“My breath tastes like coffee and cigarettes,” I said, smacking my tongue against the roof of my mouth in a gesture of disgust.
The old man looked at me and grinned, his polished-silver beard a second, wider smile beneath his lips. His lanky arm stretched across the table, hand slapping me on the shoulder. “Be grateful for that,” he said. “At least it means you got both in your life.”
“You don’t even smoke,” I said.
“No, but you do, and it makes you happy. I’m grateful for that.”
“I wouldn’t say it makes me happy.”
“Why do you do it then?”
“Because I’m miserable when I don’t,” I told him.
He laughed through his nose like a squawking hog. “So, you’re not miserable today,” he grunted between wild chuckles. “If nothing else, be grateful for one small blessing.”
I smiled, nodded and sipped my coffee. I knew better than to argue gratitude with Ceff. Politics, human nature, the best team in the NFL? Sure. But never gratitude. If Ceff had a religion aside from A.A. and basic Christianity, it centered around that one concept, and he probably should’ve spelled it with a capital G as if it were another name for his god. Ceff often wrote out a daily gratitude list on the back of his disposable placemats at the Southern Kitchen restaurant where we ate breakfast. He filled in every inch of available space, not even guiding his pen around the coffee stains or the occasional splotch of butter.
I asked him to show me once and, when he handed me the list, I glanced at it and shook my head in disbelief. I read a few lines aloud as if I were back in the 8th grade, standing in front of Mrs. Cardwell’s English class trying not to faint as I muttered a Keats poem I’d been assigned. As I did then, I lost control.
“What?” he asked. “What’s funny?”
“Electric cars?” I said. “Really?”
He nodded. In that deep voice of his, so much like a state trooper’s, he replied, “I’m grateful for electric cars.”
“A joke?” I asked.
“No, keep reading. If you look farther down, you’ll understand what I mean. Sure, I’m grateful there’s such a thing as an electric car in the world to help with the environment. All the same, you’ll see I also wrote how grateful I am that I don’t own one.”
I couldn’t think of anything to say to that, so I went back to scanning his list. It read like a telephone directory of unusual items:
…tube socks, alarm clocks, ice cream, pancakes, older women,
sunlight, the river, spicy Italian pasta, upside-down cakes,
showers that don’t turn themselves off every 30 seconds, my
daughter, Jesus, bubble baths…
“Bubble baths?” I said.
“You take bubble baths?”
“Okay, that’s disturbing, but what really gets me is how bubble baths came on your list immediately after Jesus. Makes me wonder how your mind works.”
“What?” he said. “You trying to tell me Jesus wasn’t clean? That he didn’t find joy in his silky smooth skin?”
I shook my head and went back to reading his litany:
…sunflower seeds, baby squirrels, eagles, my job, bluegrass music
“Come on,” I whined.
“Everybody needs something to bitch about. That’s my thing. It makes me feel good to complain about how plum stupid they sound with some of the stuff they say.”
I told him, “You’re quite a character.”
“Be grateful,” he replied.
That was a few months ago, whereas today, I didn’t ask to read his gratitude list. I just glanced across the table from time to time to see the spot where his pen fell. “Chicken pox?” I asked at one point, not expecting an answer. “Sometimes I think you’re making this crap up.”
“No, seriously Had’em when I was a kid. That’s one less thing to worry about in my old age.” I was mesmerized by the positive attitude Ceff carried with him like a bag of breath mints.
I asked, “Is there anything you’re not grateful for? I mean, there has to be….”
He rubbed his silver beard like a kitten’s head. “Could be. Haven’t found it yet, but there’s always an exception.”
“Okay,” I told him, “that’s my new mission in life. I plan on finding at least one thing you’re not grateful for, and I won’t stop until I do.”
“Sounds like a worthy goal,” he said, grunting out a couple half-laughs. “Good luck with that, my friend.” Then he lowered his head, raised his hand, touched pen to paper and wrote:
…people brave enough to fight against insurmountable odds….
“You’ve got hemorrhoids,” I said a bit too loudly as I stood in the checkout line behind him at Kroger’s.
The cashier grimaced, shocked at my behavior, or at least faking it. She couldn’t have been more than twenty, with short brown hair cut above her ears. Her ocean-blue uniform was faded, telling the world she’d worked here far too long. “That’s rude,” she said in the soft voice of a mother soothing and scolding her child at the same time.
“Ignore him,” Ceff told her. “His mama dropped him on his head when he was a wee thing.” He grinned at her and tapped his forehead with a finger.
“Oh,” she sighed.
Not to be put off, I said, “Seriously, hemorrhoids. You can’t be grateful for that.”
“Already on one of my lists,” he said. “Remind me, and I’ll show you when we get back to the apartment.”
“Can’t be,” I said.
The girl asked, “What’s he babbling about?”
“My gratitude lists.” Ceff paused to read the girl’s nametag. “Linda, I write out a list every day of all the things I’m grateful for.”
“Why would you do a fool thing like that?”
“To remind me life’s good and I’ve got no reason to be miserable.”
“Awww,” she purred, “that’s sweet.”
Ceff blushed through his beard like a pink sunrise backlighting rows of cumulus. “Thanks, Linda. Kind of you to say.”
