If you really
want to hear about it, we were playing basketball, the C-ward kids and
me, when Morris, the new kid, the little prick from Copeland Heights,
burned a hole in Elizabeth's neck with the cigarette I'd given him. I
told him to put it out-no smoking inside, I said-and he did, and Elizabeth,
a fourteen-year-old who was just now getting over a steep codeine dependency,
which consisted mostly of cough syrup, was too slow because of all the
medication it takes to kick a person of an addiction to some other un-prescribed
medication to have reacted with any kind of urgency, so the burn ended
up looking pretty serious-yellow with a reddish border, a black, ashy
center like a pupil.
I told Morris, told him like I really meant
it, anger in my voice, man, because that kid was a little motherfucker,
to go wait in C-ward Time Out, a little lounge with a Plexiglas window
overlooking the basketball courts, so he could think about what he did.
There was nothing more practiced and pointless around here: Think about
what you did.
One more, I said to Morris, and you're gone,
history. Then under my breath as I looked at Elizabeth's new eyeball on
her neck: you little motherfucker. (Sorry about this language,
but I'm just giving you what The Group Rules ask for; I'm giving
you my heart; and my heart is overflowing right now with four-letter words.)
Morris laughed. He cackled. He had no respect, the little prick,
and felt like he had the upper hand, even though he was sixteen and I
was twenty-four, even though he was going through the outpatient drug
detox and I was supposedly the counselor-they called me the Team Leader-in
See, I had bought some of Morris's pot.
I'd say that was my first mistake, my first step toward the end of recovery,
that little lean backwards toward my old life. I had quit taking all drugs,
of any kind, the year before, except, of course, for a mild mood-enhancer
I felt I needed, but that was prescribed (and I'm still on that in here).
Before that-man, you don't even want to know the kind of stuff I was willing
to do to get high.
Then came Morris. Just popped up one day
like the devil. Sativa, he said. Sensemilla, he said.
Hawaiian. Indica. Skunk, my brother. Whatchoowant? I
could never find my keys back when I used to smoke weed all the time,
and the periphery of my world had started to look smoldery and brittle,
sounded, sometimes, like TV snow; things were beautiful and distant and,
I don't know-I forgot, for a little while, all about life. I had
dropped out of college, I had dropped out of jobs, I had dropped out of
everything I could think of, or had someone else think of for me, to start.
But you probably already figured that out. Anyway, I got this gig, C-ward
counselor (in charge of young addicts and a few severely emotionally disturbed
kids waiting to get transferred), after being a stellar patient
at another of Greenmar Mental Health Corp.'s facilities, an inspiration
to others brought to their knees by addiction. I was the posterboy-semi-educated,
white as paper, middle-class. It could happen, my presence said, to anyone:
See that guy; at least you're not that bad. He started with everything!
He had a nice car! His parents loved him! He went to a good school!
Yo, this is the mothafuckin chronic, Morris
had said by way of sales pitch, one hit, man.
He was a white kid with red hair and freckles,
last name McCullan, of Irish descent like myself. Went to one of the better
public schools. Father: in real estate. Mother: studying to be a masseuse.
He acted blacker than any black kid I'd ever met, wore, no kidding, Malcolm
X hats and basketball jerseys, listened to hard-core rap about offing
whitey the man, and I felt like saying, Hey, Morris, you're white.
I mean, if I was a black guy, first thing, soon as he looked at me, I'd
have attacked Morris for blaspheming my whole race. He was in a
gang-he called it a club-called the B Boys. They all wore gold chains
and track suits; a couple seemed to have BMWs; or maybe they were just
driving their parents' cars. I don't know. He flashed cryptic hand signals
like they do on rap videos, talked about bitches and chronic and his homeboys.
He thought he was a crip or something, seriously. A little gangsta.
His father's face all over town on on ReMax Properties billboards.
