UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
Beer Is Technically a Vegetarian Meal
Oh, no, she would never divorce him. For one thing, Inez enjoyed being known as the wife of the President of the First National Bank of Brooklyn. It was Freddie’s status as the community’s leading citizen she loved,
Oh, no, she would not divorce him, for a week later when they went to their one and only session for marriage counseling, Father Anselimo, the parish priest, only confirmed what they already knew.
“The Holy Church forbids divorce.”
“But I’m miserable with him,” Inez protested.
“My daughter, misery is our human lot. Christ suffered, and now it is your turn.”
“Where is it written that marriage should be happy? And no annulment either--you have a child.”
That was that. Enjoying the prestige of Freddie’s position yet denied the exit of divorce, Inez soldiered on. Five years later they had a second child, the result, by her calculations, of a weekend at one of those tawdry resorts in north Jersey where, exhausted by having to row back and forth from their island cabin to the mainland for three meals a day, part of the vacation package, Freddie had been too tired to drink the first evening. His senses temporarily cleared, he turned to his wife in a moment of rare passion, and she, confusing this pot-bellied, balding man sweating in the bed beside her with the lithe figure who had been her steady boyfriend from high school days, gave way to his ardor, and from that a daughter was born.
Though he came hung over every morning to the bank, Freddie never drank at work, at least not until thirty minutes before closing. Then he would go into the back storeroom where he had artfully hidden bottles on a shelf behind a broken copier, and take a good stiff drink, after which he popped half a chocolate bar into his mouth before going back on the floor. No one was the wiser, or so he thought.
The drink, he knew from vast experience, wouldn’t really set in until five o’clock, closing time, and by then he would be out the door, the tell-tale signs—blurred vision, an uncertain walk as if the sidewalk were rushing up or alternately retreating from his feet, the slurred speech--no longer a factor. Rather, now mildly drunk he would float the fifteen blocks to the bar he visited each afternoon before taking the subway back to the unhappy home in the Bronx he shared with Inez.
For those last thirty minutes at the bank he would function as well as he did sober. And the fact is that Freddie functioned very well indeed. Ashley and Everett, his most experienced tellers, indeed all the bank employees, had to admit that, whatever Freddie’s behavior outside the bank, inside he was the ideal President, the perfect manager. For one thing, Freddie insisted that his “office” be one of the teller’s cages, rather than some well-appointed suite off the main floor. He chose to be one of his employees, and when he wasn’t handling a house loan applicant or a local businessman seeking financing, he worked as an ordinary teller. In fact, Freddie set the benchmark. When all tellers had to balance before anyone could leave, Freddie was always the first on the mark, money received in perfect balance with money paid out.
Along with his endearing management style, he was known throughout the banking community for a very special skill. Freddie could hold a random pile of mixed bills in each hand and, with his dexterous thumbs, at great speed simultaneously count out two separate sums, even as he arranged the bills, however disparate their order at the start, in increasing or decreasing amounts—all this done with the money remaining in neat piles in his palms.
Moreover, he was generous with employees when it came to sick leave or cash advances. He arranged luncheon schedules so that his manager Charles and Ashley ate together at Joe’s across the street. That they later married was the result of many factors, not the least of which was Freddie’s solicitude for the two middle-aged lovers. He had also resisted tempting offers to merge with large bank chains, insisting that he wanted the First National Bank of Brooklyn to be free-standing, stay in the family, “the first and the last” of its kind as Joe the janitor once announced. Coming into the bank, a customer was greeted with Freddie’s booming “hello” followed by a first name, most often a nickname, even as, without missing a beat, he handled a delinquent account or consoled the widow behind in her mortgage payments. In this latter instance, Freddie made a personal loan to Tillie Sizemore until the poor woman got back on her feet. Though he came to work hung over from steady drinking the day before, he actually capitalized on his sunken cheeks, sallow complexion, and dour mood, for his hangover lent a certain solemnity to his face and manner, a dark subtext that perfectly fit the image of the conservative, even dull bank manager.
Of course, like most alcoholics, Freddie thought he concealed his drinking from the world better than he did. For everyone knew he drank too much. But, as his head teller observed one day at the coffee break, Freddie was what the text books call “a functioning alcoholic.”
