The Bottle, 2007
John Thomas Wingstock sometimes calls when he passes through town. We’ve been friends since childhood, had lots of fun together. Our families vacationed together at the beach when the children were young. John Thomas—it’s always been John Thomas, never Jack or even John—was a promising architect with esteemed commissions to his name. He and Anne Elizabeth raised three good children.
Drinking is a staple of life in the world from which John Thomas and I come. It starts in prep school. Later on, it’s drinks with prospective clients at lunch, at the cocktail hour at the club or with neighbors, wine at dinner, and a glass of bourbon and a good book in the late evening.
All of this works when things are in balance, when raising a family and making a name and career keeps you on the straight and narrow. But when the passage of time leaves voids, the balance is upset. For some people, it’s when the kids leave. For John Thomas, it began with a dalliance with a female client, a woman so alluring that his male friends—and even some of his friends’ wives, at least secretly—expressed relief that they had not been tempted by her themselves. All of this Anne Elizabeth endured with the strength of her Episcopal upbringing and the knowledge that her own mother had been tested this way more than once. After that, John Thomas soothed his anxieties with drink. He resumed the company of a college fraternity brother, a prominent attorney who was also alcoholic. There were said to be other affairs. But it did not really matter since by this time the drinking had offset any good that could be accomplished by fidelity, the occasional intervention of the parish rector or even a brief stay at an exclusive sanitarium.
The marriage ended. The wives surrounded Anne Elizabeth. I would occasionally run into John Thomas at the country club, where I’m told he settles in at the bar around noon and stays until Horace the barman summons a couple of waiters to bundle him into his old Audi around nine. After too many sloppy client meetings, John Thomas’ partners had no choice but to separate him from the firm. He moved out to the beach house and took up with an alcoholic ex-wife of an ex-friend. Their life is predictably sad and destructive. Estranged from his children, from his career and from the company of honorable men, John Thomas has slipped from view.
Now I only hear from him late at night, usually from a pay phone at the airport. If my wife answers the phone, she stays on the line only long enough to hear John Thomas slur, “You know I always loved you, baby” before silently handing the phone over to me. My conversations with John Thomas are superficial, usually something about a possible commission, a promise to get together soon. But the calls are brief. John Thomas has to get on the road to the beach, and I turn over and go back to sleep.