Anything You Love
Excerpted from the novel Byrd (Dzanc Books, 2014).
A thunderstorm follows Bryce to Greensboro. He’s driving to his meeting, listening to the radio, some tired country song turned up loud so he can hear it over the thumping windshield wipers. It’s a long drive, especially in the rain. He doesn’t mind.
Claree once asked him why he didn’t go to the meeting in Carswell. He said, are you kidding?
He exits onto Holden Road. The church comes up fast on the left, a brick building in the shape of a triangle. Lutheran.
He is the first to arrive. He turns on the lights in the fellowship hall, a big room in the basement with humming fluorescent lights, waxy floors, painted brick walls, a cross, a plastic tree, and a lectern they don’t use because this meeting is open discussion, not speakers. He makes the coffee and sets out Styrofoam cups. He unpacks the literature and spreads it on a table along the wall, props posters on easels, unfolds metal chairs. He likes the sound they make, a gentle creak creak. It gives him a sense of purpose. He’s been sober nineteen days, his longest stretch yet, and he’s craving a sense of purpose. He has never felt so empty. His insides burn.
Gradually the others come in, shake off their umbrellas, pour themselves coffee. They pull their chairs into a circle and wait, talk to each other quietly, their voices steady as the rain outside. Finally Irv looks at the clock and says it’s time. A big man, Irv, with a big voice. Retired military. The meeting is supposed to be leaderless but Irv always leads. “Let’s open with the Serenity Prayer,” he says.
Bryce looks down without closing his eyes. He looks at the circle of shoes. Running shoes, muddy brogans, loafers, Topsiders with curled toes, his own zip-up ankle boots. Sandals, giant leather sandals with black socks—Irv. Bryce has always believed you can judge a man by his shoes. But they aren’t supposed to judge in the program. They’re supposed to accept and be grateful for each other. In the program, all their thoughts are supposed to be like prayers. Thy socks and thy sandals, they comfort me.
They go through the introductions and the reading of the preamble and the welcome and the steps. Then Irv announces tonight’s topic: expectations. He reads a passage out of the Big Book. “Who wants to start the discussion?” he says. “Bryce?” Even though they aren’t supposed to call on each other.
Bryce nods. “I’m having trouble with my wife’s expectations.” The others laugh like he’s making a joke. “It hasn’t been three weeks and already she’s making plans. She talks about how long she’s waited to do things other people do. Join the choir. Take square-dance lessons.” He looks at the shoes to the left of his. Long white running shoes, narrow as a woman’s. Chuck. “She tells me I ought to drop in on our daughter after meetings. We have a daughter in Greensboro. ‘Drop in,’ she says. Like I’m not the last person on earth my daughter wants to see.”
“Remember the reading,” Irv says, though they aren’t supposed to give advice. “What do we do with expectations?” He looks around the circle.
“Let them go.”
“Let them go.”
“Let them go.”
“They’re not mine to let go,” Bryce says.
“I don’t mean your wife’s expectations,” Irv says. “Or your daughter’s. Yours. Let them go. Live in the present. One day at a time.”
They’re all watching him. Their faces look worn, ancient.
Something in him relaxes.
At the end of the meeting they all stand up and hold hands and pump their arms and chant: “Keep coming back! It works if you work it, so work it, you’re worth it!” Bryce holds Irv’s hand, which is meaty and hot, and Chuck’s, cool as a bone. The chant is embarrassing. They grin at each other and roll their eyes. This is part of the program, to go through embarrassing motions together, so that no one can judge or be judged.
Afterwards he feels light. He feels like celebrating. If he knew where to find a bar in Greensboro he could go out for a drink. Just one, and feel even lighter.
As a child he was small for his age, stunted by asthma, the runt of a litter of five boys.
His ma spent her evenings at prayer meetings and left him with his brothers, who ignored him, and Cicero, who passed out on the couch. When his ma came home she would put Cicero to bed first, then Bryce, like nothing was the matter.
No one else at his school had a father named Cicero. That, plus being small, plus having asthma, plus coming from the mill village, made him a natural target for bullies. He learned two lessons at school. One: every day would be a new fight. Two: he would always lose.
Dark fall night. A thumbnail moon.
The bookstore where his daughter works is in a nice old house in a neighborhood of nice old houses. He stands on the sidewalk across the street, out of the streetlight, in the fat black shadow of a magnolia tree. He’s pretending he belongs here; maybe he lives in one of the houses and his wife doesn’t allow him to smoke inside so he’s come out for a cigarette before bed. The store’s front window gives off a dusky yellow glow. He can see Addie behind the counter inside, talking to a customer. Her red hair is a curtain, he can’t see her face, only her hands, fluttering the way they do. Books excite her. She won prizes for reading when she was small—all those silver dollars.
He has always been a little afraid of her. She isn’t soft like her mother. She has sharp edges. Sharp green eyes.
One day not long ago he listened in on the extension while she and her mother were talking. “It’s a disease,” Claree was saying.
“Is that what you call it?” Addie said.
They say in the program that you can’t change the past, that your life starts now. But Bryce doubts he can start over with his children. He doubts they will let him. What he needs is a new person, someone who doesn’t know him yet, who doesn’t know enough to be angry or ashamed. A grandchild. Someone who will give him a chance to be good again, to show there is love in him. Because there is, or there’s starting to be. If he can love Irv, he can love anybody.
