On July 22, 2013, eleven days after Eric and I go to San Leandro to check on him, Johnny calls me in the morning at the time I would normally be leaving for my busking shift: I decide to talk with him and take a later bus. When I ask him how he is, he characterizes his life as “moment-to-moment survival.” He says he is watching T.V. around the clock to keep his pain away, filling his waking hours with cowboy and crime films.

Johnny cries often during our conversation. He says he feels bad that he has let people down.

“Johnny, lots of people love you and care about you, even when they are pissed at you. People are meditating and praying for you.”

“Thank you for saying that.”

He bursts into tears again.

“I miss David,” he says. “David always knew what to say to me.”

His brother David died in February.

“Maybe you could repeat to yourself some of the things David used to say.”

“It’s not the same,” he says.

“No. It isn’t.”

Johnny says he is talking to his friend and former therapist Deborah. He says he can’t afford to get other help. I do not confront Johnny on this point, but I know it is not true: what Johnny can’t afford to do is use the money from David’s estate to fund all of the projects he would like to fund and also hire a therapist. Besides, a good therapist might confront his drinking or require him to make agreements about it.

In the mean time, Johnny is taking a few actions. He has made the effort to call me. He tells me he plans to call his brother Peter later in the day, calling it “one of my projects.”

“I’ve been in touch with Peter,” I tell him.

“Good,” he says.

“I’ve been in touch with a few other people.”

“Good,” he says again.

“Honey, are you playing your guitar?”

“No. I haven’t touched a guitar since Les’s memorial. I’ve lost all my callouses.”

Guitar players build up callouses on the fingertips of each hand from repeatedly pressing their fingertips to metal strings, holding the strings down on wooden fretboards. The callouses extend both over and under the surface of the skin. If you stop playing for a few weeks you lose your callouses and your fingers become those of a tender beginner: it hurts to play. The only remedy is to play frequently for short but increasing periods of time until you develop calloused tissue again. Johnny has not played for more than five weeks.

Johnny normally keeps his guitars on stands within easy reach in his office or living room, amplifiers adjacent. All he has to do to begin playing is pick up a guitar, plug in a cord and flip a switch. He tells me that his guitars are still in their cases.

Johnny is punishing himself big time. Music is his chief solace, joy and inspiration.

“I dream about music though. Wild dreams.”

“Your unconscious is giving you music. It’s such a big part of your life.”

“You know, Johnny, when I have stopped playing I make it a practice to take my guitar out of its case. I don’t have to play it, I just have to get it out. Maybe you could take a tiny step, like just listening to music for a few minutes, or putting a guitar on a stand.”

I don’t remember if he replies to my suggestion.

I think now, in 2022, that perhaps Johnny was protecting his guitars from the effects of his drinking (he wouldn’t want to knock one over as he stumbled through the living room) as well as avoiding the pain that playing music might unleash: music often opens us to our emotions.

I asked Johnny if there was anything I could do for him. He asked me to call sometimes. He said it helped to get calls, even if he did not pick up the phone. He thanked me for my call about Bob Chrisman’s death and for coming out to see him earlier in the month.

For the most part our conversation is devoid of anger and defensiveness. Johnny even laughs at one point.

“There’s that laugh,” I say.

He does tell me, however, that the difficulties we were having in June (our differences of opinion over particular pieces of music) contributed to his slide into depression. Note the subtle placement of blame and the omission of the role of his favorite depressant drug.

Before I went off to work I told Johnny I loved him and he said he loved me and cared about me. We ended the phone call with our characteristic sign off:

“Love you.”

“Love you.”

I feel relieved and grateful to know that Johnny is alive, happy to hear his voice on the telephone. Later I email his brother Peter to say that we had spoken and I speak to Patrick and Eric about our call.

* * *

That evening I call Johnny to say good night as I used to do. I do not reach him directly, but he calls me back about half an hour after I phone him. He tells me he called Peter and that it a wasn’t warm and fuzzy experience. He breaks off his conversation with me because he wants to check in with his friend Deborah, but says he wants to talk with me again tomorrow.

I am not raising issues with Johnny when I talk with him, but focusing on listening to what he says and giving him support and encouragement when I can. I guess I have learned a thing or two from all of those Al-Anon meetings after all.

Before I go to bed that night I am thinking about what to say when Johnny and I have our next “O.R. talk” (Johnny-speak for “our relationship”). I do not know yet when that talk will be: it depends on when he reduces his drinking and can leave his house. I envision us talking in person.

The next day Johnny doesn’t call and I am back on the roller coaster again, worrying about him. The day after that he calls in the afternoon in a panic. He says his phone battery is low and his charger isn’t working and he is afraid he will be cut off from the phone calls that are his current lifeline.

“What do you want me to do, Johnny?” I ask.

“Could you call a few people and ask if they can help me get a charger?”

“Okay.”

Before I make the calls I check in with my brother, who is in recovery from his own addiction. He tells me I am “enabling” Johnny, that Johnny needs to deal with his own problem, get his own charger. But I have promised Johnny I will call some people, so I do.

I call Johnny’s old faithful friends Eric and Patrick. I leave a message for one. The other is en route to a dentist appointment.

I call Johnny back to tell him I have been unable to secure help for him.

“Maybe I could call a cab, go to the AT&T store and get a new charger.”

“That sounds like a good plan, honey.”

I go off to my afternoon busking shift. By the time I get home Johnny has left me a message telling me he has gotten a new phone charger and that I can call him “anytime.”

When I call him later that afternoon, Johnny answers. “How was your shift?,” he asks, as he used to ask every day.

I give him a rundown of the latest day in the busking trade. Then I tell him I am looking at renting a room in the Kensington Community Center to teach writing practice classes.

Johnny responds by giving me unasked-for advice on how I could advertise my writing classes more effectively. Although this breaks our ancient rule of not telling each other what to do, I listen carefully, and let him know he has a couple of valid points. I do not, however, commit to doing anything he suggests — I merely avoid getting into a fight about advice-giving or the particulars of his suggestions.

Johnny signs off, saying he has to go, but he will call me later. I tell him I am home for the afternoon and evening and he is welcome to call when he likes.

After we hang up I reflect that I do not know what normal behavior is and I do not know how I am going to find out what normal behavior is. Am I going to learn it at Al-Anon meetings? I hadn’t known how to respond appropriately to Johnny’s phone charger crisis or to his drinking and depression. I want to be a good girlfriend, a loving and supportive partner, and I do not know what “the rules” are. Johnny’s drinking and isolating are far outside the norms of conventional behavior, far outside Johnny’s former functioning, although his ability to acquire the phone charger, to make and answer phone calls and to take some interest in what I am doing signals an upswing.