For Freddie Munos, drinking was both a routine and a philosophy. One half hour before leaving for work, he would make a “Dodger Fizz,” a concoction not only to chase away the inevitable morning headache but also to propel him on the relatively long subway ride—two changes, a half-hour commute if things went smoothly—to Brooklyn. One part gin, one part vermouth—large parts by Freddie’s measurement—mixed with tonic water, a half ounce of lime, and three eggs beaten and diluted with a quarter cup of fresh cream. From 8 until the magic 4:30, when he took that surreptitious second drink, Freddie touched nary a drop, nor did he ever feel the slightest desire to do so, even at noon on Fridays when employees of a local distillery came to cash their checks, the rough and ready men smelling of beer and themselves having already started the ceremony of Friday afternoon drinking on the job.
“Never buy a bottle with a Friday date on the label,” one of the workers told Freddie one day as he pushed his paycheck through the teller’s window. “We’re so loaded by 2 that no one knows just what the hell goes into the vat.” While well-intended, the advice was wasted on Freddie, for he had long since graduated from beer to hard liquor. Wine he dismissed as a “girlie drink.”
He even began testing the limits of that ritualistic drink before the bank closed, seeing if he could push back the time from a half hour to forty-five minutes. Four PM was his goal, and though he had not yet reached it, he predicted that within the year what was now unattainable would be his. The rules of the game specified, of course, that at the slightest sign of the drink’s affecting him before the closing hour, he would have to push up the time and start over.
Buoyed by this 4:30 drink, he would arrive at Pegeen’s Bar and Grill at 5:30, where his seat at the far corner table would be waiting for him. Also waiting for him would be Agnes Straub, a divorcee in her forties, plump, with enormous bosoms, her hair dyed a conservative orange, an excess of rouge on her flabby cheeks—a “spent woman,” as Archie the bartender called her, from too much drinking. Freddie’s relationship with Agnes was platonic. Fellow alcoholics, they had only one topic of conversation: drinking. Drinks they had known. Crazy things they had done or seen others do while drunk. The latest fashions in mixed drinks. The relative virtues of Tennessee and Kentucky sour mash. They would entertain each other with wonderfully graphic accounts of bouts with alcohol, personal records set, models among the informal community of heavy drinkers.
“You manage to get it back to 4:15 yet, Freddie?”
“No, not yet, Agnes. But, say, wasn’t I right about the Dodger Fizz being the perfect day opener?”
“Right as rain, Freddie. Hey, did I ever tell you about the time we kids soaked Granny’s slice of watermelon in Seagram’s Seven?”
They swapped descriptions, some technical, others poetic, of the distinct stages of the drink just finished: the feel of the glass, the smell of the liquor as one lifted it to the lips, the first rush, the sensation of gin making its way down the throat, the moment the martini reached the stomach, then the almost mysterious responses of the body—the tingle in the fingers, the buzz in the head. Like Freddie, Agnes took drinking seriously.
No less than Agnes, Freddie had only contempt for “stupid drunks,” their general term for people who couldn’t hold their liquor, or saw drinking as merely a means to an end—to dull memory or provoke lust. When a construction worker at the end of the bar threw up, Freddie and Agnes swore that unless Archie banned the man forever from Pegeen’s, they would take their business elsewhere. Archie complied without protest.
“Look at this crap, Freddie,” Agnes greeted him one afternoon, holding in her hand something she had taken off the Internet. It was an ad for “Beer T-Shirts.” Along with the fact that the shirts promoted beer, which both dismissed as a vulgar drink, the slogans proved offensive to the two friends for whom drinking had an almost spiritual value. “Beer—It Does a Belly Good.” “Beer Is Technically a Vegetarian Meal.” “Finish Your Beer. There Are Starving People in India.” And “Drink Until I Look Better.”
“Crap indeed!” Freddie agreed.
“But here’s one that’s an exception,” Agnes added. “Sobriety Is Transitory.”
“I like it—I like it!” Freddie agreed. Two months later, on her birthday, Freddie would give Agnes that approved t-shirt as a gift. The birthday girl was very touched.
Vowing in what was now a drunken stupor to see Agnes the next day, Freddie would leave Pegeen’s at six thirty and made his way back home. He felt at peace on the subway, there in the company of fellow drinkers who had long since given up the ruse of the brown bag, the couple exhausted from work, slumped again each other, dreaming—or so Freddie imagined—of a night of hard drinking to blot out the insult of their dead-end jobs. He understood these anonymous souls, staring listlessly ahead, lost in their idiosyncratic inner worlds, just barely aware of the people pressing against them, or of strange hands touching theirs clinging to a single strap as the subway lurched through the tunnels.
