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Jul 2001 / expatriates :: email this story to a friend

Spike's St. Louis
By Spike Gillespie

I am thinking of a metaphor, trying to capture what St. Louis was for me. My mind keeps coming back to this: house.

It is a dream metaphor, a cliché, nothing at all original to it. To dream of house is to dream of self.

In my real life, the most vivid dream I ever had was in a hotel in Memphis. I was there on assignment to interview a psychic.

The night before the interview, lulled by tall draughts in a Hyatt bar filled with the ironic singing of countless birds in countless cages scattered throughout, I retired to my room, drew the heavy curtains — the sort that can make noontime nighttime — and fell asleep.

As I slept, a house filled my head. It was a big house and in disarray. I was packing. There was luggage.

And then came the rats. They swarmed this nightmare house. Worse, they wore helmets made of those shiny ashtrays — you know the sort. They look like red or yellow or green foil. Festive ashtrays for Christmas cigarettes if there were such a brand. Perfect little rat helmets.

Alarmed, I awoke, but not really. After fumbling like a rat myself through the maze of a pitch black unfamiliar hotel room I flipped on the bathroom light and nearly dropped over dead when I spotted her. It took a minute until I really woke up and then another until I recognized her.

Me. In the wall mirror.

The next day I told the psychic my dream. She's the one who told me that house is symbol for self. She told me about the rats, too. Rats in dreams, she said, indicate stubborn habits. The rats you saw, they wore helmets. Extra stubborn.

That was 13 years ago. Six months after I met that woman, I left Tennessee. Packed the station wagon, left behind lease and furniture (broken, both). Moved to St. Louis, thinking four things along the drive: new love, new life, hot shower, cold beer.

Five hundred miles later, I am in the shower washing off the smell of hangover and sour whipped cream from the going away shots and pie in the face provided by my co-workers. And as I apply suds to my body, so I imbibe suds into my system, a cold Budweiser on bathtub's edge beside the soap.

If you are an alcoholic or have ever known one up close, you can guess where this story goes. I could quibble with you about whether my eventual, exponential increase in alcohol intake, and my ultimate decision to quit — moderation being impossible — classifies me as alcoholic or problem drinker. It doesn't matter.

Spike and Henry

What matters in my life, what matters regarding the drinking, are three things. First: I had more, far more, than I ever should have, for far longer than I should have, but I stopped. Second: my aforementioned love (now former, because of this very thing), for whatever reasons, has had and continues to have far more than he should have. The third: only time will tell where along the drinking fence our son will choose to sit once he reaches the age his father began drinking (13) or maybe the age I began (15), or whenever it happens that temptation calls out to him at a party, in a bar, in a basement after school, in a dorm, at a wedding, in a restaurant.

It's everywhere. It's especially everywhere in St. Louis. That's what I think. Or maybe that's just who I was then, what I was doing. Drinker at height of drinking.

The house I think of, as metaphor for this town (your town? my town? Busch town?) is a house that looks quite normal, quite nice. Some sunshine and reading nooks. A good amount of space. And a locked closet down the basement. A locked closet with a tiny little lock — I could pick it with Barbie's toothpick, if Barbie came with toothpicks.

It is Pandora's bar and it comes standard with the house I remember as St. Louis.

God, I loved to drink. McLain's, CBGB's, Webster Bar and Grill, the counter at Imo's, after hours at Riddles (where I waited tables in the Loop). At the parties, in the yards, on the steps — everywhere we went we drank. That's all there was to it. Get up. Do something. Do something else. Start drinking.

I don't know if everyone in St. Louis really drinks like this. This is just the memory I have. It's like meeting one crazy Frenchman in your lifetime, at a grocery store in Indiana. And he scratches his balls constantly and talks only of green bananas. You know better, don't you, than to think that all Frenchmen must scratch their balls ceaselessly and blather on foolishly of unripe fruit. But you can't help it — somewhere the image sticks. Somehow, the message gets through: all the French must be this way.

