I wasn’t expecting the phone call, but I wasn’t surprised by it either. Over the years I had received a few just like it. The person on the other end, not giving me a name, told me I needed to come pick up my son. They said he needed someone to help him. He was sitting in an alley between two dumpsters, drunk, incoherent and belligerent, and he wasn’t allowing anyone to get near him. At first I was angry, but knowing the history and how much I had influenced it, I changed my attitude.
It was three in the morning and I was still up watching television, but receiving little for the investment. I couldn’t sleep and was too lazy to go anywhere and too proud to call a friend. I had nearly run out of friends, so I suppose I wasn’t willing to waste a call. I put out my cigarette, screwed the lid back on the bottle, set the empty glass in the sink and went into the bedroom and threw on some clothes. I then started up the pickup and drove the few miles into town. I was careful to drive below the speed limit, not wanting to be pulled over and given a ticket for driving under the influence.
There was a light snow falling as I drove through town. Not a car was visible in either direction, the only lights being my headlights and a few dimly lit streetlights. When I arrived at the spot where I was told my son would be, I parked on the street next to the alley and got out of the truck. I stood at the end of the alley and surveyed the scene. About halfway down the alley, I noticed one dim light on the back of a loading dock and I could see trash scattered on the ground around a number of dumpsters lined up on either side. But I didn’t see him. As I started to walk I nearly stepped on an old tomcat who was sniffing around for scraps, which failed to make it into someone’s mouth, from one of the restaurants feeding garbage out their back door.
I jumped when I heard a glass bottle fall onto the ground and roll into the alley a few yards in front of me and I knew then where I needed to look. When I reached the two dumpsters, I stepped out into the center of the alley for a better glimpse as to what was between them. What I saw nearly broke my heart. Sitting on the ground with his back up against the wall was my son. I don’t know how I knew it was him; I hadn’t seen him in years and he didn’t look much like the son I remembered. But it was him for sure. He was sitting with his head facing down between his legs and was slowly swaying back and forth, humming some unrecognizable tune.
I approached him and said his name, Nathaniel, but he didn’t respond. I then knelt down beside him and said his name again. Still no response. I repeated it again, only louder. He slowly looked up at me, but his face didn’t register that he recognized me. His cheeks were swollen, as were his eyes which were nearly shut, and snot was dripping out of his nose. I could see pus oozing from one of his eyes and noticed that some of the mucous was dry and crusty on his skin. His clothes were filthy and torn in a number of places and the smell of vomit and urine was all around him. In his lap he held a nearly empty bottle between both hands. I recognized it as a bottle of Listerine.
I reached forward and grabbed his arm and he immediately jerked it away and cursed something incoherent. He tried to stand up, but fell backwards and banged his head on the wall. He cursed some more and tried again, but he was too weak. I reached out to him and said, “You’re gonna need somebody’s hand son.” He just sat there and stared off into space. I grabbed the bottle out of his hand and threw it down the alley.
That set him off again and he yelled, “Son of a bitch. Give it back.”
I knew better than to argue with him, so I ignored him and waited. Before long he forgot about the bottle. I waited a while longer and I watched his body shiver in the cold. His hands were shaking and his teeth were chattering. I took off one of my extra layers and laid a coat on his shoulders. He didn’t acknowledge it, and continued sitting and staring. I sat next to him and waited a while longer and then tried to help him up again. This time he got to his feet. I put one of his arms around my shoulders and bore most of his weight; and then I led him, one step at a time, out of the alley and into my truck.
As we drove out-of-town, we neither one said a word. Soon he sat up straight and with a wild look in his eyes he began looking around the truck. He felt under the seat and then opened the glove box. When he didn’t find what he was looking for he slammed the glove box door and shouted, “Son of a bitch. Where’s the booze?”
I looked over at him and calmly said, “There isn’t any.”
“That’s bullshit Dad. You always have a bottle. Where is it?”
I remained calm and said, “I told you, there’s nothing here.”
He banged his fist against the window and said, “Gimme a drink old man.” I said nothing in return and he sat and glared at me. He then said, “Drive to your house. I know there’s some there.”
I continued driving and he eventually fell asleep. As I drove down the road, my thoughts traveled back to the day when this snowball first began rolling. The boy was only fourteen when his mother left me and took him with her. I don’t blame her for leaving. I wasn’t much of a husband and couldn’t keep a steady job with my alcohol problems. It wasn’t long afterward when she began to tell me about Nathaniel getting into trouble at school and around town and how he had developed a fondness for getting drunk. She blamed me. I blamed me. And now here we were. I’m still a drunk and my son is even more so.
