There is No Joy between the Last Thing and the Next Thing

Ryan Werner

The reason we drink poison with water and not liquor is the same reason I’ve wrecked four cars that were mine and two cars that weren’t.

If I say before I quit drinking people take it as when I thought I was fun, but I never thought I was fun. I just liked things better when they were slippery.

Eugene went to the meetings with me. Years back, he’d set the pace for our drinking and then stopped on his own when he found out he’d actually be able to live through it. It’s nothing he’d ever say, but there were always bigger problems for him to deal with, ones that couldn’t be defined by medicine or helped by meetings and, therefore, became something to alternately feed and fix.

Maybe devotion isn’t a circle, but it’s definitely a shape.

The way I got Eugene to agree to go with me was just by asking him. His only stipulation was that we go to one in a school, not in a church.

“I’d rather cram my body into a desk than cram my mind into a God,” he said.

TV shows and movies appropriate AA meetings just fine. I drank mediocre coffee and spoke meekly at a podium. Eugene did the same, making it up as he went, becoming his own extra in a movie about his life. He was Todd from Ohio. He accidentally killed a man, got away with it. He divorced models. Models divorced him. He hit bottom after bottom like splitting an atom, finding all that stuff inside it and wondering when it will end.

Regardless of where the end was at, I was pretty sure Eugene wouldn’t find it in the truth. So I watched him stand in front of strangers and lie, Todd from Ohio, Eugene’s personal martyr. Or maybe, I guess, the other way around.

The one thing about Todd from Ohio that isn’t a lie is Eugene accidentally killing a man. It’s true that he spent a lot of years attempting to remove rage from his first five or six reactions to any given situation, but this wasn’t one of those times.

Someone pulled a gun on Eugene and he pulled it right back. This was outside a bar called The Sweet Spot. Tacky people liked the irony of it. Lots of Hawaiian shirts, lots of drugs and weapons either stuffed inside or strapped around tall, loose-knit socks.

As much as all the movies and TV shows got AA meetings right, they got it all wrong about shooting someone in the face. Eugene did it and watched the guy bleed out and twitch. Maybe this was just the movies, too, curiosity layered from base-level humanity on up, but I think it was just Eugene being satisfied with himself for realizing he had to stand still and wait.

When they called on me to testify, I told them I didn’t know Eugene to have a history of violence. What I meant was that spent knuckles and a dozen years of broken glass don’t add up to bank statements or toe tags, but, there they are.

Eugene tells me that some rats have built up an immunity to the poison, how us doing the same thing is like teaching our skin to deflect knives, which is something people say when they’re scared, when they’re trying not to be scared.

Eugene doesn’t know what’s enough for him, so he keeps adding, keeps taking away.

On the table in front of us are the poison and an eyedropper and two shot glasses with water in them. “I think a few drops each should do it, but I don’t know how big,” Eugene says. “Like a raindrop or a teardrop?”

I ask him which one’s smaller but he gets nervous, rushes to put a fat drop in each glass.

I say, “Depends on the weather, depends on the eye.”

I thought it’d be different when Eugene got all that settlement money, pretended to fall over a pile of shingles and off a roof to cash in on his insurance, but the only thing that’s changed is the accessories. He buys new stuff and I get the old stuff. I’ve got three toasters at my apartment and no bread.

Because I’m the one whose legs never needed to be pieced back together, I’m the one who drives Eugene’s pregnant girlfriend, London, to the hospital for her checkups. The hospital is named after a saint, but they’re all just boys’ names and girls’ names to me.

London tells me it’s Saint Luke. She was raised Catholic, so she tells me that and then about Luke the reformed Greek gentile and Luke the stalwart companion of Roman prisoner Paul. Luke of squalor, Luke of social justice.

“Luke thought God was like Robin Hood,” London says. “In Luke’s gospel is where Mary says that God brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. He filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.”

She’s thinking rich like McDonalds, but I’m thinking rich like Eugene, pregnant girlfriend, money as a dead end, the same face on the same head with the same brain inside it forever, just waiting to be sent away empty.

