by Lela Fox
Chapter 1: FUN AND GAMES
“Okay, here’s another one: mountains or beach?”
I hesitated. “Gil, that’s not a fair question. A Tennessee girl has to say mountains, but in truth, there’s nothing more peaceful for me than floating in the waves at the beach. I used to spend hours there when I first got sober, floating and thinking, thinking and floating.”
“Because you’re an over-thinker.”
“Everybody thinks so, but I think−”
“Gotcha! You’re thinking about thinking! Yep, a double-triple-multi-quadruple over-thinker. That’ll get you in trouble someday, Lela.”
“Not thinking will get you in trouble, Gil! You’re so laid back that it’s scary sometimes.”
We teased each other while playing what Gil called the “Get to Know Each Other Game,” a series of A-or-B questions, each requiring an explanation. The afternoon sky held a brilliant sun, especially as we stood high on a ridge outside of Rockville, home of the area’s famous fire-watch tower.
We’d climbed the wooden steps to the tower, four stories above ground, ooh’ing and aah’ing about the view of a zillion shades of green. The scenery in the undulating hills and valleys of East Tennessee was unmatched. “God’s Country,” most call it, just fifty miles east of America’s most-visited national park.
“Okay, Gil… yellow or green?”
“That wasn’t an option, you ditz.” He shrugged, but I wanted his reasoning. “And you choose blue because…?”
He mumbled and grumbled, trying to avoid answering the question, it seemed. I prodded him again, and then he spoke in jet-speed. “My eyes, right?”
“Bluest eyes I’ve ever seen.” I smiled. True, Gil’s eyes had always mesmerized me. The outer rims of the irises were a rich navy-blue, the interior a bright azure with navy flecks. The curious right eye, with a smaller pupil, looked the dreamiest, focused with a loving gaze that sent me to the moon. Dreamy eyes... a romantic boyfriend. What more could I want?
He said, “Here’s one for you: your favorite number.”
“Easy! It’s eleven, and you knew that! You’re a cheat!”
“Yes, I know about your eleven mystery, your connection to Dude. But I was hoping you’d say four.”
“Husbands. I hope to be husband number four.”
Laughing, I asked, “You’d take a three-time loser?”
“Only if it was you. Do you have any idea how much I adore you, girl?”
“A million mountains worth?” I asked, opening my arms to the scene below. Smiling broadly, he put both hands on my hips as we stood on the wooden floor of the tower. Then he gently pulled me forward. “As much as the curls on your happy head.”
My grin was so broad it almost hurt my lips. “Happy head. You’ll never live that flirty pick-up line down, you know.”
“Just keep smiling about it, babe. It’s the memory of what started this fantasy romance.”
We swayed and gazed at each other, but I wasn’t giving up on the game. “Question… clocks: digital or analog?”
“Analog, as any good railroader should answer.”
“How many in your collection of railroad watches?”
“Isn’t it 25 years as a railroader? So why just nineteen?”
“Pawned a few in my gambling days.”
I nodded. Yep. An alkie is always desperate for money, but a gambler’s need must be worse.
“Did you gamble your paycheck away, too? You still don’t save one red cent of what you earn, so I guess back then, you were even more irresponsible with money?”
“Hey, now! ‘Irresponsible’ is a fightin’ word, Chicka. But, yeah, I was big-time irresponsible. Caused a lot of problems in my marriage.”
The conversation waned as my mind wandered. I imagined being married to a gambler and how devastating and expensive that must be. He’d be even worse about frivolous spending than he is now! Talking to my boyfriend about money was like arguing with a brick wall, though I’d given up on arguing. It wasn’t my money, right?
He and I were on different ends of the money-management spectrum. I was saver; he was a spender. For me, paying a late fee was equal to blasphemy; to Gil, it was just part of the monthly bill.
I dismissed Gil’s financial recklessness easily, though. I laid blame on what must be his leftover “gambler’s mentality.” Although four years clean from compulsive gambling, he was less than a year out of bankruptcy and still struggling. At least that’s what he’d insinuated; he didn’t talk much about it, and more than once, he told me it was none of my damn business.
All was well, but in the big picture of the Gil-and-Lela future, the differences in our budget attitudes gave me pause. Such a big issue, and one that could build up and blow up quickly.
But it wasn’t a day to bring up problems. It was all about the “Get to Know Each Other” game, and I continued the questions. I asked, “So are the watches valuable? And you were that desperate?”
“Hell-yeah! The horses were running, and I thought it’d be my day. Then again, I thought every day would be my day.”
“You know, I’ll never understand compulsive gamblers, even though I definitely understand addiction. The consequences come so quickly with gambling.”
“But the payoff is always in the next race. Over and over again, all day, every season, every waking second. You get the picture.”
“I’m scared of it, the fear instilled by my parents. Mom’s father, a good-for-nothing alcoholic, gambled her mother’s inheritance away, and Mom’s still pissed about it.”
“I can’t imagine your mom ever pissed anything! Such a proper lady.” He paused a beat. “But so out of touch…”
“Watch it now… you just don’t know her.”
“You and your dad… the way they still dote on each other. You had one helluva strong example. Is that why you rebelled so much?”
“I suppose. My parents were strict, not so much with rules, but with expectations. I knew I could never be the pure and upstanding daughter they wanted.” I shrugged. “The only solution to being so inadequate was to become a drunk. And I was damn good at it.”
“For 27 years, right?”
“Yep. So much Shame within those years. But for many of them, I was normal. I mean, high achiever and almost functional.”
