Max Online: 418 @ 07/02/12 07:29 AM
#390232 - 03/22/12 01:17 PM
Loc: American South
After traveling by bus from the mountains into Wilton low country, I pack the apartment into a ninety-nine-dollar-a-month storage room.
Adele's "Someone Like You" regularly plays on the airwaves.
The rain stops each time I am to load or unload the truck and pours whenever I drive the truck to and from the storage room.
“I AM from Russia,” the woman spouts loudly to no one and to everyone as the bus navigates interstate traffic. “I DO have a passport. I DID come through proper channels. You MUST carry your passport at all TIMES. If you are a COMMUNIST, you MUST leave this COUNTRY.”
Other passengers laugh at her. There is a familiar fear in her eyes, as if she knows she is terribly confused.
Rustic's mountain-nestled buildings look two and three stories from the front, five and six stories from the back. According to a plaque near the door it was built in the nineteen-thirties as a mission. There are towering trees everywhere, crowding the curving gravel paths slanted throughout sharply-steeped foothills. Acoustic guitar notes drift in and out from all directions. The halls and stairways are all concrete and metal, the wind constantly whirling and brushing against vast window panes.
Outside on a large, pink-tiled patio, I win at ping-pong, getting better and better to the point I beat J___, a middle-aged, wise-eyed Latino who is one of the best. B___, who looks like Justin Bieber's scruffier, taller, older brother, plays me the most.
“He's good man,” B__ says to his main friend, R__, a quiet, scowl-faced poser, as we play and joke around.
Many residents have tattoos all over their arms and some even wear bandanas on their heads as if they've just stepped up from the galleys below.
“Someone finally beat you at something?” says T__, a curly-long-haired, burned-out pot head, from the nearby bench.
B__ smiles and looks at R__ who doesn't smile.
“In my last rehab there were so many people in their forties and fifties who couldn't read or tell time,” B__ tells me later in the smoking area. “They'd keep asking you what time it was. I'd tell them to look at their f-cking watch. Then they're like, will you read it for me. I'm like why didn't you choose a digital?”
“I love you,” Mr. November says to another client. “More than you love yourself.”
He is of large frame, healthy, middle-aged weight, and chocolate skin. He speaks with a rich, deep-and-rolling voice. He is the weekend house manager, working forty hours manning the office where medications and money are locked up and kept track of. He regularly calls me Sir and Young Buck, kidding me about my youth. Apparently many, if not all, staff are graduates of the program. It takes a full year to be up for graduation, not to mention having your twelve steps accomplished and acquiring a sponsor.
“I have been clean twelve years,” he says. “But I'm still an addict.”
There are gray rains, then sleet, then, in the afternoon, snow.
They treat me like I am more than who I am.
I am tired of being counted on to do the right thing. Tired of being used. Later I find I do stand out: I look overly clean.
The backside of others' heads, a certain line of the shoulders, I keep thinking I see Royal.
(house meeting, 1730)
“Some of you come from money and education,” says Mr. November, looking at me as he paces down the main aisle of the chow hall. “YOUR PROGRAM – didn't work.”
“SOME OF YOU – are too lazy to love yourselves,” he bellows, then begins beating his chest. “YOU WANT SOMEONE ELSE – to do it for you.”
“Women are a drug,” he says toward the end of the lecture. “Keep thinking you know more than them. They'll F you up worse than any substance. STAY AWAY – from the female buildings.”
Following the rules, I wait until 2130 before going to the laundry and hygiene office though it means I go all day without toilet paper. I also need another blanket and am surprised when the office is bolted at 2130. I mention it to a roommate of mine. “W___ is there, playing cards,” D___ says in his young voice out of his prematurely wrinkled face. “I'll mention you to him.”
I finish washing dishes and return, as D___ instructed, stepping into the hallway to witness drama between W___, November, and a young, Caucasian cat with a thin, muscular frame and a face my age. I step away, leaning against the wall at the far end of the hallway.
“Now, you're the boss,” W___, a grayed African American is saying in a half whine, half angry pitch.
“Okay,” Mr. November says low and smooth and almost friendly as he walks away toward my end of the hallway. “You said I was the boss, now do as I say.” He passes by me, exiting the hall and stepping past me into the chow hall.
Mr W___ hands a roll of paper and a blanket to the young cat, whom I've never met before. With a clever smile he promptly hands both to me, then exits.
“... I think rehab is for feeling better thoughts,” my roommate is saying to me.
“I don't know why I bought it,” another roommate, P___, says to his friend. “Figure I can get a pack of cigarettes for it.”
“Yeah,” the friend says, standing in our doorway. “I'll put it on the market for you. Give me a couple of days.”
P___ is a thirty-year-old, guitar playing, “Career criminal,” he says. “I haven't met anyone here yet with a worse rap sheet than mine.”
I've got a few packs of Marlboros and am in need of a pair of shower shoes and work boots. I try to work it into the conversation as he remorsefully tells me his fear that he may already be institutionalized into a natural born hustler.
“Hustlers go about things backwards,” I tell him. I don't tell him the rest, too personal, how each has a way of acting grown, even to the point of being a tough guy, hiding their void, the child in them that feels like pain and demands medicine. Hustlers are a graduated form of Liar – hustlers never actually lie. Hustlers are survivalists, getting what they need or want regardless of rules or dignity because they are not allowed a sense of either, only survival, functionality.
The young cat is actually named Bay Jack.
“... farther north you go,” he says. “More it's about money. More money, shorter sentence. More money, nicer facility ...”
He likes me but I know it is because when I am among civilian men, I incidentally rank higher, their standards of manhood being lower, arbitrary, and too detailed to attain.
He reminds me of Adam, his limbs always snatching like snake bites, moving about.
“Some people go to the meetings because they can't make friends,” he says as he walks away from me in the smoker's gazebo. “Never taken a drink in their life.”
