"I wonder why," I said.
"Who knows? Who knows why they do anything? And, when you come right down to it, who gives a shit? They're off the board. They're not gonna do it again."
That night I walked up Ninth Avenue a couple of blocks and went to an AA meeting in the basement of St. Paul the Apostle. Early on, when I left my wife and sons and the New York Police Department and moved back to the city, I got in the habit of stopping at St. Paul's, sitting for a few minutes in the stillness, lighting the odd candle for people I wanted to remember, or couldn't seem to forget, and stuffing the poor box with my curious largesse. I was always paid in cash in those days, and so my tithing was in cash, and anonymous. I can't say what my contributions amounted to because I never kept track of what I earned, and what difference does it make now? I do know the Paulist Fathers never invited me to a patrons' dinner.
Now my AA home group has its meetings there, one flight down from the sanctuary where I once lit my candles and gave away my money. I like the coincidence of that, but I've been going long enough for the irony to have worn thin. I've been sober eighteen years, a day at a time, and that sometimes astonishes me. That's more years than I was a cop, and almost as many years as I drank.
Early on I went to meetings every day, and sometimes two or three. Now it's more like two or three a week, and there have been weeks when I haven't gone at all. It's not uncommon for attendance to lessen with time. On the contrary, it's the usual pattern, although there are some stalwarts twenty or thirty years sober who still get there seven days a week. Sometimes I envy them, and other times I figure it's what they do instead of having lives of their own. The program, after all, is supposed to be a bridge back to life. For some of us, as my sponsor occasionally pointed out, it's just a tunnel to another meeting.
It's been a couple of years since my sponsor died, and it seems to me I went to more meetings before then. He was killed, shot dead in a Chinese restaurant by a hired gun who mistook him for me. The man who shot him is dead now, just about everybody involved wound up dead, and I'm still alive and, more remarkably, still sober.
They're pretty clear on what you should do if your sponsor dies or drinks or runs off with your wife. First you get your ass to a meeting, and then you find yourself another sponsor. That's the conventional wisdom, and I have no quarrel with it, but it's generally honored in the breach by those of us who've been sober more than ten years or so. For my part, I couldn't see anyone taking Jim Faber's place in my life. Early on he'd been a tower of strength and a source of essential counsel, but over time he became more of a friend and less of an adviser. Our standing date for Chinese food every Sunday night was a time for us to talk about anything and everything. I'm sure it helped me stay sober, and be comfortable in my sobriety, and I suppose that was the point. But there'd been a lot more than that to the relationship, and I've never felt inclined to hunt for a replacement.
I've sponsored people myself over the years, on and off. A year ago I had two sponsees, one sober a few years, one fresh out of rehab. Neither one looked to me like the beginning of a beautiful friendship, but sponsorship's a practical relationship, designed to help both parties stay sober, and I'm sure I went to more meetings and stayed more active in the program because of the role I played. But one of my sponsees- the new one- drank and disappeared, and the other one moved to California, and no one had turned up to take their place.
I could search actively for somebody else to sponsor, I suppose, but I haven't felt the need. When the pupil is ready, the mystics say, the teacher will appear. And I would guess it ought to work as well the other way around.
There are people who quit going to meetings and stay sober. All you have to do, when all is said and done, is not drink. I sometimes wonder what would happen if I stopped going, but I haven't let myself entertain the thought. My time's not that valuable. I figure I can afford a couple of hours a week.
We had concert tickets that night, but there was a soprano on the bill, and I'm generally happier when they stick to instrumental music. So Elaine was at Lincoln Center with her friend Monica, and I was at a meeting. I got myself a cup of coffee and said hello to the people I knew. I used to know almost everybody, when I was more active and went to more meetings. I took a seat at the back and thought about this, and looked around the room and realized that I'd been sober longer than anybody else there.
That happens now and then. Eighteen years isn't forever, and there are plenty of men and women with twenty and thirty and even forty years without a drink, and the meetings in retirement communities are probably swarming with them. In a church basement on Ninth Avenue, however, eighteen years is a pretty long time.
The speaker told a story with a lot of cocaine in it, but he drank a lot, too, enough to qualify him as an alcoholic. My mind wandered, but I got the gist of it. He'd been drunk and now he was sober, and sober was better.
Well, amen to that.
When the meeting was over I helped stack the chairs, and thought about joining people for coffee at the Flame. I went straight home instead. Elaine wasn't home yet, and I checked the answering machine and found a message from Michael, my elder son.
He said, "Dad, are you there? Pick up if you're around, will you? I guess you're out. I'll try you again later."
No request to call him back, and not a clue what it was about. I played the message back a couple more times, trying to divine something from the words and the tone. He sounded strained, I decided, but a lot of people do when they have to talk to a machine. Still, he probably left messages all the time. He had a good position with a firm in Silicon Valley, he made sales calls all the time, spent half his life on the phone.
Of course it's probably different when you're calling your father.
