This story is by Rich Ellis and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I always sit in the same spot in the lunchroom, across from the union and safety posters. One day while eating a sandwich, and sipping bourbon from my thermos, a big gal sat across from me and said,
“Name’s Audrey, you know you’re killing yourself with all the booze you drink?”
“How’s that any of your business?” I retorted, giving her the once over. She wasn’t beautiful but had a pleasant look about her and was a big girl, maybe suited to a big boy like me.
“Look, you seem like a nice guy, veteran, right?
“My ex was Army, not sure why I married him. He enjoyed beating the crap out of me. I ran away. He followed, tried to kill me, left me in a ditch for dead. A dog walker found me. Two months in the hospital, nine months recovering. Not enough pain meds. I started drinking vodka, lots of vodka, for the pain, for the memories. It worked awhile, then I would just drink every day until I passed out. A girlfriend took me to AA. 10 months sober now and I’m back in control.”
“Sad, but nothing to do with me.”
“Maybe not. I’ll bet you drink to forget, relieve pain with bourbon, that is bourbon you drink, right?”
“Okay, you’re right, I drink bourbon to forget, and to sleep. It’s all good. Now if you leave me alone, I’ll finish my lunch in peace.”
“Fine,” she said, as she left. I didn’t see Audrey for a few days, I thought a lot about what she had shared. She had demons, too. What happened to Audrey weighed heavily on my soul and I couldn’t get her out of mind.
My worst demons came from Vietnam, maybe hers did too, secondhand, through the husband. War was nothing like what I had expected. People say war is hell, but it’s a helluva lot worse. I saw and did the horrific and unthinkable. These memories filled my head becoming more horrific and unthinkable in the replaying. I couldn’t turn them off. But for me, the memories were the easy part. What I really wanted deep down was the peace and final solitude of the guys that didn’t make it, not survivors’ guilt exactly, but survivor’s envy. That was the hard part. The combat demons joined the others in my head that had always been there. They were not friends.
Growing up, I was my best friend. My only friend, until I found American Pride, but I’ll get to that. Neighborhood and school kids had many friends, some even had friends in their families. In those days, TV was new, cellphones and computers had not been invented. Kids rode bikes, played sports, games or hung out. I preferred my own company, resisting play with other kids. I wasn’t “normal;” but didn’t know it until many years later when diagnosed with a personality disorder, which explained my trouble relating to situations and people. Who knew? I always thought normal was just a setting on the dryer.
The how of relationships escaped me. No one liked me much, including my parents. My mother hated me most, and I didn’t lose any sleep over hating her back. She scared the crap out of me. The less we saw of each other the better for me. So, I isolated myself, mainly in the cellar. Just me and the demons, down in the cellar. After I discovered books, they joined us. I would take as many books as the librarian allowed, carrying them in a paper bag from the grocery store. I always took a couple more from the free table and started my own library.
As a kid, reading distracted me from the slow passage of time. I was good at being alone. The days and years of my life passed in the safe company of books, finally delivering me from high school. I had survived. Time to get away. I had no interest in current events, and knew even less about civil rights, or the real world. I considered getting a job, but books had given me military heroes. Maybe I would be a hero, so I enlisted in the Army in 1968. Instead of becoming a hero, that decision made my life a freaking nightmare that nearly killed me.
By the way, my name is Harry Clark Evans, I go by Clark mostly. So, after I gave Uncle Sam some of the best years of my life, I came back from Nam, mustered out and needed to escape that god-awful stuff in my head I brought home. And I needed a job. Most employers didn’t want to hire us, called us baby killers. A vet at the employment office who said the VA would help with medicine, therapy, job placement. So, I went.
No help at all, what I got instead was two disorders: PTSD and personality disorder. Of course, I already had them, but now we had been introduced. That was all well and good, but treatment would have been a nice touch. PTSD afflicts civilians and soldiers. The demons are worse for vets. War activated the demons already living in my head and gave me more. Sometimes, the only solution is to kill them, like the enemy in combat. But to do that we have to kill ourselves. I thought about offing myself a few times. Instead, I self-medicated with whatever I could find to keep me squared away. Something to poison the demons, and something to poison the host. My something, bourbon.
The cheapest bourbon I could find was American Pride. Great name, I thought. I would buy a case at a time. Did I have a problem? You bet I did, and now I was no longer my best friend, American Pride was, a patriotic friend at that. After a while, I was rarely sober, but somehow lucked into a job assembling circuit boards. Each of us had a workstation away from others, which was perfect for me. I didn’t like the work, but it was easy and a sip of American Pride from time to time kept me going. The managers never came around if you made production, and I always did.
Another day, another lunch, usual spot in the lunchroom. I looked up and Audrey was sitting silently across from me again.
“Okay if I sit here?” She asked.
“You’re already sitting there, aren’t you?”
“I need to apologize, I butted in your business before and we got off on the wrong foot. Could I make it up to you by cooking you a nice dinner, say, tonight?”
My surprise and hesitation sent the wrong message.
“Well, never mind, I see you don’t want to.”
“That’s not it,” I said. “It’s just that I’ve never been asked out by a beautiful woman before. Can I still accept?”
“Sure, if you cut out the BS. Tonight?”
“Perfect.” I wondered what I was getting into.
“I’ll give you my address and phone number on break. Now the ladies’ room. Later.”
Still shocked, I managed to say, “Okay.”
Dinner that night was great and for the first time since Vietnam I didn’t drink any booze, American or otherwise. Audrey was a good cook and over time became my new best friend. I spent more time in a few weeks with Audrey than I had ever spent with any other person. She loved watching nightly news, and at first nearly drove me crazy asking my opinions about stuff. But I got used to it and grew to enjoy the back and forth. It was so different than anything else I had ever experienced.
My apartment was a dump so we used Audrey’s. Sometimes I would sleep over on the couch. We never talked about any other arrangement. I still drank, but not as much. We got along great, one drunk, one ex-drunk. There was no one like her, and I felt special that she was my friend. What was so different about her? One day it came to me. She had faced and conquered her demons. Maybe I could do the same. Audrey was one year sober and asked me to the ceremony.
After the awards, in the regular meeting, I surprised myself by standing and saying,
“My name is Clark, and I’m an alcoholic.”
We were silent walking home. Audrey gently took my hand, looked at me with the prettiest smile I had ever seen, and for the first time in my life, I didn’t mind someone touching me. I smiled back.
“What you did was brave,” she said, and kissed me on the cheek.
I could be a hero after all, I thought. I didn’t know if I could expel the demons without my patriotic friend. Not sure I even wanted to try, but with Audrey helping, the demons didn’t stand a chance.