When he was twenty-nine years old, Charlie Pappas left Vermont and moved back to Detroit after suffering from what—in a more innocent, big-band-playing, hat-wearing era—would have been called a crack-up.
The many factors leading to the crack-up included Charlie’s disillusionment with teaching in private schools, a tendency to self-medicate with six-packs of Blatz, and his fiancée Jana’s affair with a prominent sculptor named Harris Mills. One day, a little drunk on after-school martinis, Charlie was searching for the checkbook in Jana’s backpack. There he discovered a note that said: Jana, I know we were meant to be together, because after we make love, I dream of God and his angels, and they are dancing and they are made out of the most beautiful clay.
He waited for her all night. She often worked late in the studio and sometimes came home after Charlie had fallen asleep. That night, however, Jana did not come home at all. It was as if she sensed that Charlie had discovered the note.
Charlie finished a case of Blatz; he stayed awake, watching the darkness slip out of the sky.
In the morning, Charlie crumpled to the floor in the middle of teaching a lesson on the Transcendentalists. He began to whimper, then turned on his stomach, slowly and softly pounding his head against the tile floor, murmuring, There is no Oversoul, there is no Oversoul, there is no Oversoul.
The children in his class, sensitive, wholly tolerant, and intellectually gifted offspring of wealthy ex-hippies, ex-activists, and ex-organic farmers, sat in silence for a moment, and then, led by Skye Nelson and Prairie Masterson, they joined Charlie in his mantra. Some students even tapped their foreheads on their desk, so that, minutes later, when the headmaster arrived in the doorway, he found the tenth grade American literature class tapping their heads on desks and denying the Oversoul in unison.
And there was Charlie, twitching on the floor.
Charlie arrived in Detroit during a May that was still damp with the last chill of winter, carrying all his belongings in a duffel bag. His father, Jimmy Pappas (the Restaurant Supply King), to whom he had not spoken in three or four months, picked him up at the airport. Charlie had spent very little time with Jimmy since the age of twelve, but his father had money and a house, and Charlie did not. On the way home from the airport, Jimmy Pappas’s driver, a college student named Ray, talked more than Charlie did. There was not much to catch up on between father and son; they barely knew each other anymore.
Charlie moved into his father’s five-bedroom, three-bathroom home in Elk Ridge, a ridge-less, elk-less subdivision in Livonia. Now that Charlie felt himself without options, he figured it was time to accept his father’s invitation to visit. Jimmy had been sober almost two years. Ever since Jimmy had gotten out of his six weeks in rehab, he’d been asking Charlie, his only child, to come home for a visit.
The first night of the visit, just before bed, Charlie looked at his father’s bare white skin and noticed the small black band around his ankle. His father was still under house arrest for four drunk-driving convictions. He had to wear an electronic tether to prove to the police that he was home by dinnertime each evening. There was a whole year left on his sentence, but he’d avoided prison and was allowed to keep working. Jimmy had a lot of friends.
Charlie looked at the red light of the tether as he followed Jimmy up the stairs and down the hallway. Jimmy flipped on the light in the room at the far end of the house.
“See, you’ve got your own can,” Jimmy said, showing Charlie to a white-carpeted guest room. “You can’t beat that.”
There was something poetic in convalescing in his estranged father’s guest room, spending the summer largely in the climate-controlled indoors, reading novels from the public library, and watching documentaries on PBS. He felt a bit like an eccentric, weak poet in an E. M. Forster novel, and for weeks, he shuffled around as if he were a bastard cousin in a Merchant Ivory film, grimacing and trembling, exaggerating his mood swings for dramatic effect. He had lost weight, had gone from slim to skinny. His father allowed him his space, cooked egg-white omelets for him on weekend mornings, and brought bland meals heavy with starches to his room.
Sometimes Jimmy would ask questions: “Do you think you might want to call your mother?” or “Do you want to tell me what happened with Jana?”
Charlie would always shake his head. “I’m not ready,” he’d say. “Not yet.”
Some afternoons while his father was at work, Charlie walked to the corner Rite Aid and bought Canadian Club whiskey and magazines. Charlie hid the whiskey in his sock drawer. He was happy for his sober father and did not want to tempt him. He’d skip home from the store, holding a brown bag. He’d read Blake before bed, sipping from the whiskey, and all night he dreamt of angels and tigers and flames, and, of course, sometimes, Jana.
Jana would call every week, and Charlie kept refusing her calls. Charlie did not know how she had found him there, since his family should rationally have been the last place he turned to in times of emotional crisis. Charlie suspected that Jimmy had called Jana, just to let her know Charlie was okay.
“She really wants to talk to you,” his father would say. “She wants to hear that you’re okay.”
“Tell her I’m dead,” Charlie said. He raised his voice and made himself sound woeful and breathless, hoping Jana would hear him on the other end. “I’ve withered away and disappeared. Tell her I no longer exist!”
“I’ll tell her,” his father would say.
Charlie would bury his face in his pillow. From down the hall, he could hear his father’s voice: “He’s in the can, honey. Can he call you back?”
Charlie had been in his father’s house that whole summer, but he’d spent it largely locked in his room, and it wasn’t until August that certain things about his father really began to sink in: Jimmy Pappas was not just thinner than Charlie remembered, he was trim. The decades of drinking had melted off his body like wax. Jimmy was only five-seven, three inches shorter than Charlie, but had always been bigger, sturdier. Jimmy was once a man with big shoulders, a barrel chest, and a gut like a beer keg. Charlie figured that his father’s waist was now maybe six inches slimmer, and his chest and shoulders less like the massive slabs of meat that they once were. He also had stopped dyeing his thick and wavy black hair, which had now gone completely gray. And Jimmy wasn’t smoking; he was barely even swearing. Charlie, at first, imagined this was just a sign of old age. His father was sixty now and had begun living with a little less day-to-day intensity, letting the vices of youth and middle age fade into the acceptable, lovable eccentricities of an old man. But one morning in late August, Charlie awoke and heard his father singing “Old Rugged Cross” in the shower across the hall. Charlie got up, showered and dressed, and came downstairs just after dawn (his earliest rising yet) and found his father eating a bowl of Fiber Madness cereal and reading the Bible.
“Pop?” Charlie said, walking into the kitchen. “Is that what I think it is?”
“Yeah, bran flakes,” he said. “Have to keep an eye on the old ticker.”
“I mean the book,” Charlie said. “Is that …”
“The unadulterated Word of God?” Jimmy said. “That it is.”
Jimmy pulled up the leg of his khakis to reveal the black plastic band with a small box, the size of a pager, on his inner ankle. He tapped the device.
“This is what saved my life,” Jimmy said. “Getting this sumbitch on my ankle.”
