By Shannon Robinson
Featured Image: “The Card Players (Les Joureurs de Cartes)” by Paul Cézanne
I called my mother and told her about my plan. My brother, Christopher, was visiting Ottawa for just a few weeks from Berlin, where he’d lived for the past ten years. He rarely visited, and I thought it would be a perfect opportunity for us to talk to him, as a family, about his drinking problem. I explained how we would each write a letter beforehand, expressing our concerns, and then read them out loud to Christopher, one by one.
“Okay, dear,” she said. “That sounds fine.”
I was reading students’ workshop fiction when the phone rang. It was my older sister, Leigh.
“So Mum called me. She was really confused. She says she doesn’t know what you were talking about.”
I exhaled forcefully and slowly through my nose, like I did in yoga classes.
Leigh crunched on something—celery, maybe.
“Can you explain it to her? Again? It’s important,” I said. Our mother had suffered two minor strokes. She took a lot of pain medication for her knees. She forgot things, or claimed to. Also, it was hard for me to know when Leigh was exaggerating Mum’s befuddlement.
“She’s going to call you,” Leigh said. “Make sure she understands about the letter, otherwise she’ll make it all about her. I’m not sure when I’m going to write mine. When’re you flying in?”
“Saturday morning. On points. I’m connecting through Chicago.” “Email me the details, okay? Anyway. Gotta go. He’s back.”
Christopher was staying at her house, with my brother-in-law and two nephews. Leigh had called me earlier to complain about what a lousy house guest he was being: rock star without a recording, diva without a trailer. My arrival was to be a surprise.
My students’ stories had drifted from their stack across the floor, and I knelt to gather them up. Years ago, as an English literature TA, I would make separate piles of the students’ essays, sifting out all the ones with ridiculous fonts and plastic folders. I hated grading. The terrible ones—and the excellent ones—were easy. It was all the ones in between that were difficult.
“Most essays deserve a C, and the students know it,” one of my fellow grad students had said. I doubted it. I would always mark in pencil, so as to seem less definitive in my evaluations. Even now, as I wrote comments on my students’ stories, I was careful to say “I think,” and “perhaps.”
My brother’s intervention letter—I would type that. I thought I might as well, because spoken words move forward relentlessly and can never be erased.
Love First: A Family’s Guide to Intervention
Interventions are most successful when they are very tightly scripted. During an intervention, emotions can run high. It is most effective if each person writes a letter to the alcoholic to read during the intervention. Letters prevent you from exploding into spontaneous anger or freezing up at the last moment.
I’d recently come across a companion website to a book on interventions. It looked no worse than the others of its kind, despite its sappy title, so I’d book- marked the page and taken notes. The author stressed that intervention letters should follow a specific formula. You should begin with a simple statement of love and concern for the addict, then mention a time when he was helpful to you. (Gratitude is the last thing that the addict is expecting to hear … The alcoholic will be completely disarmed.) As I read this to Leigh earlier over the phone, she said, “When was the last time our brother was helpful to anyone, as anything other than a cautionary tale?”
Next, you should provide a statement of facts about the alcoholic’s negative behavior … In this section of the letter, you will need to recall several specific instances that illustrate the alcohol or drug problem. That’s the part where you get to talk about how the addiction’s been affecting you. In closing, you should repeat your love and concern, and then ask the addict to accept help for the illness.
“Kiss, kick, kiss,” Leigh said. “Got it.” I’d heard her apply the phrase to workplace dynamics. She worked in television.
“Except not so much ‘kick.’ The book says Any hint of anger or blame dur- ing an intervention is fatal. You’re supposed to avoid statements of recrimination, rage, and judgment.”
“As in ‘Dear fuckhead, I’m tired of listening to your belligerent, drunken ramblings over the phone.’ Or how about, ‘You claim to be a musician, but really you’re just a bum who knows how to play the guitar.’”
“No, that wouldn’t be good, Leigh.”
“Not to be undermining, but do we think this’ll work just because we’ve seen it in movies?”
“What movies?” I said. I tried to help Leigh come up with examples.
“Is it a bad sign that we haven’t even seen this work in movies?” “It’s better than doing nothing,” I said.
Christopher had been hitting the bottle particularly hard since he’d been dumped by his long-term girlfriend. The late-night phone calls had become more slurred. One evening, as he described the view from the balcony where he stood, I was worried that he was going to jump off it. There’d been something strange in the way he was talking about the night air. “Tastes like a nail,” he said.
