Gary Lee Love throws his gig bag over his shoulder. He doesn’t like to leave the guitar unattended in a parked car—it’s exactly the kind of thing a hard-up junkie would steal. Goddamn junkies are everywhere these days. He slams the trunk of his mom’s champagne-beige Toyota Camry. It’s a classic old-lady car if he’s ever seen one, but Gary is happy to have wheels and even happier to be out of his parents’ house. It’s ten in the morning and he’s making his way to a “Sing Along with Gary” gig at the Mount Royal Senior Citizens Center in downtown Latrobe. The job starts at one, but Gary has stopped here, at the Latrobe Civic Center, to attend a morning meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. Gary has a firm rule, one that has kept him sober for the last fourteen years: Never ever play a job without attending a meeting first. It’s not always easy to find a meeting at the right time, but this is his rule and he sticks to it. No meeting, no gig.
I hate November and I hate low-sodium lentil soup. And I wanted a goddamn drink. Is that so awful?
Gary plays every other week at Mount Royal—the alternate week is covered by a sweet girl from Beaverdale, an accordion player named Bluesette. He has never met Bluesette in person, but she sounds real nice on the phone. Gary has been to this particular AA meeting many times, because it’s the only one in a fifty-mile radius that starts early enough for him to make a lunchtime job. Attendance at the meeting has slipped in recent months—most of the regulars have either relapsed or gotten jobs that require them to show up during business hours. But Gary knows he can count on a few familiar faces this morning. It’s an unusually bright day—crisp November air, almost crunchy, and he breathes deeply as he climbs the steps to the Civic Center. It still feels good to have a clear head. Gary opens the sparkling glass door and walks to the meeting room at the back of the first floor. He can smell brewing coffee and cigarette smoke before he even enters the room.
“Morning, Alice.” Gary hugs Alice and draws back to look at her little walnut face. She has snowy white hair and smells like cinnamon. Alice likes to bake. She doesn’t have many teeth, but that doesn’t stop her from smiling. Gary doesn’t know much about Alice—just that she works as a nurse’s aid at a place called Meadowbrook, a state mental institution in Pittsburgh. He wonders about Alice’s age. She could be anywhere between forty-five and seventy. Addiction is funny like that—it takes a person’s features and jumbles them around, distills the decades, and decants what’s yet to come.
Alice tugs on the strap of Gary’s gig bag. Her hands are knobby and hard. “One of these days you have to play for us, darlin’.”
“You ply me with enough of those apple fritters, Miss Alice, and you’ll get more out of me than just a song.”
Alice blushes and turns away to arrange her fritters on paper plates. There are enough fritters to feed twenty-five, even though there are only four people in the room. Two beefy men, Buck and Duane, slurp hot coffee from Styrofoam cups. Gary recently discovered they are brothers. They both wear camouflage jackets, blaze-orange vests, and caps with laminated hunting licenses pinned on them. Deer season started yesterday. Gary doesn’t understand why anyone would hunt. And it freaks him out to think of recovering alcoholics stomping through the woods with shotguns. He’s no better than Duane and Buck, but at least his weapon of choice is a guitar, which—most of the time—is pretty harmless.
Gary tries to start a little chit-chat, but he’s never sure what to say to these guys. He guesses they feel the same way about him. “Shoot anything yesterday?” he asks Duane.
“Six-pointer. Got enough meat for the winter now. But that animal put up one hell of a fight. Tracked him for a solid two miles before he fell. It was a bitch draggin’ him back to the truck.”
“I didn’t have as much luck,” says Buck. “Stayed out in the woods for six hours freezing my butt off—never saw a thing. Nothin’ was moving out there; damn forest looked like an oil painting. Should we get started with the meeting?”
“Yep. Good idea,” says Gary as he pulls up two chairs, one for him and one for his guitar. Buck stands behind a lectern.
“My name is Buck and I’m an alcoholic.”
“Hi, Buck,” says everyone.
“First order of business: Attendance at last week’s meeting was three. Pretty much the same as this week’s meeting, except today we have Gary. So that makes four.”
“Anything we can do to increase attendance?” asks Duane. “Like maybe have the meeting at a time when people can actually come?”
“Right. Sorry. My name is Duane and I’m an alcoholic.”
“Hi. Like I said. Anything we can do to increase attendance?”
“Well,” says Buck. “We can’t actually go out on the street and haul people in here. Especially during hunting season. But we do know there are a lot of drunks in downtown Latrobe.”
“I have an idea,” says Gary.
“My name is Gary and I’m an alcoholic.”
“Hi. Maybe we need to do some marketing. Posters or something. Email? A Facebook fan page? A benefit concert?”
“Thank you, Gary,” says Buck. “I’ll make a note of that for the next meeting. And now, it’s time for the General Secretary’s report.” Buck is the General Secretary as well as the Chairperson. He shuffles through some papers. “Hi. I’m Buck and I’m still an alcoholic.”
“Hi. Uh, no report from the General Secretary. So let’s move on to sharing and discussion. Anyone want to open up the discussion?”
