The Group as Lifeboat

In the back of the nondescript rectangular room is a small circle of chairs, enough to seat eight. The lights are mostly turned off. It is a twilit, quieting space. This is the second story, and the picture windows overlook a neighborhood street. Rain cascades over cars and drums buses as they swish and rumble on their way to other places. The west hills are veiled in darkness and punctuated with yellow blooms of light.

It is dinnertime for many. For those that enter and take these seats, it is time to get honest.

The women stream through the door I have unlocked; most of them greet each other and me with easy familiarity. As they settle, I fan out the meditation cards and stand in the center, stopping by each person as she chooses the card she likes. The colors are key to their choices; they are bright and textured with designs that attract the eye. It is misleading. The words relay ideas that require thought and ask hard questions.

The check in goes smoothly. After months of weekly group, the old-timers know it by heart, and the new ones catch on: name, drug of choice, sober/clean date, why here in addictions treatment, number of sober support meetings, and good or not-good events the past week. And then they begin, first with meditation cards, then with their own stories.

D. reads her card. What is the passion of her life and how can she give it a higher place? She turns the card over in her hands, looks closer, as though to discern the answer within hues and letters.

“I don’t know. Maybe someone else wants this card?” She laughs but no one reaches for it. “All I want is to get a job and quit couch-surfing, you know?  I don’t sit around and ask myself what is my passion. Okay, weed, heroin. Alcohol. Those have been my passions for about as long as I can remember. I’m thirty-nine.” She grabs a strand of dark hair in her fingers and twirls it unconsiously. “But that was three months ago. Today, I guess my passion is to…stay clean. Usually.”

K. asks, “How? I didn’t see you at the AA meeting you said you were going to. I told you I’d even pick you up if you called.”

D. casually tosses the card and I catch it.

“I was busy with my boyfriend. He needed help with something, the ducks. We feed them every Saturday at the pond. That’s good for me, too. A little walk there and then we hang out.”

K. bites her lip and the other women look hard at D., then away. Except one, M., who says only, “But he was high. And you used to sell weed there.”

D. shrugs but her eyes water. “Well, he has to quit. He goes to court next week. Who knows when I will see him again? Prison is a long time away. Another country away. First me, now him.”

I wait and let silence fill the room. D. grabs a tissue and presses it against her eyes. They are large and grey-green in the dim light. I notice she has worn different clothing lately, a t-shirt rather than a low-cut sequined top. D. looks small as she sits there, younger than her age despite the lines on her forehead and around her eyes.

“He’s been with me since way back, since I was twenty-five, since I first got into trouble dealing. You know, he’s got my back, I’ve got his.”

A small hiss of sound is emitted from the other side of the circle. R. looks straight at D. “But where are you both now? Almost the same place as back then. I think you need to cut him loose.”

I can see D. close the door,  step back into safety where words and reality sting less, are sometimes not even heard. I speak.

“I see you doing that thing where you disappear. If you disappear when you hear something hard you might do the same old thing as before. Same ole tape will play out. Your passions will remain the man and the drugs. You could forget about this new way.”

Nothing.

“Where are you now?”

She draws herself up tight in the chair, pulls her knees to her chest, and her face changes from empty to hard to as soft as I have ever seen it. Her voice is small like her. “I used to dance. I mean, before I was a dancer, at the clubs. You know, leotards and tights and sweet little ballet shoes. Recitals and stuff. That’s what I thought about when I read the card. Passion. I had it for dancing. So long ago. But by the time I was eighteen I did something else with it. For money. Drugs. Attention.  Whatever else came along with it. I stopped caring. At least on the outside.” Her eyes blink, close.

I lean in to the circle, towards her more fully. “I’m sorry it was like that. You did what you thought had to be done then. There is such sadness coming up now that you’re clean and sober… But you can choose to create a different life as long as you don’t use.”

Tears trickle down her face as her eyes open.”Stay clean, talk. Listen, too. But hell, it isn’t easy.”

A murmur ripples across the group. I see heads nodding. They give her encouragement, suggest that she start dancing for fun. In a safe way.

“Forget the overfed ducks, come to an AA dance next week-end, ” someone suggests.

“Turn on the music in the living room and let it go,” says another.

“If I had one of my own,” D. tartly reminds them.

“Well, damn! Dance in the rain if you want–with us,” says another and they laugh and shimmy a little in their seats, snap their fingers.