Jimmy had, thankfully, lost his driver’s license after the arrest and for the last year had to hire Ray, the college student, to drive him on his sales calls. He now attended AA meetings at least five days a week. But Charlie already knew all of this. What Charlie was just learning was that Jimmy had also left the Greek Orthodox church, more a social club than a place of worship, and now attended New Promise Evangelical Free, a giant suburban church, where Jimmy became involved in a group known as the Covenant Men.
“That fourth accident,” Jimmy said. “You know, I ended up on the lawn of Stevenson High School, your alma mater, crashed into the statue of the giant Spartan, and right then and there, I said, Pappas, you’ve fought your last battle.’
“I had a bottle of vodka left,” Jimmy said. “And I sat there sucking it down, knowing it was the last drink I’d ever take. I waited for the cops to come, and when the first officer responded to the scene, he poked his head in the window, saw me, drunk, with a bloody nose, and he said, Sir, do you know Jesus Christ as a personal Lord and Savior?’”
“You were converted by a cop?” Charlie said. “Can they do that?”
“The Spirit just moved him,” Jimmy said.
“How could you keep this from me? You never told me you’d been born again.”
Really, though, it all made sense. His father was more sensitive, more earnest than ever before. Charlie felt like he was living with some rich, gay uncle.
“I had a vision,” he said. “I wanted you to work on your problems before you had to listen to mine.”
“Jesus Christ,” Charlie said.
“Amen,” Jimmy said.
Jimmy shoveled a spoonful of bran flakes into his mouth.
“Son,” he said, milk dribbling down his chin. “I want you to come and work for me. I know you’ve had a rough go of it lately, but you need to get back in the game, get back on the horse. Let go and let God.”
Charlie was twenty-nine, homeless, broke, and out of options. So he said yes. “One day at a time, Son,” Jimmy said. “Easy does it.”
Jimmy went to give his son a long hug. Charlie kept his arms at his sides.
“You start tomorrow,” Jimmy said. “Shave. Wear a clean shirt.”
The next morning, Charlie woke up, shaved, put on a blue oxford, and began working as his father’s driver. Ray was demoted back to warehouse picker, and from that moment on he would look at Charlie with sharp glares of resentment and scorn. “Ignore him,” Jimmy said. “He was a lousy driver and talked too much. I was about to can him anyway.”
Jimmy called Charlie a “sales assistant,” but Charlie’s duties were obviously those of a chauffeur. He would shuttle his father from one appointment to the next. He would make eleven dollars an hour, two dollars more than Ray had been paid.
His father, always the salesman, put a lovely spin on things: “Jimmy Pappas, the Restaurant Supply King,” he said, “has found an heir to the kingdom.”
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Charlie said. “I am, technically, a professional educator.”
“I know,” Jimmy said. “One day at a time.”
After a few weeks of work, Charlie was feeling better. By Labor Day, he was able to dress, comb his hair, and speak in complete sentences about his ex-fiancée without crying. He’d cut back on his drinking, no longer hiding Canadian Club in his sock drawer. In fact, while sitting with Jimmy in those court-ordered nightly AA meetings, Charlie slowly began to have the realization that he was not really an alcoholic at all. Charlie only made himself drink out of sadness and boredom; he’d almost quit drinking entirely, without any withdrawal or effort. It almost depressed him—all of that drinking and still he’d failed to become an alcoholic. He was a fraud; he’d been faking alcoholism. He quit going into the meetings with his father and instead waited in the car, listening to All Things Considered like any normal, sober citizen.
Jana continued to call. She’d been working as a development officer at an arts colony when she’d met Harris Mills. Charlie liked to believe that she had had enough of passion; she was calling because she craved the comfort of Charlie. He imagined going back to her, maybe after a brief fling with a Hooters waitress, and for the rest of his life having a moral upper hand in their relationship. But no, he knew they would not get back together: soon, he would have to return one of her calls and discuss the details of their breakup—who got their jointly owned assets, what to do with the engagement ring, the Volvo, the tandem bicycle. They had lived together for almost seven years and this breakup would not be easy. It would have logistics.
But before he dealt with Jana, Charlie wanted to visit his mother. He had not called her all summer, because he was not sure he was in any condition for such a meeting, but now he was ready to see her. One day at a time, he thought. He wondered if she knew he was in town.
One morning, after dropping off his father at the Restaurant Supply King warehouse in Wyandotte, Charlie drove down Jefferson Avenue, past abandoned homes with plywooded windows, abandoned cars without wheels or windshields, abandoned factories, warehouses, storefronts. It was easy to imagine that somewhere, amid the wreckage of abandoned industry, there were hundreds of aimless, abandoned children, mouths ajar, clamoring for attention.
His mother, like his father, was a drunk—but she was a drunk without money, and thus her life was more reckless and riskier than any life Jimmy Pappas had ever lived. Jimmy had always had money; Mary had not.
Jimmy and Mary divorced when Charlie was ten, right after Jimmy’s first arrest, a DUI that discovered him driving naked with a real estate agent named Tina.
His father moved to an apartment downriver, near the Restaurant Supply King warehouse. Charlie lived with his mother, who was furiously upbeat and struggled to be sober. She was a painter, and after the divorce she shifted to painting landscapes and bland nature scenes because she could sell them for inflated prices at craft shows. She remained that way—a hard-working, housekeeping, rock-solid Mom—until Charlie went to high school. After that she entered a string of gradually worsening relationships—an alcoholic professor, a violent truck driver, a homicidal chef—and began painting in the abstract. She accelerated her social drinking and lost her job at Wayne State University, where she had been teaching studio art as an adjunct. By the time Charlie started his first year of college in Ann Arbor, his mother had lost the house and had moved back to Detroit, where she lived in the small ranch that had once been her childhood home.
While he was in college in Ann Arbor, Charlie fell into the pattern of bringing his mother nutritious groceries and maintaining the modest house. When he moved to Vermont, he began to give up on her, slowly. He wrote letters, called every other Sunday, and visited when he was in town, which was (deliberately) rare. His mother had been living with a security guard named Frank Geary, but just before his crack-up, Charlie had learned that Frank Geary had moved to Alaska with most of the contents of his mother’s modest savings account. He knew his worrying about his mother was another factor in his crack-up episode.
He pounded on the door. “Mom,” he said. “It’s me, Charlie.”
He waited for a moment.
From the small house next door, a dark, bearded man dressed in white pants and a black shirt emerged. “What do you want?” he said, his voice thick with a Middle Eastern accent. “What are you looking for?”
“My mother lives here,” Charlie said.
“Oh, of course,” the man said. “I recognize you from the pictures now, from up close.”
“I’m Charlie,” he said.
“Sam Alireza,” the man said. “I am the neighbor of your mother.”
Standing in the front yard, Charlie learned that Sam was from Yemen and lived next door with his two bothers. Sam was trying to earn enough money to bring the rest of his family to the U.S. He owned a dollar store on Warren Avenue called Dolla-Palooza.
