Three o’clock in the morning. I was tiptoeing down the hall when I dropped my house keys. A pale-yellow light spilled onto the dining room floor. The walk-in closet door was ajar. I stepped to the threshold and peered inside. The plastic bags filled with old clothes Mama and I had used as Mardi Gras costumes had vanished. The space was now cavernous. A two-top table sat where the shelving with her Vieux Paris china had been. Spooked, I turned to go when something touched my shoulder. I spun around but couldn’t see anything. How much had I drunk? My head hurt and my mouth was tacky.
“So, you’ve been gallivanting at all hours again, yes?” said a voice.
“Who are you?” I asked whatever it was.
“A comrade,” it said right up in my face with strange odorless breath.
I bumbled for the string to turn on the overhead light.
“Please don’t do that.”
I was pulled inside. The door behind me slammed shut. Moonlight sloshed in from a small misplaced window near the closet ceiling that looked into the hall. Years ago, Mama had placed a three-liter bottle of Cinzano on its interior sill.
“You like Vermouth?” it asked me. “Or perhaps chocolate milk?”
My stomach growled. It’d been hours since I’d had solid food.
The set up was good—a Patrician-white tablecloth, two glasses and a bowl of bleeding heart. I went over and sat down. Whatever had spoken was nowhere in sight. It just seemed to be me and a presence.
“Cookies?” it asked.
Chocolate chip cookies and milk appeared on little plates. The presence revealed itself. It was dressed in a 70s muumuu. I couldn’t determine much except it seemed sexless.
This was nuts – sitting in a closet with an apparition at three am in the morning – that all I could do was be civil. The milk and cookies weren’t bad. In fact, they hit the spot.
“I made those earlier.”
“Oh! How’d you like using that stove,” I asked, imaging dough prep in our tenement-like kitchen with its porcelain-topped tables masquerading as counters, the tops of which were the only thing Mama ever cleaned. That and the toilet.
“It’s not nice to think mean things about your mother,” it said.
I had to be having a nightmare wide awake. “Look. I appreciate the snack but I’ve got to get going,” I said and stood.
The presence got bigger. The space felt claustrophobic.
“You shouldn’t be out so late gadding about with strangers.”
The point felt familiar.
The thing sipped its milk. “Sorry, just trying to be helpful. Helpful is what I do.”
I sat back down. “Did those A.A. women put you up to this?”
The thing looked askance. The expression was its face. More or less a big O followed by an exclamation point.
“I answer to no one,” it said. “Or everyone.”
“Ah. A riddle,” I said, stalling. Why had I attended that new meeting and made such a private revelation? I’d been in Program long enough to know those women would do anything, even dress in costume and pretend to be your friend in order to reign in one of their own, make you adhere to their absolutes.
“Could I have another cookie? They’re delish,” I said, buying time to devise my escape.
More sweets appeared with a new glass of milk. Confession gets the A.A. Monkey off your back. In between nibbles, I started the fable.
“The evening adventure began with an attempt to pick up a waiter at the Napoleon House in spite of my friendship with the bartender.”
It nodded, greedy confessor it was, wanting more.
“I met Aubrey in Jackson Square the summer of 1976. I was eighteen-years-old and a high school dropout. A Yankee and always-in-transit carpetbagger, Aubrey waited tables at Pat O Brien’s and dreamt of being a writer. Tall and sinewy, he had a profile and body like Michelangelo’s David. The first time I saw him I came in my panties. Literate and beautiful, he attracted women like flypaper. I became one of his flies. Soon enough, he invited me to move into his apartment on Barracks Street. It lasted two days. Left alone for hours while he went to work, I got bored. That and the fact Aubrey talked endlessly about how the artist must remain free and uncommitted. The first time we made love, my vagina clamped down on his penis. Bound by our genitals, we lay stuck together barely daring to breathe until one of us relaxed. My nascent attempt at independence thwarted by intramuscular contractions. Plus, the fabulous sounding Aubrey Burrell turned out to be dully named Bill Smith.”
“Is this true?”
“Absolutely,” I said. “Compression is my forté.”
“You’re not supposed to share private stuff except with your sponsor.”
“Will you be my sponsor?” I asked.
I found myself mashed between two plastic clothes bags reeking of moth balls. Choking, I pushed past the bags into the dining room and went straight to the bathroom where I brushed my teeth. Afterwards, I continued onto my bed and mercifully passed out.
