Dear red-headed lady: Thank you for not asking why I was crying.
Dear red-headed lady outside the bar: If I told you I never cried, I’d be lying. Something I’m trying to grow out of.
Dear red-headed lady who offered to share your umbrella when it started to rain: Sometimes I cry on Monday when the six of us and Karen sit in a Sunday school room in the basement of a church smelling of furniture polish and urine. We sit in a circle and drink bitter coffee, tell stories that scald the tongue.
We do this every Monday before the old, bad habits we may have skidded toward during the weekend can take hold.
Dear red-headed lady whose hair smelled of smoke and roses: Eunice my bus driver blames her husband’s cancer on the cigars he smoked during Thursday night poker games with the guys from the line at Kodak. The Lord is your shepherd, I tell her. The walls at group are full up with him, stick figures watching over glued-on blobs of cotton that I believe to be sheep. The Lord is my shepherd, block letters in orange crayon. His wayward flock.
Dear red-headed umbrella lady who gave me a cigarette and a pack of matches when your lighter wouldn’t light: I didn’t cry this morning, but Denise did when Karen made us share what we’re thankful for. I’m alive, Denise said, and started to cry. Denise, who used to make a living with her fists. You can see it in the way she sits, like she’s waiting for the bell to signal the next round. How she glares at the floor like it’s going to rise up and slap her upside the head.
Denise, who never cries.
When the circle got around to me, I said I’m glad I don’t have cancer, and someone—I think it was Susan—said amen.
Dear lady of the cigarette smoke, umbrella of roses: There are days I wish I had cancer, too, something fatal and final so I could give myself up to the leaving instead of what Karen calls the business of living.
I’m bankrupt. I’m alive.
Dear lady who I hope doesn’t have the cancer you get from red hair dye: My name is Ada and I’m an alcoholic.
Dear kind lady, dear you whose name I wish I knew: Why didn’t I go with you, step under the spokes of your umbrella and walk the block or so to the bus stop? Next Monday I’ll tell the group that I did. Karen says we live in the almost but if we can stay on the side of the street where the sun shines, we’ll be okay.
I’ll say almost and they’ll clap for me. I will say I almost walked past you into the bar.
Dear lady who looks like a Patti or a Sandi: She was wearing pajamas printed all over in calico cats wearing fuzzy pink slippers. There were white lights threaded through the trees outside of the bar where I parked. She was sleeping in her booster seat, but I said to wait here, honey, mommy’ll be right back, the way I always did. One or two was all, enough to quench my thirst.
Dear Patti or Sandi: What I am is a liar. I will tell you that I had two drinks when I had five. I will say they were weak drinks when they were double shots. I will sit in that circle on Monday and tell the story about how I dream that I’m riding a bus with my daughter. Karen will say that to dream her alive again is a good thing, a hopeful thing. Hope is the thing with feathers, she likes to say.
Hope should perch in our soul and sing to us.