This morning a meatball dropped on my head. Translation for the pious: God reminded me of His grace, giving me a vision of myself, had I not been lucky enough to get sober 12 years ago.
The meatball splattered at about 7:40 a.m. in the lovely seaside town of Whitley Bay, just outside Newcastle. Tomorrow I’m to begin a 100-mile walking journey across England, following Hadrian’s Wall from beginning to end. I’ve come north from London a day early, wanting a couple days on the North Sea, a body I’ve not seen in 40 years, and then, from the German side. I spent the night in a delightful and up-to-date bed and breakfast, and went out for a morning walk about 7 a.m., telling my hosts I’d be back by 7:45 or so.
After strolling the coast and performing my morning devotions — transmitting silent and unconscious gratitude to the universe — I was four doors from my destination. I saw from behind a man about my age, or even a bit younger than 60. He stood still, his weight balanced on a stick in his left hand, grasping no folksy hand-carved wooden cane but a medical-supply device, aluminum with rubber on its bottom. Someone to greet with a “Good Morning” as I walked around him.
Passing on his right, I glanced over and saw his face was marked with dry blood and abrasions, as if he’d been mugged by toughs wearing sandpaper gloves. Like Coleridge’s mariner, he reached out his skinny scabbed hand and touched my arm. No albatross around his neck, his worn and dirty coat showed dry brown speckles of blood.
“Please,” he said. “Please can you help me? I need to go to the shop around the corner, and I don’t think I can make it on my own.”
Although my hosts were preparing breakfast for me, I couldn’t ignore a plea like that. Not knowing the neighborhood, I assumed the shop was a pharmacy, and he needed medical supplies.
“If you’d like,” I said, “you can tell me what you need. I’ll run over to the shop and bring it back to you.”
“That’s very kind, but they’ll need my card.”
Who knows the ways of the British, I thought. Perhaps he needed to show a medical card to get bandages, peroxide and iodine.
After grabbing my elbow, the man stood still, as if waiting for a gumption infusion. I statued alongside, wanting him to make the first move.
“What happened to you? You look as if you’ve been beaten. Are you all right?”
‘Nowhere near alright. It keeps getting worse, but I know things will get better.”
“But your face. The blood. What happened?”
“I fall,” he said, as if that answered that. “Let’s go.”
He took five, maybe six, steps, halted abruptly.
No matter how close the shop, at this rate I knew I’d be late for breakfast, and suggested I run the 60 feet to the bed and breakfast to let them know, then come back to help.
“No!” he cried, as if I’d threatened to desert him on a tidal island. “Please! Don’t leave me.”
“Okay. Okay. I’ll stay with you. We’ll go to the store.”
“And back,” he said. “I need help to get home safely.
“And back,” I agreed. “I’m Keith.”
“And I’m John. You’re a good lad, Keith.”
“No lad,” I said, and we took another five or six steps.
Our journey continued like that, tiny bits of forward motion followed by 90-second rests.
John wasn’t specific about his ailments, although his difficulty walking and need for rest made me suspect nerve and respiratory problems. His odor led to a different line of diagnosis. He smelled awful, the way my friend Chuck had smelled, the friend who’d drunk himself to death in a tiny rented room, leaving me to find his corpse on the floor, an empty half-gallon bottle of vodka to his right and his left hand reaching out for a half-full half-gallon just out of reach. Chuck never smelled of booze. He stank of death, and John had that same aura around him.
After 15 minutes, we reached the store, a trip that would have taken me 90 seconds alone. The storekeeper recognized John and came to the door.
“You should be in a home,” he said flatly.
“They can’t do anything for me,” John said. “They’ve tried.”
Oddly, the shopkeep didn’t say anything about John’s facial wounds, the blood crusted over half his face. How could he not notice them — or were they a commonplace for my new friend? And had he come to the door to greet John or to bar him from entry?
John gave his order, and that’s when the meatball hit me. John was me, or at least the me that might have been had I not found recovery. Instead of vacationing and preparing to go for a long and well-appointed journey, I could have been John. Twelve-and-a-half years ago, I might even have felt jealous of him.
He ordered two quarts of vodka along with a stand-alone pint, a six-pack of beer and two packs of cigarettes. At the end of my drinking, when mouthwash had become my drink of necessity, John’s order would have been answered prayer.
John asked me to get his wallet out of his jacket pocket and paid using a green Bank of London ATM card. Perhaps he’d been afraid to let me go to the store because I might have taken his card. More likely, in end-stage alcoholism, John worried I’d take the booze he needed, or refuse to help if I knew that need.
The shopkeeper handed me a plastic bag filled with evidence of heaven for John, or at least a temporary avoidance of hell.
“I know the horrors, the shakes, the DTs,” I said as we fitfully walked back. “Twelve years ago, I had them regularly. By the end, I was drinking mouthwash to keep them away.”
John laughed a raspy empty laugh and spoke the words every addict and alcoholic has said.
“At least I’m not that bad.”
And, I suppose, he wasn’t. When he asked me to walk him in to his apartment — he still had a place to live, after all — had me help him onto his couch — and furniture to go in it, after all — we walked around a magazine-sized pool of liquid blood on the floor, from where he’d fallen a few hours ago, I supposed. The detritus of spilled ashtrays, crushed beer cans, and empty vodka bottles scattered the floor. Once I placed the beer and vodka and smokes at his feet, though, John was living my drunkard’s dream.
And that meatball made me mighty grateful.
Keith Howard used to be a homeless drunk veteran. He now calls a six by 12-foot converted motorcycle trailer home. He used to be a drunk. He’s now been sober for 11 years. He used to be toothless. He now has a mouthful of teeth. He used to be a veteran. He still is. Howard maintains tinywhitebox.com, his website, helps out at Hope for New Hampshire Recovery in Manchester and tries to rouse the rabble.