I bought his dope. I got stupid. I wanted
to catch a buzz. I wanted to get high. And the getting high is just a
small part of this confession. So you're in for a real humdinger of an
evening, all you losers out in loserland.
It had been a year, like I said at our last
meeting, a long year, and just hearing him talk about it made me almost
smell that sweet, sick decay, almost see that lovely hazy world I'd left,
a world with no edges or corners or points. A world without paper work.
A world without responsibility, without billing regulations and log charts
and parental meetings. A world without all these broken kids. Plus it
would help my depression, I thought. (There are a million ways to rationalize
everything, believe me.) I could quit taking the pills that made my face
so fat. That was what I was thinking-hell, I don't know what I was thinking-when
I bought the dope. What I was thinking when Morris burned Elizabeth was
that I couldn't say a thing without losing my job and the paltry bit of
money I had coming in.
So I watched Elizabeth cry. Tears welled
slowly in the corners of her eyes, then fell as if racing down her acned
cheeks, as I walked her to Nurse Abbie's office.
I told Elizabeth she shouldn't have taken
one of my cigarettes, which she was too young to smoke, and burned herself.
-You do remember burning yourself, right,
-No, she said. -Sorry, she said.
Her mind was like a sieve, with the recent
past leaking instantly back into the world. Along with the addiction to
cough syrup, she had a learning problem of some sort, and before that,
when she was like eight, she'd fried most of her brain huffing paint fumes
with the uncle who used to rape her. Stuff so awful you almost want to
make a joke about it just so you don't burst into tears.
I would later tell Lilly, our program director,
the lady I owed my life, such as it was, the same story: Elizabeth burned
Then another day, at the end of rec time,
Staler, the autistic kid, or rather the kid diagnosed long ago with autismlike
symptoms, lobbed a ridiculous pass about twenty feet short of the nearest
person, who was Tysha, who happened to be on the other team, who did a stylish
pump-fake in Staler's baffled face and sank two, throwing a finger round
toward his head-a taunting gesture, part Barkley, part Rodman-and skipped
off with impressive grace and rhythm. Staler started crying (someone was
always crying here). Not because he gave a damn about basketball, or even
had any idea he was playing basketball, but because the whole in-your-face
thing from Tysha was too much. Sensory overload. He freaked about rain;
he freaked about car horns; and a finger in his face-forget it, man, I was
on tear detail again. Tysha didn't like Staler. No one did really. He was
the omega, the weak pup among a pack of wolves. He had no language, not
what you or I would call language, but he knew gestures, knew hate. That
stuff is primal. I think maybe we're born with a little microchip of hate
inside us. He could sense all the things that that finger meant.
Morris tapped on the window, up in Time Out,
I blew the whistle until my face was hot,
temples tight, little flares rising up like suns, sending Staler into an
even deeper fit: hair pulling, face slapping, screaming. Morris cupped his
mouth to the window, blew his cheeks out. I thought of pink, weeping sores.
There was a buzzing like insects in jars. Morris turned around and mooned
us, spread his ass cheeks and put his nuts on the glass. Which meant: Fuck
you! I am the king! And at that moment, he sort of was. Shall I continue?
I started getting blasted, ducking into
the locker room every so often to catch one.
Morris pushed it, calling me a faggot right
in front of the C-ward patients, compromising what little authority I
had over a collection of kids ranging from an eleven-year-old rapist and
chronic masturbater to crack kids who'd grown up to be learning-disabled
and hyperactive to Staler, who'd taken all the sorrow of the world, all
the sickness and decay, all the things the rest of us spend our lives
hovering just above, just barely above, and ingested it into his scrambled
psyche. Staler started following me around, touching my face and hair,
sitting near me, almost on top of me, almost like he saw all the stuff
that was coming and wanted to warn me. Only he couldn't talk, he couldn't
tell me. Here's me in my mind: Get out of here, kid.
