“Kyle! Kyle!” Harriet fought through the woods, her frantic course like something dictated by a crazy pinball machine. She gasped for breath; her body ill-prepared for these demands. She wished the world wasn’t so dim, so blurred, so far away. She was usually drunk, so she was used to the experience. But not now. “Please!” she begged.
It had been a kick-back Sunday afternoon in Frank’s back yard. Kyle, 3, chasing the bright orange balloon around the yard. The other kids, older, shooting basketballs at the hoop that was lowered to their height. A dozen adults, from two bands, jamming around the fire pit, vanquishing a potluck munificence of booze, brats and baked beans, and creating a parody of their less inebriated performance the night before. Smoke from a half dozen joints making spiritual union with the rich offerings of the pine logs.
As one of their lengthy improvs came to an end, Harriet had rested her fiddle on her knee. Looking around, she slowly grasped that Kyle wasn’t there.
“Where’s Kyle?” she screamed.
One of the kids thought he chased his balloon into the woods.
She became a lot more sober, fast. At least, she tried to. As she raced into the woods, she screamed to the others, “Kyle’s in the woods. We gotta find him!” But where? Frank’s house was surrounded on three sides by woods darkening in the twilight.
First one way, then another—no idea where she should run.
She almost missed it. The little, orange scrap of rubber, the remains of a popped balloon.
“This way! This way!” she shouted. No one followed her. “Come on!” she cried as she ran. Why don’t they come?
She broke into a small clearing, through brush that scratched and tore to hold her back. There was no sun; a tiny cabin, painted with elaborate patterns that twisted and swirled in slow, uncanny motion, seemed to glow by absorbing the surrounding light. A woman sat on the porch. A cape whose patterns matched the cabin partially hid a white blouse and navy blue straight skirt. Weird bangles cluttered her wrists and arms. As Harriet registered the woman’s black, sunken eyes, hooked nose, protruding chin and shriveled skin, childhood terrors exploded in her soul. More terrifying: Kyle sat on the woman’s lap. He held a green balloon.
“Kyle!” she called, rushing toward him.
Something was wrong. As hard as she ran, she didn’t get any closer. The cabin seemed to float in wavering, blurring mist.
“Mommy! Mommy! Come see my new balloon.”
“I’m coming, Kyle.”
Her legs were in slow motion. The cabin taunted her.
The woman disappeared into the cabin with Kyle.
Harriet woke up at the kitchen table, an empty glass in her hand, her head lying on a letter from Child Protective Services. She got up to refill her glass, stopped, picked up the letter, reread it. Her scream as she hurled the glass at the ceramic backsplash sent the cat racing to cower under the sofa. Harriet sat down and cried.
An orange balloon, shrunken and tired, oscillated vaguely in the corner.
* * *
Harriet made her way across the dark lawn, uncoiling the extension cord as she went. She poked the end through the hedge separating her house from Jack and Glenda’s, then walked to the sidewalk and back up the other side of the hedge. She found the end of the cord in the newly fallen snow and pulled enough through to reach the neighbors’ house, a mirror-image of her 1950s ranch. On her knees, her hands getting numb, she found the outlet behind the shrubs and plugged in the cord.
The power and gas had been cut off four days ago. She didn’t fight it. Then they took Kyle. After a day of rage and self-abuse, she had given up. The case worker said she’d have to stop drinking, get a job, get the utilities turned back on, and convince her that she was a responsible mother.
Hell, she thought. Why don’t they demand that I grow wings and fly too?
Two drunken days later, the cold spell came, and she knew she had to do something.
Her small, thin body was thoroughly chilled when she got back to the house. She had extension cords running to a heater in the basement, to keep the pipes from freezing, to the kitchen for a hot plate and to a heater in the hall between the bathroom and the kitchen. She’d have to heat water on the hot plate for coffee, dishes and sponge bath. She had closed off the living room and dining room with blankets tacked to the wall and hauled a twin mattress, sheets and more blankets to the hall. She hoped she had enough blankets to stay warm through the night.
With a glass of whiskey, she settled into a folding sling-back chair in front of the electric heater. This will work till I find a job, she told herself. How she had come to this state she didn’t totally understand. Sure, she drank a bit. But lots of musicians drank heavily. So why did her gigs dry up? When they did, she simply stopped paying bills. Fortunately the house was paid for, an inheritance from her parents. She could thank them for that, at least.
She finished her drink, changed quickly into sweat pants and hooded sweat shirt, and climbed into her chilly bed. She lay awake with images of Kyle filling her mind. Suddenly a huge sob escaped and she cried till she fell asleep.
In the morning she splashed her face with icy tap water and boiled water for a cup of instant coffee. Then she poured herself another double shot and settled down with her stack of romances from the library.
About eleven o’clock she walked to McDonald’s, got herself an Egg McMuffin and logged onto their WiFi. She spent five minutes searching for jobs but found nothing that looked interesting. She walked back home.
