After the thirteenth ring, my sponsor finally picks up the phone.
“Barry…” He breathes, his voice almost a croak, betraying his age. “What time is it?”
“Goin’ on two a.m., Otto. Sorry to bother you…I—I thought you’d still be up…” I blurt out, somewhat coherent and apologetic, but I want to chew through the phone cord. I want to rip my hair out. I want to race out into the hot Las Vegas night and drink myself into oblivion. I want to taste that which is denied me. I want to bathe in sin.
“Hell, boy, you know I’ve had enough sleep to last a lifetime. What’s up with you?” His voice ascends from its pit of sonic gravel and soars with strength and concern and compassion-- Hard qualities to find in our type. It occurs to me that I love this old bastard. He saw me, all bloody and raving in a dark alley off of Sahara, and he could have kept right on walking. Not Otto. He reached out to me, cleaned me up, and pointed me back towards sanity.
But I don’t think I’m all the way there just yet.
“I just felt---Gaaaaaahhhhh. Y’know, Hungry, Angry—“
“Lonely, tired. Glad you remembered it spelled HALT. Yeah, you’re really comin’ along,
pal. And I know how you’re feeling right now. I’ve been there.” He says kindly, but then the kindness leaves his voice. “Doesn’t mean you gotta do anything stupid, though. Doesn’t give you the right to.”
“Damn it, Otto, what if I just had one? I could bring it back here, and stay here. I wouldn’t leave, I promise you. Hell, I could stay in the bathroom, it’d be nice and controlled, you know? You could even come over and stand freakin’ guard, for all I care…”
Otto sighs. “What if you didn’t? What if it didn’t go like you planned, and you ended up in a boxcar, or a dumpster, or you had the cops at your door? Or, let’s say it did go like you planned. ‘Just one’, nice and controlled, in your bathroom…hmph, yeah, sounds nice and ‘controlled’ all right…Would that be enough? Hell no, you’d say ‘Well, that worked like a charm, everything’s fine, I can have another, and another, and another’…” For a moment I think Otto must have been a priest in some former life, ‘cause he’s damned good at these speeches that cut right to your core. Maybe someday I can be like him.
Maybe someday…but right now, I’m chewing on my own forearm. Not enough to break the skin, not yet. With a frenzy of effort I switch my mouth back to the phone.
“All right, all right, I get it. Just…what the hell do I do?” I gasp. I’m pacing, now. The apartment’s small, and it’s getting smaller every minute. I can see it closing in on me. Pretty soon it’ll be just like a coffin, except I’ll be alive inside of it.
“The same thing I do. You think it through. You don’t think about the taste, or the feeling you get. You think about the consequences. You know you’ll lose, but you don’t know what you’ll lose. Time? Health? Sanity? Freedom? Self-respect? Your life, or someone
else’s? So there’s that. At the same time, you’ve got to remember, you’ve already had it. I
mean, you’ve been there, man. You drank as much as anyone, already. Nothing’s going to change, nothing’s going to get better if you have more. So…HALT.” Otto’s voice is almost like a purr, now. I bet he did have half the babes in Europe once, like he claimed to. Give this voice enough time, and anything female in hearing range would be ripping their clothes off and offering themselves to him.
“HALT.” I reply. “Hungry, angry, lonely, tired.” My mouth’s so damned dry…
“Yeah. Halt. Make it a mantra. You think about it, Barry, and take it real easy. I’ll stop by in a bit and see how you’re doing.” He tells me.
“Ummm, Otto, that’s real nice of ya, but you don’t—“ I blurt out, but I’m talking to static. He’s already hung up.
Damn. Now I’m screwed. I can’t have one, all nice and controlled in the bathroom. If Otto catches me using, he’ll turn his back on me forever. And as if on cue, the disease starts whispering in my ear: Let him! To hell with the old bastard! He can’t tell you what to do, NOBODY can! Look, you’ve got your own place, a job, a car…all those things you did are in the past! The heat is OFF! You’re a new man! Let’s have a damn DRINK already!
HALT, I tell the disease, and incredibly it obeys. I do the Mantra in reverse, thinking hard.
Tired…no, I’m not. I’m never tired anymore, thanks to the damned disease. I could party twelve hours a night at first. I only need a little sleep in the middle of the day, when the sun’s at its worst. I’m tired of having this freaking disease, and that’s about it.