“Yes,” says Alice. Alice hardly ever speaks at meetings. The three men turn their heads in her direction.
“My name is Alice and I’m an alcoholic.”
“Hi. I have been recovering for fifteen years. But last Saturday, I felt the need to drink. I actually bought a bottle of Maker’s Mark and set it right down on my kitchen table. I stared at it for a while. It was calling me.”
“What happened, Alice?” asks Buck. “What happened to make you want to drink?”
“Nothing, really. I was just bored. Missing my daughters, don’t you know. One of them travels a lot and hasn’t talked to me for years. The other one found God and dropped out of my life. I’m sort of sad, I guess. Living alone, heating up those goddamn soup-for-one things, watching the way the ground gets sludgy and the air loses its color this time of year. It gets tiresome. That’s all. Just tiresome. I hate November and I hate low-sodium lentil soup. And I wanted a goddamn drink. Is that so awful? I guess it is for me. One’s too many; fifty’s not enough. I tried to call my sponsor, but I got her answering machine. I think she might be drinking again. Or using. If anything can set a gal off, it’s November and that goddamn soup.”
“Did you drink, Alice?”
“No, sir. I did not. I decided to turn on the radio, you know, just to distract myself a bit. But I kept starin’ at that damn bottle of bourbon.”
“Whoa,” says Duane. “That’s intense.”
“Right,” says Alice. “Right. It was intense. But then this song came on. Something called ‘November Morning.’ Kind of sappy and cliché, you know. Mushy. But the guy singing it got to me. It was about, I don’t know, crumpled leaves and blue frost and the way everything seems to die in the fall, but how it doesn’t die, not really, it just gets buried and smothered by cold and ice and big old sheets of nothingness. Some shit like that. And you know what I thought? I thought, well that’s what drinking does to me. It freezes my brain and makes me kind of dead, even though I’m not. Not really. And I thought, well, I don’t want to be dead or even half-dead. If I’m dead, I won’t be able to hear music or make apple fritters or see the sun when its sorry ass finally shows itself in Latrobe. Like today. Did you notice? You can see yourself if you look up—that’s how clean the sky is.”
“Whoa,” says Duane. “That’s, like, poetry.”
“Yeah, yeah,” says Alice. “But that stupid song saved me. I kept the plug in the jug, so to speak. I listened to find out who the singer was, but they didn’t say. Those radio people never say anything I want to hear.”
Gary cannot breathe. “November Sky.” He doesn’t know whether to confess or not. He wrote and recorded that song back in 1992 when he was the golden boy of folk-rock—before his first rehab; before he fell in love with opiates and vodka and anything he could snort; before his concert-pianist wife got famous, ditched him for a tour of Europe, and left him alone to raise their daughter; before he left Manhattan and spent all his money on crystal meth and street versions of prescription drugs; before he wasted five years in jail after getting busted for forging checks; long before he attended his second, third, and fourth rehabs; before he and Caroline moved in with his eighty-year-old parents because they didn’t have anywhere else to go.
Gary Lee Love wrote the song before he knew the score—before he knew that music could help people like Alice. Had he known, he might have saved himself fifteen years of crumpled leaves and blue frost. He might have picked up his Gibson and done some good with it. Maybe there was still time.
Buck, Alice, and Duane don’t know Gary’s last name. They don’t know he was once a rising star or a falling star or any kind of star at all. They know he’s a musician and an alcoholic who plays sing-along sessions for the aging citizens of Latrobe, and that’s about it. His baldness and midlife paunch pretty much guarantee his anonymity. He decides, in the amount of time it takes to play a grace note, to give this moment to the new Gary. “I’m sorry,” he says, glancing at his watch. “I have to go to work. Don’t wanna be late for my concert.”
“Grab a couple of fritters on the way out,” says Alice. “And next time, I wanna hear that song you keep promising me.”
“Wait,” says Buck. “Protocol. We gotta do the Serenity Prayer.”
“All right,” says Gary. He hates the Serenity Prayer. It sounds like the lyric to a bad country song. But Gary follows the rules because it’s the only way he can get from here to there and back again. Who needs bluish frost, anyway?
The four recovering alcoholics join hands and lower their heads. The laminated plastic of Duane’s hunting license—pinned to the top of his cap—reflects the glare of the overhead fluorescent lights. The badge looks like a miner’s light, an inefficient blob of brightness in a bleak world.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
Gary, feeling not very wise and not very brave, but more serene than he did when he arrived at the meeting, picks up his gig bag, wraps a couple of fritters in a paper napkin, nods to Alice, Buck, and Duane, and leaves to go play his program for the old folks.
Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.
New: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians.
Robin Meloy Goldsby is the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People; Rhythm; and Manhattan Road Trip. She has appeared on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered and Piano Jazz with Marian McPartland. Robin is a Grammy-nominated lyricist and has received a Publishers Weekly Starred Review for her book, Piano Girl.. A Steinway Artist and cultural ambassador with artistic ties to both Europe and the USA, Robin has presented her reading/concert program for numerous women's organizations and embassies worldwide.