Sober Holidays, Take Two

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The reason I stay sober. Every day. I love my little boy!

The Holidays are hard on addicts. All of us. No matter our past drug(s) of choice, this time of year finds us surrounded by fellow human being indulging in substance abuse in celebration of a year ending, a year beginning. Even normally reserved members of society get to act as total fools as they let themselves go without normal fear of self-degradation and ill-reputation usually accompanying a person caught in asinine behavior.

This is my first holiday out of the farm, so to speak. Last Christmas I was working full time in a restaurant and lodge that specifically catered to Holiday guests. Located on one of the highest peaks on the East Coast, with snow almost guaranteed, it was the perfect getaway for families, singles, and anyone else seeking to get away from everything during the zaniest time of the year.

There, I could just be me. The only expectation of me from my team of ruthless cooks was to perform. We were stressed, tense and snapping at one another. The days leading up to the whirlwind of festivities were spent prepping, organizing, cleaning, sharpening knives, thawing meats and ordering final items that had been overlooked.

Some drank, some used other drugs and nobody really cared. Nobody asked me to take a drink, apologized for drinking around me, or in any way changed their behaviorism in my presence. To do so would be offensive, both to me and the other cook, server, facilitator, sommelier, bartender or any of the other talent striving to make the Holidays an unforgettable experience for our guests.

We stacked firewood, fired grills, polished silver and copper ware, put on clean aprons, mopped the floors during shifts as foodie’s poured in and out of the kitchen in gawking droves, interrupting the flow of work in their self-absorbed insistence in having their picture taken at the stove or with the Chef. Cooks have learned to deal with this as best they can, but there are inevitable conflicts between the internet celebrities and the cooks trying to get the work done.

Cooks deal with it. Confrontations can be violent, both in-house and out, but are short lived in the face of the work to be done. We did what had to be done.

Through it all, my phone rang. My wife called over and over and over, demanding that I come home, pleading with me to walk out on my team members to come save her from loneliness. It was her first Holiday spend away from her family and she was devastated. My parents called, over and over, asking if I would be there tomorrow. Or the next day. There was food, my favorite dishes, and I was raked with consciousness and guilt. What do I do? I wanted to go home. I wanted to see my wife and son, and I did spend Christmas day with them. That was a lot more than most of the other cooks got to do.

I couldn’t leave my team without me, although I’m sure I wouldn’t have been missed. Not much. Cooks are resourceful. The truth was, I had become comfortable there, with myself.

Away from there, as I am finding this year, people make excuses for consuming alcohol, or whisper amongst themselves, “Should we hide it? Are we bad hosts? Should we even invite him? After all, we don’t have a problem.” Wine continues to flow, and even the ones most dear to you, those who suffered through the addiction and the sickness after, begin to fold to the temptation. “Do you mind?” They ask. “I’ll just have one beer. Do you care? Will it make you uncomfortable?” Or, “I’ll go to the bar, so you don’t have to be around it.” As people spill alcoholic drinks in increasingly sloppy celebration, the people that you know look increasingly worried, even guilty for the wine that they’ve been saving for so many years.

The addict, embarrassed and weary beyond belief, wishes the floor would open and swallow them. That’s how I feel sometimes. Not often, but sometimes. The other inevitability for an addict, whether it’s your first year of sobriety or fifth, is that you will, as some point, be reminded of your past. Someone dear to you, perhaps loosened by their own first or second drink, or irritated as they remain sober and ever-conscious of the presence of alcohol, will hurtfully remind you of the pain you cause.

I recently paid the price for too much exercise, strain, salt and calories. Overnight, my liver revolted and deposited ten pounds of fluid, special delivery, straight into my abdominal cavity. This was two days after the doctors gave me the cleanest bill of health I’d had in six years. I suspected the swelling was due to Ascites, but when I mentioned it to my wife, she told me it was probably too many hot dogs. I hoped she was right.

Most likely, I will be physically fit enough to overcome this reminder of my sickness. I’ve begun to realize that despite the changes I’ve made and the battles our relationship has endured, neither my wife nor I will be quite the same. We’ve made it hard on one another at times, yet joined together in others. Her blunt reminder tonight that my temporary setback makes her think of why I’m sick is just that, a reminder.

