The Heart Chronicles #15: Running Out of Steam and Truth-Telling

There are days when there seems to be a lot less energy than needed to accomplish what seems to be more. I have thought of that often the past week at my work as an addictions and mental health counselor: the eleven hour days, the pressure to produce billable hours and, concurrently, my desire to provide excellent services to my clients. There is the need for compassion that reaches people even with limited contact, hope despite the statistics for addicted persons,  clarity of clinical judgment despite the daunting complexity of human beings. 

At the end of each day I facilitate most of my educational and process groups. I spend a few moments alone preparing if I don’t have another appointment. And if I am tired out I start to brace myself for angry or listless clients (while knowing there are those who will be accountable, attentive). They may have received a DUII, a PCS (possession of a controlled substance), an assault, theft or menacing charge. There are those who are referred for treatment due to Child Protective Services intervening in their lives. Others come straight from prison. And there are some who come to addictions treatment of their own accord, sitting up front where they can better listen and put their stories on the table. They have had enough drinks and drugs, financial ruin, relationship failures, anxiety and depression. Enough bottoming-out unhappiness.

There was a moment this week when I was too weary to do much but pack up my tote and go home but I had more work to keep me. Something had once more jarred me from dreaming the night before. I had explored the contours of the dark, the scene outside my window (night birds fluttering and calling; clouds drifting past stars; rooftops; one lit square in the house next door) and the mostly mundane but occasionally inventive thoughts and images in my mind. Two hours or more had passed before sleep returned.

So, I picked up my clipboard with the group roster on it, checked again my materials, grabbed pens and erase board marker–orange this time–and trudged down the hallway. It looked longer than usual, hunched clients lining each wall, some eyes raised to greet me, others peering at their phone screens. My feet moved right along although my legs felt leaden and a dull headache threatened. I reminded myself I didn’t have to be wise, brilliant or a grand entertainer. I did have to be committed to the information I presented, open to hearing what was spoken to me in response (as well as holding steady under fire), and ready with caring and laughter. As I unlocked the door to the group room, I took a breath and welcomed each person with a smile. I was, in effect, “on stage” much in the same way I had once been when I played my cello, sang, danced, acted. Only now it was my intention to offer options for life in spite of the ever-present possibility of jails, institutions, and even death for any person who entered the room. 

They chatted a bit as I prepared the board with information. And then I turned to them and said…nothing. I looked at the hand-out I had and tossed it on the table; it suddenly bored me as much as it would bore them. I had a small moment of inspiration.

“Let’s talk about the drug so many take for granted as an old friend, an easy fix, a perfectly legal drug–and it is not alcohol.”

No one responded at first, then I heard some chuckles and murmurs. “You mean, nicotine?”

There ensued a long discussion about how many times people had tried to quit, how two out of fourteen had managed to succeed in staying quit for many years. How they hated to love it, but love it they did. The first rush of nicotine entering the bloodstream as they inhaled. The feeling of relief after having waited for a couple of hours to enjoy one cigarette. Nicotine just went with alcohol, weed, meth–fill in the blank with  your own choice of passion/poison. But there was the pain of withdrawal, leaving them sleepless, sweaty, anxious and agitated.

And then the words spoken by one woman in the corner: “But I’m not ready to quit yet. I’ve  had to give up drinking and using the other drugs for this treatment but I can still smoke and not get arrested!”

Laughter erupted. Ah yes, the thrall and misery of addiction to nicotine, one more drug our culture somehow tolerates.

Then a young man called out, “But you wouldn’t know about that or any other drug, so how can you understand? How can you teach us about this stuff if you don’t know about it first-hand?”

Now, this was not a startling question. In fact, I hear it a couple dozen times a year. Some people want me to show my battle scars, my badges of survival of something big, trot out a sad story, one in which I emerge a brave heroine of sorts or at least a reasonably educated and seasoned survivor.

And the truth is, I could do that as well as many. I didn’t get to that room without a few side trips. I have spoken to larger groups about many things. So, I suspect I might be able to capture their attention. But my answer is always the same.

“What difference would it make in the long run? I’m not that interesting a person–this sure isn’t about me. It is about you. Your quality of lifestyle, your choices, your story. Your chances for a more deeply satisfying life. A life that includes more rather than less of all you love. And you know what I think about enjoying life–crucial! And possible, even when clean and sober.”

