These stories are dedicated to Pierre Lioni Ullman, with gratitude for his courage.
The first thing I did when I got off the bus in Des Moines was to find a place to stay that I could afford and that would be centrally located. I don’t have a driver’s license and applying for one would stir up too much. Anyway, this was not an easy task. Des Moines is built for cars. There are sidewalks, but for the most part, they aren’t used. Drivers were regularly ignoring my presence and nearly running me over. They didn’t do this out of malice. Believe me, these people are NICE. They invented the word. Finally, someone suggested that I try the Benedictine monastery. Religion is not my thing, but I knew they would be cheap and quiet, no alcohol, and the address looked okay for walking.
They took me. Right away, I asked the monk about any alcohol recovery groups in the neighborhood.
“You are a recovered alcoholic?”
“I am a recovering alcoholic,” I said, emphasizing the i-n-g part of that word.
“The Prior may have some ideas.”
He did. They were groups that emphasize religion – not my thing like I said before, but they were better than nothing. I attended one the first night in Des Moines.
“Hi, I’m Nic, and I’m an alcoholic.”
Next, I looked for a job. Handyman skills are always needed, and, with the monks help, I landed a job at the public library, helping to build and install shelves.
People were friendly and nosey. “What brought you to Des Moines?” I said I was in New York City, and it was too much for me. That was true. “Those big cities are for the dogs,” they’d reply. I agreed, though that wasn’t what was too much, but lying is easy for me, so easy I don’t even know I’m doing it. The best thing addicts do is lie. They lie so much that they don’t know what the truth is anymore. They lie so much that they lie about lies. “So, why’d you choose Des Moines?” “I heard it was a friendly place.” That was true, but that wasn’t why I chose Des Moines. I knew about Des Moines. My father was an organ builder in Quebec, and we installed organs in the city. I say “we” because I worked with him. But no one there would recognize me. The last time I helped him do any building was when I was twenty and that was fifteen years ago. “Well, we’re glad you are here. You seem awfully handy. Do you have a library card for that library where you’re working? Do you like to read?”
So, I got a library card and started carving out a life: live with the monks, attend meetings, build shelves, read when I’m not attending meetings or building shelves. I like to read, to read about anything.
When I was in New York, I met a woman in the building where I worked. She worked at a library and read all the time. She spoke French, too. That was great: talking in French with someone who read all the time. She was older – fifteen years. We mainly just walked places together. No dates, no pressure about anything – just use your imagination on that one. I don’t think she drank. I never smelled it on her; she never went out with people. She was religious, but she didn’t invite me to church. Can’t be around that stuff – the organs, the wine. Well, I would say “it’s the wine,” but it was really the organs. I heard them all the time, heard about them all the time, that’s all he ever talked about and all he ever did was build organs.
My father. He apprenticed with an organ builder in Quebec and fell in love with his daughter, my mother. Cliché, I know, but true. He was good at it and eventually inherited the business. He also inherited my mother. Ever heard the term “pussy whipped”? That was him – nothing he did was enough or good enough, nothing was as good as her father. And he’s such a goddamn wimp that he never fought back. She’d just nag and nag until he’d either break down in tears or rush back to the shop again. Another nice thing about the librarian in New York – she didn’t talk too much. Her parents were deaf or something like that and growing up that way made her really quiet.
Back to my father: wimp and I was hell bent on not becoming him. For a while, I thought I had no choice. I worked in the shop with him until I was 21. Then, one day, I just walked to the university and applied. I was accepted, announced the plan to my parents and left home. My test scores were really great, so I got scholarship money. Had no idea what to study – I’m interested in everything, really. So, I just took basic stuff. That is the year I began to drink. I went to a party where everyone was drinking a lot, so I did to. What the hell, right? It was a lot of fun and was completely different from anything my family would do. Then I met this girl Gina. She was always at the drinking parties, drank as much as any guy. Lost my virginity with her. She had an apartment, and I moved in with her. All we did was drink and screw and eat when we had to. No surprise, then, that I was kicked out of school by the second semester for failing all my classes.
She had money from somewhere, so neither of us had to work. I lived like this for two years. What did my parents think of this? I don’t know. Really, I was just too drunk, and, frankly, ecstatic to be doing something so different from my father. Why am I telling you this? Oh, my father. The kicker came on the eve of my twenty fourth birthday. Gina found out she was pregnant. She was too far along to have an abortion. Of course, we had been drinking all that time, so who knows what we had already done to damage the fetus. I never had a chance to find out because, seven months into the pregnancy, Gina smashed up the car, and she and the baby died.
That should have sobered me up, but being sober would mean I’d have to be a real person – face what happened to her, to the baby, to my own life for the past three years at that point, and face myself, and I didn’t know who the hell I was because all I had ever wanted was to be different from my father. So I went on a binge that nearly killed me. Ended up in the hospital and was in and out of psyche wards and treatment centers for three years.