“My brothers and I help your mother out sometime,” Sam said. “She, you know, she sometimes drinks too much wine.”
“I know,” Charlie said.
“I help her sometime. I check on her some days, take her for groceries. She is a nice woman. Very pretty, used to be, right?” Sam said. “She talks very nice about you.”
“She does? That’s nice,” Charlie said. “I just moved back to the area. I’ve been trying to call her.”
“Yes,” Sam said. “You’ve been in Vermont.”
Charlie took out one of the new business cards his father had printed for him the week before. On it was his new cell phone number. Seeing his name embossed on cardstock, a slew of printed digits beneath it, suddenly made Charlie feel powerful.
“Well, Sam, if my mother ever needs anything, my phone number is on this card,” Charlie said. Sam studied the card and slipped it into his pocket. Charlie was feeling territorial. It’s my wreck of a drunk of a mother, he thought. I’ll take care of her, pal. You get your ass back to Dolla-Palooza.
“Do you want a house key?” Sam said. “I can let you in.”
“I appreciate you taking care of my mother so well,” Charlie said.
“It’s what neighbors are for,” Sam said. “Besides, your mother, she’s been very good to us. She gave us a car. She couldn’t drive it anymore.”
Sam waved to the Ford Tempo in his driveway.
“She gives my little brother, Ali, a little money when he cuts her grass and shovels her snow,” Sam said.
Sam went inside his own house for the key to Charlie’s mother’s front door. Charlie did not know how he felt about this, a neighbor he had never met, with keys to his mother’s home.
They found her on the floor in nothing but a slip. Sam apologized and backpedaled his way out of the house, whispering, “I think she is drunk.”
Charlie considered fleeing with Sam, but then Charlie saw his mother stir. She pushed her face off of the carpet and looked at him.
“Charlie?” she said.
“Mom?” he said.
“Oh my God,” she said. She managed to stand and hug him and then backed away, put her hands on her sides, and smoothed down her slip, realizing she was barely dressed.
“My God, you look terrible,” she said. “What’s wrong?”
“You look great,” he said.
“Oh, God, I know, sorry. I was up all night and just couldn’t sleep. Back problems. I finally just stretched out on the floor, hoping to get rid of the pain. I took some Tylenol PM and it worked. I was out like a light.”
She excused herself and went into the bedroom. “Help yourself to a Coke or something,” she said. “I think there’s some in the fridge.”
The fridge was empty except for beer, a box of wine, and condiments. He opened the freezer and found nothing but a tub of ice and two gallon bottles of vodka.
His mother came back to the room in a gray T-shirt and jeans.
“I called you a few times this summer,” his mother said. “I never got an answer.”
“I’ve been traveling,” he said.
His mother had once been radiant, full of intellect and verve, and even when he was a small boy at social events, he could tell that the men in the room wanted to be near his mother. They gathered around her, laughed at her jokes with great enthusiasm, helped her with her coat, admired her dresses, called Jimmy Pappas a lucky son of a bitch.
Jana reminded him of that, in some ways. Jana had always been the most beloved of the women in the room, and Charlie also felt as if people were muttering behind his back, Why is she with him?
Jana had fine, black hair, which she wore long, a small face with delicate cheekbones and a delicate chin, aqua-blue eyes. Jimmy, when he met her for the first time, said, “Christ, Chuckie, she looks just like your mother.”
When Charlie met Jana, he was in his last semester of college. An English major, he enrolled in Drawing 101 because he imagined it to be easy, or at least, to be free of required reading. His teacher was a graduate student named Teddy who wore oversized tweed coats and had a painfully wispy red beard. Charlie was one of the only men in the class, and Teddy didn’t seem to like him.
After only a week of class, Teddy said to Charlie, “You have a tendency to depress people, Mr. Pappas. People have been complaining. Your sullen mood makes it hard for them to work.”
On the day they were to try their hands at figure drawing, Jana entered the art room, shed her robe, and stood, completely naked, in front of Charlie. His instant erection proved to him that he didn’t have the mind of an artist at all, but rather the temperament of a Greek from Detroit.
His hands were paralyzed. He couldn’t draw the woman in the room. At the end of class, Teddy stood behind Charlie and said, “Pappas spent the whole hour staring at the model, but there’s not one mark on the paper.”
The class laughed as they gathered their supplies, Teddy smirked in Charlie’s face, and Jana, on the platform in the middle of the room, put on her robe and frowned. Barefoot, she walked right up to Teddy and said, “Last time I work in your class, Fuckstick,” she said. “That was completely inappropriate.”
Charlie found himself at the bus stop with her a few minutes later and stammered an apology. “I’m not a very good artist,” he said. “My mother is one, though.”
Jana smiled and nodded.
“It wasn’t like I was just staring at you,” he said. “Not like Teddy implied. I’m not some kind of sicko.”
“Teddy’s a fuckstick,” she said. “But you were. Staring, I mean. That’s not cool in an art studio, ogling the model.”
A bus was coming and Charlie decided he was in love. He went for broke. “Every time I went to put a mark on the page,” he said. “I couldn’t. It was too overwhelming, the idea of catching any sliver of your beauty. I couldn’t do you justice.”
“Please,” she said. The bus came by and she got on. It was not his bus, but he followed her. Maybe he was a sicko.
“Could we have coffee?” he asked her.
“I don’t know,” she said.
Three weeks later, he found her again at a small graduation dinner party hosted by a mutual friend. The mutual friend reassured Jana that Charlie wasn’t a freak. (Later, Jana had said she liked Charlie’s looks so much—the olive skin and black hair of a Greek, with the blue eyes and slender frame from his mother’s Ukrainian side—that she’d have dated him even if he had turned out to be a freak.)
At the end of the evening, Jana came up to Charlie and said, “I’ll give you another chance.”
“At what?” he said.
“At dealing with my beauty,” she said.
It was already October. Charlie had settled into a comfortable routine. In the morning, he would drive his father from client to client, and then after lunch, he’d drop him at the office in Wyandotte and head over to visit his mother. He began buying his mother art supplies, helping her clean and organize the chaos of her basement studio, intent in helping her paint again. He’d been a bad son. He’d neglected her. She needed his help.
Though most business could be conducted via phone, fax, or e-mail—who really needs a saleman to sell plastic soup spoons and mint toothpicks?—Jimmy Pappas preferred to call on most of his clients in person.
“A firm handshake, a warm smile, a look square in the eye,” Jimmy said that morning, “is the difference between a carton of toothpicks and a whole crate of them.”
A gray sky and Jimmy was quiet. Jimmy had felt a burning need to go to an AA meeting that morning, so Charlie had to take him. Now they were behind schedule. Jimmy sat in the passenger seat, depressed and grim, looking over his order sheets, occasionally scratching the area of his ankle that was covered by the tether. Charlie’s new cell phone rang, which it almost never did, and because Jefferson Avenue was, as always, completely free of traffic, it was easy for Charlie to answer the call.
