Sheri Reed

Staring at the cracks in my ceiling, I start to think that taking up drinking again wouldn't be a bad idea. To try one more time to be good at drinking. Really good.

My eyes trace the molding along the ceiling. I imagine red wine in my mouth. Straight from dirt, sucked through vine, sipped by fruit, gulped by me. With it, I can have anything I want. I can believe in God. Feel like a kid on top of the slide at the playground above all the other kids - flapping my arms really hard just to stand still. My lips tingle, lights brighten, numbness climbs through my gums and reaches down my throat. My breathing stays inside my head, my skin slips off my back and gathers at my feet. God, I want to drink. I want to swell my cheeks full. I grab my car keys and go.

At ten days, I started sticking plants and flats of flowers in the ground. I couldn't sit still. The prettiness of dahlias and snapdragons and hibiscus and morning glories and peonies tricked me into staying sober for an afternoon. And then another. And another.

I sat so long, pulling out long green weeds by their tiny rooted souls. And in all that time, not one thought passed through my mind or if it did, I plucked it before it even had a chance. I cradled the flowers' spindly root feet until they touched down in the soil. I pulled dead leaves away. Poured water over them. Stepped back and took notice.

I end up at the antique and garden shop behind the big old purple farmhouse downtown. Two men in their seventies own it. Hank and Charlie. The shop's tucked behind their house, down a winding path that overflows with voluptuous shrubs, abundant blossoms, and liana-wrapped tree trunks.

Inside - old, dusty lamps glow yellow. Old chairs dangle in the rafters. I have eavesdropped in their shop enough times to know about Hank and Charlie, a couple well ripened in their 20-year marriage. I walk around the shop, fondling antique garden junk-art I can't afford. Hank leans against the counter while Charlie sits in an old wicker chair, his hands spread over his knees. Their wild-haired friend Ruth is visiting. My eyes stay on the gray cement floor while my hands wade through my hair, smooth it.

I recognize Ruth from the sidewalk café where I sat a table away from Hank and Charlie a few days earlier. The men sipped black-red wine from fishbowl glasses, and she stopped by their table to say hello. Hank said, "If it isn't Ruth."

Hank and Charlie don't know me. I know they have a pregnant dog and both wear white undershirts every day. I am touching their ceramic and clay and tin and milk glass and thinking I really can go back. It will be different this time.

Yesterday, Sam and I were lounging across her trampoline working on sobriety - mine. She's got hers tapped. Said she'd lose her mind if she ever drank again. Said it wouldn't even taste good, that it was never just wine with dinner.

I found Sam right away because her stories seemed familiar. Like she read them out of my mind, I knew the endings already. She'd go on about things I didn't even know about myself. Until she said them. "A white bird on the blue sky is too goddamn much. We get this like, sensory overload." When she said "we," I knew she meant me.

Sam never picked the grapefruit off the big tree out back, and they fell in giant thuds as we talked. They sat in sad yellow piles in the corner of her yard. I sat on her trampoline, palms spread flat behind me, legs crossed at the ankles. I was thinking there must be hundreds of grapefruit up there. I wondered if they were sour or pink inside. I wondered why God gives us more than we can handle.

Sam stood up then, and we started bouncing. The two of us could only talk about the Steps for so long before we had to feel something big and fantastic. I pushed my feet deliberately into the stretchy bed of the trampoline. Right away, touching down felt good - like I knew the way. Sam knew how to bounce down hard and sharp like a needle into soft cotton. She thought it was really funny the way it practically launched me into the trees.

On the way up, limbs flailing into the mosquito-bitten evening, my legs felt as little and splintered as a wishbone. I saw too much, felt too much, tasted a little love in everything, smelled sadness in the trees, clenched my fingers into fists to ward off the life happening all around me. This was not war. I was not running for my life. I was not starving. I had to learn to breathe when the world revealed itself.

Evening into night, we bounced. Everything felt good dark blue, and I knew I wouldn't drink that night.

While I finger a soft-curving, French, wrought-iron plant stand, I figure out that Charlie lost his hearing aid the day before. Hank and Ruth have to yell at him. It is driving Hank crazy. Making him cuss. The cold iron of the plant stand wobbles side to side.

Charlie says, "When's dinner? What time's dinner? I can't hear you. Speak up."

Hank says, "Goddamn it. Be quiet already."

"Hmmm, what about some pasta and a glass of Merlot, wouldn't that taste good, Ruth?" he continues.

Ruth says, "Nah, no thanks. I've got to be going."

Charlie asks, "What time's dinner?"

At the Sunday morning, Freddie J. said he couldn't drink enough to fill his soul. He said he didn't know nothing about living until his shiny new sober friend invited him inside his home. Inside where he could see the family pictures hanging, a book lying split open on the edge of his leather armchair, the fruit dangling heavy in his trees out back. That's when he knew what he wanted.

I sat there tearing the hell out of my cuticles. I didn't have any nails left to chew on, and I sure as hell didn't know what I wanted. Well, besides to stop wanting the things that would ruin me. And to drop my shame like a dead weight. Leave it to rot. I was ashamed of the damn drinking me. Because the drinking me was just as much me as sober me. And somewhere in there was the me that I wanted to be.

"It isn't about being able to handle one drink." Freddie J. said. "One drink is the only thing in the world that can get you back to never stopping."

In the corner of the shop, I stand behind the spreading dogwood tree that's painted on the smooth black lacquer of an Asian screen. Gray-green leaves dotted with pale pink. I am wrapped in the smell of dirt and old men and broken-open branches of walnut trees. Charlie says, "You'll be staying for dinner right, Ruth? Come on, a nice bottle of wine?"

And then Ruth winds around and yells. Charlie can't hear, and she yells really loud, "I don't drink, you silly asshole! Remember?" Charlie bobs his head, smiles, and swats her away. As I leave, Charlie laughs and holds an antique lampshade up to his ear to see if it will help him hear.

When I told Sam how a big fat orange moon was set out in the night just for me, she said, "When you're doing what you're supposed to, the whole goddamn world starts speaking to you."

On my way home, I stop at the 7-Eleven for pink lemonade, my new drink of choice. I turn right at the first aisle and tap my fingers along the tops of the wine bottles. I pull my fingers across the neck of a Syrah. It is cool black in my fingers. Like a morning glory that has scaled to trellis top and keeps reaching out for anything to hold onto - my hands reach for a drink. No matter how far I climb, I want more.

Pink lemonade in hand, I know I can turn around and go back. I can buy the wine instead. At any minute, I can do it. I say this to myself over and over again. You can go back whenever you want.

At the front counter, the camera above my head breaks down the store into four perfect black and white squares. Two include me standing at the counter buying pink lemonade. One is my profile and the other is face to face. The movement in the cameras is delayed. As I dig through my purse, I move slowly. I can't resist.

While the clerk makes his way to the front, I lift one hand and move it through my hair - up and back, away from my face. Sweeping. Slow. I grab onto the counter and tip my head back and shake out my hair. This is how I want the world to see me, each piece of each movement slowed down and important. The clerk leans on one leg and says, "One dollar and forty nine cents," and the "sssss" slugs inside my ears. The clerk asks me for one dollar and forty-nine cents. I stop and feel each slow thing.

© Sheri Reed

Since earning her MFA in Creative Writing at Mills College in 1997, Sheri has been supporting her nighttime novel writing by copywriting forty hours a week in the financial services industry. Her work has been published in anteup and The American River Literary Review.

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