Those reminders aren’t pleasant for the addict. Then again, a lot of things aren’t. You’re reinventing yourself in the face of a lot of adversity. It can be overwhelming, shameful, lonely interminable. The thought will hit you, “I could just have one.” Don’t. Maybe you can. Maybe you can’t. There is no way of knowing.

Put your back against the wall, smile at everyone, and be gracious, no matter how you truly feel. After all, our loved ones are really why we’re here. Remember how it could have been, and be grateful for the present and the promise of a future.

Things will get better. I promise.

Happy Holidays.

Ron

Dining Out

It happened to me today. The moment, a magnitude of moments, building up in the back of my mind, relentlessly shoved aside when it rose to consciousness and threatened my everyday happiness with their existence. The moment that happens to any cook, home or professional, who relentlessly pursue their craft to a higher plane. The moment when you realize that the food you are eating in a restaurant, in almost any restaurant, simply isn’t any good. It’s a sad moment, when you realize that the experience of eating out is not about the food anymore. No matter what you eat, no matter how fine the dining establishment, you are one day enjoying yourself in a spot of sunshine with your favorite dish in a favorite joint, and it happens. You think the terrible thought: “I could have made this at home! Better!”

I was doing just that, enjoying the sunshine heating up my back and having one of my favorite sandwiches in my adopted local restaurant. I was happy. It was cold outside. A cold that I’m still not used to, the bitter chill of temperatures just above freezing, which is practically shirt sleeve weather in the mountains. There, at higher elevations, the frost of the night is burned off on most mornings by brilliant sunshine. The rising temperatures create steam off the roofs of houses and fog over the river valleys and steeply descending icy cold streams as they plunge down in their relentless pursuit of sediment and scour. On the shore, here by the Chesapeake Bay, the local weather is best characterized by the term raw. I’m still not used to it. The relentless wind from the northeast, combined with steady humidity around 60 to 80 percent, which makes your skin cool from evapotranspiration that makes even so called normal temperatures miserable.

That was one of those mornings. I’d been outside most of the day, still glorying in the new and unfamiliar, even the temperatures. I was finally driven in to the restaurant by my own timidity of my increasingly good health and falling temperatures, which felt to me like a storm was on the way. My arthritis was howling, reminding me of past stupidity and to make sure my son is not successful at riding his new little bike off the bed in his room, or at least keep him safe while he does it.

I pulled myself up to the bar, blew on my hands, ordered a coffee and a prime rib sandwich. Holding an ever changing lead with a great cheeseburger and a Bahn Mi, a prime rib sandwich with au jus is a meal dear to my heart. Warming and sloppy and filling on a cold day, there is little to go wrong with that choice. I make it my mainstay in judging the quality of a restaurant: If you can get two of these sandwiches right, then you are most likely paying attention across the board.

Philly Cheesesteaks are also one of my favorites, but my standards are too bizarre to make that a judgment call. It simply isn’t fair to evaluate most establishments on the quality of this sandwich, but if I eat there, and you have it, it had better be right! Melty cheap cheese on a high quality prime rib or sirloin chopped beef with a homemade loaf, onions and peppers, they are like crack to me. If they are good.

This place didn’t have a cheesesteak, but it did offer an American Cheeseburger. You had to look for it, hard, under all the burger options, but it was there. Along with its gourmet brothers, who were covered in everything from oysters to Foie Gras, it was there. A burger, with American Cheese, rather embarrassingly sporting a trio of unripe tomatoes, onions and limp lettuce with ketchup and mayo in little cups on the side, it was still there. I tried it. It was ok. Not great, but ok.

I expected more from the Prime Rib. After all, isn’t it the grown up and sophisticated cousin of the cheeseburger? The Au Jus alone makes it worth the price of admission, or it should. With two hands clenched around my mug of coffee for warmth, it was hard to let go to take my first bite of the sandwich. It looked good. It was steaming in the afternoon light, the kind of sunshine that reflects just so off the windows and gives you a good, unfiltered look at what you are breathing. When I was a little kid and first saw all the dust, mites, dander, pollen, carpet funk and other particles that you suck into your lungs for life, I held my breath until I fainted. I was afraid to breathe. How I ended up in a coal mine from that is beyond me.