“I've spent my whole life fighting for my life,” says an old man. “It never occurred to me that who I am and my life might have defects. I mean why not try harder, why not try to be a better person, you know. Why not move on.”
Some groups are held at local churches, called 'outside groups,' in accordance with Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous programs. Most churches so far have been of old-fashioned, mission-style architecture, built into nooks and ridges of the mountains. The tallest peaks are regularly hidden by fog and clouds like Sicily's volcano raging with Typhon trapped underneath it by the Sky. At this one, Bromsden arrives. He looks good, his skin tan against his gray, boyish haircut. He wears civies instead of the VA's color-coded pajamas.
“It’s like zoning in on any subject, heritage, mathematical concept, language,” a young kid is saying. “But this one’s rehab because this one will kill you. I feel like the secret to listening to them is to understand that they are the alive ones left behind.”
I wait for him to scan the room, then lift two fingers in a peace sign. He finally sees me and smiles broadly, his old-soul eyes in squints.
“You have to understand,” C__ says of I___, a vet, who complains all the time. C__'s a veteran who sleeps in my room. He looks middle-aged because of his belly, hair style, and goatee, but is actually thirty. “That old man's set in his ways. He's not going to change. 'Can't let him get to you.”
“I'm not set.”
“And how much alcohol would you consume on an average weekday?” she asks during my first appointment with the VA's mental health facility. “And how much sleep would you get on a weekday?” The appointment consists of her typing my answers into a computer. “And how many pills would it take for you to catch up on sleep on the weekend?”
I give my answers low and soft as if I were helping her with her work.
She considers me mentally sound and stable. She puts in orders to refill my prescriptions and gives me an appointment for next month.
“Let's go around the room and say what we are most grateful for,” says the anger management group leader and veteran liaison, Mr. E___.
In each in-house group there is a sharp contrast between the seemingly-silly level of friendliness from the counselor and the deep, serious questions he or she asks. Many guys do not balance the contrast and give silly, overly-friendly answers, caught up in the counselor's over-the-top joviality.
“My brother,” I say, giving no further explanation, adamant that I will always answer truthfully, even if the others did answer: sobriety.
“Rice, beans, and bologna, dude,” G___, our resident smart-aleck comedian, says to me from where he sits at the corner of our table. “That's what's on your tray at least once a day in County jail – and then at least once a week, they serve you rice, beans, and bologna mixed together! Seriously, dude.”
They've had trouble giving me my midday meds because I'm always at one group or another. In flesh I have low self-esteem from the haunting of God's Country, while in spirit, no such thing. On meds, my self-esteem is effortless. It's like changing identities, back and forth – not a way to live.
I do not know why my flesh does not feel that on its own – that confidence … maybe because it's a story I told myself since birth. That once I get out of here, I 'll do this or that, and everybody will agree. Maybe that's the kid I need to be.
I remember as a boy, understanding my body as fine and fresh and enjoyable to the point I noticed cuts and bruises and burns with fascination, especially the lack of scarring. It quickly became something dangerous, to be done away with cruel efficiency. Some guys, like B__, show up here knowing they are good looking, others couldn't possibly know they are good looking, and play differently. I am treated as if I am good looking but do not act accordingly. Homosexuality was suspected but I must have somehow disapproved it somewhere along the way.
Apparently, acceptance is the first rule. It is a physical sensation, bringing me into the present moment, a moment blocked or troubled by mental or spiritual upheavals and erroneous assumptions picked up like bad habits along the way.
“In prison we were fed breakfast at 4 am,” C__ says as we eat. “Lunch at 1030, and dinner at 4 pm.”
H__, our roommate, laughs knowingly. H__ has the perfect Southern accent. It makes him sound intelligent instead of dumb, pure instead of hick.
“Wasn't long before I kept doing the double down,” C__ says. “You know, where he gives you food from his cell and when your package comes in, you got to give him double.”
On Thursday nights is the house-accountability meeting, where all write-ups are addressed openly, with two head honchos as M.C.'s.
“The rules are strict,” the shorter one says. “This place can be seen as an asylum run by the inmates. It won't work any other way.”
I run into Willahford, who has just entered the program. I am regretful that he has ruined his life, lost his job as a cop, and become estranged from his wife, who lives one driveway down. The place I’ve shifted to is nighttime always in a dark and shady world made up of a few driveways, streetlights, front doors, and rooms from the house in God's Country.
He keeps on with his upbeat attitude, his quick-to-grin expression, and lively storytelling. “You remember me,” he is saying. “I got this.”
This group meeting is focused on sexual assault of males and how that can tie in so well with drug abuse. A college-age girl is the guest counselor, sitting across from Mr. O___, head counselor, in the circle. She's beautiful, the most beautiful girl seen around here yet, even if her eyes and eyebrows seem a little too close together. “Whore’s play to pride,” she says at some point in answer to another addict. “That’s why the humble ones are getting the good ones.” She works for a local organization focused on the sexual trauma of males. At the beginning of the meeting she passes out stapled sets of papers.
Mr. O___ and the girl give long speeches, including going over a list of fifty-four coping mechanisms. They want each of us to pick one we've never used before and tell the group. There are none I haven't employed thoroughly.
X___ keeps looking at me from across the circle, trying to catch my gaze and hold it. U___, sitting beside me, nudges me. “I can tell your wheels are turning,” he whispers while turning his right pointing finger in a circle beside his skull.
“And what are some upswings to avoidance,” she asks the group.
“An excuse to drink,” V___ , a drummer in his thirties, answers.
“Don't have to deal with it,” an aged veteran says.
”Functionality,” I offer.
“Yeah, but it will still catch up with you,” V___ interjects.
“Older, wiser.” The only three words I say during group.
