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A MILLION LITTLE PIECES: Chapter 12


Screaming, long and loud and hideous, like a Child being burned alive.

I sit up in my bed. It is silent and dark. I don’t know if it’s real or a dream. Then it comes again. Like a Child being burned alive.

I get out of my bed and I walk out of my room and I head toward the scream. It’s coming from the Main Rooms of the Unit and with each step that I take it becomes louder and more intense. It’s like a fucking Child being burned alive.

I’m scared. The hair on the back of my neck is standing and the hair on my arms is standing and my heart is thudding and my ears are ringing and it’s louder and more intense with each step. I want it to stop. I’m scared. Poor Child. I’m scared. Poor Child.

I walk into the Upper Level. There are a couple of other men there and they are staring down at the Lower Level with stunned faces. I follow their eyes and the sounds of the screams, which are echoing through the room, and I see Roy standing on top of a couch holding a thick, brutal wooden stick, short like a battering ram, with a bloody, fragmented tip. He is waving the stick around, swinging at invisible enemies, and screaming at the top of his lungs. His clothes, which are old and torn, are covered in dirt and blood, as are his arms and his face and his hair, and his eyes are wide and empty, the whites a deep furnace red, the pupils an endless black.

More men arrive, drawn in by the horrible shrieking screams, and they stand around the Upper Level watching Roy, unsure of what to do or how to react, unsure if there’s a way to stop him. He has increased the pace of his madness and he is jumping up and down on the couch, banging the stick against its back with one hand and clawing at his face with the other. Spit is flying from his mouth and particles of blood are staining the carpet and the walls and it appears as if he’s pissed his pants or is in the process of pissing his pants. He does not appear to notice that there is anybody else in the Room.

Lincoln arrives with a large man wearing a gray outfit and carrying a handheld radio who I assume is some sort of Security. They stand at the top of the stairs for a moment, watching Roy and talking quietly. When they stop talking, they begin descending the stairs and Roy stops screaming and he glares at them and he raises his stick and he waves it at them.

Why are you trying to kill me?

Lincoln speaks. Quietly and calmly.

Roy?

Why are you trying to kill me?

We’re not trying to kill you, Roy.

They reach the bottom of the stairs and they stop.

Who is Roy?

Lincoln steps forward, the man stays.

Are you on something, Roy?

Roy jumps up and down on the couch. He shakes his stick.

I AM NOT ROY.

Lincoln steps forward.

Who are you?

My name is Jack and I’ll kill you. I’LL KILL YOU, YOU MOTHERFUCKER.

Lincoln turns and nods to the man and the man starts talking into his radio. Lincoln turns back to Roy.

Hi, Jack.

I’ll bash your head in, you two-faced Bastard.

Why would you do that, Jack?

’Cause I’m a Killer. A cold-blooded mercenary Killer.

Two more men in gray arrive. The original man clears his throat. Lincoln turns around, motions them forward with his head, and steps toward Roy. The men reach into their pockets and they draw out latex gloves and they put them on.

Why don’t you give me the stick, Jack?

Roy shakes the stick.

This ain’t no stick, it’s a cudgel. A man-hammer.

The men move forward.

Why don’t you put down the cudgel, Jack.

Pry it from my cold dead fingers, Fuckface.

The men surround the couch, Lincoln stands in front of Roy. He is scowling and growling and moving in a circle to defend himself.

I’ll bash your heads in, you Cocksuckers.

Roy.

I’ll kill you to death till you’re dead and die, you Sons of Whores.

Roy.

The men are looking at Lincoln, Lincoln at Roy. Roy spins, waving his stick and yelling.

I’m Jack the man-hammer. I’ll smash all of you to fucking bits.

Lincoln nods at the original man, who nods to the other two men. When Roy turns his back, one of them tackles him from behind, sending his stick into the air and his body to the ground. The other two immediately jump on top of him and they grab his arms and as they try to subdue him he claws at them and he tries to bite them. When he knows he’s done and beaten he starts screaming screaming screaming. Screaming. Like a Child being burned alive.

Most of the Unit’s men have gathered on the Upper Level and they are watching as the men pick Roy up. One of them has his legs, one has his lower arms and lower torso, the third has his upper arms and upper torso. They carry him up the stairs and out of the Unit and his screams continue as they move through the Halls. Though they are certainly taking him to an unpleasant place, I doubt it will be any worse than the place he was just in. It couldn’t be. His screaming. No fucking way.

Lincoln, who has been silently watching, turns to us.

Show’s over, Boys. Go back to bed.

No one moves.

Go back to bed.

No one moves. Ted speaks.

You ain’t got nothing else for us?

A couple of laughs. Lincoln stares at Ted.

It’s not funny, Ted.

Ted speaks.

I thought it was.

Lincoln ignores him.

Go back to bed, everybody. We’ll talk about this tomorrow.

He stands and he stares until some of the men start trickling out. When they do, he walks up the stairs and he leaves. I am wide awake and I am not going back to bed. Even if I went back to bed, there is no way I could sleep. The screams are echoing in my mind. The image of the blood and spit will not leave me. The words I am not Roy are alive inside. The emptiness and insanity in his eyes haunt me. I am not going back to bed. The screams were like a Child being burned alive.

I walk over to the coffee machine and I start making the day’s first supply. I fill the filter with cheap, industrial grounds, I fill the tank with tap water, I push the on button. I stand and I wait as the water trickles through translucent brown and gurgles gurgles gurgles. When the water stops, I pour a cup of the coffee and I take a sip and it’s hot and it’s bitter and it’s good. No sugar and no cream it’s hot and bitter and good. I am not going back to bed. I am going to need the coffee. I am going to need it.

I walk over to a table a few feet away. Some men have gathered at the table and they are talking about what we just witnessed. I tell them the coffee is ready and a couple of them stand to get a cup and I sit down and I listen to them. The focus of the conversation is on what known drugs could do to a Person what was done to Roy, or more likely, what he did to himself. Crack could have done it, meth could have done it, PCP or a large dose of acid could have done it, but nothing else readily available has the necessary power. Ted thinks that it was crack. He has experienced crack-induced psychosis several times, the last when he marched down the Main Street of a small Town in Mississippi wearing a Santa suit and throwing bags filled with shit at passing cars and Pedestrians. A man I don’t know thinks it was meth and he believes that Roy probably hadn’t slept in several days and was suffering from a severe case of sleep deprivation. Everyone else thinks it was PCP or acid. Either or both have the strength to take your mind, make you see and hear things that aren’t there and drive you insane. Either or both can do this to a Person in the short term or the long term. Either or both can do this to a first-time user. The Bald Man says that Roy was a Drinker and that he hated drugs and he hated everyone who used them and that he would never have done them. He thinks he just went insane. No rhyme, no reason, just a malfunctioning mind that finally lost all. I don’t have a theory. I sit and listen and I drink my coffee and I wait for the screaming to go away.

The men drift back to bed, one by one, tired and tired of talking. They drift until I’m the last and only one awake, me and the industrial coffee and the pale, quiet walls and the slow, lonely moments and the living, shifting dark of the deepest night. I sit at the table and I smoke cigarettes and I sip my coffee. I listen to the ticking of an unseen clock and I think about how a malfunctioning mind might finally lose all and I remember. Sit stare smoke sip listen tick remember. A malfunctioning mind can lose all. It has lost all. Remember.

I remember her. I remember her tall and thin and long and blonde like the thickest silk her eyes blue eyes Arctic eyes I remember her. I remember leaving her on the afternoon I dropped off the bag of dope for Lucinda. I remember seeing her the next day. I remember not speaking to her, but wanting to speak to her and not being able to speak to her. I remember staring at her, recklessly and obviously, eyes locked and loaded and unmoving, my eyes straight into her. I remember not knowing if she noticed. I had fallen deep and hard I had fallen. I didn’t know if she noticed.

