Love In A Bottle
© 2004, 2014
The year and a half following Cindy’s murder is a blur in my life. From what I’ve been able to piece together of the eighteen months, that’s probably a good thing. There’s not much of a view from the bottom of a bottle of self pity and guilt. What you do see isn’t worth remembering; what you remember you try to forget. What I remember about the fall of 1984 and all of 1985 is a dark, angry, bitter, confused and mostly drunk face staring back at me in the mirror. The face wasn’t even recognizable as my own.
I didn’t shave for weeks at a time. Personal hygiene wasn’t high on my list of priorities. Forgetting was number one. I did manage a presentable façade at the station. Work was the only thing besides gin that took my mind off of Cindy. And even gin wasn’t doing too good of a job. If it had I’m sure I would have drunk myself to death.
I almost did.
You think I would have learned.
In high school, I lost three close friends to drinking. As a disenfranchised young teen I nearly lost my life during an alcohol induce impromptu bonfire with my buddies. Working in clubs you have a front row seat, witnessing what alcohol is capable of doing. Cindy’s mom was an alcoholic. Cindy died at the hands of a worthless drunk who had been given more chances than he ever gave Cindy.
You think I would have learned.
One rainy night, drunk and high on ecstasy, I drove my beloved De Soto into a cement bridge abutment. I wasn’t seriously injured, but in a twist of irony two good Samaritans drove me to the hospital. I was cited for leaving the scene of an accident and kept my driver’s license. But I wore steering wheel welts across my eyes and chest, and a deep parking brake handle gash in my left knee for weeks.
My best friend Bill talked me into seeing a psychologist. Reluctantly I agreed, but her well meaning, expensive psycho babble went in one ear and out the other. She said I was subconsciously trying to destroy not just myself, but one of my last tangible links to Cindy. She was right of course. Our first official date was in that car. Cindy formed a curious fascination and affection to the be-finned antique. I teased her about having a fetish for anything that was old.
The De Soto wasn’t totaled. I’ve fixed worse, including the De Soto when I first got her. But I had neither the desire to repair her, nor the heart to see her junked and parted out. In one of my more lucid moments, I gave the old reliable classic a fitting burial. A friend of mine was in the heavy construction business. Cement pouring was scheduled to start in a few days for an office complex near Houston’s InterContinental Airport. We trucked the old De Soto up to the site and he bulldozed out a pit. With Rock ‘n’ Roll Heaven blasting from the speakers, and Cindy’s photo smiling at me from the dashboard, I drove my trusted old black and white friend for the last time, and then sadly watched as she was covered over. Days later a few thousand metric tons of cement sealed her fate. To this day she rests beneath a multi-level parking garage.
Neither the accident nor the loss of my old De Soto managed to slow me down.
Almost losing my job did…almost.
I managed to hold onto a modicum of sobriety at work. But being sober didn’t help my attitude. The Lite Rock format was taking over Houston’s air waves. My show was important to the station’s success. As it turned out no one was interested in listening to, or talking with, a bitter, cynical love songs host. Radio is a strange medium. No matter how hard you may try to mask them, your emotions shine through. Your moods and demeanor manifest themselves in your speech and your comments, even in your music. If you are happy the listeners are aware. If you are pissed they know that, too. And so does your boss. I went through the motions, putting no interest or effort into my work; drawing on my years of experience to get me through the night and to my next drink. The ruse fooled no one. Four days before Christmas, 1984, my friend and boss Pamela Dunlap called me into her office.
I was waiting when Pam entered. “You look like hell.”
“Thanks,” I replied, giving her a sour look, “Merry Christmas to you, too.”
She glared at me from behind wire rimmed reading glasses as she sat down. Deep in my bitterness, I found a flicker of remorse for my uncalled for remark. Through everything that had happened, Pam had remained a good friend. And in my present condition I was quickly running out of friends. “Don’t even mess with me today, Billy! Shut up, listen to what I have to say then politely thank me and get out of my sight! Got it?”
I swallowed another sarcastic remark and nodded. Pam took a deep breath. I could tell this wasn’t easy for her. “Okay, I know it’s only been four months since Cindy’s death. I am aware of how much you are hurting.” She held up a hand cutting off my comment. “That still doesn’t excuse your behavior. If you remember, I offered you as much time off as you needed. You refused. At the time I agreed thinking maybe work would help you get through it. But…”
Okay, I thought, here it comes, happy holidays and good bye.
“… but it didn’t. You’ve been late. You disappeared for over a week in October to who knows where. You are constantly drinking.” She picked up a pencil and then threw it back down on the desk. “You of all people should understand that what you do on the outside does reflect on the station. Your attitude towards your show is totally unacceptable. Sloppy work is one thing, but when you start to alienate listeners something needs to be done.”
Pam turned her chair and gazed out the window. She couldn’t look at me. I couldn’t blame her. Everything she had said was true. And she had been gentle with her remarks. I may not have been able to remember specifics from the last few months, but I was keenly aware of my disagreeable disposition. It was affecting every aspect of my life. I had lost a lot of weight and nearly everyone close to me. I felt much older than my thirty-three years and looked twice the age.
