When one falls off the edge of the cliff, sometimes they hit every rock on the way down...
Tank woke up in the hospital. He hurt, he hurt bad. The steady beep - beep beeping of some monitor sounded like a airhorn. He blinked open his eyes and squeezed them shut again, the dim light hurt. He tried to remember. He had gone to a bar, some girl, a cute red-head, who was too thin but with big boobs, had danced with him and then they were going back to her place. Some guy had tried to jump him and they struggled... He wasn’t sure what happened after the guy demanded his truck, his smartphone, and his wedding ring, but Tank refused to give up the phone or ring. He knocked the guy down hard, someone screamed, then it felt like he got kicked in the back by an angry cow and everything went black.
He wasn’t even sure which town he was in. He had left Durango in April when he had run into his Grandfather’s friends. Ben Wallace and Cordell McConnell were coming out of the Mesa Verde Steakhouse wearing their VFW hats. The next day, Tank had seen his grandfather and Sheriff McConnell, but he wasn’t ready to face the man who raised him with the failure he felt he had become. Tank checked out of his room and went up to Grand Junction, then to Denver but the memories of college and his life with Irene only a few short years ago drove him north to Wyoming, then the Dakotas.
As much as he wanted to leave Colorado, as many times as he tried over the past few months, he just kept coming back. No other place felt like home. He had plenty of money from his settlement to start over, but every month there was less and less reason to keep going. He didn’t care if his money ran out but it didn't because every month it showed up in his account after it was divided up. Irene and T.J. had accounts to take care of them, but he doubted Irene ever touched them, she had hated football as much as she now hated him. He hated himself too now.
Tank drifted back off to sleep, disappointed that he was still alive, and ashamed of who he was.
The familiar scent of pipe tobacco and saddle leather greeted Tank when he woke. It was a welcome and dreaded change from the acrid antiseptic smell of the hospital. He tried to lay still and pretend he was still asleep.
“I know you’re awake, Thomas,” his grandfather sounded concerned, relieved, and disappointed all at the same time.
The headache that plagued Tank the last time he woke was gone, replaced by the unpleasant metallic after-taste of IV painkillers. He didn’t think the skinny guy who tried to rob him had hurt him that badly, but he was on his side and he could feel the bandages taped to his skin on his back.
“Well, son, you’ve been shot in the back,” His grandfather explained.
“Shot? I don’t remember getting shot.” Tank groaned as he tried to shift his position.
The look of disappointment in his Pappy’s eyes hurt Tank’s heart. “I’m not surprised. You had so much alcohol in your system that they almost couldn’t get the bleeding stopped. You nearly bled to death on the table. It’s been a rough couple of days.” Even though his grandfather’s tone remained level, Tank could hear all the unspoken worry and fear.
“I’m sorry, Pappy.” Tank meant it more than he could express. After a few moments of silence, he asked. “How did you know?”
“Ray had your plates flagged as a person of interest in a missing person investigation. So when that girl shot you in the back after you cold-cocked her boyfriend, the police contacted him and he called me.” His grandfather’s leathery face wrinkled as he scowled.
“What’s going on with you, Thomas? You have a home, friends and family that loves you. Why are you running around like a hobo and basically living out of your truck? Why didn’t you come home? Irene called here worried sick when you didn’t even call for little Thomas’ end of school thing. You said you were going to Denver for your physical therapy. That’s where I thought you were ’til Ben and Cordell saw in Durango. Then you just disappeared. You haven’t been answering your cellphone or returning messages... Then Ray gets a call from the Pueblo P.D. that you were shot in an attempted armed robbery and might not make it out of surgery.”
Feeling ashamed, Tank reached up with his hand and wiped his own tears, “I’m sorry, Pappy. I... I just couldn’t face you. I... I turned into dad and I didn’t want to tell you I failed as a man... I lost everything.” He groaned in pain as he shifted again. “I cheated on Irene, now she’s dating someone else, T.J. doesn’t even want to see me. I started drinking because it hurt so much. Then I broke my fool neck and didn’t even have the decency to die on the field. If I had just died then the money would have gone to everyone else and they wouldn’t be sending me a check every month to keep me alive, and... and every time I wake up, it wouldn’t hurt so bad.”
