Stew and Gus were discussing the forces of good and evil. The two men had been friends for years. They lived many miles apart, but they corresponded almost daily by e-mail.
Stew believed in heaven and hell, and Gus professed not to believe in anything. Gus would be the first to admit, however, that he was familiar with the dark side.
“I believe in gods, devils, demons–the whole shebang,” Stew wrote. “It’s the only thing that explains suffering. Good and Evil exist side by side, and you can’t blame Evil on God. Or use it as evidence that there is no God. He does what he can.”
“You mean God gave us the birds and popcorn, and the Devil is responsible for voice mail?” Gus wrote back.
“It’s more complicated than that,” Stew replied, “but essentially yes. I think that in the beginning God and the Devil made a pact. They divided up human affairs like the Allies divided up Germany after the war. You get this, I get that.”
Stew had the flu. His stomach was in a knot, and he had a stuffy nose. His wife had had the bug the week before. “Poor Daddy,” she said, but she was not overly sympathetic. “Take Alka-Seltzer,” she said. “That’s what helped me the most.” Stew did as he was told. He sat down at the computer and logged on. He was feeling very sorry for himself.
“The trick is knowing which is which,” Stew wrote to his friend. “Knowing what God can do and what he can’t. God looks out for drunks, for example. He can help people stop drinking. But smokers are on their own. It’s not God’s business.”
Stew logged off and forced himself through his morning chores. When he had finished feeding the cats, including a gaggle of strays that camped on their doorstep in the morning, he went out on the porch in back of his house and lit up a cigarette. Afterwards he felt better.
At eight o’clock Stew called Nix and told him that he was sick and couldn’t go on their morning walk. “I think I’m going to die,” Stew told his friend.
“Well, you probably will some day,” Nix said.
Stew went outside and smoked another cigarette. He was smoking too much, he knew. He had quit smoking six months before, but then he had started in again. He smoked for a week then quit a second time. This time he lasted a month.
Why did I ever go back to it he asked himself. He sighed. It was the devil’s doing, he opined.
Over the weekend, the remnants of a Pacific typhoon rolled into the coastal area where Stew and his wife made their home. It rained Friday and off and on again Saturday and Sunday.
Saturday morning, returning to his house shortly before noon after running an errand for his wife, Stew was intercepted by a neighbor who asked if Stew would drive him up the canyon in his truck so he could release a skunk that he had trapped in the crawlspace beneath his house. Sure, Stew said. The neighbor’s battle with the skunks had been going on for weeks. First he had released the animals in a vacant lot just down the street. Then he realized that they were doubling back and getting in again. When he decided to remove the captives to a greater distance, he first tried putting the trap into the trunk of his car. That also proved to be a bad idea. At that point Stew’s wife Paula volunteered their truck for any future catch and release operations.
Stew drove up the canyon road for several miles, and then guided the vehicle onto a forest access road. He drove to the gate and stopped. His neighbor released the skunk, and the disheveled animal scrambled to freedom up the steep side of a grassy cut.
The neighbor returned to the truck, opened the door on the passenger side, and got in. “Phew! He got you, huh?” Stew said.
The man sighed. He looked tired and discouraged. The neighbor and his wife were immigrants. He was from Jordan, and his wife was from South Africa. They weren’t used to the rigors of American suburban life.
When they got back to the house, Stew told his new friend that he would give him the name of a handyman who could find and fix the broken vent that was giving the animals access. It was probably under the deck, Stew said.
Stew’s friend Gus had been complaining about his insomnia and depression. Stew told him to see a doctor.
That evening there was a message from Gus in Stew’s online mailbox. Gus said that he was going to talk to his doctor about treating insomnia. His doctor thought his depression was causing the insomnia, Gus said, but he thought she was wrong. Treating the depression didn’t help him sleep, he said. Sleep cured the depression, however. “A good night’s sleep puts the demons to bed,” Gus said.
Stew replied that he thought Gus’s doctor might be right. “You’ve always been a gloomy sort,” he said. “Maybe it’s brain chemistry. Maybe it’s a matter of perception. Some people see life as a comedy, and some people see it as a tragedy.”