“Charlie,” a thick-accented voice said. “This is Sam Alireza.”
“Who’s that?” Charlie said.
“Sam. Your mother’s neighbor.”
“Hey, Sam. What’s wrong?” Charlie asked, though he already guessed at it.
“Your mother fell.”
“She’s fine. She’s okay, really.”
“Can I talk to her?” Charlie said.
Charlie gripped the wheel tighter, glared in his rearview at an old LTD that had come out of nowhere and was tailgating him. What if he was in Vermont, he wondered? What would she do then? Who would Sam call?
“No, no, she not know I call you. She went inside. I found her. She was bleeding. I tried to call the ambulance, but she says she’s fine.”
“Thanks, Sam. I’ll be right over.”
“Okay,” he said. “Don’t tell her I called, okay?”
“No, Sam, I won’t.”
Charlie hung up the phone and Jimmy turned the radio back on and looked down at his orders.
“We need to make a detour, Dad.”
“A detour? I’m on a schedule today, Bub.”
“Tough shit, Dad,” Charlie said. “I have a driver’s license, and you don’t.”
When Charlie pulled into his mother’s driveway, Jimmy looked at the small red brick ranch, the same house where he picked her up for a first date thirty years ago.
“I can’t believe she’s back in this old place,” he said.
“Well, she is,” Charlie said.
“Is the neighborhood safe? It’s full of Arabs.”
“You coming in?” Charlie said.
“What do you think?” Jimmy said.
“Fine. Stay out here.”
It took his mother a few minutes to come to the door. Charlie could hear her coughing and sneezing, which for some reason she did anytime she was drunk, and when she opened the door, she looked dazed, a trickle of blood running down her forehead.
“What?” she said.
“Open the door,” Charlie said. “Now.”
In the light of the kitchen, Charlie cleaned his mother’s head wound with damp paper towels and a little hydrogen peroxide before realizing that the gash was worse than he’d thought. She’d definitely need stitches.
“How much did you have to drink?” Charlie said
“One beer,” she said. “The steps were slick. I just fell.”
“The day is dry as bone.”
“Then I tripped on something. A stick.”
“You need to come with me to the hospital,” Charlie said. “You need stitches.”
“I do not,” she said, but her face was worried and her defiance half-hearted. She knew she had messed up and could not get out of this mess alone.
On the counter, six empty beer cans were stacked on the cutting board. Charlie went and touched them, one by one. “Where’s your coat?” he said.
“Wherever I left it,” she said.
Charlie helped her with her coat, helped her with the buttons, and then led her to the car. Midway down the driveway, she stopped. “Who the hell is in the car?” she said.
“Nobody,” Charlie said and tugged on her arm. “Don’t piss me off, Mom. I’m all you have left.”
“Not true,” she said. “You just like thinking that.”
They got in the car, closed doors, buckled seat belts. Jimmy had turned off the radio.
“Dad? Mom?” Charlie said. “Jimmy Pappas? Mary Olszewski Pappas? I believe you two know each other, right?”
“I can’t believe this,” Mary said.
“We’ve met,” Jimmy said, winking. “Hello, Mary.”
Jimmy said you couldn’t trust the hospitals in Detroit, because the emergency rooms would be full of real traumas—shootings, stabbings, overdoses. He had Charlie drive out to St. Mary’s in Livonia. On the way, Jimmy busied himself by taking out his cell phone and rescheduling the day’s appointments. “Family emergency,” he told client after client.
In the backseat, Mary huffed and sighed.
“I don’t need any goddamn stitches,” she said, as more blood worked its way down her forehead. Jimmy handed her a clean handkerchief and said nothing.
At the hospital, Jimmy did all the talking. He talked to the nurse on duty, explaining the situation, helping his ex-wife fill out forms. He flagged down a doctor after they’d been waiting nearly an hour. The doctor, about the same age as Charlie, seemed to know Jimmy. The two men shook hands, and Jimmy mumbled something in the doctor’s ear.
The doctor gave Mary three stitches and then presented a short lecture on drinking too much. He handed Charlie some pamphlets, The Alcoholic in Your Life and When Someone You Love Can’t Stop Drinking. Charlie pictured a frantic family gathered around a man who was chained to a sink, his mouth fixed on the faucet. He smirked at his own joke. The doctor scribbled some notes in a file folder and frowned.
“You might want to consider getting your mother into a treatment program,” he said to Charlie.
“That’s a good idea,” Jimmy said. “We hadn’t thought of that, Doc. Thanks.”
The doctor shrugged and left the room.
“Fuck you very much, Dr. Asshole,” Jimmy said. The born-again Jimmy would resort to swearing, Charlie guessed, if it would make his ex-wife laugh.
It worked. For the first time all day, Mary laughed, holding a hand up to her newly stitched forehead.
“Thanks, Jimmy,” she said.
Charlie and Jimmy walked Mary to the door. Jimmy turned on the TV for her, and Charlie fluffed a pillow.
“You’ll be okay?” Charlie asked.
“I know how to flip channels,” Mary said.
“Are you dizzy at all? The doctor says you may be dizzy,” Jimmy said.
“I’ve been dizzy for the last five years,” she said. She was still a pretty woman, Charlie thought, her hair still black with a few strands of silver, her blue eyes, despite their weariness, a dazzling blue. Her skin, olive-toned, but perhaps, Charlie thought, it was now simply jaundiced. I’ve pickled myself, she said to him once, and now I don’t age. She was thin, because she never ate more than a few meals a week. The slurring, wrecked voice, the snorting chuckles, seemed out of place with her graceful features, and the cut on her forehead stood out like a signal that the worst was yet to come. She slumped on the couch, took off her sneakers and socks, undid the button on her black jeans.
Charlie could see Jimmy scanning Mary’s current life, the stray cups and plates on the end tables, tubes of paint and brushes everywhere, cobwebs in the corners, walls with crooked pictures.
“Take care, now,” Jimmy said and turned to go.
Charlie went out the door a few minutes later, his mother, sober now, calling after him: “Don’t be mad,” she said. “Thank you, Charlie.”
In the car, Jimmy said nothing until they were a few miles down the road.
“I had no idea,” he said. “That it was this bad.”
Before the turn for home, Jimmy said, “Maybe we can make the five o’clock meeting, Son? I think it’s a two-meeting day.”
That night, exhausted and weary, Charlie fell into bed before dinner. Around eight, he heard the phone ring, heard his father answer it.
“Hi, Jana,” he said. “I’m fine, thanks. Well, he’s here,” his father said. “But he’s had a rough day. I don’t think it’s a good day to be talking to him.”
“No,” he said. “I think he just needs to sleep.”
