Chapter 2: The Albatross
The saying still rings true, I suppose, except now I’ve just given in; the “can’t” has come sooner than expected as death lingers closer and closer. My erratic scorn for life comes with the territory. It started back when things were simpler, before the shakes and the seizures. The doctors told me that when they first started, the alcohol was weakening my immune system. When paired with the chronic smoking, it all just gave me a greater chance to meet the reaper through the exact same hand my father had been dealt. Having never been that great at poker, I chanced my life with a bluff and bet everything that I had left into the pot. The reward of winning was a delusion that the disease reflected at the bottom of each bottle that I drank nightly and of each hourly cigarette that I smoked. Eight years later, at forty two years old, the doc handed me some papers with eyes that said, “I told you so.” I’d be dead within a year.
My father, who had actually never smoked a day in his life, cursed God for the deceptiveness of the fortunate hand he’d held. He had been given a winning four of a kind, only to be duped by the high and mighty royal flush. As for me, I looked down through squinted, drunk eyes and continued to see a winning hand through and through, only to look a little closer when I sobered to see four suicidal jacks staring back at me. God plays a sick game, so I folded in shame. I always hated poker anyways.
The apartment I sit in stands empty, with everything sold to support this gruesome habit. All that’s left is my computer, a TV, and a recliner chair where I sit nightly watching the world go by without even a nod to my existence.
Tonight on the TV, postmorts are rioting downtown. The government is trying to pass a law that would have them all sent off to some sort of segregated holding camp where they can all rot and die “in peace.” City workers are tired of scraping the remains of the rotted homeless and outcasts out of alleyways and street gutters, and everyone seems to be getting as sick of the smell as I am. It’s hard to walk the streets these days without spotting one, unlike before, when one would be hard-pressed to see even one dead shuffler a week. Their droopy grey skin, missing teeth, and yellowish eyes are always dead giveaways. Shit, half the people in my meeting look that way in their post-relapse days. It’s a sad day when one realizes that the company he chooses to keep are the walking, talking, symbols of zombies.
I pick up the beer off the table next to me and take a long gulp. My stomach grumbles in hunger as the near-warm liquid hits it. I pick up my phone and hold down the number two button—the speed dial to the Jimmy John’s down the street. After two rings, someone picks up, but it sounds like they fumble the phone in the process.
“What’s up Casper?” I hear when they finally get it together. I cringe—it’s my brother’s voice.
“Yes?” he says, elongated and higher pitched. I want to punch myself for my mistake. When had I switched the two numbers?
“I didn’t, umm, hi,” I say.
“You’re drinking.” His words come out just as I remember my mother saying them to my father back in her day. Somehow, she always knew.
“Don’t start, please. It’s the last thing I need today. So, what’s the good word?”
“Nothing’s really new from the last time we talked,” he pauses for a moment, “whenever that was.” Everything good with you, besides the normal things wrong?”
“Everything is normal,” I sigh and take another drink. “I’m fine. Just watching the news. World’s going to shit, so yeah, nothing new. You see the news yesterday, about the couple in Everett?”
“Yeah, I saw,” he says. “It seems like it wasn’t supposed to go down like that.” The story went that the wife committed suicide by taking some pills and the husband came home to find her laying newly lifeless in the bathtub. I guess they had made a pact that if either one of them had died then they would end it again for each other, just so that they wouldn’t have to drag out the prolonged goodbye and suffer through it. The husband shot her in the head with the gun they kept. Fact is though, she wasn’t even dead yet, not even close; she was just unconscious, and shooting her in the head made it official. “He’s going down for murder now,” says Jared. “He’ll be suffering through her death for a lot longer than he ever anticipated, it seems.”
I know the feeling. The story makes me think of my fate and what I would become. How long would I have to suffer? How would my brother do with the same agony that we went through with my father? I begin to cough and hold the phone away from my face. The fit is bad, but I end it by alternating holding my breath and taking deep breaths, a tactic I’d learned through the last few months. “Sorry,” I say when I begin to breathe easy again.
“God, you sound like you’re dying,” Jared says passively. His voice bears the featherweight of sarcasm yet his words sting with shocks of intense gravity forcing themselves on top of me, as if he had just said that he was disowning me as a brother. I feel the tears in my throat before they reach my eyes. I swallow them down with another gulp of beer then rotate the can in my hand as I stare at it, looking for answers.
“I am,” I hear myself say.
“Are what?” Jared asks.
“The doc says it could be three months, possibly more. He’s surprised I’m still functioning so well without the oxygen, like dad had to get. I guess it’s in my blood now too or something.”
“Or something?” he exclaims, more serious now, the weight getting heavier. “Casper, what are you saying?”
“Cancer is a hell of a thing, Jared. I guess I’ll get our answer that Dad never provided sooner than I had hoped.” I quickly realize that this is the first honest thing out loud that I have said about my condition.
There’s silence on the phone for longer than I can handle. The walls of the room feel like they are creating a pressure in my head, as if I were deep underwater drowning in the depths of the secret that I had kept from my own brother for so long. “How long have you known this?” Jared finally says.
“Six months. I’m sorry bro.”
“Don’t be fucking sorry Casper. You should have told me, but—are you, are you in the city still?”
“I’m on the first plane I can find. I’ll call you back in a bit.”
“No, Jared!” I say with force. “Don’t you fucking dare.” I hear the phone click off before I can finish talking. I don’t want to see him, at least not the way I’ve been going lately, but I can’t call him back because I don’t know how to say such a thing.
