[Previously on When Heaven’s Demons Advance: The spirits lifted the pain and for a while everything was sweet, light as a feather . . .]
. . . The tension was gone, melted away. The mind was lubricated, the situation varnished with a coat of smoothness that had been a long time coming. Things stopped sticking and stuttering. They just flowed. The world hadn’t changed, it was still the same shit-stained reality with its dramas and pretenses, everyone holier than the next person, playing God, playing tough, depending on the venue and stage, but I figured out a way to glide through it.
See, if I wasn’t going to confront it, I was at least going to weather it, ignore it, maybe even have some fun along the way.
Spirits. They have a way of turning down the dial, if you know what I mean.
If you know how to use them, that is.
At first, everything was fantastic. A few snorts a night to take the edge off, let the mind unwind. The best pick-me-up-slash-analgesic, a bloom of hours preoccupied by nothing. So good, I almost felt guilty. The absence of tension felt unnatural, as if I’d been doing something wrong. That’s how deep the indoctrinating goes, this feeling of constant warfare. One feels empty and useless and out of place without it.
I wasn’t a practising Catholic, but the sensation of guilt was there, cultivated by a number of sources, both religious and secular. A way of life I couldn’t shake, a friction that came pack and parcel with being alive, at least in New Rome. There was no escaping the constant drilling and worrying and tensing over things. Relax and you felt like you were missing out, doing something terribly wrong.
But time has a way. After a while I got used to the feeling of winding down, at least for a few hours a day. I got a sense of control back. My sleep patterns improved and my head felt lighter. I woke up refreshed and excited. I was looking forward to getting up and doing things even if it meant rubbing shoulders with all those people and things pushing and shoving their way through life at the expense of common sense. I didn’t care, I knew I had a way out, my own private little Idaho to return to when it was lights out. There I could relax, get in touch with something beautiful. Forget the ugliness of the day, the empty greetings and their pretend camaraderie. I didn’t mind the fake smiles anymore, the grins that were more threat than joy because I had teeth, too. I grinned back. I started playing the game. I had something to be cheerful about.
The days and nights passed and the snorts increased by a couple, then by a couple more. Whiskey, always, except when it was bourbon. Soon I was on one third of one fifth per night. Then I was on one third of one fifth by nighttime, meaning I either had to turn in early to avoid having more, or keep going. A couple of times I kept going. Soon I was on half a bottle, then more, then who knows, I lost track.
And the pain came back, the shrieking of the rust, the grating inside my nerves, twice as strong, five times as strong, one hundredfold on occasion, or so it seemed, pangs and pangs of it, most times during withdrawal, when I was most exposed and vulnerable, but also through the effects of the drink itself. Soothing the summer rains may have been, at first, but they degenerated into flash floods. They swept me away alongside a ton of debris, battering my defenses, eating away at my foundations, replacing the hurt which the first snorts had initially righted with a different kind of erosion, an acid rot particular to my peace of mind.
There I was, treating myself in the way many others have done before, the grog in my hand, swinging it back in burning gulps, fragrant storms in my mouth and belly, unclogging my synapses, bursting back into life and revving up old, beat up engines to produce roaring dreams again, when the reality of dependence reared up from nowhere and head-butted me in the face. The effects of my choices finally catching up with me. They hung over me inevitable and sharp like the sword every drunk pretends not to see, nasty blade of consequence, cleaving the air above my head, its murderous tip burning a hole on the top of my skull, threatening to drop on me at any moment. Gravity became my enemy, the vicious circle I couldn’t escape. I had to drink to forget, and drink I did, down the hatch at will, sinking deeper inside my predicament to forget my predicament, the sword of consequence dangling heavy overhead.
It was only natural. What goes up must come down. What is suspended by a thread cannot do so for long. It’s basic mathematics, reality economics, heuristics. Start off the race with a bang, with the help of an intoxicant, and you’re bound to end on a mighty low, on the fringe of withdrawal, in the bowels of hangover. What goes around comes around. My life a lush cliche. Moments of joy turned to big messy lumps inside my head, chunks of haze stuffed together like pickled dreams, wrinkled and acidified in a jar. Preserved like onions and gherkins. That’s how my brain felt. Sweet beautiful memory turned to brine, all hope conserved. Merely conserved.
It was the opposite of all things sound.
If it had been nutrition, it would have been the best of the worst. Gourmet dishes of a wartime diet, barely doing their job, always leaving me empty, weaker.
Still, there was a silver lining in the middle of it, hair thin, but bright as hell. I was on fire. No more bland, unorgasmic regimens, no more straddling the bottom of the ocean like some spineless leftover existence trying to not antagonize its surroundings. I had exchanged my driftwood weight with fuel power, and for all the dullness and volatility that constituted little old bloating me, drunken me, I was doing something different, setting the air I breathed ablaze. I felt like a dragon in a world of mortals. Go out with a bang and not look back is what it was all about.
The thing is, I had no reason to expect that this kind of release, this newfound stupor of mine, would be any different from my days of conforming sobriety. Dependence was dependence. The inability to break out of a vicious circle, frightening. Rust was rust, pain was pain. Why was fun so important? A mere distraction, sick in so many ways. Rot is rot, be it rust or brine, and I was drenched in it.
Still. I felt better, invigorated, even as my very fiber wrinkled up like a raisin. Better go out with a bang than fizzle out like yesterday’s belch.
I smiled. Shook my head. Thought it through some more. Sobriety was no savior or redeemer. Hopes and dreams of all kinds had perished in its wake, dying to rise up to the pristine perfection laid out for them, crushed and buried under layer and layer of indulgent rationality relentlessly crashing into them. The flourish of prohibition in all its glory, monument to the puritan mind, dead set on laying out the agenda so as to make up for its loss of spirit. A paper flower kept by ghost gardeners in a smoke environment. Smoke and mirrors. That’s sobriety.
I wasn’t going to put it on any pedestal, or rush back to it.
My course of action? Relish the moment and keep an eye out for rust while passing the brine through the tap. Keep an eye out for inspiration. Be present. Be active. Have a drink and be merry and do drunk everything I said I would do sober, and do sober (or hungover) everything I said I would do drunk, every stupid idea concocted while bored or mad, all of them tested so that I would learn my lesson and know how much to drink next time round and what to say and where to draw the line and where to go all out. Use my vice to my advantage to build a better and stronger Xavier out of my explosive temperance. Turn my clear moments into after-effects of inebriation, swift as a bat and twice as agile. I wasn’t going to be soaked in merry corrosives and not learn how to get away with painful and undoable feats. The power was mine for the taking, come what may. My chances of meeting good spirits were better that way, puns intended, and when the time came for me to croak, what a loud and lovely thunder it would be, peeling like the roar of a mighty hog ridden by a Hells Angel on a spin through the gawking country, only instead of a bungling outlaw there would be a burning fireball crashing through the air, a fountain pen in one hand, shaped like a sword, a heavy book in the other, thick as a shield, a helmet forged by irreverent curiosity, a fire halo to boot and a lightning rod across my back, shooting bolts at will, blasting craters in tackle-and-grin country. Heaven’s demon on a world tour, juiced up, razor-sharp, and headed for impact.
Here’s to the good spirits, nasty as they may be. May they light our way.
They did mine, all the way to the roaring end.
From the upcoming collection of short stories and vignettes DISAPPEARANCES: XAVIER MARKS THE SPOT