Directly across from Brethren Church was where the glowing neon sign of the Donut Hole coffee shop had been. He’d met Nathan G. in a booth at the back before his first meeting. The self-appointed sponsor had worn a French blue two-button suit with unhemmed, open bottom pants which Nathan G. wore to every AA meeting.
Joe B. even remembered what Nathan G. said. “If you’re serious about your recovery, you’ll treat this as life and death. For starters, no more jeans and a T-shirt; Only suits. Also, you need a total of three people to help you stay sober. Your higher power, which we call God at the meetings. Your sponsor, who will do the thinking for you. And you, in order to follow directions.”
Finding himself in his Mercury Mountaineer parked in the Brethren Church parking lot, Joe B. waited for the meeting to start. He checked his clothing to make sure he had on his choice of attire for an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, the same style of French blue suit that his now ex-sponsor once wore. At least, it wasn’t a T-shirt and torn jeans.
Joe B. had only found out that Nathan G. passed away through the obituary in the back of the local paper. His former sponsor had gone back on the wagon after twenty-five years of sobriety the day after his wife passed away from a heart attack. After Nathan G. stopped going to meetings and lost contact with Joe B., the once old-timer lost his life a short time later, unable to stop drinking. While the Monday night Alcoholics Anonymous meeting wrapped up, Nathan G. had died in the hospital from complications due to cirrhosis of the liver.
Joe B. took the mobile from his pocket and dialed his only sponsee, Ben H. It went right to voicemail. Or maybe Ben H. quit Alcoholics Anonymous and refused to talk to his sponsor. In either case, it slowly dawned on Joe B. that he might need to finally move on from all the sponsoring.
From his inside jacket pocket, he pulled out an old, folded Alcoholics Anonymous document - a precursor to the organization’s bible, the Big Book. More than the sum of its yellowed pages and faded ink, its worth was measured in its basic instructions which kept hundreds of members sober up over the course of many decades. Joe B. always felt that his sponsees should write an essay to know the history of Alcoholics Anonymous to reinforce their recovery, but most of them quit before Joe B. got to that point. Dave H. would only call after getting drunk. Zach M. refused to do step work. Jim T. hated going to meetings. Henry J. stole money from the collection plate.
He blamed himself for each of his relationship failures.
Joe B. stared at the main entrance to Brethren Church, three concrete steps in front of open white doors. For the first time since his first day in recovery meetings, he lacked any interest in Alcoholics Anonymous. He’d secretly harbored a grudge against AA since Nathan G. died, wondering why Nathan G. couldn’t stop. Joe B. strongly considered this to be his last meeting. Reluctantly, he opened his SUV door, slipped out of his seat and made his way to the Monday night meeting.
Joe B. entered the room. Stagnant air inside the church’s cluttered basement carried a mixture of odors - incense, mildew and a hint of urine. For the twenty-five members of the “Happy-Go-Lucky” group of Philadelphia Alcoholics Anonymous, the Monday night meeting kept them sober and saved their lives for another week.
The aroma of french roast coffee carried through the air until the members’ noses caught a whiff. A dozen day-old glazed donuts from a convenience store were opened in its thin cardboard box. Tonight’s facilitator of the meeting thumped the gavel on the desk as the signal to start, which silenced the talkative crowd. One member at a time helped themselves to coffee and donuts until the meeting began. He slumped in the chair at his usual place in the corner of the room while he waited for his only sober sponsee, Ben H. to show up.
Joe B., twenty years sober and one of the first “Happy-Go-Lucky” members, used to like this particular meeting due to speakers sharing their “war stories”. Every week, he wore a french blue two button suit with unhemmed, open bottom pants. He had worn the suit to his first meeting here on the tail end of a two-day binge. Joe B. wanted to remind himself that he still identified as an alcoholic. Now, the pain of losing his sponsor coupled with the possibility of losing his sponsee made the choice to leave Alcoholics Anonymous less difficult.
During the meeting, members of various lengths of sobriety read the twelve steps and traditions, picked up the appropriate aluminum and bronze colored chips and listened to Samantha A. share how she went from being a prostitute to a registered nurse. When Samantha A. announced her twentieth year anniversary, she received a round of applause. Joe B. covered his mouth as he yawned, a signal to the other members that he lost interest.
By the time the group stood up from their metal chairs, held hands and read the “Serenity Prayer,” Joe B. heard a meek voice behind him call his name.
He turned around, expecting Ben H. in a suit and tie but was shocked to see Ben H. in a torn T-shirt and ripped jeans. The smell of deodorant barely masked the stench of a bacteria’s feast. Still, Joe B. was even more shocked that Ben H. came back.
As the members folded the metal chairs, cleaned the table and removed the empty box and coffee pot, Joe B. stared at him. “People in recovery show up on time. Every time!”
Ben H.’s hands started to shake. “I want a drink.”
“We all want a drink. That’s why we’re here.”
Ben H. couldn’t look Joe B. in the eye. “Not like this. My wife threw divorce papers at me. I thought being sober would save my marriage.”
Joe B. and Ben H. were the only ones left in the basement. Joe B. said, “I’m sorry about what happened, but I need to get something through your thick skull. Do you think alcohol will ever fix your marital problems?”
Ben H. slowly shook his head.
Joe B. pointed his middle finger at Ben H. “Remember what I asked you.”
The sponsor pulled an old manuscript from his inside jacket pocket. “I’ve thought about this for a long time, but I’ve decided to give it to you. If you plan to drink, you have much bigger issues, and you need to leave my gift here. I want to read what I circled on page 27.”
Joe B. observed his sponsee’s reactions. Ben H.’s brown eyes opened wide. The yellowed pages had faded ink but the words were still legible. It was one thing to hear about the history of the organization from the old-timers in the meeting. The basic purpose of one drunk helping another was never forgotten. It was an entirely different thing to actually hold history in one’s hands.
Joe B. turned to page 27 and read the sentence highlighted in yellow marker. “If you are not convinced on these vital issues, you need to re-read the book to this point or else throw it away!”
He watched the tears stream down Ben H.’s eyes. Joe B. said, “I’ll wait for you outside.”
Ben H. replied, “Thank you.”
Joe B. stopped at the top of the concrete steps. He breathed in the still air, then stared directly across Ninth Avenue. The same “For Sale or Lease” sign was where the Donut Hole coffee shop had once been. He could almost hear the coffee being poured in the cup. Joe B. sat down to wait for his last surviving sponsee.
Maybe he would stay a little longer as an Alcoholics Anonymous member.