Beauty After the Storm, Rae Clickenbeard
The clock on the stove blinks 12:00a.m., but I know that it’s actually 4:52p.m. I’ve been meaning to reset the clock since the electricity was shut off temporarily a month ago.
“Put your tights on, girls.” I don’t have to yell, they are only a thin wall away. My apartment only has one room, a bathroom spacious enough for one regular sized man or two small girls at a time, a kitchenette, and a patch of carpet that fits a single loveseat.
Jeanie would tell me that their legs would freeze without their tights. She would tell me that it’s winter and it would be ridiculous to let them leave the house with bare legs. But I won’t fight them. They hate putting their tights on and Jeanie isn’t here, so I’ll just hope the girls listen.
Carolyn is twelve and Ruthie just turned nine last week. They scoot into the backseat, knobby legs covered in sheer black and freckled faces flushed pink. In a couple seconds, Carolyn will complain that it’s cold, so I flip on the heat. Cool air blasts from the vents.
“Brrrrrrr! Daaaaaaaaad! It’s cold!”
“Wait for it to get warm, Carolyn. It takes time.”
It takes exactly three minutes to get from my house to the church on W street. That is, if the only two stoplights stay green. And if Ms. Wilkes isn’t crossing the only four way street in town, headed to Love’s for her weekly carton of menthols. It takes Ms. Wilkes a full minute to cross the street. She visually assaults me whenever I press the gas before she’s reached the other sidewalk. Ms. Wilkes was my teacher for second grade. She hated me, but she hated all her students.
There is no Ms. Wilkes today. Thankfully. We arrive at the church in exactly three minutes.
“Can we just stay in the car, daddy?” Carolyn thrusts herself between the front seats and cranes her neck up at me. Last month she had to get her eyeteeth pulled—Jeanie insisted that I pay that bill before the electricity. She looks silly and much younger without them. Her baby teeth haven’t made an appearance yet, so with her face pushed close to mine, all I see are gums and freckles.
“No,” I reply, leaning into the door, putting distance between her gums and my nose. “It’s too expensive to keep the heat on that long.” Carolyn and Ruthie whine in high-pitch unison.
We shuffle down the stairs and into the basement. There is a small hallway before the church’s theater doors. The girls seat themselves across from the wife of an older man named Paul. Carolyn, Ruthie, and this woman are the only people to ever tagalong to the meetings, sitting the full length of 90 minutes. The woman is peeling the plastic off her smokes. I lean down, kiss their chilled cheeks, and turn to go into the theater.
Blocks of fluorescent light illuminate the veil of loitering blue smoke. Both the hallway and the small theater room are clouded as a result of fifteen sober alcoholics chain smoking. I don’t smoke, but Jeanie does, so it never bothered me. I’m not one of those snooty hypocrites who thinks their lack of an additional addiction makes them superior. I beeline it for the coffee cart.
Despite being a member for a handful of years now, I find that the only real connection I’ve made is the acquaintance of the church coffee cart. It doesn’t ask about my anxiety of addressing alcoholism and provides ample amounts of caffeine—although burnt and grainy.
“Stop it, Carrie,” Ruthie hisses, snatching back the Carnation Pink crayon. She draws the outline of a sun.
“The sun isn’t pink, you idiot.” Ruthie ignores me.
“Now, now, ladies, let’s be kind,” Loretta, the old woman on the bench across from us says, not looking up from her crossword puzzle. She has her third cigarette in ten minutes hanging from her chapped lips. Loretta smells like bacon grease, mint, and hairspray—and not the nice version of these smells. A whiff of her will make you scrunch your nose and take three steps back. Loretta is a waitress at The Barn, one of the oldest breakfast places in town She has been since she dropped out of high school, dad says. She always reeks of an unwashed apron. “Any chance you pretties might know the name of a town near New London, Connecticut? Eight letters.”
Ruthie and I shrug. I look down and see Ruthie drawing Loretta with, long, yellow teeth with big gaps. Loretta once told us she hadn’t been to the dentist in ten years. We can tell.
“So, sugarplums!” she exclaims, while itching her head with the lead end of her pencil. “How’s your beautiful mama?”
“Good,” I say. Ruthie ignores her, scribbling a blue sky.
“Oh c’mon, give me more than that! I’ve been worried sick! She hasn’t been into the restaurant at all this week. So unlike her!”
“I don’t know. We’ve been with dad all week. We’re go to mom’s after this. But I think she’s been going on some dates.” I try to say this confidently. Beside me, Ruthie stops coloring.
“Ahhhh, I see! Ooh, la la! Well tell her she has to buy double the pie next time she comes in to make up for leaving me out of the loop!” She cackles and looks back down at her crossword.
My eyes bore into the scuffed blue and white linoleum squares, sipping at my lukewarm coffee. Our group is made up largely of people far older than me. The elders have a very tight knit group, impenetrable to anyone younger than sixty. Otherwise, I only know two people familiarly, and we avoid speaking directly to each other and instead exchange polite smiles and a “hello.” The group’s facilitator, Clayton, is notoriously late. Despite knowing this, everyone else shows up on time.
“Hey, Greg.” I detach my eyes from the floor and look up to see the only person who continues to engage me in conversation.
“Hey, Vincent,” I respond, downing the rest of my coffee. As I stand to get more coffee, Vincent also rises. Vincent and I aren’t friends. Maybe acquaintances. He is the only person here who doesn’t greet me by saying how many goddamned seconds it’s been since his last drink. However, Vincent has filled me in on most of the base-level, personal information that defines acquaintanceship. He has a devout, supportive wife and two sons in college. He is in his late forties—almost a decade on me—and is a higher up at a grocery store.