Charlie drifted back into sleep, and in and out of dreams for the next hour, he heard his father talking in a low voice. Could he still be talking to Jana? What could he possibly be saying to her? They’d only met a few times, brief occasions, and if Charlie had remembered correctly, Jimmy had been drunk every time.
Later, around ten, Charlie woke up to find his father standing in the doorway to the bedroom.
“Chuckie,” Jimmy said, leaning against the doorjamb. His tether stuck out from his pajama bottoms like some mechanical tumor. “Chuckie, did I do that to your mother?”
Charlie realized something: It’s the question he’d been waiting years for his father to ask. His mind raced to fights in the kitchen, to Jimmy’s tendency to disappear for long weekends, Jimmy’s failure to make school plays and soccer games, Jimmy and his booze and his business and his women.
“Yeah, Dad. That was you,” he said, though he didn’t believe it. “That was all you.”
Jimmy nodded and looked at the ground. “Okay, Son,” he said. “That’s fair. I accept that.”
That autumn was heavy with early frosts and clear nights, nights too cold for clouds. The skies speckled with stars. In the evenings, Charlie would read the stories of Cheever by the gas fireplace and drink tea. Charlie had fallen in love with Cheever, all that gin and sadness, gin and sadness. It stirred him; he longed to meet a woman who was also stirred by Cheever. It was the first time he’d thought of the possibility of another woman since he’d left Jana.
One night, Jimmy, unable to exit the front door for fear of setting off his tether, hung his head out the living room window.
“Would you look up at all these goddamn stars,” he said. “Points as sharp as daggers, I bet.”
“Actually, they’re giant balls of gas,” Charlie said. “They don’t have points.”
“What’s your point?” Jimmy said.
“My point is that the common representation of a star with five points is not the same thing as one of the celestial beings you so admire.”
The window was still open, and the air was filling with a crisp chill. Charlie buttoned another button on his thick flannel shirt.
“You know what, Chuckie?” Jimmy said. His face reddened, and tiny blue veins seemed to pulse on his cheeks and nose. “You know what? Sometimes I’m so fucking glad I’m not you.”
“How’s that?” Charlie said.
“You don’t know how to have any joy in your life, do you?”
“I do, Dad. I’m just in a really weird place right now.” Charlie didn’t want to hear this, his chronic fuck-up of a father offering his hard-earned wisdom. Charlie looked to the floor.
“What the hell are you talking about?” Jimmy said. “You’re in Livonia, in your old man’s living room.”
“I mean it, Dad. You don’t get where I’m at.”
“I get that you have a beautiful woman who is dying to talk to you, who wants you to come home, and you can’t even answer her phone calls.”
“What do you know?” Charlie said. “She cheated on me.”
“People fuck other people, Chuckie. Then people say they’re sorry. They make up; they’re still in love. Or they split up for good, and they spend the rest of their lives a little heartbroken, but still breathing. And they start fucking someone new. That’s life, Chuckie. You can’t sit around in limbo all day. You know, if you want, pick up the phone and tell Jana to go jump in a lake, tell her you never want to see her again.”
“My father the philosopher,” Charlie said.
“I’ve taken my hits. I’ve licked my wounds. I know some things.”
Jimmy shut the window and left the room.
Charlie closed the Cheever, folded his arms on the couch, thought of Jana. He could call her now, announce that he was coming home, and be done with all of this. Maybe they could reconcile, and he’d build the kind of life he once imagined he would build for himself in Vermont—quiet and peaceful, full of beauty, full of art and philosophy and every fine thing a fine home should have. He could quit chauffeuring the Restaurant Supply King to and fro; he could quit having to see his mother in the sad chapters of what had become a quiet, desperate life. Vermont would be covered in snow within weeks, and he could hide there in the mountains and go after his old life with passion and vengeance.
The weeks ahead were somber ones. Charlie still drove his father in the mornings and visited his mother whenever he had free afternoons. His father seemed quieter, less enthusiastic than he had once been about their partnership. His visits with his mother were brief; he would go somewhere with her, to the bank or the grocery store or the mall, and then he’d be gone.
By the first of November, the gold and red leaves had been erased from the trees. The air turned relentless with its wind and its gray dampness, and suddenly, one morning, the trees had bare black branches slick with frost and mist and looked like the skeletons of obsolete machines.
One morning, a Wednesday, Charlie agreed to go with Jimmy to a Covenant Men prayer breakfast at church, where he sat with his father and listened to ex—football coaches, broke businessmen, and former city council members recount how Jesus had freed them from shackles of adultery, alcohol, and pornography. Charlie was not buying into it, but it fascinated him. It amused him. He found something endearing in everyone in the room. He longed for a conversion but knew conversions never came when one is dying to change course. They come only when you think you’re happy, and Charlie was not yet delusional.
Afterwards, Jimmy suggested that instead of the usual morning rounds, they’d go and visit Mary. He was holding a box of leftover doughnuts.
“Why?” Charlie said. “She’s probably still passed out from a night of drinking.”
“Don’t talk about your mother like that,” Jimmy said. “Besides, I want to bring her these doughnuts. They’re very good.”
Charlie humored him. Jimmy also stopped at the Beirut Bakery and bought her a couple of loaves of dark rye. “Her favorite,” he said.
They had to knock for five minutes before Mary answered the door in her robe. “What the hell?” she said.
“Red Cross,” Jimmy said. “Care package.”
Mary opened the door. Jimmy handed her his gifts.
“Uh, we can’t stay,” he said. “Uh, Charlie wanted to bring you this stuff for breakfast. And, uh, I wanted to invite you to Thanksgiving next week.”
Charlie looked at his mother and nodded. What else could he do?
“That’s sweet of you boys. I’ll check my calendar. I’ll let you know.”
There was silence. Mary set the box of doughnuts and the bread on the coffee table. She held the top of her robe closed.
“I’ve got to get this house clean today,” she said. “I’ve been so busy. It’s a wreck.”
“We wouldn’t notice a dirty house,” Jimmy said. “A couple of bachelors like us? Well, okay, Mary, sweetheart, we got to run. Keep the family business going.”
Charlie nodded again. When he got in the car, he was about to say something, but he wasn’t sure what to say. Before Charlie could speak, Jimmy put up his hand.
“It’s my house,” Jimmy said. “I don’t need to explain a freakin’ thing to you.”
The day before Thanksgiving, winter gave way to a warm, yellow morning with wind barely strong enough to push a few dried leaves along the pavement. Charlie woke up a little after eight in the morning to the sound of his father vacuuming. Charlie got out of bed and went down the stairs. Jimmy was in boxer shorts, an undershirt, and black socks. His legs were thin and white and nearly hairless, and his arms no longer pulsed with definition. He was struggling with the vacuum on the steps, without his clothes, his thinning hair flopped over his forehead beaded with sweat.
My God, Charlie thought, he’s just an old man.
“Morning, Dad,” Charlie hollered over the vacuum cleaner.