Sunday was a busy day. Stew and Nix went for a walk in the morning. At noon Stew helped his neighbor relocate another skunk. After lunch he spent an hour at the animal shelter looking through the lost cat listings, seeing if he could match any of the entries to a part-Siamese visitor that had begun appearing on their back fence each morning and evening, looking for a handout. Stew kept an eye on the football game, too.
On their walk, Nix and Stew debated the usefulness of pain in the sobering up process. Nix, an A.A. old-timer, said it was essential; Stew said it was worthless. “We don’t remember pain, “Stew insisted. “Events, faces, scraps of conversation, trivial bits of information–we may recall these things years later. But feelings, no. When we don’t hurt anymore, we forget about it.” Pain couldn’t hold a candle to fear as a motivator, Stew said.
Nix disagreed. “Fear doesn’t keep you sober,” he scoffed.
“Yes, it does,” Stew replied. “People get sober because they have to, because they know if they don’t they’re going to die. That’s why A.A. doesn’t work with other addictions, with smoking, for example, or over-eating. There isn’t the same urgency.”
They walked in silence for a time, and then Nix, who liked to get in the last word, said, “I still say pain is necessary, in early sobriety anyway. It’s the memory of the pain of withdrawal that keeps the newly sober alcoholic from picking up another drink.”
Stew woke up Monday morning with a song in his heart. His wife was in the shower, and Stew stood in the doorway of her bathroom singing Happy Birthday to himself. It was his birthday. He was sixty-eight years old.
Mother Nature hadn’t greeted the occasion with a smile. When Stew got up at 5 A.M., the rain was pouring down. The floor of the porch in back of the house was slick with water. Stew had patched the roof the previous week, but it was apparent that he had missed some holes.
Stew booted up his computer and logged onto AOL. There was a message from Gus in his mailbox. Among other things, there was a question. Gus wanted to know if Stew and Paula were smoking.
“I’m not, she is,” Stew wrote back. He didn’t elaborate. Stew wasn’t fibbing. He had quit again the previous Wednesday. Tuesday he had felt so bad that he had moved up his quit day from the weekend, which he had previously planned. Miraculously, quitting was painless this time. Stew thought about smoking from time to time in the days that followed, but he didn’t have cravings. He had tried a new approach, which was to keep it simple and put aside the struggle. Previously his head had been filled with information from a stop smoking class that he had taken. He had made lists of reminders and posted notes to himself. He had made quitting a major chore. This time he decided to simply stop fighting, to just quit and see what happened.
He did just one thing in preparation this time. He vowed to reward himself for not smoking. He remembered the advice to be good to yourself from the smoking class and from the time more than a decade ago when he had stopped drinking.
Stew watched with a bemused interest as the day unfolded around him. After breakfast, he pitched into his morning chores. He emptied the garbage and cleaned the cats’ litter boxes. He put a load of clothes in the washing machine and ran the dishwasher. He thought about having a cigarette, but he put the thought aside.
Before lunch, Stew sent an e-mail to every friend and relative in his address book berating them for not sending him a card for his birthday. That afternoon, the replies began to trickle in.
By the time his wife came home from work, Stew had collected a stack of e-mails from kinfolk and friends. A college roommate said it was four days until his own birthday, and he didn’t want to be reminded of it. A cousin in Florida said that she had sat down at the computer hours ago intending to send him condolences, but she forgot about it. A Minnesota friend said she didn’t send him a card because she thought his birthday was the next day. “You’ll get your happy birthday then,” she said.
Stew built a fire in the fireplace, and Paula magically produced a shopping bag full of gifts and cards. One by one he opened his presents. There was a book by one of his favorite authors, a tiny flashlight, a warm jacket, and a new cell phone. Of the cards, his favorite was a Larson cartoon of an elderly man in a cape standing on a windowsill and saying to his wife, “Dang! Now where was I going?” The caption read: Superman in his later years.