Academi Intoxication Conference 2006 – Instead of Dying by Tess Gallagher
Tess Gallagher was born in Port Angeles and is a poet, essayist, and short story writer. The following essay is her adaptation of the talk given at the Academi Intoxication Conference 2006.
Tess Gallagher by Tim Crosby
Instead Of Dying
Instead of dying from alcohol, Raymond Carver, chose to live. I would meet him five months after this choice, so I never knew the Ray who drank, except by report and through the characters and actions of his stories and poems. One of the beautiful results of his decision to stay sober was that he became an internationally respected master of the short story, a writer who, at his death, was called by the London Times “America’s Chekhov”. For me, the best result of his choice for life was that we found each other, could write and live together, becoming first-readers for each other’s work, challenging, inspiring and supporting one another in this new life we created day by day.
Every artist and writer likely has the challenge of honoring their intensities while managing not to be consumed by them. Ray was nearly consumed by his. The choice that changed Ray’s life happened on June 2, 1977 and probably ought to be declared one of the more useful holidays: to honor all those who make it out of alcoholism. When I go to his grave now (he died too young of lung cancer caused by smoking at age of fifty) I find messages from those who, as he did, want to stay sober, and who lean on his humility and largess of spirit. They leave him notes: “Ten years sober, Ray! Life is sweet, you bet! Thanks, man.”
Certainly Ray would approve of this conference, meant to promote dialogue about the subject of the various intoxications, both positive and destructive. He knew the havoc that his own demon, alcohol, could play in a person’s life before it can sometimes, only sometimes be put in abeyance. In his stead, I can offer some of his and my own story around the subject of alcohol and recovery, and what it had to do with his being a writer. I think in the end, Ray managed to exchange a deadly intoxication that would have killed him, for one that instead honored his desire for precision and, yes, intoxication with language and storytelling.
Ray had been “in the drink,” as the Irish say, twenty-five years by the time he quit for good, but it took him only the wounded grace of moments-added-to-moments to inch his way free, and later to finally sit on the mountain of ten years of sobriety at age fifty. He considered his having stopped drinking the single most important event of his life. This poem was written shortly before his death on August 2, 1988.
No other word will do. For that’s what it was. Gravy.
Gravy, these past ten years.
Alive, sober, working, loving and
being loved by a good woman. Eleven years
ago he was told he had six months to live
at the rate he was going. And he was going
nowhere but down. So he changed his ways
somehow. He quit drinking! And the rest?
After that it was all gravy, every minute
of it, up to and including when he was told about,
well, some things that were breaking down and
building up inside his head. “Don’t weep for me,”
he said to his friends. “I’m a lucky man.
I’ve had ten years longer than I or anyone
expected. Pure gravy. And don’t forget it.”
We always celebrated Ray’s sobriety date which was June 2. Usually we did something simple like eating some chocolate after a nice meal at which we’d toasted with sparkling apple juice. I always gave him a little gift—one year a stuffed elephant to remind him of his story by that name, or a briefcase in which to carry his newly drafted short stories.
By the time Ray quit drinking, he had been on a long, sad road since his teenage years. On his first date at age sixteen, he got so drunk he vomited all over his date in her prom dress. He blacked out and didn’t remember much. He was mortified the next day, but it was all over. He’d made a mess of things and that was the last the young woman he had thought so fine would have to do with him.
As he would say later: “nobody starts out to be a drunk. It’s the ‘creeping disease.’” The inclination to lose oneself in drink nuzzles up, first sweetly, then glassily, and sucks the drinker down. “Nazi whiskey!” Ray called it, for how it ultimately gave you no choice. “Nazi whiskey!” he’d repeat, then laugh with a kind of self-abandon that belonged to that place from which he’d thankfully escaped.
But maybe the word “escape” makes it seem as if it getting free of alcohol couldn’t happen for others. Ray didn’t think this true. He held out hope for everyone, having come from “down under the floorboards” himself. I also felt a seemingly hopeless drinker could have his chances. I’ve been known not to pretend I didn’t notice when someone was over the top with their drinking. Once a friend failed to see me off to my plane after a night of secret bingeing, then by postcard pleaded “sinus trouble”. I wrote him my own postcard: “Try stepping back off the bourbon and your sinus trouble will improve.” I’d called his number. He checked himself into a drying out facility that week and there began his recovery. He later thanked me and said that my postcard had put him on notice that he wasn’t fooling anybody.