Afterward, I eat lunch with S___, a clean-cut suburban-looking marijuana grower my age and one of my closest friends. We are similar in size so we borrow each others' clothes and gloves. He's on a sick day so he hasn't been in group. While in group, I held my own well enough; now I feel like that boy-I-was, shamefully young inside a twenty-nine year old body, still stuck in that fog-of-devastation, an introvert pretending his extrovert skills to get by, slowly turning into someone else without success.
That afternoon, there is a nudge to my shoulder as I stand in the midst of the clients confirming accountability after a fire alarm sounds mistakenly: Bromsden. We shake hands in four different ways, grinning because I don't know them all the way.
“Is it good here?” he asks in his usual, big-breathed way.
“Food good. Us vets have it made after ninety. Til then you got to make your own way.”
He continues doing his scanning under biker-shades.
Wednesday, before being dropped off at the VA, I am given two bus tickets and instructions concerning transfers so as to arrive for an appointment with a therapist. Each trip one-way takes hours. Turns out, the city has many large areas where mountains are not visible, just impressive, San Francisco-like hills. It is the small towns surrounding the city that enjoy the spectacular views three-sixty. Meanwhile there is plenty of water moving, making noise, even the wide creeks and reservoirs pulse with wild, impulsive mini-currents battling. At one point the bus makes its rounds through the university. A uniquely-ugly woman boards with a doughy, slow-looking man of similar age. She has an expression on her face like she might be slow or afflicted, her eyes wide, her mouth gaping slightly, then pursed at times. She is maybe forty, with dark, tanned skin, of short stature and healthy weight held up with her shoulders slightly hunched forward. She has a resigned, fearless expression, her eyes innocent, but experienced with age, her disposition is of one steadily moving forward. As she exits, her expression tackles every obstacle, including the difficult steps down off the bus. She exits the bus behind her companion, then grabs his hand, walks away, never pausing.
At the therapist's, I tell her. "I think I attract the people I need. I'm a hustler." I don't test how she falls into this web, I don't want to scare her with the surprise that the sexual-abuse-victim might be stronger than her. “I respect and understand my mother the same way I respect and understand love. And I respect and understand my father the same way I respect and understand truth.”
On my mind are the years of learning to forcibly subdue myself, my sexuality, and my sudden, effeminate movements, like betrayals by my flesh. It did not stem from my being abnormal, it had a violence to it, a necessity.
"I don't think you're supposed to attract like that," I say.
“You understand that you're a guy and always have been,” says the psychologist, her spunky, educated personality lending to her short hair and athletic, thirty-something build. “The body knows to protect itself. Who was your flesh trying not to attract?” she asks.
I do not answer.
“Grace has all the classic signs. You mistake these behaviors for her personality.”
She exhales, like she's deciding to reword something. “Do you believe your father sexually abused you. Or is this the natural emotional reaction from a brother who knows little girls are not born – “ she pauses as if she wants to say something else. “--treating their brother that way.”
“He was hitting her before I was born,” I tell her. “Leave her out of it.”
(From the book, Friday Night Lights, 1990, by H.G. Bissenger, pg 339)
“During the summer, while hammering in nails to build a fence, he thought about himself and his life. He realized that he agonized over everything all the time, and he admitted that part of the problem in the Carter game had been his own lack of belief in his abilities. He knew the reason why he was like this, that it was the price he had paid for carefully watching out for himself ever since he had been a little boy.”
Down the street from the therapist's office, I watch the film, “We Need To Talk About Kevin,” starring Tilda Sweeton – Oscar nominated for her role – inside the independent films theater, downtown.
“But shouldn't he be talking by now?” says Sweeton to her son's pediatrician. “I read somewhere that non-verbalizing was an early sign of autism.”
The doctor moves his finger from left to right in front of the boy's eyes. “He has none of the telltale rocking signs.”
I heard a story on NPR radio once, during a show about the World War II soldiers and their oral histories kept in a library at the Smithsonian.
One Navy sailor's ship sank into frigid waters not far from Japan. After days and nights a sailor near him could not tread water anymore and said so before sinking into the depths. Later, sharks begin swimming between the soldiers, one sliding against the sailor's body as it swam past. The soldier next to him is suddenly yanked down below the surface as a shark's meal.
“I think about that,” the sailor says to the recorder. “How arbitrary it was, who died and who went on to live a normal life. I think: Why me.”
One of the few quotes I remember from Mike Lew's book, Victims No Longer, is from a woman who says that the most exact moment she can pinpoint her recovery to was one night as she laid down and realized that that little girl who all that happened to … was her.
On the way back from watching the movie downtown, I wait outside at a gray downtown bus station and converse with Ashley, from Johnston City, Tennessee, a large brunette of medium height who wears large glasses over bright, friendly brown eyes. She tells me she's fresh out of prison – she was released in December – and living at a halfway house now, some sort of required transitional period. “I did six years, federal,” she says in her ballsy auto.
“Federal's better than County jail, that's for sure. Food's better. The place is cleaner, the rules are more upheld. There were lots of programs, so many programs, educational, work-related – even though you only got paid twelve cents an hour. Ha! If you worked your tail off you might come out with thirty-five bucks at the end of the month – I did them all and before I knew it four years had gone by. I didn't allow my children to visit – my youngest is seventeen, my oldest is twenty-three – I couldn't let them become familiar with the judicial system. I called them everyday. They live at my mother's, in a townhouse I bought for her. Thank God I put it in her name, the DEA would've got that, too. They got the furniture, anything of value, my four vehicles, two of which were my kid's. I sold weed for twelve years. I was a single mother determined. They arrested me, took everything. I bonded out and ran.” She laughs heartily when I look at her incredulous. “Boy, I wasn't giving up! They were going to have to chase me down! And they did. By God did they. They closed off the streets for two blocks around the house I was staying at. Sent in two SWAT teams. I like how things turned out though. I was glad to not be looking over my shoulders anymore. To be a clean human being, my debts to the human race paid. Thank God my kids are clean, got nothing to do with such a life. It's quite wonderful actually.”
