He Told Me About Everything but the RiverThe Ohio. The Ohio River doesn’t look big until you get up real close, and you can see the other side, the Kentucky side, and it is far away, and the water is muddy and you realize it is very, very deep.

I’m pretty sure I could swim across if I needed to.

The Banks. When I stand on the banks, which are high up over the water either because it’s a low year or because the banks were built up after the big flood in 1937, I get nauseated. I can taste the vinegar in the coleslaw we had for lunch, and I remember the high water mark on the old pink bank in downtown Cannelton, and I can hear Able saying, “The river don’t flood no more,” and I can feel his hand on my back as he points me away from the river, and I can smell the water—not salty, but earthy and muddy and it fills my mouth with dirt and covers up the vinegar, and I feel the itchy weeds in my hands because now I’m crouched down, because the nausea from the water moving west and the high banks have overcome me.

The Disease. In 1804 Thomas Trotter wrote in the opening of his medical dissertation that “In medical language, I consider drunkenness, strictly speaking, to be a disease; produced by a remote cause, and giving birth to actions and movements in the living body, that disorder the functions of the health.”[1] It was believed to be the first time anyone asserted that alcoholism is a disease.

An Omission. Able didn’t tell me about the river. The big brown Ohio. I found it for myself. Later, when I went back there without him, to see his mama too young to have lost a son, and the Red Brick boarding house on Washington Avenue, all the people and places he talked about so much, his grandmother’s menagerie, Echo the miniature pony with her mane always in her eyes, all there just like he had told me, and the small black box he’s in too, all of them down along the river.

Breakfast of Champions. In the morning, when I was contemplating eggs and toast, tiptoeing on the linoleum, Able would watch me with shaky hands. We both wore long johns even with the radiators whistling, our defense to the Minnesota winters, standing over the gas burner, one beer and then another, warming to the idea of breakfast.

Red Cheeks. Back then, we were always drinking on the Mississippi, near the lock and dam, just below the St. Anthony Falls, stone arches hiding us from the sun. His big brown eyes, his unsteady feet, both of our cheeks red, from the wind, surely from the wind, both of us, always, for a whole year, with red cheeks, from the wind on the river. It was best to keep him close to me, so close I couldn’t see all of him, best to have the view obscured.

The Cure. The Charles B. Towns Hospital for Alcoholism and Drug Addiction, 293 Central Park West, New York, New York, was located directly across from Central Park, and specialized in addiction for over 30 years. In 1934, they took Bill Wilson in for a fourth and final stay, at which time, Dr. Towns administered his belladonna cure—a mix of the toxic nightshades Hyoscyamus niger and Atropa belladonna—and Bill Wilson had a spiritual awakening, where he was temporarily lost in ecstasy in a room filled with white light, and after which, he never drank again.[2]

The Red Brick. Back then I didn’t realize that from Able’s third floor apartment at the Red Brick, in the single room with cowboy wallpaper and dusty sheets, he could look out the window and see the Ohio— when he wasn’t out drinking in the yard, singing in the dogwood tree, playing his harmonica, tasting the muddy river rolling away at his feet.

The Book. In Susan Cheever’s biography of Bill Wilson—known as Bill or Bill W. in the AA community—she describes how his alcoholic grandfather also experienced a spiritual awaking—in the forest, on a mountain in Vermont, with the assistance of psilocybin mushrooms.[3]  Bill’s experience at Towns, and the influence of the Oxford Group, Carl Jung, a few of his old hard-drinking friends, led to the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous, the most widely known treatment of alcoholism, the basis of which stems from Bill’s recovery—a bolt of ecstatic lightning sent from God.

Bordeaux. On the edge of the water. When he was 18, Able’s uncle took him to France. He told me about drinking the French wine, loving the French people, and loving being away—far from home where it was all Bud Light and Kentucky whiskey, blue ribbons and Hot 100, plastic graduation banners and Volkswagen beetle bugs stuck in the mud.

Optics. Maybe the Ohio River really isn’t that big, maybe it just looked that big from up on the banks near the old playground because I was feeling overwhelmed missing him and all the things he used to say.

