Stella is the kind of broad that grows on a guy.
I’ve known her ever since we were little kids, but in the early days I didn’t pay much attention to girls, and later I had more fun gunning for the girls in nearby towns. I had always liked Stella, sure; but it was only recently that I really took notice and fell in love with her. That was easy. It took no talent to admire that frame, melt under those soft blue eyes and bask in that smile of hers. Man, I mean she is just the loveliest doll who ever gave a guy the Irish toothache. That Stella!
But me, going to hell without a sin, I have to wise up too late. Stella wasn’t in the market for a rum-dumb joker like me. Not when she had every son of a bitch and his brother to pick from—so I thought I’m looking at her from afar that night that she waltzes into the club with her girl friends and I’m thinking of how I wished I’d seen the light about five years ago and made myself eligible for a dish like that when, what does she do but leave her table of friends and walk over and plunk her great, big, beautiful self right down beside me in my booth and practically give me a sunburn with that smile of hers. She showed interest in me; she acted like I was really somebody; she toasted me brown and I almost sobered up.
Now that’s something I should have done about 60 months ago—sobered up. But for what? With a job like I got, I should worry. Heave cargo for two days and collect my $140. You can’t beat lumping freight when the work is good. Other jerks work a full six days and collect their pay in $100 bills, but they can’t get any drunker than I do on my little allotment. That’s how you figure before you meet a girl like Stella. So I stayed sopping for the last five years. That beer glass was my wife, family and church. Eight to five you can tell me what I told the AA guy who came around to lead me down the straight and narrow. You should have seen the look on his face.
The same applies to that clown McDermott. He and I had been tying them on since we got out of the Army. Eddie McDermott had one ambition and that was to get drunker than me. He made some pretty good tries, but I start earlier in the morning than he does so he never gets caught up. But give the guy an “E” for effort. He should know that I can beat him at the best thing he can do—drinking—so where do you figure that lame-brain should get off when he tries to beat my time with Stella? Right in the middle of nowhere. And to think of the times I nursed him over his D.T.s. The crumb should croak.
Me, I’m always looking for the odds, and I take a chance and ask Stella for a date that night she sat her beautiful behind down beside me. It about knocked me out, but she said yes right out of her lovely mouth. I check to the one card draw. How do you figure it? There it was, drunk and dirty. I was three days on the wrong side of a shave. I was wearing the clothes that I work in and the clothes stank. Didn’t phase her one bit. I guess she could see through to my personality.
So I met her. And I met her again and again. She took a real shine to me. She never said a word about my drinking and, once in a while when she dropped down to the club and caught me at my worst, she never let on that she noticed. Ain’t that a real woman? The kind who would follow her man through hell and high water? Wait till I tell you. Boy, I’d do anything for that wench.
One night she mentioned something she had read by a guy named Keets—something about a Greek jug. What do I do but go right out and get the com-plete works of Keets and his buddy, Kelly, and read right through the whole stupid mess. It was a chore, and I killed three pints of Schenley’s and a half-gallon of Dago red before I got my bear-ings. I didn’t understand one word, but I’m persistent. I read the stuff; at least I could truthfully say that, even if it might as well have been written in Arabic. I told Stella and she thought that was strictly all right. I felt like a royal straight flush. Let’s face it, I’m one smart cookie.
Then I find out that my dream was seeing the sot, McDermott, on the nights that I wasn’t seeing her. I guess I didn’t own her, but I was seriously thinking of putting in a bid and maybe getting an option. I asked her to level with me and give me the status of McDermott with her. She hedged, but finally told me that she thought I was the ace, but she could see as far as Eddie, too. It was like a challenge. I don’t say that she was play-ing Eddie off against me; it was just that she liked him about as well as she did me.
I’m no bird-brain—I got the word. I should make myself the better man and win the Queen. It was fun because I figured I had another head start on Mac. I had Stella’s con and I knew where the wind lay. I reminded her that I had read all of Sheets and Skelly. I went and read some more to impress her. I read every-thing that Mickey Spillane ever wrote and a lot more of that drivel; I talked about books with Stella, and I shaved every other day. I felt cozy.
Poor Mac. His blood was running 86.6 alcohol in his veins, and his brain was well-preserved with the stuff. He couldn’t wise up enough to read a book and carry on a conversation; all he could do was mumble drunken mutterings through his dirty face. I couldn’t see what Stella saw in him. But Mac was perfect for me. So long as he stayed rottenly sodden, he made me look good. I never realized what a friend the guy could really be. He was my perfect straight man.
One night, when he’s well slopped up, he brings Stella down to the club with him. I was sitting in my booth and I didn’t feel half-drunk. I had just thrown up and my head was clearing a little. Down the stairs they come and Mac trips over the threshold and barrels across the room and ends up under a table. It was a circus. He was stiff as a boot. I walked over, without stag-gering, and helped Stella set him to his feet and into a booth. She looks at me half gratefully and half apologetically and thanks me. I gravely nod. Did I look good? Just my luck, I had shaved that afternoon and I was dressed in clean dungarees. Good old Mac, he never looked lousier. And Stella, she was all dressed up with a new hair-do and all. But she stuck by the guy. What a trouper!
I wrestled with it a long time. I got drunk, thinking about it; I woke up with the horrors from dreaming about it. But I figured that Stella was worth it. If I didn’t make out, it wouldn’t be because I didn’t make a good try. I took the plunge. I remembered my great-grandfather who had fought on San Juan Hill and who later died from eating spoiled corned beef. I thought of my mother. I even talked with the priest. He reckoned I could do it. So I looked up the AA man and told him I wanted in. I told him I wanted off the booze and to give me the prescription.