His father hit the power switch and the machine coughed itself quiet. “Hey,” he said. “Sorry I had to wake you. I’ve been up for two hours and couldn’t wait anymore.”
“No, that’s fine,” Charlie said. He smiled. He wanted suddenly to be cheerful and full of youth and energy. “I’ll get dressed and give you a hand.”
“There’s coffee,” Jimmy said.
In the shower, Charlie began to believe that his father was trying for something specific here, with this Thanksgiving. What if his mother was so moved by the invitation, what if she was so impressed by the new Jimmy Pappas and his giant, clean new house that she decided to go on the wagon herself? Charlie pictured his mother and father saying their morning affirmations together, exercising at some sterile suburban health club in matching his-and-hers sweat suits, then, after breakfast at Big Boy, walking arm in arm into an AA meeting.
Was it true, Charlie wondered, that children of divorce could never quite come to terms with the end of their parents’ marriage? Did they always, in their heart of hearts, believe that reconciliation and reunion were possible?
Down in the kitchen, Charlie whistled as he poured his coffee.
“You’re in a better mood,” his father said.
“I am,” Charlie said.
“You’re glad that your mother is coming over?”
“I am,” he said. “Yes.”
They spent the morning with the Today show on the television, dusting the furniture, washing the floors, cleaning sinks and toilets.
“I hope she notices all our hard work,” Charlie said. Now, not only was he feeling like some naïve, hopeful kid, he was sounding like one.
They ate an early lunch of tuna salad on wheat garnished with fat-free corn chips, and then they went shopping. His father insisted on a twenty-pound turkey at the grocery store; he bought a cartload of food, enough for a family of twelve or more.
Late that night, after they’d cleaned every room in the house, prepped much of the food for the next day’s meal, and called Mary to confirm the invitation (Jimmy was sending a cab), they sat in the family room, watching television. A van pulled into the driveway.
Charlie stood up and went to the door. The sign on the side door of the van read, “A-1 Airport Transport.”
“Don’t say anything,” Jimmy said. “Like I said, it’s my freaking house.”
Jana was wearing a long charcoal coat, black leather boots, black gloves. She pulled a small suitcase behind her. In her absence, Charlie had detested her, loathed her, wished danger and despair on her person. Seeing her coming toward the door in a dim flood of porch light, he loved her again.
“Hey,” Jana said.
“Jana,” Charlie said. “Jana.”
“Charlie,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
“About what?” he said.
She looked at him crooked.
“Oh, oh that?” Charlie said. “I’d almost forgotten.”
“Happy Thanksgiving,” she said.
“Right,” he said.
Jimmy shook Jana’s hand, invited her inside. It was not how Charlie had pictured such a reunion at all. He’d rehearsed cold lines and steel-eyed stares. But he had not had any time to prepare, and he moved along with his whims. He hugged her.
“Is this you, Dad? Did you do this?” Charlie said, when he finally was able to let go.
Jimmy said, “Big freaking day tomorrow. I’m turning in.”
Then they were alone in the kitchen; Charlie came up behind her and kissed her neck.
“There’s a double bed in my room,” Charlie said.
“And you’d have your own can,” Jimmy called from the top of the stairs. “It’s nice.”
They’d been in love a long time, Charlie thought. They could talk in the morning. He didn’t know what Jana was thinking. She had grown quiet. Maybe he didn’t want to know what she was thinking.
He led her up the stairs. “We should talk,” Jana said. “Don’t you think this is a little odd? I should sleep in another room.”
“Jana,” Charlie said. “I loved you for seven years. So we’ve been apart for a few months, so what?”
“A lot has happened,” Jana said. She was whispering.
“I haven’t had sex in a long time,” Charlie whispered back.
Jana did not smile, not at first, but then she laughed. “I can’t believe you,” she said. “But you look good. And it’s been a long time for me too.”
“It has?” Charlie said. He couldn’t help beaming.
She nodded and kissed his lips.
“We can talk tomorrow,” he said and took her hand.
Right now, he just wanted to lie in bed and be glad that she was there. He had no rage in him; he felt like a child who had thrown a tantrum and had finally come out of his room for dinner. He felt embarrassed by everything—the affair, his breakdown, how he would not come to the phone.
“I thought you hated me,” she said.
“I did,” he said. “Until I saw you again. I had planned to be mad.”
“Did you know your father invited me?” she said. “He sent me the money for a ticket.”
“No idea,” he said.
“Does this mean you want to get back together?” she said. “Because, I don’t know. This is still very odd, too fast.”
“Jana, I want to be with you here, just for now. That’s all I want. We might die tomorrow. Let’s just be together tonight.”
They went into the bedroom and closed the door. She touched his face and whispered to him. “Fine,” she said. “I’d like that.”
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“I’m fine,” she said, taking off her skirt and folding it on a chair. “I’ve just been traveling all day. You’re right. We can talk tomorrow.”
“I missed you so much,” he said.
The next morning, snow flurries. Charlie awoke to a window filled with gray light and downy white fuzz floating in the sky. It felt divine. Suddenly, Charlie understood his father’s cheerfulness, understood what it felt like to have another chance. One day a time. Easy does it. Let go and let God. His father’s petty maxims somehow seemed wise and full of truth. He nudged Jana.
She seemed to take a few minutes to figure out where she was, and then she set up in bed, pulling the sheet over her breasts.
“Look,” Charlie said. “Snow.”
“Oh boy,” Jana said. And then she buried her face in her pillow.
They showered together in silence, as familiar as if there had been no five-month hiatus in their morning rituals. She sat on the toilet and peed as he brushed his teeth. They picked up their intimacy with ease.
Dressed and with wet hair, they went downstairs. Jimmy Pappas was brushing melted butter on the spanokopita, about to put it in the oven.
“Good morning, you two,” he called, and Charlie couldn’t help blushing. Jana looked annoyed and exhausted.
“Everything okay, Jimmy?” Jana said.
“Great, great. I’ve got a taxi picking up your mother around one, we should eat by three, and you don’t have to lift a finger.”
Jana looked at Charlie and mouthed the words, Your mother? Charlie had, of course, told her everything about his parents.
Charlie picked at some carrots that Jimmy was chopping.
“I did forget one thing,” Jimmy said. “Cranberries.”
“We’ll go get some,” Charlie said.
“If you don’t mind,” Jimmy said.
“That’s fine,” Jana said.
They kissed in the car, a long, slow kiss that Charlie wanted to last longer. Jana pulled away. “Cranberries,” she said.
In the store, Charlie wanted to buy canned cranberries, but Jana insisted on fresh.
“Fresh is too much trouble,” Charlie said. “I want canned ones. Open and eat.”
“Buy fresh,” she said. “I can prep them myself. I’ll need some sugar and some oranges too.”
The express checkout was crowded with men standing in line, all holding single items—butter, canned pumpkin, or bread crumbs. Charlie flipped through a men’s magazine. He found an article that said, “How do you know when she’s cheating?”