Capacity. When I was three my mother took me down a long wooded path and told me we were going to the beach. I didn’t believe her because even at four I knew beaches didn’t live in the woods. But when we came to the end of the trail and there was a beach, and a small pond, surrounded by trees.

Bear’s Place. The Eighth Step. Bear was the name of the man and the bar. Bear’s Place was next to the Red Brick and they were both rough. Able said he had to pay that man back, he had to pay back what he owed him. But when he went back Bear was dead, so he gave the money to his daughter.

Potions. He tried the pills. Nothing. Nothing. Headaches. Nothing. I’m not sure if they really work, or if some people just can’t be cured. But I worry someone is making money selling nothing for something.

On the Fence. He told me once he wandered out into the yard at the Red Brick and started peeing against the chain link fence instead of the bushes and some little old lady, probably some friend of his great-aunt Polly, wandering along, took a good look at his pee-pee-tail and shook her head and kept going.

The Flood. For twelve days in January in 1937, the Ohio River Valley saw nothing but rain. In Kentucky there were more than 18 inches over the course of those twelve days, and the flood that ensued stretched from West Virginia down to Cairo, Illinois where the Ohio meets the Mississippi, and would be, and still is, for many of the towns along the way, the worst flood on record.[4]

Conception. He told me he was conceived on the banks of the Ohio with assistance of a six pack of beer. I didn’t really believe him, but I pictured his young mother in a red and white polka dot dress anyway and decided he was always meant to be there, in the Red Brick, on the banks of the Ohio, a smart man broken, stuck in a small town, spending the afternoon lounging in a tree.

Love. He would have loved Emmanuel Macron, because President Macron is French, so very, very French, and Macron married a woman twenty-four years his senior, and he would have loved that, he would have said, “Who cares what they say? Love is strange. Fuck ‘em.”

The Old Pink Bank. His mother pointed up the hill, “See that line at the top of the old bank? The one below the third story? That’s the high water mark for the 1937 flood. The Ohio almost swallowed Cannelton right up.” His mother stood with one hand on her hip, the other pointed down Main Street. “Able’s great-aunt Polly lives over there and she said they had to gut everything. Can you picture it? This whole town underwater.”

The Other Side of the River. Just across the river from the old Red Brick and Bear’s Bar is Hancock County, one of dozens of dry counties in Kentucky. When you are standing there looking into the dense forests that line the Ohio River you will likely see the Eastern Cottonwoods that survived the 1937 flood. You might see a hardy Sycamore that held on after the water receded. But you probably won’t see the Flowering Dogwoods or the Red Oaks or the Kentucky Coffee Trees, only the trees that sprouted in their place, because trees’ tolerance for flooding differs, and though little is known about why, it is thought to be an inherited trait.[5]

Retention Policies. By 2032 we won’t use paper anymore. If he was alive then, all those notes he scribbled, all those stories he started and never finished, all those characters he never let me meet, wouldn’t be ripped to shreds, thrown out with the pizza boxes, lost to the ages. SometimesI think I’m being sentimental. Sometimes I think of all the good work lost to the bottle, and I know it’s so much more than I could ever imagine.

The Barrel. In 1934, the year after the Prohibition Act was repealed, and the year before Alcoholics Anonymous was founded, they say that Bill W. was drinking a half gallon of rotgut whiskey a day.

The Bar. He told me about Darla, with the brown hair, always behind the bar. How she didn’t like him at first. How she gave him hell. How he grew on her, she started smiling at him, heckling him, and on nights when he was somewhere between upright and crawling she would cut off him off just in time to give him a good chance of making it the half block home.

When I met her, after he was gone, she told me she missed him. She poured two small shooters of rail whiskey and passed them to a man watching cable news with his cap pulled down over his eyes. She said, “That boy never met a stranger,” and we both held our breath. The afternoon sun drenched the front of the bar with light. She shook her head. She showed me his bar stool, the pool tables, pointed at the jukebox. I wondered if she would take me back and show me the bathrooms, the black scuff marks on the plywood floor. He’d been gone for a few years, but here, I could feel the ghosts on the bar stools. No one ever really leaves a place like this.

