I woke up in detox with the taste of stale puke in my mouth. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see twinkling lights. This had happened before as I came out of a blackout. I rolled my head heavily sideways on the pillow. The light came from a drooping strand of blinking bulbs flung over a dispirited-looking artificial pine. A plastic Santa, looking as drunk as I remembered being when I went into the blackout, grinned at me from the treetop. I had an awful feeling it was Christmas Day.
The ward was quiet, but from my other side came the weak sound of coughing. I rolled my head the other way. That hurt. A skinny black guy lay huddled in the next bed, shaking the mattress with his puny but convulsive coughs. I waited for him to get it down to a wheeze.
“Yo,” he said. “Know where you are?”
“Not a clue,” I admitted. “Detox for sure.”
“It ain’t Paree,” he agreed. His cackle shook the bed and started him wheezing again. Between gasps, he said, “You’re on the Bowery.”
“Oh, great,” I said.
“Merry Christmas,” he said, and laughed so hard, he coughed up blood. I didn’t need a degree from Harvard Medical School to diagnose TB. I hoped he hadn’t been lying next to me long and that they’d move him out soon.
The next time I came to, an even skinnier guy lay in the next bed. The smell of his cigarette woke me. Long and white as a skeleton, with sunken cheeks and shadowed eyes, he looked like someone the Headless Horseman might enjoy chasing. I mentally named him Ichabod. Ichabod lay there sucking up smoke. It sounded like he was working on a case of emphysema. So far, nobody in that detox was built like Santa Claus or breathed silently.
As I lay there, not doing much but breathing along, a small, pale female hand stuck a paper cup of juice under my nose. A sweet, cool voice commanded, “Drink!” To my roommate, she said, “Put that out, sir! You know better. And offer one to the new man.”
Looming above us, she bored into him with a gimlet eye until he stubbed out his smoke on a plastic pill bottle and offered me the pack. I thought I was hallucinating because she seemed to be dressed like a nun. But I never said no to a cigarette.
“Thanks, bro,” I said, taking two. “And thank you, sister. You’re an angel.”
“It’s for later,” she snapped. “Smoking room only.”
Ichabod laughed until his dentures popped. When the nun trotted off to get him some water, he said, “Your first time here, huh? That’s Sister Angel.”
Sister Angel moved so quickly that she was back before I could ask him to explain. With her fresh pink skin and retro habit, she looked like the result of a penguin’s night on the tiles with a particularly clean pig. After handing Ichabod his water, she turned on me. Her round blue eyes bulged slightly.
“How are you feeling?” she demanded.
“Just fine and wonderful,” I said with weary irony. To tell the truth, I felt like hell. My mouth tasted like a garbage scow, my memory was on lockdown, and I bitterly regretted not being dead by thirty, the way I’d always thought I’d be.
The next time I surfaced, Ichabod had vanished. The guy in the next bed now couldn’t have been more different. Well fed. Groomed, even. I decided that it would be a good idea to make friends. Not only did he look like a fellow who had at least one whole pack of cigarettes but he probably smoked an expensive brand and might consider it noblesse oblige to give a few away. Except, of course, that at the moment, he was puking his guts out. Sister Angel held the basin.
“Hi,” I said. “I’m Bruce, and I’m an alcoholic.” This is how people introduce themselves at AA meetings, of which I’ve been to a few in my time. He looked like a guy who might appreciate irony.
“Ggggggaaahhhh,” he said. “Jesus Christ. Oh, Christ, my head.”
I knew how he felt. There’s a very specific kind of headache that you get only when you’re in withdrawal and puking at the same time. It feels as if somebody has inserted a particularly sturdy crowbar in between two neurons in your brain that are extremely close together and is using the lever principle to pry them apart.
Sister Angel held a damp cloth to his forehead. Now she straightened up and let go of the basin, which she had been steadying against his knees.
“Don’t drop it, now. I’ll go wet the cloth.”
Half-falling out of bed as he sat up, he did almost drop the basin. I decided it was not quite the right moment to bum a cigarette. He retched, but nothing much was happening anymore. He lifted his head very, very carefully and gave me a sickly half smile.
“Hi, I’m God.” He paused, either enjoying the flummoxed expression on my face or forgetting where he was going with the remark. That happens frequently when you’re detoxing. Then he added, “Alcoholic.”
It wasn’t much of a re;sume;, but it told me he wasn’t a virgin. He’d seen the inside of more than one AA meeting. Probably dozens, if not hundreds. You can’t mistake that perky introduction. It would make you feel like an asshole the first time you raise your hand and say it, except that the first time you’re usually shaking. If you’re not crying.
Anyhow, this yo-yo made quite a first impression. Hi, I’m God. Maybe this wasn’t detox after all, but the loony bin—all right, inpatient psych unit—a place I had so far managed to avoid.
“Are you delusional, or should I be genuflecting?” I guess my skepticism showed.
“Godfrey Brandon Kettleworth the Third,” he amplified. He rolled his bleary eyeballs up past exhausted lids and threw his hands in the air in an “I surrender” gesture. “Blame my parents.”
“What are you in for?” Joke.
“Ninety days with time off for good behavior?” A wit. Maybe I would have to forgive the guy his Harvard education. Contrary to legend, not too many de;classe; rocket scientists end up on the Bowery. It was Princeton, he told me later. Whispered. Little boys grow up, but we never get over wanting to be cool. Ivy League was not cool on the Bowery.
By evening, Godfrey’s guts were behaving a little better. After lights-out—did I mention being in detox is humiliating?—we exchanged some basic information. Preferred brand of gin—Tanqueray. Favorite Scotch—Chivas Regal, both of us, though he had probably been able to afford a lot more of it than I had. What bars we drank in. He had started out on the Upper East Side at the Bemelmans Bar in the Hotel Carlyle and worked his way down to some dive on Tenth Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen. All right, fashionable Clinton. New York, always reinventing itself. Hi, I’m Clinton, I’m a grateful recovering neighborhood. Compared notes on what the hell we were doing in a place like this. He couldn’t remember, either. Kindred spirits.
Copyright © 2008 by Elizabeth Zelvin. All rights reserved.