Freddie was an historian when it came to his own drinking. His fondest memories were of the 1950s, of his father hiding a bottle of beer under the easy chair where he sat listening to radio shows with the family. Abstaining from almost every pleasure of life, including liquor, his mother had insisted that her husband hide from the family “that filthy thing,” as she called Schmidt’s beer of which the poor man was so fond. His dad’s easy chair stood high off the ground, with a drape-like fringe circling the four legs, and it was there, underneath, that the beer was stored. Freddie would sit on the floor, on the far side of the chair, out of view of his mother and two brothers, and when Dad wanted a drink, he would look down at the boy and wink, the signal for Freddie to bring out the bottle. He could still picture his father, leaning toward his side of the chair, cocking the bottle, taking a long slug, and passing it back, to be stored beneath the chair until the next drink. Without fail, the moment one bottle had been drained, Freddie would sneak out to the kitchen for a fresh one. The boy cherished this bond with his father, “our secret” as they called it, an act of defying the mother who, like some evangelist of the Women’s Christian Temperance League, was a devout Catholic for whom life was a daily battle against a host of sins and temptations. Freddie respected his mother, but loved his father, loved him not in spite of but because of his weakness.
On Friday nights the family would gather in the living room to listen to a series of weekly radio dramas. In counterpoint to the imaginative visual worlds fashioned by his mother and brothers, his father, accompanied by his faithful son, wandered in that soothing twilight haze of the alcoholic, there in his easy chair, his youthful servant at his side supplying the surreptitious beer.
Later, after the radio shows, if Freddie woke up and tip-toed to the top of the stairs, he would see his father sitting in the easy chair, a bottle of beer raised to his lips, no longer compelled to hide it from his sleeping wife. It was this picture of such stillness, such profound content, the drinker and his bottle, that Freddie carried with him until he would take the place of that man he understood and loved to idolatry.
The other formative influence from his childhood was Father Anselimo, the parish priest. In his teenage years, Freddie served him as an acolyte on Sundays, bearing the cross before the priest as he made his way up the aisle at the start of the service, then assisting him during communion. As the priest passed down the row of people kneeling at the altar, Freddie shadowed him, two steps behind, holding the silver plate with the communion wafers. Placing one on the tongue of a parishioner, Father Anselimo would intone, “This is my body which is given for you,” and as the recipient swallowed the symbolic embodiment of Christ’s flesh, Father Anselimo would reach back for another wafer from the silver plate, as priest and acolyte moved to the next in line. When the ten or so people at the altar were thus served, Freddie would bring the chalice. This time, offering each a sip of wine, Father Anselimo would remind them, “This is my blood which is shed for you.” During the typical Sunday service the chalice would have to be refilled four or five times from a decanter at the side of the altar. But Father Anselimo told Freddie to make sure that for the final round, no matter how few people were waiting for communion, to fill the chalice to the top. After administering the rites to last three old ladies, the priest would turn his back to the congregation, his golden robe swirling as he ascended the five steps leading to the altar, then lift the chalice, still almost full, high in the air, toward the great wooden cross suspended from the ceiling, and drink until the sacred vessel was empty. When Freddie asked why he did this, Father Anselimo told him that Church rules specified that any communion wine left over from the service “be reverently disposed of,” and that he interpreted this phrase as meaning not returning the wine, now soiled by human lips, to the bottles, let alone pouring it down the drain. He himself would drink the remainder. When the chalice was drained, the priest, with a sweet, almost comic smile of satisfaction on his face, would beam at Freddie standing there in his acolyte’s black robe.
“I had two fathers who were alcoholics, my own and Father Anselimo,” he told Agnes one afternoon. For Freddie and his companion, the word “alcoholic” was not a badge of disgrace. Like geeks chatting about computers, or football fans about their favorite teams, he and Agnes often talked about why they drank. She had reasons enough—a father who had molested her, a dysfunctional family, a series of miscarriages, three abusive husbands. Still, Agnes had no need for, indeed spurned excuses. However wrong she was, she saw her drinking, her alcoholism, as a choice, an expression of her own will.
“I picked this life, Freddie, and have no regrets.”
Though he too did not need excuses, Freddie had no comparable tragedies in his life. His parents’ marriage might best be described as a convenient arrangement. As was his own. Failing to become an actor, Freddie had just as easily adjusted to banking—and done very well. Perhaps a psychiatrist could unearth causes beyond Freddie’s conscious intent, reasons suppressed or denied. Perhaps he had inherited the disease from his father. But Freddie had little interest in such speculations, and during his one time at an AA meeting, bowing to the pleas of his bank manager, he found himself bored by the proceedings. The insufferable tales of woe. The generic group hug. The communal confession, “I am an alcoholic.” The prerequisite sobbing. The inevitable “I feel for you”s and “Just let it all out”s.