“What does one serve at an intervention? Red or white?” “Leigh.”
“I’d guess white, in case people start throwing things.”
We used to be an object-throwing household. Mum and Dad were, that is. They didn’t throw things at each other, but they threw them to make impact. Dishes, glasses, food, books, at the floor, the table, the cupboards, the walls. Dad would kick things out of his way—stray shoes, toys, the vacuum cleaner that was always out but seemingly never in use. Mum wasn’t much of a housekeeper. Once Dad bought Mum an apology gift, a large silver locket. She pitched it out the front door. I retrieved it later, combing through the grass while pretending to play with my Barbies because I imagined the neighbors were watching. During one particularly shrill fight, I remember my mother throwing money into the kitchen garbage. Green stacks of twenties, bound together with elastics, held in a lidless, shallow box. The trash hadn’t been changed in a while, so the money peeked out the top. I could see it from the living room, where my brother and I were watching Gilligan’s Island, and I found the sight of the tossed money nauseating and frightening. Christopher got up, walked over to the garbage, reached in and said, as he thumbed through the bills, “Hey, there’s enough money here for an electric guitar.”
Shortly afterwards, Christopher got his wish. It was loud, that electric gui-
tar. It didn’t drown out the yelling. It just added to the noise.
The nephews, thirteen-year-old Alexander and eleven-year-old Thomas, had long been in awe of Christopher. They believed he was famous in Europe. The last time I visited Ottawa, a year ago, I noticed they both had pictures of him on their desks, and Alexander had made a corkboard collage of various grainy photos of Christopher playing in Berlin bars. The center image featured my brother, a cigarette clenched in his mouth, holding his vintage Rickenbacker like it was a fainting woman. My brother-in-law, Jack, resented it. I could tell. Jack was a cop; on his side of the family, people liked to tease each other about sports team preferences and voted Conservative. I also resented it, since I felt that my husband, the true artist, an accomplished writer, was billed as un-cool by comparison.
I spoke to James about this while he cooked dinner, peering at the sauce as he stirred, leaning six inches from the pot because he was becoming near-sighted and didn’t think he needed glasses. Although he’d offered to come along to Ottawa, I knew he couldn’t spare the time away from teaching. I would just give his letter to Christopher. James had a lot of compassion for my brother: aside from being a decent person, James used to be, by his own report, not such a decent person when he drank all the time.
“I don’t need the hero worship, but I think your brother does. And it’s sad—he doesn’t sound like he’s making a very good impression now that they’re old enough to understand what’s going on,” James said.
It was true. During the past week, Leigh said Alexander had started to ask what was wrong with his uncle Christopher, who was always “sick” in the mornings, “tired” in the evenings, and who left a party’s worth of empties in his wake. I was sure the letter Alexander would write, with Leigh’s help, would be our ringer. Alexander had begun to retreat into the cave of adolescence, but I trusted that he’d rise to this occasion. I remembered him as the little kid who would never shut up, who had sound effects for every movement he made, who spoke for the mini macho-men action figures he shook in turn as they faced each other, who seemed to have no unexpressed thoughts. A lot like Christopher once was, actually.
I emailed my father about the intervention plans. I’d have called, but we almost never talked on the phone—even less since he and Mum separated five years earlier. Not that I bore a grudge against him on Mum’s behalf: at a distance, they got along better than they ever had. Writing to Dad, I thought, would let me get my words just right. The cup of tea I’d parked by my laptop grew cold as I typed and retyped, telling Dad how I was worried about Christopher, who, over a year’s worth of phone calls, had spoken to me sober only twice, and had always sounded unhappy. I want him to know that we care for him, and that he doesn’t have to live this way. That he’s hurting himself. If you’d like to be part of this, it would mean a lot to me—and of course it would mean a lot to Christopher. But I know this kind of thing would probably make you very uncomfortable, so I can understand if you don’t. Dad was not one for “tightly scripted” emotional interactions, as the intervention would demand, and it was important, I knew, for him not to feel maneuvered. When we were growing up, Dad had been transparent only in his anger toward our mother. Otherwise, he’d been a sealed room. And years later, that’s what he was still.
