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FICTION on the WEB short stories by Charlie Fish

A Decision
by M. Blake

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He thought about the day, over lunch, when his dad said that he seemed to be doing so well, a year of sobriety, and was he ready for a license and a car? It was something his parents had discussed more than once, Simmer knew; his dad was "presenting" the idea here. Simmer had proved himself for a year, and now he, with their financial help, was ready to take the next step. Getting his license and a car would give him greater freedom in the small town without bus service. Simmer could see that they had been thinking about this for a while, and it touched him knowing what his dad was doing.

"All you have to promise me is that you donít need the booze anymore. Thatís it. Just the word from you and weíll get started."

Simmer felt his fatherís unwavering look (it was one he had experienced many times in the past), and it wasnít as if it intimidated him as it used to, but still he didnít meet it. The truth was that Simmer wasnít thinking at all about a driverís license or a car; that was the last thing on his mind. What had been on his mind for some time now was a trip out of the area, southward. He wanted to go somewhere and he knew that was the last thing his father wanted to hear.

"You donít seem to have the craving that some of these guys have," his father said.

But Simmer knew that wasnít true. In fact, he had been drinking recently, though in small amounts. He knew - as they said in the AA meetings - that the urge was always there. Men who had been sober for years sometimes went on binges; something triggered them when they were at their most fragile. Simmer hadnít been sober for years, but he knew that feeling of being under the control of the sudden desire, the powerlessness that the AA members constantly talked about.

Simmer thought he detected hope more than anything in his fatherís statement, and he kept chewing his sandwich, not wanting to crush that hope, but not wanting to lie to him either. This was a feeling he knew from previous talks also, one of being caught in a certain position and trying to delicately finesse his way out of it, to both partiesí satisfaction. A politicianís method, and it was one that had always bothered Simmer, though he had used it often enough over the years.

The thing was he needed money for a drink that very day, and his father was going to loan him some to hold Simmer until he got his first paycheck the next week. Simmer had started a job dishwashing to earn money for his trip south. He told his dad the loan was for food, but Simmer already had a drink on his mind as they sat there at lunch. He wanted a couple of drinks, in fact, before he went into work.

And here was his dad saying how good Simmer had been doing, and suggesting that he take another step in his life. He was encouraging his son.

"With a car you could look around for a decent job," his father said. "It would give you more options. I mean, dishwashing, whatís that?"

"Itís just temporary," Simmer said. "So I can get a stake up. Iíve been thinking about taking another trip."

"Another trip? Where?"

"Somewhere where itís warm." Simmer smiled.

"Where will you go? Youíve already been all over the place. Whatís out there for you now?"

Simmer shrugged his shoulders and took a drink of soda to keep from laughing. It seemed suddenly humorous to him, this conversation, as if he and his dad were repeating a regular performance from over the years, taking the same roles, saying the same thing if not exactly the same lines.

"Every time you go off somewhere you come back in bad shape," his dad said. "Donít throw this year away."

"I got to do something, Dad."

"Sure you do. Thatís what Iím saying. But do something positive. Donít just repeat past mistakes."

"A carís expensive. And then you have insurance. And it wouldnít be a good car. In the shop all the time. Iíd just be putting myself in debt."

His father told him about leasing a good car, and how he could afford it with a decent job (if he stayed sober). But it still sounded to Simmer as if he would be spending most of his money to keep a used car on the road, and that didnít sound like reward enough. And what about the "decent" job? Where was that? His father had quickly mentioned one of the big bookstores in the state, knowing that Simmer liked books.

"A jobís a job after a while, Dad."

"At least itís clean, and you wouldnít be standing in a hot kitchen."

Simmer nodded his head. He looked at the other half of his sandwich and wished that was gone.

His father had a point: why repeat yourself? Yet from his fatherís point of view, the change would be brought about from outside, with the car, a better job, good clothes, perhaps an apartment down the line, a girlfriend: a complete overhaul, in other words, and a change in attitude would come with it. Look and play the part, and his mind would adjust. It sounded so easy the way it came from his father (after all, he had been a school teacher for thirty years). Yet Simmer knew how far off his fatherís dream was. His father wasnít close when it came to his sonís state of mind. Had he ever been? Probably, for moments. But then he had backed off, not wanting to know certain things, hoping for something else. In the same way he had stopped reading Simmerís stories of drunks and druggies and characters on the street.

"All your stories are about messed up people," his father said to him one time, in anger. "There arenít any normal people in them."

That had made Simmer laugh out loud.

"I guess I write about what I know," he had answered.

His father had already finished his sandwich. He watched Simmer slowly chew (Simmer had lost his appetite).

"Weíre just afraid youíre not going to make it back one of these times," his father said. "Youíre in and out of these hospitals. We keep thinking weíre going to get a call from the cops someplace, telling us they found you somewhere."

This was something Simmer had always felt bad about, his parents worrying while he was on the road. He had always stayed in touch regularly, letting them know whenever he moved on to the next place.

"We thought youíd gotten that out of your system," his father continued.

Simmer had heard that before, from both his father and mother. It was as if they thought he was going through a phase in his life, and that his last trip would be the end of it. But the "phase" had been going on for almost twenty years now and Simmer knew he would never settle in any one place for any length of time. It just wasnít in him. He knew that and he didnít fight it anymore.

"I just want to see something different," he finally said. "Iíve been sitting around the house, writing, reading, taking the same walks every day. I want to see some different sights."

"Thatís understandable," his father said. "Thatís why we thought the car was a good idea. You wouldnít be tied down."

"I donít need the car to go somewhere."

"What are you going to do, hitchhike again? Arenít you tired of that? You never know whoís going to pick you up. I donít know how you can do that."

