The Thirteenth Step
Wednesday night and I’m in the back making coffee while out front Rico moves in on some new girl with the subtlety of a circling vulture. There’s a name for guys like this—Thirteenth Steppers—and meetings are full of them.
The girl’s probably twenty-two twenty-three but could be forty. Looks like she’s just been dragged through the nine circles of hell and barely lived to tell about it. Hair a nest of scorched red ends and black roots. She doesn’t have the mean, bitter eyes and pinched face of someone court ordered. She’s desperate to make a change.
At least tonight she is.
The coffee urn gurgles like a wheezing lung as I set out the cream and sugar—lots of sugar—and go out to finish setting up: literature table, collection basket, 50/50 tickets, laminated step cards with curled edges. My sponsor told me doing these things would help keep me straight. He called it service. He called it giving back.
But that was before he relapsed and got locked up, so I’m still not sold.
Rico places a hand on the new girl’s back, begins the regurgitated litany of maxims and stock slogans: Welcome Home. Easy Does It. One Day at a Time. It Works if You Work It. And so on. They’re taped up all over the podium, promises for a better way of life. Promises made and sometimes kept.
Some of us are still waiting for the Awakening. To be Happy, Joyous, and Free. A day at a time. Still waiting.
I’ve been keeping busy like I was told. A meeting a day, sometimes more if I get the day off at the carwash because of rain. I was told, You drank every day, you need a meeting every day. What I wasn’t told was for how long—how long until such dedication bears fruit.
Before, I was rarely ever at home, and when I was, I still wasn’t, not really. That’s what my wife used to say. And she was right about that. The irony is that I’m still hardly there. “You’ve traded hanging around drunks for hanging around drunks,” she tells me damn near every night I come strolling in around eleven. And of course, she’s still right.
Last week she asked me, “Those meetings—how long are they usually?”
“About an hour.”
She looked at the clock on the wall beside the fridge. “You’ve been gone four.”
“That’s just the meeting,” I said. “There’s more to it than that. You’ve got to set up and tear down, meet people, build a support system.” What I didn’t tell her is that I no longer have a sponsor, and instead of engaging in fellowship afterward, I drive around town, past old haunts, sometimes park and sit for hours outside a bar or a liquor store just to see how long until I cave.
“Uh-huh,” she said. “And this?” She gestured around the room, then picked up a pile of unpaid bills. “And these?”
“Donna, I’m trying real hard,” I said.
“You want support, fine,” she said. “But I could use a little bit my damn self.”
As she walked out of the room, it occurred to me that nothing’s really changed except now I remember things in the morning and don’t wake up with broken bones and blood on my clothes. There’s still this distance, and no matter how many drinks I don’t take I can’t close the gap. There’s no longer anything to blur the damage I’ve caused, and the more drinks I don’t take, the more I’m forced to see.
I’ve put her through a lot.
Can’t even count the number of times she had to stop me from pissing in the pantry or taking a shit in the clothes hamper.
One of my last blackouts, I came to around noon the next day. Bedroom door in splintered fragments all over the hall floor. My knuckles gashed and swollen. She’d been fixing me some food to help soak up the booze I’d been swimming in since breakfast, when I passed out. She tried to wake me and I flipped, went through the door like a rabid ape. Then I went outside and beat the hell out of our charcoal grill with a lead pipe until it was a dented heap of scrap. Woke up the entire neighborhood. I didn’t remember any of it, but the evidence was all there. Like the path of destruction in the wake of a tornado. And all because she wanted to love me.
Some guy from out of town, an old ex-marine named Mitch, is sharing his story. Rico keeps getting up to get the new girl more coffee. He sits really close to her, staring at her tits and whispering in her ear as she sips from the paper cup clutched between her shaky palms. She looks uncomfortable, but occasionally smiles at something he says. A smile that looks false and out of options.
Mitch says he was dishonorably discharged and almost sent to federal prison for selling stolen assault rifles on the streets of D.C. before he got sober. “I’m an alcoholic of the truly hopeless variety,” he tells the room, and from the looks of his burst capillaries, his drifting right eye, that much is probably true. “If I couldn’t get my hands on any whiskey, I’d mix up some canned heat, and that’d be good enough for me.” I’ve heard of guys doing that. Strain Sterno gel through an old sock or a loaf of bread to extract the ethanol. The Bowery bums call it squeeze. Tastes like hell and rots the optic nerve, but they say it works in a pinch. “In the end, I ran into a pharmacy and guzzled a bottle of aftershave before the cops showed up,” he says. “By then my organs were shutting down and I’d lost the sight in one eye.” He leans over the podium, and scans the room, his right eye like a loose ball bearing rattling around in his skull.