I let go of the coffee cup reluctantly and made a grab for the sandwich. It looked good. It was on a toasted bun, and piled high with what appeared to be prime rib. I took a bite, then another look at this sandwich. I felt like Christian in “Pilgrims Progress,” seeing things as they really were for the first time. The bread was dry. It was old. It was still cold inside. There was no mayo, no cheese, no onions, no umami from the beef. Nothing. I dipped it in the Au Jus, my heart sinking a little. The second bite confirmed my initial venture. It wasn’t any good.

People who cook professionally represent a very small community. Pare it down a little further, and the air becomes a bit more stratified. With that said, it can be hard to be somewhere new very long, buying produce, getting to know farmers, butchers, fishmongers, grocers and the purveyors of kitchen equipment before people begin to put out feelers. Your reputation, for better or worse, will immediately follow you. In other words, the community was getting to know me. Far faster than I was getting to know them.

The sandwich was bad. Plain and simple. I disassembled it, poked around a bit and surreptitiously examined my catch of the day. I didn’t eat it. The Jus was cold, and the meat looked dangerously close to a frozen mystery product I used to clobber together as a cook at a summer camp and there was nothing else on it.

Seeing my dilemma, my bartender wandered over. “Did you like it? Sure. Are you not hungry? No, not really. Want something else? No, I’m good. I’ll just pay rent on my space for a while.” He studied me, then my plate. “That’s our best seller.” I offered no further comment, my day dampened a bit. Not ruined, by any means, but rendered a bit raw.

He collected the cast aside parts of the sandwich and ignored fries and wandered away, dismissing all of it immediately. I felt abandoned, somehow. Like all wannabe artisans of a craft, I wanted to think that maybe, just maybe, I would be told if something was off that day.

With my delicate ego in balance, I thought of other dishes I’d had there, and at other restaurants, good establishments, all of them. Nothing whatsoever jumped out at me. Whenever I went looking for something good, I didn’t find it.

Where I did find it was during a street sale in a small town, where oysters were being shucked in the freezing rain for charity only. From a pink joint, where the owner laughingly made me a hot dog piled high with slaw, baked beans, mustard, ketchup and hot sauce. From a roadside fish stand, where crab cakes and trout were being deep fried and people gathered in the freezing cold, regardless of race, economic status or creed to enjoy the fatty goodness of simple food. I thought of the impromptu neighborhood barbecue I had crashed a few days earlier, carrying a case of Keystone Light, with my cargo pants stuffed with pork rinds and dragging a cooler full of ice and Mountain Dew. I thought of my wife’s handmade pasta, carefully shaped as she cast the dough over the flour dusted workspace, over and over and over again. Her potato gnocchi, her mother’s spaghetti and meatballs, all of them cooked with love, with little regard to what needy little foodie bitches like me would think.

I thought of my grandmothers deep fried chicken and squirrel brains with red-eye gravy and biscuits, served to me on my eighteenth birthday, the day I went to work in a coal mine. Six years later, as I was lacing up my boots on her porch, which was overflowing with herbs, flowers and plants growing out of every conceivable container, she told me: “No matter where you go, always take your boots.”

So, the sad day of realizing that I was missing something when I dined out was replaced with the memories of why I started cooking in the first place. Out of love. Love, and the pursuit of perfection.

I’ll never view dining out the same die, cast as I have come to opinionate it. Instead, I will eat what is put before me where I enjoy it most, in the homes and backyards and back kitchens of the world, and I will appreciate every bite.

Maybe I’m not a pretentious bastard, after all.

The Old Chef

The old chef made his way through the soft snowflakes. The night was dark, yet still dimly lit by the suns afterglow on the first sliver of a waning moon. The only other illumination was from the candle and firelight flickering on the windows of the tavern to his right, dancing their day’s last dance in the fading aurora of a day past, a twilight gone and night approaching.

Snow was piled high in drifts to his left along the roughhewn sidewalk, all but lost in the winters repeatedly clearing of the pedestrian surface. Only a few weeks ago it had been wide and brightly lit and passable even in the dead of night, as the late night merrymakers finished the last of their drinks, ushering in a new rise with puffed cheeks and rosy noses. The women had been clad in skin tight leggings and furry boots, the fabric of the pants pulled tight to give what they hoped was the best possible image in the fuzzy, uncertain light.