Somewhere along the line, I realized I could be an alcoholic and not drink – I could just always say I’m an alcoholic, so I can’t do X, Y, or Z. I can’t take over the family business. I can’t get a driver’s license. I can’t get married. I can’t screw. I can’t do anything that will give me stress, because, I’m an ALCOHOLIC, and you don’t want me to DRINK, do you??
So, I became addicted to being an alcoholic who didn’t drink. Starting at about age twenty-eight, I meandered around: Toronto, Montreal. Then I thought I’d try the States with the goal of getting to New York. Why New York? -- Lots of people, easy to get lost in the crowd, VERY easy to avoid intimacy. Intimacy implies being real, and real was what I needed to avoid. When I arrived in New York, I found all the things I thought I’d find, and I was mighty happy.
Okay, so why did I leave? Why the hell did I flee the place of my dreams? If you had asked me the first two months I was in Des Moines, I would have made some sort of smart-ass reply that meant nothing and would hopefully make you laugh so hard that you wouldn’t realize I had just dodged the question. I would have done that because I wouldn’t have known the answer myself.
The person who asked me the question was Brother Andrew. Did I say already that Des Moines is small? It’s like a small town, so the brothers at the monastery where I was staying knew that the library project I was working on was coming to an end. The Prior also told me that they normally didn’t take long-term guests, but he had an idea. They had had a fire six months earlier that gutted the interior of their small chapel. All the clean up was completed, but now they had to redo the wiring, drywall, put in floors, everything. The monks were willing to trade room, board, and a small weekly allowance for five hours a day of labor. I said fine. I was to do this work with Brother Andrew who had, before he was a monk, worked as a handy man in a church somewhere.
Brother Andrew and I worked pretty well together. We talked some, too, about books that we had read or things about how to work with wood or certain tools. He asked about the recovery groups I attended.
“How many do you attend?”
“Four a week.”
“I’ve got to do this recovery thing all the way.”
He nodded. There was a way that he minimized the amount of syllables he used or would just respond by nodding that reminded me of Henrietta. She was the librarian in New York City that I referred to earlier. She was a great listener. She was a great friend, too. I remember the first time I saw her. I was the “super” in her building, and I was sent to fix her drain. Walking into her apartment was like taking a step back in time – old everything but not in a cobweb way – more like a museum. She opened the door – this slim, ageless person with blond hair, a curious look on her face, and big, blue eyes that always seemed to be asking questions. You could tell she never missed a thing but also rarely commented on what she observed. There was a book of French on the table, so I tried my French on her. I don’t know why I did it, but I began calling her, and, you could say, worming my way into her life. There was no disappointment any step of the way. She was interesting and self-sufficient, and she respected my privacy as much as she guarded hers. I told her lies, like I tell everyone lies, and I wonder some times if she knew I was lying. Of course, she never said anything. How did I get on this? Oh, yes, Brother Andrew.
So, one day he and I were bolting down the choir stalls, and I saw a space on one side of the chapel that didn’t have anything in it.
“That’s for our organ. It is coming next week.”
I almost gagged.
“We hope you will help install it. It would save us time and money.”
I didn’t say anything, didn’t blink, didn’t look at him.
“Nic, I was working at the church where you and your father installed that organ about fifteen years ago. I recognized you right away.”
I still didn’t stay anything.
“I can’t. I can’t. I’ll drink.”
“Installing an organ will lead you to drink?”
I was paralyzed, catatonic, in a corner. There was no way that I could turn, no smart-ass remark to get me out of this, no lie because there were so many tangled up lies by this point.
Brother Andrew left the room, and the Prior returned. Guys don’t get into the position of Prior without having some kick-ass people skills. I wasn’t going to be able to dodge this guy.
“Brother Andrew thought I might be able to help out at this point.”
I stared at him. I absolutely had no word to say.
“Okay,” he said, “why would helping to install an organ lead you to drink again?”
“The thought of organ building makes me want to be drunk.”
“There’s no pressure about when the organ needs to be done. It is a small instrument – much smaller than the one you helped install fifteen years ago. From what Brother Andrew tells me, you were involved in all of the details. People reported that you were more skilled even than your father.”
“I don’t want to be compared to him. Listen, I can’t start drinking. I’ve got to do the recovery thing all the way.”
“You’ll never recover until you know why you drink in the first place. Do you know why?”
“Have you thought about it?”
“You’ll never recover until you know why you drink in the first place. And, given what little I know about your history – that you once built organs in Quebec and that fifteen years later you arrive in Des Moines after living in New York City with no job or contacts – it seems like you’re running, too. What are you running from, Nic?”
“I’ve got to get some fresh air.”
