Saving a friend and a piece of my past

by Brian Clarey

I step out of the baggage claim and into the February gray. The bitter wind makes my nose run, makes my eyes water. I fumble for my matches and curse the cold.

I hate February in New York.

I got the call yesterday afternoon. The news wasn’t good. Cap, from the old neighborhood’… he’s in a tailspin. Locked in his apartment for the last six weeks. Drinking scotch by the bucketful. Lost his job. Lost everything. And quite possibly dying.

I got him on the phone. He didn’t deny it. I asked him what he was doing to himself.

‘“It’s horrifying,’” he said.

I got on a plane at six the next morning. And now here I am’… back in New York’… trying to help my boy before I have to bury him.

Dr. Lawyer picks me up from LaGuardia. It’s good to see him.

Me and Cap and Dr. Lawyer go way back, to the point where we can’t remember ever not knowing each other. We became young inebriates together back when our flesh was stilll pink, our psyches raw and burgeoning. We’ve been through countless good times and unspeakably bad ones. We’re brothers. And it’s only right that it’s Dr. Lawyer and me who take the trip to the Upper East Side. Cap’s not listening to anybody else.

And we weren’t so sure he’d listen to us.

I call him from his stoop on 81st St.

‘“Cap. It’s Clarey. I’m outside. Buzz me in. It’s goddamn freezing out here.’”

Miraculously he buzzes the door open without argument or hesitation. Dr. Lawyer and I climb to the sixth floor of the walkup. Cap’s waiting for us at the door of his apartment. He lets us in.

‘“Welcome to Hell,’” he says.

It’s a junkie’s pad, a Manhattan hovel about half the size of my garage ‘— empty, grimy walls and random stacks of clutter on the floor. Cap’s slung a greasy, stained futon over his threadbare couch, about three feet from the TV against the other wall. There are a handful of cigarette butts in the toilet and another collection atop a pile of dirty plates in the kitchen. The window is broken. In one corner a naked mattress sags deeply through the middle, collecting a sweaty puddle of sheets. In another stands eight one-gallon scotch bottles, the kind with the handle. They’re empty.

Cap says he’s been drinking one of these a day. He’s got a cocktail going right now in fact, a fistful of undiluted amber spirit sitting on the folding chair he’s been using as an end table.

In his closet hangs a row of neglected Italian suits and pressed shirts.

‘“I can’t believe you came up from North Carolina,’” he says. His eyes are wet.

He’s shirtless and I can see how his once athletic body has atrophied to flab. His ancient jeans are blown out at the knees and there’s thick goop blocking his tear ducts and collecting in the corners of his mouth.

Cap can’t believe his eyes either. He didn’t think anybody cared.

He makes me take off my hat and tells me I look like Sean Lennon. It’s not intended as a compliment. That’s a good sign.

‘“We’re gonna get you out of here,’” Dr. Lawyer says.

‘“I can’t believe you guys are here,’” Cap says again. He finds a blue shirt and buttons it halfway up. He slips a defeated pair of sneakers over his filthy socks. He collapses into our arms, fear, grief and relief overwhelming him at the tail end of his binge.

He has trouble walking down the stairs.

‘“He’s got edema in his legs,’” Dr. Lawyer had said over the phone from New York. He also warned of liver damage and encephalitis of the brain, and he thumbnailed the excruciating process of drying out at this stage of the game. He said Cap’s been rehabbed more than a dozen times in the last two years, in every hospital in Manhattan, that he’d once received an Atavan drip so potent that it raised the eyebrows of anyone who knew what the hell he was talking about, and that Cap always manages to get himself out after a couple of days.

We hope this time will be different. Dr. Lawyer says it might.

On the city sidewalk I’ve got my arm around Cap’s shoulders and we make ungainly progress to Dr. Lawyer’s car. I let him sit in the front, and he laboriously climbs in. We pull away from the curb and Cap spins around, a wide smile on his face, and he bounces slightly in his seat like he always used to do,

‘“So where we going guys?

Suddenly we’re in high school again, cruising the streets of our hometown, loooking for parties, for people, for action, logging the kinds of hours that make people friends for life.

Then Dr. Lawyer steers the car to the Triboro Bridge and the congested arteries that lead back to Long Island.

We’re going home.

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