And then–I was just that tired,  just that weary of one more client challenging me that I forgot my rule of privacy–I said, “Well, I did survive a heart attack at age fifty-one. And the only known major risk factor I had was smoking cigarettes for thirty-five years. That, and having once been very ill with a dental infection, which can also affect your heart, by the way. It can happen to you, too. Those nicely packaged, expensive cigarettes can get you when you least expect it. That moment can change everything you’ve ever known and counted on. And getting back up on your feet isn’t so easy.”

I almost kept speaking, so important to me was the need to communicate: Stay alive. Be careful what you fall into on bad days or adore on the others. But I was getting ahead of myself, in the process nearly forgetting my role. My tale belonged to me, not them. I sat down.

There was silence for a second with all eyes on me, and then came a few questions–what did it feel like? How did I deal with that? But quickly I regained control and the focus was returned to them. One man, looking much older than he was and not quite as fortunate in his prognosis, spoke simply. He talked about his heart disease, his continued use of nicotine and alcohol, and tears choked his voice. Sorrow filled that room and with it, kindness.

The group went well. As I said good-night I noticed they were easier with me.  Some thanked me for letting them know something more of who I am.  My headache had started to recede. I was still feeling the “pinches” in my body resultant of exhaustion but also, well, contentment.  Someone in that room would think twice or more about the next smoke. Maybe finally quit. I was almost sure of it  and that was good enough. So instead of working late as usual,  I headed home. Tomorrow would bring more chances to learn or recall something good, like the enduring value of authenticity.

The Point of Drinking on this Tuesday Afternoon

Win Ottomeier ran down the library steps with light restraint. She was anxious to be on her lunch hour but didn’t want the others–Marie, Theo and Antonia–to take any notice of her. They sometimes ate together but usually not, as they liked to talk shop and gossip and she more often liked to not talk. Her hour was important to her, a time to empty her mind of a million orderly bits of information, of the sight of the heavy books she consulted as well as the glaring screen of the computer with its cornucopia of search engines.

And the people, oh the public, how they often swarmed her desk with their eager faces, located her on the phone, their words spitting and swirling up to the Rubenesque women cavorting on the ceiling’s mural. To Win, it was a veritable storm of faces and hushed verbiage from the moment she walked in, esoteric inquiries and needs.

Not that she didn’t like data. There was a solid appreciation of the ways one made sense of micro and macro worlds, how she could  conquer and divide until the facts were distributed or disposed of correctly. Win did not complain when the first computer system went in all those years ago. Adaptation brought rewards. It complemented her studied reserve, that sleek machine.

But it was her twenty-first year at the city library and she was becoming–what? Disengaged. Bored. Libraries had enchanted and upheld her, even saved her life a few times. Her work had mattered once. But now it all pressed in on her like a too-small room. She felt she was becoming irrelevant as people did more of their own digging, PCs in hand. And then there were all those virtual books, disturbing in their untouchable distance, their convenience. The images of an increasingly synthetic world mystified and daunted her.

At times Win had desperate fantasies of heading to the airport and buying a one way ticket to, say, Patagonia, where Magellan thought he had stumbled across native giants in 1520. At five foot eleven they had seemed enormous to the small Spaniards. But that was a view from history. When she got there, what then? There was petroleum and tourism and who knows what other irritants. She had only to look it up to find out, so why bother going at all. Still,  she asked herself: how much could one person absorb in a lifetime? Especially if one had a near photographic memory as Win did. She would go to her grave with footnote 219 on page 367 of a tome regarding prehistoric America emblazoned on her brain. Where was the meaning to it?

This is what she had been plagued with during sleepless nights: the exhaustive nature of fact gathering and what it all boiled down to, at this point in her life. Living in a junkyard of data, that’s what. She carried on in an expert loneliness infused with random, electic knowledge no one really cared about. Not even Win, anymore.

So at twelve-fifteen on Tuesday, she slipped out and headed three blocks down to Tate’s Lounge. She liked the soup and sandwich special there. And the drinks. They all greeted her like a regular. It had surprised her a couple of months ago. Had she gone there that much?  Since March when she discovered the place on a particularly soggy day, Win had been stopping by during or after work, maybe once or twice a week since summer began.

She looked over her shoulder to make sure her co-workers had turned the corner as usual, seeking out Indian or Lebanese fare. Then Win took the last booth and ordered a bowl of soup and a half gilled cheese. Zina, the waitress, called her by name and asked how the books were doing.