Thomas Walter Tanner put his hand on his grandson’s shoulder, and prayed that his words would get through to him. “I’m glad you didn’t die on the field, Thomas. I’d rather have you, broken and bruised, than any amount of money. I am sorry about your wife and son, but this isn’t the answer. It’s time to come home. I got your stuff out of that storage place in Durango when the rent was up. I put it in your dad’s old house. Ben and the kids helped me paint it and unpack. Irene is sending Little Thomas up here for a week before school starts. You will show that boy that you haven’t forgotten him, the way your mom forgot you. You will sober up and you will go to meetings. Life knocked ya down but it’s time to stand back up, Thomas, and I’m going to help you, if I have to put my boot up your arse. Do you understand?”
Tank swallowed his pride. He knew it wasn’t an idol threat. His grandfather was a strict, no-nonsense kind of man, but he was also the one person in the world Thomas knew wanted only the best for him. “Yes, Pappy. I understand.”
They pulled into the old homestead near sunset, and Tank felt a pang of regret. His grandfather was 90 and Tank could see that some of the repairs the ranch needed had fallen to the wayside as the work of the ranch went on. It was hard for one man to run even a small spread alone. He parked in front of his father’s small cabin and got out. He hadn’t lived here since he was a twelve and his grandfather had burst in one night and stopped Tommie from beating him in a drunken rage. They had just learned Thomas’ mother was getting remarried, his father attacked his elderly father and fallen on a table passed out. Sheriff McConnell had arrested him for breaking Thomas' arm, Tommie wasn't allowed back on the Tanner Ranch when he got out of jail. They didn’t see or hear from Tommie for months at a time after that. He only came home when he was dying of liver failure and only had a few weeks left to live.
“Thomas, come over when you’re settled. Mrs. Wallace left us a pork roast and a greenbean casserole in the oven,” Pappy called out to him and he waved back.
The rooms were neatly arranged with unfamiliar furniture. The walls had all been painted and the floors stripped of the carpet his mother had put in. His workout equipment was in one of the small bedrooms while the remainder of his boxes were piled in another. His over-large king-sized bed took up the entire larger bedroom. There was barely enough room to walk on one side of it past the dresser. Shaking his head, he decided that maybe he should get a more reasonably sized bed for the room. He threw his duffle bag and suitcase on the bed and went to the storage boxes in the next room. He opened the moving box, he wanted. Inside it, the false hamper hid the truth of its contents.
Twenty bottles were securely tucked in towels and clothes. Feeling ashamed of his weakness, he lifted one out and looked at it. The amber liquid seemed to call to him, promising to ease his pain, promising to dull the ache. He heard the front door and tucked it into a towel and closed it up. His grandfather came to the door and watched him digging through another box labeled ‘Clothes’.
“What’re ya looking for, son?” Pappy asked.
“For my workout sweats. I didn’t realize how outta shape I was gettin’,” Thomas lied with his back to his grandfather.
“Eh, don’t worry, I got plenty of fence to fix and wood to chop, you won’t be needing any of that crazy, fancy equipment. Come and eat,” Pappy insisted.
Thomas followed him respectfully to the bigger house. As they ate, they talked about the farm and about renting a bull again this fall. Thomas told his Pappy that he thought he needed a smaller sized bed and that he had never realized how big the one he had in Texas was. His Pappy chuckled, and reminded him everything in Texas is bigger. They had a good evening, but when Thomas was alone in his dad’s house, his problem began calling to him again. And as he unpacked the boxes, he discovered that the wedding box had been put with his things. Two bottles of whiskey later, he was staring at his cell phone and cursing the lack of signal.
Stripping to his boxers, he went to his weight room and began working out until his muscles burned. He went to wipe his sweat off the bench and the towel turned red. He had forgotten about the stitches from the gunshot. It had just become one more pain he drank away. In the bathroom, he twisted to see the wound in the tiny mirror. It wasn’t bleeding very badly but he knew the alcohol had probably just made his blood thin. He finished the bottle and climbed into the shower. Afterwards he managed to get a bandage pressed over it.
Tank had been lucky, he was a big, muscular guy, and the would-be robber had shot him with a 22-caliber pistol. The cheap gun had jammed, so she had hit him with the crowbar her boyfriend dropped, while he was down. Two men coming out of the bar after them had seen the whole thing and yelled at them. They had helped Tank until the police came and kept the boyfriend from fleeing, he had turned in his girlfriend in a plea to get his charges reduced to simple assault and attempted robbery. The bullet had lodged in one of Tank’s ribs, saving him from dying of internal bleeding.
