Chump Change: A Novel - By Dan Fante


MY NAME IS BRUNO DANTE AND WHAT I’M WRITING ABOUT here is what happened. On December 4th, the St. Joseph of Cupertino Hospital alcohol and nut ward in the Bronx, on Mosholu Parkway, let me go. Released me, again. Each time I took their 28-day cure I found out how much their in-patient charges went up. This last time, I stabbed myself in a blackout and they almost wouldn’t accept me as a patient. This last time was the worst, because all that I could remember seeing when I came around was the blood gushing out of my stomach onto my clothes.

My first recovery at St. Joe’s was paid for by my wife Agnes’s insurance from her job. It worked okay. Then two years went by, with some shrink work, and it happened again—a ten-day drunk and another suicide attempt. Booze and coke. By the second stay, the cost had increased from eighty-five hundred dollars to twelve thousand dollars, and that time the fee came out of our pocket—thought we still had money in the bank then. I stopped the shrink because I was still drinking and not getting any better. With this cure, the third, I was a charity case. It would have cost twenty-five K.

When I drink for too many days in a row, especially wine, I think too much and my mind wants to kill me. This last time, in a county shithole, my bed was bolted to the floor and I was strapped to it. Normal people don’t get locked up in detox. And the average person won’t end up with a knife is his stomach tomorrow morning. But I have these consciousness lapses, and more and more in those lapses, I do behavior that I can’t remember. They’re blackouts. I know what they are. Then Agnes had me transferred to St. Joe’s.

My behavior is often extreme and destructive and happens because I am unable to tolerate myself when I’m sober—after I remember or find out what I’ve done on a binge. So I drink again to fix that. Like I said, mostly wine because regular alcohol stopped getting me off quite a while ago. I only drink regular booze to maintain. The last year or so it’s only the wine that gets me to the other side.

This time, wine and sex set off the insanity which led to the suicide attempt. I’m not a homosexual, but I was out of control, blasted on Mad Dog 20-20 in a porno movie on Fourteenth Street. I allowed two guys to watch while I fucked this other guy. They were jerking each other off. Stuff like that. I was in and out of consciousness but I remember most of what took place. I don’t know why I did it, except that I must have wanted to. That night I used the steak knife on myself.

The cures have no lasting effect. They’ll help for a while. I’ll stay away from wine for weeks or months and just drink booze, but then something will happen in my head and I’ll be off again.

What I want to say here is that there is a place beyond control and beyond concern that people can go, where the values and the needs of everyday life change completely. Where what matters is moment-to-moment survival to avoid mind pain.

Delbert was in the nut house with me. I’ll tell about him here. We were roommates there for three weeks. He’s a guy from Lubbock, Texas who ended up in Accounts Payable in a Wall Street company. He has this family with 2.1 kids and a wife that cooks dinner. How it happens in specific detail is not important, but Delbert comes home every day and goes to work like he is supposed to, and he does this for ten years or so. He is unhappy with problems like everybody gets, so he drinks at lunch sometimes and then goes home and sits in front of the TV at night and drinks some more. On weekends he drinks too. But it stayed under control for many years. Delbert is like everybody else. He is no different. He is a working guy. A family man. One day, he notices that he needs to drink in the morning just to keep his nerves steady. He doesn’t want the lady at the ticket booth in the Long Island Railroad to see him shake when he buys his ticket, or the secretaries at the office to notice he has a problem when