William Soldan

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.

Sometimes.

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).