I think of St. Louis, the house, the cliché. In my memory, everyone is drunk always, or else making preparation to get that way. I come back to visit sometimes, bring my child to see his father, whose hands tremble always, though he is only 35.

There are still the parties. One thing is missing now. This man, the one I used to go with. He stays at home and drinks. It's not a social thing anymore. It's something like that Neil Young line about the same thing that can make you live can kill you in the end. It's killing him. It's keeping him alive. He stops, his body seizes and convulses, and might just quit. He keeps going: it will quit.

We give up hope. We do not give up hope.

Now and then we point the car north, we go to visit, we hope. Maybe he'll be better. Maybe.

When I get to St. Louis, it burns me every time, like a shot of tequila on an empty early morning stomach. I am fascinated by this city. And I am mortified. I drive up Big Bend toward the Loop and I know I have driven this road drunk, blind drunk. Not once. Not by mistake. Purposefully. As a matter of course. Go to work. Get drunk. Get more drunk. Drive home. Night after night, week after week.

Every street I drive down, every friend I visit. I remember. The time we got drunk. The other time we got drunk. The time we got less drunk, but still — and we put the kid in the back seat — hey, he was in his car seat — and away we drove. (That was not an isolated event.)

I go to a party this past December and there they all are, everyone but him — he who is home alone, getting drunk. I feel odd now, among these friends and family I used to match and surpass at drinking. I stand, sober, not knowing what to do with my hands. It will be another month before I quit smoking and so at least I will have that.

We greet each other and I note that most of us have an extra layer of bloat now — is this just age, or is this the beer? And everyone, they'll head straight to the fridge, cram in their offering: no one shows up with less than 12 Anheuser cans of something.

A funny, sick, twisted feeling grabs me then. I swallow it, hold it down, the way you hold down the vomit that threatens to escape esophagus, blanket the bar, unless you shut your lips and gulp backwards as you stumble for the bathroom, pray to get your head in the toilet in time.

The feeling: I will want to beg someone to please, please, take me to a pub. A shitty place. Like Sweet P's, where I used to love to go. Where a friend once pointed to a drunken woman — I swear she was nine months pregnant and doing shots — fighting with her man at the pool table, skulls about to get cracked. "Look," said my friend, "hoosier foreplay."

(Another night, this same friend will take me out, once I'm drunk, and put me — in my mini-skirt, no underwear — atop his motorcycle. He will drive me to the middle of the city, get off, and tell the drunken me there's only one way we're getting back, and that's if I'm driving. And so I do — I learn, right there, liver fried, crotch exposed, to shift those gears and slide us back to the bar. Another round, please, to celebrate my first drive on a motorcycle!)

And at the pub I want to beg to go to, here is what I want to do. I want to remember what it feels like to get blind drunk in St. Louis. I want to sit there and order pitcher after pitcher and drink until I puke. I want to get even with the universe for taking my love from me. I want to toast the gods for letting me escape. I want to be able to drink until I fall over and then I want to get up and feel nothing the next day.

I have another soda.

When I first moved to St. Louis, I had no plan. No job lined up. No money more than the hundred I'd brought. He lived with his parents and they weren't exactly thrilled at the prospect of us setting up house under their roof. We had love and beer then. That seemed logical and more than enough.

Some friends and a sibling had a rental house they were going to move in just as soon as they fixed it up. It was a house with potential. Needed some paint. A little love.

We could stay there awhile, they said. We did. Empty house save for one mattress. A place to sit and drink. A place to sleep drunk.

It took a while for the pattern to emerge. Mornings hung-over, sometimes I could find only one red Ked. Now that was funny — had I been that drunk? I could've sworn I'd taken my shoes off together, set them side by side.

Then we noticed. Teeth marks, on the shoes.

We weren't alone in that house. There was a rat. Strong and stubborn. Relentless. Capable of splitting up a pair.

Spike Gillespie has written for magazines including Cosmopolitan, GQ, Self, Texas Monthly, Playboy, Elle, and Mademoiselle. Dubbed a cyber-celebrity by USA Today, she continues to publish frequently on-line. She lives in Austin, Texas.

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