And so it continues. One thought leads to another as each woman takes her turn. I sit, keep watch. Guide the group as unobtrusively as possible, a navigator in a sturdy boat travelling into deeper waters, feeling the change in winds, sensing the balance shifts, staying aware of any danger signals.

It is a powerful current, this giving and taking, as it passes from person to person. It changes the space into a refuge, and the women undergo subtle alterations as they participate in the healing. Permission is given: they can say what they need to here. They can speak the truth.

This is an ancient way but I may be the only one in the room who knows this right now. It has occurred everywhere, across cultures. How many aeons have women gathered like this, spoken from the heart? Yet many have forgotten the formidable force of authenticity when shared with others who care.

Even now the new woman tries to keep emotion from her face. But there it is: frozen grief. Heat that looks like ice. Pain that has been turned so far inward that it looks like meanness. It is one of the looks women wear when they have been brutalized emotionally and physically and cannot find their way back to wholeness. The wounds leave a legacy of self-hate  and a pessimism that is so deep it refuses kindness out of utter disbelief.

And yet. They open their mouths and tentative truth emerges. They start to reach beyond the impenetrable walls. Nothing bad happens here.

So the women take turns, sharing about their lives, children they want back, the health they are working on. They talk about figuring out how to be calm in the midst of stress and strong when they feel weak. They pass on information, like how to start college, how to get housing and dental care.

They tell each other they don’t know if love exists, yet love is all they want. Love for their real selves (“whoever I am now that I’m sober”). To feel deserving of it. They speak of self-forgiveness and by doing so, they also forgive each other of the crimes against life, and themselves, that they may have committed.

The new member fidgets in her chair and looks at the clock. She wishes she wasn’t here. She wants to talk on her phone, get something to eat, get high with her lover or drunk at her favorite bar. A crazy bunch of women: what on earth can they do for her?

I ask her what she thinks. She raises an eyebrow and fixes on a spot just past my head, outside. The city.

“I never liked women. Can’t trust them. Never know what they will do. I’m not too sure I want to stay in this group.”

D. says. “I never liked women, either. But, then, I never liked myself. Come back next week.”

The hour and a half comes to a close. The room is warm but it isn’t the weather or the thermostat. It is the energy generated by a group of women who are some of our best renewable resources. They are coming alive.

They help me put up the chairs and say good-bye. They trail out in pairs, talking, laughing. The new woman straggles behind until D. catches her by the arm, encourages her just enough.

The February evening reveals its beauty as the lights are turned out. The rain sings in the distance. I shut the door softly behind me.

(Written for my Tuesday night Women’s Recovery group. You have been the one of the best parts of the job I have just  left. I am on to other work with other courageous women but will not forget you.)

New Tree City, as Pen Sees It

The look-out is the monster maple in our back yard; it’s the main place I like to be, especially when dad gets home and relaxes on the porch. His spot and my spot both overlook the hilly area behind our garden. He watches the tomatoes, cucumbers, squash or sugar peas grow and ripen–whatever is in season, we tend. I guess he  must look at the hills and woods and remembers what it was like when he grew up here with Pops and Gram, but they’re both long gone. He has told me how there wasn’t a house for at least a mile in all directions back then. Now we live on a paved street at the edge of town and Marionville just keeps creeping past the corner where they finally put a stop sign. A few good cars had to get bashed and a half-dozen lives of cats and dogs ended before it mattered. Now it’s a four-way stop. Dad says it doesn’t mean anything; nothing will stop the town from spilling over the hills and up here.

I’m who he has now. He calls me his blue-eyed soul girl because I like Motown music and because I’m the only girl left, I guess. Mom took off last year. She found out she could make more money as a medical receptionist down below, some small city by Ann Arbor. She has this new person in her life, a girlfriend named Lela. Don’t ask me what that’s all about because dad doesn’t say a thing so I’m not going to ask. I don’t see Mom much since she moved out. She calls once a week or I do. I haven’t met Lela but maybe one day I will. I miss mom too much some days, others not so much. When you get down to it, dad is about what I have, too, except for three good friends at school and a couple of neighbors I like to fish and ski with, meet for a Saturday movie at the Miracle Theater. It’s strange growing up with just a dad but we always did get along better than mom and me. I didn’t ask him to go school shopping with me, though. Telly’s mom took me and got me a bra, too. He hasn’t noticed which is a relief. I’m afraid it will upset him, my growing up already.