"Itís not as bad as most people think it is. And I have pretty good luck with it."

"Yes, but thereís always that chance you get a real sick shit and then what?"

"Yes, thereís always that chance. You take the chance because thatís part of it. But you donít have to take a ride if you donít want it."

"Wouldnít you rather come and go when you wanted instead of depending on someone else?"

"Well, if I stay in the city, there are buses. But otherwise, Iím not in any hurry to get anywhere."

His father kept shaking his head. He had finished his soda and now he looked out the restaurant window at cars in the parking lot. It seemed that he realized that there was no further he could go with this.

"I just canít see why you donít want a car like everyone else," he said. "Everybody else makes payments and pays for insurance. They get by all right. It seems to me it would make your life a whole lot easier and open up new doors for you. But you donít seem to want to change anything. You never went back to school. You go from one shit job to another. You drift around until you make yourself sick from drinking. Then you come home, clean up, start looking good, and do the same thing over again. I mean here you are forty years old without a pot to piss in. What are you going to do when weíre not here? Where are you going to live then? Out in the streets?"

"Maybe Iíll sell some stories by then," Simmer said with a smile.

That got a little smile from the old man, but he kept shaking his head.

"That sounds like an awfully tough market to break into," he said. "Sounds like you need a lucky break to do anything with that. If I were in your shoes Iíd sure as hell have something as a backup. In a few years you might not be able to do all the jobs youíve been doing. That body of yours will start to go downhill and youíll want something easier. You donít want to be fifty and still doing dishes, do you?"

"Itís not that I want to do dishes now. Itís just temporary, to get some cash."

"But all your jobs are temporary. Donít you want to get something you can stick with?"

"I donít think there is such a job, Dad."

"Thatís because youíve never had a decent job. Youíve never had anything that was a challenge for you. Youíve never had any work that paid anything."

"I agree with you there. Itís hard to do much on the minimum wage these days."

"My point exactly. You have to find something that pays better than that."

"Even if I made two or three more bucks an hour, Dad, it still wouldnít be enough. Iíd have to get a second job to keep a car and a room somewhere. I know because Iíve done it. But it got to the point where I got tired of being broke every week after I paid the bills. I asked myself: What am I working my ass off for? A full belly, a shitty little place and four wheels on the road. Maybe one night a week out, and lucky if you have lunch money until payday. And I know plenty of people do it. Some people have to have that place to live and a car. And thatís why theyíre tied down to their shit jobs."

"But at least they have something," his father said. "Out on the streets what do you have?"

"Well, you always have yourself." Simmer smiled. "They canít take that away from you, Dad."

His father scoffed and shook his head.

He had lied. After taking the loan from his father, Simmer had gone right to the liquor store. He had told his father the money was for food. In a way, it was. It was a form of nourishment for him that would help him carry out his duties in the hot kitchen that night. Hell, everybody else in the place came in with a buzz on, why shouldnít he? Every so often, when the business rush got to be too much, he could step outside for a shot. Then he wouldnít notice the cuts on his fingers from the steel wool or the aching muscles in his back. He wouldnít notice the grease on his arms and legs or his wet clothes. He would move to the music the cooks played and feel he was part of a team for a while. It was worth the lie. He would last longer at the job.

Yet later, after work, as Simmer sat eating his shift meal, he thought about what his father had said about the license and the car. It had been more then ten years since he had driven a car, and sometimes he did think about driving again; he remembered the years he did have his own vehicle and what his life had been like with it. At that time, he was so used to driving that he felt dependant on a car. Having a vehicle did get him around fast, every day; the radius of his daily activities was much larger. Yet with that positive aspect of driving came the memories of the many accidents and tickets, and the "near misses" while driving drunk. The many mornings he woke up in his car not knowing how he had gotten to where he was parked. The almost constant maintenance to keep the second hand cars running, and the steady drain on his pocketbook for it.

Simmer wouldnít mind taking another shot at driving sometime, but he didnít want to borrow money from his father for a car. His parents had done enough for him. A car and insurance were big expenses, and when it came right down to it, did he trust himself? He was drinking again, and who knew what would happen if he got behind the wheel again. It would really put the knife into his folks (not to mention himself) if he ever killed someone or himself in a wreck, especially if it was in a car they had purchased for him.

No, he decided, taking another drink of vodka. As long as he had this stuff in his hand he had to stay off the road in that way. Simmer remembered the night over ten years before, when drunker than he was now, and the promise he made to himself. That night, on his way home from a bar, he had hit a good-sized dog, and he felt that fatal contact for hours afterwards. It made him think of how that could have been a personís body that went over his hood (the dog was the size of a small kid anyway) and how he still never would have been able to stop. He had been speeding through a residential area.

When he got home, Simmer thought about nothing else for the next few hours, and by morning he had made up his mind to sell his car. That night he had put the ultimatum to himself: it was drink or drive, but not both. They didnít go together in his life. He wasnít going to go to jail on manslaughter charges, and he wasnít going to tear his conscience up by killing somebody.

And Simmer had been faithful to that promise, and glad of it. He was convinced it was one of the best things he had done in his life in the last ten years and he would continue with it. His father would have to accept that.

It had been a good, sober year, and a productive one for Simmer the writer. It wasnít that he wanted to throw it all away; he just needed a change of scenery in his life, a different atmosphere, a breaking of the routine. He didnít want to stagnate here.

Maybe he could keep the drinking under control now. As he sat there with his bottle, his sweat cooling in the outside air, Simmer easily slipped into a fantasy of some of his stories selling to magazines, a book published, and everyone being happy.

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