I guess all the havoc I’ve seen caused by alcohol has made me unwilling to play the denial role. When the spades fall, I call them. It’s the kindest thing to do. I recommend this kind of boldness, or effrontery—whatever one wants to call it—because I think, although we won’t always succeed, we might, and it is this chance that can turn a life around.
Without bravado, Ray considered himself the living proof, that even the worst cases, could make the conditions by which to change the course of the disease and reclaim their lives. “If I could kick it, anyone can. I had the world’s worst case of it on record,” he said.
Call it iron discipline. But for months
I never took my first drink
before eleven p.m. Not so bad,
considering. This was in the beginning
phase of things. I knew a man
whose drink of choice was Listerine.
He was coming down off Scotch.
He bought Listerine by the case,
and drank it by the case. The back seat
of his car was piled high with dead soldiers.
Those empty bottles of Listerine
gleaming in his scalding back seat!
The sight of it sent me home soul-searching.
I did that once or twice. Everybody does.
Go way down inside and look around.
I spent hours there, but
didn’t meet anyone, or see anything
of interest. I came back to the here and now,
and put on my slippers. Fixed
myself a nice glass of NyQuil.
Dragged a chair over to the window.
Where I watched a pale moon struggle to rise
over Cupertino, California.
I waited through hours of darkness with NyQuil.
And then, sweet Jesus! the first sliver
But he never took credit himself for having licked the booze. He called it “grace”—what had happened to him. Some force beyond him had allowed him the grace not to drink, once he began to seek desperately to stop.
He hadn’t been too dismissive, embittered or ego-proud to get help. He had allowed himself the full advantage of AA and also of a place called “Duffy’s” in northern California, a drying out facility within range of Jack London’s home, about which he would speak once in awhile, remembering how there were people from all walks of life there. Writers didn’t have a corner on being drunks. Ray ultimately learned the skills at Duffy’s to bring himself back off the booze when he was carried again into a binge outburst at a birthday reunion with drinking friends in San Francisco.
There are no more loop holes in the U.S. to allow the kind of bankruptcies Ray experienced, so he wouldn’t have those options today of having a “distress sale”. He’d been banrupt twice by the time we met.
Early one Sunday morning everything outside—
the child’s canopy bed and vanity table,
the sofa, end tables and lamps, boxes
of assorted books and records. We carried out
kitchen items, a clock radio, hanging
clothes, a big easy chair
with them from the beginning
and which they called Uncle.
Lastly, we brought out the kitchen table itself
and they set up around that to do business.
The sky promises to hold fair.
I’m staying here with them, trying to dry out.
I slept on that canopy bed last night.
This business is hard on us all.
It’s Sunday and they hope to catch the trade
from the Episcopal church next door.
What a situation here! What disgrace!
Everyone who sees this collection of junk
on the sidewalk is bound to be mortified.
The woman, a family member, a loved one,
a woman who once wanted to be an actress,
she chats with fellow parishioners who
smile awkwardly and finger items
of clothing before moving on.
The man, my friend, sits at the table
and tries to look interested in what
he’s reading—Froissart’s Chronicles it is,
I can see it from the window.
My friend is finished, done for, and he knows it.
What’s going on here! Can no one help them?
Must everyone witness their downfall?
This reduces us all.
Someone must show up at once to save them,
to take everything off their hands right now,
every trace of this life before
this humilation goes on any longer.
Someone must do something.
I reach for my wallet and that is how I understand it:
I can’t help anyone.
Somewhere I came across the statistic that an alcoholic affects at least twenty other people’s lives adversely. Jean’s TV deals with the deceptions that accompany the disease.
My life’s on an even keel
these days. Though who’s to say
it’ll never waver again?
This morning I recalled
a girlfriend I had, just after
my marriage broke up.
A sweet gvirl named Jean.
In the beginning, she had no idea
how bad things were. It took
a while. But she loved me
a bunch anyway, she said.
And I know that’s true.
She let me stay at her place
where I conducted
the shabby business of my life
over her phone. She bought
my booze, but told me
I wasn’t a drunk
like those others said.
Signed checks for me
and left them on her pillow
when she went off to work.
Gave me a Pendleton jacket
that Christmas, one I still wear.
For my part, I taught her to drink.
And how to fall asleep
with her clothes on.
How to wake up
weeping in the middle of the night.