The old man enjoyed the look, and the embrace of the young girls as they squealed and greeted him, one and all, with a hug and a kiss. Always the opportunist, he relished the chance to pat their behinds, smell their shampoo and marvel at how beautiful youth had become. His days of romantic liaisons with the young, desirable and sexy were now long behind him, but that did not mean he could not dream. He could reminisce of the days of his youth, before Father Time began his unavoidable pull. Men such as he felt age piling against their door differently than some and more quickly than most. Years spent in backbreaking toil, substance abuse of all kinds and the lifestyle of a famous, if not broke, rock star aged a fellow.

The sidewalk was not quite visible this far from his cottage, but he knew the path as he once was mesmerized by the dimples over a lovers ass. This little path was not as attractive as the previous recipient of his attention, but it deserved a little observation, even so. His shoulder throbbed, a constant reminder of a night not that long ago when he had trusted his balance on ice a little too much. He had fallen then, and broken three bones, as his calcium deficient skeletal system attempted to absorb the blow.

His dog ranged a bit ahead of him into the lot, where snow had been pushed away to provide parking for the fine automobiles that the financially astute would motor through the weather on their way to the place of fine dining. Their youthful frames were comfortable and fabulous in the heated leather seats, skinny jeans and scarves, all carefully askew. Hair mussed and iPhones plastered against their heads in perfect disregard for the cancer that it may cause, they were the new masters now.

In his day, a Chef, although revered in his own kitchen, was an outcast. A fringe character, sullied upon their chosen career more by chance and skill than by intention. More often than not, they were unspoken repositories of a past that took many shots of alcohol to pry out. Sometimes, they were criminals, unfairly cast upon by the system for crimes real or imagined. They were often victim of petty charges which, through negligence, took root and grew under the social framework. Another cook may be a recovering addict, paying the cost of his or her narrow escape from certain death in the comradery and unspoken rules of the kitchen.

A true Chef rose to the top of these miscreants, hard workers and talented all, by simply becoming the best. It was not enough to attend one of the many fine culinary institutes, although he had. Then, before the days of celebrity chefs and twitter and the ever-growing success of television reality shows where competitors, for real or not, cooked for the entertainment of the masses, there were no pretenders.

He had started cooking in a professional kitchen when he was twelve years old. An age when most adolescent males in the United States today are thinking of things like class, school, phones and girls. He had thought of girls, of course. A smile played across his face, followed by the drag of a match as he lit his pipe.

Puffing contentedly, he meandered along behind his dog, stopping when she did, pausing once to clean the remnants of her dinner out of the snow and place them carefully, still warm, into a protective plastic bag. He thought of the sunsets over the Aegean Sea, as the light, so different then, full of hope and dreams and the soft kisses of a beautiful young Italian girl, bursting with romance and so very in love with the young dreamer with the scars and aspirations for grandeur.

The scars had faded with time and travel, put there by his boss, an angry potslinger with a penchant for flame and razor blades, who had sadistically branded most of his young apprentices as they worked in his kitchens. The young men were blood relatives more often than not, inexorably tied to the tradition of serving under a master craftsman in order to learn a skill. Under this madman, Chef had transformed his fiery temper and tenacity into something hard and brutal, steel under the skin of a normal man. He had learned to ignore pain, hardship and the taunts of his fellow comrades as the only white boy in the arena. Perhaps more importantly, he learned flair and showmanship and demonstrated an instinctive command of the senses intuitively, without thought.

He left on a cruise ship, bound for other destinations, other ports of which he had dreamed, as any young man will fantasize of, no matter their current location. He left the young girl sleeping in her bed in the humble abode they shared, years before the tourist hordes descended on the Amalfi Coast in their tour buses, disembarking to waddle from the safety of the air conditioned seats under the watchful and bored eyes of their captors, who loudly informed them that “This is where the locals eat!”

He went away, traveled the world, never settling down as so many chefs are still inclined to do, wandering in the search of something else, something better to taste and learn and enjoy. Another girl or three, aging as he did in the graceless but seemingly infinite space of life.

