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 keeps mentioning 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."
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 only 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 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. It is impossible 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. 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 structure-less, limitless in her creativity. Life is boring, or it's hard. 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 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 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.
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 of 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 says 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 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 says 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 Understanding 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 only wanted to use the bathroom,” Y__ says.
“Same here,” says Maleki. “Bobby had 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 only 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 said 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 says 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-evidently.
“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 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 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 stepping through the afterlife saying, 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, 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 f_ucked up."
"It's like the head's the Pharisee and the body is the Hypocrite and if you don't know it, you're a fool," he says slowly. "But you can't say anything or people will think you think you're Jesus."
“... 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 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.
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.
At the same time, he says: “I admitted to it.” Said lowly, soberly as we hide in the upstairs concrete bathroom, 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.
“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; then 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 whom I am unlikely to see again.
I could've been braver, better, stronger.
“YOU'Re good at it,” he says finally. “Fighting for your life.”