More Memories of Midnight That Fell Apart at Dawn
by Jim Knipfel
She shook her head, half-smiled bitterly out the window and muttered, "Nothing."
"Oh, don't give me that. What's wrong?"
There was a silence.
"You're killing yourself, you know," she said, finally.
"Yeah, well, so what do you intend to do about it?"
"Work a little bit harder, I guess."
I stood up from the kitchen table and shuffled into the other room. I didn't feel much like listening anymore. It looked like it was going to be another spectacular day. The hangover was growing worse, the way they always do, I was nothing but dust inside, and Laura was over, telling me that the way I was going I wasn't going to see my next birthday. Thing is, my birthday's next month.
The night before, after she stopped by to work on the computer, I settled in by the table and started drinking. It began as a good drunk--as good as it can get when you're alone. Two bottles of cheap Italian white, a few beers. It had been a reasonable day. I was working on a big story and got a break I needed that morning.
Then a movie producer sent me the novelization of Martin, while telling me that no, his company doesn't put out novelizations anymore, so no, they didn't need me to write a few for them. That was fine--I mean, he had the class to respond, and I can respect that. Heard from some folks I hadn't heard from in awhile. I'd broken through a ten-day writer's block (first time I've ever had one) the previous morning. Maybe things were looking up for once.
The week before had already vanished from all memory. I was mired down in something bad and couldn't write, so I drank. Started in the morning, passed out usually sometime mid-afternoon, usually on the floor just short of the bed, woke up around nine or ten that night, ate something, then stayed awake all night. Every day.
During the block, I was drinking myself into a self-pitying stupor. Once I got around the block, I drank myself into a celebratory stupor. Now I didn't know what the hell kind of stupor I was heading for. I'd think about that later.
With the wine gone, then the beer gone, I turned back to the whiskey. It's always been my painkiller of choice. Weird thing is, Wild Turkey has a strange effect on me. I don't get violent or maudlin; I don't get paranoid or start screaming. No, after the fourth or fifth, I'm filled with this inescapable urge to start dialing the telephone. I don't understand it, given how much I hate the telephone at any sober time.
I usually flip through the Rolodex randomly, just to see what kind of names pop up. I end up calling old enemies, complete strangers, relatives, dead folks--people I would never want to talk to otherwise. It didn't matter and it wouldn't matter--I'd never remember it in the morning, and lord knows they would never call me back.
As I poured and dialed, Laura stared dolefully out at me from the computer in the other room. Once she came into the kitchen, picked up one of the empty wine bottles, looked at it, then looked at me.
"I didn't even get half a glass out of this one."
She set the bottle back down at the table and looked at the bottle of Wild Turkey.
"You're really getting out of hand, James." (She's still the only one in the world who's allowed to call me "James.")
"Uh-huh." I found a new, unused number in the Rolodex and started dialing as she went back to work without another word.
An hour or so later, sometime around midnight, I passed out again, missed the bed again, as she kept typing.
It didn't used to be this way. When we first started seeing each other, when I rode a Greyhound ten hours one-way once a month from Minneapolis to Chicago to see her for two days, wine was an integral part of the glue that held us together. We'd start on the first bottle the moment I got into town, wake up the next morning and keep going. Those were the good times. We rarely left her tiny box of an apartment, ordered out, kept trying to watch The Nightstalker but always forgot to. All the drinking we did then was happy drinking--it was love in a bottle.
When we moved out to Philly together, Laura would proudly proclaim herself a lush. Even as I slowly degenerated into some kind of raging, self-mutilating monster (the result of my as-yet-undiscovered brain damage), we still took weekends off when we could, stocked up the red, the white, the bourbon, never bothered to get dressed, cooked for each other, stayed as far from sober as we could. As long as I could keep my brain under control, and as long as we could keep Philly ignored and outside, things remained good.
Even the early days in Brooklyn, when we both had jobs and enough money to splurge every once in awhile, the wine held us together. We'd buy a couple cases of a cheap French white, and be through them both in a weekend. When money was low, we'd settle for a gallon jug of Paul Masson, chill it for awhile, then just open it and leave it on the kitchen table. Every time we passed the table, we'd refill. It was a few hours' worth, at least.
But something happened along the way. I thought, in a hazy sort of way, that maybe she was just losing her stamina. She used to be able to match me bottle for bottle, smoke for smoke, but she'd started to slow down. At least that's the impression I got. Laura'd complain about only getting a couple swallows out of a bottle, until she insisted on using two glasses. Then she complained about only getting one glass out of a bottle. Or two bottles.
She started asking me to promise that I'd make a fifth of Turkey or ginger brandy last more than two days. At first I figured it was a money thing--we could hardly afford to be dropping as much money a week as we were on alcohol. We'd long ago stopped bothering with bars, except on special occasions. But over the months her urgings became more intense, whether or not money was an issue, until the night she had to pull me out of Bellevue, after searching the city for me for most of the day. A few weeks later, she moved out.
I can hardly deny that my life's been an odd one--physically, morally, psychologically. I'm filled to overflowing with both pride and regret, with the two often intermingling in some sick, catastrophic ways. Drinking has been responsible for most of my biggest mistakes, certainly, but also some of my favorite adventures and fondest memories. I'd never felt better or more at ease in the world than the night my friend Derek and I drank and laughed and passed out in a Jersey motel room in the midst of covering a clown convention. As a result, I can't say I'm all that interested in slowing down, let alone stopping. Is it a sickness? Certainly--but so is sobriety. Is it killing me? Without a doubt--but so is breathing.
There's a demented kind of honor that you find in drunkards, an honor that doesn't exist within junkies and that I've certainly never known to exist among thieves. Though the post-drunk crusaders call us weak, we know that they're the real cowards. At least our belief system is based in something tangible and physical, not some silly god thing. While we slowly destroy our bodies and minds, we still struggle onwards, pitting ourselves daily against everything the world tells us is right.
Most of the people I deal with regularly--the people I consider "friends"--drink very little, if at all. There are a few, certainly (I need someone to leech beers off when I'm a little strapped)--a musician here, an old editor there, a painter. But most all the rest of them are reasonably straight, and that's fine. They're not crusaders, and they know that we all have our own ways of trying to kill the pain of living.
Maybe the time will come when I decide that I just can't do it anymore, the way I did with speed and thievery. Or maybe it will finally kill me, if the cigarettes and the stalkers don't get me first--but I've always looked at getting out of bed in the morning (or the afternoon) as just starting the next lap in that big race towards the grave. In the end--and this is actually more life-affirming than it may sound to stupid ears--I just don't give a damn.
"More Memories of Midnight That Fell Apart at
Dawn" copyright Jim Knipfel. Published originally in the NYPress.