As he fell asleep, Tank wondered what his Pappy had in store for him tomorrow. He wondered how Irene and her boyfriend were doing, he didn’t believe Irene’s claim that he was gay to be true for a moment. He had seen the way that man looked at his wife... his ex-wife... It was the way Thomas had always looked at her. He could still remember every moment they had shared and how much he loved her and hated himself.
Three days of fixing fences and barn roof repairs had Tank ready for a break. He was glad when his grandfather announced they had to go to Durango, he was not happy when they parked in front of St Mary’s and he found himself sitting in the first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting he had been to since he had gone to college. It seemed like it had been much longer than eight years. People stood up and introduced themselves as alcoholics or family members of alcoholics. There were two that Tank knew from meetings when he was a teen, now he envied their sobriety. Many seemed to know Walter and they greeted him as he stood up and told about Tommie. When it was Tank’s turn, he wasn’t sure what to say or if he was ready to, so he just repeated what he said when he was younger with one little change.
“Hello, my name is Thomas, and Tommie, my father, was an alcoholic. I just got divorced and out of a job where I was surrounded by alcoholics. I’m trying not to be like my father.”
“Thomas, are you an alcoholic? When was your last drink?” one of the sponsors asked and everyone looked at him.
Tank was surprised at questions, he knew he shouldn’t be but he was. So he evaded the truth to save face in front of his grandfather. “I was shot coming out of a bar two weeks ago. I got drunk and met a girl who tried to rob me, I made a foolish mistake. It won’t happen again.”
One of the sponsors tipped his head at Tank. “I’ll take him.”
“Thank you, Mark,” Walter answered. “He’s just as stubborn and evasive as his dad was.”
“Pappy,” Thomas snapped. “I’m not...”
“Thomas, I love you but I’ll be damned to hell if I’ll pretend I don’t notice you smelling like whiskey every morning. Your son is getting off a plane in two weeks and if you ain’t sober when he gets here, he’ll stay in my house with me.”
Tank swallowed, he didn’t need to look around to know everyone was looking at him. “I’m trying Pappy, I just need something to help me sleep.”
“Mmmm,” Walter made a noncommittal sound in his throat. “You won’t try, you’ll do. Thomas Junior is my only great-grandson, and I’ll do right by him, even if you won’t.”
Tank stood up so fast his chair went over backwards. “I have never done wrong by my son.”
“Easy, Thomas. This is a safe space, you know that. You’ve been to these meetings before. Your grandfather is just very worried for you. You can talk about all that happened, we’ll listen and we won’t judge.” The woman with Margo scribbled on her nametag said.
“There’s nothing to know, I trusted the wrong guy, made a stupid mistake and lost my family, then I was protecting the same guy when he was too hungover to be playing and got hurt. Now he’s a franchise player with a multimillion dollar contract and I am living in my dad’s old house, working on my grandfather’s ranch and wondering what I am going to do to fix my life. And knowing it can’t be fixed. I fu*cked myself when I got so drunk that fu*cked some whore who looked like my wife. The end.” Tank turned and stomped outside. He was vibrating with anger, he was shivering with his need to get have a drink to calm his nerves. Reaching into his pocket he realized he left his phone at home and he would need his grandfather to drive him there. Leaning against the grill, he cursed all that was holy and then started in on himself.
The man his grandfather called Mark, came out and lit a cigarette. They eyed each other, then Mark walked over. “You know, Thomas, your grandfather almost broke 54 years of sobriety when you were laying on the field and they didn’t know if you were going to make it. He loves you. He’s scared for you. He lost his first family to the bottle, he only quit because your grandmother said to choose. Then your father came along, a late in life baby and they were so happy, but he never got sober and died of it. Walter is terrified you will go down the same path, that’s why he started bringing you to meetings when you were a ten. He wanted you to understand, he wanted better for you. The way you are right now is his worst fear. I’d like to be your sponsor, if you’ll let me.”
“You don’t know anything about me,” Tank snapped.
“I know you’re 25 going on dead in a ditch. I know your buddy wasn’t your friend at all and used your nature against you. I know that you have at least a two bottle a day habit and that you hate it, but you hate yourself and think you deserve your pain more.” Mark lit another cigarette. “And that your grandfather doesn’t want to bury you the way he buried your father ’caue you’re still a boy. I want to be your sponsor.”
“I’m almost twenty-eight.” Tank demanded, “Why do you care?”
“Because your grandfather was my sponsor when you were born.” He held out a card and Tank took it. “Call me.”
It had the twelve steps on one side and the serenity prayer on the other with a number.