He laughed and showed the article to Jana. “Wish I had seen that article a long time ago,” he said.
Jana walked out of the store, leaving Charlie standing in line.
He paid for the groceries and found her in the parking lot, standing next to the car.
“What was that?” Jana said.
“A joke,” Charlie said.
“Not funny,” Jana said.
“A little levity, that’s all,” he said.
“You know, I didn’t come here to fuck you. I came here to settle things once and for all, to see what remained.”
“I know,” Charlie said. “I was wrong. It’s weird. I’m adjusting. You had time to adjust. You prepared yourself for this. I was taken by surprise.”
She wouldn’t look at him. He set the groceries in the backseat.
“That’s fair,” she said. “Okay.”
And then, when they were back in the car, the heater on, she told Charlie something she’d been waiting to tell him.
“Last night,” she said. “It’s just that I may have given you the wrong idea. I’m not saying it was bad, but I’m also not sure we should get back together.”
“Why are you here, then?”
“Your father, he begged me. He said that you needed closure. He said you were suicidal, he worried for your life. I didn’t want you to die. I think he was exaggerating, though. You seem fine.”
Charlie felt his insides crumple, his organs deflating.
“Are you still with the sculptor?”
“He left,” she said.
“So what was last night?” he asked. “I don’t get it.”
“It was closure, Charlie. I guess that’s what it was. It was nice.”
“It felt nice? Or it was a nice thing to do?”
“Both,” she said. She touched his arm. “Oh, Charlie.”
They drove back from the store in silence: Charlie with windshield wipers on, although there was no rain, Jana looking at the package of cranberries in her hands.
“Hey, can we do one thing?” Charlie said, as they pulled into his father’s driveway. “Can we deal with this later? Can we wait until tomorrow to tell my father? Could we just make sure he has a nice Thanksgiving? I mean, he’s been very nice to me and …”
“Of course,” Jana said. “Of course. I’m a human being, Charlie. I’m not some kind of monster.”
“Whatever,” Charlie said.
They turned on the Lions game at noon, which helped to keep the conversation to a minimum. Jana seemed overly interested in the game, Charlie pretended to be concerned about the Lions losing, and Jimmy chattered incessantly while he cooked, about Greek men and their ability to cook without recipes.
“We make love without manuals too,” he said.
Around one-thirty, Mary arrived at the door, shaky and pale but with clean hair and perfume and a long-sleeved black dress Charlie recognized from years before. She had dyed her hair, Charlie noticed. There was no gray. She smiled when she saw Jana.”This is so nice,” she said. “To see the two of you together.”
“Mary, how are you?” Jana said.
Jana embraced Mary. Mary appeared startled. Charlie’s stomach turned under the weight of the fraudulent pleasantness in the air. He felt hot.
“Mary, you look radiant,” Jimmy said, his voice booming. “A sight for sore eyes, welcome, welcome!”
He wiped his hands on his apron, gave his ex-wife a half hug, and kissed her on the cheek. Mary’s hands remained at her sides. Jimmy almost knocked her over. She did look good, Charlie thought. She was trying. Jimmy was always barreling into people, hugging them without warning.
Jana seemed too practiced at insincere conversation, Charlie thought. He had always thought so, and now he was convinced. Jana engaged everyone in conversation, talking to Mary about painting, talking to Jimmy about the art of salesmanship, even getting Charlie to talk about his love of teaching, which was nonexistent. Jana punctuated the talking with spurts of high, delirious laughter. Her cheeks seemed flushed red with the effort. Jimmy left the room to check on the turkey.
“So, Mary,” Jana said, “What do you do with yourself during the day? Are you teaching? Or do you just paint, paint, paint all day?”
“Jesus Christ,” Charlie said. Jana knew Mary was a drunk who could barely hold a brush most days.
“Well, I’m between things,” Mary said. And then her voice went up a few decibels, just loud enough so Jimmy could hear her in the kitchen, where he was basting the turkey. “My boyfriend, Frank, he’s up in Alaska right now, looking for a place for us to live. He’ll send for me soon, I’ll sell the house, and then I’ll go up there with him and paint some landscapes I’ve never seen before. Frank is very supportive of my work.”
In the kitchen, there was the shattering of glass.
“Are you okay?” Mary called. “Jimmy?”
“Everything is fine,” Jimmy said, walking into the room wiping his hands on a towel.
“Good,” Mary said.
“You know, this is so nice,” Jimmy said. “Maybe we should all move in here and it could be like this all the time. One big, happy family.”
Everyone burst out in delirious laughter, even though everyone, Charlie thought, knew that Jimmy Pappas was dead serious.
The Lions lost, the turkey was done, and a little after three they sat down for dinner. Mary had a flask in her purse and had gone off to the bathroom every twenty minutes or so for a hit. She was not drunk, but there was some color in her face, and her hands had stopped shaking.
Jimmy said grace, a long rambling prayer that thanked the giver of all good gifts, especially the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ.
“Cheers,” Charlie said. “Here, here.” He lifted his water glass for a toast.
“Um, is there any wine?” Mary said.
“That’d be nice,” Jana said. Charlie knew her stamina was leaving her. She would need alcohol to get through the rest of the afternoon.
“My father is a recovered alcoholic,” Charlie said. “Goddamn, people.”
“So,” Mary said. “We’re not.”
Charlie wanted a drink as bad as anybody. In fact, the whole table seemed terrified of getting through dinner without anything to drink.
“I could run out and get some wine,” Jana said. “I mean, that would be easy to do.”
“Yes, great,” Mary said.
“I’d rather we didn’t,” Jimmy said. “You know, I’m still in the early steps of the program. Lead us not into temptation, you know.”
“People, I think we can have dinner without wine,” Charlie said.
“Oh, I almost forgot. I got Vernors,” Jimmy said. “I’ll get out the Vernors. It’s just ginger ale, Jana, but it’ll knock your socks off. It’s a Detroit delicacy.”
“I’ve had it,” Jana said. “In college.”
“I’d prefer wine. Or beer? If you have beer,” Mary said, “that would be fine.”
“Yeah, beer sounds good,” Jana said.
Charlie glared at his mother, who shrugged, and then at Jana, who glared back.
Jimmy came back to the table with four frosted mugs of Vernors. He remained standing and raised his glass.
“We should all say what we’re thankful for,” Jimmy said.
Nobody agreed aloud, but Jimmy was determined. “Jana, you go first.”
“My art,” she said, keeping things generic. “For good friends.”
“For my boyfriend Frank and our new life in Alaska,” Mary said. “I’m so thankful for Frank.”
Charlie watched Jimmy’s smile waver. “Besides Frank,” Jimmy said. “What else besides Frank?”
“This is sad,” Mary said.
