Gratitude, fiction by Ace Boggess

 

My breath tastes like cof­fee and cig­a­rettes,” I said, smack­ing my tongue against the roof of my mouth in a ges­ture of dis­gust.

The old man looked at me and grinned, his pol­ished-sil­ver beard a sec­ond, wider smile beneath his lips.  His lanky arm stretched across the table, hand slap­ping me on the shoul­der.  “Be grate­ful for that,” he said.  “At least it means you got both in your life.”

You don’t even smoke,” I said.

No, but you do, and it makes you hap­py.  I’m grate­ful for that.”

I wouldn’t say it makes me hap­py.”

Why do you do it then?”

Because I’m mis­er­able when I don’t,” I told him.

He laughed through his nose like a squawk­ing hog.  “So, you’re not mis­er­able today,” he grunt­ed between wild chuck­les.  “If noth­ing else, be grate­ful for one small bless­ing.”

I smiled, nod­ded and sipped my cof­fee.  I knew bet­ter than to argue grat­i­tude with Ceff.  Pol­i­tics, human nature, the best team in the NFL?  Sure.  But nev­er grat­i­tude.  If Ceff had a reli­gion aside from A.A. and basic Chris­tian­i­ty, it cen­tered around that one con­cept, and he prob­a­bly should’ve spelled it with a cap­i­tal G as if it were anoth­er name for his god.  Ceff often wrote out a dai­ly grat­i­tude list on the back of his dis­pos­able place­mats at the South­ern Kitchen restau­rant where we ate break­fast.  He filled in every inch of avail­able space, not even guid­ing his pen around the cof­fee stains or the occa­sion­al splotch of but­ter.

I asked him to show me once and, when he hand­ed me the list, I glanced at it and shook my head in dis­be­lief.  I read a few lines aloud as if I were back in the 8th grade, stand­ing in front of Mrs. Cardwell’s Eng­lish class try­ing not to faint as I mut­tered a Keats poem I’d been assigned.  As I did then, I lost con­trol.

What?” he asked.  “What’s fun­ny?”

Elec­tric cars?” I said.  “Real­ly?”

He nod­ded.  In that deep voice of his, so much like a state trooper’s, he replied, “I’m grate­ful for elec­tric cars.”

A joke?” I asked.

No, keep read­ing.  If you look far­ther down, you’ll under­stand what I mean.  Sure, I’m grate­ful there’s such a thing as an elec­tric car in the world to help with the envi­ron­ment.  All the same, you’ll see I also wrote how grate­ful I am that I don’t own one.”

I couldn’t think of any­thing to say to that, so I went back to scan­ning his list.  It read like a tele­phone direc­to­ry of unusu­al items:

            …tube socks, alarm clocks, ice cream, pan­cakes, old­er women,

               sun­light, the riv­er, spicy Ital­ian pas­ta, upside-down cakes,

               show­ers that don’t turn them­selves off every 30 sec­onds, my

               daugh­ter, Jesus, bub­ble baths…

Bub­ble baths?” I said.

Sure”

You take bub­ble baths?”

Sure do.”

Okay, that’s dis­turb­ing, but what real­ly gets me is how bub­ble baths came on your list imme­di­ate­ly after Jesus.  Makes me won­der how your mind works.”

What?” he said.  “You try­ing to tell me Jesus wasn’t clean?  That he didn’t find joy in his silky smooth skin?”

I shook my head and went back to read­ing his litany:

sun­flower seeds, baby squir­rels, eagles, my job, blue­grass music

               Repub­li­cans…

Repub­li­cans?”

Obvi­ous­ly.”

Come on,” I whined.

Every­body needs some­thing to bitch about.  That’s my thing.  It makes me feel good to com­plain about how plum stu­pid they sound with some of the stuff they say.”

I told him, “You’re quite a char­ac­ter.”

Be grate­ful,” he replied.

That was a few months ago, where­as today, I didn’t ask to read his grat­i­tude list. I just glanced across the table from time to time to see the spot where his pen fell.  “Chick­en pox?” I asked at one point, not expect­ing an answer. “Some­times I think you’re mak­ing this crap up.”

No, seri­ous­ly  Had’em when I was a kid.  That’s one less thing to wor­ry about in my old age.”  I was mes­mer­ized by the pos­i­tive atti­tude Ceff car­ried with him like a bag of breath mints.

