“Hello, my name is Keith. I am an addict, and it has been 549 days since my last use.”
Everyone clapped enthusiastically. He even got a few whistles. He felt her stare from across the room. Keith sat down in the circle. He didn’t look around the circle, just set his elbows on his knees and held his own hand.
“Thank you Keith.”
Keith glanced up at where she stood against the wall, near the far end of the high-school gym.
They held AA meetings here every weekday. The fat lady in a yellow sweater stood up next and started talking. He hated these meetings.
The advice they gave was good, but it was stuff he’d heard before. It was stuff they’d all heard before. The meeting leaders always talked the programs up, like they had some great new method, new drug, new process, new miracle that would help. It was all the same shit with a different label. Keith didn’t come to these meetings for know-how—no one does—Keith came for strength. No one wants to be alone in his apartment with nothing to think about except what they’re not supposed to do. What they don’t want to do. Keith pulled his head up and tried to pay attention.
“If you follow these steps, it will help you. It has helped me to overcome, beyond what I ever thought possible,” she smiled.
What really helped this lady is that she had a job; a job where she could help people—something meaningful to put her heart and soul into. She had a reason to not use. Keith would like to see her a week without work, or working as a janitor, street-sweeper, saleswoman, a cashier at a run-down beat-up corner shop. No one lasts long in certain situations. Hopelessness, boredom, those are the addict’s downfalls.
There was a guy just sitting down across the circle wearing a plain grey sweater.
“Keith, why don’t you tell David your story.”
Keith was caught off guard, but he’d done it so often that it sort of just rolled off his tongue at this point. A recitation, rote memorization. “Dave, I was like you. We all know it’s really rough when you first start. Shakes, no sleep, aches, you know. But let me tell you, it is worth it. I was lost, a heavy user, everything you can imagine but I got into the program and followed the steps and now I’m free. I had been using for fifteen years and now I’m clean almost two…”
Keith glanced at her; she still stood at the far end of the gym. Her hood was up. She leaned against the wall. She never came close to the circle at these meetings. Keith wanted to tell David that it would never go away. He wanted to say, “It will follow you everyday for the rest of your life. Every moment, every thought will be polluted, shifted, worried. Using never goes away because it is just too easy.”
When the meeting was over they packed up the chairs. She was still there by the door, waiting for him. She didn’t say anything, but followed him out. Grimy, cold streets greeted them outside. The inner city was always filthy. He was never sure whether they cleaned it less or people just cared less.
Once dirty, always dirty.
Keith walked past a crusted mattress slumped against the outside of an apartment complex, stepping over the crumpled papers, broken bottles, and wrinkled cardboard. He didn’t have to turn around to know that she was following him. He could feel her just behind him.
Keith paused at the corner, his breath misting in the red-glow of the traffic light. She stopped next to him. Keith didn’t move for a long time. She slid her hand into his and lightly, gently, pulled him towards the Corner. Keith shook her off and walked briskly to the Flying Diner. Her footsteps echoed his.
Bea, big round and brown, smiled at him when he came in.
“What’ll it be tonight Keith?”
“I’ll have a coffee, two eggs over-easy, a bit of bacon, and a cooked tomato.”
“You hear that Harley?”
“Yap! Comin’ right up.”
She took the barstool next to him. Keith really wished that she would leave. It was worse than trying to shake your own shadow. Bea leaned on the counter.
“How’d your meeting go Keith?”
“Oh, it was fine, fine.”
“You know Keith, I don’t think you hear it much, but you’ a good man.”
“That’s kind of ya’ Bea, but—“
“I mean it Keith. So many young folk get caught up in drugs, livin’ the ‘thug’ life, the gangsta paradise. You naw’? You left that behind, an’ that ain’t easy.”
Keith shifted his weight on the bar stool.
Bea put her hand on his, “Anyways, I’m proud of ya’. Proud as if you was my own son—God rest his soul.”
Keith gave her a half-smile. Harley yelled from the kitchen.
The streets were ice when Keith left the Flying Diner. She followed him out. Keith ran; as far and fast as he could. When his lungs burned and his calves screamed, he stopped. Keith leaned forward with his hands on his knees. She was still there. Keith turned away.
She slipped her arm through his and gently pulled towards the Corner. Keith resisted, locking his knees. She gave him a yank and he stumbled forward. He half-heartedly pulled back, but her grip was firm now—just around his upper arm.
There was someone waiting at the Corner—there always was. Keith prayed hard and pulled back.
Keith sat in the gym the next day. When his turn came, he stood.
“Hello, my name is Keith. I am an addict, and it has been one day since my last use.” Everyone clapped enthusiastically. He even got a few whistles. He felt her stare from across the room.