I wasn’t expecting the phone call, but I wasn’t surprised by it either. Over the years I had received many 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. Found sitting in an alley between two dumpsters, drunk, incoherent and belligerent, he wouldn’t allow anyone to get near him. Angry at first, but knowing the history and how much I had influenced it, I changed my attitude.
At three in the morning, 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. In fact, 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 jumped into the pickup and drove the few miles into town. Careful to drive below the speed limit, I had no desire to be pulled over and given a ticket for driving under the influence.
A light snow fell as I drove through town. The streets remained empty and the only light came from my truck and a few dimly lit street lamps. When I arrived at the spot where I was told my son would be, I parked adjacent to a darkened alley and slid out of the truck. Standing at one end of the alleyway, I surveyed the scene. About halfway down, I noticed a single, dim light on the back of a loading dock, with articles of trash scattered on the ground around a number of dumpsters lined up on either side. But I didn’t see him. As I walked I nearly stepped on an old tomcat, sniffing around for scraps dumped out the back door of a nearby restaurant.
I jumped when I heard a glass bottle clink to the pavement, and when it rolled into the alley a few yards in front of me, I knew then where I needed to look. Coming alongside two dumpsters, I stepped out into the center of the alley for a better glimpse. What I saw nearly broke my heart. Sitting on the ground with his back leaning against the brick wall was my son. I’m not sure 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 sat with his head hanging down between his legs and with eyes closed he slowly swayed 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 whispered his name again. Still no response. I repeated his name, only louder. He slowly raised his head, but his face didn’t register recognition. With swollen cheeks and eyes that had closed to slits, snot dripped from his nose and onto his lips. Pus oozed from one of his nearly closed eyes and I noticed that some of the mucous had dried and crusted on his skin. He wore filthy clothes that had been ripped in several places, and the smell of vomit and urine caused me to briefly recoil. In his lap he held between both hands a nearly empty bottle, and I recognized the label; Listerine.
Reaching forward I grabbed his arm, but he immediately jerked it away and cursed incoherently. Trying to stand up, he fell backwards and banged his head on the wall. He spat out more curse words and tried once again to regain his feet, but his condition had left him weak. I reached out to him and said, “You’re gonna need somebody’s hand son.” He remained sitting and stared off into space. I grabbed the bottle out of his hand and threw it down the alley.
That set him off again. He screamed, “Son of a bitch. Give it back.”
I knew better than to argue with him, so I ignored his anger and waited. Before long he forgot about the bottle. While I waited for him to regain some sense of place, I observed his body shiver in the cold. His hands shook and his teeth chattered. I removed an extra layer of clothes and placed my coat on his shoulders. He didn’t acknowledge it and instead remained motionless, staring into nothingness. Sitting next to him, for what seemed a long time, I attempted to help him to his feet. This time he struggled to an upright position. I wrapped one of his arms around my shoulders and bearing most of his weight 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 uttered a word. Soon he sat up straight and with a wild look in his eyes he desperately searched inside the truck. He felt underneath his seat and then opened the glove box. Not finding what he was searching for, he slammed the glove box door and shouted, “Son of a bitch. Where’s the booze?”
“There isn’t any,” I said.
“That’s bullshit, Dad. You always have a bottle. Where is it?”
I remained unruffled. In a calm, measured tone, I said, “I told you, there’s nothing here.”
He banged his fist against the window. “Gimme a drink, old man.” I answered nothing in return. He sat with his back against the door and glared at me. “Drive to your house. I know there’s some there.”
While I drove through the snow, he eventually fell asleep. The cab remained silent and as I drove, 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 was still a drunk, and my son, even more so.
I drove out-of-town, to an old hunting lodge 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, remote and primitive, would be the perfect place for Nathaniel to dry out.
The sun peeked over the horizon as we arrived at our destination. When we pulled up to the cabin, he peered out the truck window, wearing a confused look. “Where are we?”
“I figured this would be a good place to sober you up.”
He scowled. “I don’t need to sober up dammit. I need a drink.”
I stood outside the truck, waiting. “Help me haul this stuff inside.”
We carried the supplies inside the musty cabin, and I left him inside while I gathered up some firewood. Once I had a fire roaring, I scrambled up some breakfast. Nathaniel, not hungry, slept on the couch while I ate alone.
As the evening sun disappeared, he awoke for the first time. When he emerged from beneath the blankets I noticed he had lost a lot of weight. His arms appeared as two toothpicks, and I could easily count his ribs as he stood surveying the cabin. I knew what he wanted. “There isn’t any.”
His eyes revealed anger. Almost hatred. “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 town. Besides, you wouldn’t last long out there in your condition.” He had a desperate look on his face and his hands trembled.
“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 with pity and 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.”
With a shivering frame and trembling lips, he muttered, “If she hadn’t broken my, heart I’d be fine.”
“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 soon, I heard loud snoring. Sitting across the room in an old wooden rocking chair, I 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, a hideous sound coming from his bed woke me. A moaning, wailing sound came from beneath the covers. “Whoa, oh, oh, oh.” Amid rustling blankets, I heard the wailing again. “Whoa, oh, oh, oh.” Strolling across the room, I pulled back the covers. Nathaniel writhed from side to side and his body shook violently. Both hands gripped his head and clumps of hair fell from between his fingers. When he noticed me standing nearby, he screamed, “Son of a bitch. Gimme a drink.”
I tenderly gazed at him and shook my head. He then scratched himself with both hands, violently, while repeating over and over, “Bugs are crawling all over me.” His fingernails tore at his skin, and he bled from his arms and neck. Tears flowed down his cheeks and he repeated that bugs were crawling all over him. I begged him to stop scratching, that there weren’t any bugs, but he couldn’t hear me and continued writhing and scratching and wailing.
I sat next to him on the bed and gripped him with both hands, pinning his arms to his sides. I held him tight while he fought to get away, but I was much stronger than him and the more he fought, the tighter I held. Soon, he sobbed. Tears welled up in my eyes and it wasn’t long before I wept along with him. His wailing eventually stopped, which led to a soft whimper, “No one cares.”
I held him tenderly in my arms. “I care, son.” His body shook as we held one another. This went on for a time, but eventually he fell back asleep, and so I fixed some breakfast and sat once again in the rocking chair, watching him while I ate. And while I thought.
I hated for my son to suffer, and I refused to sit back and watch him drink his life away. I also concluded that this wouldn’t 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 would end my son’s suffering.
While he slept on the couch, I strolled to a backroom closet and dug around for a bottle I had hidden there a few years earlier. It was a gallon of cheap whiskey. I moved 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 I had emptied the bottle. I then sat back down in the rocking chair and lit up a cigarette. Once I had the cigarette lit, I tossed the still burning match across the room. When the fire touched the blankets enveloping my son, flames shot up and quickly traveled around the cabin. I peered across the room as the blaze roared around me and with tears running down my cheeks, 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