When I left, she paid two months’
rent for me. And gave me
her black and white TV.
We talked on the phone once,
months later. She was drunk.
And, sure, I was drunk too.
The last thing she said to me was,
Will I ever see my TV again?
I looked around the room
as if the TV might suddenly
appear in its place
on the kitchen chair. Or else
come out of a cupboard
and declare itself. But that TV
had gone down the road
weeks before. The TV Jean gave me.
I didn’t tell her that.
I lied, of course. Soon, I said,
very soon now.
And put down the phone
after, or before, she hung up.
But those sleep-sounding words
of mine making me feel
I’d come to the end of a story.
And now, this one last falsehood
I could rest.
When I first met Ray in 1977 in Dallas he was still shaky from his scant five months of sobriety. He was determined to stay sober at this Texas writing conference where the two main past times were drinking and carousing. Somehow he managed it, but not without a funny story that emerged later of his having had to hide in the shower, from a woman who’d taken a notion of him.
I’d see him at breakfast since we were both early risers. We’d eat eggs and bacon, toast with plenty of jelly. We grinned a lot and, every now and then, he’d say, like a rhetorical mantra to ward off evil: “aren’t we having fun!” He’d greet me with: “how’s my little pal?!” smiling from his six-foot-two vantage to my five-foot-five, as if the world were all sun and radiance.
We hadn’t the least idea then that we’d be spending the most important years of our lives together, years that would never have been possible if Ray hadn’t stopped drinking and stayed stopped. At that point in my own life, I’d had enough of trying to haul alcoholic men out of the abyss. My father had been alcoholic and my second husband, and even the lover I returned to for a briefly, after having met Ray. That man slept with a revolver under his pillow in Missoula, Montana. There was no end in sight to his beer drinking while taking lithium. He tried to bring a considerable writing talent to bear on his time in Vietnam. But the drink ran him in circles. I could see he would take years to find his way out.
When Ray and I met fatefully a second time in Texas, Ray had a year and half of sobriety, but nobody was giving him high odds of staying that way. I remember his saying he’d never written anything while drinking. All his stories and poems had been written in dry spells.
In the gamble of it, I felt Ray, might make it, actually stay sober, if he had the grip of someone who could hold the good ground with him. I knew I could do that, but wanted no repeats of my Montana misadventure. I gave him to understand that he’d have to change his luck if he wanted to be with me. Here the word “somehow” has to come in, because somehow he gathered himself gradually into a place where he lived for promise, where each day without drinking had a glow and fervor. Once we were living together, and he was steady enough, he took heart from seeing me at my writing, and, after four years of not being able to write after the publication of Will You Please Be Quiet, Please, he began drafting the stories that would send him back into the heart of not just American literature, but world literature, for he is now translated into more than twenty-eight languages, the most recent being Korean, Farsi and Chinese.
Things happened in our ten “gravy” years together that could never have happened if Ray hadn’t quit drinking. He would get up in the morning like a cat that thought it could leap as high as any bird flying. And he did leap, ranged out there, the leopard of his imagination, and pulled down the feathers and blooded-flesh of stories fueled by his own failures and delivered as the result of his recovery. Whereas earlier he’d simply chronicled the debilitation of mostly working class lives, his new stories actually allowed recourse and a different order of revelation.
I’ll never forget the day he told me that his Knopf editor wanted him to take drinking out of all his stories in the book that would be called What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. I paused a long while. I remember pacing the rooms of our little cottage in Tucson like an enraged cougar. Then I sat down in front of him and said, “You’ve got to get rid of that editor. He just doesn’t understand where you’ve come from or what you’re about.”
But Ray had to make a choice, to stay sober or to fight the editor. Although the drinking stayed in his stories, there were many other important elements the editor cut from them. This early phase of Ray’s sobriety demanded that he not take on battles that would exhaust his ability to withstand possibly uncontrollable consequences. It’s only recently that two scholars, William Stull and Maureen Carroll, have been able to restore that original manuscript which will eventually appear first not in English, but in Japanese in a translation by Haruki Murakami.
Ultimately the trespassing editor and Ray parted company. A provision was made that the editor wasn’t to touch the next book, Cathedral, which carried the stories that would certify, not only Ray’s literary reputation, but his gifts as a witness for moments of splendid change. This book, where the uplift in Ray’s life was clearly present, has continued to be his best selling book to date.