I talk to her about drug use, confirming what I've already learned interviewing residents at the rehab facility. Like Adam told me back in New Jersey, “Marijuana makes you not give a f_ck,” which worked like a charm unlocking my memory, but also came with danger I was unaware. Add in the pills, and my not giving an F is amped up, “Get as far as crack, man,” U__ told me, “You'd be shocked at the perverse thoughts you have, perverse desires, the selfishness, the devilishness that occurs when you start acting the drug instead of being on it.” Meanwhile the VA's drugs have been like a miracle to my flesh.
That night, after another lecture – “Be Good,” he was saying. “People sense effort. Credit due paid.” -- I hang out with books.
“In the sixties drugs merely touched American culture,” the man says, an older, book smart guy, sitting in the corner of the small rehab-library. “Seemed to make America better. Then American culture in the seventies was nothing but ugly and dumb, addicts everywhere, then the eighties were all about psychology, the nineties all new age. It was as if America went through rehab.”
“And that's your opinion …”
“Yeah, but it's historically accurate so to me it is the truth,” he says leaning forward in his forest green grandfather chair.
Stepping outside, smoking a cigarette, I let the land work for me, like I used to with the land of Butler. Whatever human dignity felt lacking, the landscape overpowered. People here pretend their careers brought them here; actually the mountains, even out in the rural ridges, remain magnificent.
Thursday evening, G__ is gone. Carried off in handcuffs while I was working at the VA. “Don't worry,” an old timer says to me. This place is a revolving door.”
“He came down here with the spice IN HIS HAND and confessed,” says C__ as we wait in line for nighttime meds. “He claimed it was because he felt so guilty about relapsing.”
“Man, I'm not a snitch,” A__ says the next morning in his lazy, heavy way as we eat breakfast. “But he was driving the same van I was in. I told him, Man, I've been doing this drug thing for forty years now. I can tell when someone's F'd up. His eyes were all out of line, he wasn't acting right.”
“He knew he was caught already, that's why he went down and confessed, man,” L__ says as we smoke cigarettes and dawn breaks and rises. “He knew he was had.”
#390810 - 03/26/12 11:35 AM
Thanks for sharing your journey!
We have to take responsibility for what we're not responsible for.
“It doesn't matter where you've come from,
It matters where you go" Frank Turner
#440838 - 07/14/13 03:21 AM
Re: K) Rustic
Loc: American South
That night I ride in the van to Holiness Church for AA. It's basement entrance consists of one red door that splashes light onto the busy street of well-dressed pedestrians making their way through the city's trendy downtown. Sitting around the corner on the church's main steps, I smoke a cigarette, watching them pass by.
Sunday at church a priest kept telling me the story of Cain and Able, because he thought I'd mentioned it.
“I do not believe the world-weary are the worldly,” I tell him.
“Do you believe in God?” says a stoner as I pass by the smoker's area.
He is trying to win an argument with someone else.
“By my mother,” I reply, keep walking.
Monday, I smoke a post-shift cigarette out on the stoop of the food bank while waiting for my ride back to the facility. I__ and I watch an old man blowing the parking lot with a hand-held blower. He steps forcefully and holds a squinted expression, one that makes his face look conclave and childish. “Oh, he's a drunk,” I__ says sharply. “Look at him. He hates life. That's what an addict is. Someone who hates life.”
The next night, after working at the Episcopal soup kitchen, I attend a traveling concert band's performance. The auditorium is one-hundred and fifteen years old, made of stone inlays inside and out, including the floors. Along the walls are high, narrow, wood-paned windows adorned with beige and white thirty-foot drapes that billow and wisp in the cool, evening wind, reaching toward the wood-planked dome above. Narrow, electric Chinese lanterns hang from the dome, suspended thirty feet above our heads. Ombre Legere, Qui Suis Mes Pas, then the opera pieces and solos, than the choral singing excerpts of Les Misereables.
“The reason you find this place confusing,” Harvey says after I arrive back. “Is because you're not seeing it for what it really is.”
He looks like a young relative of George Clooney with wild hair and beard and startlingly live brown eyes. His comedic antics are up there with Jim Carrey, he can contort his facial expressions so well at any moment, gaining a laugh. He has already graduated University and comes from two professors as parents who send him books constantly, enlarging the library surrounding his bunk.
“The city is full of rich retired folk in need of a tax write off,” he continues in his quick gruff. “Wanting to invest in supposed non-profits, which supposedly cure you of addiction or whatever. Really this place is a five-story dormitory with strict rules against drugs and alcohol. It's just a dormitory.”
Woke feeling good instead of bad. Usually I look for reasons why I feel bad, this time I have no need to look for anything, feeling good is so normal, my mind stays wordless. It is the second early-morning of clarity of my life.
Out the open window I covertly smoke cigarettes, looking at the mountains and the jungle of tree tops just outside. I ask myself questions, now that I have access and see the answers same as I understand everything in the usual way. Harvey's right. I could not have found a better location and dormitory for my college years if I tried.
Hours later, I ride the bus into the city. Give a little, and there is always something or someone to take it as infinite boundaries and territories of infinite layers are held and kept and fought for, no structure could ever house them, the structure isn't there. The human world is men and women and the rest story: all the stories in the world from the heights of leadership to the oral history passed down in religious homes – mere power plays. Experience must be unique to the individual, meaning these writings are useless to the reader. I wonder what I've done to my flesh in the name of writing. Still my most recurring dream is of Isis running, quick, for Seth back when everything was different. Everyone has their own hangups, hangups that are only hangups to them. Nature remains impossible to write down. She is structureless, limitless in her creativity. Life is boring, or it's hard, while happiness just kind of happens. No wonder people naturally make friends along the way, cut up and joke around. Even school children sense the normalcy of the human race. Everyone all around can handle it. Why can't Life remain the only game. There are enough man-made games, language being one of them.
