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Story — From the March 2020 issue

The Fifth Step

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Harold Jamieson, once chief engineer of New York City’s sanitation department, enjoyed retirement. He knew from his small circle of friends that some didn’t, so he considered himself lucky. He had an acre of garden in Queens that he shared with several like-minded horticulturists, he had discovered Netflix, and he was making inroads in the books he’d always meant to read. He still missed his wife—a victim of breast cancer five years previous—but aside from that persistent ache, his life was quite full. Before rising every morning, he reminded himself to enjoy the day. At sixty-eight, he liked to think he had a fair amount of road left, but there was no denying it had begun to narrow.

The best part of those days—assuming it wasn’t raining, snowing, or too cold—was the nine-block walk to Central Park after breakfast. Although he carried a cell phone and used an electronic tablet (had grown dependent on it, in fact), he still preferred the print version of the Times. In the park, he would settle on his favorite bench and spend an hour with it, reading the sections back to front, telling himself he was progressing from the sublime to the ridiculous.

One morning in mid-May, the weather coolish but perfectly adequate for bench sitting and newspaper reading, he was annoyed to look up from his paper and see a man sitting down on the other end of his bench, although there were plenty of empty ones in the vicinity. This invader of Jamieson’s morning space looked to be in his mid to late forties, neither handsome nor ugly, in fact perfectly nondescript. The same was true of his attire: New Balance walking shoes, jeans, a Yankees cap, and a Yankees hoodie with the hood tossed back. Jamieson gave him an impatient side-glance and prepared to move to another bench.

Central Park Conservancy Gardens, by Frank Lupo © The artist

“Wait,” the man said. “I sat down here because I need a favor. It’s not a big one, but I’ll pay.” He reached into the kangaroo pouch of his hoodie and brought out a twenty-dollar bill.

“I don’t do favors for strange men,” Jamieson said, and got up.

“But that’s exactly the point—the two of us being strangers. Hear me out. If you say no, that’s fine. But please hear me out. You could . . .?” He cleared his throat, and Jamieson realized the guy was nervous. Maybe more, maybe scared. “You could be saving my life.”

Jamieson considered, then sat down, but as far from the other man as he could while still keeping both butt cheeks on the bench. “I’ll give you a minute, but if you sound crazy, I’m leaving. And put your money away. I don’t need it, and I don’t want it.”

The man looked at the bill as if surprised to find it still in his hand, then put it back in the pocket of his sweatshirt. He put his hands on his thighs and looked down at them instead of at Jamieson. “I’m an alcoholic. Four months sober. Four months and twelve days, to be exact.”

“Congratulations,” Jamieson said. He guessed he meant it, but he was even more ready to get up. The guy seemed sane, but Jamieson was old enough to know that sometimes the woo-woo didn’t come out right away.

“I’ve tried three times before and once got almost a year. I think this might be my last chance to grab the brass ring. I’m in AA. That’s—”

“I know what it is. What’s your name, Mr. Four Months Sober?”

“You can call me Jack, that’s good enough. We don’t use last names in the program.”

Jamieson knew that, too. Lots of people on the Netflix shows had alcohol problems. “So what can I do for you, Jack?”

“The first three times I tried, I didn’t get a sponsor in the program—somebody who listens to you, answers your questions, sometimes tells you what to do. This time I did. Met a guy at the Bowery Sundown meeting and really liked the stuff he said. And, you know, how he carried himself. Twelve years sober, feet on the ground, works in sales, like me.”

He had turned to look at Jamieson, but now he returned his gaze to his hands.

“I used to be a hell of salesman—for five years I headed the sales department of . . . well, it doesn’t matter, but it was a big deal, you’d know the company. Now I’m down to peddling greeting cards and energy drinks to bodegas in the five boroughs. Last rung on the ladder, man.”

“Get to the point,” Jamieson said, but not harshly; he had become a little interested in spite of himself. It was not every day that a stranger sat down on your bench and started spilling his shit. Especially not in New York. “I was just going to check on the Mets. They’re off to a good start.”

Jack rubbed a palm across his mouth. “I liked this guy I met at the Sundown, so I got up my courage after a meeting and asked him to be my sponsor. In March, this was. He looked me over and said he’d take me on, but only on two conditions: that I do everything he said and call him if I felt like drinking. ‘Then I’ll be calling you every fucking night,’ I said, and he said, ‘So call me every fucking night, and if I don’t answer talk to the machine.’ Then he asked me if I worked the Steps. Do you know what those are?”

“Vaguely.”

“I said I hadn’t gotten around to them. He said that if I wanted him to be my sponsor, I’d have to start. He said the first three were both the hardest and the easiest. They boil down to ‘I can’t stop on my own, but with God’s help I can, so I’m going to let him help.’”

Jamieson grunted.

“I said I didn’t believe in God. This guy—Randy’s his name—said he didn’t give a shit. He told me to get down on my knees every morning and ask this God I didn’t believe in to help me stay sober another day. And if I did, he said for me to get down on my knees before I turned in and thank God for my sober day. Randy asked if I was willing to do that, and I said I was. Because I’d lose him otherwise. You see?”