He awoke one day to find it all changed. In his twilight years, he had been dethroned, removed from command. As all old generals are forced one day to serve dissident, disenchanted witness to the new champions of the kitchen. Tattooed and manscaped, they were a far cry from the cooks of his youth. They rarely, if ever, had endured the hardships of years of toil. Sporting six-pack abdominals, groomed hair and hip beards, they were ever conscience of their image. To them, their visage was everything, their iPhones a constant presence, their attention spans attuned to the twelve second sound bite. They knew nothing of true hardship, of poverty or desperation.

Frankly, he found them and their relentless posturing annoying at best. But he had long learned his place. Yet, like an old prizefighter, staggering and weak, he still felt he had one good fight in him, one more monstrous kitchen moment, fighting for the glory of the line and the admiration of the female wait staff.

He watched the driving snow and turned around to his lonely cabin, where his brandy and fire waited patiently. He could wait. He could dream.

He could remember. His dog followed him as she always did, the faithful companion that he had always dreamed of. Along with the sweet, salty scent of the girl by the sea.

Racism, Social Stratification and $5 Twine.

$4.99. I stared at the label, not quite believing my eyes. My kitchen was sacked, resembling what I imagine Carthage must have looked like after the Battle of Zama. The dishwasher was askew and looked ready to escape the madness. Loose heavy gauge wire snaked behind the cabinets like giant spaghetti. The sink was freed from its moorings and the faucet was scattered about on the floor. Chicken stock and jam were simmering and boiling, in that order, on the range. The crock pot was bubbling with soup and empty jars littered every available space. Sourdough bread was rising in the chaos, destined to fail from want of attention. The oven was set on 400 degrees and I was dangerously close to a full kitchen fire. Just add grease.

This time of year renders everyone insane. Those who do cook feel responsible for every mention of a Holiday dinner. The non-culinarians feel obliged to still contribute to the feasting in some way and so overspend at Whole Foods and Boston Market. At this point in time, the promise that this year, somehow, I will spend less on Christmas is shot as the Absolute Delivery Date From Amazon pursues us across the calendar is abandoned and largely forgotten.

The money crunch seemed more real this season. With one house empty on the market and another occupied by our small family, we were monetarily stressed. End of year costs for the self-employed are extremely shocking. Rising health care and all the myriad of fees, taxes and levies are leaving small business owners raped and broken as we front the money required to employ a host of government employees, whose sole intent seems to be declaring the day after Christmas a Holiday.

I looked at the war zone of a kitchen, dashed over to the range in time to keep the jam from boiling over and considered the real cost of eating in our country. It is ever popular to piously choose healthy food choices over packaged ones as more of us have the opportunity to do. Supply is rising in response to the social self-justification of high quality food products. High-end box stores such as Whole Foods are nearly neighborhood fixtures catering to the middle and upper class, primarily white, population. Fish markets are now part of a hip culture as consumers pose with product and hawkers gain reputation not for their fish, but their ability to toss them for their customers. Butcher shops, although still trailing their seafood and produce brethren, are also on the rise as the millennial horde discover what humans have intuitively known for thousands of years: Meat is good.

All this has its repercussions. We are still single consumers amongst billions that need sustenance to survive. If we are so lucky to have our own small gardens, access to local farms, waterways, apiaries, backyard poultry farmers and sustainable meat, then we should count ourselves blessed. What we proclaim as a right, access to good food, is in fact a privilege.

With all this in mind, as news coverage of demonstrations against racial and social prejudices plays silently on my open laptop, I sat stunned on the floor with my five dollar ball of twine. $4.99, plus tax, to be exact. It was in fact adorned in the appropriate wrapper. The label designated it as Gourmet Kitchen Twine. Was it so different than the twine used around the world by the working poor and upper class alike, which is available in most food supply stores and other bulk stores for about the same price as their gourmet counterpart, only for FIVE HUNDED feet of it?