I kept staring at her for the next year. In the Street, through Hallways, on sidewalks, at a table, outside a Coffee Shop, inside a Bar, morning afternoon night. If I was where she was I stared at her. I wanted to talk to her, but I didn’t. Never hello, never how are you, never what’s up, never what’s new, I never said a word, I just stared at her. After a while I knew that she knew I was doing it, but she never told me to stop. I just stared.

She disappeared at the beginning of our third year. I didn’t know where she went and I didn’t ask anyone. It wasn’t uncommon for Students to spend time away either abroad or working, so I assumed she would be back. If she hadn’t come back, I would have left to find her. She was away away and if she hadn’t come back, I would have searched to the end of the Earth. I would have searched until I found her.

I saw her again in a Class. It was the first Class of a new Fall, fifteen months from the time of her disappearance. I walked in drunk from the night before and dizzy with dehydration and exhaustion and I took a seat in the back of the Room, away from the rest of the Students, as far away as I could get. I put my arms down on my desk and I put my head down in my arms and I closed my eyes and my head spun my stomach spun my body spun and I tried to keep myself awake and I tried to keep myself from getting sick I didn’t want to get sick on the first day of Class. I raised my head when I heard the Professor say hello, and welcome to a new year and she was there, in the front row, with Lucinda and another girl whom I had seen before, but whom I didn’t know. She was there. I hadn’t seen her in over a year. I would have searched to the end of the Earth. She was there.

I sat and stared at her. I forgot that I was drunk, forgot that I was sick, forgot that I was in Class, forgot that I was in School, forgot that I had friends, Family, a life, a name, a face, a mind. I forgot everything, forgot forgot forgot everything, and I stared at her. Though I was behind her, I could see that she had changed since I last saw her. She had gained weight, grown her hair longer, gotten a tan, and she radiated a quiet, calm confidence that hadn’t been there before. She was wearing black and the black made her hair more blonde, and though I couldn’t see, I knew it made her eyes more blue. I would have gone to the ends of the Earth.

When Class ended I didn’t want it to end I just wanted to stare she stood up and she turned around as if she knew I was there two eyes locked and loaded behind her and she stared back at me and I held her stare Arctic blue against pale green. She stared and I held it until the Class was empty and she turned around and she walked out. I took a deep breath and I followed her.

She walked through the Halls of the Building. It was the Humanities Building and it was crowded with the excitement and the noise of a new year. She walked quickly, but held at corners and in stairways long enough to let me see her way and long enough to let me know she wanted me to see her way. Arctic blue against pale green. We had held.

I lost her somewhere near the Main Entrance to the Building and I panicked. I didn’t want to lose her and I hurried outside immediately scanning looking where did she go I want to see her stare at her where did she go Arctic blue where where where and I heard a voice say my name say it clear, pure, in a strong simple way like sunlight on a rock in shallow water. Clear pure simple and strong a voice said my name James.

I stopped and I turned around and she was standing on a large, wide, stone stair, the first in a set of ten. She was standing there waiting for me.

James.

What?

Why do you stare at me?

What?

You stare at me. I want to know why.

You already know why.

I don’t.

Yes, you do.

No, I don’t.

You do, you just want to hear me say it.

Tell me why you stare.

I took a deep breath.

The first time I saw you, my heart fell. The second time I saw you, my heart fell. The third time fourth time fifth time and every time since, my heart has fallen.

I stared at her.

You are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. Your hair, your eyes, your lips, your body that you haven’t grown into, the way you walk, smile, laugh, the way your cheeks drop when you’re mad or upset, the way you drag your feet when you’re tired. Every single thing about you is beautiful.

I stared at her.

When I see you the World stops. It stops and all that exists for me is you and my eyes staring at you. There’s nothing else. No noise, no other people, no thoughts or worries, no yesterday, no tomorrow. The World just stops, and it is a beautiful place, and there is only you. Just you, and my eyes staring at you.

I stared.

When you’re gone, the World starts again, and I don’t like it as much. I can live in it, but I don’t like it. I just walk around in it and wait to see you again and wait for it to stop again. I love it when it stops. It’s the best fucking thing I’ve ever known or ever felt, the best thing, and that, beautiful Girl, is why I stare at you.

We were standing a foot apart, staring at each other, Arctic and pale, locked and loaded. The World had stopped and there was nothing else. Just me and her, Arctic and pale, locked and loaded.

She smiled.

That was beautiful.

It was true.

Thank you.

No problem.

What are you doing now?

I’ve got another Class. Then I’m gonna go get drunk.

Seriously?

Yeah.

The stories are true?

I don’t know what you’ve heard, but probably.

I was hoping they weren’t.

Don’t know what to tell you.

I took a step backward, down another stair.

I’ll see you around?

She smiled and she nodded.

Yes.

I turned and I walked away and my legs were shaking like jelly with each step down the stairs. I knew she was watching me walk away and waiting for me to turn back for another smile and I would’ve liked another smile I would have liked the World to stop and she was waiting for it, but I didn’t turn around. I kept going, an image in my mind, Arctic and pale, locked and loaded, beautiful magnificent mysterious and wonderful. It was in my mind. I knew it wasn’t going anywhere.

I listen to the tick of an unseen clock marking moments of time long passed. It takes me the tick and it holds me and it carries and keeps me like the slow swing of a pendulum before the eyes of an idiot. The World has stopped not like before and not in a good way. It has stopped and is not going forward the same way my life has stopped and is not going forward. It is not going forward or backward or anywhere at all it has just stopped. It has just stopped.

The clock holds me nowhere. Nowhere. Nowhere. There is nothing else but now and the shifting depth of night. I sit at a table alone smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee and listening and surviving. I should not be here or anywhere. I should not be breathing or taking space. I should not have been given this moment or anything else. I should not have this opportunity again to live. I do not deserve it or deserve anything yet it is here and I am here and I have it all of it still. I won’t have it again. This moment or this chance they are the same thing. This moment and this chance they are the same and they are mine if I choose them and I do. I want them. Now and as long as I can have them they are both precious and fleeting and gone in the blink of an eye don’t waste them. A moment and an opportunity and a life, all in the unseen tick of a clock holding me nowhere. My heart is beating. The walls are pale and quiet. I am surviving.

The dark shifts away from itself and light invades it and conquers. The Unit is empty still but for me. I stand and I want to breathe deeply and breathe without boundary and I walk to the door and I open it and I go outside. I walk toward the Lake which is covered with a frigid mist born from the difference between inside and out. The mist hovers above the clear calm black of the water, moving up but not moving at all, changing shape but staying the same. I like the mist and I want to take it in and let it become me. I want to drink it and be full. I want to swallow it and let it make me. Make me how I should be made mist. Make me what I should be made.

I sit on the middle bench. It is cold on my legs and back, but the cold is a counterpoint to the coffee and the cigarettes and the night. I look out unmoving and strong until a bird sweeps down and sweeps through carving its way like Northern Ice drifting south. It moves up and out and above the mist and it finds a tree and it sits on the tree and it rests looking back not at me but at that which it sought. It is not there now or again so it stays the bird stays on the branch of the tree stiff and true. Looking, seeking, searching, waiting. It stays stiff and true.

There is a noise behind me and I turn to the noise. There is a Figure emerging from the reflection of the glass door. The Figure is bundled beneath layers of cotton and bright blue nylon it wears glasses and a hat. It shuts the door and it sees me and it comes toward me one step at a time purposefully through the thick shimmering dew. I do not want it, the Figure and whatever it may bring, so I turn away from it and I look out across the water, unmoving and strong. The bird is still there. Looking, seeking, searching, waiting. Sitting stiff and true.

The steps are closer and I can see the cotton and the nylon out of the corner of my eye. I try to ignore it, but there’s a voice.

Hey, Kid.

I know the voice.

Hey, Leonard.

He stands in front of me.

Mind if I sit?

I stare at the mist.

They’re not my benches.

He laughs and he sits.

Why you up so early?

I stare at the mist.

Couldn’t sleep.

Roy?

Among other things.

What are the other things?

Nothing I’m gonna talk about.

You sure?

Yeah, I’m sure.

Leonard stands.

Let’s go for a walk.