After the “What It’s Like Now” segment of Mitch’s lead, he takes a seat while this month’s chair person, Eileen, thanks him for sharing his experience, strength, and hope, then presents him with a Xeroxed certificate which everyone has signed like a Get Well card.
Eileen’s a spitfire. Can’t seem to open her mouth without letting you know just how far down the scale she’d gone before arriving here. “They used to call me ‘Eileen the Blowjob Queen,’” she tells everyone she meets in the rooms, as if this amount of disclosure will put their minds at ease. Her end of the road was some fleabag motel in West Virginia. She’d held up a liquor store, smoked a bunch of crack, and had a shootout with the police for over an hour befor she ran out of bullets. The incident was on the show Cops, which makes her the closest thing to a celebrity most of us will ever meet. Now Eileen runs her own appliance rental and repo business and is working on a master’s degree in business or accounting or something like that. She’s one of the successes, I guess.
Men and women aren’t supposed to sponsor each other for obvious reasons, but Eileen’s the only person I’ve met since mine went off the rails that I can take seriously, who doesn’t seem to be putting on a show or looking for praise. The new girl would be in good hands with her. But when I look across the room after the raffle and the Lord’s Prayer, the table where she and Rico were sitting is empty.
Before clearing the tables and putting up the chairs, I check outside, where several people stand around smoking, drinking coffee, and telling war stories. In the parking lot, I see the new girl climb into a car driven by an old woman who looks like she could be her grandmother. Rico bends down and smiles at the old woman through the passenger window. He nods. No, the pleasure is all mine, the nod says. She’ll be in good hands here. He jots something down on a scrap of paper, then hands it to the girl and makes a gesture. Call me.
He watches as they drive away. When he turns to walk toward his car, he sees me looking and smiles the innocent smile of a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar. The parking lot lights shimmer off his greasy bald scalp, his gold chain twinkles and gleams. As he moves, his nylon track suit whispers hush with each step he takes.
Driving home, I think about the old marine, drinking Sterno squeeze like some Depression wino, about how, during those last six months or so, my wife had begun to wonder where all her baking extracts had gone and why she had to buy a new bottle of Listerine once a week.
“I had the freshest breath in town,” I sometimes joke. You can do that after awhile. Hindsight has a way of bringing out the humor in certain things, if you let it.
But my wife has yet to laugh.
“I don’t see what’s so damn funny about it,” she says any time I try to lighten the mood by joking about the time I puked all over her nice down comforter and blamed it on the cat. Or the time I fell asleep on the john, pants down and the door wide open at our son’s sixth birthday party. Or when I tackled that animated Halloween store dummy after I triggered the motion sensor and thought it was waving a knife me.
“It’s important to be able to laugh at yourself,” I tell her on these occasions. “It’s part of the recovery process.”
“Yeah,” she says, “you keep saying that.”
Rico used to manage a strip club, Mustang Sally’s out on Route 7. He dealt dope to the dancers and arranged escorts for old men and truckers on the sly. When the owner caught wind of it and canned him, Rico took his business, as well as some of the girls he’d hooked, over to the South Side and started running them out of a bar called The Sundown.
My lust for strange women is one of my many shortcomings, so I’ve heard some things. Like how he would stake out the recovery meetings over at the outpatient clinic, offer rides to girls fresh out of treatment, clean but still mixed up in the head. Give them free dope before their past experiences reminded them that there is no such thing.
Rico glosses over that part of his story during the Sunday evening panel discussion at Fellowship Hall. Might make him look bad in front of the new girl, who finally stood and introduced herself at the beginning of the meeting: Hi, I’m Nikki, alcoholic addict.
The way he tells it, he was up to a gallon of bottom-shelf gin a day before his broken spirit just couldn’t take any more. “I had a spiritual malady,” he says, looking down at his laced fingers and shaking his head. “But now I got a program, thanks to my Higher Power.” Points a gold-ringed finger toward the ceiling. “I got to hit my knees first thing in the morning and last thing at night and pray for that strength.” He looks up and there’s a collective nod. “Got to turn my will over and give freely to others what was freely given.” A murmuring assent.
It could be any one of them up there talking. They all sound the same, every damn one.
Nikki’s sitting in the far corner near the exit. She still looks weathered, out of her element—You and me both, I think—but she looks better than she did on Wednesday. She’s got a new dye job. Copper waves and frosted tips. Face a shade brighter, as if someone has nudged a dimmer switch somewhere inside her. The ash-gray motes around her eyes have faded a bit. It could be the makeup, though. Just as likely an illusion.
She looks in my direction, and I offer a nod, a casual smile. She smiles back. For a moment that smile gets me thinking about the things I could do to her, that we could do to each other. The urges we could foster. The sorrows we could subdue. But with no chemical buffer between these thoughts and my desire to be decent, the moment passes quickly, and I just feel disgusted with myself.