Dad says I’m better at climbing trees and running than most boys and he’s right about that. I’m eleven, I can outrun most of the guys around here, and I’m a strong cross-country skier and better downhill skier. He says when I turn twelve I might get faster or maybe slower. We’ll find out in three weeks, after my birthday. I have no intention of slowing down. I can’t help being strong and fast, it just suits me, as mom says.

The reason I spend so much time in the upper third of this maple is because I can see everything. And it’s peaceful. I can survey a small kingdom. There are the Scranton hills, named after Jonas Scranton’s farm that went under before I was born. They’re a relief no matter what the season, they just roll out their colors and designs: mind-freezing beauty. I get a great view of Marionville spreading out beyond the bottom of the hills, namely the south end of the lake, several businesses and the jumping waterfront park. The big woods on the far side of the lake are special after it goes dark. Yellow and white spots shine here and there until the dense trees are sparkling like they’re full of fairy lights.  And I get a decent view of Telly Martin’s place to my right, where he, his parents and sisters live by Silver Creek, in their chalet. Especially their back yard, which is where most of the interesting action is at any house. They’re always doing something, like badminton and barbecuing. I haven’t been there in a few weeks and I miss them even though the two girls are younger and like Barbies too much. My mom, I know, enjoyed Telly’s mom; they had coffee many mornings. But no one asks about her.

Telly and I used to hang out more; he’s fourteen now. I think he also wonders about my dad. One time Telly came by, dad was sitting in the rocker by the scarred square wooden table he uses for about everything. A glass was in his hand so he didn’t reach out to shake Telly’s, as is his way. A big ole bottle of Jack Daniels was next to his book, likely a complicated spy novel he can get lost in. The reading has always been his pleasure, but the whiskey came out after spring break. Before that, a cold beer on a warm week-end was all I saw.

“Come around to see my Penny, eh, Telly?” dad said. He’d had two small glasses already. Three is his limit but it should be one. Or none.

Telly shrugged. “We were going to take a walk. I keep seeing a red fox at the creek. Real pretty.” His hands were in his jeans pockets. He smiled nice.

“Never mind the fox, son, and never mind my daughter. She’s too young to go off with a young man.” 

“Dad, I’ve known Telly for six years–” I protested. It was shocking to hear him talk like that.

“That’s right. He was eight, you were barely six. Played all day.  That was then. This is now. We don’t need more trouble.”

Telly frowned, then winked at me with each eye, our way of saying “later.” He left before I could stop him. But I can see him in his yard; we keep an eye on each other in lots of ways. In fact, my dad doesn’t even know we leave notes under a big loose rock in the field stone wall that divides the Martin’s property from the empty lot between us. That goes back at least four years. Still, I’ve had some doubts about Telly this fall. He’s like a polite acquaintance when I see him in school and hangs out with the first person to move into New Tree City. That’s what dad and I call it.

A developer bought ten acres of the hills and planted skinny, skimpy trees, some maple and some poplar, a little bunch of white pine. It was re-named New Scranton Hills. They brought their big earth-moving machines and started digging up the rich, sweet earth. First time I saw it I winced. It hurt my bones, even my teeth. Dad swore.

So what dad really watches since spring are the new houses cropping up like morel mushrooms. Only he likes those so much he’s on a mission to gather them every spring.

“That’s what’s wrong with Marionville. It can’t stand being the same year after year. It keeps looking to progress but it’ll end up being just like any other fast-growing town. They’re all the  same. Like white bread, right, Pen?”

He took another swallow–I could hear him cough a little–and I grasped the next branch, got a familiar foothold and pulled myself up higher. The leaves were starting to fall and a red one landed on my face. It smelled ancient and comforting.

“Well, dad, nothing can stay the same forever, probably.” I zipped up my hoodie against the autumn chill.

“There you go, that’s the mentality your mother has, our county has, the whole blasted country has. Gotta be bigger, fancier, more, more, more.”

I looked down through a new hole made by leaves falling. He was on his second glass and already he was getting miserable. I had a mind to shimmy down and grab that whiskey bottle and pour it in the garden, let the bugs and squash get tipsy for once. They’d probably just get sick, though.

