Bad Road Ahead: the Story of Willie and Sister Fran

read the suite in order

by Don Robishaw

III. Fran Shares a Story 

My friend Willie and I walk behind the biggest fuel-storage tank I’ve seen: Black with multi-color spray-painted graffiti around the backside. It’s referred to as Tent City. 

By the light of the moon, ten women and men hunch around a flickering fire cooking fresh catfish and drinking wine. Willie squats beside them. 

I’m standing over the fire, shaking because it’s cold. Not because the girl voted most likely to succeed has any fear of public speaking, mind ya. “Have any of you ever attended an Alcoholic Anonymous meeting,” I ask? Many of them raise their hands or nod. “Please, allow me to practice my AA guest speaker story this evening.” 

Heads nod and thumbs rise. “Go ahead Fran, we’re all vets here,” says Willie.

“They call me Sister Fran. I always wanted to be a nun. Thought it was destiny since a priest I knew from Providence encouraged me. He said, ‘You’re like a daughter.’ Father John liked to hug. Daddy didn’t. Never hugged Mama either, but loved Jack Daniels Tennessee Whiskey. I’d sneak a sip as a kid.”  

Willie bursts out laughing and is joined by others. 

“Please, may I continue?” 

“By all means.”

“They assigned him to a different parish before my senior year. My real Dad died on my eighteenth birthday. Two years later, they transferred the young priest again, to the Brotherhood Convent where I was in my second year as a novice. Happy and excited to see him, I thanked Jesus for answering my prayers. Our relationship matured. 

Not every girl who entered the nunnery lost her virginity there. I never expected I’d fall in love with a man of the cloth. I was forced to resign and never saw him again. I blamed God for taking him elsewhere.”

“What happened Fran?” Willie moves away from the fire, stretches, and says something else about calling or writing. I give him the devil’s stare and continue.

“I was used to the convent’s discipline and joined the army where I mixed drinking and sex too often. I was out of control. Got a bad paper discharge. That was the moment I stopped believing in God, swapped Him for the devil, and learned he doesn’t go away that easy.

One time I attended an AA meeting in Providence. I saw my sponsor by the refreshment table. I said, ‘How ya doing Eddy?’  

‘A day at a time. Sober twenty years. You, Fran?’ 

‘Six days, but who’s counting.’ 

“I laughed, but he didn’t.” 

‘Got liver issues. What should I do Eddy? Need a few dollars for bus fare.’ 

‘Get to the clinic right away. If you have a slip or an urge to drink, call me.’ 

“He handed me his sponsor card and said, ‘I had thirty slips before this streak.’ 

“He gave me a fin. I stuffed that five-spot in my pocket and hit the streets again. Four blocks the other way, I crossed the Three Rivers Bridge, and on the left was the Dew Drop Inn Lounge. 

I’m outside the bar. Would the smell of freedom on strangers draw me inside that night? You’ve heard of the sweet smell of success. What’s the smell of not expecting much from life like? Was it that stench of beer or whiskey-laden breath? Was it the shakes, the sweat, the refusal to look a stranger in the eye the next morning in bed? Ah, the whiff of a real drinkin’ man, or woman. 

For six sober days, I longed for those moments. That evening I realized there is a bottom, and when I saw my reflection in the plate-glass window of the Dew Drop Inn it looked a lot like me. The bottle’s always here, when there’s nothing else. There’s nothing quite like it. 

I doubled back that evening to the top of the bridge, peered over the side, and closed my eyes envisioning my obituary: Girl voted most likely to succeed, found on the bottom of a muddy waterway.                                       

I blessed myself and stepped over the railing. Frigid up there on that old span. I reached out, too late, and watched my beanie fall onto a floating piece of ice. Perched there half-standing, listening to the wind blowing, holding on for dear life, and afraid to jump. I prayed, ‘Forgive me Father—.’

“My foot slipped when I wasn’t ready. I stared into the abyss, the stinging air whistling past my frozen cheeks. Time passed before my eyes, almost.

  A tugboat towing a canvas covered barge passed under the bridge. Whatever was beneath the sheet was soft enough to break my fall. Still, blood dripped from my nose. My bruised fingers grabbed a port-side cleat preventing me from going in the water. I dragged myself onto the tarp. Wet to my knees, face battered, aching back, knowing I’d be sore in the morning, I thanked God I was alive. I looked skyward for angels. 

After falling off a bridge and living to tell about it, wouldn’t anyone want a drink?” 

  “I would,” says a young woman, as she rubs her hands together over the fire. 

“Okay sister, pass me the wine.”

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