On rare occasions when Christopher and I were little, Dad would take us on long walks through the rambling fields north of our house. Overdressed by Mum in rubber boots and rain suits, we’d walk beside our father, crunching over yellow reeds fallen on damp ground, quieted by his quiet. Sometimes he would find things for us—old keys, a rusty watering can. The area used to be farmland, he explained, so such relics had been left behind. He’d also pick up rocks and identify them for us: pyrite, scoria, slate. You’d think they were di- nosaur bones, we were so excited and reverential. One time he found a large piece of mica, which flaked in brittle, glittering layers. Dad said Christopher and I could share it, which both my brother and I knew meant that Christopher would hoard it and gloat, and I would whine and keep saying when was it my turn. But instead of launching into this drama, we just nodded. We were reluc- tant to spoil something so special by bickering over it, particularly in front of our father who would perhaps never take us out again.
Dad emailed back. I guess I’ll see you on the weekend, luv yer dad. That was all he wrote.
My laptop began to feel like a portal of disappointment. Shortly after I received Dad’s email, Leigh wrote, saying that Alexander would not be writing a letter. Jack would be taking him and Thomas to the movies on the evening we’d originally planned to talk to Christopher. Reading that, I felt like immediately emailing Leigh back, asking her how long she was going to continue breastfeeding the kid, but I didn’t. She also wrote, Jack says this is just kicking Christopher when he’s down. What good will it do. We’re just setting him up to fail. We dump our buckets on him and then he goes back to Germany. In a way it’s only self-serving.
Dumping your bucket was a frequent Leigh-ism, referring to the conveyance and relief of mental burden. I imagined a tin pail full of cool water being tipped over Christopher’s head, like a rustic baptism. Leigh obviously pictured bilge, slops, red paint. Kick, kick, kick. (Any hint of anger or blame during an intervention is fatal.) I thought maybe several days with Christopher had pushed her to the point where that’s all she really felt like doing. Leigh had mentioned that there’d been frequent digs at her “bourgeois” lifestyle. When she brought out photos from her family’s recent trip to Disney World, Christopher actually began to pound his head on the table, she’d said.
Mum called, and told me that she’d already talked to my brother.
“Wait—what?” I said.
Mum assured me that she hadn’t let the cat out of the bag. I knew that in her cluttered apartment on the other end of the phone call, she was surrounded by bags: bags of magazines; bags of unsorted junk mail; bags of toys the nephews no longer played with, which she meant to take to the Goodwill.
“You didn’t tell him I was coming, did you?” “No, no.”
“Because the surprise is part of the intervention’s impact—”
“You know, Leigh and I think it would just sort of … make more sense for you to talk to him on your own.”
Watching my family scatter in this way reminded me of the time the wind blew my students’ assignments from my hand into the street and over the sidewalk. The ones I managed to retrieve had shoeprints on them.
“Dear, I’ve already said what I want to say to him.” And what was that, I asked her.
“Well, I told him to grow up, get a suit, and act like an adult. He was going on and on about some new girl he’s after—and I told him, ‘What do you pos- sibly have to offer anyone at this point? You’ve got no job, no money, no steady place to live, no plans.’ He was morose, Shannon. I think his real problem is that he needs psychiatric help. He’s clinically depressed.”
“I agree he’s depressed. But the depression is created by his drinking.”
Despite being the daughter of an alcoholic (who split when she was ten), my mother, a teetotaler, didn’t understand booze. She understood pills—took and respected them, probably because they were prescribed. With alcohol, well, you were just making it all up, weren’t you?
“Yes, but he needs psychiatric help,” she said. I felt myself becoming stub- born, because I knew that by “psychiatric help” she meant Prozac, which she was on. Mum was capable of arguing in circles as long as you did your share of turning the wheel. Again, I said that Christopher’s depression stemmed from his alcoholism, and added that he’d need to deal with that problem first.
“He needs psychiatric help. That’s his real problem,” she said.
Christopher was still angry about the last time our mother pushed that agenda. As a child, he’d been “bouncy.” That was her euphemism for hyperactivity, which was what ADHD was called in the 1970s. Sometimes, when Mum was talking about his behavior, Christopher would get an impish look on his face and make a sound like a cartoon spring. Boinnng! Bouncy. It sounded cute— like Tigger. Except that it involved Christopher taking large doses of Cylert,
which gave him vivid nightmares. Mum brought him regularly to a shrink, a dark-haired woman named Dr. Stavrakaki. One time I went with him to a session. In the doctor’s office, we sat on a rug that was like a giant, flattened teddy bear and pretended to play. Or at least, I pretended to play—I was conscious of being observed. Christopher sat near the bear’s head, pulling on its ears and spit- stuttering out starship gunner noises, and I sat behind him, operating imaginary equipment. “You can play, Christopher, but I also want you to talk to me,” Dr. S. said.