When the discussion is over, Rico returns to the table where Nikki is sitting. He’s done a good job keeping her isolated, even in these crowded rooms. Always whispering in her ear or pointing out something on the meeting schedule, something in the Big Book. There have been some disapproving glances, but no one ever says anything. It’s typical. Pay lip service to the program, then turn a blind eye when shit gets shady. Seems to be the common approach. Less than a year in and I’ve figured out this much.
Of course, these are the kinds of things I’m supposed to work through with my sponsor—reservations, resentments, the bondage of self. But even if mine didn’t jump ship, I suspect I’d have my doubts.
I try to tell myself, Maybe you should stop thinking so damn much. It’s rarely done you any good. Take your own inventory. Rico’s business is none of yours.
But when I see them get into his Jag after the meeting lets out—Nikki in a pair of tight black pants and spiked heels, Rico in his gators and creased jeans—I decide that on second thought, maybe it is.
When it comes to righting one’s wrongs, making amends, some are easier than others. Paying off outstanding debts, for instance. Depending on the amount, it might take some time, but it’s straight forward. When it’s done, it’s done. Some bridges stay burned, but that’s just how it goes.
It’s the emotional wreckage of those close to you—sometimes it seems there’s no fixing that.
My wife and son should have been first on the list, always, but they’re more than just names to scratch a line through. Apologies become empty phrases, and I’ve done little to show them.
And how can I?
My wife, she still cries in her sleep. Things I’ve said and done etched so deep she can’t escape them even in her dreams—the women, the lies, the broken doors.
And my boy, T.J.—he’s nine years old and looks at me like someone he’s just met, someone he fears to be left alone with. Ruined birthdays and Christmas mornings. I showed up to his school talent show drunk last year and started shouting obscenities at a young girl who laughed at him when he went on stage. I was escorted out by several large men. He still gets picked on because of that, gets off the bus every day looking like he’s carrying the whole cruel world on his back.
How the hell do you make up for something like that?
Avoiding home, I follow them from the meeting to The Sundown, sit in my pickup and wait for them to come out. They exit the bar about an hour after going in, and Nikki can barely stand. Rico’s got an arm around her as he talks on his cell and guides her toward the Jag.
Following, I hang back.
He makes two stops. First, JQ’s drive-thru on South and Judson. Five blocks north, a seedy three-story Foursquare with a slanted porch and blacked out windows. Security cameras hanging from the peeling eaves. Pit bull pacing the front yard at the end of a fat chain.
For several minutes, they just sit in the car with the headlights off, then Rico gets out and goes around to the side of the house to where I can’t see from half a block away. A minute later he’s back in the car, rolling slow. He glides and weaves into the Valley, over Center Street Bridge and across the river. East Side, creeping along cracked and sloped streets. Hazelton, La La Land, Plaza View Projects, The Brooks. Dodge City—a bad place to call home.
I’m with them, a block back, until they turn onto a weedy strip of pavement and park beside a darkened bungalow. The street’s a dead end. No Outlet. Just a guardrail and chain link and tangled trees reaching through. Idling at a gang-tagged stop sign, I watch as Rico guides her from behind. Moments later: the glow of candlelight guttering through an upstairs curtain.
When after a while they don’t emerge, I turn around and head back home, to all its loud silence.
It’s not that late, but I’ve been gone all day. When I walk in, T.J retreats into his video games and my wife retreats to the bedroom. They don’t have to grant me forgiveness. Hopefully someday they will. Hopefully I will learn to show them I’ve changed. Hopefully I have.
My faith in the program, the steps, is tenuous at best. I see wolves and I see sheep and I see that we’re all of us one or the other. I see that you can change all the aspects of your life they say to change—people, places, and things—but natures are seldom overcome.
If I make it till midnight, I’ll have another twenty-four hours under my belt. One more day of walking a straight line on solid ground to show for a lifetime of being lost at sea. Maybe a day closer to that serenity I keep hearing about.
I sit for hours in the kitchen, in darkness save for the hall light pooling on the floor, and stare at the book in front of me. The one that’s supposed to have all the answers. I sit for hours and think, She thinks I’m drinking again. And with my growing dread that I’ll never be absolved, I begin to think that maybe I should be.
William R. Soldan graduated with his BA in English from Youngstown State University and is currently a student in the Northeast Ohio MFA program, where he studies Fiction Writing. He’s previously had work published in venues such as The Raw Alternative, Quail Bell, Sanitarium, The Fictioneer, Flyd County Moonshine, and others. He also recently attended the Juniper Summer Writing Institute on a full scholarship. Currently, he is working on his thesis, a collection of linked stories he hopes to publish in the near future. You can follow him on Twitter @RustWriter1 or find him on Facebook (as Bill Soldan).