The day after Cindy’s death, as Bill drove me to his house, I recalled a day in May a long time ago. I was twelve and had just witnessed my best friend Chris electrocuted to death by a high tension electric wire. Dad had put a hand to my shoulder in a comforting gesture. But his words sent confused, mixed messages: “Sorry, Billy. But a man doesn’t cry. He doesn’t ask for help and he doesn’t show his feelings.” Those were the only words of comfort ever afforded me about the tragedy. When Cindy was killed I took those words to heart, alienating everyone who cared about me in the process.
We sat in Pam’s office in silence. Even with everything that was happening, all I wanted was a drink. I tried to clear my mind. On the wall hung the Houston City Paper photo of the Porn-rock couple. I could see Cindy’s lovely face; hear her velveteen laughter as Misty related the story to her over crab cakes and corn on the cob at Phillips in Baltimore. The image made my head spin. Ironically, right next to the photo hung a more recent newspaper clipping from the Houston Post. It was an article about my sudden departure and surprising switch from the old station to this one. I barely recognized the happy looking young guy in the accompanying picture, posed wide eyed behind the microphone. It had been less than two years ago. It felt like a lifetime.
Pam stirred uncomfortably in her chair. “You’re too good a DJ, a person, to do this to yourself, Billy. You have to let it go.”
She was right.
Her words fell on deaf ears.
Taking a deep breath, Pam seemed to make up her mind. “Right now you are off the air. You’ve got the next three weeks to clean up your act. I want you back here Sunday night, January 13. You’ll take over the midnight to six A.M. shift. I don’t want to see you or hear about you! Screw up once more and you’ll be lucky to get a job doing farm reports in Nebraska. I mean this! Now get out of here.”
She didn’t turn around, continuing to stare blankly out the window. I eased out of my chair, stole another quick glance at the news clippings on the wall, and then made my way to the door. “Thanks, Boss,” I called as I exited.
Three days later I awoke in Bill and Shirley’s guest bedroom, my head pounding. I could tell by the angle of the shadows on the drawn curtains it was late in the day. I tried to sit up but my eyes blurred and my head spun. The knocking on the bedroom door felt like cannon fire.
Shirley entered carrying a glass of orange juice and a bottle of aspirin. “You look like hell.”
“Thanks,” I replied, trying to chase the cotton from my mouth. “I hear that a lot these days.”
She purposely slammed the bottle and glass down on the night stand, spilling some of the juice and driving a spike through my skull. “Gee, I wonder why,” she countered, closing the door too hard. I managed to down three aspirins and spill half the glass of orange juice down the front of my T shirt before I passed out.
A couple of hours later I came to, feeling a bit better. Bill silently slipped into the room and scooted the desk chair up next to the bed. “Happy Birthday, buddy, how are you feeling?”
“How do I look?”
The grin I’d come to know and love all these years crept across his face. “Like hell.”
I ignored his comment. Then it hit me. “What did you say?”
“I said you look like hell and that’s giving you the better of it.”
“No, no… the other thing…”
“Oh, you mean Happy Birthday?”
I looked towards the window. It was now dark outside. The clock on the night stand read 6:15. “What day is this?”
Bill’s grin grew as he tried in vain to hide his amusement. “It’s Monday, Christmas Eve. It’s your birthday. Shirley wanted to greet you with hats and horns.”
“Monday…?” My head began to swim again. I swallowed two more aspirins and what remained of the juice. “Monday… how, what happened? How’d I get here?”
Bill made one of his famous okay, you asked for it, here it comes faces and sucked in his lower lip. I knew from past experience that this wasn’t going to be good.
“Well, let’s see, where do I begin?” His look turned thoughtful.
“Cut the crap and get on with it will ya, while I’m still alive to hear.”
“Okay, okay. Boy you sure are grumpy for a birthday boy.” He was enjoying this. “On Friday afternoon your boss, Pam called… you remember her… she was looking for you. She was leaving to go home and your Plymouth was still in the parking lot. She said you had left the station late that morning.”
I thought about what he said. Nothing, I drew a complete blank. Bill took a deep breath and continued. “You showed up here around four this morning.”
“Oh, yeah… Anyway, you shall we say noisily arrived here around four in your new car with Mandy and two of her stripper girlfriends in tow.”
“A new car…?”
Bill nodded again.
“And two of her friends,” he replied, grinning and nodding like a bobble head.
I though again. There was still nothing.
“You and your lady friends had quite a time riding the wooden reindeer on my front lawn. It took some doing but Shirley and I managed to get you inside and say good bye to your playmates.”
“Oh, well, that’s good.”
“Not so good.” Bill’s expression turned serious. “That’s when you tried to dance with Shirley. You started lining the belt to her bathrobe with five dollar bills. By the way, she said she’s keeping them.”
I closed my eyes. At least it couldn’t get any worse.
My friend shook his head. “We got you calmed down somewhat, but not for long. First you nearly ransacked the house looking for a drink. Then you knocked down the Christmas tree trying to get to the bathroom. You didn’t make it. You puked in the living room and then passed out on the sofa.”
I pulled the covers up over my head. I wished it was six feet of dirt. “No wonder she…”
“Yeah,” Bill laughed. “There’s more.”
