30 Days and 4 Scumbags by Jennifer Benningfield
Forty-eight hours since my release, and I can't recall more than two full
sentences spoken inside Mackal Recovery Center. Not just "recall."
They're sticking to my brain cells with a baby bonobo's tenacity.
"Addicts kick one habit just to replace it with another."
Rick, Brett, Trent, and Pete. We did not grow up in the same
neighborhood, nor attend the same high school. Still, life brought us
together, casting a wide berth once it became apparent we were cut
from a similar animal: a mammal whose diet enables it to produce meat
which hits the tongue as bitter, sour or sweet, depending on the
We're good friends, great whenever the situation demands, and the
moment one of us falls, the others are there with beers and
wisecracks, standing by while someone else helps him back to his feet.
On the eve of my discharge, my pals convened (in a bar), debating how
best to celebrate my freedom (in a bar). I hadn't been offended; I
actually laughed, spooking the beagle sniffing around my shoes (which
made me laugh harder). Brett had been on the other end, trying to
convince both of us the idea had been his, when I knew Trent had been
The idea of commemorating a month's sobriety with a trip to an
alcohol-dependent establishment had not sprung from the mind of Pete,
who showed up unannounced at my place the night before. It had taken
nearly a half hour to convince him I'd be in no peril, but I'm
grateful for every one of those minutes. I'll hold onto the memory of
a square-shouldered man, water-logged and fire-scalped and fidgeting
on my doorstep, forever.
The very same man sat to my right, squirming underneath helpful
restraints as I continued obsessing over the details of my forthcoming
newest fascination, as the other men in the car actively fought
against reflective thought.
I couldn't help but wonder if thirty days had been sufficient. The
gaudy expanse of the sky still alienated, my vital thud retained its
unique yet commonplace sound, and even intimate moments with the
missus emanate the same old non-purgative heat.
(Oh, the missus. Had she spoken from the heart or had the counselors
trained her better than I wanted to know?)
Luckily, before I began kneading my heart into a rock-hard muscle,
Eddie began defending his possibly imaginary honor.
"I'm not a rapist!"
"Really? Prove it."
"We didn'tÉevenÉdo anything! Cat in the road."
"Should I hit it?"
"You can't just go around accusing a guy of rape."
"Why not? Women do it all the time."
Pete's sigh settled over the car's interior as an anvil would
butterfly wings. The rest of us telepathically agreed to enjoy the
silence for exactly as long as Pete wanted it enjoyed, and not a
second less. It was just the safe move. His perpetually concussed
expression, combined with a back broad enough to accommodate a lame
donkey, makes our buddy the recipient of many concerned looks and
We ended up not speaking again until we reached Julie's Tavern. The
establishment's entering its fourth year of operation--too long to be
anyone's best-kept secret, not long enough to be a local
legend--thanks to a secure location, decent prices and a clientele
freshly emerged from a light beer ad. In keeping with custom, we
passed through the front door early enough to secure a booth. Two
other groups shared our eagerness to get a relatively early start on
the evening, although unlike us they were unisex and chatty.
We slid into the seats, Brett and Pete on one side, me and Trent on
the other. In less time than it took for Trent to wipe his eyeglasses
clean, a waitress appeared to take our drinks order. I requested a
soda, plainly and simply, fidgeting in wait for jibes that never came.
When the drinks arrived, Pete held his bottle aloft. Long enough to
indicate tribute, brief enough to keep either Brett or Trent from
"We missed you, Rick."
I chuckled, still unaccustomed to such thick, wobbly sentiment from
"Likewise. The drink selection at that other place sucked."
Pete. Good guy. Good, not great.
"Heads up. I'm planning on getting legless tonight. It's been a rough
week for me, not that any of you jackholes care, and I need to unwind.
I won't be yanking my balls off just because you can't handle your
A papal candidate compared to other men, though.
"So, Rick, do you feel different?"
"Recently a co-worker of mine sobered up. He came back a totally
different cat. His demeanor went from 'ice cream man with a hot wife'
to 'ax murderer with a migraine'. What I'm saying is drunks tend to be
intense whether they're drinking or not."
"'Dry drunk,'" Trent burped. "That's what you're thinking of."
"It's only been two days," I reminded Brett, in a voice even drowsier
than his grin.
"Well Rick, guess we can't call you the Mayor Of Atlantis anymore, huh."
Mayor Of Atlantis. Forget a new habit, I'll need a new nickname.
(Although as far as those go, guys named "Richard" could do worse.) I
liked the sobriquet on the surface; the origins were a bit iffy,
though. Poor Pete, grabbing my arms and blowing gales of booze breath
down into my face, telling me about an allegedly engrossing
documentary he'd recently watched on the "lost city."
