BAP Quarterly

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The Most Important Thing

by: Becky Tuch

            By the time he got back to his neighborhood, the sweat on Felix’s back and neck had cooled. He sat in the dim corner of Snooky’s pub and sipped from his glass of ice water, crunching the ice between his molars and looking at his open palms.
            Yesterday he had gone to work, thought it all through, and still couldn’t come up with a logical plan. The longer he sat in his office and tried to think, scanning his memories for some cause, some explanation, the more he found only madness. He even thought of calling his ex-wife, shouting into the phone, What the hell do you know about this case? Why are you setting me up, Magda? But he’d checked himself, called his sponsor instead.
           Saul had straight white hair and a pot belly that he carried around like a trophy. He knew everyone in AA, everyone in Brooklyn for that matter. He walked with a limp, spoke with an accent that added r’s where they didn’t belong, and evoked a Park Slope of yesteryear, full of stick ball and block parties, families fighting through thin apartment walls. Saul had been the first guy to speak to Felix way back when, pulling him aside one meeting and leveling him in the eye. “Don’t worry, kid,” Saul had said. “Coming here don’t make you a pussy. It makes you a hero.”
            “Ain’t even summer yet,” Saul said now, by way of greeting. He dabbed his forehead with a napkin as he pulled out the chair across from Felix.
           “Can I bring you something to drink?” The waitress stood over the table, holding a notepad and a pencil.
            “Coffee,” Felix said quickly, as if he would have answered that to any question she’d asked. How would you like to spend the next thirty years in jail?...Coffee!
            Saul ordered a Diet Coke. When the waitress was gone he looked at Felix and whistled through his teeth. “You look terrible.”
            Felix ran a hand across his face. He hadn’t slept for a week, hadn’t shaved that morning--his hands wouldn’t stop shaking. He knew he must be pale, his eyes red, black circles like parentheses underneath.
            “Something bad is happening.” The words came out like he was being choked.
            Saul nudged his chin, gesturing for Felix to go on.
            Felix took a sip of his coffee, then leaned forward. He began with the detective arriving at his store, the conversation they’d had about the girl. Did Felix know her? Did he ever talk to her? Did he ever take children into the back of his store?
            When Felix finished, Saul was quiet for a long time. So long that Felix had to remind himself that his sponsor was just thinking this through, not judging him, that in all the years that Felix had been honest and open with Saul—about women, sex, divorce, booze—in all this time Saul had never judged him. Or so he’d always felt.
            “Fuck,” Saul said finally, and shook his head.
            “It’s bad, right?”
            “It ain’t good. You call a lawyer?”
            Which brought Felix to the lawyer. “He was a lunatic, Saul. A total nutjob. Going on and on about women leveling these sorts of accusations deliberately, for revenge. Saying her mother probably set this girl up to say I did something to her just to get back at me for something. I mean, it’s insane. I don’t even know the mother. Besides, I never did anything bad to anyone.”
            Saul gave him a stern look.
            “Well, I never did anything that bad.”
            The look stayed on Saul’s face, a disapproving parent.
            “Okay, I was bad when I was using. But I never did anything so bad that a woman would want to make this kind of accusation. This could destroy me. My business, my savings. My fucking life!”
            Saul was quiet again. He scratched the tattoo on the inside of his arm.          
            “What,” Felix said finally.
            “I didn’t say anything.”
            Felix set his coffee cup down and leaned back. The restaurant was empty except for him and Saul and the men up at the bar, quietly drinking their afternoon beers and watching baseball.
            “What do you think this is all about?”
            “I have no fucking idea!” Felix leaned in and lowered his voice. “I really don’t know, Saul. Two days ago I was just going about my business. And now I’m being accused of assaulting a little fucking girl. For god’s sake, I never—. I couldn’t—. I mean—what the fuck?” 
            “You really have no idea who she is?”
            Felix shook his head. It seemed he had been asked this same question a hundred times in five days. First there was the detective, then the lawyer. Not to mention his own pounding thoughts, over and over, Who is she? Who is this girl?