“Well, no one knows this land like all of us up here, dad. And for sure no one loves it more than you. Pops would be happy you haven’t sold out.”

He chuckled. “That’s right, Pen. No selling out. You can bury me right here, too.”

I looked out over the land and blinked, then looked again. There was a house going up that looked way too big for the land it had grabbed. The carpenters were done for the day, and the frame they had left was a three-story something that dwarfed the new trees and the houses on either side. It hinged on being a mini-mansion from what I could tell. I wondered if it was one of those community places where there would be an indoor swimming pool, rooms to throw big celebrations in, maybe a game room for things like billiards.  I pressed against the sturdy trunk and leaned out a bit, parted the leaves. But it might just be a house, with all those options in it. You could fit four of our house into that building. It made me dizzy to think of it,  excited and mad all at once.

“You hear me, Pen? I don’t want you to start making friends with any of those people, okay? That’s the type young Telly might go for now, you wait. New Tree City people just don’t belong up here.” He banged his glass on the table. “Period.”

But I was gazing out at the lake and the woods and the sky beyond. A silky wash of dusk and then twilight colors spread over the treetops of the lake’s far shore and they glowed for a minute. It got so intense, that’s all there was: oranges, pinks, yellows, then night blues but with a weird light of gold fanning out over the world. The tiny fairy brights lit up the blackened woods after that.  I was alone but happy in my treetop. My dad had given in to whiskey or sadness or maybe sleep. I understood this: he wanted to forget some things and remember others. But New Tree City sat mostly empty of memories while I had nearly twelve whole years in this place. I really held the whole world in my arms. It fit me just right. I’d write a note to Telly about it in the morning; he always got it.

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.

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.

This Blue Dress, Worn by Citrine

Another overnight rainstorm had pummeled the earth until leaves and flowers bent in surrender.  The air smelled faintly of mud and lilacs as Nora opened her balcony doors to survey a brightening sky above roof lines and treetops. Two stories below her, the neighbors’ long driveway was filling up with tables and a couple of old chairs. Marty and his wife, Hanna, were setting up for a yard sale despite the iffy forecast.

“Hey, Nora!” Marty called. “Anything you want to add to our mess?”

“No, thanks,” Nora answered, waving back. “I just donated a pile of things to the shelter.”

She thought about the boxes of shoes and purses she hadn’t unloaded yet. They gaped at her daily whenever she entered her bedroom; it was hard to let go of old, still-good leather products. She chided herself. They ought to be relieved of their uselessness and passed on. Nora set her teacup down on the tiny glass-topped table, dragged out two boxes, and started eliminating, haphazard pile growing. Then she consolidated the “toss” items and took them down to Hanna, who encouraged her to be generous with low pricing. She found the whole thing tedious and tiring, so retreated back to her balcony.

People started to show up at eight-forty-five and for good reason. Marty and Hanna had a wide array of cheap offerings and customers rooted through books and old LPs, DVDs, jewelry and clothing. They admired a buffet and brocaded wing-back chairs. Nora noted that two pair of her shoes were bought. The garage held enticing cast-offs, from exercise equipment to older bikes to a 50-piece rose-covered china set the couple had avoided using for twenty years. Nora watched as she finished her muffin, licked her fingers. What did people want with so many used things? It struck her that the more one got rid of, the more one felt compelled to replace.  She bet most of the shoppers had things falling out of closets at home. She picked up her cup and plate; she had work to do.

Nora was turning to step inside when a flash of azure blue caught her eye. She looked closely at the clothesline strung across the drive. A long, sleeveless cotton dress hung at the end of the line, swinging in a the fresh breeze.  An ivory lace scarf trailed from its scoop neck. A wave of shock raced through her. She ran downstairs, around the corner and up the driveway and when she reached for the dress, it was gone. Frantic, she searched the arms of several women in the cash-and-carry line. When it wasn’t to be found Nora walked to the garage and scanned the dim interior. And there it was: slung carelessly over the arm of a teen-aged girl in tight, raggedy blue jeans, flip flops and a loose, likely vintage black T-shirt with the band Guns and Roses on the back. She stood by a man who studied tools spread out on a piece of plywood settled betweentwo saw horses. Nora wanted to stop the young woman before she lost her chance but hesitated. It was only a used dress. She willed the girl to look at her but she continued to browse. When Hannah called out to Nora and asked if she might spell her at the check-out table, Nora reluctantly left the garage and took up her post.