Truth be told, Freddie loved drinking, loved being drunk, relished the feeling that, when drunk, he was operating on a different level from people about him. As he saw it, the purpose of drink was not to ease pain but rather to separate himself from sober, straight people. The buzz inside his head established a private world only he could inhabit, a landscape lodged in his brain. As close as he felt to Agnes, even she could not enter this world. He likened it to that pleasure he knew as a young boy when, standing on the flat roof of his Brooklyn apartment building, and deliberately crossing his eyes, he looked out over the city spread below. Dark buildings would blur with the streetlights; a couple passing by on the sidewalk below became a single being, with two heads and four arms. The sharp outlines of the street were now soft, and softer still if it were raining or snowing. Its branches and leaves no longer distinct, a tree looked like one of those objects in a fast sketch, where the artist paints in splotches without concern for realism.
At parties, the conversation of the person next to him lost the logical distinctions of grammar and delivery, transmuted instead to a strange music, its tune incoherent and therefore challenging. When sober, as he was at the bank until that pre-cocktail hour in the back room, he fooled the world, as the actor he had failed to become would have fooled an audience with the illusion of the stage world, and Freddie enjoyed playing the role of the dour, efficient bank president, his focus razor-sharp on the realities of money and transactions and loan applications. Only when drunk, when meeting the world with that melody in his head, only then was he alive, alone in that private world which was all that he wanted or needed, everything outside him now unreal, dependent on how his senses, how his sight and hearing and touch condescended to accept it.
“When I’m drunk, when I have that fire in me, Agnes. I am myself, unique. Wonderful.”
“I’m not as poetic as you, Freddie, but that’s just how I feel. You’ve got a way with words,” she said, putting a platonic hand on his.
“Too bad we didn’t meet earlier, Agnes. Maybe we would be married today.”
Struck by what he said, her boozy defense which she too set up against the real world having been cracked, if only for a second, Agnes recovered with, “Another set-up, Archie. And this time don’t be so stingy with the gin, for God’s sake.”
* * * *
His father and the priest were his models. But it was Mildred, an aging actress, who most profoundly initiated Freddie into the joys of drinking.
With dreams of becoming an actor after he got out of college, Freddie had worked one summer as an intern at an impoverished theatre in upstate New York. He doubled as the maintenance man and actor of minor roles, when needed.
Then in her fifties, Mildred was the company’s leading actor—and an alcoholic. Some of the older actors said it was because she “never made New York.” Whatever the reason, she drank. On performance days especially, Mildred drank heavily, much more than on Mondays when the theatre was dark. Gin followed vodka followed bourbon—this was her version of “mixed drinks.”
She also drank between acts of those obscure three-act plays from the last century the impoverish company was forced to stage. There was a pattern to the evening: in act one, she skipped lines; in act 2, she forgot whole pages of the script or added dialogue; and in act 3, before a stunned audience, she would change plots, comedies becoming tragedies, and vice versa. Only the most skilled of the company, those actors who had worked a lifetime with Mildred, could hold their own as, staggering about the stage, she rewrote the playwright. Fail to keep up, and she would humiliate you. In short time, Freddie learned how to play along with her improvisations. “Anyone can stick to the script,” she told her earnest pupil one night.
Adopted by Mildred as a son, he would join her in her dressing room for the ritualistic drinking before each act. And after the show, the audience, their delight inextricably mingled with shock and confusion, he would sit up with her, drinking, going over the high—and low—points of the evening, relishing the improvisations, the tricks played on the gullible spectators in the house. Invariably, Mildred would pass out, and Freddie, tenderly, would get her into bed, remove the inevitable cigarette from her mouth, make sure she was sound asleep, and then quietly, reverently, like a servant departing a master, make his exit. She was, for him, a titanic figure, one of a kind; whatever else it portended, her love of booze was inseparable from her artistry.
When he graduated from college, Freddie went to New York but after three years of trying to find work in the theatre gave up. He took evening courses in Business at CCNY, reunited with and married Inez, his girlfriend from high school, and got a job in a bank in the Bronx. Within a year he had become head teller, a year later assistant loan manager, and when the retiring President of the First National Bank of Brooklyn shopped for a replacement, Freddie was an easy choice.