Two boys died at the park a few years ago. It wasn’t exactly murder but it wasn’t exactly solved, either. I don’t know what happened, but after it all went down the city put a mile of fence around anything taller than a sapling and then sent out telepathic messages to parents to make sure they give me dirty looks for smoking near the bathrooms.

Eugene never wanted to go to the park before the boys died, but now he calls me up all the time and asks for a ride. The exercise he says he needs isn’t much. He’s got a cane with a little snowglobe on the end and he thinks it’s funny, either out-of-season funny or kitsch funny or both, to grind his way through the park with it.

The spot we park in is as far away from the deaths as I can get and still actually be considered near the park. I do this every time and keep hoping it means that we won’t make it to the old nasty part, but that never happens. There is no joy between the last thing and the next thing. I never get used to it, never stop thinking of things that aren’t ghosts but aren’t like me or Eugene, either.

I ask Eugene if he knows that I hate going here and he doesn’t mock me or ask me if I’m afraid, just tells me that I can go if I want, that he can call a cab. This isn’t a bad wife trick. He has no interest in where either one of us rank in importance to the other.

“I have the money and the time,” he says. “I can call a cab from Chicago if I want to.”

I stay. When we make it to the rocks where the boys died, there are four men playing cards next to the big lookout over the river. I want nothing to do with them, but Eugene gets in on the game, loses ten bucks and then fifty.

I have about seventy dollars on me and then I have it in my hand, ready to give — loan, he says, and means it and has the funds, so why not? — to Eugene. He sets the cane down in front of the men and says, “This is worth $200. You can part it out and melt it down and get at least a third of that. Let it count for thirty bucks. He’s got $70 more for an even hundred.”

This goes through. We bet our frightened money on the idea of too late and win.

The men stand up and shove Eugene to the ground. I help him up and they run with what they hadn’t really lost, see I’m not following and slow to a walk.

One of them throws Eugene’s cane up into a tree. It takes me a minute, lots of hiking up my pants and retying my boots, but I make it up there and get it down. I hand it to Eugene who takes it and arcs it back like a crescent moon, brings the snowglobe-end down on the rocks. There’s no explosion of glass and glitter, just a crack like a heavy click and the sound of whatever water isn’t the river beyond us, Todd from Ohio back for the view.

London is having triplets. That means an extra 700 calories a day — 300 for the first kid and 200 for each one after that. She starts bringing herself a milkshake home from work. She grills whole chickens and puts kale on everything.

Eugene and I are up to half poison, half water. It took a week or so after the first big shot for anything bad to happen, but then my gums started bleeding a bit one morning. Eugene gets nosebleeds all the time now.

We’ve both got bruises on our forearms, the fat of our ribs. I’m afraid of shock. Eugene’s afraid of not nothing, but nothing happening, always.

I’ve been using Eugene and London’s computer to read about symptoms and reactions. We eat more bananas, vitamin K and anything that helps with blood clotting. The bruises are from minor hemorrhaging, little leaks we’ve sprung inside our guts.

London asks what I’m doing on their computer all the time and I tell her I’m looking up ways to help her. “Wear biking shorts for more support and to help with stretch marks,” I say. “Get more pillows for your bed and nap after big meals.”

The next time I see her she’s traded her old basketball shorts for tight green spandex. I look at Eugene and he looks back. I start coughing, swallow and taste blood. London stands up to get me some water and she’s huge above me, bursting out from her middle in what seems like all directions.

After a couple years of being clean, I stopped going to meetings and just had Eugene help me instead. He said he was step thirteen. I’m not an idiot or a sucker for a clever phrase, but there’s appeal in the next level of anything.

It’s still a process. I go over to his house and London is gone, out with friends or who knows what. Nothing wild. Eugene is sitting in the living room with the lights all on and a hunting show on mute on the television. It’s all he watches.

“I’ve got another drinking lesson for you,” Eugene says to me, propping himself up on an old generic cane, the kind stunt elderly have when they’re extras in a show.

I follow him to the kitchen and the poison is already out on the counter. He makes his way to the fridge and grabs a beer, pulls two shot glasses from the cupboard.

He says, “There are always two choices, but they aren’t always right and wrong.” He fills one of the shot glasses full with beer and one full with poison. “You’re going to drink one of these and I’m going to drink the other. You pick.”