I stay on the bench.

No thanks.

Come on.

No.

Why.

I look up.

I don’t know if I can be seen with you in that sweat suit.

He looks at himself and back at me.

What’s wrong with the sweat suit?

What’s it made of?

He rubs it, smiles.

It’s a rayon/nylon/satin blend.

I laugh.

That’s the first thing that’s wrong with it.

What’s the second?

You got your gold watch on.

I love this watch.

And your silly glasses.

They’re Gucci.

I don’t care what they are, they’re silly.

He takes them off, looks at them, puts them in his pocket.

How’s that?

It’s better.

He smiles, motions toward the wood.

Let’s go for a walk, Kid.

I stand and we start walking and we find a Trail through the Wood. Leonard asks how I’m doing and I tell him I’m fine. He asks me again and I tell him I’m fine again. He asks me again and I tell him I’m fucking fine and he tells me that fine isn’t a good enough answer he wants to know how I’m really doing. I tell him I don’t know. He asks me what that means and I tell him I don’t know how I’m doing that sometimes I feel good and sometimes I feel something far less far far less than good. He says that if that’s what I’m feeling then I’m doing well and I should just keep doing and I’ll get better and my life will get better everything will get better and I laugh at him. He asks me why I’m laughing and I tell him I’m laughing because I don’t think that he as a coke Addict and a fellow Patient and a Fuck-Up of the First Order is in any position to give me advice. He laughs and he says let’s find a place to sit down, Kid. I got a story to tell you.

We walk until we find a bench along one of the smaller Lakes. It is a plain wooden bench that looks as if it has been carved from a single chunk of wood. Its edges are rough, its surface is uneven and like all of the benches at this time of day, it is cold. The Sun has started rising and shafts of yellow and white are burning away a mist. Floating sheets of gray ice are shifting and cracking, the crack like a gunshot, and icicles hanging from extended branches of Oak and Pine are dripping, the drip melting the cover of frost beneath. Though I am lightly dressed, I am warm. My heart is beating and I am surviving and I am warm.

Leonard looks out across the Lake. He is calmer than I have ever seen him, the edge of violence, control and power that he carries is gone. His hands are still on his lap, his breathing is deep and slow and his eyes are focused on something in the distance, though they aren’t really looking at it. His eyes are looking inside, reviewing, remembering, figuring out how to tell. Without moving, he starts to speak.

I told you how my Father died. How he got hit by a truck and killed. Before he died, as he lay in a Hospital bed, he took my hand and he told me that the only thing he ever wanted for me was that one day I be successful enough to play the Golf Course he mowed for fifteen years just like I was one of the Members. I promised him that someday I’d do it.

Leonard takes a deep breath.

I told you how my Mother died and how Michelangelo and Geena adopted me and raised me like I was their own. On top of raising me, Michelangelo guided me into his business. What that is isn’t important for you to know. What’s important is that he taught me to do it and he set me up in it. I took care of details for him and he watched over and protected me. An opportunity came up for Michelangelo and Geena to move to Las Vegas. They took it and I went with them. We did very well, very quickly. As Vegas was growing and booming, so were we. We had money, Houses, cars, whatever we wanted. It was all there, everything we ever wanted.

Leonard stops talking, stares at the ground. He takes a deep breath, looks up.

Then Geena got cancer. It was a bad cancer, cancer of the bones, and it took her quickly and brutally. In three fucking months and she went from being the most beautiful woman in the World to a fucking skeleton, and when it killed her, in a certain way, it killed both me and Michelangelo too.

He shakes his head, stares across the Lake.

Nothing was ever the same. Michelangelo lost interest in our business and turned it over to me. I didn’t see him much after that. I think we just reminded each other of what we had lost. Those were shitty depressing years. We both started drinking more and doing too much cocaine, but Michelangelo completely lost it.

A day came when I needed to see him, talk to him about something, so I went over to his house. I hadn’t been there in months, and when I walked in, I was sick to my stomach. There were mirrors full of coke on tables, bottles and cans everywhere, garbage piles in every room, and blonde Girls with big fake tits sleeping on the couches and lounging by the Pool. I went up to his Room and he was sitting there with a couple of young Girls and a bunch of drugs. I told the Girls to get out and I walked him out to the Pool. I sat him down and looked him in the eye and I said Mikey, you should be fucking ashamed of yourself. You should be ashamed of how you’re living and ashamed that you’re desecrating the memory of your Wife. Geena would have wanted better for you, and if she’s up in Heaven watching you, she’s probably crying her eyes out.

He didn’t say a word to me. He just turned around and walked out of the House. I didn’t know where he went, didn’t hear from him at all, so I started mourning him. My mourning was just like his. I drank too much, did too much coke and did a lot of stupid bullshit.

About a year later, I’m asleep in my bed and I hear someone in my house. I always keep a gun under my pillow, so I reached for it and started walking around. I heard someone in my kitchen and I walked in and there was Michelangelo, fifty pounds lighter, looking better and healthier than I’d ever seen him. He looked at me and he asked why the fridge was so goddamn empty.

I gave him a hug and I asked him where he’d been and he told me he was here, at this Clinic, where you and I are right now. He told me that when he had left his House the day I sat him down, he had planned on driving into the Desert and blowing his brains out, but once he got there, he couldn’t do it. He decided that if he was going to die, he wanted to die how he’d lived most of his life, which was with dignity and honor. He had heard about this place and decided he was going to come here. He bought a map and drove up here from Vegas and stayed until he felt he was better. Then he got in his car and he drove around for a few months, saw the White House and Key West and Bourbon Street and Alaska. He saw everything he had always wanted to see but never had.

He had come Home to tell me that he was going to retire and that he wanted me to come here. He said this place changed his life. He said getting sober had been the hardest thing he’d ever done, but next to getting married and spending his life with Geena, it was best thing he’d ever done. He wanted me to do it, he said he wouldn’t ever leave or die until I did.

We spent the rest of the day playing golf and talking about this place. He said when he first got here, he thought he had made a big mistake. He thought about leaving, but didn’t. A few days later he felt better and he knew something was working. A month after that he knew he was going to be okay. There were still bad times and rough times and times when he didn’t think he was gonna make it, but when they came, he just held on. He held on tight and with everything he had until the good started coming back. When he was finally ready to go, he said he knew he wasn’t ever going to drink or use again, he said he walked out of here happy and proud.

For the next few days we talked more about the effect that this place had on him, and we talked more about me coming here. About a week after that, he came by my house and picked me up and told me he was taking me out to eat at my favorite Restaurant. I don’t know how he did it without me knowing, but he had set up a big dinner with all of our friends, even some of our old ones from New York. When we walked in, they were all waiting for us. We ate, drank, snorted coke. Michelangelo told me that he was putting me on a plane the next day, so I really went at it. After a couple hours, he told me he was going Home. He said didn’t feel entirely right spending an entire evening with so much liquor and so many drugs. He gave me a hug and said he’d pick me up at noon to take me to the Airport. I hugged him back and told him I’d be ready and I was gonna make him proud. He said he already knew.

Leonard takes a deep breath.

He turned and he walked away, headed toward the valet. I watched him from the door as he waited for his car, hoping that he’d turn around so that I could wave to him. As he was standing there, a black Lincoln pulled up and the windows went down. I knew what was happening, and I tried to yell, but before I could say anything, the barrels came out. They started blazing away. Just blazing the fuck away.

Michelangelo went down straightaway, and even as he was down, the guns kept fucking blazing. By the time I got there, he was done, hit sixteen times, twice in the chest, four in the stomach, the rest in his arms and legs. People were running all over the place, there was blood everywhere, and he was done, shot sixteen times by a carload of cowardly Fucks.

Leonard’s voice cracks and tears start running down his cheeks.

