It was the end of a long day. You and your friend Absalom had spent it exploring the byways, talking and laughing and getting out of the car wherever the spirit moved you, taking in the sights and sounds and smells of the river and the tall pines and the pushing and pulling tides of this forgotten coast.
Now it was dusk. You parked, and the two of you walked into the little building next to the church. Fluorescent lighting buzzed overhead, and several long folding tables were set up in a square. There were four men there, plus you and Absalom.
This was the first time you had ever been to a meeting like this, and you were unsure of yourself. You felt like an outsider. Absalom had invited you and assured you that you would be welcome as a friend, that it was an “open” meeting.
Still, though. You aren’t an alcoholic and you had never struggled to defeat that demon of a disease the way these men had. It seemed intrusive to be there.
“You’re sure it’s okay?”
You had asked this of Absalom several times, and each time he had told you that yes, it was okay. That in fact you might find it to be a profound experience. So in you went, and shook hands with each of the men, and sat down at the plain table in the plain building attached to the little church, down here in the southern wild where you escape every February.
Absalom sat at the end of one table and you sat kitty-corner next to him. You watched as he rolled a little rubber ball around the table and tossed it from hand to hand. He has been going to these meetings for 17 years now, at least one a week.
The leader of the meeting handed you a blue xeroxed piece of paper listing all the nearby meetings. You scanned them: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, sometimes twice a day, in the tiny towns of this remote part of the panhandle.
The leaders talked for a while, then the men told their stories, one after another, in quiet voices. Each man was older than you and Absalom by probably 20 years, and each had come to this meeting way of life late. You were tired, and the overhead fluorescence hurt your eyes, and you worried that you were intruding. But you sat still and listened carefully.
One of the men talked about many years ago, when he and his wife were out for the evening and witnessed a young woman being thrown out of a bar, drunk and screaming and kicking.
The man had laughed. “My wife had a different perspective, though. She said, ‘look at that poor woman, she must be in so much pain.’ And I thought about that, and it changed something in me.”
You thought about it too, sitting there on the hard folding chair, and suddenly you were on the verge of tears. You thought about someone you love very much and the sort of pain that they too must be in, the kind of pain that drunken screaming laughter can’t really cover up.
The leader asked Absalom, as a new visitor, to tell his story and he did. You watched the little rubber ball bounce from hand to hand as he talked, revealing a whole part of his life that you knew little about.
You and Absalom have been buddies since the first week of college, when you were both 18 year old kids. He lived one floor below you in a freshman dorm. He usually wore an old Army jacket and he smoked a lot of unfiltered Camel cigarettes.
He had a big laugh, so big that he often ended up coughing and laughing at the same time. (This is something that still happens to him, now that you think of it.) You credit him with introducing you to John Prine, to whom he had set up a small shrine in the corner of his room.
Sometimes you would come home late at night from the library and walk into your room to see your rag doll or your stuffed dog silhouetted against the moonlit window, hanging by the neck from a noose that Absalom and his friend had hitched to the window frame. A horrifying and hilarious sight. Sometimes he and other friends would bang on your door and haul you downtown to one of the tiny town’s three bars, to drink and laugh.
You remained steadfast buddies throughout college, graduated, went your separate ways. Both of you got married and had children, built your working lives. You lost track of each other. Many years later the miraculous curse of Facebook brought you back together and the friendship sprang up anew.
Now here you were, at a meeting in a scraping-by town in the southern wild. You listened to him talk and you thought how little we know of the stories behind the people we pass on the street. How little we know, too often, about the people we most love.
You thought about the pain that Absalom was in, for so many years, and how he hid it from everyone. You thought about things that you yourself have hidden, or used to hide, and how hard you work now, not to hide.
Why is it so hard, this not-hiding?
What would it be like, to look at everyone, the known and the unknown, carefully, and listen with your whole heart, to what they are telling you?
There in that plain room with the buzzing overhead fluorescence, a group of people had gathered together with the sole purpose of not hiding. Of telling their stories. Of listening. Of saying Thank you.
At the end of the meeting, the leader asked you to read something and pushed a creased piece of paper over to you, which you accepted.
“I’m Alison and I’m not an alcoholic,” you told them —Hi, Alison— “but I too have been in the grip of something I felt helpless to get out of, in the past, and your stories feel familiar to me. Thank you for letting me listen to them.”
Then you read the words on the piece of paper. Some of them —Clear away the wreckage of your past. Give freely of what you find and join us. We shall be with you in the fellowship of the spirit— again brought you to the verge of tears.
You and Absalom walked out of the little building into a dark night lit by stars, massed overhead and threaded through the Milky Way. Before you spread the Gulf, its pushing and pulling waters quiet tonight.
“I wish everyone had meetings like that to go to,” you told him.
“I know,” he said.
As you drove through the dark you thought of the men’s faces there, in the room. Ordinary-looking men, not trying to impress anyone. There only to tell their stories and be reminded that they were not in this alone, this being the endless trying and the endless gratitude for what they had come to see was a life that was theirs, held tight in their own hands and then given over to something bigger than themselves.