On the train, Mom wanted me to feel guilty with her laugh I balked at properly. Really she wanted me to feel the way I did that next day forever, her morality just behind my movements and thoughts. I felt she was trying to harm me by giving me my inheritance, like Abraham with Issac. Actually, she did the right thing forcing such abuse upon me. It's not that I did not love Mom, it's that in our household she was our rock. While Ray would step down, Dawn would immediately step up, leading to her exhaustion and despair.
Arriving at the VA, I lean against the brick of the out-patient entrance smoking a cigarette as dawn breaks. I notice two people approaching from the parking lot to my right, a father and his grown but young daughter. I nod hello to the father as he walks past and afterward, the daughter, who blushes, as if she'd been caught.
On the next bus ride, farther into the city, a young woman stretches, her arms up like a man flexing his biceps. She seems overly-purposeful, her head turned as if she's keeping an eye on me. She is thin, of medium height, fashionably tanned, too-skinny but a beauty in the face. On the bus she sits and leans forward to adjust her shoe, turning her face toward me, then looking me up and down. I turn my face, continue looking out the window. It's not good looks or social standing. It's confidence they feel, not me. All I have is my effortless Knowing.
That night, us roommates, Harvey, H__, with his perfect Southern accent, and Z__, a sly, playful African American, cannot figure which one of us is to blame. Our room is hangout central as there is another knock on the door and someone else comes by to see what's up. There's the surgeon, quick with a joke, the footballer who played through to a bachelor's, and the many bards who walk in and out with guitars to display the latest contributions to music. We joke, make fun of each other, listen to loud music, argue with Harvey about anything necessary to get him going, critique pictures in Sports Illustrated swimsuit issues and Maxim, our eyes bright. In the chaos there is no one system, as true as the Bible is, it remains impossible to judge and place the characters in their slots.
“Spice kills the sensors in the brain that interact with marijuana,” he says during the van ride back to the facility. He's a successful college student, working on his bachelors in social work. “People don't know that. People like the idea of a legal marijuana but it's more expensive and once you do it you're stuck paying the higher prices. It's a con that Britain already went through two years ago. They ended up illegalizing products like Spice and Bath Salts.“
“Who's the sexiest guy in the house?” asks Jessie from the passenger seat beside the driver. He's a hetero obsessed with his looks.
“Maleki, definitely,” D__ answers from the other side of me in his effeminate voice. “Whooo! One time I knocked on the door of his room looking for his roommate. He had been in the shower and answered the door in nothing but white boxer briefs. Hallelujah!”
“And Josh, who works in the kitchen?,” the driver says. “He's the most my type. Cute.”
“Oh, yes!” D__ says with a slow belly laugh.
“He's just got great legs and shoulders,” the driver continues.
“You know what I like about Phillip?” D__ says. “His abs, those two lines right along the sides of the pelvis. Man, he's tight.”
“Yeah, I forgot what those were called,” says Jessie.
“I would say another guy's name,” says D__ toward me but without looking at me. “But I think he would find it offensive.”
I break from the conversation, looking out the window as they continue.
That evening I do not live in the five story dormitory anymore, but in one of the veteran houses down a ways from it. The rehab facility grows by leasing the land and homes surrounding the main house and the five-story dormitory across from it, so that a rehab campus is formed. With my one suitcase of belongings I live in the Belhaven house, an olive-beige, green-roofed, burgundy-trimmed one story, five bedroom, with a large kitchen and living front room. It rests with its back toward the valley and its front facing a gravel road. The first thing I did was watch four hours of “30Rock” on the cable television in my room, intermittently smoking cigarettes on the front porch, awash with the new privileges, watching the proud robin that always lands and stands a long time, this time in front Belhaven now that I've moved.
You would think working at a soup kitchen would be laid back, pleasant. Instead, the people who run it want to be the most famous soup kitchen in the tri-state area and push the volunteers like minimum wage employees inside the Episcopal church. The volunteers themselves can be odd, like the tall, greyed Yankee woman who arrives only to wipe off the two stove tops and to pack up all the leftovers for herself, and the flamboyantly homosexual forty-seven year old African American with the most diabetic pot belly I've ever seen, and the mumbling veteran who rarely looks anyone in the eye for more than a few seconds and talks in a tight, rolling rhythm so I can never tell what he's saying but by the last two or three words. This time one of the young vets from the rehab brings his parents. They drive up from the facility in a pewter BMW. I eat lunch at their table where he clasps his hands, resting his elbows on the table, squeezing his fingers while his eyes look sometimes at his talkative parents or around the room but never look at anybody else.
That night, at Celebrate Recovery, Z___, a resident who works case-management, sits beside me, interrupting my Faulkner. “Hey, Chuck,” he says, his long hair and elf-like features moving in sync. “How's it going?” I nod answer. With rushed speech and mixed laughter he tells me how much rehab has helped him, including church. “I came from a heavily religious family,” he says. “When I grew up I got the hell away from it. But then I realized God on my own. It's a journey.” Z__ never talks to me. For one thing he has a large personality he uses to get his way. He's known for being full of s__. Those types tend to avoid me. Ever since I turned in my three-page autobiography to Intake, Z__ keeps popping up. “I was on that Seraquill,” he tells me. “That stuff is serious, it will steal your personality.”
“Both my legs were broken,” a young vet waiting for the bus tells me on Thursday. “I could see the the bones jutting out of the skin and was still walking on them. I had been shot twice before I got behind cover. Our humvee had been hit by the IED at the back, killing my dog. That dog was everything to me. She was trained to sniff out bombs and I was her handler. I joined the Navy, the regular Navy, then I was assigned the dog, and both of us assigned to Special Forces.”
