Finally, he said, if hard work was Rule One, then fearless honesty was One-A. The goal here was not to become friends or allies, because allies overlooked things; they equivocated. The goal, rather, was to point one another toward the truth, even if it meant hurt feelings. What they would get in return was worth the discomfort--an unambiguous assessment by their peers. Each should be prepared, then, for the occasional bruise, and to receive it in the spirit of earned wisdom.
Lathon went over some points of order (when to see him about prescriptions; the protocol for schedule changes, etc.), and capped the preliminaries with a smile. "All right, then," he said, "before we push off here, I'd like to invite Rex and Sara to move their chairs in. That way, the rest of us can use our normal voices, instead of resorting to our bullhorns."
There was a smattering of laughter; Lina winked at Peter, vindicated. Sheepishly, Rex and Sara complied, nudging their chairs into alignment with the others. Lathon's smile, welcoming them back into the group, also quietly served notice that very little was going to be lost on him. At the head of the circle, he looked around and deemed it fit, and smiled again to bring the curtain up.
"And so," he said, "who'd like to kick things off for us, by telling us who they are and what brings them here?"
A squirmy silence set in. Group members shrugged at one another and traded shivery grins, like little kids ordered, on the first day of camp, into the deep end of the pool.
This time, there was some tentative clearing of throats, though for the most part, the members seemed suddenly captivated by their own feet.
"My God," Lathon said in what remained of his drawl. "Surely, you didn't tramp through two feet of snow just to hang out and pad my bankbook."
This coaxed a couple of laughs from the group, lightening the mood by a quarter turn.
"He's right," Jack nodded. "At a hundred bucks a head, we oughta be killing each other for who goes first."
Squaring his shirt cuffs, Jack volunteered for the honors. He described himself as a fifty-nine-year-old father of four, and the grandfather of nine and counting--"We like to think of ourselves as the Jewish Kennedys," he said. He'd been married twice to Marcia, his "fourth and final wife," for a total of eighteen years now--twelve the first time and six the second, with "a couple of years off for bad behavior." All jokes aside, he felt blessed to have her; she'd been the one person who'd stood with him through the hell years.
Jack paused for a sip of the coffee he'd brought, collecting himself for the next part. "I realize I'm probably telling you about my wonderful wife to try and build up credit for myself. So you'll think, 'Hey, she's a great gal, he must be okay, too.' Except that I'm not such a great guy, or at least I wasn't for a long time, and I--"
He stopped and looked at Lathon with a plaintive face. "You know, as many times as I've done this at AA meetings, gotten up and said my spiel to a roomful of strangers . . ."
"You're doing fine," Lathon comforted. "Just take your time. If this were easy to tell, none of us would be here."
Jack nodded and eyed his cup, not greatly encouraged. "It's just that, when you're talking to other drunks, you pretty much know where you stand. Whereas here, I might come off sounding like O.J."
"Don't worry," said Lathon, laughing. "There're no saints in this room. Besides which, you drive a Town Car, not a Bronco."
"Yeah, well, not anymore," Jack said amid the laughter. "I let it go last fall. I couldn't afford to keep up the parking."
And with that said, somber but less unnerved, he got on to telling his story. He was an ex-trader on Wall Street who, in mid-career, had chucked it in to become a producer. He'd been stagestruck, he said, since the age of nine, when his mother, a former actress, took him to see The Pirates of Penzance at the old Belasco on Broadway. Once a month, they'd dress up and see a matinee together, then afterward, sit in Sardi's and have burgers and Cokes, one booth down from Danny Kaye. When Jack got older, she read lines with him for his school plays, and paid out of her own pocket for his voice and dance lessons. Jack's father, however, who worked the crime beat at the Mirror, had little or no taste for such ambitions, and come college, Jack deferred to him and studied finance. He spent the next three decades amassing wealth and ex-wives, and becoming a "full-on, shoot-the-lights-out alcoholic."
Reprinted from GROUP by Paul Solotaroff by permission of Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 1999 by Paul Solotaroff. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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