“You’re the only one he really listens to,” my mother continued on the phone.
One time I’d told Mum that I thought my brother had been misdiagnosed, that I didn’t think he really fit the ADHD profile. She’d insisted, “But he was always better with you. You calmed him down.” It was like she was talking about a dog or a skittish horse. So that’s my job this weekend, I thought: the drunk whisperer.
After I hung up the phone, I walked around the apartment, ranting. I was too enraged to cry, which is saying something because when it comes down to it, I’m a crybaby. James told me that I was shouting at him and I apologized. What I really wanted was a drink. But that was out of the question, since I’d sworn off alcohol. At the age of thirty-nine, I was trying to preserve what was left of my fertility. And I was trying not to be like my brother. As James pointed out, the only person who really needs a drink is a drunk.
Later, Leigh emailed me a draft of her intervention letter. Proofread pls and thx, she wrote. So just like that, we were back in business, although with a reduced staff. I didn’t mention Mum’s bailing on Leigh’s behalf—maybe Mum had misunderstood. Or Leigh had let our mother think what she wanted to think, to get her out of the way. I edited Leigh’s letter, injecting compassionate phrases like because we love you, and excising statements like you shame yourself.
It was colder in Ottawa than it was in St. Louis, and the leaves had already started to turn. In the taxi from the airport, I watched as we drove past masses of orange and red trees on sloping hillsides, set back at a distance from the fields that framed the highway. I called Leigh’s cell: “The Eagle has landed,” I said.
“The fat man walks alone.”
“I’ll be there in about fifteen minutes. Is he suspicious?”
“Oddly, no. Even though I made him take a shower. You should be grateful.”
Against the pale sky, a huge, splayed V of geese was flapping raggedly.
Through the rolled-up window, over the sound of traffic, I could hear them honking, their voices overlapping in their strange, instinctual chorus of encouragement. Mum used to claim that every year as the geese passed over our house, they switched formation, as if triggered by some secret signal. I can’t remember if I ever saw it happen.
After I arrived at Leigh’s, I crept down to the basement where Christopher was playing video games with Thomas. At first, my brother only gave me a quick glance. He’d mistaken me for Leigh, who, in a squint, was my older double.
“Hi,” I said.
“Hey,” he said. And then—“Shannie!” he shouted, as he jumped from the couch to give me a hug. Christopher was the only person who still called me Shannie. It used to be that or Shan the man. Shan-the-man-with-the-tan-who- used-a-frying-pan-who-drives-a-van-who-was-thrown-in-the-can. He could go on forever.
“I thought you said you weren’t coming,” he said, patting my hair, followed by, “Those glasses make you look like Michael Caine.”
He’d lost weight—I could feel it in his ribs. And he looked incredibly tired, puffy-eyed and drawn, even though, according to Leigh, he slept like a housecat, in fourteen-hour stretches. I’d seen him three years ago at my wedding and he’d looked worn, but not so completely worn out. On the coffee table, beside the video controller, were two crumpled cans of Guinness.
My parents, who showed up separately not long after I did, had also undergone physical transformations. It seemed that way, even though I’d visited just last year; I thought maybe their aging was something I’d mentally airbrushed. They both were shorter, and while Dad had become more wizened, Mum had continued to soften and plump. Like Jack Spratt and his wife, only their “between them both” was now limited to occasional family get-togethers. The nephews, too, had changed. Alexander, in particular, had mutated into a square shouldered thug. Christopher and I marveled at our oldest nephew’s height as he stumped by shyly in the living room.
Christopher asked Mum to drive him to the grocery store. She was reluctant to, since she’d already settled into the couch with the newspaper. But when Thomas joined the pressing, she sighed and drained the last of her tea. The silent understanding was that Mum would pay for whatever Christopher picked out. She was already giving Leigh extra grocery money for all the food he was consuming on his visit. “You’re coming?” Christopher said to me. It wasn’t a question.
At the grocery store, everything that Christopher threw into the cart bespoke a hangover. Ketchup-flavored potato chips and bacon-flavored tortilla chips, three-layered nacho dip, Oreo cookies, six-packs of Coke and Dr. Pepper, a school-bus-colored drink called SunnyD. None of it was to share with other people. That became clear when I asked Christopher whether he thought we should get some chip flavors that the boys might like, and maybe some diet soda for Leigh.