I held him as he bled. Just held him and told him how much I loved him. He was still conscious and he could still talk, but he knew he was done. Right before he went, he lifted a bloody hand and he put it on my cheek. He looked me in the eye and he said, live honorably and with dignity, respect the memories of all your Parents. I want you to play the course of your first Father and play it like one of the Members, and I want you to live sober and live free. Do that for me, Leonard. Live sober and live free. It’s gonna be hard and scary and brutal, but if you just hold on, you’ll be okay. Just hold on. And then he died, right in my arms, shot down like a fucking dog. He died in my arms.

Leonard breaks down and starts weeping. It is a strong shaking sobbing wracking weeping, the weeping that comes from a wound that will never heal. I let him weep, leave him be with his memories and his loss and his pain. I would offer him comfort, but it wouldn’t matter. The wounds that never heal can only be mourned alone.

He regains his composure and with it his edge of violence, control and power. He stares out across the Lake at the burning mist and the floating cracking ice, but with an image of the dead held firm in his mind.

I didn’t get on my Plane the next day or any day for a long time. I buried Michelangelo next to Geena and I wept at their graves just like I wept a moment ago and just like I weep whenever I think of them. Then I spent a week locked in my house getting blitzed beyond comprehension. When I emerged after that week, the only the thing on my mind was vengeance.

I spent the next year tracking down the Motherfuckers responsible for Michelangelo’s murder. Then I found the Motherfuckers they worked for, and then I found the Motherfuckers those Motherfuckers worked for. What I did to them does not deserve to be spoken of, but I will tell you that I did not give them the luxury of being held by someone who loved them when I turned their fucking lights out. I spent the year after that drinking and doing blow and trying to get my ass on that goddamn Golf Course in Westchester. I wasn’t able to, so I decided to take a break and come here, the thought being that if I wasn’t able to make my first Father proud, I would damn well do it for the second.

It has been incredibly hard being here and doing this, much harder than I imagined it would be. When I got here I was a fucking wreck. Not a wreck like you were, but bad enough. Every second that passed was a miserable Hell. Now it’s getting easier, but it’s still fucking awful, and there are still a lot more bad times than good times and a lot more bad feelings than good feelings. I don’t know what I think about Higher Powers and Twelve Steps and all the rest of what they talk about in here, but I do know that when things are tough, and when I don’t think I can last another minute, if I just hold on, hold on tight and with everything I got, the shit gets better. The Old Man was right, just like he was always right, and he spoke the truth with his final words. Just hold on. Just hold on.

Leonard turns and he stares at me. I stare back.

I told you this story for a number of reasons. The most important is that when you get down, or you don’t think you can fucking do this anymore, just hold on, and sooner or later, the shit is gonna get better.

We stare at each other.

As I said before, Kid, you walk out of here, and I’m having you brought back. As many times as it takes, I will have you brought the fuck back. You can go ahead and test me on that if you want, but I would suggest you not. The smart thing would be to take my advice. I may be a coke Addict and a fellow Patient and a Fuck-Up of the First Order, but I am giving you good advice. Be smart, be strong, be proud, live honorably and with dignity, and just hold on.

We stare at each other. I am listening to him and respecting him and respecting the words that he is speaking. They are true. They come from a place of experience and feeling. I can believe in those things. Truth, experience and feeling. I can believe in them. Just hold on.

You think you can do that?

I nod.

Yeah, I can do that.

He smiles.

You’re not gonna fight me on this.

I shake my head.

No, I’m not going to fight you.

You’re getting better, Kid.

I chuckle. I turn and I look back across the Lake. The mist is gone and the ice diminished, the drip of the icicles quick and heavy. The Sun is up and the Sky is blue empty blue light blue clear blue. I would drink the Sky if I could drink it, drink it and celebrate it and let it fill me and become me. I am getting better. Empty and clear and light and blue. I am getting better.

Leonard speaks.

It’s about time for breakfast.

Yeah.

Leonard stands. I look up at him.

Thank you, Leonard.

He smiles.

Sure, Kid.

I stand. I think about saying something else, but I don’t know any words to express the strong, simple and deep appreciation I feel. I reach up and out and I put my arms around Leonard and I hug him. I don’t know any words, so I let my actions speak. Strong, simple and deep appreciation. The actions speak true.

We separate and we start walking back to the Clinic. As we move along the Trail, we pass other Patients and we say hello to them or nod to them or exchange brief pleasantries with them. Most of them seem to be walking for exercise and most of them seem to know where they’re going. A few are just walking to walk. A few look lost.

We get to the Dining Hall and we get trays and we get food and we sit down at a table with Matty and Ed and Ted and Miles and a man named Bobby. Bobby, who is short and fat and has the pink skin and red hair of an Irishman, has a huge plate of food in front of him. In between giant mouthfuls of runny eggs, he is telling stories. Matty and Ed and Ted are egging him on, Miles is sitting and quietly listening.

He doesn’t acknowledge us as we join them. He doesn’t stop eating or talking, the fat jowl beneath his chin doesn’t stop jiggling. He is telling a story about some Mobsters he knows in Brooklyn, claiming that he manages their money through investments in the Stock Market and they get him drugs and women and whatever else he wants. When he talks of amounts of drugs, Matty laughs and says he should have asked for more. Bobby then corrects himself and says that he actually did get more. When he talks of women, Ed tells him that four at a time isn’t that a big deal and Bobby says the next time he had eight. He mentions crack and the amounts of it he claims to smoke and Ted asks him what it feels like, that he has always wanted to try it. Bobby says that it feels like really strong weed. In reality, it does not at all. Ted laughs at him, feigning awe and amazement.

Leonard sits carefully and quietly watching and listening. Occasionally Leonard asks Bobby questions about who he claims to know and how he claims to know them. I can’t tell if Leonard knows all the people he and Bobby are talking about, but I can tell that Leonard is sizing him up. I don’t think he’s all that impressed.

Eventually I get tired of Bobby and his bullshit and I snicker at a comment he makes about the amount of money he earns, which he claims to be in the millions each year. He stops talking and he stares at me and he asks me what the fuck I think is so funny. I stare back and I tell him that I find his lies amusing and Miles speaks for the first time since the breakfast began and he says they certainly are. Bobby, like all Liars confronted, is instantly defensive and instantly mad. He asks who the fuck I am and where the fuck do I get off accusing him. I tell him I’m no one and I get off because I have decided that I do. He tells me that he’s not the kind of man to let his honor be disrespected in that way and that I best retract my statement or face the consequences of it and the image of him trying to do something to me, all three hundred fat-ass pounds of him jiggling toward me in a fit of primal rage, is humorous. I laugh at him and he stands and he asks me if I want to go come on you little Punk let’s go right now and I stand and I say sure, let’s go right now. He looks toward Lincoln and Keith, who are eating a few tables away, and he says you’re lucky they’re here or I’d kick your ass. I laugh at him and I pick up my tray and I walk away.

I put my tray on the conveyor. As I turn around, I bump into Lilly. She drops her tray and it hits the floor and there’s a mess and she bends over to clean it up and I bend over to help her. As I reach for an empty coffee cup, she slides her hand across my hand and I can feel a piece of folded paper within her hand. As she slides it away the piece of paper stays. Just like a drug deal on a Street Corner. Two hands exchanging a small folded piece of paper in what looks like a harmless gesture. Her hand hitting my hand. The piece of paper stays.

We pick up a plate and an empty cereal bowl and a fork and a knife and a spoon. We put them on her tray and as she puts her tray on the conveyor and I walk away. Just like on the Street Corner, I want whatever is in or on the piece of paper and I want it immediately. Just like on the Street Corner, I know I have to wait till I’m alone. Just like on the Street Corner, I know I shouldn’t have it.

I put the piece of paper in the front pocket of my pants and I go to the Lecture Hall and I find a seat in the back row. I am early and the Hall is nearly empty. I reach into my pocket and I pull out the piece of paper. Just like on the Street Corner, my hands are shaking and my heart is pounding, my eyes won’t focus I have to concentrate to make them focus, if I don’t get whatever is in there and get it fast I’m going to go fucking crazy. My hands are shaking. I unfold it. There is nothing inside, though I’m not sure if I was expecting something inside. If there had been drugs, I don’t know what I would have done with them. Part of me would have taken them immediately and with great need, part of me would have run to the nearest toilet to get rid of them. I don’t know what I would have done.

