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Wide Awake On the Ride Down

Short story By: Bill Rayburn
Literary fiction



A Polish immigrant in Brooklyn, on the brink of his 40th birthday, feels his life is winding down as his juice for living it is running out.


Submitted:Jan 2, 2013    Reads: 17    Comments: 2    Likes: 2   


Wide Awake On the Ride Down

Copyright 2013 by

Bill Rayburn

Only when people have irrevocably painted themselves into a corner; only when they have fucked up their lives beyond recognition; only then do people deign to turn their lives over to God. Nobody finds Christ on prom night.

The transparent hypocrisy aside, the suffocating nature of most people who became religious through that particular portal, sinking their boat to the point of needing a spiritual Coast Guard visit from the big guy upstairs, is why I take a no-sympathy approach to them. I am appallingly un-empathetic.

And that is ironic. Because I have fucked up my life quite badly on more than one occasion, I am a perfect candidate for surrendering my last ounce of independence and self-reliance to an alleged higher power.

But I haven't. And I won't.

My name is Lazlo Goska from Warsaw, Poland. Actually, I was born in Plock, a town north west of Warsaw, but we moved to the capital when I was three and a half. Plus, nobody has ever heard of Plock, so I tell people I'm from Warsaw.

The 'we' was only my ma and me. I was her only child and when I was two my dad keeled over and died of cirrhosis of the liver. Yeah, Poles drink. A lot. I blame it on the Russian blood that courses through many of us.

So, about a year after he died, we moved to Warsaw to live with my Aunt, my mom's sister Berta, whose husband had also died well before his time, of the same disease. Neither of the two sisters drank at all. I, of course, started drinking when I was 12. After an uneventful (accept for the drinking) four years at a public high school in Warsaw, and two even more desultory years of college at Skarbek Graduate School of Business Economics in Warsaw, at the age of 20 I fled to America.

Since then, I've lived here in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn for almost 20 years. I turn 40 next month. I'm already divorced but I was shooting blanks and my ex-wife never got knocked up. I remain ambivalent about the kid thing. I think I would have made a better father than husband. A child may have saved the marriage which was, in my book, not irreparably broken.

I work at the local bottling plant, making $18.56 an hour and staying protected by the strong New York unions. I've worked there for 10 years, and got a nice bonus on my 10th anniversary, $500. I pissed it away over one weekend buying round after round at the bar in the local Polish restaurant, Karczma. I didn't normally drink there. I prefer the working-class bars or taverns. And don't you love that phrase, 'working-class'? I think it has British origins. I'm told it was the Brit's typically dry way of referring to the unwashed masses, the uneducated, and those that didn't wash their hands after a visit to the loo.

I actually had a British guy say to me as I left the urinal one night and went straight for the door, "Hey mate, aren't you going to wash up?"

I stopped and stared at him. Tweed hat and coat, crisply pressed tan trousers, pale ruddy complexion, taxi-cab yellow teeth and, from my moments-ago perch next to him, pickled herring breath, he was the spitting, or should that be shitting, image of the classic English elitist Aristocrat, which is redundant.

"No, mate. My 'mum' taught me not to piss on my hands."

Anyway the Karczma, owned by a husband and wife, and a famous cad, was a nice place for the Brooklyn Polish upper crust to dine and drink; a place where you didn't say "fuck" too loudly, nor scratch the nether regions when a child was walking into the main restaurant entrance. I usually went there for only a pint or two. I always felt like any smell of fart was going to be blamed on me.

My kind of working man's tavern is a bit different. There, the child coming in the front entrance is already farting out loud and saying 'fuck' and scratching his balls. That's home to me. You find your own comfort level, I guess.

Stones Tavern is my place. Full of people my age who speak mostly Polish, sing in Polish, order in Polish, greet one another in Polish, even grunt and fart in Polish. I call it home. Zywiec, a traditional Polish lager, rules the roost here and 16oz of this liquid gold usually occupies a pint glass situated right in front of me. For a mere $3.00. And no prissy Brits in the head.

My divorce was a tidy affair. No rancor, no divvying up of expensive toys, no lawyers. There was no property owned, as we had rented a flat here in Greenpoint for most of our ten years of marriage. I had been unattached for the first ten years I was in the states before I met Anka. She was a beauty. She was born in Brooklyn and had never left. Her father was Greek and her mother was from Warsaw. She could stop traffic and literally did on occasion. I know the first year we were together, all of my inner workings came to a halt whenever she entered the room.