The double doors to the theater slam open. Clayton comes bustling. His face is blotched with red and white spots, sweat wetting his receding hairline. “Oh, I am so sorry, you guys! Time just got the best of me! Please refill your coffee cups—” Clayton hesitated, just minutely, glancing at my isolated pastel patterned cup. “Finish those cigarettes, we will be refraining from clouding the air with anything but positivity and support this evening.” Everyone had already refilled their cups and pressed out their smokes.
Clayton drones on through the ritualistic requirements to starting every AA meeting. Some people sat stiffly upright, eyes attentively scanning his face, with a tight-lipped smile. Others, the veterans, one might say, played snake on their flip phones or scrawled in a notebook or just daydreamed until Clayton had finished reciting the same words they had heard so many times before. I fell somewhere in between, experience-wise, and thus, resorted to counting the miscellaneous stains on the popcorn ceiling.
Vincent begins to speak. Whenever he does, given his proximity, I stumble out of my stupor. “Well, this last weekend my, uh, work held a Christmas party. We had to wear ugly sweaters. I didn’t realize until that night that the party was being held at Shep’s Bar.” Murmurs of recognition ripple through the room. “Hah, yeah. So, there were a couple younger kids at this party, so I just stuck by them the whole time. You know, since they couldn’t buy anything. I just realized that, uh, it wasn’t so much hard for me to avoid alcohol as much as it was hard to force conversation with these teenagers. I mean, they’re even younger than my boys.” As Vincent spoke, I watched as he flicked with the lid of his Tic Tac box. He toyed with it when it was his turn to speak, occasionally popping two orange candies into his mouth.
“Greg!” Clayton stares at me, with a frustratingly eager smile on his face. I didn’t realize that Vincent had finished speaking. “Would you like to share?”
“Um, I think I’ll just listen today.” I always choose to pass. It’s basically in the rulebook that you are not forced to talk, no matter how many sessions you’ve been to.
“Oh, c’mon, Greg! We are all dying to support and empathize with your struggles. “You’ve been with us for two years and—,” he paused, jokingly looking at his watch-less wrist. “—two months or so?” I wasn’t aware.
“No, I think I’m good.”
“I think everyone would really enjoy hearing from you, Greg! Wouldn’t you all like to know more about our fellow sober friend, Greg?” There was a collection of agreements.
I exhaled loudly, glaring into Clayton’s greasy gray hairline. “Alright. What do you want to hear?”
“Just start wherever you’d like!” He grinned.
“Alright. I’ve got two daughters sitting out in the hall. Their names are—”
“Wait, wait! Let’s do a formal introduction. Name?”
I struggled to sustain composure at this request. “Greg. I’ve been sober for two years, I guess.”
“Hi, Greg,” greeted the group, all smiling faces and sharp eyes.
Clayton clapped his hands together in joy. “Oh, wonderful! Now, go on.”
“My daughters’ names are Carolyn and Ruthie. Uh, they are twelve and nine. Let me think… I’ve lived in this town my whole life. I probably had my first illegal drink in the basement of someone you know. Thankfully, it wasn’t any of you, ‘cause that would be awkward. So, yeah. What else do you wanna know? Well, I’m a mailman, but many of you probably already knew that. Your houses might be on my route. Hm… Well, I guess I should put this out there… I only come to this because my ex-wife said she’d stay with me if I got help. She didn’t stay with me.” I stopped. Out of my periphery I could see Vincent’s mouth agape, his Tic Tac container paused, flipped open, near his lips. My words were met with an increase in leg shaking, but everyone’s faces were warm.
Clayton’s eagerness had taken a hit. “Thank you for sharing, Greg. I wasn’t expecting you to share so much! I never knew your daughters’ names. Would anyone like to respond?”
Loretta’s husband Paul, a hunchbacked, bony man, was the first to exit through the double doors. He always was the first in and the first out. Loretta had been talking our ear off about the trick to baking perfect pie crust, expecting no responses. At this point, her pack of menthols was half gone. Paul shuffles over to her, his slippers smearing her ashes into streaks of gray.
“Ladies, always a pleasure. Stop in and visit my wrinkly butt soon. I’ll give you the pie of your choice on the house!” She blew us two kisses, looped arms with her husband, and sauntered away.
Dad came out and silently took our hands in his. We got in the car and I begged him to turn on the heat. “Hey, dad?”
“Can we go to The Barn with mom this weekend?” Ruthie looked up from her drawing.
“The Barn? You like that place?”
“Yeah! Loretta said she would give us free pie!” Ruthie chimed in.
“She’s offering free pie, you say?” We nodded, dad smiled into the rearview. “Well, you’ll have to ask your mom. It’s up to her.”
Mom’s house is three minutes from the church, in the opposite direction of dad’s. We pulled into her driveway. Dad got out opened the trunk. We slung our bags onto our shoulders. Dad leaned down and wrapped us in a hug. “Let me know what she says.”
I watched the girls file into the brick house. I could see Jeanie in the bay window, her face lit up as the girls scrambled in. She has a fireplace and an espresso machine, things we didn’t have when we were together. I watched as Jeanie’s face shifted into reprimanding, surely because the girls had dropped their bags on the floor and not put their shoes in the closet. I don’t yell at them for those things.
As I pull away, I reach under my seat and pull out a can of beer. When I reach the four way stop, I attempt to open it, but the tab won’t budge. Frozen solid.
About the Artist
Rae Clickenbeard · Morningside College
Rae Clinkenbeard is a sophomore at Morningside College majoring in Arts Administration with a focus in photography and studio art. “Beauty After the Storm” first appeared in The Kiosk.