I asked, “Is there any­thing you’re not grate­ful for?  I mean, there has to be….”

He rubbed his sil­ver beard like a kitten’s head.  “Could be.  Haven’t found it yet, but there’s always an excep­tion.”

Okay,” I told him, “that’s my new mis­sion in life.  I plan on find­ing at least one thing you’re not grate­ful for, and I won’t stop until I do.”

Sounds like a wor­thy goal,” he said, grunt­ing out a cou­ple half-laughs.  “Good luck with that, my friend.”  Then he low­ered his head, raised his hand, touched pen to paper and wrote:

peo­ple brave enough to fight against insur­mount­able odds….

You’ve got hem­or­rhoids,” I said a bit too loud­ly as I stood in the check­out line behind him at Kroger’s.

The cashier gri­maced, shocked at my behav­ior, or at least fak­ing it.  She couldn’t have been more than twen­ty, with short brown hair cut above her ears.  Her ocean-blue uni­form was fad­ed, telling the world she’d worked here far too long.  “That’s rude,” she said in the soft voice of a moth­er sooth­ing and scold­ing her child at the same time.

Ignore him,” Ceff told her.  “His mama dropped him on his head when he was a wee thing.”  He grinned at her and tapped his fore­head with a fin­ger.

Oh,” she sighed.

Not to be put off, I said, “Seri­ous­ly, hem­or­rhoids.  You can’t be grate­ful for that.”

Already on one of my lists,” he said.  “Remind me, and I’ll show you when we get back to the apart­ment.”

Can’t be,” I said.

The girl asked, “What’s he bab­bling about?”

My grat­i­tude lists.”  Ceff paused to read the girl’s nametag.  “Lin­da, I write out a list every day of all the things I’m grate­ful for.”

Why would you do a fool thing like that?”

To remind me life’s good and I’ve got no rea­son to be mis­er­able.”

Awww,” she purred, “that’s sweet.”

Ceff blushed through his beard like a pink sun­rise back­light­ing rows of cumu­lus.  “Thanks, Lin­da.  Kind of you to say.”

Wait,” I inter­ject­ed.  “Don’t get off track, man.  How can you be grate­ful you’ve got hem­or­rhoids? ”

Before Ceff could speak, the cashier said, “A lit­tle pain in the butt every so often makes it bet­ter when you sit down and don’t hurt.”  She ran his Prepa­ra­tion H past the laser scan­ner.

I shook my head.

Don’t you shake your head at me,” she mocked.  “I bet he thinks you’re kind of a pain in the butt, too.”

Ceff reached for his wal­let.  He smiled twice as wide and told the girl, “I like you, Lin­da.  Tomor­row, I’ll write your name on my list.”

 
I stood in the booth, pay­phone to my ear, impa­tient­ly kick­ing the met­al pan­el beneath the shat­ter­proof glass.  I need­ed a drink.  Oh, how I need­ed a drink.

The line rang through five times, and I expect­ed the voice­mail to pick up.  Instead, I heard a click fol­lowed by a slow, grog­gy voice.  “Uh huh?  I mean, hel­lo?”

Jail,” I said.

What?”

Jail.  Can’t be grate­ful for that.”

It’s almost mid­night,” he said.

Can’t be grate­ful for that either.”

He laughed in that slow, throaty drum­roll of his, full of under­stand­ing.  He’d been sober for a long time, and noth­ing seemed to shock him any­more.  “I guess you don’t know me as well as you think you do,” he said.  “I’m always grate­ful to hear from a good friend.”

Even at mid­night?”

Sure.  Shows you care and you’re still alive.  And, at least for tonight, I’m grate­ful it’s not an emer­gency.”

Uh….”

Not an emer­gency, is it?”

Well….”

He groaned.  It was a ter­ri­ble sound com­ing from him, like a foghorn buried under pil­lows.  “Are you drunk?” he asked.

I hes­i­tat­ed.  “Not any­more.”

Oh, hell.  Then what?”

Jail,” I said.  “Can you help me?”  I felt a ter­ri­ble dry­ness in my throat, and I didn’t know if it came from the liquor eras­ing itself from my blood­stream or my hav­ing to admit to Ceff that I’d fucked up.  Con­fess­ing seemed to me like the worst pos­si­ble thing I’d ever have to do.