Win answered, “They’re looking great, standing at attention as usual.” The waitress chuckled; she was a tolerant sort.

It was such a relief to be here. The place smelled of onions and peppers, grilled sausages with cheese, creamy chicken soup. It was very unlike Win’s kitchen which was gleaming and small, the refrigerator sparsely populated with yogurt and orange juice, take out Thai leftovers, a handful of brown eggs. Two bottles of wine.

Win finished the remainder of the chicken soup and wiped her mouth with the thin napkin. Now for dessert. She reached for her vodka and cranberry and sipped once, then let the vibrant mixture fill her mouth a few seconds before swallowing. It was calming, tart, smooth. It was just the antidote for all the faces and tongues wagging and the tangled weave of supposed facts, data parading itself before them all as though it was critical to something, the final word.

Win breathed in the scent of her drink and finished it off quickly, then sat back.  The last word was something her husband, Harry, once enjoyed. She should not wear anything but sensible shoes or she would have bunions, she was not to clean the oven with nasty chemicals, she was cautioned to not spend more than allotted for Christmas despite her desire to get something really good for the nieces she loved so. He’d even had the last word on whether they would have children–not a good idea, not in this crazy world, not on their improving but modest income.  But he did care for her, didn’t he? Didn’t they take a week’s vacation at a national park she picked each year? Didn’t he cook dinner three times a week? What did he tell her every night before they parted ways at their respective bedroom doors? “Rest well, old gal.” She got and gave a medium hug and it counted most days.

Six months ago he had said good-night–she’d hardly head him–and the next morning he’d left before she got up. A note on the bed told her everything: “I know you don’t like Flagstaff, but you know I do and I’m now retired, so I’m gone.” And the P.S. was his final opinion about her life. He advised her, “If you stay, you should work until 65 to be on the safe side.  Or just come to AZ and we’ll figure it out.”

She thought she couldn’t manage but she did; discipline went a long way toward getting through things. It was more and less than what she thought, this being by herself. It hurt less in some ways, not at all in others.  His face receding, she ordered another vodka and cranberry. Just saying the drink’s name out loud calmed her: a healthy fruit full of antioxidants with a fortifying alcoholic beverage. Harry hadn’t wanted her to drink, not even a drink made with cranberries. One makes you a bit goofy, two makes you unpredictable, he’d said, as though either was character defect she needed to avoid. Perhaps so. The wine she drank, then, was drunk sparingly, a half glass when he was watching, two or more when he was not.

Now she had endless nights to watch the skies and the city’s bustling business from the tenth floor condo, a glass or three of wine keeping her company. And she had the afternoons weekly, one at the least, two if lucky. She could sit and drink, float away. After awhile it felt as though she was on a fanciful barge decorated with multi-colored lanterns, headed down the Nile or the Colorado or even the Columbia River which lay just beyond the condo, rushing to join the Pacific, salt and fresh waters mingling.

When she got back to her post, no one at the library ever said anything. They might look bemused, but that often seemed the case to Win. 

She decided to order a third drink despite the waitress–was it Zina or Zinia? –raising her eyebrows, biting her lip.

“Are you going back to work, Win?”

“Of course, in a few minutes.” Win shrugged off her discomfort, drank away the dullness she felt.

She wanted to say so much more: I can drink as much as I like now. Harry has no say. I am not thirty; I’m hanging on to sixty by a thread so I am a full-fledged grown-up who makes my own choices. I deserve a break, a change in routine. I am happy as a clam nestled in this booth. I am a talented research librarian but truly sick to death of gathering information instead of living it and so I am drinking to think it over some more.

Win finally got up, gathered her purse and wobbled to the register, paid her check and with a nod to Zinia (of course, she knew that), left. She walked gingerly down the sidewalk–lest she lose her  balance and look a fool–then climbed the library’s steps to the brass-handled doors and yanked one open. She took the elevator to the third floor and walked right up to Antonia’s huge desk. The lovely old dear had a pencil in her mouth as usual but took it out as soon as she looked up.

“The whole point of drinking on this Tuesday afternoon is so I can  finally look into your piercing hazel eyes–which I’ve always admired despite your unkindnesses–and say I quit, good riddance, farewell, and good luck.”

Win turned to go and lost her center for a moment. But there was Theo, who had always looked good to her, even when he’d lost the last of his hair, even when he’d dropped too many pounds after his divorce. He took her elbow in his hand and sidled down the stairs with her.