It was a few minutes past ten, and three hours earlier in California. I looked up his number and dialed it. It rang four times and I got his machine, rang off without leaving a message.
I went and played back his message again. Sat there frowning at the answering machine.
I went into the kitchen and made a pot of coffee, and I was drinking a cup when Elaine came home with Monica in tow. I poured a cup for Monica and put the teakettle on for Elaine, who only drinks coffee in the morning. I fixed her a cup of chamomile tea and the three of us sat around and talked about the concert, and about the Hollanders. I would have mentioned the phone message, such as it was, but it could wait until Monica went home.
When the phone rang Elaine was closer to it, so she picked it up. "Oh, hi!" she said, sounding delighted, but that didn't give me a clue to the caller's identity. She always responds that way, even when it's a telemarketer trying to get her to switch her long-distance service to Sprint. "How's California? Oh, you're here? That's wonderful! But listen, your dad's right here," she said. "I'll let you talk to him."
I stood up and took a step toward the phone, but her face clouded and she held up a hand to warn me off. She said, "Oh? Oh, no. Oh, Michael, that's awful. I'm so sorry. How did it happen? God, I'm so sorry. Here, I'll put your father on."
She lowered the receiver and held her hand over the mouthpiece. "He wants to talk to you," she said, "but I think he wanted to tell me first, so I could tell you."
Tell me what? That his marriage was in trouble, that his child was sick- but why was he in New York? What bad news would have sent him rushing east?
"It's Anita," she said. That's Mike and Andy's mother, my ex-wife. "She had a heart attack. She's dead."
It must have been a very grand house in its day, a country estate of fieldstone and half-timbered stucco built when Syosset was a tiny village surrounded by potato fields. Since then a ton of development houses have been thrown up where they used to grow potatoes, and few of the big old houses are still private residences. Some have been pulled down, while others survive as nursing homes or office suites.
Or funeral homes, like this one on Albemarle Road. I drove past it the first time. I hadn't missed it, Michael's directions were good and there was a big sign on the front lawn, but I guess I must have been reluctant to arrive. I circled the block, and, halfway around, I turned left instead of right and found my way to our old house.
It looked smaller, and the lot larger, than I remembered. It was what they used to call a ranch house, and maybe they still do- three bedrooms, a living room, dining room, and kitchen, all on one floor, all on a quarter-acre suburban lot. Someone had added an enclosed breezeway connecting the house and the garage, and someone else (or the same person, for all I knew) had replaced the casement windows in front with a big picture window. The shrubbery in front had filled in, or died and been replaced, and there was a tree I had planted, then a spindly white oak sapling, that now towered over the house. There was another tree on the front strip that hadn't been there when I lived there, and a clump of white birch that I'd put in was gone. Maybe a subsequent owner hadn't liked the birches, maybe his kids had stripped the bark to make a canoe.
Or maybe the trees had simply died. Birches, I seemed to remember, were relatively short-lived trees, and it had been thirty years since I'd lived in that house, say thirty-three or thirty-four years since I planted the birches. That doesn't seem like a very long time for a tree, even a short-lived tree, but things don't always last as long as you expect them to.
Marriages fail, people die. Why should trees be different?
When I got to the funeral home a second time I pulled into the lot and found a place for my rental car. In a mortician's house are many mansions, and a fellow who looked a little heartier than the circumstances called for was waiting in the entrance hall to steer me in the right direction. He asked for the name of the party I was there for, and without thinking I gave my own. It had been hers for years, and I guess on some level it still was, as far as I was concerned.
His face, professionally noncommittal, registered first that there was no Scudder funeral on the books, then that he recognized the name; the sons of the deceased bore it, and he would have met them. Before he could say anything I corrected myself. "I'm sorry," I said. "That was her name when I knew her. It's Thiele now."
I let him point me down a hallway and followed it to a room flooded with afternoon sunlight. I found a seat in the last row. The service had already begun, and a man in a black suit was talking in the unmistakable tones of a clergyman about the frailty of human life and the durability of the human spirit. He didn't say anything I hadn't heard before, or anything to which I could take exception.
While the words washed over me, I looked around the room. In the front row I saw a man I took for Graham Thiele; I'd never met the fellow, but that could only be him, seated next to two girls who had to be his daughters. He was a widower when Anita met him, with two girls living at home; her own sons were out of the house by then, and she'd moved in with Thiele and helped him raise his daughters.
I saw other people I recognized- Anita's brother and his wife, both of them suddenly middle-aged, and heavier than when I'd known them, and her sister, Josie, who'd hardly aged at all. On the other side of the center aisle sat my two boys, Michael and Andrew, with June, Michael's wife, seated between them. Michael and June have a daughter, Melanie, and a year ago Elaine and I flew out for a long weekend in San Francisco, in the course of which we drove to San Jose for a look at my granddaughter. June is third-generation Chinese-American, slim and exquisite, and Melanie is one of the more powerful arguments for interracial marriage.