I unwrapped the twine out of curiosity. What was the actual cost of this stuff? A rough measurement confirmed what I had suspected; the size of the ball was correlated to the length, as is every other rope-like product of similar diameters, regardless of the price. Brown twine, which widely available at most, if not all Asian, Latino, Middle-Eastern or the myriads of other “ethnic” supermarkets, works out to a penny a foot. The shit being sold to pretentious wealthy white shoppers in search of the most seasonal and local vegetables to go with their imported cheeses and wines: About $0.25 per foot. You pay a lot for the packaging and marketing that goes along with being a foodie these days.

What irked me the most was that it was in our kitchen. That means that either my wife or myself, most likely me as badly as hate to admit it, had purchased it. One or both of us had thought so little of the costs associated with wrapping our sourdough starter, homemade butter and meat products that I simply had not checked the price. Such a thing is unthinkable for most Americans, regardless of color, but would be particularly nauseating for one of our ethnic minorities. I have dared think of people watching the price of their groceries mount on the blinking screen as they weigh their options as just not as smart as me. As I smugly stand in line with my frivolities, organic seedless grapes ($10.99 a pound at Whole Foods) and Kombucha ($5.99 per 12 fluid ounces at a local gourmet grocer), these people are weighing the cost of surviving until the next paycheck or government assistance installment.

The truth in the escalating price of wholesome food, health care and reality of the aptly labelled food deserts is not in the lack of education: It is in the lack of options.

I shamefully utilized my ball of twine. But not before I put up a length of it in my workshop. Six feet, six inches. Just a little over a $1.50. To measure the growth of my son, and to remind myself that food options, for now, are a luxury of the fortunate and a miserable truth for others.

The Lonely Battle

Snow fell, silent and thick. It shortened space and rendered all sound muffled. My four wheel drive truck was essentially useless without the tire chains I had not thought to put on. The internet, a model of communication, went out first. I managed a quick call through to my wife before the phones went down. I felt isolated, but comforted. My wood stove raged with firewood cut, split, stacked and dried the year before. White oak deadfall, mostly, it provided me with heat in its last gasp in recognizable form. The ashes would rejoin the carbon cycle in my gardens and supply the lye necessary for building rudimentary rock walls and joining long-forgotten bricks, pushed aside in the forest for nearly fifty years into a path to be trodden by my infant son in the spring.

The electricity failed soon after. There was a blink, as swift as the eye brushing away a microbe of irritation. The inevitable click and whir of computer backup systems was the only sure sign that our power grid, if you can call a solitary line on a pole such a thing, was doomed for failure. The hush of the falling snow made the fall of a small pine onto the conduit silent. The power blinked off, sure to be lost for a few days.

I stared into the fireplace, alone in a warm house with nothing but memories. Aching moments of time past, of beaches and mountains and the distant pounding of surf. Recollections of past loves, all trodden under the wheel of time, jerked into the present like a sudden bed of lemon grass in the early spring as the plow passes through the wet earth for the season’s first planting.
The house was still and unbearably silent. The tick of a teapot, set over the glowing cast iron, was the only sound, save that of the popping of the firewood as it reluctantly released its heat for my comfort. Left to my own devices, with no one to cook for, entertain or monitor my actions, I thought of the bottle of bourbon I had hidden away nearly one year before.

Every addict, at first, has a secret stash. I told myself, as do so many others, that it served as a symbolic reminder of what I had become. In reality, it is like a beloved blanket, hidden away by a teenage boy, who knows that comfort can be found if the night becomes too dark, or when a broken heart becomes too painful.

That night, as the snow fell and only the trees to serve witness, I thought of my stash. It was an excellent bottle of bourbon, I remembered. The fire seemed to agree, as the flames bobbed and nodded in agreement. I tried to think of my son and wife, but I reasoned with myself that they would never know.

That I had been pointedly and repeatedly admonished by doctors that even one more binge could, and most likely would, kill me seemed to just not matter. I began to wish for company, half believing that I would hike out of the snow covered mountains and make my way the three miles to the nearest store, where I could stay busy pouring wine and preparing comfort food for others.

The other half, then the stronger counterpoint, argued that I should celebrate my sobriety. After all, it argued, everyone else had forgotten. It had been nearly a year, so of course I could handle just one or two drinks. I pondered this as my beloved Manx cat stood silent guard, restless as usual inside. As wild as his ancestors, he distrusted anything that may be a trap, a trait inherited and fostered by his experience with man.