From two houses away she saw Jack and Glenda standing on their porch. Jack had the extension cord in his hand.
Embarrassment. Shame. Turn around? Cut through a yard and get to her house from another direction? Too dumb. Just face the music. Even if her hair hadn’t been washed in a week. What the fuck did it matter, anyway? She could live without heat and electricity. She could drain all the pipes and traps and sleep in the bus station. As she approached, she compared their house with hers. The contrast mirrored the contrast between their propriety and her impropriety: Freshly painted taupe with dark green trim versus 20-year old faded blue; neat shrubs versus scraggly lawn poking through the thin layer of snow and bare cinder block foundation.
Jack and Glenda met her on the sidewalk. Jack, about 55, was bald, his fringe shaved, with a growing pot belly bulging over his belt, his suit coat open, his tie several inches of bulge short of his belt. Glenda was petite, with granny glasses and dull house-wifey clothes. They looked concerned, not angry.
“This isn’t a solution to your problem,” Jack said. They knew about her lack of gigs and her drinking. She had told them everything was fine and she had a job lined up. Now they knew different. She knew they had somehow found out about Kyle.
“We want to help you,” Glenda said. “But you have to help yourself as well. Come on in and let’s talk.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “That was stupid of me.” She just wanted to get into her house and have a drink. “I have to do something in the house first.”
“Nope,” Jack said. “You don’t need more ‘something.’ You need to break that habit.”
“Don’t say it that way,” she said. “It’s not like I’m an alcoholic or anything. Just having a hard stretch.”
“We’re not going to argue. We don’t begrudge you some electricity. But on the condition that you quit drinking.” She knew Jack was a recovering alcoholic and had found Jesus when he stopped drinking.
She didn’t argue. What was the point? After Jack reconnected the extension cord, they sat around the dining room table. Glenda served coffee and almond coffee cake.
“We should begin by praying together,” Jack said.
She thought that was nonsense but again didn’t argue.
“Dear God,” Jack prayed, “we come to you this morning to thank you for your many blessings. We lift up Harriet to you and just ask that you come into her heart and give her the strength to fight the demon alcohol. We just beg you to fill her with your Spirit so she might find your love and just repent of her ways and turn back to you. We ask all this in the name of your Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.”
“Now,” he continued, “how are we going to get your life straightened out?”
“I don’t know what you mean. I’m fine. I just need some luck finding a new job.”
“Come on, Harriet. You know that’s not true. You’re almost totally dysfunctional right now,” Jack said. “To begin with,” — why was he doing all the talking, she wondered since Glenda was unquestionably smarter than he — “you’re moving in with us.”
Harriet didn’t like this. The memory of sleeping on the floor and the cold water in her face in the morning stalled any resistance, however. She was feeling dependent on them in a way that went beyond the extension cord linking their two houses.
Glenda settled her in the guest bedroom. It was still a boy’s bedroom, with blue walls, sports posters on the wall. On the dresser were photos of their grown son, Jack Junior, his wife and the grandkids.
Seeing the look on her face when she saw the pictures, Glenda gathered them up.
“You don’t need these.”
Not only had Kyle been taken from her, but her husband Bobby had left a year or so back because of her drinking.
Harriet sat on the bed. She fought off tears. She told herself she didn’t need the drink she craved. This is so stupid, she told herself. They’re treating me like a derelict, like a child who can’t take care of herself. Stuck in a child’s bedroom. I’ll show them. When they see I can do without alcohol they’ll let me go back to my house.
At dinner that night, Jack and Glenda seemed to follow their usual routine, with Jack telling something about his day and Glenda updating him with what happened on the soaps. Harriet was a bit startled when they began the meal with prayer and ended with a bit of Bible reading and a prayer. At least they didn’t pry or lecture.
She didn’t sleep that night, between her body’s demand for alcohol and her heart’s mourning Kyle.
They settled into a routine. Jack went off to work — he was a salesman of some kind. Glenda stayed with Harriet continuously. They ate together, shopped together, went to the library together, did housework together. While Glenda watched her soaps, Harriet read romances and mysteries. Glenda checked out some books on alcoholism recovery, but Harriet wasn’t interested. Gradually her craving for alcohol diminished as she rested in the care of her hosts. She felt plugged into a source of love and energy. When she thought about Kyle, she fought the heartache with promises to herself about recovering him soon. She didn’t spend any time thinking about when or how that would happen.
Glenda always asked Harriet what she’d like to do, but somehow it was always Glenda’s ideas and plans they ended up following. Harriet simply had no plans or ideas beyond going through the motions of looking for work each day.
A week and a half on, some lines in the romance she was reading caused her to stop and stare at the wall. What am I doing here, she wondered. I should be out working, not hanging around Glenda like I’m a little child. I don’t need to be here. I’ve shown I can do without the alcohol.
But the thought of actually engaging the world without alcohol was enough to send her back to the romance.
