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The Eight-Month Prayer

Dick Price: To give me a certain weight with potential donors, I had put “Executive Director” on my business card. To the guys in the house and most of the board members, “House Daddy” fit better.

[dc]“T[/dc]hree more. You can do it, Boss.”

Godless Recovery

Pressing the 150-pound bar up from my chest for the seventh time, my arms quivered from the exertion.

“Don’t pussy out on me now,” Mitch said, earning at least one raised eyebrow from me. “You’re almost done.”

Good Christ, I had always hated lifting weights. Even on the freshman wrestling team in college, the last thing I wanted to do was head to the weight room.

“That’s it. That’s it,” he said, his pock-marked face dripping with sweat. “One more and get your ass up so I can have a turn.”

Coach Grygelko said I could be really good if I could build up my strength a bit. I did, however reluctantly, and then won more matches than I lost. Good, not great. Promising, if I stuck with it.

But one thing led to another and I found myself in Vietnam a year and some months later, toting a 25-pound machinegun and packing on another 30 pounds of equipment around my shoulders and waist—getting stronger in other ways.

“Move it. Move it. Move it,” Mitch said, really getting into it.

Lightheaded and unsteady, I bounced up from the weight bench so Mitch could take my place.

Ten years older than me and easily fifty pounds lighter, he nonetheless used the same weight I used, grunting like some kind of fevered animal as he rattled off his 10 reps, tossing the bar onto the stand with extra gusto, making sure I understood he had plenty left in the tank.

Our bare-chested bodies glistened in the sunlight bathing the backyard behind the halfway house from the late California summer sun. Mitch gave me his goofy, gap-toothed grin as I slipped down under the bar.

In our monthly newsletter, I had added an appeal for funds for exercise equipment. Coming off long benders or finishing stints in jail or other lockups, most of the new residents were in lousy physical shape when they arrived.

A little “sound mind in a sound body” therapy might help, I thought.

My job running the halfway house for newly sober alcoholic men had grown to include putting out that monthly newsletter to a couple thousand supporters’ addresses we had gathered, mostly at our monthly sober dances at the community center down by the beach. Occasionally, when I would speak to civic groups as well, I’d make the same pitch.

To give me a certain weight with potential donors, I had put “Executive Director” on my business card. To the guys in the house and most of the board members, “House Daddy” fit better.

To give me a certain weight with potential donors, I had put “Executive Director” on my business card. To the guys in the house and most of the board members, “House Daddy” fit better.

Before the first hundred dollars came in to my newsletter appeal, one of the board members drove up with a pickup truck full of equipment—the bench press machine Mitch and I were using, a standing weight bar, a full set of dumbbells, two exercise bicycles, a rowing machine, and miscellaneous balls and punching bags.

Unloaded and set up, the stuff practically filled the backyard behind the old hotel we had taken over to use for the halfway house.

Jerry, the board member, had gone through the house a few years earlier, before I had taken over as executive director or house daddy or whatever I was. The equipment—some used, but most brand new, some straight from the store and still in boxes—was his way of giving back now that he was on his feet again and running his family’s cement finishing business.

“Come on now, Boss,” Mitch implored. “Twenty minutes on the bikes and we’re done. God grant me the serenity, right?”

“Leave God out of it, okay?” I snapped, a tad too forcefully. “Whoever he is, he’s probably got better things to do than watch us pump weights.”

Mitch’s gimlet-eyed glare signaled that he didn’t care much for my blasphemy.

“Whatever you say, Boss,” Mitch said. “But you’d be better off bringing God into everything.”

Riding the exercise bike was more tedious than difficult. I had only myself to blame. A year earlier, I had quit smoking—quit smoking two packs of Lucky Strikes every day for the past 15 years—and had rather quickly packed on thirty pounds, most of it around my midriff, as my sense of taste returned, along with a need for some other kind of comfort.

“Lisa says I can see the little guy next month,” Mitch said from the other bike. “If you’ll write a letter saying I’ve been clean and sober for a year.”

“You got it,” I said. “But I won’t lie.”

“Gotcha, Boss,” he said. “You’re a champ.”

