David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
I Can't Help You Anymore

January 31, 2018

When I was in college, I worked part-time for Lowe's, one of several hourly-compensated college students the company used to fill out their sales force instead of additional commissioned salesmen.  Needless to say, we were quite popular with the commissioned sales force, who encouraged us to enter their sales code for every sale we made. From such an unhealthy beginning came my friendship with Charlie.

Charlie was a married man and father of two. Charlie was probably about 8-10 years older than me, and we found we shared several common interests, most importantly, shared music tastes, Pittsburgh Pirates' baseball (this occurs at the beginning of really lean Pirate years in the 80s), and beer.  Lots of beer.

Problem is, I was a typical college student, interested in binge drinking, while Charlie was a full-fledged alcoholic.  It was a bad combination. Charlie used to send me to the near-by 7-11 to buy six packs of beer to hide in the garbage can in the men's bathroom so that he could sneak in there and pound beers all day long. I didn't know the term "functional alcoholic" at the time, but I could see the model every day.  If he was getting fully lit at work, it wasn't obvious.  Of course, he was a first-class bullshitter so who knows how often he could talk his way out of an alcohol-induced mistake.

Other times, he would hang out at my apartment and we'd play APBA baseball and drink beer after beer after beer (sometimes the drink of choice was harder, but in general I remember the beer).  Other times, I would go to his house and hang out with his delightful wife and his son and daughter (both somewhere between 5 and 10).  There we would listen to David Bowie, or Lou Reed, or Elvis Costello, and drink. On really special occasions I would go with him and  his family to the local Chinese restaurant and drink.  Are you seeing a theme?

I remember feeling like a fifth wheel with his family, like an enabler (especially when I bought the beer for the Lowe's trash can), especially because it was clear that the alcoholism was really affecting his family. Somehow in my mind, I figured I was helping keep him from getting into worse troubles, that somehow I was helping those two adorable kids to have a semi-functional father.

Needless to say, he couldn't hold it together as a husband or a father and he was kicked out of his house, eventually divorced.  That meant a lot more time at my apartment, a lot more time hanging around, especially needing money or a place to crash.  I cared deeply for Charlie, but I dreaded his presence, his need, his potential to drag me down with him. When I took him to a college party, and he later confessed that he swiped the hosts' Thompson Twins' concert tickets, I realized I had to cut my ties with him.  How was I to do that?

When I left for Bloomington in 1986 to get my Ph.D., I saw my escape. I left him no forwarding information for me.  However, sometime within 6 months he had figured out how to get a hold of me and started occasionally calling me, almost always lit, and almost always with the suggestion that he should come out and visit me. I had nightmares of him showing up and me not being able to turn him away.

But luckily I moved multiple times in Bloomington, then moved, of course, to Detroit, to places all over the midwest, and the contact ended. Eventually my nightmares ended too, but my thoughts about what happened to him never particularly disappeared.  I was also just as interested in what had happened to his wife or his children, so much so that I occasionally did Google searches on all of them.

About a year ago, I found an article online that his son had died in a car accident. If I remember he wasn't even 30.  I think the obituary barely mentioned Charlie, a sign that he probably had never found his way back into his kid's lives.

Why have I thought about all of this tonight?  For years, the one song guaranteed to make me think of Charlie was Warren Zevon's "Charlie's Medicine," a song about a man who goes to his drug dealer to get his drugs and finds that his dealer is dead: "Charlie had to take his medicine/Charlie got his prescription filled/I came to say goodbye/I'm sorry Charlie died/I came to finish paying my bill."  Pretty obvious association, especially since my Charlie thought the song was hysterical.  It is, of course, as much as songs about drug addiction and murder can be hysterical.

What hit me tonight was that thoughts about Charlie came back when I heard Aimee Mann's "I Can't Help You Anymore," a song I have never associated with Charlie or frankly any specific person for that matter. It is a fantastic song, so it's not that. I just think I first heard it--in 2005--at a period in my life where personal relationships were more set and not susceptible to the fragility of youth and our twisted ideals about who we are and what we need from people.

However, "I Can't Help You Anymore" speaks powerfully to me now about the way I have had to jettison people in my life, most notably Charlie.  At the beginning, as one senses someone may be a cancer in our lives, we put the blame on ourselves: "But I'm too close to know just what/will keep Pandora's boxes shut/And so I'll fail you badly/when you need me."  This leads to a chorus that is tinged with irony: "Cause I don't know/what I should know: that I can't help you anymore."

However, later, we learn, often painfully, that the cancer is affecting us: "I can't write this story/with a happy ending/Was I the bullet or the gun/Or just a target drawn upon/A wall that you decided/wasn't worth defending."  There the chorus is tinged with more self-criticism: "And I should know/But I don't know/That I can't help you anymore."

The song ends with the awareness that one must get out: "The ruins just go on and on/I've got to let it go now/Or, it will drag me under," leading to the unequivocal ending statement with no caveat: "I can't help you anymore."

There have been too many Charlies in my life. Some were named Steve, some were named Rick, some were named Lee, some were named Lori.  Some made the choice to disassociate with me, some had the door shut on them by me. All of them possessed something truly self-destructive. I can't help some of you anymore.

To hear either of the great songs mentioned in this blog, click below:

Charlie's Medicine

I Can't Help You Anymore