I turn the paper over and there are words. I can see words I need to concentrate focus be calm enough to read the words I can read them. They say meet me in our Clearing at four. I read them again. Meet me in our Clearing at four. I read them over and over and they say the same thing over and over. Meet me in our Clearing at four. My hands are shaking shaking and my heart is beating beating and my eyes won’t focus I have to concentrate to make them focus. Meet me in our Clearing at four. Again and again. Again and again.

Patients start trickling into the Lecture Hall. I carefully fold the piece of paper and return it to its place in my pocket. I sit staring straight ahead thinking about four o’clock until I am joined by Leonard and Ed and Ted and Matty and Miles. They are laughing and in jovial moods, talking about Bobby and reliving the games they played with him. They tell me that after I left, Ted told him that I was a Yoga Instructor from San Francisco with an addiction to a rare Indian drug called shampoo, pronounced just like the hair product, but spelled champuu. Bobby’s reaction was to say that he’s beaten down a Yoga Instructor before, and that he wouldn’t hesitate to do it again.

The Lecture starts and it is about the Fifth Step of the almighty Twelve. It is being given by a Catholic Priest. I don’t listen to a word of it. I sit and I stare across the Lecture Hall. I sit and I stare at Lilly.

The Lecture ends. I stand and I follow the rest of the Patients out, enveloped in the flood toward the doors, enveloped in the flood of my memories. As I step out and into the Hall, Ken is standing waiting for me, waiting as he always waits, it seems as if he’s always standing there waiting for me.

James?

What’s up, Ken?

Checking to see if you’ve completed the First Step workbook.

I have not.

Have you looked at it?

Not since you gave it to me.

I’d like you to spend the morning working on it.

Okay.

Take your time, but if you finish, bring it by my Office. If I’m not there, just leave it on my desk.

Will do.

Any progress on the Goal Board?

No.

Put a little thought into that as well.

Okay.

I’ll see you later?

Looking forward to it.

Ken chuckles and he walks away. I turn in the opposite direction and I walk to the Unit. I go to the Lower Level and I get a box of Crayolas and I check for Razzle Dazzle Rose. It’s there as are sixty-three other beautiful crayons. As I start back up the stairs, I see the Goal Board hanging on a wall in the Upper Level. I walk over to it and I stand in front of it and I stare at it. It is a large piece of laminated posterboard divided into boxes using vertical and horizontal lines. In each of the boxes is a name, written in erasable marker, and next to the name is a goal. Some of the goals are simple, things such as Find a Job and Keep It, Stay Sober for Sixty Days, Be a Functioning Part of Society. Some of the goals are sad, things like Get My Wife to Talk to Me, Regain the Respect of My Children, Stay Out of Jail for Six Months. Most of the goals are things like Improve My Relationship with My Friend and Savior the Lord Jesus Christ, Work the Program Right and Live the Steps in Every Moment, Get Myself in Shape: Be Buff in Mind, Be Buff in Spirit, Be Buff in Body. The goal next to Matty’s name reads Stop Fucking Swearing, which makes me laugh. The goal next to Leonard’s name reads Hold On, which makes me smile. The goal next to Miles’s name reads Live, which makes the most sense. The space next to my name remains empty.

In the face of surviving long enough to survive in the long term, there is no goal that comes to mind that means anything to me. I could write Survive, but I would rather hold that word in my heart than write it on some fucking board. When I was laughing earlier, laughing about being a Yoga Instructor and being addicted to champuu, the laughing felt good. When I have laughed at all here, which has been too infrequent an occasion, it has always felt good. I could write Laugh on the board, but I would rather write something that makes me laugh every time I see it, so I pick up a marker and next to my name I write I’m Going to LA to Make All of My Dreams Come True. I’m Going to Be a Laker Girl. When I am finished I laugh. When I step back and I read my words again, I laugh. As I walk from the Upper Level and I enter the Hall which leads to my Room, I laugh. Laughing feels good. I haven’t laughed enough and I want to laugh more. I’m Going to LA to Become a Motherfucking Laker Girl.

I walk into my Room and I sit down on my bed and I open the box of Crayolas and I open the workbook and I pull the Razzle Dazzle Rose from the box and I start reading. The first part of the book tells the story of Joe. Joe is a drunk who loses his Wife, his Job, all of his money, and ends up in the Street drinking cheap wine straight from the bottle. All the while, Joe refuses to admit that he has a problem or that he has lost control. The story is told in simple words and in simple pictures consisting of empty outlines of figures and places, the inside of the outlines being the part that needs coloring. The idea, I am guessing, is that while spending time filling in the pictures, I am supposed to grasp the horror of Joe’s story and then relate that horror to situations in my own life. If Joe is out of control, I must be out of control as well. If Joe ended up on the Street, I better be careful, or I will end up in the Street with him. In the back of the book, after the conclusion of Joe’s story, which has a happy ending when he admits that he has lost all control and he joins AA, is a twenty-seven-question survey about the pattern of an individual’s drinking. The questions are simple and all of them require yes or no answers. Did you ever wake up on the morning after drinking and discover that you could not remember part of the evening before? Yes. Are there certain situations when you feel uncomfortable if alcohol is unavailable? Yes. When you are sober, do you regret things you have done while you were drinking? Yes. Do you have the shakes in the morning after drinking? Yes. Do you sometimes stay drunk for several days at a time? Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. I answer yes to every question, all twenty-seven of them, which, according to the key at the end of the survey, means that I’m in the late stages of chronic and dangerous Alcoholism. Tell me something I don’t fucking know.

I put the Razzle Dazzle Rose crayon back in the box and I pull out the Black crayon. Unlike most of the other crayons, Black has hardly been used. People probably avoid Black because it isn’t considered a happy color, and in here any form of happiness, even something as base as the color of a crayon, is coveted. I, however, like Black. It is a color that makes me comfortable and the color with which I have the most experience. In the darkest darkness, all is black. In the deepest hole, all is black. In the terror of my Addicted mind, all is black. In the empty periods of my lost memory, all is black. I like black goddamnit, and I am going to give it its due.

I flip back the pages of the book until I reach the first page. I pick up the beautiful Black crayon and I write I in a large, simple, block style, starting at the top of the page and finishing at the bottom, crossing over and ignoring any and all of the outlined figures. On the next page I write Don’t. On each of the following pages I write Need This Bullshit To Know I’m Out Of Control. When I am finished I review my work. Each page looks perfect and I like it. I close the book. Job well done, James. I don’t need this bullshit to know I’m out of control. Job well done.

I have an hour before lunch, so I toss the coloring book on the floor where it belongs and I pick up the Tao te Ching. I look at it, front and back, at the stupid quotes and the silly lettering and the funny name. I wonder if I was suffering from an episode of insanity when I last read it. I wonder if I was just tired or vulnerable from my encounter in the Clearing with Lilly. I wonder if the sound of Miles’s clarinet had somehow hypnotized me. I look at the book and I wonder how it affected me the way it did. I read only four pages.

I open it at number five on page five. I let my eyes run across the words. I let my brain process them. I let my heart feel them. Number five is like the rest. There is no good or evil, no Sinner or Saint. There simply is what is and that is it. You can use that to be and that is enough. Don’t talk about it or question it. Just let it be. Just be.

It still affects me and it still makes sense. It still moves me and it still rings true. That is all that matters. The truth. Does it ring true it does. I can feel it.

Number six. The Tao is the Great Mother the Great Father the Great Nothing. It is empty and inexhaustible. It is always present you can use it or not. Does it ring true it does.

Seven. Infinite and eternal. It was never born and will never die. It is just there. It wants nothing and it needs nothing, it is just there. Stay behind and get ahead. Detach and become. Let go of all and you will be full. Let go of all and you will be full.

Eight and nine say the good is like water that nourishes without trying. They say in thinking keep to simple, in conflict be fair. They say don’t compare or compete simply be yourself. They say fill your bowl to the brim and it will spill, keep sharpening your knife and it will dull. They say chase after money and your heart will never unclench. Care about what other people think and you will always be their prisoner.

