He answers the door the first time I knock, and I’m not expecting it. Most days, I have to walk to the end of the porch and knock on his bedroom window before he’ll answer. Some days he doesn’t answer at all.
Today, he moves the towel covering the window on the door, sees that it’s me, and breaks out in a smile that shows both dimples and rests in the wrinkles around his eyes. It’s been three weeks since I’ve seen him.
I put my best smile on, and say, “Hey, honey. Glad you bonded out. Did you know your pants are on inside-out?”
He laughs and tells me to come on in as he looks for another cigarette, rounds up his lighter, and hides the Aristocrat bottle that was on the table by the door.
I sit in the chair covered with the granny-squared afghan, and he sits on the couch flicking ashes onto a cake plate on the piano bench.
“I tried to call,” he says.
“The cell won’t accept collect.”
Silence. I bite a nail that is already bleeding, and wonder how many stitches are in a square of the afghan.
“I didn’t smoke for fifteen days.” He’s smoked at least a pack a day since he was a teenager, and we both know it.
“I bet you lit up in the parking lot,” I say, “and I bet you stopped at the liquor store on the way home.”
He smiles his smile. I know him.
“I’ll bet you something else too,” I say. He raises his eyebrows. “Bet you haven’t had a bath since you came home.”
“I only came home yesterday.”
“No, you came home on Wednesday. Today is Saturday,” I say, “and you stink.”
His brain tries to wrap around the fact that he’s lost two whole days. I use the distraction to convince him to move down the hall to the bathroom, where I begin to run the water, testing it on the vulnerable skin of my wrist like I used to when my girls were small. He’s able to get his T-shirt off, but that’s all, since the pants—belt and all—are inside out. He leans over me and holds onto the sink while I help him out of the faded Carhartts, sagging Fruit-of-the-Looms, and a pair of yellowed socks that have Hanes stitched in grey across the toes.
We don’t talk. I touch an arm or a leg to get him to raise or lower it, making small circles with the washcloth across the places on his body I know so well. Only I don’t. His arms shake as he holds them out to me.
“I hate you,” he whispers.
“I hate you too. Lean back so I can wash your hair, Stinky.”
By the time I’m finished, he’s almost sober, and he stands at the sink to brush his teeth. He squints at his reflection in the mirror, laughs at his curls grown so much longer than I used to clip them.
“Damn, Chicken, look at all the grey in my hair.”
“I know, Boy, we’re old,” I say. I look in the mirror with him, and finger a stray curl at his ear. “We’ve got to fix this shit before we don’t have any time left.”
And as I say it, I don’t know if there’s time enough.
So far, I’ve held my own through his revolving rehabs and reconciliations. But I don’t know how strong I am—if I’ll even know when the time comes that I’m not pulling things together anymore. I’ve been in remission for years this time, and I’m starting to question my need for the meds, to sleep less regularly, and to argue with myself about how much I need the creative drive of my manias. I broke my last doctor’s appointment and haven’t rescheduled yet.
I sit with Bishop for another hour, and we talk about everything except what’s important. His trial is Monday, and I hope the judge will order him into a ninety-day program. The ordeal of getting him clean has exhausted us both. When I’m sure he’s dozed off, I get up from the couch as quietly as I can and swallow my afternoon dose of lithium with the orange Gatorade he’s been using as a chaser. Pulling the screen closed softly behind me, I slip away.
Pamela Dellinger is an Adjunct Professor of English at Coastal Carolina University. She also teaches high school English in her hometown of Marion, SC, and lives there with three beautiful daughters, two rescued dogs, and a pocketful of lithium. (Pamela blogs on the origin of this essay here.)
Photography by Eleanor Leonne Bennett