by Malaika King Albrecht
This is how people go crazy or come sane, either one feels the same at first, I think. I’m riding a buckskin horse whose name I don’t know in the middle of Reserve, New Mexico . Reserve, a town of nearly 300, is in the Gila National Forest on the Arizona/New Mexico border. I’m on an archaeology dig with the University of New Mexico, and I’ve been camping near an arroyo for two weeks. One other detail: I have 73 days clean and sober and have never felt weirder in my life.
A skinny brown dog barks at us and lunges towards the horse’s front legs. The horse pins his ears, lowers his head, and steps into the dog’s backyard. The dog trails us for a few steps but finally stops. Though the dog continues barking, no one comes out. If I see someone, I’ll ask them where the hell I am. The horse plods through scrub grass and onto another road.
How did I get here? It’s a question that has many answers and who knows which ones are true. The answer to the immediate question of this “here” is that I had been at an AA meeting earlier. Naturally, AA meetings are where a lot of weird stories end up, but this one begins there.
Having less than 90 days sober, I was eager to find a meeting. I had attended one last Saturday night just over the border in Arizona at a Catholic church. Another story. One that involves an hour time zone change in a fifteen minute drive and an alcoholic priest who relapses weekly on the communion wine. Hitching rides across state lines to get to an AA meeting may indicate dedication, but I wanted a closer meeting.
As is true with serendipity, today at the Laundromat, I had found a flyer advertising an AA/Al-Anon meeting tonight at the town hall next to the only bar in town. Certainly, a few well-intentioned drunks had decided to brave the public branding of alcoholic only to find themselves at the bar instead. We are even more so creatures of habit than the average person. Also, this being a small town, no one wants to be known as the town drunk. The irony is lost on us drunks who forget that everyone already knows who the town drunks are. We’re a bit obvious.
I caught a ride into town with three of my dig mates who were headed to the bar. Pick-axing through red clay brings on a fierce thirst. I was unconvinced that soda could quench as well as beer, but I’d give it a try. My plan was to join them after the meeting. I stepped inside the hall, hoping for a few other drunks, and saw only scattered empty tables and chairs. I felt like I’d missed the bingo game.
Because it was not yet meeting time, I sat at a table that had a stack of Grapevines, AA’s monthly magazine. Must be in the right place, I thought as I leafed through one. When I heard someone open the door, I turned to see a tall brunette about my mother’s age. She looked at me, seemed startled for a moment, and then smiled.
“Hi. I’m Ernestina. Are you here for AA or Al-Anon?” she asked. “I’m Al-Anon, “she added quickly.
“AA. Though I probably qualify for a few other 12 step programs,” I replied. Please don’t let her be a finger-waving Al-Anon, I thought, hoping for another drunk to show up.
“It’ll probably just be us. You’re the first other person ever to show up. You with the dig?” she asked. She already knew the answer. I clearly wasn’t from here.
Ernestina told me about starting the meeting in the hopes of bringing recovery to her town and really to her own home. Her husband was one of the aforementioned town drunks that everyone knows about. As she spoke, she re-organized the Grapevines.
She had two years of experience in the program and much more in life. I liked that she wasn’t a slogan slinger and enjoyed listening to her talk. She had a skillful way of asking questions, and I, an equally skillful way of dodging.
To her last question, I asked, “Hey, Ernestina, what’s the difference
between an alcoholic and an addict?”
“Is there a difference?” she rubbed a patch of dirt off her faded jeans.
“Sure. An alcoholic will steal your money, and an addict will steal your money and help you look for it.”
“That’s wrong. Funny, but wrong. You can get away with saying that one, but what if I said it?”
“True enough,” I said. The lines beside her mouth and on her forehead made me think about how our face tells on us after a while. “Here’s another one. What flashes before the eyes of the Al-Anon just before she dies?”
She looked at me, and I briefly thought about skipping the punch line. “The life of the alcoholic, and what he should have done with it.”
She laughed and then went quiet. “Ouch.” She looked at her watch. “It’s time to go. Why don’t you borrow a few of these magazines? Just bring them back next week.”
We walked outside. She frowned and shook her head at a horse tied to the side view mirror of a dented green pickup truck. The window was open and a worn pair of cowboy boots jutted out.
“Your truck? Your horse?” I asked as we walked closer. The horse waited patiently, as if this was routine.
“Yep, and my husband,” she said, picking up his hand and letting his arm drop like a heavy branch. “He’s alive.”
Don’t you mean dead drunk? I thought. He smelled like puke, piss, and tequila. “I’m sorry, Ernestina.”
“He can’t ride the horse home.” She glanced at the horse and then at me. “Do you ride?” she asked.
“Sure. I mean I used to.”
She handed me the reins and stepped inside the truck.
I said quickly, “Wait. Where do you live?”
“The horse knows the way home,” she said and backed out onto Main Street .
This is the how of how I got here. The horse hasn’t hesitated and has simply moved on as if, with or without me, he would march on, as if the horse is Time itself. I don’t even have a watch.
The inner dialogue I’m having goes something like this:
Me: Let’s sing that song “Horse with No Name.” I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name…
Me: What the hell’s wrong with you? Why did you say yes? You have no idea where you are or where the hell you’re going!
Me: There’s a lot wrong with me. Where do I start? Of course I don’t know where I am because I’ve never been here before.
Me: Jump off the horse. You can make it back to town, and the horse can plod its ass back home alone. Let’s get a beer.
Me: The horse could step on his reins and get hurt. I don’t want a drink. Great, now that song’s stuck in my head. In the desert you can remember your name…
Me: Stop singing. The sun’s setting, and you’re lost on a horse in the middle of nowhere. We shouldn’t be here.
Me: “The horse knows where it’s going,” I say out loud and suddenly laugh.
Hell, I’ve trusted worse than a horse in the middle of nowhere. This moment, is it really that bad? Above me, a single red-tailed hawk wheels in the darkening sky, which is streaked pink with a few wisps of clouds. The foothills and then the Mongollon Mountains and this endless sky make me feel small.
Maybe I need to be lost. Maybe we all need to be thrown out of our usual thoughts and patterns every now and then. That part of me that fears anything and everything and that runs a constant commentary on the state of things in my life goes silent. Maybe my place in this world is simply wherever I am.
I feel smaller than I ever have in my life, like the tiny glow worm I saw along the path to my tent. At the same time, I feel large, expansive, as if I am the sky falling into itself. I am aware of my own breathing, and the air smells like cedar and juniper. All around me cacti bloom bright yellow flowers.
I trust this horse. I trust my ability to ride. I trust this moment to lead to the next. I am wherever I am.
The horse turns uphill onto a worn path. He stops at a small wooden gate, nudges it open. At the front porch, the horse stands patiently waiting for me to dismount, and I see the green pickup truck is parked nearby.
Ernestina comes out the front door and asks, “How was your ride?”
“Good, “I say. I relax the reins and lean back on my horse, watching that lone hawk circling in this endless sky.
Bio: Malaika King Albrecht’s chapbook Lessons in Forgetting was recently published by Main Street Rag. Her poems have been published in many literary magazines and anthologies and have recently won awards at the North Carolina Poetry Council, Salem College and Press 53. She’s the founding editor of Redheaded Stepchild, an online magazine that only accepts poems that have been rejected elsewhere. A former rape crisis counselor and substance abuse counselor, she has often facilitated Poetry Therapy Groups for her clients. She lives in Pinehurst, N.C. with her family and is a therapeutic riding instructor.