“Good show,” he whispered. “Can I come by later? Dinner?”

She smiled, almost kissed him, but instead shook her head and plucked his hand off her elbow. Then Win left without a backward glance, just slipped away to Argentina.

The Heart Chronicles #14: The Heart is Made of Stories

My mother sat on the edge of my twin bed every evening to share a long good-night. No matter the hour, I would beseech her to “tell me stories of when you grew up.” And so she did, vignettes about living and working on “The Farm”. She told me about swinging on a rope in the hayloft and the sweet pungence of warm hay as it got stuck in her hair and inside clothes; the fat, ravenous pigs she fed slop; the stealth it took to steal the morning’s eggs from beneath the fussy hens. She explained how she washed clothes on a washboard in the big multipurpose sink until her knuckles were reddened and raw, then hung the billowing clothing on a line behind the house:  “Sun-purified and perfumed,” she explained. There was that ornery mare that kicked at her spine, causing a lifetime of back pain as they seldom went to doctors. And sometimes Gypsies passed by in the dark and snatched a pig or chicken, long gone as her father ran out yelling at the top of his lungs; I thought he probably had a rifle in hand.

 The farm animals my mother and her family raised did not have names; the cats were wild  creatures that hunted mice and other varmints. My mother also confided that she would rather have stayed after school to practice basketball for her girls’ team than return to hard labor each day. I imagined the sun setting over the fields: she created the colors, sounds and scents of the country as she walked all the way from the town’s school to home, swinging the bundle of books secured in an old leather belt. Cicadas buzzed in my brain or snow swirled in a frenzy but we always got there safe and sound.

When she finally turned off the lamp, I could hear her voice weaving its magic long after her footsteps disappeared downstairs. That faraway exotic time and place, life at The Farm, lingered in my dreams.

The truth is, my mother could have made a story of walking to the grocery store and often did–a humorous character study, a surprising event that was made more fascinating through sharing. Life was never ordinary to my mother; it was full of textures, vivid designs, and had grand presence simply by being lived.  Anything could be fascinating, much of life’s stories were moving, some brought bountiful tears and often there was a lesson to be gathered from her tales. She had a natural gift for it: her expressive voice,  bright eyes and hands that shaped the air and spoke the wordless bits. All conspired to make the renderings complete. And it issued from her attentive mind and open, responsive heart. 

So that is where I learned it–that life was endless stories within a story and it’s origins were home. That a story from the heart is the best kind. My mother shared compassion for others by telling of those she’d met along the way or still hoped to meet,  of those she had found and lost, and those she loved well. Her wit was quick and full of laughter, but she also unleashed words sharp with anger. There were whole paragraphs laced with tears due to all manner of injustice she witnessed. Struck by beauty in almost any place, she could as accurately describe a fine piece of millinery as an insect she spotted in the garden. I have known few people as moved by the fractious, wondrous complexity of being human. And she knew about forgiveness, which crept in to her dreaming and musings.

It seems entirely reasonable to me, then, that the human heart is constructed of stories. It is, in truth, what I knew from the start–my mother only provided me more evidence of it as I grew up. And if it was my father who gave me music which courses like life-giving blood in my veins, it was my mother who gave me the powerful keys to the kingdom of Story, where words shape-shift and play, toil and conspire, liberate and elevate. In so doing, she gave me precious freedom.

When all else seemed lost at various junctures in my journey through the years, when I found little to keep me steady or strong save the repeated prayer for help, I reached for pen and paper. In my car, there is a small notebook, as well as in my purse and at work–just in case a gaily dressed character runs across the stage of my mind, then beckons me down the street into a cafe surrounded by an ivy-covered fence, a meandering stone pathway. Or in case the first line of a poem– Daybreak spills over the sky and earth like holy water, and rescues us all–visits me. And at four in the morning, there is another notebook and pen at my bedside when I need to solve a puzzle of dreams, or sift through the detritus of my restless mind until I can find a single thread leading to the true center of the mess. The heart of the unfolding story.

My heart has known plenty of bad stories, ones I would rather have avoided, tossed out much sooner or even set afire under a full moon. A few have epilogues that refuse to be erased. But they all somehow led me to good ones as well, those I can still build on or revise so that the endings are neater, richer, better. Even perfect endings can be created, for at least that very moment.  