“Eugene,” I say. “Eugene.”

“Sometimes the only question is how do you want things to fall apart?”

“And sometimes it’s not,” I tell him, but here I go, reaching for the both of them.

Eugene with a temper. Eugene looking on the ground for teeth he’s knocked out of men both better and worse than him. Eugene breaking a cokehead’s arm. Eugene lighting a dumpster on fire, just because. Eugene smashing side mirrors off cars. Eugene jumping off tables at bars and kicking out the ceiling fans. Eugene sitting down at a jury’s doorstep.

Eugene pretending to fall off a roof. Eugene in a hospital bed. Eugene part steel. Eugene with never enough company. Eugene at a Chi-Chi’s with a thick librarian. Eugene at a concert with a chain smoking belly-dancer. Eugene at coffee shop with a tall woman with a history of minor league basketball and a name from far away.

Eugene poking a hole in his own condom. Eugene jaundiced from poison.

Eugene and me, undone and done, back and forth and on and on.

I look up a recipe for elk meat and then go buy some. Everyone needs to protein. London keeps trying to help me in the kitchen and I keep reaching up, taking her by the shoulders and sitting her back down at the table. Eugene just sits at the table, looks like seven dollars.

He goes by me, pulls out three shotglasses and I put them back and neither of us says anything about it. When I finally set the elk on the table, it doesn’t outlast the smell of it in the air. We devour it like it had once chased us.

Filling up gives London a memory that she mostly uses to recall that she has a mouth. I listen to her talk about TV shows where people lose an arm and vanilla Coke with real sugar and playing basketball in Montana.

“There was a girl named Ava who was known for swinging her elbows. We called her The Helicopter. The last game we played against her team left one girl with a minor concussion and three others sitting out the rest of the game. She would pay this time, I decided.”

London is clearing off the table and I let her because I feel as full as she looks. But then I begin helping anyway as she says, “Ava drove up the lane and I was bigger than her by a mile. I posted one foot back and gave her a shoulder in the ribs. It hit her so dead center that when I stood back up she was just hanging over my shoulder like I had captured her and dragged her away.”

I’m behind a seated Eugene, reaching for his plate with London in front of him doing the same. She’s going on about Ava, her prize, her big shoot-down of The Helicopter.

I see Eugene’s elbow come back and a fist at the end of it going right for the triplets. London’s belly is the moon in front of him and he’s going to clear the sky. I lean in, lock my arm around his, bicep to bicep and not budging, and London chatters away, thinks I tripped on the leg of a chair or the rug and caught myself on Eugene.

“I had to think to myself,” London says, resting the stack of dishes on her hip. “Do I set her down lightly?”

I’m sitting in the living room watching the dogs fight over a soup bone shaped like a skull when London’s water breaks. I get her to the car and then come back for Eugene. He recently slipped on an icy patch near his garage and rebroke one of his ankles.

He’s stopped drinking poison, which is good, because it means that I’ve stopped drinking it, too. We look better, bleed less.

We make it there and wait. All three girls were in the right position, so they came out in a line, like a runway, like a red carpet. No c-section. Doctor said it was one of the easiest deliveries she’s ever been a part of.

The staff lets me walk Eugene into the room with London. She’s cradling the girls against her like they’re melons at the market. “Go ahead,” London says to Eugene before nodding and smiling in my direction. “You too.”

I pick the tiniest one and hold her first in my hands and then, finally, against myself. Their newness scares me more than poison. Eugene is sitting, rubbing the tips of his fingers along the top of his daughter’s head. He doesn’t know what to do, so he blows lightly across the top of her like he’s messing with the dogs.

I imagine him weak in his middle and giving in to her, to all three — all four, London included — when she needs a dollar for a distraction, a car to leave him, a house to exclude him, nothing left for him to do but remove most of the severity from everything, put holes in his gut and then try to fill them up. His life is half a joke and it doesn’t matter which half because neither one is funny.

He holds her tightly, as do I.

RYAN WERNER has got a body built for sin and an appetite for passion. He practices shameless self-promotion at his blog, He is the author of Shake Away These Constant Days, a collection of short stories published by Jersey Devil Press, and the chap book, Murmuration, from Passenger Side Books.

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