On the sixth of April, Bromsden, B__, and I climb the highest mountain in our area, Rattlesnake. Along the way Bromsden goes on about women and sex, never picking up on Elise's lofty education of me.
The path ended halfway up but we reached the rocky, tree-less summit anyway, its three-sixty views like something out of a movie. B__ and I smoke our last cigarette henceforth while Bromsden makes sounds with his hands and mouth, calling animals.
Upon arriving back at the dorms, we pass Harvey's professor parents sitting in their Mercedes, about to leave, telling Harvey one last thing through the passenger window. He is a highly educated drifter, too cool for school, large and lanky.
“Man, let me tell you how the system works,” M__ says to me from where he sits on his top bunk. He was once in the program but got caught using so he was kicked out. He spent his thirty days downtown homeless in winter under the guise of the Occupy Wallstreet protests, then came back. “Everyone on the streets – including cops – knows that a criminal gets away with a lot of crimes before he actually gets caught. And when he is caught, he's only charged with the one crime he's been caught over.” He readjusts his position, straightening out the sheet he is under and the pillow he is leaning against. “The district attorney puts the criminal behind bars upon arrest and sets the bond astronomically. The criminal doesn't get to see a judge for a year – that's how far into the future the DA likes to set the court date. The idea is to force the guy to confess. He either has to pay a bond no one can pay or sit in jail for a year without ever seeing a judge and having a chance to defend himself. His only option is to cop to it, and take the probation, which is the punishment ninety percent of the time. In my county the DA had the highest guilty rate and was praised as the best DA in the state. Then it came out in the papers how he was also number one in the state in high bonds, and farthest court dates.”
Upon returning from the soup kitchen I run into G__, the once-resident-smart-alleck-comedian, allowed back now that it has been thirty days since he had been caught using. “Harvey's gone,” he tells me as we pass. I find out later that he was kicked out because it came to the house's attention that he was a part of the exploits two weekends ago that left one guy in the hospital with alcohol poisoning. Before leaving he begged Jay at reception to not let his parents know.
The next night, written up for the fifth time for digging through cigarette butts, Y__ remains infallible, wearing his plaid shirt like a cloak, his wrinkled head jutting forward like a pigeon's. “So I'm addicted to cigarettes,” he says, standing in the dining hall full of residents, sitting, watching. “No, that's not it.” says Hoss, the higher-up leading the accountability meeting. “And though it is technically about hygiene really we simply wish you had more self respect than that --”
“I am a graduate of this program,” Y__ cuts in. “I have taken all my classes at the VA successfully. I'm a veteran --”
“--No,” Hoss demands. “No. It is impossible for you to be respected as long as you have the ability to search through used cigarette butts.”
They announce a job opening at a kitchen for a non-smoker. I put in for it.
After quick, tucking Autism For Dummies away, I answer the knock on my bedroom door and find Nick. “Jacob wants to see you.”
Nick knows nothing but I pass Ronald on his front porch, lit up with dancing moths. “You going up there to get meds?” he says in his honky tonk voice. “Good luck. Jacob is hanging out in that office and he's acting crazy.”
Jacob is the director of Rustic, not the chairman of the board, so he's hard to read. I stay wary of him, probably because that's how he wants it. I witnessed the highers in action once. The meeting room was full of great businessmen -- except it's over people's lives. His reputation is of his obliviousness. Each incident where someone may be dead, Joseph's first expression is him realizing the one person of whom he does not know his or her location.
“Are you caught up in this mess?” Bromsden asks as we pass in the dark on the gravel road.
“Must be,” I reply.
“What's going on ...” I later ask Maleki, a classic blonde, blue-eyed suburbanite, sitting in an old grandfather chair in the corner of the library. He is one of the senior peer leaders in the house.
“Jacob's pissed about our van ride. Us hollering at girls, even though no one could've heard us outside the van.”
“Who could've told on us for that?” I ask.
“Don't you remember how D__ was on his cell while we were at Wild Wings?”
“I admit it could've been handled differently,” D__ says in his effeminate way, his arms crossed, him sitting on the couch beside Maleki's chair.
“Who exactly were you on the phone with … “ I ask as more enter the room.
The driver, the shotgun, and the other passengers of my van ride back to the facility are all assembled in the library. The door is closed behind us by Hoss, who stands silently by the door, waiting for Jacob's show. The only thing Latino about Jacob is his last name, otherwise he looks like a cross between an Arab and a Jew, with his olive skin and his black, tightly-curled, shoulder-length hair. I cannot imagine him working in fields with me, like the Latinos I have liked the most. He is the fourth executive director in thirteen years and works for a board of directors. He is Hoss's boss.
“You don't know! You don't know why you're here! You punk!” he suddenly yells to Bobby, our driver, a twenty-something who seems cool enough. “You ungrateful ingrates! I don't know how you were allowed back in here, Bobby. I know if I had anything to do with it, you wouldn't be here! Haven't you figured out yet that we're not stupid! Anytime I ask you a questions, nine times out of ten I already know the answer! Now what happened at Wild Wings. Who went in. Why'd you go in.”
“I just wanted to use the bathroom,” Y__ says.
“Same here,” says Maleki. “Bobby had just gotten off the phone with the house manager who said we'd be waiting in that parking lot for forty-five minutes to an hour for the guy to get off work.”
“And then why weren't you turned around and sent back to the house!”
“I don't know,” says Bobby. “The house manager didn't say.”
“I do not like the way the vans are being handled,” Jacob says. “You know what I've been telling the house manager's I need? A veteran , some old codger of a logistics Sergeant with a board on the wall and a cell phone linked to the drivers. That way such stupid s__ like this won't happen.”
“What's this I hear about cat calls to women on the street downtown?” Hoss asks.
“We were a bunch of guys,” says Maleki. “Talking about women. It's natural and we were only talking amongst ourselves.”