With all the time they spent together and Glenda’s quiet support, Harriet started opening up, talking about things she hadn’t talked about to anyone before. It started with a letter from Child Protective Services setting a date for a hearing.
“What about Bobby? Can’t he come and take Kyle?”
“Bobby’s not his father.”
“Couldn’t he adopt him? He’s still your husband, after all.”
“He wanted to at one time, but not any more. He gave up on me when my drinking got so bad.”
Glenda tried to soothe her. “Maybe it’s not too late.”
Harriet started to cry. “It is too late. Bobby’s not coming back . . . I’ve ruined everything with my drinking.”
She rushed to her room. After crying, she felt a bit better for having talked about it with Glenda.
Over the next days she talked more with Glenda — about Bobby, about her ex, about how he had raped her during the divorce proceedings, about her parents. Gradually, about her drinking. She had started to lose heart during the late stages of the marriage. After the rape she had given up. Drinking was easier than struggling. She met Bobby; he loved her; she married him. But it wasn’t enough to give her strength to stop drinking.
On a quiet afternoon something prompted her to reflect more on what was happening. She was proud of not having a drink in three weeks. She knew that, comfortable as the arrangement with Jack and Glenda was, it wasn’t right. She knew she had to do something. She was too old to be their child. Well, actually she wasn’t. Biologically they were old enough to be her parents. Whatever. It was time she grew up.
She took out her violin and started with her warm-up exercises and a favorite etude. Irritated that her fingers were slow and awkward and her bow clumsy, she quit. She wanted to go for a walk, but knew Glenda would insist on coming along. This too irritated her. But she routed Glenda from her soap opera and they went out into the December cold. As usual, she averted her eyes from the extension cord connecting the two houses.
“I loved hearing your violin,” Glenda said.
“I was playing terribly.”
“Well, it’s been several weeks since you played anything.”
“This is worse than several weeks off,” Harriet replied. “This is years of neglect.” Thinking about the neglect of her art brought a wave of self-loathing and regret. She loved the violin. She loved the way her music spoke to people. But after the rape she had practiced less and less and eventually had stopped altogether. Then gigs became scarce, meaning she played even less.
“Let’s go back,” she said, turning as she spoke. She hurried to her room and practiced for an hour, till her uncalloused fingers were sore and her shoulders ached.
The household routine continued, except now Harriet spent two, and then three hours a day practicing. Over two weeks, the fingers toughened and the shoulders stopped aching.
A friend called. “I hear Lambert needs a couple of more violins for his Community Theater production of The Unsinkable Molly Brown. Why don’t you give him a call?”
She called, not without anxiety. Lambert was an old friend who had watched her slide and tried to help.
“I need violins,” he said. “But . . . this is embarrassing, Harriet, but I have to ask you to play for me first.”
She didn’t know what to say. She wanted to just hang up.
“Harriet . . . ?”
She knew he was right.
“I’ll come over.”
After she played for him and looked in his eyes, he just shook his head.
“I’m sorry, Harriet. It’s just not there.”
She had told him about living with Jack and Glenda and about how hard she had been practicing. She hadn’t expected this.
Glenda was waiting for her in the car. She got in without a word, and Glenda knew not to say anything. Three blocks later, at a red light, Harriet opened the door, climbed out, and headed down the side street.
She turned in at The Speakeasy. Standing inside the entrance she soaked in the old familiar atmosphere, the thirty years’ worth of embedded tobacco smoke in the walls and ceiling, the mixed bouquet of beer, whiskey and other alcohols, the chatter of voices in the nearly dark room. All the old need returned. She nodded at the bartender, a woman she had known here for years, and headed to her old table in the corner.
A waitress brought her an Old Fashioned glass with a double shot of Jack Daniels and one ice cube. She sat and stared at it. For ten minutes.
Jack walked in the door and slid into the booth, across the table from her.
She cursed herself silently for making that happen. She knew he hadn’t been in a bar in twenty years, and she knew how hard it would be for him in this atmosphere.
“I didn’t drink it,” she said.
He nodded. “Let’s go.”
He found a parking space in front of her house. Walking to his door, she turned and stared at the extension cord. When she got in the house, she called the utility company and paid her bill with her credit card, which she had somehow managed not to max out. The next day the gas and electricity were turned back on.
She packed up her stuff, and she and Glenda carried it back to her house. The house was warm; the lights worked; she felt good.
Glenda gave her a hug. “Remember, it’s not gonna be easy. You can’t afford to get lonely. Our door’s always open. The bedroom’s yours. Come to work or come to sleep. There’s always a place for you at the table, too. And pray.”
Harriet thought AA would be more useful than a lot of prayer. She could already feel the demands on her resilience as the tentacles of reality approached, promising struggle.
After Glenda left, she went outside and disconnected the extension cord. As she coiled it up, she felt the beginning of a new life, like she had been born again. Indoors, she tuned her violin and started to practice.
* * *
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Originally published on medium.com.