After we loaded up the car, Thomas dragged Mum off to the drugstore further down the strip mall to buy collectible cards, and Christopher and I went to the liquor store. It felt totally wrong, accompanying him—like a hypocritical endorsement—but there seemed to be no graceful way out.
Standing among the shelves of bottles, Christopher couldn’t decide between the small and the medium size vodka. He wanted to make Bloody Marys, but he’d gone through all of Leigh and Jack’s supplies. While the bigger size was the better deal, neither bottle was cheap.
“Never mind, Christopher. Don’t get either. Save your money.” Mum’s wallet had gone with her to the drugstore.
Christopher looked at me. “What for?”
As I understood it, ever since his girlfriend had kicked him out, he’d been couch-surfing, unable to afford rent. He was looking into housing support.
In the end, he bought the medium-sized bottle.
Back at the house, I sat with Dad and Christopher out on the backyard deck as they smoked, drank Bloody Marys, and talked about travel. On separate occasions, years ago, Dad and I had both visited Christopher in Germany. Christopher had given the same tour to each of us, except that he’d made the concession of walking slower for our father. It seemed Christopher hadn’t been swimming so deep in the booze at the time, but then, I was still in college, so binge-drinking felt like a normal part of existence. Now, as the three of us chatted, I watched Christopher and Dad smoke, and compared their styles—Dad plied his cigarette with anachronistic elegance, while my brother pulled drags like a man hunkered in a foxhole. Wind stirred debris off the blue vinyl pool cover, and I began shivering in my thin jacket. I headed back into the kitchen, where Leigh was making dinner. By the sink where she was working, empty Guinness and Boddingtons cans stood in staggered assembly. Normally, the recycling was kept under the sink and the overflow was carried to the garage, but it seemed to me that Leigh would rather construct Exhibit A than preserve counter space.
“Gimme a hand with this Yorkshire pudding,” she said, and we fell into our usual routine of gabbing and cooking. We’d made so many meals together over the years; I was really the only person Leigh tolerated in her “one-person kitchen.” As I’d grown older, our eight-year age difference had gradually closed.
After about twenty minutes, Christopher rounded the corner. “Why aren’t you outside?” he said.
“I’m just having a talk with Leigh. I’ll be back out in a minute.” Christopher cast a broody look at the floor, then left.
“You’re here for him,” Leigh said. “I know that. Go on.” Then it was her turn to look pouty. On my wedding day, despite being happy for me, my sister wept, because she said she’d never had to share me with anybody before. Untrue. As a kid, I’d been Christopher’s exclusive sidekick, but at that age, Leigh wanted no part of me.
After dinner, the house emptied out rapidly. Jack corralled Alexander and Thomas with quiet efficiency and informed them that they were going to a movie. Minutes later, Mum and Dad also cleared out. Usually, they each did their old-person routine, taking forever to get out the door, making trips to the bathroom, saying goodbye multiple times, forgetting things, coming back, but this time, they exited crisply, stage left, like a couple of pros. Until that very last moment, I’d thought there was a small chance that Dad might stay.
In the vacuum that followed, it felt like there was only one event that could reasonably occur for time to move forward. Standing in the foyer, I raised my eyebrows at Leigh, and from her position on the living room couch across from Christopher, she nodded. As I pulled my letter from the zippered side pocket of my bag, Leigh began rooting in a side-table drawer for hers. Page in hand, I sat beside Leigh on the couch and faced Christopher where he sat in an easy chair, a half-finished glass of ale resting on the arm.
“Yes?” he said, looking from me to Leigh and back.
At that moment, I felt sick—with nerves, with sorrow, with something else that was hard to name exactly.
Dear Christopher, I began.
The statement of love and concern was not so hard—I could tell Christopher how much I’d admired his musical passion, how his example of doing what he truly loved had influenced me to pursue a career in writing. It was the recitation of his damage that was so difficult. Over the past few years, almost every time you’ve called me, you’ve been drinking, and you’re in the process of getting drunker. Your words begin to slide into each other, and the conversation be- comes one-sided. You spiral down and around the same ground, and you sound so dark, so troubled. One time when you called me, you were so drunk, I had the impression that I was speaking not to you, but to some version of you that was calling from hell. Your voice was distorted, and it was like you couldn’t hear anything I said to comfort you. It frightened me.