His gaze was impenetrable as I made my point aloud to him. He seemed to not care, as I felt abandoned by all the people who had begged me, pleaded with me and cheered for me before, during and just after recovery. I had beaten the odds, as a staggering prizefighter might do, stopped drinking in the midst of Delirium Tremens, surviving the worst the disease had to throw at me, at least for the now. After the immediate horrors had passed, I had been diagnosed with terminal liver cirrhosis and given only a short time to live.

I refused to think of this that night. The draw of the bottle was a tangible, physical thing. I could taste it, feel the familiar burn. As the snow deepened and wind began to howl across the mountaintops, I gave in to the familiar and ventured outside to retrieve my Elixir of the Gods. I reasoned that I would only have a taste, just one. Something to relax me and celebrate my solitude. A quick jigger to render the memories distant and harmless, where they could bay as lost hounds into the dark, hungry for recognition and companionship.

I journeyed by landmarks burned into my memory. It was a long walk, as I had intended when I stashed the bottle. The driving snow should have obscured signs of my self-immolation, but I am a woodsman. Even as a child, I could find my way through the heavily forested mountains of my home at a dead run, rarely pausing for direction, often at night, when the moon and stars would draw me out of the comfort of my room and into the mysteries of the whispering dark.

The bottle was where I left it. Carefully concealed in a small cast in the trunk of a small hickory, it had gone unnoticed, as I knew it would. Few people walk the mountains these days, content to roar about on fossil fuel fired machines. Even fewer see, or care to look.

Stubbs watched me from a safe distance, sitting as all cats do despite his lack of a tail. He was mysterious, felines can be. I seated myself in the snow, brushing the tiny miracles from a log now buried in the white drifts. I uncorked the bottle.

The next morning found me helplessly vomiting blood into the still snow. Wrapped into a blanket and trapped in the throes of withdrawal, I ate as much snow as I could, my presence violating the still beauty of the morning.

I lost that fight, but I did not give up. I stubbornly clung to consciousness and fought through the sickness and pain, the fevers, the lost passage of hours as my tired brain and tortured body followed my will to live. My wife returned two days later and I drove her SUV through the trackless snow up our tiny dirt drive. She looked at me oddly and carefully inspected the house for anything out of order. Her photographic memory could be at once miraculous and vexing, as she could remember the positioning of every item before her departure. Her searching gaze fell upon the china cabinet, where rocks glasses were kept, shut away and formerly dusty from misuse.

My heart dropped as I spotted what she had only seconds before: One glass was clean. Gleaming cut crystal winked at us as I pretended to have not noticed what she had seen. My eyes were damp with tears as I played with our son, praying that she would not do as she had promised after my last betrayal and turn me away.

She studied my ashen face, jaundiced eyes and gaunt frame. I was painfully lean from no food or water for days as my body ate itself in retribution for the damage I had once again rendered. Our infant boy, carrying my name, tucked his hands inside the space between him and me, where our hearts beat the same blood and for better or worse, our souls shared a bond that could not be broken.

I met her hard gaze beseechingly, pleading silently with her. Not to forgive. The time was past for that. I silently begged her to just let me be. To just allow me this time and space allotted to spend with my son. To allow me some dignity as her husband, to not cast me out, where I would wander alone once more, into the inevitable oblivion of shame and death, casting my shadow on some lonely mountain or losing myself in the pounding surf of a distant land. Our small family was all I had left. My career as a teacher was shot, drowned in a pool of forgotten mistakes. My corner office in an engineering firm was a distant memory and in a remote time, rendered extinct by my alcohol fueled orbit.

Her gaze slowly softened as she watched us. I wept into the blonde curls of my only begotten son, thankful to be allowed this chance, yet again.

She acknowledged without speaking a battle lost, but a war not yet done. Inevitably, we all must fight alone. We must spare our loved ones the knowledge of our own ignorance and fallacies. Her faith in my scarred core, beaten and bloodied by so many years of selfish acts, where I had never known fear or defeat, only despair, carried me through the moment as the sun played across the melting snow.

For me, that was the only way out of the fog. Out of the snow. Out of the weeds. Once, they had blocked the stars. Now, I could see the horizon beyond.
Where love, trust and friendships could be earned once again.