take you out?
Yeah, that's what I thought too.
I woke up, in my shitty one room apartment, not remembering anything about the night before. My house smelled like burnt meat, and when I looked in the oven, there were two objects still baking that resembled charcoal turds. I had tried to cook hotdogs before I passed out. The smell made me rush to the toilet and vomit. Then I dressed and went to work, puke on my breath.
My Dad was already there when I arrived.
"You remember last night?" He asked while slicing tomatoes.
"Uh...what I do?" It was my standard response to that question.
"You were acting like an asshole. Stacy quit. You owe her an apology Son." He continued prepping vegetables hardly glancing my direction. My Father had this way to make you feel ashamed using just his voice. A certain hard inflection.
"I guess I got a little out of hand..."
"You guess?" He turned to me then and most unexpectedly, his voice and eyes softened.
"Have you ever considered the fact that you just might have a problem?"
"What do you mean?"
"With the booze and dope? You should have seen yourself last night. It was pathetic." He then told me how he was the one who took me home. The more he talked the more I felt like shrinking away. I was trapped by the indelible, un-erasable, implausible, reality of me. My Father had held up a voluble mirror, and I was horrified by what I saw. Every deplorable, pitiable, wretched, drunkard I'd ever met or seen, stared back at me through his words.
"What do I do?"
"Talk to that guy Scotty. I think he can help." He added, "Apologize to Stacy."
Scotty was this happy-go-lucky slacker I had hired to deliver pizza. He was the worst pizza delivery driver I had ever seen. He frequently came in late. Washed dishes only when harassed and took forever to deliver pizzas. I never had to apologize for a driver so much in my life. He'd return to the store after a delivery, an hour or so later with a cup of coffee from the Runciple Spoon. Always surprised at my exasperation. He was one of the worst employees I ever worked with, but I couldn't stay mad at the guy. He was always just so happy to be alive. I found him to be annoyingly contagious with his constant pollyannaish demeanor. Constantly smiling. Always upbeat. Infuriating!
I apologized to Stacy when she came in to tell me what a dick I was the night before. She quit promptly, accepting my apology and assuring me that her Husband wasn't going to kick my ass after all. News to me! I didn't know that was a possibility until she said so. I guess I lead a charmed life.
I approached Scott that evening about my incident the night before. He didn't look surprised.
"Your parents thought you might talk to me sooner or later. So, you wanna go to a meeting?"
"A what?" I was a little confused. Honestly, I just expected a little pep talk or a story about how he found Jesus or something. I'd nod at all the right moments and cool my heels for a week or so and then I'd dive back in.
"An N.A. meeting. I heard you were a mess last night. Could help." He smiled at me waiting for my commitment.
"Uh, what's N.A.?" I'd heard of A.A. before.
"Narcotics Anonymous. The 12 steps? Ever heard of 'em?"
"Nope. When is this meeting."
"Tomorrow night. 5:00." He punched his time card and started putting on an apron.
"Oh, I gotta work, sorry man." I started.
"I'll cover your shift Kevin." My Dad piped up.
"Ok, I'll go." Shit.
Thursday night N.A. meetings were held in two rooms of this church on Kirkwood Avenue. The place was filled with smoke. The people hugged each other constantly and they drank potent black coffee. I was unnerved by the language and appearance of some of the people. One woman sobbed about ten minutes for no reason I could discern. They gave out awards; coins or keychains, for varying amounts of "clean time" accumulated using these apparently "magical" 12 steps. The whole thing seemed a little far fetched. I would have walked out if it hadn't been for one particular person.
His name was "Rod" and he was angry as fuck. You could see it in his eyes. He was pissed at the world and at the end of the meeting he stepped up and received a coin for being 3 years clean. He stood up to receive his award and began to speak.
"I didn't do a goddamn, fucking thing today! I stared at the fucking lawn. Not one single fucking thing! All day! I did every minute sober though. That's a miracle for me. I watched the fucking grass grow and I did it without picking up a drug. That's the least this program can do. The rest is up to me, with a little help from you, I might make it another 24 hours. Thanks." He sat down and people applauded. I was dumbstruck.
I felt like maybe I could be that guy. A small goal, just be like that asshole. Not the one who berates his employees. Not the one who drinks until he blacks out or pukes blood. Not the one who would sell the shirt off his back. Not the one who stands by and watches people get wrongfully castigated. Not the guy who alienates his friends and marginalizes his values. Not the one whose Father has to drag him out of a bar at 3:00 am. Not that guy. Anyone but him. What a notion! To just be a plain, sober, asshole. One who is satisfied just watching the grass grow.
I wanted that.
I marched over to the Villa after it was over to tell Frank in no uncertain terms that I was done with the booze. I was done with the drugs. No more fuzzy brain. No more muddled mind. I was a new man. The old Kevin was gone. Buried. Finished. The new improved Kevin arose before him now, tall and proud!
"Frank, I'm gonna quit getting high. Straight edge now. I can't be drinking anymore. I'm done with it." I stood in front of him so he had to stop watching TV and pay attention to me. The words squeaked out.
"What're you talking about man?" Frank seemed confused, maybe alarmed.
"I gotta quit what I'm doing. I gotta stop, 'whole hog,'" I stood firm.
"Let's just calm down a minute man," Frank stood up and closed the office door. "Let's talk about this."
"Nothin' to talk about."
"Sit down man."
"Look," he fished out the folded triangle of paper. "It's all about moderation."
My heart raced.
"Here." He handed the rolled up twenty to me.
I looked at him. I looked down at the snowy ridge, dusted across the oak table. I wavered...
Then I snorted the line of analeptic granules. A moment's hesitation was all. I understood it all then. Crystal. I was a slave. A willing submissive. A servant for this fool. Easily manipulated. Controlled. I was subservient to a chemical and a clown. I wasn't sure which was worse.
"See? That's not so bad? You just gotta calm down is all. How about a drink?" Frank smiled his "Frank" smile.
"No. I'm going back to work." I left. Sick and enlightened.
The next night I was back at another meeting. I stood up and asked for a white keychain for 24 hours "more or less." It was the single hardest thing I had ever done. I broke the chains of my thralldom that night and I never looked back. It wasn't smooth sailing, but when was it ever? It sure beat the alternative. Freedom. Damned if Kristofferson wasn't right.
Meanwhile, Frank was getting nervous. He was starting to feel proctored. Like a kid taking a test, like a bug under glass. My parents were asking questions, awkward questions. Making inquiries. I was making demands. Taking charge. Concentrating on the business. Making Frank nervous. He wanted an out.
My Dad though, spurned on by my new found temperance, wanted in...