Better Than Fiction
by David P. Barker
I sat in a chair that was entirely too big for me, my legs swinging from an inability to touch the floor. On the desk in front of me, Gary Paulsen’s Call Me Francis Tucket was open and in the process of being devoured. I was engrossed in the character’s attempt to rejoin civilization. His attempt to reclaim himself and his humanity. I didn’t have the words for it then. I couldn’t tell you why I liked it — that’s something that was left for adult me to decipher after getting kicked around by life and my own struggles with becoming an adult.
I heard the distinct sound of work boots on the scuffed tiled floors. I didn’t look up from my book but called out, “You got a pass to be around the corner, brother?”
The man stopped in his tracks. He looked at me incredulously, “No.”
“Then you can’t go back,” I was steadfast.
“C’mon, kid.” He flashed me a grin. He was missing several teeth. The byproduct of the crack addiction that led him down the path that led him here.
“You know the rules, brother.”
He regarded me again. I looked up at him and even then, with all the innocence of youth, I knew he wanted to curse me out. I was a nine-year-old boy sitting watch at the front desk of an in-patient drug and alcohol addiction treatment center. He was a grown man paroled here by the state of Arkansas to get rehabilitated and learn to walk a path of sobriety so he could reenter society.
“I just need to get something real quick,” he protested.
I pointed to the large sign that hung on the wall behind the desk I was stationed at. It had a whole list of rules. About accountability. About banned possessions. And, most importantly for this conversation, about the hallway and dormitory rooms being off-limits without a pass until eight in the evening. It was five. Suppertime. Most people were in the main hall eating supper. I could hear the laughter and conversations.
Mealtime was one of the times I was appointed to work the desk — I covered both lunch and dinner. I got to eat before everyone. They thought it might be unseemly to have a nine-year-old eating in a room with a bunch of adult addicts attempting recovery either by choice or legal mandate. So I manned the desk. I also manned it during the morning meeting and anytime in the evening they needed to have a group meeting.
“I’m sorry, brother. You can’t.” His missing-teeth smile vanished.
“Goddamn it, kid. I’m going back there.” He started to round the corner.
I could do nothing to physically stop him. He and I both knew that. I pushed the rolling chair away from the desk and into the hallway to get in his way.
“If you go back there, I’m going to have to write you up.”
“You can’t write me up.”
“Sure can. I’ve got the slips.”
“Fuck off,” he said but didn’t move further. A write-up would mean he had to sit in the center of a group meeting and be held accountable for his actions. No one wanted that. I had only seen glimpses of the group meetings. That’s what they were called. Just group. They happened when someone’s behavior needed to be corrected. They were loud and intense. Everyone got a chance to tell the person being taken to task how they had messed up. It seemed like a pretty crappy thing to have happen to you. The person in the center of the circle wasn’t allowed to talk. They couldn’t defend themselves. They couldn’t speak on their own behalf. They had to listen. They had to hear how they had messed up over and over until they understood how they had messed up. I wasn’t sure if it really worked, but then again, I couldn’t go into group. I was separate.
I watched him with confidence I shouldn’t have. I had no real power here. I wasn’t an employee of the facility. I wasn’t even the child of one of the two men who ran the joint. My mom was a recovering addict just like this guy. I was only at this desk because they needed a place for me to be so I wasn’t wandering about unsupervised.
He pivoted and walked back towards the hall where dinner was, and I rolled my chair back to my Gary Paulsen book, satisfied that I had done what was asked of me when they sat me behind the desk.
Brother Brian was very clear in his instructions. “Brother David, don’t let anyone go into the hallway without a pass. They give you any trouble, they ignore you, write it down and me and Brother Vince will handle it.”
Everyone was a Brother or Sister here. It was something to do with respect — they had it on a sign on the wall, but it didn’t make much sense to me. It seemed weird but who was I to judge? I didn’t know then and I still don’t really know what helps an addict get ahold of their addiction.