Lately there have been some struggles: with the alien process of aging, with the unhappy news of two heart valves eroding, with the revelation that my five children really have long set sail when I had thought they might still be floating closer to shore. Time seems a frail thing, until I remember that time is truly not a known quantity. It is not the be-all and end-all on earth, to me. It is certainly what we each make of it. The living heart never tires of one more tale that needs to be heard or told. And so I put pen to paper or fingers to computer keys and think of my mother, who always encouraged me, even once after her death as I stood on my balcony under the gentle stars, missing her: You must write the stories. She smiled, then vanished.

(Postscript: The last Christmas I saw my mother,  not so long before her passing, I gave her the manuscript of my novel. This is the picture of us after she looked at it. She was so happy to see it, and I to share it, that we kissed each other. She flew home with it. A couple weeks later she called: “It sure kept me turning the pages, moved right along. Good characters!” She passed in 2001 at age 92, four months before I was diagnosed with coronary artery disease. She had congestive heart failure.)

Playing Today: Addiction v. Recovery

The night was deeper than the far side of the woods, which Damien peered into every now and then. He could feel it cover his hands and sneakered feet, his rather forgettable face and ragged thoughts.  He stuck his hands into his jeans pockets and leaned against the van. It was ten o’clock when he’d pulled off the road and parked at the end of the fire lane. He’d waited twenty-five minutes. Either Tanner was up to his neck in deals or something was wrong. They had been friends since middle school and they had an understanding. When one of them needed something, the other came. Or at least called.

He needed oxycodone and had called. He hadn’t needed it for sixteen months but that was before. Before Jeanine grew impatient with him and left. Before his hours were cut from forty to twenty at the store. Before he hurt his back again lifting a box of car parts, cars that gleamed in the sunlight like the deluxe machines they were. Unlike the vehicle he owned.

Gravel spit and jumped and Damien jerked to attention. It was the driveway by the corner, Old Burl’s place.  All he needed was someone to stop and ask what he was up to on a Friday night, parked on this road. He hurried behind the van and waited for the old Cadillac to slowly pass. Only when the tail lights became pinpricks did he step out again, forehead damp, mouth dry.

It had come to this again. The waiting. The wanting that drove every other thought out of mind. Now, every shadow slunk around him, every small noise caused alarm. He should have gone to the city where he would have been lost among a hundred others on the street. That’s where he belonged. That’s what he understood. Wasn’t it?

There had been a time when he had raced down the road to glory. A college scholarship for track which he cared less about than leaving this town.  Three years being on the Dean’s List and the expectation of law school. He had always lived a life made incrementally more attractive by the number of challenges surmounted. It had been hard when he was a kid, mom ill with cancer, then taken down when he was ten; father consumed by that woman he’d married when Damien was fourteen. But he’d made it out alive and found the magic door: education.

Then there was the ridiculous accident the summer before his senior year at State. He’d come home for a month to visit and had been helping his father scrape paint from the house. He’d backed down a few rungs on the ladder to get an icy bottle of water in the cooler below. They’d been catching up. His father was happy with him, his only kid making good, had a girlfriend, Jeanine. The talk had been expansive and warm so that Damien had opened up for the first time in years.  Working together was just the thing.

Damien swiped his brow with his forearm to catch the sweat. “What’d you just say?”

“Oh, get me one of those while you’re at it–I’m dying up here. How can August heat up more?”

And Damien had gotten the bottles, stuffed one between his shorts’ waist and his sweaty back, then held the other one in his left hand. His skin shivered from the cold, damp plastic. He took each step carefully but when he was six rungs from the top, he felt the bottle squeezing against his back, then leaking chilled water, a shock to buttocks and legs. The surprise of it threw him off. Or maybe he had been too relaxed, too confident that day. But his left foot lost contact with the next rung for a split second and he fell back, a flight that felt endless until he hit the ground like a one hundred sixty pound sack of cement. The fortuitous future morphed into a nightmare. Then he blacked out.

That’s when it had started. A back surgery. The pain requiring potent  pills. Rehabilitation, more pills as the months turned into a year. Ten, then twenty a day. Living with his father and stepmother as though he was a boy rather than the man he needed to be. The lurking phantom of pain even when he walked well enough and then looked for work. In one year, his law school chance had slipped away. In two, the addiction had settled right, an unwanted roommate that Damien couldn’t dispense with. He ate them or snorted them, and sometimes shot them, whatever was handy or worked best that  minute. It was either that or withdrawal, the sweats, the vomiting and intestinal hell. Agony in every fiber. Feeling crazy, skin aching, head askew. Being high was a thing of the past; now he just wanted to get through the days and nights. He left, took to the streets of a neighboring city and found more than he bargained for. He changed and although it felt worn, he acquiesced for the sake of Oxy. OC. Killer.