She thought me quite the handsome lad, if you can call a 30-year-old man a lad. I am six feet tall and back then I was in great shape. My light brown head of hair was full then, less so now. I've got thick eyebrows that almost meet in the middle, forcing me to endure more than my share of unibrow jibes and Groucho references at Stones. When I smile, which happens a lot less frequently these days, I still have all my teeth and back when I was falling in love with Anka, I always made an effort to have good breath for when we kissed.

Today, two years after she left me and moved back home, I have put on 20 lbs., watched my hairline recede at a precipitous pace, and found myself not giving a rat's ass what me breath smells or tastes like.

Yeah, even with a decent paying job, a roof over my head, and a relatively healthy body, I am at that crossroads where the weak often choose to give it all up to God to fix. As I said, I won't do that. But I have reached this point, a dangerous time I think, where my soul screams, "I don't give a fuck anymore".

'Not caring' does not really have any medical terminology to define it, even in today's era of labeling every neurosis, perceived or real, with a sinister sounding name ending with 'syndrome'. I'm not depressed. Maybe it is the shock of going from being totally invested in life, in my marriage, my job, in the future, to today's almost total apathy. To me, depression is an emotion, and I simply can't conjure up much emotion these days.

Inspiration? Finding my muse? Sure, that'd be nice, but how? Is there a road map somewhere, an instruction booklet? I haven't seen it.

I am now what one might call a functioning alcoholic. I never fail to answer the bell in the morning. Have never missed work because of my drinking. I don't drink and drive. I don't get hangovers.

I just drink every night. Start in the afternoons on the weekends. My wife will freely admit that my drinking was only a small part of why she left me. She had become overwhelmed with the question that has haunted mankind for ever: "Is this all there is?"

And she decided her answer was, "Not if I can help it." So she helped herself to a divorce. Like I said, there was no anger or hatred or pottery-throwing displays. Just an oppressive (for me at least) cloud of sadness. I felt like a failure. I think we may have both stopped liking each other. There was some residual love still lingering about, but not nearly enough to sustain a relationship.

I made no effort to change her mind or talk her out of it. I even realized consciously that once she was gone, my mojo would probably bleed right out of me. And it has.

We bump into each other every once in a while. It's not awkward. With the passing of time and the physical distance, some of our trust and affection has returned. We hug each other. Inquire about our respective well-being. She has moved out of her parent's house and is renting an apartment over on Flatbush Avenue. She works at a local supermarket. She makes a little more than half what I make an hour. I know she's struggling. I'd offer her money, but she wouldn't take it.

I can see in her eyes that she senses my flagging spirits. I know she's noticed the weight gain and the hair loss. Probably smelled the rancid breath. She knew I was starting to decay from the inside out and that is another reason she left. She wasn't going to be able to save me.

She remains attractive and fit. I assume she's dating, though we never talk about it. At her age, not saddled with children and looking like she does qualify her as a catch. One that I had in my glove, and then dropped.

So I struggle with the chicken and the egg thing. Does my drinking cause this emotional malaise, or does my ennui with my life cause me to drink more?

As you can see, I choose words like 'ennui' and 'malaise', instead of depression. These are softer terms, less judgmental, more forgiving. They seem temporary, more escapable and surmountable than depression.

Last night at Stones, I was engaged in a rather interesting discussion about depression with Joey Fatuone, another regular who runs a newsstand in Manhattan.

Joey, who looks a lot like Joe Torre, the former Yankees manager, is married with three kids, owns a home in Jones Beach, and is perpetually upbeat and cheerful. My polar opposite, in essence. What we did share was a love of the drink. His Italian ancestry had given him a much stronger sense of family than I ever had. No tough circumstances in the Fatuone clan were ever endured alone. Those Italians would come from all over the five boroughs to support any family member in need. It was often fascinating to watch, as they all would occasionally descend on Stones resulting in a cultural clash of rowdy, loud Guineas and moody, dour Polacks.

You wouldn't know I was dour. I don't wear it on my sleeve. It's more an interior infection that prompted the rotting process from deep in the core of my being. I can feel it spread outward, slowly but certainly.

I've taken to pulling up a figurative chair, setting it outside myself, and watching the whole process. I'm not in denial about what has happened, is happening, and likely will happen to me. My downward spiral appears to be out of my control, to have taken on a life and energy source of its own. Part of me is fascinated in the same way people rubberneck an accident. You can't turn away. Only I'm watching my own disintegration. Self absorption meets self destruction, a particularly deleterious paring.

