A short story
Once upon a time in a place not far from here, but not close either, a man sat by the water. It was not a large lake – he could see the land on the other side – but it was not a small lake either – the land on the other side, he knew by consulting a map, was about 15 miles away.
“Slay the dragon,” he whispered to himself. He knew this dragon was worse than any mythical fire-breathing monster, and it was no myth. “Slay it good and dead.”
He pulled the flask out of his pocket, unscrewed the cap, and sniffed deeply so he could feel the aroma coursing through his body, tense with desire. Then, with a pit in his stomach, he turned the flask over and watched the golden nectar flow into the lake, every fiber of his being wanting to stop, to poke his tongue into the golden stream and pull in one last draught, knowing he couldn’t, not if he wanted the dragon to die.
“Die, you bastard,” he said to the dragon. “I need you, but I don’t want you no more.”
He screwed the cap back on and held the flask in his hand as if seeing it for the first and last time.
“Yep,” he said, “I don’t want you around no more.”
He set the flask down on a flat rock and drew himself up, forcing his breaths to come slow and calm. The day was cool and breezy. The waves licked rather than crashed, but it was what the old-timers called a crisp day. Autumn had reared its red and orange head and was now settling into a dreary brown, and it wouldn’t be long before it all turned into an even drearier blend of gray and white.
“Helluva time to give up your one and only pleasure, I suppose,” he mumbled to himself – of course it was to himself, who else was there?
Wait. Who else was there?
He looked around and saw her standing up on the bluff, staring down at him. How long had she been there? Had she seen his little ritual? Was she there to scoff at him and tell him to pick up the flask because he’d be needing it again in a day or two, or maybe an hour? Was she proud of him? What was she doing there?
Before he could call up to her, or take a step in her direction, she walked back into the woods, slowly, and he was alone again.
The sound of the waves licking at the shore lulled him, and he sat on a boulder nearby, watching but not watching the water move. He saw the land on the other side, saw the tiny headlights moving across the causeway, heard the pines whispering behind him. Where were they going, all of those drivers? Heading to work or play, with appointments to meet and jobs to do, pushing papers, lifting boxes, moving things from here to there. Why?
“What do you mean, why?” he said to himself because no one else was there. “Why do we do all of this?” he replied.
It seemed like a good question just then. But he turned it around. Why did he thinking sedating himself had been such a good idea? What had he missed while he was dulling his mind – what great things could he have done if he wasn’t stupefied by drink?
“Oh, shut up, mom,” he said to himself because no one else was there. “Forward, not back. Look ahead, not behind.”
Because behind was pretty ugly back there.
Wreckage is never very pretty. Faces and objects rearranged in ways they are not meant to be arranged. Broken, shattered, ugly faces and objects, barely recognizable, especially through a drunken haze.
“What the ever-loving fuck was I thinking?” he said. “What the ever-loving fucking fuck?”
He looked at the flask on the flat rock, screamed in rage, leaped up and gave it a full roundhouse soccer kick that sent the little metal container flying high into the air in a smooth, high arc, plopping into the water a good 50 yards off shore.
He stared out at the spot where it had dropped, round ripples mingling with the gentle waves until they disappeared altogether.
He looked at the land across the way, at the headlights on the causeway as people went from here to there eventually. (Steppenwolf, right?)
“It’s good,” he said. “Three points.” And raised his hands in the air.
Where did that rage come from, and why was it gone now? Perhaps the flask had been where he held his anger, and without the flask it dissipated with the breeze. Probably the anger was only hiding, ready at the wait to come out when he least desired or needed it.
“Who needs rage anyway?” he said, and thought of the movie where Captain Kirk insisted, “I need my pain.” I need my pain, it makes me grow and it makes me soothe and it makes me comfort.
“Only when you have endured the deepest valleys can you appreciate the highest mountains,” Richard Nixon said, or was it the other way around? You need the bad times to know and recognize when the good times have arrived, or else the good times will pass you by and you missed the whole damn thing.
He willed himself to stay by the water, standing and thinking. He needed to realize something, but he didn’t know what it was yet. He just knew that he needed to understand something and he would never understand it unless he stood here, by the water, until it came to him.
Something about the people across the water, living their lives in complete ignorance of him? Something about her, up on the bluff, walking away shaking her head – was she really shaking her head, or was he reinventing the memory already 10 minutes later? Something about the flask that sat in his pocket like an old friend for all these many years, gone and never to fill his soul again? Something altogether different?