When I finished, Christopher said nothing. The corners of his mouth turned down as if pulled by weights.
“Go on,” he said, motioning to Leigh who was clutching her letter against her breastbone.
I watched Leigh as she read, not Christopher as he listened, because I couldn’t bear to look at him. At one point, Leigh stopped. She made an odd sound in her throat, like she’d seen something dead on a roadside. She pressed on. If the phone made that long-distance ring, I would check the clock and add six hours. If it was after 10:00 pm in Germany, we wouldn’t answer. I HATED talking to you when you were drunk like that. I appreciate that you stopped calling here when you’re drunk because the boys might answer the phone. So now we never hear from you. Alexander has told me that he’s very disappointed in you: he’s seen all the empties, noticed all the hangovers. He doesn’t want to visit you in Germany because he’s afraid you’ll get him drunk.
After she was done, Christopher said very quietly, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry I’ve made everyone feel this way. I’m sorry.”
“I don’t want you to be sorry,” I said. “I want you to be happy. I want you to get better.” I told him that James had also written a letter, and asked if he wanted to read it. He did. Christopher read in silence, then carefully re-folded the letter and tucked it alongside his seat cushion.
“So where are Mum and Dad’s letters?” he asked. Some hint of archness to his tone suggested that his question was rhetorical.
“They didn’t write any,” I said. I found it hard to fathom that he’d want any more of this, that he’d want his full entitlement, even in shares of pain.
It was at this point that we went off script, because we’d run out of script, and as Love First: A Family’s Guide to Intervention warns, improvising is dangerous. The addict may begin to get defensive, and seek an opportunity to pick a fight. Do not engage, the guide cautions. The self-control of the group is crucial.
Leigh suggested that Christopher put his talents to profitable use, and may- be consider writing music for commercials. She knew a bit about the business: it would be easy money, and provide him with a project, a distraction from his compulsion to drink.
“Pop-media bullshit,” Christopher said, his eyes turning into slits, “for idiot-box zombies. It isn’t art. It’s about sucking Satan’s cock.”
“Oh, you mean like I do,” Leigh said.
“I didn’t say that. You just did. ” Christopher half smiled, as though he were conscious of moving us back into script, though it was a different, older one. Leigh picked up her cue.
“Some of us have to work for a living,” she said. “If that’s what you call a living,” he said.
I could tell from the look on Leigh’s face that she was experiencing a mental traffic jam, not knowing which line of rebuttal to start with first, but also no doubt weighing the consequences of destroying whatever sympathetic connection we’d managed to create. I tried to cut in.
“Christopher, how can you say that to Leigh?”
Christopher dropped my gaze, and for just a second, he seemed to soften.
But it was too late. Leigh stood up and began shouting.
“You’ve had so much handed to you, you know that? You think the world owes you a living, but it’s the other way round. You never appreciated the privileges you had. Some of us didn’t get to go away to university because some of us went to private school. And fucking complained about it. Dad wouldn’t sign the student loan papers, so I had to stay home and go to Carleton. Last Chance U.”
“Why didn’t you just get a job?” Christopher looked past her and took a sip of his ale. He was vandalizing facts for calculated effect. Leigh had gotten a job and had paid for most of her tuition and books. It was Christopher who had leeched off Mum and Dad for years while failing to complete his degree at McGill.
“I think I’m done for tonight,” Leigh said in a voice flattened of emotion, and walked briskly from the room.
Christopher looked at me and said, “This evening. The letters, it’s like a—” He made a slow circular motion with his hand, then snapped his thumb against his index finger.
“Ouroboros?” I offered. “Snake eating its tail?”
“No. It’s—what is it.” He pulled his iPhone from his pocket and began clicking at it.
“An intervention,” I said.
He was still clicking away. He didn’t appear to hear me. “An intervention,” he said, looking up.
“Yes, Christopher. Hang on a sec, will you? I’ll be right back.”
I followed Leigh into the kitchen, to make sure she was okay. I caught her just as she was leaving the room. She had poured herself a full glass of wine, and was obviously heading up to bed with the rest of the bottle.
“Don’t judge me,” she said. “Don’t you say a fucking word.”
Thomas slept on a cot in Alexander’s room that night, and I was grateful for his vacated bed. I lay on High School Musical sheets, looked at the riot of anime posters on the walls, completely exhausted. As promised, I placed a phone call to James.
“So how’d it go, sweetie?” “Oh. A mixed success, I’d say.”
