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

taster's mood.

          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 catalyst.

          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

polite smiles.

          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

following suit.

          "We missed you, Rick."

          I chuckled, still unaccustomed to such thick, wobbly sentiment from

another man.

          "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

booze anymore."

          A papal candidate compared to other men, though.

          "So, Rick, do you feel different?"

          "Different how?"

          "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."

          "Guess not."

          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

one.)

          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

sip, Rick?"

          "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

apartment."

          "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.