She watched three of her purses and another pair of shoes leave the premises. She was glad they were gone. The metal money-box was filling up nicely as she waited for Hanna’s return.  The more Nora thought about the dress–its soft, graceful lines with the exquisite lace scarf–the more she needed it.

When she looked up again the teen-aged girl stood before her. She put her finds on the table: three leather purses, a crock pot, gold-trimmed glass coffee carafe, four woven place mats, a pearl-embellished sweater. And one long blue dress with scarf.

“Looks like you’ve done well today,” Nora said, breathing shallowly.

“Well, it’s the start of my shopping. I better find a lot more out there.”

Nora raised her left eyebrow involuntarily and gave a half-smile. “You’re a diehard yard-saler, then?”

The girl tucked her brown and bleach-streaked hair behind her ears.   “It’s how I make money. You know, I buy and sell. I take stuff to vintage shops, second-hand shops, that sort of thing. Have to get by somehow. I’m on my own out there.” She got out her cash and counted it slowly. “So–how much?”

Nora bit the side of her lip. “I’m not sure. The dress and scarf might not be for sale.”

“What? Sure it is. I got it over there.” She nodded at the clothesline. “It’s a great warm weather dress. It costs ten bucks but I can get twice that. The scarf goes with it, too, right?”

Nora placed her hands flat on the card table and leaned forward. “I mean, I might not agree to let you buy it. I’d like it for myself.”

The girl snorted. “Well, you know, first come, first serve! I get that you like it but my dibs. Now, what do I owe, lady?”

Nora looked at the rumpled wad of bills in the girl’s hand and then at the dress. Only ten dollars on the sticker. How could something like that be had for so little? She stood up.

“Look, here’s the thing. I really need this dress, too. It matters to me. I don’t know how it got there. It must have been left behind in the house and no one knew it was there or cared. But it belonged to someone, someone who used to live right here. An important person.”

“Come on, everything at a yard sale belonged to somebody…what are you saying?”

“It belonged to Citrine. Citrine Devlin. My best friend. ” Nora felt the tears hot at her eyelids and looked up at her balcony. “I live up there. And Citrine lived in the lower level of this house until last year.”

The teen-ager examined the scarf and whistled. “Wow. Citrine. A very sweet name. Different.” She smoothed the rich blue cotton of the dress.

“Yes. Unique, really. Like her.”  Nora saw Hanna come up to the table and hover. “She was the sort of friend you always look for but hardly ever find. You know what I mean? Just a really good woman.”

Hanna touched Nora on the back. “I’ll take my spot back. Thanks. Isn’t it great the sun came out! I guess you’re all set to buy?” she asked the girl.

“Not yet.” The teen moved aside and let the next person ahead. “So what happened? To this Citrine person?”

But Nora was walking down the driveway, trying to stand tall and not run, stifling the urge to scream at the ignorant girl, the careless neighbors who put out that dress, the wretched wet flowers. She had been blind-sided, that was all. She wasn’t expecting the dress to show up, to remind her.

“Wait!” The teen-ager caught up with her. “I don’t want to wreck your day.  It’s just a dress, but–”

Nora stopped but didn’t turn. “Drunk driver. An pretty night in June. On her way back the little art gallery she owned; there had been a show opening. It was eleven when she left; I left right before her by about ten minutes. The moon looked amazing as I left downtown, drove up into these hills. We were going to have coffee the next morning, talk about the opening, her own work. But she was gone before I even got home that night, you understand? Some kid, a guy who had been to a graduation party. Too many beers or mixed drinks or whatever his poison was.” Tears fell like shiney stars from her eyes, and plummeted down her cheeks. “Isn’t it a random, crazy world? We don’t know what’s coming most of the time.”

The girl suddenly spun her around; she held tight to Nora’s arm. Then she closed her dark eyes, and when she opened them they were wide and still, but smoky with her own thoughts. “I know how it is; I lost somebody. Heroin overdose. So: the blue dress and scarf should be yours. Have to be. There are things that need to be with a special person. And you’re the keeper of that treasure from then on. ”

She held Citrine’s dress out to Nora, then put down her bag of items and wrapped Nora in her thin arms. They stood that way as the lilac bushes whispered nothing of import and raindrops shook free from above and wet their hair,  with one blue dress and delicate scarf safe between them.