The tribunal was to meet in an anonymous building at an anonymous address on an anonymous street in an anonymous town not far from where Eric lived. He had never been to this town and since it had no name he had never heard of it. The local bus did, however, have a route that passed nearby.
On the way there he thought of a few movies that involved bus scenes, but he was not comforted by these memories. And here he was on a bus to a place that, as far as maps were concerned, did not exist. Meanwhile the sun hung over the world, or the world was hungover under it. And despite these odd moments, there were birds and squirrels, the kinds of animals in stories that have things to do.
Meanwhile somebody was pissing in the bathroom and he could hear it. It was a shitty thing to be on a bus. There really is nothing worse than riding a bus, not even walking. He looked out the window and saw something he had seen a million times, even now that he was going somewhere he had never been before.
It was a strange thing waiting for the time to pass and watching other people pass it quite easily, drinking and then pissing and then drinking, or reading about something they would never experience, or just staring out the window exactly as he was doing but seemingly, to him at least, enjoying it in a way he never could.
If he could only remember exactly what he had said on the phone that morning. He remembered studying the stucco walls of his apartment, the blank room, without a single photograph or poster. He had been thinking that he liked his life better before. They called it magical thinking, what he used to do. But now the nightmares and daydreams had receded, leaving a coastline of aluminum cans, seaweed and dead fish. Magical thinking was better. The imagination and all its illusions. Now all he had was this blank room and time.
But he figured maybe this was a normal reaction and he’d better at least see about that before going down to the liquor store. He picked up the phone and called his sponsor. “Jim, this is Eric,” he said. “I’ve been wanting to mention â€“ ”
“Eric, don’t bother. I have to tell you: I’ve been wanting to do it for some time now but I didn’t know how. The thing is, I don’t think it’s going to work out.”
“I’m saying I’m quitting. I can’t be your sponsor. I don’t like you.”
He thought, here I am working on this thing and the son of a bitch does this. “Well that’s a little fucked.”
“It’s a matter of conscience.”
“Well I don’t think you realize it’s against the rules to do that.”
“You could report me. I admit that. But I could still change groups.”
“Well I sure the hell never expected this to happen.”
“That’s understandable. If you want to be pissed off I can’t say a word. Maybe I should hang up now.”
“Maybe you’d better. I’m getting â€“ ”
“Yeah, well, anyway, I hope â€“ ”
Later that day he called his local group. A man whose voice he didn’t recognize answered.
“I see,” he said after hearing Eric’s explanation. “Well, we’ll be contacting Jim, and then we’ll contact you, and then we’ll see. We’ll see about all of this.”
The bus door opened. It was quite a walk to the anonymous place.
The building itself was the extent of the town. It must have been a diner once, built too close to the other, actual town to attract business. He remembered a story somebody had told at a meeting about the building: “I guess I take after my daddy. My daddy drank his diner.” He only remembered the story because at the time he pictured the woman’s father picking up a restaurant and gulping it down.
She would sit on the tribunal. She had an in with her anonymous building. He remembered she had dirt blonde hair and was too skinny and always repeating that she worked as a nanny, she had responsibilities, she might kill somebody or herself if she ever went back to the way things were and that’s what kept her coming to the meetings, thank you, thank everybody.
When he opened the door, there she was, standing at the counter pouring coffee out of the largest thermos he had ever seen. Five others, all men, sat around the table. They also had thermoses of coffee and everybody was smoking cigarettes. There was a silver haze from the smoke. He noted the members of the tribunal: Shorty (arrested for exposing himself at Harry’s); Cork (three drunk driving arrests â€“ the last occurred when he smashed his car into the sheriff’s favorite 7-11); Miller (claimed he never had much of a problem, but his wife was Mormon); John (drove a screwdriver into a man’s head 10 years ago); and Abe (Abe did not speak; no one knew Abe’s story). Now they all looked at him as if he were the one about to be judged, sizing him up.
“Do I sit here or around back, out of sight?” he asked.
Shorty said, “If you’re going to call a tribunal, you have to look the accused in the eye.”
“But I didn’t call the tribunal,” he said.
“Let’s be quiet until Jim arrives,” Cork said. “We don’t want to prejudice ourselves one way or the other.”
They sat for some time. It might have been a half-hour and the only noise was the lighting of cigarettes and the clinking of thermoses. He had never been in silence with these people before. They had confessed their secrets together (except Abe), yet remained strangers.
Finally the door opened. It reminded him of a western movie the way Jim walked in, his expression stoic, the tribunal looking up, intent on conducting their business and drinking their coffee. And Jim did not flinch from looking at Eric either, but walked towards the table and took the open seat, setting his thermos down.
John began: “We have called this tribunal in the matter of Jim, Last Name Anonymous, and Eric, Last Name Anonymous, to resolve a dispute as alleged by the accuser, Eric, against the accused, Jim. Will the accuser please state the nature of the accusation?”
“I â€“ may I ask that I not be referred to as the accused?”
Cork said, “I’m afraid that’s they way business is conducted.”
“Then I â€“ I’m not exactly making an accusation. I only made the phone call to report that Jim may not be a proper sponsor, given that he abruptly resigned as my sponsor, stating only that he did not like me.”
John replied, “Then the nature of the complaint is understood, and the accused will now address that complaint to the best of his ability.”
“I regret my actions,” Jim said, “but I had no choice. I do not believe this fella is one of us. He’s not an alcoholic. I believe, in fact, that he secretly mocks us.”
“The accusation and the response are understood. Do any of the members of this tribunal have any questions for either of the gentlemen?”
“Are you an alcoholic?” the woman asked.
“I â€“ ”
“Have you hit rock bottom, son?” Miller asked.
“I’m not sure I know.”
“You’d know,” she said. “I know. I have no question. How could I have any question? If you knew, you’d have no question.”
“Then I suppose â€“ ”
“Wait a minute,” Miller said. “A man doesn’t have to know. A man could live a long time and not know what was happening to him. A very lonely man might have no other condition but his own to compare.”
“I’ve been lonely,” she said. “I’m lonely right now.”
“Young man,” Shorty said, “do you in fact mock us?”
“Oh, no, I don’t think I mock you.”
“You do a lot of thinking but you don’t seem to know very much,” Shorty said.
“All right,” John said. “I believe we’ve heard from both sides. Does either of you have anything further to add? Hearing no response, will the two gentlemen please leave the building until we have reached a decision?”
Eric held the door for Jim and they walked outside together.
“Well?” Jim asked.
“I don’t know. I didn’t ask for this. I didn’t want a decision.”
“Actions have consequences,” Jim said.
They stood silently for a while, shuffling, folding their arms, crouching, standing again, leaning. A half-hour later, John opened the door and they went back inside and sat at the table.
“We have reached a split vote of three to three, half in favor of the accused and half in favor of the accuser. By the rules of the tribunal there is no choice but that both of you be expelled from the group. I have in my hand two pamphlets, one for each of you, with a listing of all the other local groups. I would implore both of you to immediately choose a new group and resume your attendance in good faith to the principles of our larger purpose.”
On the way out, Jim said to Eric, “I wasn’t expecting that. Not at all. I thought those were my friends. I expected a little favoritism, to be honest.” Jim kept walking, not waiting for a response, and climbed into his car. When he drove by he stared at Eric, then looked away and drove between the bright yellow lines on the highway, holding the car steady and straight until it disappeared.