He told me that the first thing that I should do was buy a jug of good booze and put it on the bureau in my room. That was so that if I got a yearning, it would be there and I could look it in the eye and know that it was there and not go crazy from want-ing a drink and not being able to get one. It was psychological, he told me. If I knew it was there I wouldn’t worry so much. The trouble was that I got low resistance and a high alcoholic content. Maybe I forgot; maybe it happened while I was asleep, but sure as hell, that fifth was a dead soldier the next morning and I had little men in my head with sledge hammers and cold chisels.
I asked Stella for a picture of herself—a nice big eight and a half by eleven. She gave me one, auto-graph and all. I put it on the bureau beside the bottle and every time I reached for the jug I asked myself which would I rather have: a shot, or a shot at Stella? That helped, and it wasn’t long before I was drinking only five or six fifths a week. I saw the Father again and told him what I was up against. He told me to say Hail Marys and think of the sufferings of the saints every time I wanted a drink. I felt like a goof, what with my hand on the neck of the soldier and saying prayers. But it helped—a little.
I knew a guy who used to be the vil-lage drunk, and I asked him what he had done to put the devil behind him. He told me that he had developed other interests. He had hobbies. He made clipper ships out of balsa wood and things like that. The thing that had helped him the most, he said, was when his wife had a baby. That was a whole new world for him. Well, I didn’t want to have any babies by his wife, but I did try the hobby angle. I took up saving paper match books and playing more poker.
The best thing—or the worst thing—that I hit on was some pills that I bought that you take just before you have a drink. They make you throw your guts up as soon as you get a smell of the booze. I figured that if I ever got over the hump and managed the cure, I’d write to the government and have them take those hellish things off the market. I tell you I wrestled with the devil and went through seven assorted kinds of misery. I tried everything except mari-juana as a substitute for demon rum. I’m glad people ain’t got anything against smoking.
But latch onto this: I made it. I got so that I could look a shot of hooch in the eye and spit at it. The bartenders at the club got sore and showed me where they were dropping a solid C-note each month since I went Boy Scout. I ached for them, but I stuck to my guns. They thought they were hurting!
Ed McDermott, my friendly rival, was feeling no pain. He stayed just plain drunk, drunk, drunk. What a stew bum. Every time I saw him I thought to my-self, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” When I saw him at the club I bought him double shots while I drank Coke until it came out of my ears. I’d close my eyes and pretend that the Coke was charged with rum. It helped. But could that McDermott get stinking!
Stella noticed the change in me. I smelled of after-shave lotion instead of Seagram’s Seven, and I began to talk intelligently instead of throwing up on her like I used to do. I think she was happy about the whole thing. I know I was. I never mentioned the reformation.
As there wasn’t a thing else to do, I worked five days a week like the other jerks. I had money to burn, but I couldn’t think of anything to do with it so I played more poker. Considering the old days, I came out even. I dropped an average of 200bucks a week at the Greek club. I should worry. Now I had my self respect and was well on my way toward winning the big pot. Every time I got a queen in the hole in a stud game, I thought to myself that it wouldn’t be long before I got the real Queen. Life can be beautiful. Was all this worth it? I asked myself. Of a certainty, I answered. For Stella I would make even greater sacrifices—if there are any greater ones. I was gone on Stella.
After I was well squared away, I asked her what I thought was a most logical question: “Stella,” I said, “I have a nice job and I am bringing in $700 a week. I am no longer the drunken sot you once knew. I am well read and a man of temperate habits. I have re-formed and destroyed my former self out of love for you. I have tried to be worthy of you by straightening out. I am no longer a dirty, rotten, bearded stew bum such as McDermott. Stella, will you marry me?”
“Stella,” I said “I have demonstrated my worthiness. I have dragged myself up from the dregs of hell and slime to prove to you that I can be more than a drunken, lazy, unwashed barfly. I have read good books and have taken to going to church so as to be an example for our children. Stella, won’t you marry me?”
“I thought you liked me, Stella,” I said. “I thought I had a chance with you. I dreamed of making you my wife and I am willing to make any sacrifice. What can I do to prove to you how much I love you? I live my life in that hope and I have tried to conform accordingly. Please, Stella?”
“Well,” I asked her, “just what do you want, you silly bitch?”
“I don’t want you.”
“Why not, Stella?”
“You’ve changed too much. You’re not the man I first fell for.”
“Well, I’ll be damned,” I said. “Okay, Stella, I’ll keep on trying. I’ll prove to you some more that I have the makings of a good husband for you.”
“Why not?” I asked her.
“Eddie McDermott and I are getting married next month.”
“Oh, no! Are you kidding, Stella? Not that sot.”
“That’s the difference between you two. Eddie needs me.”
“He needs a pipeline to Ballantine’s, that’s all he needs.”
“I had hoped you would understand,” Stella said, “You are all squared away, as you say; Eddie is not. He needs me.”
“Well, Stella, you certainly caught me out in left field,” I told her. “I’ll do my best to keep him stinking so that some-one else won’t come along who needs you more than Eddie does. To think that I sobered up for you. I should have got drunker and then I’d have owned you.”
Now every night Eddie and I go down to the club and he tries to fulfill his ambition to get drunker than I. But I start drinking earlier in the morning than he does, so he never catches up with me. He makes some pretty good tries so I give him an “E” for effort. What a tank!
But the only difference between us is that after last call, he staggers home to crawl into bed with that great, big, beautiful broad, while I just stagger home, period. If I’d only stayed mullocked, I might be going home to that—to hell with that, too. But what gets me, I’ve always been a bigger drunk than Eddie. I should have been more con-sistent, that’s all.
—Robert G. Fuller