Lonely…yeah, that applies. Even though guys with my problem shouldn’t be. Women
practically throw themselves at our feet. Something about the way we look at them, so I’m
told; a way of projecting our isolation and emptiness and hunger with just a glance. It turns on a woman’s Inner Nurturer or something. I’ve already had more women than I can remember, but you couldn’t call them relationships. Once at a meeting, Otto said “You know us, we don’t have relationships, we take hostages.” There were ironic chuckles all around, at the truth of it.
I do want another woman, but I want a relationship this time. I want it so bad I can taste it, and therein lies the problem. The last one, Carla, started off all right…she’d even call me ‘Master’, and I’d let it slide…up until the point I needed a drink, and she wouldn’t let me, so it went from arguing to fighting to screaming, and it was over just like that. Now Otto says I need to work all the Steps for a damned year before I start to interact with people again outside of work or the Fellowship. It’s been five months now, a mere seven to go. The internet and its chat rooms give some semblance of socializing, so it’ll have to do, for now.
Angry…not really. Maybe a little miffed that I can’t mix in with the so-called normal people any more. I used to be one of the coolest players in this twenty-four hour town, equally at home at strip clubs, raves or casinos. I should have quit while I was ahead. Then I got the wrong kind of kiss from the wrong kind of girl at the wrong kind of party, and that’s when I got the disease. Then I was angry, when I found out I wouldn’t be seeing the real me in the mirror anymore.
Otto said it was actually normal, feeling angry…even that level of crazy, evil, homicidal angry. He said it was why he started the Fellowship, and why we needed it. A support
system, in case one of us snaps and does something stupid, like kill the wrong person. Because we won’t last a single day in jail. We’ll die horribly, in a blaze of non-glory.
Hungry…hell, yes. Always. The word itself galvanizes me as soon as it enters my head, and I’m at the refrigerator, ripping the door open, grabbing at one of the wrapped steaks. I rip through the cellophane with a single sharp fingernail and I can smell that the meat’s already gone bad, but the juices are still there, and I crush the styrofoam package between my jaws, tasting the juices trickling through the plastic and into my mouth.
Nobody should know a hunger like this; not the homeless, not the poor little African kids who starve to death every day, not me. Satan created this hunger. I force the last drops of juice from the packaged steak into my mouth, and I swallow them gratefully, and I pass out.
A knock on the door wakes me up. I stumble to my feet and hit the intercom. “Who’zit?”
“Otto Refson.” Comes the voice. It strengthens me enough to get to the door and let him in. Although he towers above me at six-foot-nine, he moves as quietly as mist.
Otto might not be royalty any more, but he still looks it, in an expensive London Fog trenchcoat over an Armani suit. He’s bald as a spear, and his skin is like hammered bronze. It’s impossible to tell his real age. He places a cold but friendly hand on my shoulder, helping me to stand taller, although still not as tall as him. “Steak juice. Clever. Glad you didn’t do anything stupid.” He says, wiping my chin.
I start to reply but there’s a low yowl coming from the box in his other hand. It’s a cardboard pet-carrier. “Got you something.” He says, and there’s a glint in his dark eyes, the eyes that are rumored to have seen it all.
“Aw, damn, Otto, you didn’t have to…” I stammer with gratitude.
“I know I didn’t have to.” He says. He opens the carrier in the living room and a big ol’
longhaired Siamese leaps out. It gives another low yowl and starts to explore my place.
“Thought you could use something to take the edge off, though.” I nod and get a pair of martini glasses out of the kitchen, glasses that have never seen an actual martini.
The cat locks eyes with me. I stare back at it and it stops moving except for a swish of its tail. I pet him, and he rubs his head against the side of my hand. I don’t feel quite so lonely, now.
Otto pets the cat, then casually flips open his ancient gold ring to reveal a short, hooked blade. He sweeps it deftly into the cat’s throat, and I hold the glasses beneath, catching the red flow. The cat spasms, but Al has a grip like iron. The glasses are almost full by the time it dies. I put a steel bowl in the sink to catch the rest for later.
I give him one of the glasses; he raises it nobly, proclaiming “Ah, Siamese Two Thousand and Six, a good year…” in his old Carpathian accent. Then he chuckles disdainfully, and shrugs. “Rather have a French Nun 1706 instead. Well, it’s not like I’ve never had any.”
“I owe you, Otto.” I say, but he shakes his head, and we toast.
I gulp mine like a frat boy at a keg party. The coppery taste doesn’t come close to the ecstasy of the real thing, but it kills the hunger--for now.
Otto sips his, like he’s at a formal dinner at a castle someplace. I wish I had his class, but he’s a Count, for cryin’ out loud. I’m just damned…
Damned glad he’s my sponsor.