These things, these poems, these words, these meanings, they make sense to me. They do not tell me to do anything or be anything or believe in anything or become anything. They don’t judge me or try to convince me. There is no righteousness or pretension. They don’t fight me or insult me or tell me I’m wrong. There is no Authority and there are no Rules. They are just words strung together on a page sitting and waiting patiently for me to accept or reject them. They don’t care if I do either or both or nothing at all. They will never tell me I’m wrong. They will never tell me I’m right either. They just sit there.

I don’t read them again. I close the book and I let them sit. I am on my bed and I like my bed. It is soft and warm and I am not soft or warm but I imagine that it would be nice to be that way. I have never known it. I know a cold, hard, raging Fury deep inside of me and I am tired of it. I am tired of the feeling, I want to die so that I don’t have to feel it anymore. I would like to be soft and warm. I would be terrified to be that way. I could be hurt if I were soft and warm. I could be hurt by something other than myself. It is harder to be soft than it is be hard. I could be hurt by something other than myself.

It is nearing noon. I can hear men talking outside my Room. They are walking to the Dining Hall they are laughing about something I wonder what they’ll feel when the laughing stops. In here laughing is the only drug. Laughing or love. They are both drugs.

I get out of bed and I take my coloring book to Ken’s Office. It’s empty, so I leave the book on his desk. I go the Dining Hall and I get a plate of macaroni and beef and I sit down with the same men I eat with at every meal. Matty, Ed, Ted, Leonard, Miles. It’s a typical meal. Stories and swearing and a few laughs. As we’re finishing, Lincoln walks over and tells us we don’t have to go to the Lecture, that we’re having a Unit Meeting instead. Ed asks him why and he says don’t worry about it, just show up.

I finish eating and I put my tray on the conveyor. I walk back to the Unit and I join the rest of the men on the Lower Level. They are sitting on the couches smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee. The topic of conversation is Roy. The latest theory making rounds is that he was drunk. Alcohol can do powerful things to a person, but as the various drug theorists point out, Roy did not have the slurred speech and dulled reactions that are indicative of a serious drinking binge. They say it had to be drugs, though they argue among themselves as to what type. Bobby, who wasn’t here when the incident took place, tries to end the argument with a proclamation that Roy must have been using a powerful type of diet pills, that he’s seen it happen a dozen times before on Wall Street. Matty tells him he’s fucking crazy goddamn diet pills can’t fucking do that to a motherfucking Person. Bobby asks Matty if he knows what Wall Street is and where it’s located. Matty tells Bobby it ain’t gonna fucking matter where the fuck Wall Street is when I drop your fat fucking ass with a nice right hand. Bobby laughs and says go ahead, Little Man, it will be the last mistake you ever make. Matty stands up and takes a step forward, but Leonard tells him to sit down, that Bobby isn’t worth the trouble. Matty sits down.

Lincoln walks in and he pulls up a chair and he sits at the head of the group. Everyone quiets down and waits for him to start talking. He sits down and he stares at the floor for a moment and he looks up. He speaks.

Most of you know Roy and witnessed his behavior last night. For those of you who don’t know him or didn’t witness it, here’s the deal. Roy was a Patient here. For the most part, he was an exemplary Patient. He worked hard on himself, he worked hard on his Program, he listened and he followed all of our Rules. When he left a week or so ago, I, along with most of the rest of the Staff, was confident in his prospects for a long-term recovery.

Last night, at about three-thirty, he snuck past Security, entered this Facility and came down to the Unit. He was carrying a large stick and he climbed on top of that couch.

He points to one of the couches

He started screaming. Security was called, and I was on the Nightshift, and when we came down here and confronted him, he claimed to be someone named Jack and he threatened to beat us with his stick. He was subdued and removed from the Unit and taken to the Medical Unit and examined. From there he was taken to a Mental Institution.

At this point, we believe with fair certainty that Roy suffers from MPD, which stands for Multiple Personality Disorder. For those of you who don’t know what MPD is, it is a psychological condition in which two or more distinct Identities, each with its own pattern of perceiving, relating to and thinking about the environment and self, exist within a single Person. Although some of the personalities know of each other, often they do not, and they can exist entirely independent of one another for great lengths of time. Last night, we observed at least four, and possibly five, separate personalities existing within Roy. One of them was the guy we came to know while he was here.

It was a very sad and upsetting night last night. I was Roy’s Counselor, and I was very proud of him and the work we did together while he was here. I hope all of you will say a prayer for him, in whatever way it is that you pray. Any questions?

The Bald Man speaks.

How’d you not know about this with all the tests and everything?

Except for a couple of incidents, which I am viewing differently in retrospect, his primary and dominant personality was the Person who was here. If that Person was taking all the tests and doing all the work, we would have no way of knowing anything else was going on.

One of the new men speaks. He is tall and skinny and wears black designer glasses.

Is this common?

No. I’ve never seen it before, and as far I know, nobody else here has either.

Miles speaks.

Is there treatment for it?

Long-term psychiatric care, support groups, intensive therapy. Most of the treatment methods are similar to what are used for other profound and incurable mental illnesses.

Ted speaks.

I got a question.

What?

Ted speaks.

I never liked Roy, so I’m wondering if you could bring him back here with his Bitch personality so that I could slap his ass around a bit.

Everybody laughs. Lincoln stares, speaks.

Not funny, Ted.

I ain’t trying to be funny. I wanna bitch-slap that Motherfucker.

More laughs. Lincoln shakes his head, tries to ignore Ted.

Any other questions?

Nobody speaks. Lincoln stands.

Let’s get our afternoon started. Fourth Step Group stay here, Third Step Group up top, the rest of you do your individual assignments. James, come with me to Joanne’s office.

The men go to their areas of group assignment or off on their own. I get up and I walk with Lincoln to Joanne’s office. He does not speak to me and I do not speak to him. Neither of us looks at the other. When we get there, he knocks on the door. We hear Joanne’s voice from behind.

Come in.

He opens the door, we step inside. Joanne is sitting behind her desk, she motions for us to sit. Lincoln sits on the couch. I take a chair between the couch and the desk. Joanne speaks.

Hi, James. How are you?

Fine. You?

I’m fine.

She holds up my First Step workbook.

Care to explain this?

I laugh.

I think it’s pretty self-explanatory.

Lincoln speaks, an edge of anger in his voice.

It’s completely unacceptable. That and your goal are an insult to what we’re trying to do with you.

I thought that fucking book was an insult to my intelligence, and my goal is a joke. I put it up there because it makes me laugh, and laughing makes me feel good, and that’s my only goal, to feel good. When I feel good, I feel like I’m getting better.

Joanne speaks.

I understand your intentions, James, though I’m not sure they’re appropriate.

Lincoln speaks.

They aren’t.

Joanne speaks.

We try to plan a Patient’s Recovery Program and their future after they leave here as they are working through what we do and what we teach. At this point, you’re not as far along as we would like. You seem to have some grasp of the First Step.

I laugh.

Why are you laughing?

I speak.

The First Step, if I remember correctly, says we admitted we were powerless over alcohol and drugs, that our lives had become unmanageable. I have a fairly sound grasp of that concept.

Lincoln speaks.

You’re sure of that?

I’m wanted in three states. I’m addicted to alcohol and crack. I’m unemployed, unemployable and completely broke. I’ve blacked out every night for as long as I can remember and my time in here is the longest stretch of sobriety I’ve known since I was ten years old. I am out of control. If you want to hear me say it, I’ll say it. I am out of fucking control. My life is unmanageable.

Joanne speaks.

We’re not the enemy, James.

I know you’re not.

Lincoln speaks.

Don’t treat us like we are.

Don’t treat me like an idiot, talk to me like I’m a fucking Baby and waste my time with coloring books, and I won’t treat you like the enemy.

Lincoln shakes his head. Joanne speaks.

