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Susan Reeves Whalen

Old Songs

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Dignity and Death
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Old Songs
                “Look,” she said. “I hate support groups. It’s been all too simple for an awfully long time. I’m a drunk. I drank then, and I’m a drunk now. I don’t like you. I don’t like your kind. Women always want to sneak in and grab my feelings. You want to finger my anguish, but you don’t want it to touch you. Like those Hospice words,” she said. “They help you die and then they go right on living. What the hell, “she whispered, “I don’t like support groups.”
                The women looking at her sat in silence. Somewhere, she heard applause, glasses clinking. Somewhere, she knew music played, people laughed. One of the women drew triangles on her pad. No one moved.
                “I was drunk. Nobody talks about it, but I was.” The land in her heart was on fire. It sometimes made her shake. Worse still from those flames, she heard voices. Somewhere in the mass of human error, she heard a dreadful sigh.
                The women, she imagined, drew closer. Like windows in a church, they sat bent, surrounded by darkness. No one she knew would go after her for this. No one would forge into that land she once called her soul. Hers was too evil a thing to judge.
                “Look,” she said. “It was summer. August, I think.”         
                Looking around for someone to help her remember, she settled on August. They time of year when her children seemed like flies. Too many all over and in frenzy.
                “The laundry is always behind in August. Did you know that?” she said. “The wash, it piles up in August.” No one smiled. She didn’t expect they would.
                “Well, I hated it, see? The heat, the wash, the nights when not even the drapes stirred. I hated the kids. I hated their father, and worse still, I hated being alone.”
                “He died, is that what you want to know? He died and sometimes, I hear him cry. Yeah, sometimes I look up quick and I think I see him. Once in a snowstorm, I willed him to come to me. Sat right there at the dining room window, straining to see him come forth out of the whirling snow and into the lamp’s light. I knew he’d wear his barn boots and his wool hat. I pictured him, okay? He’s dead and none of you can help me. I was drunk and I… I what? I can’t remember what I was saying. I don’t think I belong here.” The woman with the pad reached out for her hand. Oh God, she thought, don’t touch me.
                The room, she knew, was cold. The women seemed to hold their support beyond her grasp. “He’s gone, see. My whole life tied up and stored in a brown trunk. His books, I kept his books,” she said. “I don’t read. I can’t remember much either. But if I pay attention, if I read again, I’ll read his books first. I didn’t know him all that well. Years, and I didn’t know what he read or why. He liked root beer, a white pony named Mookie, and thunderstorms. His hands were long and lean. He never complained. I don’t even think he complained when he died. Probably all those years looking after me.”
                “Fishing bottles out from behind the refrigerator, trash cans, and porch furniture.” Straightening her shoulders, she said, “There were places he never looked. Bottles,” she said, “he never found.
                Carefully, she made her way past the women’s faces. “I’m not saying anymore,” she said. “I hate support groups. I don’t like any of you and your silence is real stubborn. Real stubborn!”
                “It rained that day,” she said. “I wore my purple sweater. Rain pelted the slate roof. The sheep didn’t go out.”
                Speaking softly, she said, “It was a perfect day to drink.” Drifting, she wanted to hear the applause, the ice cubes and music. “It rained,” she said, and from her heart, there rendered quietness. Horror grew out of her as she searched the women’s faces. “I am a drunk. I mean, I drank – I don’t drink now, but I did. I did real good. I drank enough to have played host to my own death. I drank and now I remember it. I remember it while I sleep and when I’m awake.”           
                Faintly, she put her hand to her lips. “Life’s quarrels come in layers,” she said. “None of you have a pile deep enough. I do, and those layers will go on haunting me until I die. Maybe that’s it,” she said. “You call get together in a group and listen while intimate details get spilled. Like vomit, it goes all over, for you to mop up. Well, I’ll tell you what, you go right on cleaning up. People like me have been puking on life since they were born.”
                “I drank to erase the shadows. The ones that creep into your song at night. The ones that you get real coked up on in third grade, because you can’t spell, or later because you can’t marry the right man, cook the right meal, or love your children. Shadows,” she said. “That like broken glass, jerk you up and cut you coming down.”
                Her eyes filled up with hopelessness. Beetles were eating her flowers, sweeping the beds. She couldn’t wait with these women and she couldn’t wait alone.
                Quietly, she got up. “I don’t want to do this,” she said. “I’ve told the priest, the A.A. man, and my friend. I’ve spoken of flames and voices and howling dogs. I’ve knitted a blanket, set the table, and worn makeup. I pray on Sunday and I drink a lot of water. I know it makes no sense, but I’ve taken to singing old songs.”