He drops his cigarette on the sidewalk and grinds it with the toe of his boot. He shoves his hand in his pocket, fingers his new chip. He still can’t believe he’s in a program where they give poker chips as prizes. Or that getting them matters to him. Addie would laugh. She is stepping out from behind the counter, coming toward the window like she knows he’s out here. But he is contained in the shade of the magnolia, safe in the dark.
Invisibly, he waves at her.
He passed his asthma down to his son.
Sam used to get so sick at night he couldn’t lie flat. He would sit up in his bed, rocking and creaking his bedsprings and keeping everyone awake. Claree would give him his Primatene spray; she would rub his back with VapoRub; she’d put VapoRub in the humidifier. But there were nights when nothing worked and they had to take him to the hospital. Bryce always drove. He drove as fast as he could.
In the hospital, the lights were so bright they made a noise, a high-pitched whine like a mosquito. Sam had to sit on a metal table in his spaceship pajamas, wheezing, whee-haw, whee-haw, while they waited for the doctor. “Don’t cry,” Bryce would say. “Crying takes too much breath.”
Winter, and he’s sitting in Addie’s apartment.
She’s out of coffee, she tells him, but she can make hot chocolate.
“Sure,” he says. “Hot chocolate would be good.”
She goes to put the kettle on.
Her rooms have flowered wallpaper and everything smells like mothballs. She is like an old lady, except she is young. Thirty-six, thirty-seven? No children, no husband, no boyfriend, according to Claree. She has lived in this apartment forever, and worked in the bookstore downstairs. Maybe she feels safe here. Maybe, for her, safe is enough.
“I’m glad you came,” she says, setting their mugs on coasters.
“You are?” He looks at her. “Have you cut your hair?”
“You look different.”
“So do you.”
They sip their hot chocolates. All her furniture has slipcovers.
She says, “You didn’t drive all the way to Greensboro just to see me.”
“No.” He tells her about his meeting. “I would have dropped by sooner,” he says.
She asks about the program. How does it work? What do they do at meetings? What are the steps?
It isn’t her hair, he realizes. It’s her eyes that are different. They aren’t hard when she looks at him. Careful, but not hard.
“What was it like to stop?” she says. “Do you miss it?”
“Sure,” he says. “It’s like giving up anything you love.”
“Oh,” she says. Her voice, too. There’s something new in her voice, something that doesn’t dismiss him. “Where are you now?” she says. “Which step?”
“The fourth. I’m taking a personal inventory. Listing good and bad things about myself. Guess which list is longer.”
She stares at him, almost smiles. “Remember the time you tried to smoke your pencil?”
“Your golf pencil. It was in your cigarette pocket and you pulled it out and stuck it in your mouth and told Sam to light it. And got mad when it wouldn’t draw.”
He forces a laugh. In her way she is being kind. This can’t be the worst thing she remembers.
“Did you need help with the good list?” she says.
“That’s not why I came.” He’s a little irritated—with himself or her, he couldn’t say. He finishes his hot chocolate, which is no longer hot.
“You have good taste in clothes,” she says. “You’ve always been a snappy dresser.”
“Thanks.” He’s wearing his navy sweater and brown wool slacks, the zip-up boots.
“You cook. You always made us breakfast on school days—bacon and eggs. Saturdays you grilled chicken. You made your own barbecue sauce.”
He wants to say, Grilling out isn’t something you get credit for.
“You had your picture on a billboard,” she says.
“It embarrassed you.”
“Everything embarrassed me.”
“I’m sorry,” he says.
“No,” he says. “Listen to me, Addie. I don’t know how to make amends. I’m not that far along yet. But I want you to know I’m sorry.”
“You took us for ice cream on Sundays,” she says.
Sundays had been his sober days. He remembers hot afternoons in the Tastee Freez parking lot, Addie and Sam in the back seat, their sticky cones dripping on the vinyl, Claree with her hot fudge sundae—no nuts—eating with her tiny spoon as slowly as she could, making hers last long after he’d wolfed down his banana split.
“You can stop now,” he says. “This is starting to feel like a eulogy.”
It will happen in the spring. At work, at his gray metal desk. He’ll open his bottom drawer, take out the lunch Claree has packed for him, a meatloaf sandwich with lettuce and mustard, and feel a stab of pain in his shoulder. At first he won’t want to believe what’s happening, but he will know. The body knows. He will reach for the picture on his desk, an old family snapshot Cicero took with his Brownie camera. Blurry—Cicero’s pictures always came out blurry. In the picture they’re on the porch, the four of them: Addie in her puffy dress, Bryce holding Sam in his baby blanket, Claree leaning on Bryce’s arm, looking up at him, her face young and trusting.
The pain will dart into his chest. He won’t be ready, but he will close his eyes anyway and force a quick prayer, Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, knowing as he prays that there are too many unchangeable things and not enough time to accept them all, even if he had all the time in the world.
“You bought us good shoes,” Addie says. She’s staring at his boots, making him glad he polished them before coming over. “You believed in good shoes.”
Dzanc Books will be publishing Kim Church’s novel Byrd in March of 2014.