But eventually he’d had enough. He got tired of the no-win hustle that kept him running day and night, a game never over. Damien longed to snatch his life back, make it right. One morning he drove to a detoxification center  and they made him better than he thought possible.

It was an uneasy and uneven return to health once more, but it was like his blood ran pure again and his mind started to follow, to even make sense. Still, it took a long while to get twenty-two months clean. There had been countless bad days.

And there had been more of those again the past couple months. Damien had held out as long as he could. He just wanted out of his head awhile, to feel nothing for one night, to not think. To not feel worthless: Damien Harper, part-time auto parts worker, ex-junkie (“Once a junkie, always a junkie”), still at his parents’ or couch surfing. What a damned tragedy that guy is and so on and on. Lost it all. Well, he couldn’t stand it. He didn’t even have to be anything fabulous, anymore. He just wanted respect. Some peace.

A  sports car downshifted; the lights went out. It had been six  years since that fateful summer. Tanner had been there for him after the doctors stopped writing prescriptions. He got out and unfolded himself, then stretched and yawned. It was as though he had been on a leisure ride and had just stopped for a break.

“So,” he said when he leaned against the van next to Damien. “Ready to come back to the fold?”

Damien tried to laugh but it came out like a grunt. “What do you have for me?”

Tanner shrugged. “That depends. I might want something this time.”

A frisson of anxiety, almost like a thrill, ran through him. “Such as?”

Tanner took out a cigarette from a crumpled pack and ran a thumbnail over the head of a kitchen match, a flare resulting. His face looked a dirty reddish-yellow in the match light and he smiled at his old schoolmate. The smile more a grimace. He blew it out; the darkness felt cooler than before.

“I have a job. Delivery. It’s your old stomping grounds, the college. I  don’t really have the time tonight, bud, and you know the area well. How about it?”

Damien stared at him, the cigarette that dangled between his lips. Bartering, one thing for another. He remembered his old dorm at Hill and Ash, the union with the stone benches and fountain where they hung out and watched the girls. The cherry trees in the spring and the snow blanketing the massive steps of the administration building. He remembered his younger self: excited, maybe too fearless, but carving out a life he hoped to feel better about. Feeling stronger each time he got over the next hurdle. What mattered now? 

“Tanner. Really? You want me to be your delivery boy?”

He stepped way from the van and Tanner did the same.

“A very small  price. You get fifty pills. I get a job done. Not bad. Or do you want money? Of course not. You don’t want to be a drug dealer. That’s my job. You only want the drug, cheap. It’s a good trade, my friend. Time’s wasting’.” He slouched toward his car, looked at his watch, cigarette tip glowing.

Damien listened to the night. The frogs were singing in the distance.  A bird called out, then there was a flutter of wings from one tree to another. A car was trundling down the road and Damien knew Tanner was itchy, ready to roll. He felt his throat constrict, heart thump.

“Hey! You’re in the wrong place, man!”

Tanner shouted an obscenity, got in his car and roared off.

The voice boomed across the road. “Is that Damien Harper’s sorry van? What’re you up to, son?”

It was Old Burl. The town drunk for forty years, sober for about ten, he’d heard. Had finally gotten married, too. Good woman, Marie; met her in AA. He hadn’t seen the man since spring, at the parts store. Damien heard him gun the engine a little so he walked up to the vintage powder blue Cadillac. They shook hands.

Old Burl spoke first. “That was Tanner.” 

“Yeah.”

The old man cleared his throat and leaned his head out the window to better see him. “Well, why don’t you come by for a cup of coffee?”

“I don’t know–at this time of night?”

“This is as good a time as any, from what I can tell.”

Old Burl nodded at him and started down the road. Damien stood and looked around, then up. A capricious wind spread clouds across the inscrutable face of the night. Before too long, it would be autumn with a gorgeous harvest moon. Then winter again. So much time was going by. Damien had been so certain once that he would never get to twenty, then thirty. He could live as though he meant it or let life drift through his fingers. All that he had to do tonight was stay clean. Hang on and get through it.

Damien walked over to his rattling van and got in. Then he pulled up behind Old Burl nice and easy so stray rocks wouldn’t mar the Caddy.