I Know the Churches by their Basements
I once claimed that I never spend time in church. A friend heard me say this and said, yeah you do. You’re in a church basement almost every night.
The last time I drank I was in a house drinking bottles of pale ale in the afternoon and rattling apart from my recent past. I was smoking a cigarette and I looked like hell. I had navigated my life to this point through the last six months of my drinking and at that moment, call it clarity, or grace, one very clear thought came through. In the sum of all that was troubling in my life, the common denominator was alcohol. That was in Southampton in the early spring of 2012. And in that house with pill addicts, and a stray pit-bull, and a recluse, and the blinds drawn, in that moment of recognition, I said this, God, if you get alcohol out of my life, I’ll do anything.
There was a seamstress in Southampton at the time, a young woman, and a friend, and to her I would vent my nightmares, the scrapes and bottoms. And so I went there the morning following the prayer and normally, at that hour, when she first opened, she would be alone at her work. But when I entered, there was a woman in her shop. In conversation without the addition of my story, the topic of alcohol came up. An accident, a DWI.
The woman said, “If it wasn’t for alcohol, none of this would have happened.”
My friend looked up from her work and said to the woman, “You don’t drink?”
And the woman replied, “I haven’t had a drink in almost twenty years.”
I looked at the stranger and I thought of the prayer. All I wanted to know was how.
The seamstress said, “Did you have a problem?”
And the woman replied, “No one quits drinking if they don’t have a problem.”
Finally, I said, “How did you do it?” I wanted a spell, a few magic words that I could recite in the woods. Something that would give me back my life, return me to the person I had been, to the person I wanted desperately to be again.
“If it weren’t for the rooms of…” she said, “I’d be dead.”
I believe our prayers are always answered. We just have to be willing to accept what is given. And that evening, she introduced to me people who had been where I had been.
I know the East End’s churches by their basements. I don’t know the pastor at the Old Whaler’s Church in Sag Harbor, but I know the door in the basement that leads to the bathroom slams shut, and the bathroom is held closed by a hook. I don’t know the parishioners of St. John’s on South Main Street in Southampton, but I know that the pilot light on the stove leaks the faint smell of propane, and there is a man who gives violin lessons in the evening during the school year. I don’t know the hymns they sing in the white Presbyterian on the corner, but I know the rattle the heating pipes make in the winter, and the way the old floor creaks. I don’t know the stained glass in the worship hall at Grace Church on the corner of Scuttle Hole Road and 27, but I know the pastor prefers that the lights all be shut out when we leave.
I know that I drank every day. And I declared my love for drinking to my ex-fiancée, whom I loved dearly. In moments of dryness I used to daydream about giving her six weeks of sobriety. I couldn’t do it. I never even shared the dream with her, so that way I wouldn’t have to let her down. Instead, rebutting her concern, I once told her I was going to drink exactly how I wanted to, for as long as I wanted to, and there wasn’t anything anyone could do to change that.
She left. But in the last conversation we had, I drank an entire bottle of red wine. When I first opened the bottle, I thought, this is really going to suck, and by the end, I thought, ehh, she’ll be back. I looked at her as she was leaving and I said, someday I’ll look back on this, and you’ll be the reason I developed a drinking problem.
She turned, and simply replied, “develop?” and then she walked out.
That was just after Halloween, 2011 and six months before I begged God for help.
When the umbrellas come down on the east end its like the circus leaves town. The pumpkin vines shrivel, and the vineyards are all cut back, and the estates have wrapped their plants in canvas cocoons. There’s a certain glare to that season’s sun, and for a heartbroken drunk it is as brutal as kryptonite.
I scuttled about on foot to nearby Southampton village establishments. And drinking one day I remember looking down the length of an otherwise empty bar to a few men in their fifties who seemed like they had been there since they had sat down twenty years before. I thought, I’ll never end up like that, but I had already taken my seat.
I lived in terror. I lived in panic. I woke up with women. I woke up alone. I woke up fully clothed and backward, wearing my shoes and missing my memory of the evening prior. I woke up with piss on the floor. Drinking had become an inevitable torment. And when I was drinking I never wanted it to end. And yet I never wanted to get there, drunk. There was a line where I wish I could have existed, a place where I only went up.
I have a nephew. He will turn three soon, and he will only ever have one uncle. He has never seen me drink. And while my sister was pregnant, it weighed on me constantly the type of man I would be for him. I used to wake up after a bender and recall an old anti-substance abuse commercial that aired when I was a kid. It was in black and white or maybe sepia toned, but in the end it was a grown man in a sweat-stained rag of a t-shirt trying to outrun a cop, and the man claimed that he had never envisioned this adult version of himself, wasted, run-down, and on the run. That’s where I saw my life headed, and I knew that son my sister was carrying at the time would have that as a role model. He was born healthy, James Plaid Peterson, on October 6, 2012, almost six months after I had stopped drinking.
A tropical storm came up the coast last year and a big ground swell began to thunder along our seashore. Waves fell on the outside sand bars like horses buckling on steeples, their white manes thrown up in great sprays of the sea hurled off by the north wind. The boy, my nephew was there. He was just shy of two and my sister and my brother-in-law brought him to the beach to see me surf. A set came and I was outside the sand bar at Road G, waiting. I spun around and began to paddle hard, deep strokes. One of those big waves. One of those waves where I really hoped that I wouldn’t completely eat it. And I made the drop and I came around the bottom crouched into a turn and coming back up the face of the wave it walled before me. I brought the board up high to the lip and threw spray into that great clear East End sky. It was late summer, and that was one of the boy’s first experiences with the sea.
He saw it, that wave. A few days passed and my sister called and said, we were just watching the television, and there was a commercial with a pro-surfer. James saw it and he pointed up and said, Uncle Joe. I realized then when she told me that, that I wasn’t a drunk on the run anymore. That I had stopped running, stopped chasing, stopped drinking. I was the person to whom my nephew could look up.
He was a hero before he was ever born, and he doesn’t know that yet. He plucked me from a storm-addled sea in which I could barely stay afloat. An inscription kicks around inside my head, to James Plaid Peterson, for saving my life.