            “When did the detective say it happened?”
            “Five years ago.”
            Saul grunted. “I see.”
            “What does that mean?”
            “It doesn’t mean anything. I’m just trying to understand what happened.”
            “Nothing happened.”
            “Felix.”
            “The fuck? It’s impossible. Nothing. Happened.”
            “Felix.”
            “What!”
            Saul laid his hands flat on the table. “You’ve got to be honest now. Maybe not with me. But at least with yourself.”
            Felix sipped his coffee.
            “You could have done something, Felix. When you were drunk. That ever cross your mind?”
           Had it crossed his mind that he could have done something while he was drunk? Fuck, of course it crossed his mind. From the moment the detective had left his store to the hour he’d spent in the lawyer’s office to the minutes that passed every moment of every day, thrashing in bed and going to work and trying desperately to take a shower and feel clean--yes, it had crossed his mind. Crissed it and crossed it and tied his entire head into a tumor-sized knot.
            Five years ago: he was a drunk. He woke up in places and couldn’t remember how he’d gotten there. He’d been sleeping in the basement of his store. Time stretched out like a quilt full of gaping black holes. He had records of employees he couldn’t remember ever meeting, customer receipts for items he didn’t know he ever sold, transactions he’d recorded, purchases he’d made, tax forms he’d filled out—all of it while drunk. He’d been a different person then. A robot moving and acting without thought. Without conscience.
            He took a handkerchief from his back pocket and dabbed his forehead. “But I couldn’t have done that. Even if…No. Christ, Saul, never.”
            Saul scratched his tattoo again, harder than before, making a raspy sound with his nail against his skin.
            “You know, if you did do something when you were under the influence, Felix, it would be all right.”
            Felix folded the handkerchief and pressed it against his forehead again. “What do you mean? Be all right with whom?”
            “People do terrible things under the influence, Felix.”
            Once, when he was a boy, Felix’s family had taken a rare outing to a street fair. A man had approached Felix’s sister, had gripped her by the shoulder, turned her away from the family, tugged at her until she was completely facing him and then opened his trench coat and exposed himself. Felix’s sister, eleven years old, screamed, then started crying, and Felix didn’t know what had happened, couldn’t understand how in one minute the man was talking to his sister and in the next she was wailing. By the time Felix understood it, the man had dissolved into the crowd.
            He had felt sick with guilt and red with rage. Felix was younger, only seven, but he wanted to chase down that man and hurt him. Rip his arms from his body. Break his neck in half. His sister’s cries burned his ears. If the man had reappeared, Felix would have pounded his naked thighs until they bruised and bled.
            Now, even remembering that moment thirty years later made his chest feel hollow. As if every organ in his body had to step aside to make room for the hate to fill him completely.
            To think—a child was out there raging against him with this same fury, her ribs a cage of hatred filled with nothing but him.
            She was wrong though. He never did anything to her.
            But.
            If he had been drinking.
            “It’s not in me to hurt a child like that,” Felix said, and looked around, as if trying to gather witnesses to this impromptu testimony he was giving.
            “I believe you.”
            “Just…no way...” He was suddenly short of breath. But this was fine. He didn’t know what else to say.
            “It’s okay, Felix. Don’t tell me anything more.” Saul picked up his glass of soda and held it now without drinking it. “For legal reasons. You gotta watch what you say now, who you say it around.”
            Felix nodded. How had this become his life? It seemed that there ought to be some on-ramp to catastrophe, some gradual incline before everything turned to shit. But here he was, no warning, just full speed ahead.
            “Most important is that you don’t pick up again."
            Felix nodded. This much he knew. Just. Don't. Drink.
            “I’m a good man,” he said after a moment. “Maybe I wasn’t always. But I’m a good man now. I’m sober. That means something. It matters.”
             Saul was rubbing his tattoo again, this time with one hand pressed firmly down against the arm of the other.
            “It means something,” Felix said again. “Doesn’t it?”

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