“Maybe,” he said out loud, wondering why he was wasting his voice, “Maybe I just need to stand here for a while to prove to myself I can stand here for a while.”
There was something to that thought, he realized. All of those years he wandered. Not always physically, either, but his mind would not be where his body was most of the time. Some of that was the drink, but most of it was the mind. He laughed it off – “Sorry, that’s my adult-onset ADD working on me again,” he would tell people – but his attention really did have a deficit to the point where he, at least, thought of it as a disorder. And that hurt the ones he loved, beginning with himself.
“OK, so I’m going to stand here and enjoy the view, if it kills me.”
He sat back down on the boulder and fidgeted.
“Stop fidgeting,” he whispered. “Relax.”
He closed his eyes. Not the greatest idea because now he saw her again, looking at him with those puppy sad eyes and telling him she couldn’t take it anymore. He sighed. He couldn’t blame her. He knew he was not an easy guy to live with, with the promises and the big ideas and the drinking. At least he was a happy drunk. He never hurt her. That was how he justified the drinks, by reassuring her and everyone that he was a happy drunk and would never turn dark and nasty. In fact he drank to drive away the darkness and the nastiness in his heart.
But here he was at the edge of the water with nothing but his thoughts and an empty flask that was now in a watery grave a long field goal away.
Again: Why was he here? What did he need to know that was so important that only a quiet lake and a cool breeze could tell him?
He took a deep breath through his nose.
He held out his hands, palms open, to feel the wind against his skin.
He – oh, come on, what’s the fifth sense? Taste. Right. He looked around for something to taste. For lack of anything else, he licked the palm of his hand to taste the salt. The wet surface of his tongue tickled a little, and he wiped his hand on his shoulder.
“I am a rock,” he said. “I am the walrus. I am, I said, to no one there, and no one heard at all, not even the chair.”
He hummed a tune to himself and chuckled. It felt good, so he forced a laugh. Then he shrieked and faked an out-of-control belly laugh, and then he really did lose control, laughing like a crazy man and thinking deep in the back of his mind that he really was going mad, because who laughs like this without a reason, who laughs so hard he can’t stop laughing, who laughs so hard his sides were beginning to hurt, and for no reason at all except –
“I’m free!” he screamed suddenly. “Do you hear me? I’m free! You can’t hurt me anymore!”
The outburst helped calm him down and begin to stop laughing, but he knew the laughing fit had released something, and despite himself he felt giggling aftershocks course over him for a few more seconds.
Free from what? Free from whom? (Certainly not free from the grammar nazis, he chortled.) Free from the bonds of the alcohol? That sounded way too noble and like a living cliche.
Free to – wait. Maybe that was it: Not free “from” but free “to.”
He was free to choose the path he would take from this shore. Free to chuck the flask into the water – well, actually he had kicked it through imaginary goalposts, but he was free to imagine; it wasn’t a hallucination.
The bonds and shackles were off. He was free to go. Oh my lord, what a relief that was – just being free to go. All of those years the drink had held him back, and he was shut up in the hole of his own making, locked in a box that showed him nothing but walls and doors and no windows and all of the prison accoutrements that a mind can conjure.
He was free to go.
He was free to speak, he was free to walk and run and play, he was free to choose his work, he was free.
Wait – with great freedom comes great responsibility. He read that in a comic book or saw it in a movie.
But that was wrong: With great freedom comes great joy. And because your joy is overflowing, you share it with your neighbor, your friend, your family.
That was it, that was what he had come to learn.
He paused. It sounded too easy. Freedom isn’t free, you have to pay a price – don’t you? Every day. They said so.
He tried to think outside the box, to try to come to grips with the contradictions his thoughts were shoving at him.
“With great freedom comes great responsibility,” he said. “Freedom isn’t free, you have to pay the price. With great freedom comes great responsibility. But no. No, it doesn’t – with great freedom comes a great need to share your freedom and free the slaves.”
His eyes widened.
“– and free the slaves. The slaves in the box.”
Good holy mother of God grief.
He was outside of the box. Free.
And looking back, he saw.
“There is no box,” he whispered. And then he shouted, a giddy scream: “THERE IS NO BOX!”
And he ran from the shore, tumbled up the hill, and sprinted through the woods to find her, and tell her.
That was the day, he would tell his friends for many years after that, when his life began for real.
And he lived happily, ever after.