One day, during a game of crab soccer, which
many of the patients chose not to play and would just lie around on the
gym floor as the ball rolled over their puffy, medicated bodies, I snuck
into the locker room for a quick toke from the brass one-hitter. When
I came out, Staler had taken off all of his clothes except his tattered,
gray-brown underwear. He had climbed to the top of the bleachers and was
looking over the side, a solid thirty-foot drop to the floor.
Jump, yelled Morris, Jump Jump!
It didn't even seem like a dream; it seemed
like I was remembering a dream that someone once told me about when I
was really high. It was that far away from me. All the kids got off the
floor and joined in, as if for the final shot in the final seconds of
the championship game. Jump! Of course, most of them didn't think he'd
really do it.
Staler's ankle snapped like kindling, bones
splintered. Other counselors-Sharon and Brigham, I remember-showed up,
running from the back offices. An ambulance was called. People hurried
around doing all the vital things that needed to be done in an emergency
like this. Tysha and Morris were smiling; others, too far gone on sedatives
or anti-psychotics to know better, also smiled.
I can't remember thinking anything. It's
all blurry. So I'm not going to lay out some graphic description of the
way he looked and sounded. I knew I had failed. I knew I was in deep shit.
I stared at the rectangular shapes of wood that comprised the floor. Someone
was bouncing a basketball. The paramedics finally carted Staler away from
where he had been heaped like a shattered bird, screaming. It was only
later, when it became real and I kept seeing the shape of Staler's ruined
foot, that a wave of nausea closed over me, that I choked back tears for
not just this but a million other things. More?
In Lilly's office-I'll say later that same
day, although it could have been the next day, or the next week, and I'll
be honest and say that my memory is Swiss cheese and I'm not the greatest
linear thinker here, as maybe you can tell-a place decorated in garish Christian
trinkets and embroidered sayings of redemption and spiritual triumph, Morris
and I sat in chairs across from her as she leaned over her desk, hesitating
before she spoke. There were degrees hanging on the wall behind her, but
I'd never even heard of the places they came from. She wheezed because of
a deviated septum, almost like she was snoring between sentences.
-Well, she said. Pause. Wheeze. -Is it true
that this boy was yelling jump when Staler was up there-wheeze-in his drawers,
overlooking what may have been the death of him?
Her voice was flat and gravelly from having
to constantly breathe through her mouth. She looked at Morris. -Were you?
-Nope, he said, with amazing confidence.
She spun her leather mahogany chair around,
routing for her Bible in this big junk drawer she had back there, in particular
a section in the Psalms about how wanting a person to kill himself was just
short of murder. -Preserve thou the righteous..., she began. -Blah
blah blah, she continued.
Morris looked over at me as Lilly had her
head down, reading. He was wearing his Yankees hat sideways and had Martin
Luther King's face on his T-shirt. He smiled and winked, putting his pinched-together
fingers to his lips for a humongous toke off an invisible joint, letting
out a fake silent cough, smiling.
-Well, she said after the verse, -do you
think he is guilty of anything?
-Not that I know of, I said.
-Are you? she said.
-What? Morris said.
-In what sense?
-Get out of my office. I'll speak with your
She let Morris go and chewed my ass about
not paying attention to the kids, especially Staler. She asked me for the
real story of what happened to Elizabeth's neck, because she'd heard some
things, and I lied about that, too. Lying is a little like getting high:
once you start, it's hard to just stop doing it. Things kind of snowball.
I guess that goes without saying in room like this. No offense.
Staler had broken one ankle clean, sprained
the other, was gone for four weeks. My debt to Morris was growing. This
period, though, these four numb weeks, was a golden haze.
At least twice, maybe more, Lilly called
me to her office after my work with the kids to tell me that my paperwork,
which was menial, was wrong, or incomplete. A few times I set the kids
up with a game of dodge ball and nodded out or went to the bathroom only
to wake up or return from getting high to find a bloody nose or a kid
with the wind knocked out of him. It's not that I didn't care; it was
more like my head was otherwise engaged. Or maybe I didn't care. I don't
even know who I was.