I finish the beer in my hand and throw the empty can against the wall. On television, the empty yet angry protesting eyes of the dead stare back at me.
They believe they still have souls. They believe they all have rights. They seem to be multiplying, just like the flies on their corpses. Is our world just that close to death that God sent his walking carrions to remind us of the fact? I walk senselessly, day by day, and am reminded at every corner of how lifeless our existence has really become. It has gotten harder for me to differentiate between the living and the dead; both are caught in hypnotic trances and doing mundane zombie tasks of the everyday laborer, all carried on by repetition and routine. Corpses, all of us. Rotten to the core. We stare at our phones and drool over videos while walking without a care or notice of where we are going. Not a day goes by when I don’t feel stuck in this pathetic hallucination. Each body is just a shadow of the next, walking in unison down the line toward finality. I’m the worst of them—an apparition of my former self, buying and stealing beer, waiting to fall in that long line to catch a glimpse of His last laugh. A person can’t even escape anymore, at least not the old-fashioned way. No cutting, pill taking, hanging, or the like. They say a shot in the head is best, or burning.
I think about this as I walk into the corner mart. The man behind the counter is no longer Asian-American. His tone is no longer vibrant. His eyes are no longer fixed or aware. He just is. He exists in this world for no other reason but to die again. When did he pass? I want to ask, and about how, but his eyes—the only emotion left— are as sad and droopy as a sick puppy’s. There’s no life left, I realize. No drive. He doesn’t belong. His destiny is elsewhere now. He’s just like me.
I walk out with my beer in tow, feeling like my only purpose in life, my only task, is complete.
The drinking started early after my father’s second passing. My mother had already been out of the picture for years as my aunt tried to fill her place as best she could. The therapists said that perhaps I was resentful towards her abandonment. They said that perhaps I held onto depression as fuel for the self-fulfilling prophecy cycle of beliefs, expectations, behaviors, and results; that this is what I believed I deserved so I behaved in a way that produced my image of low self-worth. They told me lots of things, but what it came down to was life—it hit me and I didn’t want to experience it. I felt as if it knocked me straight to the ground, and I did not want to feel the pain of the impact.
It only got worse as time went on and my brother moved from the state. Not only did I feel worthless, but I was completely alone. I am smart enough to know that none of this was true, but my addiction lies to me. It feels like no matter circumstance, I take a crossbow and shoot down the truths of situations from the sky as it tries to enter into my sight, only to wear the burden of the prize around my neck in guilt. It weighs on me, and it adds up quickly. Soon I am unable to move, like a storybook painting of me on my worst of nights.
The shakes hit me swiftly in my mid-twenties. Not only had my stomach begun to reject everything I tried to subject it to, but the pounds began to drop by the dozen. Once, walking down toward Pike Place Market, I had even been mistaken for a stiff. I shuffled my feet in an all-out effort to seek out a bench under a canopy, unable to make it home before the rains hit. People passed me in all directions, ignoring me like they did the rest of the begging homeless, but I will never forget the look one kid’s face as he passed me by, all wide-eyed, awe-struck, and every other hyphenated adjective of amazement in the book. I knew what I looked like; I had seen them myself for years. My hands were shaking, eyes were yellow, skin was sweaty and drooped down low, all as I hunched down on the bench with a sort of finality that only comes from the best of trilogies. I made it. It’s over. “This ain’t Mordor, kid,” I remember saying in a raspy, dry tone reserved only for westerns, “but this might as fucking well be Hell.” He ran, and I know for a fact he had nightmares that night. I sure would have.
Through all of the therapy to pinpoint my woes and all of the attempts to make it sober on my own, nothing stuck, so I walked into my first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting around that same time. You never forget those faces of your first time either: you, the new guy, in a room full of leers of hungry saviors ready to claim their victim. I kept my focus on the tiled floor as tears dried to the brims of my eyes; I did not want them to see that I was weak and vulnerable. Then in that moment, I heard the first postmort speak in those rooms. He would be the first of many.
“Release resentments and forgive yourself for past transgressions,” he said.
“Give it to God,” he said.
“Let go and let yourself live,” he said.
My ears perked-up in instant realization, and from that point forward, my mind was set. All I had heard, with clarity, was “Let go and forgive. Give it to God to live.” This senseless rhyme played through my head for the entire day, which mingled with the detoxing thoughts brought on by the lack of drinks and the still, to this day, sobering notion of the impossibility of it all. I could not understand how those people bought into that crap, and that there could be anything at all gained from learning from the past by admitting fault and transferring our power of choice to some Higher Being they were choosing call God.
I knew that in life, there was only black and white— choices made by me or not made by me, roads taken or opportunities passed, and so on. I was in control of my fate, as I had always been my whole life, and if there was a God, or anything greater than me, then he had inflicted me with this ailment of self. As humans, we had been cursed with this, and ran ourselves into the ground daily with it. As for the past, how could we truly forgive ourselves with something that we would never fully understand? We interpret lessons based on the misconception and delusion of memory, which fails us as time goes on and history repeats itself over and over again. So, as an alcoholic, I was doomed, because I concluded that the cycle would forever be endless. True anger was born inside of me that day, but I did learn one thing: meetings became an outlet of sorts. I could sit and listen and laugh at the cult believers in my head, which released me from the burden of thoughts about myself and my pathetic life and of this dying world, if only for an hour.
I would go back, again and again. That was my choice that I made.