Getting back to the subject, you are not as far along as we would like. You are resistant to everything we tell you. We don’t think that you’ll be ready to move into a normalized existence once this Program is over. If you’re not facing Jail time, and that is something we would like to start working on by contacting the Authorities in the states in which you have issues, we want to put you on a waiting list for a Halfway House.

What would I do there?

It would be a lot like this, except you’d be expected to hold a job during the day.

No way.

Lincoln speaks.

Why?

Because that’s not gonna work for me.

Why?

I’m starting to figure out how I think I can do this. I won’t know until I’m in the real World and until I can test myself. That test will not be real to me if I know that I can go running back to the safety of some Halfway House.

Joanne speaks.

There is no such thing as safety when you’re dealing with a profound and incurable addiction. Halfway Houses offer support and you’re going to need all the support you can get. You’re going to need it when you leave here, a month later, a year after that, and most likely, for the rest of your life.

I don’t want safety or support. I want there to be me and whatever I have to face, be it alcohol or drugs or something else. I want there to be a fight because I know how to fight. There will be a Winner of that fight. If it’s me, I walk away and I have beat the shit that I didn’t think I could ever beat and I move on with my life. If it’s not me, at least I get it over with.

Lincoln speaks.

If you don’t survive your little test, you’re gonna die. Is that what you want to do, die?

If I can’t stay sober it is.

You won’t stay sober if you keep doing what you’re doing.

Why do you think that?

It’s not what I think, it’s what I know. I know it because every time someone comes in here thinking they have a better way, they walk out of here and they fall and they don’t get back up.

You may be right, but at least I’ll fall knowing I did the best I could with what I believed in.

Joanne speaks.

I don’t like this idea of a test. I think it’s dangerous, foolish and stubborn. I think the stakes are too high for you if it doesn’t work out. I want you to think about that. To really think about the idea that your resistance to what we’re trying to do with you may cause your death. Meet me here tomorrow after morning Lecture and you and I will talk about things and hopefully move forward.

I stand.

Do I need to do anything else this afternoon?

Just think.

I’ll see you tomorrow.

I walk to the door and I walk out and I shut the door behind me and I walk back to the Unit. I go to my Room and I look at the clock next to Miles’s bed it reads three forty-two. I am meeting Lilly in eighteen minutes.

I get Hank’s jacket. I put it on and I walk through the Unit. I open one of the glass doors and I step outside. I walk through the grass there is no dew and I find the Trail and I enter the Wood there is Sun streaming through gaps in the trees like girders of light. I walk along the Trail. I see broken branches and I see torn leaves spread like crumbs and the torn leaves lead me. The signs of my destruction lead me.

I push my way through the thick and I step into the Clearing. It is empty. I sit down on the dirt and I lie back and I close my eyes. I have not slept enough and I am tired. I need more sleep I am tired. Tired. I am tired.

I feel a hand on my face. It’s soft and warm, resting on my cheek, caressing it without moving. Lips follow it on the other cheek, full and wet and soft and gentle. There is sweet breath behind and sweet breath after. They both leave my cheek I wish they would stay. I open my eyes and I slowly sit up. Lilly is next to me, bundled in a large green Army jacket, black hair in braided pigtails, her pale skin reflecting a girder of Sun. She smiles and she speaks.

Hi.

What time is it?

She looks at a cheap plastic Superwoman watch on her wrist. Beneath it I see scars.

Four-ten.

I rub my face.

I fell asleep.

She smiles again.

I woke you up.

I smile.

I’m glad.

She leans forward and she kisses me on the cheek. She holds her lips soft wet warm and gentle. My instinct is to pull away, but I don’t. When she pulls away, she leaves sweet breath behind her.

Answer a question for me.

Okay.

Do you have a Girlfriend?

I hesitate, a flash of her, Arctic and blonde.

No.

Why’d you hesitate?

I did, but I don’t anymore. I thought of her for a second.

Where is she?

I have no idea.

When was the last time you spoke to her?

About a year ago.

You over her?

No.

Lilly smiles, leans forward and she kisses my lips.

That’s too bad.

I smile. I have no words. If I did have words, they would mean nothing.

You want a smoke?

She reaches into one of the pockets of her jacket and she pulls out a pack of cigarettes.

Yeah.

I take one.

You got a lighter?

I reach into my pocket, pull out a lighter.

Yeah.

I flip it, light her smoke, light mine.

You having a good day?

I inhale. I feel the nicotine immediately. It doesn’t feel as good as Lilly’s kiss.

It’s been long.

She inhales, stares at me.

They’re all long in here.

My instinct is to look away, but I don’t.

Yeah.

Tell me something.

All right.

Why are you here?

Here at this place or here with you?

Either one.

I don’t know.

She smiles.

That’s a good answer.

My instinct is to look away, but I don’t. I speak.

Why are you here?

She smiles.

Here at this place or here with you?

I smile.

Either.

I came to this place because of my Grandma.

She brought you in?

She convinced me to bring myself in.

How’d she do that?

She loved me and she took care of me even though I was a total disaster, and whenever I did something stupid, which was pretty much every day, she told me that when I was ready to learn about freedom, I should come talk to her. A while back something really, really awful happened. It fucked me up bad and I went and found her and I asked her what she meant. She told me that I was a Prisoner of my Mom and all of her problems and a Prisoner of my Dad who I don’t remember and she told me that I was Prisoner of drugs and sex and of myself. She told me that living life as a Prisoner was a waste of life and that freedom, even a second of freedom, was worth more than a lifetime of bondage. She told me if I wanted to learn more, to come talk to her again the next day. I did, and she told me the same thing. A second of freedom is worth more than a lifetime of bondage. Then she said come back again the next day. I did and she handed me a map and she said let’s get in the car, you’re driving. Eight hours later that map led me here. She said she had been saving money for three years and if I wanted freedom I should walk in the front doors and she’d pay for it. She said if I didn’t, we should drive Home. I hate my life. I have never wanted it to be the way it has been, and this was a chance to escape it. I had heard of this place and knew it was the best place like it and really expensive and I knew if Grandma had saved for me to be here that she wanted it for me and I knew I wanted it as well. To be free, even if it’s just for a second. So I walked through the door and here I am.

You free yet?

No, but I’m getting there.

She smiles.

You tell me a story now.

About what?

Tell me about your Girlfriend.

I don’t like talking about her.

Why?

Because it hurts too much.

Fair enough. Tell me something else.

Pick something.

How’d you lose your virginity?

Why do you want to know that?

It says a lot about a Person.

It won’t say good things about me.

I’m not here to judge you.

Why are you here?

To know you. Or to try.

I stare at her. I stare at her eyes clean water blue and her hair braided jet black. I stare at her skin pale white and her lips blood red, I stare at her body beneath the jacket she is so small. I stare at her wrists and the Superwoman watch and the scars running vertically. I stare at me but not me. I see the damage and pain of hard years. I see the emptiness and desperation of existence without hope. I see a young life that has been too long. I see me but not me. I trust myself. I can trust her.

I’ve never told anyone this.

You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.

No, I will.

Stop whenever you want.

I stare at her. I see me but not me. I can trust her. I speak.

I was sixteen, a Sophomore in High School. It was Homecoming and there was a Football Game and a Dance. I hated the Town we lived in and my Parents knew I hated it and they felt bad about it. My Mom would always ask me about friends and Girls because she hoped I would meet some People and then I’d be happier. I always lied to her and told her that I had lots of friends and that lots of Girls liked me so that she wouldn’t feel so bad. The reality of the situation was that nobody liked me. As this Dance was coming up my Mom kept asking if I was going. I told her I hadn’t decided yet, that there were a couple of Girls who wanted to go with me and I wasn’t sure which one I liked most and I really just hoped she’d stop asking. She didn’t. Every day it was the same. Who are you going to ask, you should decide soon, you need to give the Girl enough time to get ready, it’s a special night you shouldn’t miss it. Finally I just lied to her and told her I was taking someone. She was really excited and she went out and she got me a suit and she bought me a rose to pin on my lapel and she washed her car and told me I could borrow it and she gave me some money to go out to Dinner before the Game. It fucking sucked because I knew it was all bullshit and I was lying to her.