“Sure. You were desperate.”

“Exactly! ‘The gift of desperation,’ that’s what AAs call it. Randy said if I didn’t do those prayers and said I was doing them, he’d know. Because he spent thirty years lying his ass off about everything.”

“So you did it? Even though you don’t believe in God?”

“I did it and it’s been working. As for my belief that there’s no God . . . the longer I stay sober, the more that wavers.”

“If you’re going to ask me to pray with you, forget it.”

Jack smiled down at his hands. “Nope. I still feel self-conscious about the on-my-knees thing even when I’m by myself. Last month—April—Randy told me to do the Fourth Step. That’s when you make a moral inventory—supposedly ‘searching and fearless’—of your character.”

“Did you?”

“Yes. Randy said I was supposed to put down the bad stuff, then turn the page and list the good stuff. It took me ten minutes for the bad stuff. Over an hour for the good stuff. When I told Randy, he said that was normal. ‘You drank for almost thirty years,’ he said. ‘That puts a lot of bruises on a man’s self-image. But if you stay sober, they’ll heal.’ Then he told me to burn the lists. He said it would make me feel better.”

“Did it?”

“Strangely enough, it did. Anyway, that brings us to this month’s request from Randy.”

“More of a demand, I’m guessing,” Jamieson said, smiling a little. He folded his newspaper and laid it aside.

Jack also smiled. “I think you’re catching the sponsor-sponsee dynamic. Randy told me it was time to do my Fifth Step.”

“Which is?”

“‘Admit to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs,’” Jack said, making quote marks with his fingers. “I told him okay, I’d make a list and read it to him. God could listen in. Two birds with one stone deal.”

“I’m thinking he said no.”

“He said no. He told me to approach a complete stranger. His first suggestion was a priest or a minister, but I haven’t set foot in a church since I was twelve, and I have no urge to go back. Whatever I’m coming to believe—and I don’t know yet what that is—I don’t need to sit in a church pew to help it along.”

Jamieson, no churchgoer himself, nodded his understanding.

“Randy said, ‘So walk up to somebody in Washington Square or Central Park and ask him to hear you list your wrongs. Offer a few bucks to sweeten the deal if that’s what it takes. Keep asking until someone agrees to listen.’ He said the hard part would be the asking part, and he was right.”

“Am I . . .?” Your first victim was the phrase that came to mind, but Jamieson decided it wasn’t exactly fair. “Am I the first person you’ve approached?”

“The second.” Jack grinned. “I tried an off-duty cab driver yesterday and he told me to get lost.”

Jamieson thought of an old New York joke: Out-of-towner approaches a guy on Lexington Avenue and says, “Can you tell me how to get to City Hall or should I just go fuck myself?” He decided he wasn’t going to tell the guy in the Yankees gear to go fuck himself. He would listen, and the next time he met his friend Alex (another retiree) for lunch, he’d have something interesting to talk about.

“Okay, go for it.”

Jack reached into the pouch of his hoodie, took out a piece of paper, and unfolded it. “When I was in fourth grade—”

“If this is going to be your life story, maybe you better give me that twenty after all.”

Jack reached into his hoodie with the hand not holding his list of wrongdoings, but Jamieson waved him off. “Joking.”

“Sure?”

Jamieson didn’t know whether he was or not. “Yes. But let’s not take too long. I’ve got an appointment at eight-thirty.” This wasn’t true, and Jamieson reflected that it was good he didn’t have the alcohol problem, because according to the TV meetings he’d attended, honesty was a big deal if you did.

“Keep it speedy, got it. Here goes. In fourth grade I got into a fight with another kid. Gave him a bloody lip and nose. When we got to the principal’s office, I said it was because he’d called my mother a dirty name. He denied it, of course, but we both got sent home with a note for our parents. Or just my mom in my case, because my dad left us when I was two.”

“And the dirty name thing?”

“A lie. I was having a bad day and thought I’d feel better if I got into a fight with this kid I didn’t like. I don’t know why I didn’t like him—I guess there was a reason, but I don’t remember what it was. Only that it set a pattern of lying.

“I started drinking in junior high. My mother had a bottle of vodka she kept in the freezer. I’d swig from it, then add water. She finally caught me, and the vodka disappeared from the freezer. I knew where she put it—on a high shelf over the stove—but I left it alone after that. By then it was probably mostly water, anyway. I saved my allowance and chore money and got some old wino to buy me nips. He’d get four and keep one. I enabled his drinking. That’s what my sponsor would say.”

Jack shook his head.

“I don’t know what happened to that guy. Ralph, his name was, only I thought of him as Wretched Ralph. Kids can be cruel. For all I know, he’s dead and I helped kill him.”

“Don’t get carried away,” Jamieson said. “I’m sure you have stuff to feel guilty about without having to invent a bunch of might-have-beens.”