What’s the prob­lem?  What did you do?”

The cops charged me with D.U.I.,” I said.  “Sec­ond offense.”

So, you were drink­ing?”

I don’t want to say over the phone.  These calls are record­ed.”

I remem­ber.  I’ve been there.  Still, you know how this works.  You have to be hon­est and admit to every­thing.  Oth­er­wise, nobody can help you.”

Again, I hes­i­tat­ed.  “Fine.  I fell off, okay?  Two days now.”

Won­dered why I hadn’t heard from you,” he said.

Yeah, two days.  Cops pulled me over a cou­ple hours ago.  I ran a frig­gin’ red light.  Didn’t even see it.  Not the cop, either.  He was parked behind a hedge.”

There was silence for a moment that weighed on me as heav­i­ly as if it were my father on the oth­er end of the line.  Dad was a drunk, too, but he had been put in the ground years ago.  He couldn’t hurt me any­more.

Ceff?”

I’m here,” he said.  “Just think­ing.  What do you need me to do?”

It’s only a mis­de­meanor.  Five-hun­dred-dol­lar bond.  Fifty cash to the bonds­man, and he’ll put up the rest.  Can you come down here with fifty bucks?”

I like my fifty bucks,” he joked.  “I’m grate­ful for my fifty bucks.  I’d like to keep my fifty bucks.”

I’ll pay you back.  I promise.”

Not that sim­ple.  You owe me inter­est, too.  I’m tak­ing you to three meet­ings tomor­row.  Don’t want to hear a word about it.”

I didn’t mind the meet­ings in small dos­es, but three was too much.  To sit there for an hour apiece lis­ten­ing to old geezers with­out a third of Ceff’s hap­py-go-lucky per­son­al­i­ty between them as they grum­bled about their years of sobri­ety and how tough their lives were and how they’d like a stiff shot of the Turkey but wouldn’t let them­selves give in?  I didn’t think I could han­dle it, espe­cial­ly com­ing off a night light this.  I’d been stripped out, lice-sprayed, told to squat and cough.  I was in an orange jump­suit so small my balls felt like they were climb­ing up into my low­er intes­tine.  It was embar­rass­ing.  Still, I had to admit I’d rather spend tomor­row in meet­ings than jail.  “Fine,” I told him.

Fine?” he said.

Yeah, fine.  I’ll go.”

I’ll be there in twen­ty min­utes.  Have to cov­er up my jew­els, slide into the Jor­dans, find my keys, and I’ll be right there.”

Thanks,” I said, sigh­ing as if I just learned I didn’t have can­cer.

A robot­ic voice came over the phone line.  “You have one minute remain­ing,” it said.

Looks like our time’s up,” Ceff said, “but Luther, I want you to think about some­thing until I get there.”

What’s that?”

If this trip to jail keeps you sober, I’m grate­ful for jail, too.  So, you want to prove there’s some­thing I’m not grate­ful for, you’ll have to keep drink­ing your­self into the ground.”

That’s not fair,” I groaned.

But it’s the truth.  My friend, I want you to stay sober, but if you do, you lose.  You’ll have to admit you were wrong.  Not right away, but event….”

The phone cut off.  Our time was up.

I replaced the receiv­er and leaned my head on top of it.  “No,” I moaned.  “It doesn’t work that way, you old fart.”  I wait­ed as if he were there beside me, ready to give advice.  I felt like a spi­der had crawled across my cheek, leav­ing me full of shiv­ers and pan­ic.  “You’d still be grate­ful it wasn’t you.  You’d find a rea­son.  You always find a rea­son.  You sil­ly son of a bitch.”

 

boggessAce Boggess is the author of two books of poet­ry: The Pris­on­ers (Brick Road Poet­ry Press, 2014) and The Beau­ti­ful Girl Whose Wish Was Not Ful­filled (High­wire Press, 2003). He is an ex-con, ex-hus­band, ex-reporter, and com­plete­ly exhaust­ed by all the things he isn't any­more. His writ­ing has appeared in Har­vard Review, Mid-Amer­i­can Review, RATTLE, Riv­er Styx, North Dako­ta Quar­ter­ly and many oth­er jour­nals. He lives in Charleston, West Vir­ginia.

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