Mom, cocktail in hand, retires to the den and “American Idol.” Myra goes to the living room with a copy of Time. On the piano are rows of pictures of Tara. The little joiner. Tara’s extra-curricular activities. In junior high she mastered three different instruments. There’s one with her holding a tuba. How she thought playing that could translate into the real world, Myra didn’t know. One as a Girl Scout, sporting multiple honor badges. Several pictures from an elementary school play. She didn’t have a leading role. But stole the show. They were short players, so she did several parts, parents exclaiming, “There she is again.” Myra actually respected her that night. All she ever joined was the back row of detention.
Later, upstairs, in the hall, Myra catches Tara moving from the bathroom to her room.
“Can we talk?”
Tara (with a suspicious edge): “All right. Come in.”
“When did you paint the walls of your room black?”
“About a month ago.”
“Why don’t you come to the meeting with me?”
“I don’t know. Maybe it’ll be interesting.”
“What’s with you and the Causeway Motel people?”
“You know about that? I even had some laughs with them. I tried to make it normal. But it came to nothing. I’m just realizing that now. You know?”
“That’s good. They’re dirtbags.”
At A.A., one of the old-timers must have already gotten to Tara. It’s just like her to comply. They tell newcomers to sit up front, so nothing distracts them from the speaker, and to share early, so you’re not continually thinking of what to say. Myra fills her coffee cup and finds a seat in the back row.
They’re in a Catholic school room. A young man, about twenty five, hammers out three raps on the teacher’s desk. Talking subsides. He says, “My name is Jim and I am an alcoholic. My story will be brief, because I can’t remember most of it. I was a lost child from the get-go. Sixth in a family of ten, I excelled at nothing. Older kids in the neighborhood decided to get little Jim drunk and see what would happen. But I could drink more than anyone and stay on my feet. Starting with an amazing tolerance, I went on to the dry goods. I know it’s A.A. but drugs are a part of my story. Quaaludes, weed, speed, codeine, and other narcotics.
“After LSD, I thought I was Jesus’s little brother and I was destined to start a new and improved Christianity. I walked to Manhattan. This was over fifty miles. I ended up coming back in an ambulance, strapped to a stretcher. I spent two years in a “therapeutic community.” They started with, ‘You’re Jim and you’re having trouble due to alcohol and drugs.’ I did a lot of inappropriate laughing. But I had a faithful mind and eventually it came back. Now I’m seven years clean. I’m a psychology major. It’s ironic, I now work for a pharmacy, transporting drugs. Many I once took. Chances are, I’ll be carrying keys for a place, by all rights, I should be locked up in.”
Jim finishes his coffee and rests the cup on the table. He says, “I’ll open the meeting up for topics.”
Jean raises her hand. Myra calls her Jean, Jean, the A.A. machine.
“My name is Jean and I am an alcoholic. During the week I make seven meetings. On the weekends I make another four. I’d like to hear about going to any lengths.”
Carol, a pretty blonde, raises her hand. “I’m Carol and I’m an alcoholic. I’d like to hear about powerlessness. One drink for me and all bets are off.”
Myra went to school and drank with Carol. She remembers her in a parking lot, being bitch-slapped by her boyfriend. Now that’s powerlessness.
Jean offers Jim another cup of coffee. Myra herself goes to the urn for another cup. Jim says, “So, the topics are: going to any lengths and powerlessness over alcohol.” An old-timer speaks. He talks about it’s the first drink that gets us drunk. That little bit triggers the obsession. That he stays clean one day at a time. That he’s granted a reprieve, contingent of the spiritual work he does in A.A. It’s all been said, but should always be repeated. He ends by saying, “This is a deadly obsession.”
Tara raises her hand. “My name is Tara and I’m an alcoholic. Well I don’t know for sure if I’m an alcoholic. If it could be proved I don’t have the obsession, I know the first thing I’d do. I’d drink. There’s something wrong there.”
This causes people to laugh. Myra has to admit she’s quick on the uptake. Tara continues, “I been around some bad people. Joining with you wouldn’t hurt. Thank you.”
An old man with a bulbous large-pored drinker’s nose raises his hand.
“Hello family. My name is Bill and I’m an alcoholic. I’d like to hear from people in the back row.”
Jim says, “Good idea. Let’s hear from Relapse Alley. We’ll go left-to-right.”
Myra won’t be forced to share, and takes a quick exit to the parking lot. Her smoking habit is relatively small. Two or three a day. Now she smokes one and then chain smokes another. She shouldn’t have brought Tara here. Tara will pick a sponsor and take a service commitment. If there was a uniform, she’d be wearing it. Now people are leaving out the door. Finally Tara walks up. They take the shortcut home, across the playing field.
Myra asks, “So, after 90 days, will there be another picture of you on the piano? One of you holding an A.A. 90-day coin?”
Tara says, “Yes, more of me getting all the attention.”
“Well it’s true.”
“At school they had a disciplinary thing. I had to remind Dad what grade I was in. He was off by a year. Those pictures that burn you, I generate them. I have them taken and put them there. I know you get it all. If Mom and Dad stopped worrying about you, they wouldn’t have anything to talk about. Get your own pictures, you phony. What’s your next most original act? Another failure? Flunking out of school again?”
All this time Myra thought she was tolerating Tara. She feels a sting in her eyes.
Tara asks, “Is that how you cry? Get a little misty-eyed and stop?”
“What happened to you?”
“Don’t bring up the piano and those pictures.”
They walk some.
Myra asks, “Did you pick a sponsor?”
“Jean. She’ll be taking me to meetings.”
“What if I came along?”
“I don’t know. Okay. I’d have to ask. Maybe the most important thing you do, is what you don’t do.”
“If you put it that way.”
Late at night, Myra goes to the kitchen and eats a bowl of Life cereal. Passing the piano, she takes a second look. Something is wrong. Tara has cut her own head out of every picture. Now there’s just white circles. Myra wonders where Tara is. Is she asleep or awake? Up in that black room? Is she home or out? What’s she doing? More than ever, Myra feels she has a sister. None of this is going to come easy. But she’s in, committed.
Ben Murphy, a former Water Mill resident, is the author of a novel, “Eight O’Clock Hydrox,” for which he is seeking a publisher, as well as numerous short stories, some of which have previously appeared in The Star.