Jack looked up and grinned. When he did, Jamieson saw that the man had tears in his eyes. Not falling, but brimming. “Now you sound like Randy.”

“Is that a good thing?”

“I think so. I think I’m lucky I found you.”

Jamieson discovered he actually felt lucky to have been found. “What else have you got on that list? Because time’s passing.”

“I went to Brown and graduated cum laude, but mostly I lied and cheated my way through. I was good at it. And—here’s a big one—the student adviser I had my senior year was a coke addict. I won’t go into how I found that out, like you said, time’s passing, but I did, and I made a deal with him. Good recommendations in exchange for a key of coke.”

“As in kilo?” Jamieson asked. His eyebrows went up most of the way to his hairline.

“That’s right. He paid for it and I brought it in through the Canadian border, tucked into the spare tire of my old Ford. Trying to look like any other college kid who’d spent his semester break having fun and getting laid in Toronto, but my heart was beating like crazy and I bet my blood pressure was red-lining. The car in front of me at the checkpoint got tossed completely, but I got waved right through after showing my driver’s license. Of course things were much looser back then.” He paused, then said, “I overcharged him for the key, too. Pocketed the difference.”

“But you didn’t use any of the cocaine yourself?”

“No, that was never my scene. I did a line or two once in a while, but what I really wanted—still want—is grain alcohol. When I got a job, I lied to my bosses, but eventually that gave out. It wasn’t like college, and there was nobody to mule coke for. Not that I found, anyway.”

“What did you do, exactly?”

“Massaged my sell-sheets. Made up appointments that didn’t exist to explain days when I was too hungover to come in. Jiggered expense sheets. That first job was a good one. The sky was the limit. And I blew it.

“After they let me go, I decided what I really needed was a change of location. In AA that’s called a geographic cure. Never works, but I didn’t know that. Seems simple enough now; if you put an asshole on a plane in Boston, an asshole gets off in L.A. Or Denver. Or Des Moines. I fucked up a second job, not as good as the first one, but good. That was in San Diego. And what I decided then was that I needed to get married and settle down. That would solve the problem. So I got married to a nice girl who deserved better than me. It lasted two years, me lying right down the line about my drinking. Inventing nonexistent business appointments to explain why I was home late, faking flu symptoms to explain why I was going in late or not at all. I could have bought stock in one of those breath-mint companies—Altoids, Breath Savers—but was she fooled?”

“I’m guessing not,” Jamieson said. “Listen, are we approaching the end here?”

“Yes. Five more minutes. Promise.”

“Okay.”

“There were arguments that kept getting worse. Stuff got thrown occasionally, and not just by her. There came a night when I came home around midnight, stinking drunk, and she started in on me. You know, all the usual jabber, and all of it was true. I felt like she was throwing poison darts at me and never missing.”

Jack was looking at his hands again. His mouth was turned down at the corners so severely that for a moment he looked to Jamieson like Emmett Kelly, that famous sad-faced clown.

“You know what came into my mind while she was yelling at me? Glenn Ferguson, that boy I beat up in the fourth grade. How good it felt, like squeezing the pus out of a boil. I thought it would be good to beat her up, and for sure no one would send me home with a note for my mother, because my mom died the year after I graduated from Brown.”

“Whoa,” Jamieson said. His good feeling about this uninvited confession took a hike. Unease replaced it. He wasn’t sure he wanted to hear what came next.

“I left,” Jack said. “But I was scared enough to know I had to do something about my drinking. That was the first time I tried AA, out there in San Diego. I was sober when I came back to New York, but that didn’t last. Tried again and that didn’t last, either. Neither did the third. But now I’ve got Randy, and this time I might make it. Partly thanks to you.” He held out his hand.

“Well, you’re welcome,” Jamieson said, and took it.

“There is one more thing,” Jack said. His grip was very strong. He was looking into Jamieson’s eyes and smiling. “I did leave, but I cut that bitch’s throat before I did. I didn’t stop drinking, but it made me feel better. The way beating up Glenn Ferguson made me feel better. And that wino I told you about? Kicking him around made me feel better, too. Don’t know if I killed him, but I sure did bust him up.”

Jamieson tried to pull back, but the grip was too strong. The other hand was once more inside the pocket of the Yankees hoodie.

“I really want to stop drinking, and I can’t do a complete Fifth Step without admitting that I seem to really enjoy . . .?”

What felt like a streak of hot white light slid between Jamieson’s ribs, and when Jack pulled the dripping ice pick away, once more tucking it into the pocket of the hoodie, Jamieson realized he couldn’t breathe.

“. . . killing people. It’s a character defect, I know, and probably the chief of my wrongs.”

He got to his feet.

“Thank you, sir. I don’t know what your name is, but you’ve helped me so much.”

He started away toward Central Park West, then turned back to Jamieson, who was grasping blindly for his Times . . . as if, perhaps, a quick scan of the Arts and Leisure section would make everything okay.

“You’ll be in my prayers tonight,” Jack said.

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’s story “Batman and Robin Have an Altercation” appeared in the September 2012 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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