“Look, man,” Y__ begins. “I just had to pee. I ain't got nothin' to --”
“Stop Y__,” Hoss interjects while lowering his flattened hand in the air in front of him. “Just stop.”
“Do you still not understand that for every ten applicants, six are turned away,” lectures Jacob loudly. “That it is our duty to kick the f__ out anyone who tries our patience? Like you! Bobby! This is your second time here! I don't know how you got back in. I want to tell you to pack your s__ right now and go. You know who else I have to make a decision about tonight? F__. Who keeps manipulating the phone lists and outside meeting lists, forging all over the place and this Doc who turns out to be a – ”
“-- You see what we have to go through,” Hoss says. “Deciding who is ready for recovery, who is not, who is full of s__, who isn't.”
“And we've got some good ones. Look how Maleki turned around, D__ with his job at McDonalds, Ben – I love how laid back and quiet you are all the time, this is a family, and sometimes you're gonna end up pulled into family business. And Y__, stop looking through cigarette butts, and you Bobby! You better pray you're staying! And Ben, step up once in a while.”
“You know what you want,” Jay says the next afternoon in between answering phones. “College.” He has a skinny frame with a slide to his walk, shaggy brown hair, and smiling eyes. “In middle school everyone thought I was a stoner because I looked liked one,” he told me once. “Then I became a stoner.”
“But is it the right thing ...” I reply, lazily hanging over his counter, my arms limp.
“How can it not be?” he says, exasperated at twenty-two.
“You accept each opportunity that comes and strengthen plan A, or plan B, or plan C, or plan D, depending on which applies.”
He answers a phone, then makes a page, then another call. “Hold on,” he says, then cups his hand over the receiver so as not to be heard. "How DO you look so young?" he asks me.
"I had affairs," I tell him between rings and buzzes. "Scary how flesh respects the virginal."
Friday afternoon I find out I did not get the job I applied for at the VA.
“It's a four week class,” the overweight, bearded man says in a softened voice and slightly annoyed flair. He sits in an enormous, high-ceiling-ed room with only his desk in it. “The first week or so is classroom to acquire the permit, then courses in our parking lots, then road time. At the end the man from the state comes and tests you and awards the CDL.” He takes a breath, readjusts his weight in his office chair across the desk from me. “We'll start in a few days. You will be expected to accept employment immediately. Since you are a veteran the course is free.”
That night I sneak away from the AA speaker meeting being held in a church basement and explore the chic downtown. The restaurants are set up the same as in New York, with seating spilling out onto the sidewalks. Some have live jazz or bluegrass livening the streets outside. I find a drum circle in a small city park shaped in a circle and surrounded by descending steps. In the middle there are professionals in African garb with African drums. Kids in the audience drum along on their own drums while women gyrate.
“This city's got no good clubs, man,” the shotgun tells me later. “Bunch of hippies.”
On Sunday I finish taking a ServSafe course at the local college. There are eight people in our class. Three are from the “Vet Quarters,” a campus of old hotels that house homeless veterans, a place the nurses at the VA call the “snake pit.” For some reason every staff member I run into from the Quarters is Caucasian, middle-aged, somewhat goofy, and preposterously overweight. Two others, a middle-aged, overweight blonde woman and an overweight man are from the Department of Corrections.
“They've got nothing better to do than to cause trouble and mess with the guards,” she says.
“I tell them to bond out it you don't like it here,” the guy says with a laugh.
Between classes I explore the empty seven story office building, now used as an east campus and unused on weekends but for our class and one other. Built lavishly and finished in 1951, it retains its glass conference rooms, its corner offices, and its wood paneled power offices. The ceilings are high, hallways wide, and three of the seven floors have ballrooms surrounded by windows and mountains.
I score well-enough on the final exam, meaning I am qualified for management level positions in the food industry.
I try to explain to P___ how easy it was, it making me wonder what all the practice was for, but ran out of ways to articulate. “It's when you are looking at the bag as if it were a man,” I told him. “Mine has an EVERLAST logo on it and I see it as a face – not as if something about my way has changed, but the bag itself has changed.”
P___ has low-self-esteem and is a boaster, conversation-wise. He gives me his usual way of speaking, proving his intelligence and experience of the subject self-evidentally.
“Now stay to the center, all the way, all the way,” says the truck driving instructor from the passenger seat. “Now cut it left, all the way, all the way.”
“Now keep your left tires on top of the center line,” he instructs . “Keep it there, drive like that awhile. Now keep your right tires on top of the white line. Keep it there, don't come off. We'll have you ready for those country roads soon.”
“Due to these abuses during my childhood I developed a courage,” the speaker is saying. “Not courage – Rage …”
“N___'s dead,” G___ whispers to me from where he sits beside me. “Heroine overdose.”
“... I was an assoholic who saw himself as a rebel,” the speaker continues. “But I was genuine in my natural understanding that if there was a God he was a bad person ...”
N__ was kicked out for the same stint Harvey was involved in.
“I escaped reality every chance I got,” says the speaker. “I felt so powerful spiritually while inferior emotionally. I found myself in the positions but I was not-a-father, not-a-husband, not-a-son ...”
Despite his classic looks and enormous build, N__ was known for working out constantly and seeking after women who thought him attractive, as opposed to women he found attractive.
“I learned from others like me that I only needed to focus on that one drink – the first one – only,” the speaker says. “I lived my life knowing I would take my worst experiences to the grave and you forced me to list them and read them out loud to a sponsor – including my worst acts. Instead of a grave I turned out to be a good soul who now had been unburdened with only life ahead … “
Devotions Church sends a van to pick up whomever will come from our facility. “Pentecostals,” Harvey warned me once. “It's like standing in the Book of Acts.”
I sing hymns genuinely, while during the sermon I zone out. I ignore the talking in tongues from the congregation and the dramatic casting out of a demon from one of our fellow addicts who flails wildly on the floor, foaming at the mouth.