Dinner ended and I was relieved from my post by my mother — who had the evening shift at the desk. She was starting to look healthy again. Addiction wrecks your body; it leaves you a shell of yourself, and growing up I had watched my mother slowly deteriorate. She had been a productive member of society. She had had a good job at a doctor’s office that got us transferred to Arkansas when the doctor she worked for moved. She had lost that job though because as her addictions got worse, she stopped going. I didn’t understand it then — I didn’t recognize what was happening. I was too consumed with riding my bicycle up and down the hill and running through the grass barefoot and raising hell. I didn’t notice when she stopped going to work. I didn’t notice when our house smelled more and more acrid.
I did notice, however, when I stopped going to school. It was third grade and one day I went and the next, I just didn’t. My mother didn’t wake up to take me, and I didn’t think anything of it. A day home from school? Awesome. The day became two days and two days became a week and a week became a month, and a month somehow became an entire semester of school just lost. Gone. As I grew older, I was able to recognize why. I was able to understand that my mother was losing the battle with addiction and her war with her demons was making her unable to function with any sort of normalcy. Her life was consumed with chasing the next high. The next respite from the inner pain that was tearing her apart.
It’s funny how as we become older, become adults, we are able to see the pain our parents dealt with. We are able to understand their struggles. Their demons. My older brother just told me my mother was sick and little kid me believed it. I saw how she was changing. If that wasn’t an illness, what was? Then we were off to my father and then my brother was gone and I was alone and sent up to visit my mother from time to time as she worked on getting herself clean and sober and to avoid jail for the felonies she committed in the chase of getting high.
I didn’t think about any of that as I went outside to shoot baskets with the men who were out there. The front of the facility was a concrete monument to cigarette butts and trash cans full of soda cans and bottles. I learned quickly that addicts typically replace one addiction with another. Some with cigarettes. Some junk food. Some soda or tea or coffee or porn or something. Something that could ease the ache and replicate the feeling of having a habit.
The men occupying the basketball court were nice enough to let me shoot with them. They were encouraging even though I was terrible, and they tolerated me even though I was a kid and they weren’t. They passed me the ball and took it easy on me as they smoked and played ball and talked about women in a way that I didn’t understand then. What an odd sight we must have been. The lanky kid playing basketball at a rehab facility with a bunch of recovering addicts.
I saw a cop car pull up and someone get taken away for violating the prohibition of drug use at the facility. The violation meant they had to go to jail. I saw two men get into a fight and one almost stab the other. I played basketball with them. Listened as they told stories. Sat at the front desk and prevented them from going back to their rooms. Ate the same food they ate. Heard some of them get yelled at. Heard them share war stories and then be told not to share them. War stories, I learned, at least in a rehab facility, were about things people did while they were using. They weren’t something to celebrate or to reminisce on. Everyone had done bad things. Everyone had things in their past they wanted to forget. The point was to forgive yourself and move forward. To work the steps on a daily basis but not to allow yourself to get bogged down in the things you had done.
This was the place I first saw grown men cry. I watched a man cry because he wasn’t going to be able to visit his kids. He sobbed. I watched another cry when he got mail and they were divorce papers. I heard men and women screaming out at night when they had night terrors. I watched Space Jam on Musky’s VCR at least twenty times. He was one of the few people who had his own TV because he had been there so long. It was normal to me. These grown men and women were my friends. These people who had been deemed worthless by society. Addicts. People barely worth helping. People whose addiction was a choice, a sign of weakness, and not a manifestation of some other illness. They were people who listened to me read so I could get more confidence in my speech impediment. They taught me how to properly shoot a basket and execute a bounce pass. They taught me how to cuss and I mean really cuss.
They gave me the respect of listening to me when I was behind a desk I shouldn’t have been behind. They made me feel like a human being when I was just the kid with an addict for a parent. Sometimes when I can’t sleep and the night is quiet, I lie awake, and I think back to those days. I wonder how some of them are doing. If they won their battles or if they lost. I hope they won. All of them.
David P. Barker is a writer and teacher living in Indianapolis, Indiana. He likes good stories, good barbecue, and ice-cold root beer. He can be found online on Twitter @TheDavidPBarker or at davidpbarker.com.
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