In the morning, Christopher and I went for a walk. He and Leigh weren’t talking, so I gathered he hadn’t apologized.
The path by the river had been paved since I’d last visited, and people whizzed by on bikes. Christopher and I sat on a bench looking out to the Gatineau hills, watching the wind wrinkle the water’s surface. The liquid appeared to move in slow motion, with such gentleness.
“What are these?” Christopher gestured with his chin to the tall purple flowers that grew in clusters, bordering the tumble of rocks leading down to the water’s edge.
“Loosestrife. It used to grow all over near the cottage, remember? And that’s Queen Anne’s Lace, I think.”
“Those phone calls you talked about last night. They give you the wrong impression. I don’t drink that much during the day. It’s not like I stagger around drunk.”
“I know you don’t. But it’s not about you looking or seeming drunk. Like we said, it’s about you having a constant level of alcohol in your blood. It’s a depressant, okay? And you keep topping it up—all the time. When was the last time you lived without it?”
“I feel like I can’t even have one drink, because people will get all upset.” “Then why is it so important for you to have a drink at all?”
“What else am I supposed to do, Shan?”
When we returned to the house, I wanted Christopher to play the guitar. Alexander’s acoustic, abandoned along with his lessons, leaned against a corner in the living room. Christopher would pick up the guitar, strum a few chords, and then put it back down. Every song I asked him to play, he claimed he didn’t know—even “Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter,” which was an easy song, the first he’d learned. I tried to coax him into playing by singing a few phrases from his favorite Beatles songs, but he wouldn’t do it. I knew that in the same way that it’s hard to dislike people who are feeding you, it’s hard not to like people who are making music for you—and making music was something Christopher did well. I had some idea that he could pull everyone into the living room, and that we’d have a few minutes of sharing something literally harmonious. The scattered chords he played added up to nothing, no tune that I recognized.
“Please take care of yourself,” I said, when I finally had to leave on Sunday afternoon.
Christopher flew back to Berlin two days after I returned to St. Louis. I knew Leigh couldn’t wait to debrief over the phone, so I gave her a call. She told me that she and Christopher were on speaking terms again, but only superficially. There had been no heart-to-heart, no acknowledgement of the intervention evening’s final ugliness.
“He’s damaged goods, Leigh. Try not to take it personally.” Damaged goods. I felt mean calling him that.
“I think we need a second intervention,” she said, “about him being a total asshole.”
“We’d have to write new letters.”
“No, we could just rewrite our old letters: I hated talking to you when you were an asshole.”
“Yes, that could work: Every time you call me, you’re an asshole,” I said. “… and you were in the process of becoming a bigger asshole. Simple search
and replace,” Leigh said. She laughed far longer than I did at our joke. “Well, he’s your project now. I’ve had enough,” she said, finally.
Damaged goods. It was not a dismissal. Yet I could understand Leigh’s impulse to write him off. You can get hurt, handling broken pieces.
I was surprised, a week later, to get an email from Christopher. He never emailed me, because he’d said he preferred to hear the sound of my voice, despite the fact that he’d always done most of the talking. The email contained a poem he’d written called “In the Darkness,” which he prefaced by saying that it was about his “personal problems”: I lie looking at the cold stars / I fell so long / For months and weeks and days I had been falling / I felt my soul taken with a gust of icy wind / And I float, aimless. Although Christopher had asked for feedback, I knew critique wasn’t what he was looking for, so I lied and told him it reminded me of Paradise Lost, particularly the vision of the fallen angels, strewn upon the lake in hell like autumn leaves.
I wish Christopher could be redeemed by that image. But I feel he’s just something that was once bright that has rolled downwards, dimming on its journey, and is now stagnating in poison. Folk wisdom dictates that if only one person believes in you, then that’s enough to hold you from damnation. I can’t decide if that claim makes sense to me. Here is my formula for a successful intervention:
Understand that you can’t save anybody.
Shannon Robinson’s work has appeared in Gettysburg Review, Iowa Review, Joyland, and elsewhere. She has an MFA in fiction from Washington University in St. Louis, and in 2011 she was the Writer-in-Residence at Interlochen Center for the Arts. Other honors include the Katherine Anne Porter Prize, grants from the Elizabeth George Foundation and the Canada Council for the Arts, and a Hedgebrook Fellowship. Currently, she teaches creative writing at Johns Hopkins University.
Originally appeared in NOR 11.