Treatment. There were many ancient treatments for rabies—eating the brains of a rooster, applying honey as a salve to the wound, drowning puppies and then eating their little puppy livers, consuming the raw flesh of the infected animal, rubbing horse shit sprinkled with vinegar on to the gash, smearing the ashes from the burned remains of the infected animal, placing the hair of the dog that bit you into the wound.[6]

A Great Misconception. It turns out the Ohio River is really big, bigger than the Mississippi at the place where they join, and so the Ohio takes over. It’s really the Ohio that makes the Mississippi mighty, but no one gives it credit.

Ashes. If he were Jewish he wouldn’t have been cremated, the Halachah doesn’t allow for it, but he was lapsed Catholic and far from home. There is something cleansing about a fire. The ashes pure. The threat of decay robbed.

The Fire. “Nature, indeed affords several instances of spontaneous combustion in the mineral and vegetable kingdoms. The decomposition of phyrites, and the subterranean processes, which are carried on in volcanos, afford proofs of it. Coal mines may readily take fire spontaneously; and this has been found to be the case with heaps of coals deposited in close places. It is by a fermentation of this kind that dung-hills sometimes become hot, and take fire. This may also serve to explain why trusses of hay, carried home during moist weather, and piled up on each other, sometimes take fire. But, can spontaneous combustion take place in the human body?”[7] Dr. Thomas Trotter thought it was unlikely that drinking could cause a man to burst into flames. But he was only looking at the body, the body as a simple machine. He didn’t contemplate whether the mind of an alcoholic can burn up slowly from the inside like a dung-hill, whether the soul of an alcoholic can burst into flames like a truss of hay, a million tiny ashes fanned into the wind, a million tiny ashes where their heart once was.

Navigable Waters. He lived in the old Cannelton Cotton Mill for a while when he first got to town. He must have felt small next to the Romanesque towers, a speck of a thing up against the sandstone, skinny arms and skinny legs, sandy hair waving, looking down at the Ohio, wondering where it might take him, or how it might sink him.

The River. I can see the whiskey thinning the red river inside him, a rolling current, making him more fluid, loosening his tongue, his eyes, his hands, making him come undone, like the beginning of a spring flood, tearing at the banks.

Dernier Recours. He used to say, “Honey, someday you’re going to find me swingin’ from a tree.”

Muddy. I’m squatting in the weeds. I’m holding on with both hands. I’m watching the water roll by, off to the Mississippi, off to the sea. The river is talking to me, “Be careful.” The trees in the yard at the Red Brick are talking to me, “Join us.” The high water mark on the old pink bank is talking to me, she says, “Don’t look away.” Behind me is the playground with a swing set, and a merry-go-round, and a set of monkey bars—all of them a palate of bright pastel, all of them rusted—and he is hanging from the bars, small like he was when his mother used to bring him here, cheeks red from the humidity of another long Southern summer, and he’s lost his momentum and he’s holding on by one arm and he looks like he might drop, but he has the biggest smile on his face, like nothing could be more joyful than hanging there, suspended, unsure of the length of his stay, unsure of the fall.
[1] Thomas Trotter, “An essay, medical, philosophical, and chemical, on drunkenness, and its effects on the human body” London: Printed for T.N. Longman, and O. Rees (1804; 4th edition 1812)


[2] Anonymous, The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous.New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc.(2001); see also John D. McPeake, Ph.D., C.A.S. “William James, Bill Wilson, and the development of Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.)”


[3] Susan Cheever, My Name is Bill. New York: Washington Square Press (2004);

[4] National Weather Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “Historic Ohio River Flood of 1937” https://www.weather.gov/iln/1937OhioRiverFlood

[5] Mel Baughman, “Flooding Effects on Trees” University of Minnesota Extension


[6] George M. Baer, The Natural History of Rabies, 2nd Edition, CRC Press (1991)

[7] Thomas Trotter, “An essay, medical, philosophical, and chemical, on drunkenness, and its effects on the human body” London: Printed for T.N. Longman, and O. Rees (1804; 4th edition 1812)https://archive.org/stream/essaymedicalphil00trot#page/86/mode/2up


Photo used under CC.