By acknowledging this, I am not disavowing myself of blame or responsibility. I simply feel hapless and helpless and unable to stop the avalanche. It is a paralyzing emotion and explains my choosing to sit and watch the bobsled that is my life crash instead of rousing the man at the helm.

I don't want to die. I can't, on the other hand, say with much honesty that I want to live, either. I would miss Anka, and a couple of the loveable clowns I work and drink with.

What has vacated my crumbling edifice of a carapace is, to oversimplify, hope. The loss of hope creates a vacuum and life abhors vacuums. Despair is what has moved in to fill the void. I can say with as much conviction as I can muster these days that I got the shit end of the stick on that particular transaction. Not that bitterness has set in, more a sardonic, jaundiced-eyed view of the gutting of myself.

I saw a tree in McGolrick Park here in Greenpoint the other day. Its trunk jutted defiantly 50 feet into the grey winter sky, but all its limbs had been sheared off. It literally had been stripped of the protective appendages it was born with. Why the stump had not been pulled to finish the job escaped me, but I thought of the loss of innocence, and how innocence actually is a shell behind which young kids forestall the true gritty intrusion of life. The loss of that innocence leaves one, at least initially, suddenly naked before the world, a new world, and one they are unfamiliar with. I think that tree is in a similar state.

Suicide has never found its way to the table. Kind of odd, really. I think given my current strain of apathy, suicide is simply too proactive of an approach to fixing things.

The emotional purgatory where one does not care if he lives or dies can be a liberating place, however. No longer feeling required to defend convictions or take a stand or commit and extend to other people can be unbinding; I'm leading a weird sort of unfettered existence where I have consciously chosen to be so non-committal about and to myself that I have become feckless.

Apathy is not the right word because it is not damning enough. Whatever the label, it should have an accusatory tone. I'm not looking for a free ride or seeking forgiveness or approval even. I'm paying total attention to my demise and its inexorable slogging toward my death.

The absence of hope is at the root of it, that much I've been able to identify. Hope is the petrol in the soul tank of most humans. You can tell when you talk with someone how full their tank is. Ebullient people have just topped it off; morose people are running on empty. I was heading toward morose pretty quickly.

But I digress. Back to my chat with Joey about depression. He was adamant that depression was not a medical condition but one well within anybody's control to not fall prey to it.

"It's all about your outlook, your approach, the way you think about things," he'd said excitedly.

I had shaken my head. "Joey, you are surrounded by a million safety nets. You can only slide or fall so much in your life before a bevy of Guineas rushes in to save your greasy ass. I got nobody. No net, no bevy. Nothin'."

He'd just looked at me and shook his head. I didn't think he'd understand. It is rare for a person who has had love and support their whole life to truly appreciate it, not until it's gone. His cushion is taken for granted by him and frankly I can't blame him. He's known no other type of life. I'm the one that looks like an alien to him.

Joey is a very religious guy, as most old school Italians are. A Roman Catholic who goes to church on Sunday, puts his kids in Catholic schools, doesn't use birth control; the whole Catholic nine yards.

I haven't believed in God since I don't know when, but I know it drove a wedge between my 74 year old mom and me that endures to this day. She calls from Warsaw every Christmas and asks me the same thing, each year: Have I been to church?

You can't turn your life over to someone you don't think exists. And if you think about it, God's track record at saving the lives he supposedly accepts is pretty damn pathetic.

Some might label me lazy. I would argue that. I'm up at 6am, off to work by 7am, put in my eight hours, sometimes ten, then to Stones for a couple or three, then home for a couple of nightcaps, usually some dinner, and back to bed. It might not make Dale Carnegie flip in his coffin, but I keep busy enough. I may be lazy intellectually, but even that I could dispute.

I'm not an angry or sad drunk, on those occasions when I am over-served. I get sentimental sometimes, especially when certain songs come out of the juke box. Less so these days.

Regret is a major theme for me as I watch my life go swirling down the drain.

My relationship with my mom has never gone beyond the superficial. Obviously I didn't know my old man. No brothers and sisters to spend time with. Books were, and remain, my main companion. I read as much as I drink. Could they cancel each other out? Apples and oranges? It doesn't really matter.

My marriage not working out was an equal, mutual failure by Anka and me. If she didn't leave when she did, she would have eventually. I might regret not having children more than anything, as they would provide a tactile, very real focal point; a reason to keep going; a reason to care.

That's really what is missing.

Hope.





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