He rolled over, blinking the sleep from his eyes. It was Greer Valles’ three-month birthday, sober for 90 days, a first for the 68-year-old man in nearly four-and-a-half decades.
Gritting, he willed his aching body from the mattress and gently placed both feet on the chilly floor. Greer smiled, knowing that his sobriety had earned him the opportunity to step outside the compound of the men’s shelter for the first time since the Veteran’s Administration had found him benefits and placed him here.
Though nervous, he could hardly wait to see what the day would bring, but first he had to get showered and dressed. He knew that both were important to his program and he rather enjoyed the discipline he’d long ago left behind.
“I need to do laundry, later,” he thought as he dug through his dirty cloths hamper for a decent shirt to wear. As he did this, he also thought about the line, ‘my cleanest dirty shirt,’ from a song made popular by Johnny Cash.
That thought crashed into the memory of how it had been popular with the guys when he was in Vietnam. He was still ‘wet-behind-the-ears’ when he landed in-country and found himself at Hue City, killing people he had no ill-will towards.
That slipped into the memory of how he came to be in the mess he had found himself in the years since the war had ended. It was a memory he knew he’d be best to avoid as it would turn him sour — and today was no a day for bad moods.
“Ninety-days,” he said aloud as he looked into the eyes of the face that stared back at him from the mirror above the sink. It had been a few years since he’d actually looked at his image in a mirror and it shocked him to find that he was now an old man, gray-haired, bearded and wrinkled.
As required, the old Grunt made his way into the main hall to attend the morning’s first scheduled AA meeting. It was there, after pouring his second cup of coffee and eating another glazed doughnut, that Greer was awarded his ‘90-day chip,’ an aluminum slug that reminded him of the Marine Corps challenge coins he used to collect.
Those, like much of his life, had been lost as he proceeded to burn himself to the ground in an ever-increasing pool of hard liquor and roll-your-own cigarettes. Though he refused to think on it, his mind did play the movie of his life, from getting married to the birth of his two daughters and how he’d had a hard time holding down a job and then the day that his wife took his two prized possessions and walk out of his life for good.
He tried to stay in touch with the girls, now adults, married and with children of their own, his grand-babies, but they refused him. And often times, as he drank himself into a stupor, he came to the conclusion that the lost connection was because he hadn’t been a good father or husband when they were little.
Thumbing the coin in his hand, Greer walked to the front office and scratched his name across the paper on the clip board that would lead to a day of ‘Liberty.’ Joe, whose job it was to sign people in and out, politely reminded him, “Remember Mr. Valles, the door’s locked at 7 pm sharp and if you’re late you won’t be allowed in.”
“Got it,” Greer replied as he slipping outside and onto the front porch.
“I wonder if this is what a house-bound cat feels like?” he wondered, as if imagining he had secretly sneaked outside to chase a bird or climb a nearby tree.
For the last month he’d been working on making amends to some of the people he hurt. Greer decided that he should go see the woman who owned the little market on the corner.
He’d been arrested for stealing a bottle of 20/20 from her and that is how he came to be in the program and living in the half-way home. She didn’t recognize him when he strode through the door. It took him telling her what he had done for her to even begin to see the former drunk as he had been.
He offered her his apology and a twenty-dollar bill to make up for his theft. Smiling and happy to see the change in the older man, she told him, “No, you keep the money or put it in the offering box the next time you pass a church.”
He agreed, shaking her hand and leaving. For the first time in ages the weight of guilt, or was it shame, melted from his body and even though she hadn’t actually said she forgave him, he realized that saying sorry wasn’t as painful as he had supposed it to be.
As he continued down the sidewalk, the light-bulb came on in his head, “Church!”
He hadn’t been to church since he was first married.
Raised Catholic, Greer had been an alter-boy from shortly after his first communion through his senior year of high school. He was known as a good boy back then and was even looked up to by some the younger kids.
But that was before he enlisted in the Marines. What he had thought was something that would merely place his life on hold for a while, instead changed what life came afterwards.
He didn’t know the name of the church when he opened the door and slipped inside. Out of habit he dipped his finger-tips in the fount of Holy Water and crossed himself as if he’d never strayed from the faith.
Taking a seat in a back pew, Greer Valles listened and recognized what had once been a large part of his boyhood and he relaxed. It felt so comforting that he drifted into a half-sleep, head bobbing backwards and forwards, allowing himself to remember lengthy liturgies of his childhood.
As he dozed, he became aware of something trying to climb into his lap. Half asleep, he first though it might be a cat, but when he opened his eyes and looked down, it was a little boy, perhaps three-years old.
He looked around and saw a woman look at him. Her eyes were wide with fright from the idea of a stranger picking her son up and placing him in his lap.
She got up and crossed the aisle, “I’m so sorry, Mister,” she apologized, lipping the words.
“No problem,” Greer replied in the same form, adding “He’s fine.”
She moved in front of the old man, sitting down beside him. The three sat quietly, the little boy snuggling in Greer Valles lap.
Eventually, he felt the boy’s breathing become rhythmic and he knew the child had gone to sleep, which in turn caused the already drowsy Greer to doze off again. Before he knew it the mother was gently tapping him on the shoulder and taking the still asleep boy from his arms.
“He’s usually afraid of strangers,” she stated
“Well, I’m glad he warmed up to this stranger,” Greer smiled.
“Maybe you remind him of his grandpa,” the woman commented, “though he’s never met either one of them.”
The words stabbed Greer in the heart and to hide the pain he quipped, “Or maybe Santa Claus.”
The mother laughed as she stood and edged past Greer. She turned, looked down, smiling, “Thank you for your kindness and for giving me a break. He’s usually such a wiggle-worm and into everything.”
“Happy to help,” Greer responded as cheerfully as his breaking heart could muster.
He sat there for the next couple of minutes, feeling the sadness spread throughout his entire body. Finally, with a heaving sigh he stood up and walked out the still-open double doorway of church and as Greer Valles stood on the sidewalk that Sunday morning, he knew he wouldn’t make it back in time for curfew.
There, across the street, a bar.