One Story Leads to Another . . .


How to Go Off the Wagon

Toby was sipping Scotch and I was sipping tea. I would have preferred Scotch but I was on the wagon. I had not had a single drink in all the ten months since my doctor scared me. We get through a lot of business in these occasional sessions in Toby’s house, away from the office with its phone calls and other interruptions. We stretched our legs and sip our drinks and move in unhurried discussion through the kind of business that can benefit by unhurried discussion. But now there came an interruption: the sound of chimes at the front door. Toby went out and came back with a young woman with a baby. I was annoyed at first, but she was lovely and the baby was engaging and soon I was charmed. Toby said, “I could send them on their way with a loan of olive oil and garlic powder, but I’ve got to take this opportunity to make you acquainted with the most wonderful baby boy in the United States of America and the proudest mother alive.” Toby had spoken of her before. She and her husband were one of the nicest couples in the neighborhood. They were professional people, she an accountant and he an attorney, both quite serious about their careers but neither a grind. Last year they had decided that they should no longer put off having a baby. They had also decided that she wouldn’t go back to full-time work right away. Her career could go at half speed for a while. She had never regretted it for a second. Mother and baby took over. She poured out her love. She cooed and she dandled the baby, and she told the baby and Toby and me how splendid he was. The baby soaked it up, growing ever more splendid. The mother went on and on. She would apologize, she would laugh at herself, and then she would go on. I told myself: this is exhilarating. This is the way a baby ought to get under way in life. This ought to be videotaped and sent around to institutions and people who do studies about these things. I told myself all that, and then in the next second I understood that I was bored stiff. I tried to talk myself out of it. I told myself that I might not soon again have an experience as enriching as the one I was having now. I ought to make myself feast on it. I couldn’t do it. I thought of escape. I would get to my feet and say how wonderful it had been, but I must run, I had forgotten time, I was late for my evening appointment. Toby would cover for me. But I stayed on, my frozen smile hurting my face. I could see that it was no strain for Toby. Toby was enjoying it and he was oblivious to my discomfort. Sometimes I have behaved badly when I have been trapped like this. I have failed to conceal my boredom and I have gone into a sulk that could not be overlooked by anyone. I told myself that this time I would at least fake things to the best of my ability. I massaged my face to limber up my smile. I murmured appreciations. I even compelled myself to make a little speech. “Some day that young man of whom you are justly so proud will become President of the United States of America. And the inner force that puts him in the White House will have come from you during these early months of his life, these months that he will never be able to recover fully in his memory but that will mean so much to all the rest of his life. What he is getting from you now will be a sustaining nurture all the days of his life. It is the way all babies ought to get under way in life but all too few of them do. Some foundation ought to sponsor you and send you and your son on a tour around the country to show mothers and fathers and so-called experts how it ought to be done.” We stayed on in the dwindling light of the dwindling day, and the young mother went on and on. I gave up all hope, my frozen smile hurting more and more. She shut up. I had given up hope that it could ever happen and then it did happen. She shut up. A season of healing set in. I sipped my tea and my face began to unfreeze. The young mother smiled at me. I looked back at her without smiling. The only thing that was absolutely right to do in this world with this most beautiful and most boring new mother was to take carnal possession of her. And that was absolutely wrong. The only other thing left to do in this world was to go off the wagon. I would go to Lafayette’s and have a martini. Undoubtedly I would have three. I knew in my heart I might go for five. I would try my damnedest to keep from going for seven. I had never been able to go seven without a disaster. My doctor hadn’t told me that I would drop dead if I got drunk one more time. The real danger was that I would be thrown back into my old habit of going into Lafayette’s every evening for three martinis or more. Well, if that happened I could surrender myself to my doctor; I could take all those tests again and have him scare me again. It was a good plan. The young mother still was smiling at me. I felt that she saw through me. She said: “You’ve been very brave.” I got to my feet and made my exit speech without hurry. “It’s time for all brave men to hit the road. It has been a wonderful and enriching experience, getting to know you and our future president.”
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