A Reason to Smile
by Alan Kaufman
“Thank you, fucking God,” I said, as I slid to a sit on the bus station floor.
In the busy station, desperate-looking travelers rushed to gates, driven by echoing loudspeakers. Bus terminals are not like airports or train depots, which tend to draw a moneyed clientele. Greyhound is the celestial ferry of the underclass, chariot of the poor. Those who ride the dog often don’t look well. But even among these, I stood out as a sorry case. Only by the power of my newly awakened spirit and the tickled humor of my smile could I claim a place among them. For I was arisen not from the dead but from the undead, and if some might question whether I even existed at all, well, without a drink in my hand, I wasn’t so sure myself.
And yet I felt a sense of newfound freedom. Previously, I had thought my life’s purpose was to write great literature and champion causes. Now I understood: my first duty was to live. The knife was at my throat. Here was proof of life: I had tried so hard to die. And the blade was not in any other hand but mine, turned on me. So I must do anything not to drink. I had my work cut out.
I supposed that now I knew enough, had faith enough, to make it safely overland for three days aboard the bus, a fast-moving silver bullet on wheels, painted on both sides with the emblem of a dog running for its life.
I felt so relieved not to have a hangover. And though, through sober eyes, the world looked severely businesslike, frantic, joyless even, now and then inside I felt flashes of causeless happiness, cosmic winks, that brought smiles to my lips. In the meetings, I had been promised that my shaking hands would soon be still. So, here in the terminal, there was nothing to do now but sit back with shaking hands and smoke a cigarette.
An old black woman in a wrinkled dress came along, dragging a garbage bag identical to mine. Hers, filled to bursting, seemed to weigh a ton. Hauling it strained the sinews of her neck. She stopped about ten feet away, slid to a sit against my wall. Her feet were shod in Carolina work boots, untied laces trailing on the ground, and hair done up in little braids tied with colored rubber bands.
She searched the floor around her feet and, with a pleasure that I well knew from gutter days, found a smoke and lit up, inhaled, exhaled, and spoke to herself. There is a kind of conversation with yourself that is sane and another sort that is with imaginaries—hers was the latter. When she noticed me looking her way, she gazed back with the disarming impudence of a child—mad for sure, but sweetly so. Older, too, than I imagined. Must have been in her late seventies, early eighties, perhaps. What a world, I thought, to leave one like her homeless and hungry. What social order could allow this? What political system supports this? What economic theories justify this? Greed and indifference permit the old and infirm to die neglected. Being sober did not mean that I should ever make accommodation with a world that says: She is none of our affair.
And, yet, here I was too—an Ivy league grad schooler with a published book, a writer, former museum program director, fundraising wheeler-dealer, Israeli soldier—and had as little as she, maybe less. We shared the same dirty bus terminal floor.
The old woman was crazy, but so was I, with my long secret history of hearing voices, PTSD delusions, the stabbing phobia—all undocumented because I was good at hiding. But, then, for twenty-two years, in full view of myself, I’d poured down my own throat a killing substance that drove me to ever-worsening depths of madness. I had, then, no cause to pity her. We were the same. Each hanging on by our fingernails. And realizing this, the strangest thing happened. I felt a sudden sense of warmth hatch and spread through me and heard a small faint whisper of a voiceless voice say: “Just smile.” Which I did, straight back at her; and in her face appeared the warmest, prettiest beaming little girl. And there we sat, on the terminal floor, two broken children, smiling at each other.
Alan Kaufman is the author of Drunken Angel, the novel Matches, and a critically acclaimed memoir, Jew Boy. He is also an award-winning editor of several anthologies, most notably The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry. He lives in San Francisco.