“For Jana,” Charlie said, going next, keeping the thankful train on the tracks. “Yes, for Jana. Jana, Jana, Jana! And for my family.”
“That’s so sweet,” Mary said.
“Isn’t it?” Jana said. “Except we’re not getting back together.”
“What?” Jimmy said.
“We’re not getting back together,” she said.
“Fine,” Jimmy said. He took a note card from his shirt pocket. He cleared his throat. “I am thankful for second chances. There is a woman I met over thirty years ago, who I never treated the way she deserved, but by the power of Jesus, I want to ask her forgiveness.”
“Pathetic,” Mary said.
Jana slumped down in her chair.
“Let him finish,” Charlie said.
“He’s a fool,” Jana whispered. “Mary doesn’t love him.”
“I love Frank,” Mary said.
“Frank left you,” Charlie said. “Face it. He’s gone.”
“And your wife left you,” Mary said. “How much did he pay you, Jana? Isn’t that just like Jimmy? He paid you, didn’t he? Paid you to fake happiness for awhile?”
Jana put her hand over her eyes.
“What, I’d say it’s worth at least a grand or two?” Mary said.
“Did he pay you for the ticket?” Charlie asked. “Or did you make money on this? Is this a job? How much?”
“Charlie, what do you think I am, some kind of whore?”
Mary snorted. Charlie pounded a fist on the table.
“I need to call a cab,” Jana said.
And as the shouting grew louder, Jimmy Pappas ran from the table, down the basement steps, and there was the sound of wood being split into pieces. They sat at the table; nobody said anything. Charlie started serving food.
“He’ll be okay in a minute,” he said. “He just needs to cool down.”
After Charlie had heaped everybody’s plate with food, Jimmy called to him from the basement. “Chuckie, come down here.”
Charlie stood up from the table. He picked up a piece of white meat and chewed it.
“Nobody leaves,” Charlie said.
“Be careful,” Jana said. “He might have a gun.”
“He won’t hurt anybody,” Mary said. “Not Jimmy.”
“Charlie,” Jana said.
“You guys keep eating,” he said. “I’ll be right back.”
“Chuckie, please,” Jimmy called from the basement.
Charlie was picturing his father holding a pistol to his head but found his father standing in the space beneath the stairs, looking at a large wooden crate that was nailed shut. He’d already pried one of the front panels off of the crate, but there was another panel underneath it.
“Son, the day I quit drinking,” Jimmy said, “I came home and I spilled every drop of liquor I had down the sink. I was shaking the whole time. I felt like I was going deaf and blind. I was sick. No fooling, I even licked the sink out of regret after I’d gotten rid of all the booze.”
Charlie nodded. He heard Mary and Jana coming down the stairs, and he felt them stop and stand behind him, but he didn’t turn towards them at all. Jimmy kept on talking.
“But in this crate,” Jimmy said, “in here, there are forty-eight bottles of wine. The last batch my father—your Papou—ever made. He wanted me to save them until your wedding day. It was his dying wish. He loved making this wine, and he thought it might help him be present in some way at your wedding.”
“I see,” Charlie said.
“You were the only one to carry on the family name,” he said. “The only male grandson he had.”
“I know it,” Charlie said.
“This crate is nailed shut, and with God’s help, I never tore it open, even at my lowest point.”
“Well, Dad. It doesn’t look like I’ll be getting married anytime soon. Let’s go upstairs.”
“That’s okay, Son. Maybe you and Jana will get back together and marry. Maybe you won’t. I just want you to know there is some happiness in life, and it’s always there, lurking in the darkest corners, waiting to be set free.” Charlie nodded. He didn’t know what else to do.
“Come on, Dad.”
“That’s all I want for you, Son,” Jimmy said. “Happiness. A nice, peaceful life.”
Charlie turned back to see his mother rolling her eyes. Jana started to go back up the steps. Then Charlie followed her. “Mom and Dad, enough is enough. We might as well eat. There’s all that food that Dad made.” Jana and Charlie sat back down at the table, waiting for Mary and Jimmy. “He won’t do it, he won’t open the wine, he’s bluffing,” Charlie said. And then, suddenly, there was a sound like a hole being punched into a wall, and Charlie turned around. Then he heard Mary yell, “Atta boy!” and Jimmy could be heard huffing and stomping his way up the stairs. He reappeared, drenched in sweat; in each hand he held two bottles of his father’s homemade wine.
“You’re right, everyone, we need to drink!”
Mary was behind him, an open bottle already tilted toward the ceiling. Charlie almost stood and wrestled his father to the ground. But he could not move; he had no idea what to do next. Jana clucked with concern and looked at him, raising her eyebrows.
“That’s the holiday spirit!” his mother said, and Jimmy and Jana laughed. Charlie just watched his father take the corkscrew to those long-saved bottles of wine and did not move. His mother rummaged through the cabinets for wine glasses, which were hidden on a top shelf behind the flour and sugar. She took the glasses from the cabinet and brought them to the table.
“There’s more where this came from,” Jimmy said, he handed each person a bottle of wine. “The best wine in all of Greece!”
Then he drank half of his down in one wild, frantic gulp. Charlie and Jana looked at one another, shrugged, and then filled their glasses.
By the time dinner was over, the house had the warm, affectionate glow that can only envelop a house full of drunks. Everyone was touchy and feely, stumbling about the house. Twelve bottles of wine had been opened. Charlie and Jana had already snuck off to the bedroom once, taking pumpkin pie upstairs with them, but instead of sharing the dessert, they found themselves falling into bed and making drunk, quiet love. Jana fell asleep in bed, her skirt still pushed up around her waist, her blouse unbuttoned, her bra open. She was snoring. Charlie helped her out of her clothes, knowing nothing was different, knowing the intimacy was as empty as any other intimacy. Tomorrow, she would leave him. He would not see her again. He felt sick. He wondered if he could get his father to an AA meeting that night. He knew they stayed open all the time on holidays. Maybe all four of them could go to the meeting. They could throw open the door and bellow, “Happy Drunks-giving!” as they took their seats.
Charlie went down to the kitchen. His mouth was dry. His body ached. He heard his parents’ voices, and he walked slowly and softly, trying to hear what they were saying. What could they possibly have to say? He stood in the doorway to the kitchen and saw his mother and father sitting at the table covered in half-empty serving bowls, dirty dishes, and empty bottles of wine. They were slouched in their chairs, eyes half shut, talking in inaudible, hoarse voices. To Charlie, it was apparent—there would be no reconnections, no second chances, no renewals or rebirths that would come out of that blurry, wine-soaked haze. But then he looked at Jimmy, who was reaching across the table to touch Mary’s hand, and Charlie saw that his mother was leaning in close to his father, as if she expected to hear some profound secret. Mary sat up, and her eyes brightened. She smiled. Jimmy said something to her, and then Charlie saw that his mother was laughing; she was laughing and tossing her hair.