No matter what religion, denomination, or people, I remember my brother in sacred places, his hand holding mine when we were little and he was dead, him walking me through the afterlife saying, “We're just right here. We're just right here.”
Back in the room, Cox hangs out. He's one of those guys I envy: bright eyes, clear face, normal but muscular build, just good looking enough to not be a pretty boy, with a well-aimed sense of humor. I sit on my bunk, across from my roommates, where Cox is sitting in a chair, us reminiscing Harvey. “Maybe there won't be people as cool as you two where I'm going,” he says, nervous about leaving for home tomorrow. “I only learned one thing here, you know,” he says later with a half-smiling, half-serious face. “But if I say it out loud it'll sound gay.”
“Life is simple when lived with love, pushed through, perceived with love – real love – painful love. Low self esteem, depression and all that – it's a direction, the opposite direction.”
“... Now brake so as not to break hard on the scale,” says the instructor. “Stop at the sign, wait for it, the light is now green, pull on through.”
“Now let up, now brake, now let up – to not burn your brakes – now again,” says the driving instructor as I drive the eighteen wheeler down the mountain. “Brake for five miles per hour, then let up, brake for five miles per our, then let up – a good general rule to follow – good off-tracking on the curves – look at that view ...”
“N___ died,” November lectures in his bellowing tones as he paces the main aisle of the dining hall. “He left two small daughters, both of whom were were so easily charmed by him -- all giggling and laughing. He did not have enough people at his funeral to carry the casket.”
Per routine November lists all the clients who were kicked out this past week. Bromsden is among them. That spur of the moment initiative he had, to speak with authority and handle others squarely, the same quality I felt would fix me, he displayed as nothing more than the behavior of a bullying baby, until finally he pissed the staff off enough for them to keep closer tabs on him. The VA prescribed him Percocet for his knee. He took three before returning to the rehab from the VA that day. Not only is he not allowed to administer his own meds to himself, he is not allowed Percocet. On a whim, the staff counts the pills in his bottle, then boots him with pleasure.
Hiking through mountains, me and four others from our newbie group walk through a long, curving train tunnel leading into a small valley of still more train tunnels. In order to catch up with the group without turning around we climb a pathless mountain, one with still another crest above the one we'd just reached. It feels primal, crouched down on my toes, navigating the steep slopes as I push up and grab the next young tree trunk after next while painless cuts collect on my forearms and hands.
The last time I'd hiked these mountains I was a sixteen-year-old with a plan to miss my layover in Atlanta.
The dusk is clear and hot with moisture. In the church basement a man is telling his story during a speaker meeting.
“I'm not a good talker,” he says, his voice suddenly low and secretive.“If I carry something around with me without talking about it I'll turn it into something else.”
In my youth they yelled from the pulpits: Be true even when you are alone and think God is not watching. The tick tock of life can be claimed, enjoyed, with little use for fear.
“I'm classically autistic.” I whisper, to B___, as we enter our basic, blue and white, concrete latrine, and I lean against my arms, my hands against the edges of the sink. I hear my echo from the shower area. “I will still pace,” I mutter.
At the same time, he says: “I admitted to it.” Said lowly, soberly as we hide in the upstairs concrete bathroom, in the mid-morning waiting for his probation officer to pick him up.
B__'s one of my favorite people here. He played ping pong with me on my first day. We've played regularly ever since. He has recently been implicated in the same scandal as G__.
“All autism means is a unique brain structure. It has common symptoms: rocking, walking circles, the kids trying to calm themselves because they know no one is like them. Once I hit six of the twelve I stopped because it already meant I am classically autistic.”
His looks are his game, his trick, that young, dogged, puppy-eyed look no one can say no to -- his wiggle room to make himself feel free. He respects me, talks to me differently than the others, like he's already decided the conversation is going to sound a certain way. Bay Jack and him, they are attracted to the women I attract, or something like that. I didn't say much to them because I do not think it is possible to teach morality; if someone pulls it off in the future then they must have been disrespectful or made a fool; it must be learned instead.
They treated me as if I felt guilt for being different, because that's life. When my conscience remained pure they laughed at the holy in me. My relatives perceived me through the Bible's eyes while I was different, therefore, evil, not of God, and I must understand and repent. In the religion of God's Country girls were less than boys and I was less than girls and everyone agreed and I almost fell for it. I lean into my shoulders, leaning down into the sink. I remember reading the Bible like the kids read Lord of the Rings nowadays ... All those sorcerers claiming they can only perform magic like setting fire to water because they know there is a God ... All those Bible verses quoted daily to my face by my little sister ... an older sister assuming my incestuousness because she thought it was funny ... instincts alone kept me safe … That repositioning of posture and dialogue by my parents and relatives whenever subject matter like the childhoods of serial killers or brooding fanatics would come up.
“Why …" I say, looking away from him toward the window to the sink's right.
“Because of G__, they were turning the house upside down.” B__ whispers, “At some point they were going to give me a piss test. Once I had started using I couldn't stop.”
The humans – they deserve their fate. Their fate is dark and mine is not. How did they not see it coming: don't mess with a boy's mother, no matter how immediate the family; and afterward getting off the train and stepping into Wilton's Roman elites; don't mess with family.
“I am sorry the world is destitute,” I whisper to him without knowing why, suddenly looking at him.
The mountain air moves our clothes we are so still, listening for tires on dirt road. The latrine looks the color of the sky, its grays and beige beginnings now colored by exact morning sunlight.
He looks down at his feet.
“It was right in front of me,” he says, suddenly looking up. "That's why."
I look at him as I listen to him, yet again not knowing what to say to someone so close to me whom I am unlikely to ever see again.
I could've been braver, better, stronger. Maybe all the humans say that in the end.
“YOU'Re good at it,” he says finally. “Fighting for your life.”