I left the monastery and walked and walked. Walked by the lake. Walked behind the art museum on this path that lead out of town. Walked back again and walked the other direction. I walked by the river. The Prior’s two questions would float across the screen of my mind and then away again. I had no answers. Why did I drink in the first place? I tried to remember. What was I running from? Why did I leave New York, place of my dreams, place where I met the best friend of my life?
The last weekend I was in New York, she took me to see her favorite orchestra. I had never gone with her. Sort of a touching habit of hers, being that she grew up with nearly deaf parents. The weekend was magical. The music was as good as she said it would be. March had come in like a lamb, as they say. If I thought, which I did from time to time, that I was falling in love with her, this weekend confirmed the sentiment. I thought she was beautiful and interesting before, but she became even more so as the music enlivened her features. When we returned to our apartment, I asked if I could spend the night with her. “Just to sleep,” I said. It is what I meant, too. First of all, I thought it was quite possible that she was still a virgin, given what she had told me about her past. Secondly, I wasn’t ready. Gina was the only woman I ever fucked, and I was always drunk when I did it. Man, how did I even get it up? I guess I was young. So, I really meant just to sleep together. She said, “Okay.” I went to my apartment and changed into sweat pants and a t-shirt. When I got to her place, she had a flannel nightgown on. We got into her bed, and I folded myself around her. She was so small, like a little cat.
Why did I leave? Why did I leave her?
Des Moines is a windy place, but, as the sun was setting, the wind died down some. I was headed back towards the monastery. Des Moines is also a quiet place, and no cars passed me for the next few blocks. I could hear my footsteps. I noticed the feel of the evening air in my nostrils. I felt my self, and I knew what I had to do.
When I got back to the monastery, the monks were cleaning up from supper. I asked the Prior for about fifteen minutes.
“Okay, I’ve made my decision.”
He didn’t say anything.
“I’ll stay through the completion of the chapel and the installation of the organ. I will help with whatever I can.”
“Is there anything I can do for you to help with this?”
“I’d like to, briefly, tell you my story and see if you can help me to answer the questions you asked before.”
So I told him about my father and mother, about the drinking and Gina and the baby and the accident. I told him about my dream of living in New York and why it was a dream, and then I told him about Henrietta.
“We can batten up all the hatches and doors against the Self,” he said when I was finished, “but the Self will find a crack to get into.” Then he left the room.
We finished up the chapel in August, and the organ builders, from Wisconsin, came in September. They were familiar with my father’s work and immediately accepted me as a member of their team. It had been over fifteen years since I had handled pipes and participated in the many mechanical maneuvers required to install an instrument, but let me tell you, the muscles – physical and mental – hadn’t atrophied a bit. About two-thirds into our work, I offhandedly asked the senior member of their outfit if he knew of any builders or repair people in New York City who he would be willing to recommend me to. Of course he did; the organ-building world is tiny.
Next, I went to the Prior and told him my idea: if I could get work in some aspect of organ building in New York City, I would go back, and I wanted to contact Henrietta.
“Maybe I can write her a letter.”
“Will you tell her the truth?”
“I want to. Maybe you can read it first?”
He agreed, and, using their computer, I typed a letter, re-telling her my story (truths corrected), apologizing for lying, telling her what she and her friendship meant to me, and asking if she’d be willing to take me as a friend again. The Prior read it, asked if I needed an envelope and stamp, and suggested I provide her a return address and phone number.
I mailed the letter and asked every day if I had any mail.
The organ was completely installed and voiced by the end of September. The builders had put me in touch with people in New York City who agreed to take me on and provide temporary housing. I was to be in New York by mid-October.
Ten days after I sent Henrietta the letter, I received a reply.
Thank you for writing to me. I am glad to know that you are okay, because I was worried.
My schedule is, for the most part, the same as before.
I don’t know what else to say.
I showed it to the Prior.
“What should I do?”
“What do you want to do?”
“Be near her again.”
I moved back to New York in the middle of October. The company I was to work with was family run, like so many of them, and I immediately became part of their family. I was glad to be back in the noise of New York, all the smells and varieties of people. I was glad, too, to be working with organs. I was so happy about this that I forgot to look up any recovery meetings.
November 1, All Saints Day, was on a Thursday. I made sure I could be done working by 5:00 and made my way to St. Thomas. The organ prelude had begun. They were using the front organ, one I knew about because of its historic significance in North America but had never heard. I walked down the center aisle. I spotted Henrietta sitting on the end of the third pew from the front.
She turned toward me, her blue eyes wide. I had never known anyone who could say so much with their eyes without barely moving a facial muscle, but she could: relief, sadness, wondering, and even a tinge of anger all passed before me in her eyes. She moved over, and I sat down.
When the prelude ended, the processional hymn began. I opened the hymnal as she and I stood together and held it for the both of us to use. She stepped closer. She put her right arm around my waist and helped hold the hymnal with her left hand. The organist finished the introduction, and we joined the congregation in singing the hymn, For All the Saints.