Gil chuckled, “I started and ended dysfunctional. Don’t know how I kept my job. But, in the old railroad days, the guys covered for their drunk coworkers.”
“That’s still crazy-unbelievable to me.”
“It’s definitely not like that anymore! But enough of that… I have more questions for you, my dear Lela.”
“Funny greeting cards or lovey-dovey ones?”
“Ice cream: chocolate or vanilla?”
I chuckled. “Neapolitan.”
With a broad smile, my boyfriend said, “You’re very complicated. Did you know that?”
“Does that make you want to run from the challenge?”
“Quite the opposite. I remain intrigued.”
Undaunted, I continued the game. “Okay, I have one, since we’re old. Arthritis or broken bones?”
“Never broken a bone in my life.”
Gil talked over me. “Arthritis is another story. My right knee is basically bone-on-bone already, or that’s what the doctor says, and that was ten years ago. It’s worse now.”
He switched from massaging his knee to reach across his body, manipulating his left shoulder. “Plus, my damn shoulder’s bothering me again lately. But, hell, every joint in my body is a mess, to tell you the truth. It’s not easy walking on those rocks around the tracks. Probably why railroaders retire at age 60.”
“But with full benefits, right?”
“You’re blessed to have those union benefits.”
“Worked my ass off, so they owe me. At least that’s the way I see it.”
“You definitely work a lot. I miss you when you’re gone.”
“A railroader’s schedule sucks. Breaks up a lot of families, so I hope you can keep an open mind.”
“I’m not going anywhere. But you’ve destroyed my nine-to-five mentality.”
Gil threw his head back and laughed. “Nine to five! Har, har, har.”
I rubbed my nose against his as we stood face-to-face. “So, are you just going to stand there?”
“Oh! You want to sit?” He turned away, looking over the edge of the tower’s railing to scout the picnic tables below.
Smiling, I pulled hard on a belt loop to turn him back toward me. “No, I don’t want to sit! I want you to kiss me.”
Gil exaggerated surprise. “Me? Kiss the one who loves beaches instead of mountains?” I laughed at his antics. “One who spouts five-syllable words and prefers purple − a secondary color, as you point out. One who cheats at Rummy and put her sponsor to sleep during a three-hour fifth step?”
I’d giggled throughout his teasing remarks. “Yep, that’s the one. Put ‘er there, pard’ner. Right on the ol’ kisser.”
“Gladly.” And kiss me, he did… a long, loving one.
During the kiss, I marveled about our budding relationship. No doubt, I was head over heels in love with the intriguing AA guru named Gil Justice.
After the follow-up smooches, I said, “I still feel like I’m on a fantasy carousel, Gil. Our three months together have been a whirlwind, but the happiest time of my life.”
“Ditto, girl. My Lela is perfection, and I’m a lucky man.”
“We’ve spent every waking hour together, you know? Either at meetings or at my apartment, right? And, sorry, babe… I’ve tried to like your place, but I just can’t. It’s a depressing dump.”
He smiled broadly. “I never fixed it up. Somehow, I still feel like it’s temporary. And your place is awesome.”
I asked, “Speaking of you in my place… you’re still set for watching my dog next week?”
“Pork Chop and I will have fun. And I made a Plan B with our crazy friend Corncob. If I have to pull an overnight trip, he’ll pop by to care for that sweet red dachshund, the Long-haired Alcoholic. That’s what the people at the West 40 AA club call him, did you know that?”
“Yeah, and it cracks me up. But the dog is calm and quiet in meetings, hasn’t pissed the floor, and loves everybody.”
Gil’s beaming grin spread his mouth beautifully. “Pork Chop is a good alcoholic, but he needs to get started on some step work.”
I laughed long and hard, feeling grateful that Gil loved my dog so much. Pork Chop was like our child, and I’d miss his sweet face while I was gone… maybe as much as I’d miss Gil’s vibrant smile.
Missing them or not, I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to go on the trip; it was cheap, and another friend had canceled at the last minute. The opportunity fell in my lap for a reason, I believed.
With a teasing smile, Gil warned, “Just don’t meet some hot beach bum or run off to join the circus.”
“That’s exactly what I’m planning to do, so be prepared,” I teased him back.
I’d be hitting the waves on a beach trip with “da’ gulls,” a handful of the women I knew in my former Rockville life, but this time they’d bring their boyfriends and/or husbands. The party-hearty girls had gone another direction; Jilly and Debbie Doo-Doo had gone AWOL. But this core group of eight… we had a long history together, and the fact that I no longer drank would be a non-issue.
At least I hoped it wouldn’t be an issue.
Only half-deserving of a vacation, I’d barely made the deadline in finishing the user manual for my client Quadrix software, and I’d been half-ass poking around to ready the training classes. Distracted by Gil and the West 40 club, my work ethic had waned. A surprising turn, because “work, work, work” had been pounded into my brain with the jackhammer of my father’s words and example.
But as Gil had pointed out, I wasn’t as silly and tough as my father. I used to be, but in those days, I’d swayed toward the Goody-Two-Shoes persona of my mother. Such a change! I’d rebelled against her ways when I was younger, but I had to admit I’d become conservative, quieter, more accommodating, and definitely more serene as my mood stabilized.
As if he’d been following my thoughts, I said, “See, I don’t think I’m manic at all. I believe it’s just pure happiness. More and more, I don’t think I need Bi-Polar meds, and maybe didn’t ever.”
“If you say so. I haven’t known you crazy.”
I laughed, “Mood stability can be boring sometimes. And the only time I feel depressed is about work.”
Gil had no response. I stood, swaying with him, and wondering if a little mania could be a good thing.