And so he lived in two worlds. One was the fake but profitable job in the bank. And here no one could fault him, for he played the staid bank manager to perfection, having learned the art of acting and improvisation from Mildred, his theatrical mentor. Still, for Freddie, it was all an illusion, a sham, like those third-rate plays he had known as a young man. The other world was that of drinking, now shared with Agnes.
As he got off he subway, he wondered, but only briefly, how long this second world could last. How l ong before the drinking would catch up with him? He himself did not see alcoholism as a disease, or a sign of moral depravity. He harmed no one. Had never been in a traffic accident. Ran a good business. Paid the bills for his wife and children. Indeed, was a loving father and, as his son had once confessed to him, “much more fun” than his sober wife, with her obligatory single glass of wine at the dinner party, or half-jigger of bourbon mixed with a glass of seven–up, which would see her though any social occasion.
This Wednesday evening Freddie’s routine was intact. Two drinks before dinner, wine with the meal, and, while his wife was upstairs putting the children to bed, two more drinks as he cleared the table and washed the dishes. Once Inez came downstairs, husband and wife sat in the living room watching television. Like his parents, he and Inez were, if nothing else, civil to each other, for during commercials she would politely ask about his day at the bank and he in turn about her volunteer work at the elementary school. “At least we can be nice to each other,” Inez had said once.
And Freddie had added, “Yes, for the sake of the children.”
Perhaps Father Anselimo, with his marriage-as pain philosophy, was not entirely right. A loveless marriage could still be bearable, acceptable, a mutual standoff. The adjectives came tumbling out of Freddie’s brain. Beside, he thought, what did a priest know about marriage?
Sated with television and with ten o’clock approaching, husband and wife made their way upstairs. Freddie was careful to let Inez use the bathroom first, taking his turn only after she came out to get into bed. Invariably, by the time he was finished, she was asleep, or at least pretending to be so.
Once he heard her snoring, he completed the day’s routine by getting quietly out of bed, putting on his robe, and going back downstairs for the final drink of the evening. Like his father before him, he sat in the easy chair in the living room, sipping bourbon. This Wednesday night, however, just as he was finishing his drink, he heard Susan, his year-old daughter, cry out. Freddie bounded upstairs so that he could comfort her before she woke Inez. A pat on the back would normally do the trick, but apparently not tonight, and so he picked up the little girl and, holding her tenderly, went downstairs. Cradling her in one arm, he poured a second shot of bourbon, chugged the drink, and then, turning down the light, wrapped her in both arms as he paced slowly around the room, swaying the little girl lightly in his arms, and singing softly. She looked up at him and smiled. As Freddie smiled back, her eyes closed.
While taking Susan back to her room, however, he stumbled halfway up the stairs, only at the last second shifting the sleeping child to one side so that he would not land directly on her. Instead, her head grazed the banister. When Susan cried out, Freddie patted her, and within a minute she was once again fast asleep.
Once she was in her crib, he decided to go downstairs for a final drink--to celebrate the fact that she was OK.
As he approached the stairs, however, he noticed that on the banister where her head had struck there was a spot of fresh blood. Susan’s!
He shuddered at the sight. He had caused this. It was his fault. But when he went back into her room and bent over the edge of the crib to examine his sleeping daughter, he noticed only the smallest spot of blood near the edge of her mouth. He gently wiped it off with his finger, and when blood did not reappear, he knew that everything would be fine, just as before.
As he left her bedroom Freddie caught his reflection in the mirror on the back of her door. Tonight he saw the fool he had become. The bloated cheeks. The eyes red even in the dim light of the room. The spittle on the lip that he had been too drunk to notice or wipe away. For a moment, he was filled with doubts, doubts about this life he had chosen, about how long those public and private worlds could co-exist.
Turning his face away from the absurd figure, the fool in the mirror, he said to no one in particular, or to the imaginary partner that the alcoholic can all too easily summon, “Maybe there was a time when I could have said ‘no.’ But I wouldn’t want it back. Not now. Besides, tomorrow, everything will be back in place. As always.”Sidney Homan is a Professor of English at the University of Florida and an actor and director in professional and university theatres. Author of some ten books on Shakespeare and the modern playwrights, he most recently published A FISH IN THE MOONLIGHT: GROWING UP IN THE BONE MARROW UNIT (Purdue University Press, 2008), stories of his youth in South Philly that he told to children on the bone marrow unit of his university's hospital.
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