"You are the Mayor Of Atlantis, Ricky. 'Cause you spend so much time
in the water."
At which point he had to explain that by water, he meant alcohol; and
by in, he meant around. The joke didn't survive scrutiny, but I still
laughed at it, laughed at every joke, even ones I hadn't heard. Ricky
Ricky Ricky, a pearl of a guy.
Well, twenty years exposure does no minor damage, and traditional
tarnish removers do not include grain alcohol among their ingredients.
It took less and less of the devil's milk to transform me from a man
mindful of the P's and Q's into a man unafraid to anger another man
with hands sculpted from beef patties.
"Want a sip, Rick?"
Brett is well on his way to also becoming such a man.
"Just a test, buddy. Virtue isn't worth a damn thing unless it stands
up to vice every once in a while. I heard some smart guy say that on
TV once. Hey, I meant to ask. Are you under curfew?"
I chuckled; not at the question, but at the thought of stapling
Brett's lower lip to his tongue. Then he got them moving when a woman
strode past our booth and I just wanted to bust both bloody. Not for
catching sight of her; we all caught sight of her. (I had to throw
mine back, though.) Just, damn, he can be a crude SOB.
She reminded me of the missus, actually. Five or so feet tall, top
heavy, brunette hair barely brushing her shoulders. Never catch mine
in a bar like Julie's though, or even one unlike Julie's. Our trips
out are rare and come with generous tips. She wants our dates to be
"special." By extension, we will be "special."
Week three in recovery, I grabbed a piece of scrap paper and a
half-pencil and ranked the twelve steps. (This list is currently in an
office desk drawer, and all I'll say here is, number two is number
Of course I thought of the guys during my month-long housecleaning.
Wondered how many questions it would take until a counselor just
stopped acknowledging Trent's presence. Laughed thinking of Pete
filling out the daily menu sheet with one of those pencils. Imagined
explaining to Brett how true power could only be attained through the
sincere admission of powerlessness.
Brett needs control much like a year needs a calendar. That's the
only way to satisfactorily explain why he, at only two beers in,
started patting Pete's shoulder (the resultant sound akin to a wet
sponge striking a dry corpse) and speaking after turning his external
volume up two whole levels.
"You know what we are? Me and Pete? We are an endangered species.
That's what makes us so dangerous. We are endangeredÉand dangerous.
Put me and him against a six pack of ninjas and guess what? That's
gonna be six ninja's mamas getting condolence cards in the mail. They
just don't make men like me and Pete anymore. Sure you don't want a
"Hey Pete, you're not falling for this, are you? You know he's just
kissing your ass."
I nudged Trent. "What am I missing here?"
"Oh right. You were drying out when this happened."
I waited for the rest of the story. No one said word one for so long
I thought I'd hallucinated the last minute of my life. Then Pete spoke
up, voice flat as a new map. "Brett sent a fat prostitute to my
"Just a little prank," Brett giggled.
Pete smacked one flat hand against the table top, and my heart missed
a beat. "I'll have my revenge. And it will be cold. Colder than your
heart. I'll stick a brick in the freezer overnight. Then I'll stick it
into a cooler and drive over to your place. Knock on your door, boom."
"Isn't that a little over the top?"
"You didn't let me finish. While you're recovering in the hospital,
I'll send a fat prostitute to your room."
The waitress stopped by once more, a test of resolve that I passed
with gliding colors.
"That's your second Coke," Brett clucked. "I'm beginning to think you
have a problem."
I scratched and shrugged. Just before more corrosive cola slid down
my gullet, visions from the not-too-distant past popped up in my
brain, carnival game style.
A circle of pensive men seated in a room painted three separate
shades of green, each lighter than the last. I have eyes and ears for
only one of the men, he of the long face and short temper, sitting six
feet away. He mouthed the words as I spoke them.
"My wife wants me to quit drinking alcohol so I'll quit drinking her perfume."
None of my friends heard me. Trent and Brett were deep into a jagged
disagreement about men they'd never get to know. Pete stared dolefully
at the label on a beer bottle. The thought I'd contributed to his
misery pushed me to the brink of hailing our waitress. Oh, miss, I
have made a terrible choice.
© Jennifer Benningfield
Bio: Jennifer Benningfield's stories have appeared in several publications,including
Black Dandy, The Sonder Review, Fiction On the Web, and Maryland Literary Review.
A lifelong Marylander who has been in the mostly) benevolent thrall of words since
receiving "Green Eggs and Ham" as a birthday present, her writings can also be
found online at www.trapperjennmd.blogspot.com.