“Wait,” I interjected. “Don’t get off track, man. How can you be grateful you’ve got hemorrhoids? ”
Before Ceff could speak, the cashier said, “A little pain in the butt every so often makes it better when you sit down and don’t hurt.” She ran his Preparation H past the laser scanner.
I shook my head.
“Don’t you shake your head at me,” she mocked. “I bet he thinks you’re kind of a pain in the butt, too.”
Ceff reached for his wallet. He smiled twice as wide and told the girl, “I like you, Linda. Tomorrow, I’ll write your name on my list.”
I stood in the booth, payphone to my ear, impatiently kicking the metal panel beneath the shatterproof glass. I needed a drink. Oh, how I needed a drink.
The line rang through five times, and I expected the voicemail to pick up. Instead, I heard a click followed by a slow, groggy voice. “Uh huh? I mean, hello?”
“Jail,” I said.
“Jail. Can’t be grateful for that.”
“It’s almost midnight,” he said.
“Can’t be grateful for that either.”
He laughed in that slow, throaty drumroll of his, full of understanding. He’d been sober for a long time, and nothing seemed to shock him anymore. “I guess you don’t know me as well as you think you do,” he said. “I’m always grateful to hear from a good friend.”
“Even at midnight?”
“Sure. Shows you care and you’re still alive. And, at least for tonight, I’m grateful it’s not an emergency.”
“Not an emergency, is it?”
He groaned. It was a terrible sound coming from him, like a foghorn buried under pillows. “Are you drunk?” he asked.
I hesitated. “Not anymore.”
“Oh, hell. Then what?”
“Jail,” I said. “Can you help me?” I felt a terrible dryness in my throat, and I didn’t know if it came from the liquor erasing itself from my bloodstream or my having to admit to Ceff that I’d fucked up. Confessing seemed to me like the worst possible thing I’d ever have to do.
“What’s the problem? What did you do?”
“The cops charged me with D.U.I.,” I said. “Second offense.”
“So, you were drinking?”
“I don’t want to say over the phone. These calls are recorded.”
“I remember. I’ve been there. Still, you know how this works. You have to be honest and admit to everything. Otherwise, nobody can help you.”
Again, I hesitated. “Fine. I fell off, okay? Two days now.”
“Wondered why I hadn’t heard from you,” he said.
“Yeah, two days. Cops pulled me over a couple hours ago. I ran a friggin’ red light. Didn’t even see it. Not the cop, either. He was parked behind a hedge.”
There was silence for a moment that weighed on me as heavily as if it were my father on the other end of the line. Dad was a drunk, too, but he had been put in the ground years ago. He couldn’t hurt me anymore.
“I’m here,” he said. “Just thinking. What do you need me to do?”
“It’s only a misdemeanor. Five-hundred-dollar bond. Fifty cash to the bondsman, and he’ll put up the rest. Can you come down here with fifty bucks?”
“I like my fifty bucks,” he joked. “I’m grateful for my fifty bucks. I’d like to keep my fifty bucks.”
“I’ll pay you back. I promise.”
“Not that simple. You owe me interest, too. I’m taking you to three meetings tomorrow. Don’t want to hear a word about it.”
I didn’t mind the meetings in small doses, but three was too much. To sit there for an hour apiece listening to old geezers without a third of Ceff’s happy-go-lucky personality between them as they grumbled about their years of sobriety and how tough their lives were and how they’d like a stiff shot of the Turkey but wouldn’t let themselves give in? I didn’t think I could handle it, especially coming off a night light this. I’d been stripped out, lice-sprayed, told to squat and cough. I was in an orange jumpsuit so small my balls felt like they were climbing up into my lower intestine. It was embarrassing. Still, I had to admit I’d rather spend tomorrow in meetings than jail. “Fine,” I told him.
“Fine?” he said.
“Yeah, fine. I’ll go.”
“I’ll be there in twenty minutes. Have to cover up my jewels, slide into the Jordans, find my keys, and I’ll be right there.”
“Thanks,” I said, sighing as if I just learned I didn’t have cancer.
A robotic voice came over the phone line. “You have one minute remaining,” it said.
“Looks like our time’s up,” Ceff said, “but Luther, I want you to think about something until I get there.”
“If this trip to jail keeps you sober, I’m grateful for jail, too. So, you want to prove there’s something I’m not grateful for, you’ll have to keep drinking yourself into the ground.”
“That’s not fair,” I groaned.
“But it’s the truth. My friend, I want you to stay sober, but if you do, you lose. You’ll have to admit you were wrong. Not right away, but event….”
The phone cut off. Our time was up.
I replaced the receiver and leaned my head on top of it. “No,” I moaned. “It doesn’t work that way, you old fart.” I waited as if he were there beside me, ready to give advice. I felt like a spider had crawled across my cheek, leaving me full of shivers and panic. “You’d still be grateful it wasn’t you. You’d find a reason. You always find a reason. You silly son of a bitch.”
Ace Boggess is the author of two books of poetry: The Prisoners (Brick Road Poetry Press, 2014) and The Beautiful Girl Whose Wish Was Not Fulfilled (Highwire Press, 2003). He is an ex-con, ex-husband, ex-reporter, and completely exhausted by all the things he isn't anymore. His writing has appeared in Harvard Review, Mid-American Review, RATTLE, River Styx, North Dakota Quarterly and many other journals. He lives in Charleston, West Virginia.