When the day of the Game came around, I put on the suit and she and my Dad took a bunch of pictures of me and I waved out the car window as I drove away. I parked the car near the School Stadium and I sat and watched all the other Kids, the ones who had dates, as they drove in and hung around in the Stands or on the Sidelines in their suits and dresses and I watched the Halftime Ceremony and I watched the King and Queen get crowned and I watched everyone clap and cheer for them and I watched everyone be happy. When the Game was over, I didn’t have anything to do, and I sure wasn’t going to go to the Dance alone, so I drove to this Ghetto nearby to try and score some drugs because I felt like shit for lying to my Mom and because I didn’t have any friends and I wanted to make the pain go away. As I was driving around, I saw a whore walking on the street near a House where I used to buy. She would stare at me and wave at me as I passed and I couldn’t find any drugs so I finally just pulled over. She walked up to the car and asked if I wanted a Date and I said how much and she told me and it was just a little bit less than the money my Mom had given me so I said yes. I don’t know why I did it. I guess I was just lonely and sad and hoping to find some sort of love that would make me feel better. What happened was awkward and stupid and disgusting. The woman smelled and talked to me in this fake dirty voice and it was over in about two seconds. I took her back to the street and I drove around for the next couple hours trying to talk myself out of driving full speed into a tree. When I went home I told my Mom and Dad I had a great time and I thanked them for everything they gave me and I went to my Room. When I knew they were asleep, I stole a bottle from their liquor cabinet and drank it and cried myself to sleep.

I take a deep breath, stare at the ground.

It fucking sucked, and to be honest, I want to kill myself right now even thinking about it. I hate that it happened, and like most everything in my life, it was not what I had hoped for.

I stare at the ground. If there was a hole deep enough, I would climb in. If there were drugs that could obliterate all, I would take them until all was obliterated. I want to kill myself right now even thinking about it.

I look up. There are tears running down Lilly’s cheek and she is smiling at me. It is a deep smile, not the type of momentary happiness, but the rare kind that comes when something inside without words is woken from slumber and brought forth to live. Though I know it will disappear from her face, it will stay in her and with her long after it does. It has woken and it will live. I reach up and I gently wipe her tears away. Her skin is soft and the wetness is warm on my hand. As my fingers slide from her chin she takes them into her own hand and she holds them. She stares at me with eyes clean water blue thicker now with lament. Her smile not gone she speaks.

That was beautiful.

She is holding my hand.

No, it wasn’t.

If she let go, I would fall apart.

It was. It was beautiful because it was honest and it was beautiful because it hurt and it was beautiful because you didn’t have to tell it to me.

Fall apart.

It makes me feel like shit.

What if I told you I lost my virginity as a whore, instead of with one.

I would say I’m sorry.

I did.

I’m sorry.

She smiles.

Thank you.

She looks at her watch with her free hand, looks at me.

We should go.

She stands and she pulls me up with her. We stare at each other for a moment and she puts her free hand on my cheek. She does not let go of my hand with her other hand and I am glad she doesn’t.

I’ll call you tonight.

Good.

You don’t have to, but I’d like it if you took the call this time.

I smile.

I fell asleep last night.

You can fall asleep tonight if you want as well, but I hope you don’t.

I won’t.

She leans forward and she kisses me. Though it is the same as before, it isn’t the same at all. It is more, stronger, weaker, deeper, quieter, louder. It is more, vulnerable, impenetrable, fragile, secure, unprotected, completely protected. It is more, open, deeper, full, simpler, true. It is more. True.

She pulls away her lips pull away. Without words we walk hand in hand through the thick Wood. At the dense edge near the Trail she stops and she guides me forward and our hands slide slowly apart until there are two fingers one each of our fingers touching not wanting to let go or be away. I stop. I let my finger the tip of my finger touch hers the tip of her finger. We stare at each other. Her smile has not gone away and mine will not either. It will be there when I’m not smiling it will still be there. A smile and a kiss and the tips of two fingers. Touching.

She nods and I know the nod means it is time to let go and I do. I turn and I walk away. I know she’s watching me walk away, smiling, and I know she wants me to turn around. I do. I turn around and she is there and she is smiling. I smile back and it is more than just a smile. It is more.

I make my way back to the Unit. I walk in and I walk through the Halls to dinner. Every meal is now the same.

After dinner there is a Lecture. A man telling his life story. He was bad and he joined AA and now he’s good. I have heard it too many times.

I go back to the Unit and I sit and I watch TV. There is a sitcom about some witty New Yorkers who spend all of their time in one Apartment. One of the men praises the show and he talks about how real it is. The only people I know who spend so much time in one Apartment usually have black plastic taped over the windows and guns in the closet and burn marks on their lips and fingers and huge locks on the doors. They are not witty people, though their paranoia can be amusing. I don’t see anything like that on this show, but it is supposedly very real. Maybe I don’t know what real is anymore.

The phone rings, the phone has been ringing all night. This ring, however, draws my attention. Somehow I know it is Lilly even though I shouldn’t and even though I have no reason to know that it is Lilly. I stand and I am walking before the man calls out my name. As he does, I take the receiver and I thank him and I put the receiver to my ear and I speak.

Hi.

Hi.

How are you?

Good. You?

I’m good.

I miss you.

I laugh.

You miss me?

Yeah, I miss you. Why’s that funny?

No one has ever missed me before. People tend to be happy when I’m gone.

She laughs.

Not me.

Good. I like that you miss me.

I like it too.

I smile.

What’d you do tonight?

Sat here and watched the clock until I thought I could call you without seeming desperate.

I laugh.

What’d you do?

Sat here and waited for you to call and thought about what I was gonna say to you so that I didn’t sound desperate.

She laughs, speaks.

I guess we’re desperate.

Probably a bit.

For what?

Freedom. However we can find it.

And you think one of those forms could be each other?

Maybe.

It wasn’t what I expected when I came here.

You shouldn’t expect anything now. You should just wait and see what happens.

Well said.

Thank you.

You want to meet me again tomorrow.

Sure.

You can tell me another story.

I think it’s your turn.

I think you’re right.

You got anything in mind?

Ask me a question, same as I did to you, and I’ll give you an answer.

And whatever that answer is, I won’t judge you.

Thank you.

I’ll see you tomorrow.

I miss you.

I like that you miss me.

I like that you like it.

Bye.

Bye.

I put the receiver in the cradle and I stare at the phone and I smile. It’s not just a smile of momentary happiness. When it disappears from my face, it will stay with me.

I turn and I walk through the Unit and into the Hall and toward my Room. As I approach it, I can hear the soft sounds of Miles’s clarinet drifting through the door. I stop outside and I listen to it. He is playing low like he always plays low. He is holding the notes for longer than I would think he’d be able to hold them. He is repeating a melody over and over each time with variations. It is simple music, made by one man and his lungs and a piece of metal with holes and his fingers moving along the holes. It is just sound low then higher slow then faster slow again and low, repeated with variations. There are no words and there is no singing, but the music has a voice. It is an old voice and a deep voice, like the stump of a sweet cigar or a shoe with a hole. It is a voice that has lived and lives, with sorrow and shame, ecstasy and bliss, joy and pain, redemption and damnation. It is a voice with love and without love. I like the voice, and though I can’t talk to it, I like the way it talks to me. It says it is all the same, Young Man. Take it and let it be.

The song the melody the old, low and slow voice ends. It ends and it trails off into the quiet of a sleeping Hall. I open the door and I step into my Room. Miles sitting on his bed his lips are still holding the reed. He nods to me and I nod back to him. I walk over to my bed. I take off my clothes and I climb beneath the covers of my bed they are warm and I like them and I close my eyes and I curl into myself my head against the pillow I curl into myself and the voice begins again. Sorrow and shame and ecstasy and bliss and joy and pain and redemption and damnation and love and without.

It is all the same, Young Man.

Take it and let it be.


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