“You gotta be kidding me,” I moaned from under the covers.
“Mandy called a while ago. She wanted to know how you were doing. You know, she really is a nice girl. You’ve known her for what, since we first came to Houston. That’s been about…”
Pulling the covers down, I shot Bill a threatening look. “Just get on with it!”
“Okay, okay, keep your shorts on.” He laughed again. “Oh, that’s right, you’re not wearing any. Anyway, Mandy filled me in on your weekend, what she could remember about it. Seems you walked away from the station Friday in a daze. At least that’s how Mandy said you seemed when you showed up at The Second Look around two P.M.
“Pretty much, yeah,” he replied. “According to Mandy you walked in, lifted her off the stage in mid-dance, carried her over to a corner table, pulled out your Gold Card – she gave it back to me, by the way – and announced, ‘Everything for everyone till closing time’.” Reaching into his pocket, Bill pulled out several pieces of paper and began to study them.
I watched, confused. “You had to take notes?”
“Hey, man, I may write a book!”
“Whatever, go on.”
“Well, Friday night into Saturday is kind of a blur to her, too. It seems the four of you, Mandy, you, Candi and Yum-Yum put on quite a show for the customers at Denny’s. Luckily Angie was working, although I don’t think she wants to see you back there for a while. Then all of you spent the night at Candi’s house. She didn’t go into much detail. But large amounts of alcohol, ecstasy and coke were involved, as was Candi’s hot tub.”
For the first time in my life I saw my best friend blush. The covers returned to my head as I felt myself sinking into the bed. Regaining his composure, Bill continued to read from his notes. “Late Saturday afternoon you discovered you were without a car, so – that’s a very nice Mustang. And you got a great deal on it by paying cash – Saturday night Yum-Yum got a yen for sea food. I thought you were allergic?”
“I am, very allergic. It could kill me. Too bad I didn’t eat any.”
“Sarcasm…? You must be feeling better.” I could hear him rustling through more papers. “Guido’s Seafood House on Galveston Island requests that you do not return. And a Captain George Wright of the Galveston City Police Department would like to speak with you if you do return… to Galveston Island, not to Guido’s. By the way, I washed the sand and saltwater from your car for you. It would be a shame to ruin that nice new shiny black paint.”
This was a nightmare. I groaned and rolled over.
That was a mistake.
This time I made it to the bathroom.
When I returned, I found Bill sitting next to his wife in the living room. Shirley glared at me. A second later her gold capped front tooth shone like a Christmas tree topper as she burst out in laughter. “You look like hell.”
I just looked at her and flopped down in the recliner.
Bill’s grin matched his wife’s, as he perused his notes, “Ready for the rest?”
Always the smart ass, he studied the papers closer, “Oh, yeah!”
“Just the highlights, please,” I replied, bracing for the worse.
“Oh, no, this is much too good for just the cleft notes. It seems none of you are very clear about Sunday. Judging from the condition of your clothes we figured the four of you spent at least part of Saturday night and Sunday morning on the beach somewhere. It too included a lot of drinking. Somewhere along the way Candi got a tattoo before you returned to the city. All three girls wanted you to know they are very pleased with their Christmas presents from the jewelry store in the Galleria Mall. And you all ended up at The Forum where again the four of you put on quite a show for the customers.” Bill looked up from his notes. “By the way, how is Harvey doing? It’s been a while since we were there. Boy, I remember the times…” He had to stop and catch his breath as Shirley’s elbow found his ribs.
“Are we done here?” I asked, praying he’d finished.
Still taking sadistic pleasure in my situation, he once again closely examined the notes in his hand and then looked at Shirley. “I don’t have anything else, do you?”
Shirley looked at me. “Nope, that’s about all, except you owe me seventy-five bucks for carpet cleaning.”
Bill and Shirley, God bless them, once again took care of me. We rang in 1985 together and sober. For Christmas Shirley presented me with a bottle of Aqua di Silva. The expensive, lush cologne resurrected ghosts of Angel and Montreal and simpler times. I felt my eyes welling up with the memories.
I almost learned my lesson this time… almost.
I did cut back on my drinking and partying somewhat. And I managed to hang on to my radio job. I didn’t have a choice once the bills began arriving. $9,000 and change, that’s what my weekend cost me, not counting the new car.
The car I bought turned out to be a beautiful black 1985 Mustang. The T topped GT model came brand new, right off of the showroom floor, from the same dealer and salesman from whom I’d purchased Cindy’s car. It mirrored Cindy’s Mustang perfectly; the one she was driving the night she was killed. I didn’t have the heart to get rid of it.
The rest of the year is still a blur, partly from my slipping back into old habits; partly because I subconsciously chose to block it out. At least that’s what the psychologist said.
In one of my deeper moods of depression I rashly bought a house. The down payment took what little money I had left. I reasoned I needed a change, to get away from the apartment that held so many memories; so many ghosts. I became a grass mowing, barbequing, commuting suburbanite. The change and the added responsibility helped a bit. But my salvation would soon arrive unexpectedly in the guise of 105 pounds of funny, caring, inquisitive, needy wonder.