In the morning, I felt refreshed, not a sign of a hangover. On my way to breakfast a figure wearing a muumuu stood, its back to me, at the stove. Based on the freckles on the back of the calves, it appeared to be my mother. I smelled grillades and grits. It couldn’t be. Mama had been dead for years. Before it had a chance to turn around I bolted, threw an overcoat over my jams and slipped my feet into my mules. Quarter to noon. I had just enough time to make the meeting and tell my sponsor to call off the phalanx of muumuus invading the house.
The meeting was eerie. Not a sign of a dame except me. It was a two-speaker meeting, my favorite kind – you never have to share, just sit and absorb the message or try to discern a plot, if there is one. Half way through the second speaker’s rambling mea culpa, I exited the nearest door. Back at home lunch was being served by a half dozen women. I needed a beverage.
So, I showered, called a cab, destination Napoleon House.
Aubrey stood at the bar mixing drinks. I ordered a Cinzano on the rocks and asked him how things were going. He said he and his wife were moving to Arizona and needed a change in clime. Geographic relocations don’t always work, I reminded him. Maybe he needed to get to a meeting and talk about un-comfortability or some such thing.
“Meeting makers make it,” I said.
He refilled my drink and said I was full of shit but okay. He finished his shift and we went to a step meeting on Barracks not far from the apartment and our failed assignation. They were on Step 1 where you have to admit you are powerless over alcohol. The speaker yakked for twenty-five minutes about twenty-five years of powerlessness. I hated the step and his share more. The only thing powerless in my life were my confessional instincts. Sitting next to Aubrey awakened memories and before I knew it I raised my hand and repeated the entire penis captivus story, including the real reason I left – Aubrey slash Bill “suggested” I go back to school and get a job. How dare he tell me what to do!
I finished sharing.
“Um, thank you,” said someone.
Aubrey poked me in the side. I poked him back. He raised his hand and introduced himself as Bill Smith and proceeded to share that he and his wife were moving out west. She was opening a health food store and he’d be writing the brochures. After the meeting everyone congratulated Bill on his new life and said nothing to me. Fuck. I’d just told the truth. He gave me a lift back to the house. We sat in his car and I reached over and touched his crotch. His eyes teared up and he said, “We can’t go there, kid.”
He turned his beautiful profile my way.
“You don’t need me anymore. Find a more creative outlet,” he said, pecking my cheek.
Crestfallen, I flew inside. I found a full-blown reception going on and the dining room had transformed. A new paper Mardi Gras ball hung suspended from the ceiling. Purple, green and gold balloons hung around the room. It looked like Langenstein’s had catered the event – the spread was stupendous. I peeped into the kitchen – my mother’s crowd from her French Quarter days gathered around the stove. She’d changed from the muumuu into her Comus ball gown from the 40s. It didn’t fit but no one said a thing. Not even Billy Holcomb, who’d dressed in a toga. The last folk on God’s green acre I wanted to see so I dove back into the closet.
Once inside, I relaxed. Milk and cookies on the little plates, soft lighting and it appeared in its muumuu.
“So, you’re back for more,” it said.
A crack appeared in my façade.
“Yes! Yes! I’m ready.”
“Ready for what.”
“Confess. I’m still drinking.”
It laughed. “You can’t fool me.”
“Look, I’ve been faking all along and I hate Program.”
“We knew that.”
“So, what’s going to happen?”
“Nothing.” It got the Cinzano bottle off the shelf. Its O expression had turned into a U. “Drink?”
I thought about last night, seeing Aubrey slash Bill, and all the trouble.
“Nah. I’ll stick to milk,” I said and sipped.
It put the Cizanzo back on the shelf.
“Aren’t you going to tell me who you are,” I asked.
“Call me an amalgam,” it said.
“I’ll drink to that.”
Just like old times. We clinked glasses. I thanked her and went to join the party. They all seemed glad to see me, said they’d been waiting for me to return to the fold and to see things their way. Couldn’t do a thing but nod and eat. Afterwards, they asked me to repeat the in-the-closet story. I didn’t ask them how they knew – I suspected Mama had been on the phone the second I hit the sack. Gossip is a terrible Program problem. So, I took their “suggestion” and repeated the entire penis captivus story. Then I waited for judgment.
“Congratulations! You’ve successfully completed your 4th and 5th step and can move on to Step 6!”
“Great. I need to meditate and pray!”
I was so happy to see Mama I swallowed my tongue.