Staler returned with a cast on his left
leg, below the knee. He was in a wheelchair. He didn't have the coordination
for crutches. He could limp around pretty well but he wasn't supposed
to, under any circumstances, so that became my biggest mission, a dictate
from Lilly, to keep an eye on Staler at all times and to make sure, no
matter what, that he did not get out of that chair.
I owed Morris about a C-note at this time
for the last couple of quarters I'd gotten from him. I let him come smoke
with me from the little brass one-hitter in the locker room so he'd be
cool on my delaying his payment, cool on keeping his mouth shut. He got
to come to drug rehab rec time and get high, just a half hour before his
second counseling session was to begin, just a couple hours before his
dad or one of those kids in a BMW picked him up. We blew the smoke up
into the air conditioning duct. None of the windows opened.
I'm not going to go on and on with this. It's not helping,
even though ever since I've been in here everyone has been telling me
that if I can capture my regrets in language and express them to myself
and the Group during one of our Sessions, things will begin to get
better. I don't know about that. Knowing more about myself just makes
me kind of sick. Looking at your faces, your expressions, every single
night after dinner, makes me sick too.
This is the end of the story coming up,
the end of my fake recovery. Like all the other stories we've heard tonight,
and every night, for that matter, it's not happy. If you want to leave
the room, I don't blame you. Slam the door. That's fine. I want to leave
the room, too, but I guess that's against some rule. So I'm going to go
ahead and finish, just keep going, just get to the end, because I guess
I do owe someone an explanation, I guess I need to confess, I'm just not
sure I'm confessing to the right people.
As all of us know, it's hard to change the
direction of your life-really hard, and I don't mean this as an excuse-after
you've reached a certain point, even if you want to, or just think you
want to, even if you start out, from that point, with great hope. I mean,
there is this point, this real place, when you're just out there, you
know, where your family can't help you and your friends can't help you
and your mind is on overload and not even God can help you, if there is
a God, and you can't even put your finger on the exact origin of the problem,
because you're just out there, way out there, all alone, drifting, out
of control, and it is the saddest place, man, it is like far beyond loneliness
and desperation. It's like driving on ice, I tell people now (some of
you have probably heard me say this). You can turn the wheel, get panicky
and start spinning around in circles, and see, in those crucial seconds
when you still might get control, how other people are doing so much better
than you, see all the other directions you might be smoothly heading if
you had been a little better at understanding the rules of this race.
Yet you're still moving-and gaining speed-in the same direction. Lives,
our lives, have gotten like that. And even though it's not a mystery-I
mean, you can trace the little catastrophes going way back, at least I
can-it's still sort of a mystery. Like you wake up one day and think:
How did I get here? I had a lot and now I have nothing. I was born with
a spirit but I forgot about it so it died.
My last day on the job-just hours before
being fired, just hours before getting busted, again.
No, no; funnel out; go ahead; you're not
I had nodded out on the bottom row of the
bleachers, after Morris and I returned from the locker room. Now we were
smoking hash, and I'd asked him earlier to get me a little bag of heroin,
just a little sample.
Staler somehow got out of his wheelchair;
someone must have helped. I imagine he looked at me, then struggled up
the bleachers, his heavy cast banging and vibrating the whole section
as I slept. He perched on the top, overlooking the side, the floor far
below, balancing on his good foot.
I feel like I saw the whole thing. It burns
right through the center of my dreams.
Morris started cheering, quietly at first,
then louder, then louder, until he was pumping his fist and doing a little
dance in place, head swiveling on his thin neck. The other kids, without
considering what it meant, joined in, and everyone was roaring for the
sickest, feeblest, most innocent kid, a kid with a brother and a sister
and a mother and a father in a nice white house way out in the suburbs,
the kid I had promised to look after with my life...
Can you guess what happened next? You.
Sleeping in the back. Can you guess?