I drove through the snow and headed to an old hunting lodge, miles from anywhere, I used to frequent with a couple of old friends of mine. We didn’t really do much hunting, but we did do a lot of drinking. The cabin is remote and primitive and I figured it would be the perfect place for Nathaniel to get clean. It was daylight when we arrived. As we pulled up to the cabin, he looked around and said, “Where are we?”
“I thought this would be a good place to sober you up.”
The anger from earlier returned to his face. “I don’t need to sober up dammit. I need a drink.”
I stood outside the truck and said, “Help me carry this stuff inside.”
We carried the supplies inside the musty cabin and I left him there while I gathered up some firewood. Once a fire was started I scrambled up some breakfast. He wasn’t hungry so I ate alone and left him to sleep on the couch.
It was almost dark when he awoke for the first time. When he got out from underneath the blankets I could see that he had lost a lot of weight. His arms looked like toothpicks and I could count his ribs as he stood looking around the cabin. I knew what he was looking for and said, “There isn’t any here.”
He glared at me. “Then I’ll go find some in town.”
“You’re not going anywhere, unless you walk. I’ve got the keys to the truck and we’re miles away from anybody. Besides, you wouldn’t last long out there in your condition.” I could see the desperate look on his face and noticed his hands were shaking.
“I can’t take it Dad. I’d rather be dead.” He paused, shook his head and said, “Nobody would give a damn if I was.”
I looked at him and I saw myself a few years back. I had bottomed out once, but with the help of a good friend I made it through to the other side. I wasn’t sure he would. “Son, this is going to be hard, but you have to get clean. You’ve been drinking hard for seventeen years and you won’t make another seventeen if you don’t quit now. Look at you. You look like hell.”
He stood there shaking and muttered, “If she hadn’t broken my heart I’d be fine.”
I said, “But you’re not fine Nathaniel. You’re drinking your life away.”
I reached into the cooler and offered him a bottle of water, but he declined, and after using the toilet, he crawled back under the covers and before long he was sawing logs. I sat in an old wooden rocking chair and watched him as he slept. It was hard for me to believe, but at one time he was my little boy. Where had things gone so wrong? It wasn’t long before I too fell off to sleep.
The next morning I was awakened by a hideous sound from across the room. It was a moaning or wailing sound coming from my son. “Whoa, oh, oh, oh.” I saw the blankets moving and heard the wailing again. “Whoa, oh, oh, oh.” I walked across the room and pulled back the blankets. Nathaniel was writhing back and forth and his body was shaking. His hands were grabbing at his head and clumps of hair were falling from his fingers. When he noticed me standing there he screamed, “Son of a bitch. Gimme a drink.”
I looked at him and shook my head. He then began scratching himself violently and kept repeating, “Bugs are crawling all over me.” He continued scratching his skin and began bleeding from his arms and neck. He started crying and repeated that there were bugs crawling all over him. I told him to stop scratching, that there weren’t any bugs, but he couldn’t hear me and kept on writhing and scratching and wailing.
I quickly sat down next to him and grabbed him with both of my hands and pinned his arms to his sides. I held him down and he fought to get away, but I was much stronger than him and the more he fought, the tighter I held him. He soon began sobbing. I felt tears welling up in my own eyes and it wasn’t long before I was crying along with him. His wailing stopped after a while and then he began to softly whimper, “No one cares.” I continued to hold him and I said, “I care son.” I could feel his body shaking as the two of us sat holding one another. This went on for a time, but eventually he fell back asleep and I fixed some breakfast and sat once again in the rocking chair, watching him while I ate. And while I thought.
I hated to see my son suffer and decided I wasn’t going to sit back and watch him drink his life away. I also came to the conclusion that this wasn’t going to end unless I made it end. Even if he survived the next few days, his life wasn’t going to change for the better and his suffering would continue. And that I couldn’t take. I made a decision that morning. I was going to end my son’s suffering.
While he slept on the couch, I went into a back closet and dug around for a bottle I had hidden there a few years earlier. It was a gallon of cheap whiskey. I walked around the cabin and poured the whiskey onto the chair, onto the blankets on the bed, onto Nathaniel as he slept; I saturated as much of the cabin as I could until the bottle was empty. I then sat back down in the rocking chair and lit up a cigarette. Once the cigarette was lit, I took the still burning match and threw it across the room. When it landed on the blankets surrounding my son, the flames shot up and quickly traveled around the room. I looked across the room as the flames grew around me and with tears running down my face I said to my son, “I’m going to cover myself with the ashes of you.”
*Inspired by Nathaniel Rateliff’s song S.O.B