I hated when he called me that. Sometimes I thought he was being sarcastic—I’d be sarcastic if I called somebody “boss”—but usually it seemed he actually meant it. Maybe it was a relic of some of the places he’d been in his long spiral through drug addiction.

When he wasn’t locked up or off on a coke run, Mitch worked as a journeyman roofer, making good money at a young man’s trade. But as he pushed past 40, his knees were giving out. The weight training helped him get hired on with roofing crews.

“I’m thinking of taking the little guy out to a Dodgers game,” Mitch said, looking to me for approval.

A good father-son outing. I gave Mitch the thumbs up.

Mitch’s ex-girlfriend was also in recovery and could use his support. And having a son to care for might help Mitch stay on the straight and narrow after a dozen years of getting a few months clear-headed only to spin off into another months-long drug run.

Mitch had offered to be my workout partner in return for teaching him how to type and improve his writing skills—skills he would need for the day he could no longer compete with men half his age for roofing jobs.

In the six months of weight training together, we had become something like friends—so long as our conversations never ventured into politics or religion. He was a “dittohead” follower of Rush Limbaugh and deeply religious. I was neither.

“Friends” was probably stretching it.

“Dinner’s ready,” Nikki called from the back porch. “Roast pork, candied yams, rice pudding for dessert.”

“Rice pudding!” Mitch said, shaking his head. “You can do better than that.”

Nikki came down the steps and joined us at the weight pile. After Mitch got out of the way, she lay down on the bench and waited for us to adjust the weights.

“There’s no pleasing you, Mitch,” she said.

“Oh, you could please me easy,” Mitch snorted.

I slapped Mitch on the arm, playfully but not entirely in fun.

“Keep it in your pants, numbnuts,” Nikki said.

Half Mexican and half Anglo, Nikki had been drop-dead gorgeous in her youth from a couple old photos she had showed me. But the jaw she broke in a bar fight hadn’t healed properly, leaving her face lopsided, her grin crooked, and a few teeth missing.

That and the decade she spent as a heroin addict after her son committed suicide had taken the shine off her beauty, leaving her merely good looking.

In a pinch, because she happened to be visiting one of the halfway house residents, I had named her cook. The last cook landed a job in an honest-to-god diner, giving me two hours’ notice.

Having learned to cook in jail, Nikki was good at rustling up dinner for two dozen hungry men without much fuss, marshalling the help she needed from the residents hanging around the kitchen to watch her work.

“What’s this I hear about you leaving?” Nikki said as she finished her bench presses.

“Leaving what?” Mitch said. “Who’s leaving where?”

Nikki shook her head and pointed at me.

“Where’d you hear that?” I asked.

“I hear things.”

True enough. Spending most of her time alone in the kitchen away from the residents, Nikki still seemed to know everything that was going on with everybody, so much so that I relied on her to tell who might have reverted to drugs, especially since I had learned everything I knew about heroin from the movies.

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“Well, I always said I’d do this for two years,” I said. “My version of the Peace Corps. Step away from my regular work and give back by helping other men get sober.”

“You hated your ‘regular work,” Nikki said. “Writing electronics manuals. Drove you crazy,
right?”

“That was part of it, yes,” I said. “And, yes, I hated some of it, but it paid a lot more than the $400 a month I get here.”

“Plus a free place to stay, gas for your car,” Mitch said. “And all of Nikki’s cooking you can stomach.”

“Nikki’s cooking is just fine,” I protested. “You think so, too.”

“And you get to be your own boss,” Nikki said, smiling at me.

“Be my own boss and work all the time.”

“That’s on you,” Nikki said. “You could take time off. Go surfing with Mitch and the boys. Go on dates.”

“Date Nikki,” Mitch said giving us both that same goofy grin. “I bet she really would show you the sights.”

Nikki and I both slapped Mitch on the arm, laughing nervously. At least Mitch didn’t know that Nikki and I did occasionally slip out together, to watch the sun set up in Palos Verdes or catch a movie or make love in her little apartment over the liquor store—
more friends salving each other’s wounds than anything else.

Several years earlier, I had quit smoking for most of a year on sheer willpower, simply making myself not smoke, but thinking about the cigarettes I wasn’t smoking all through the day, one moment at a time.

Swinging my legs out of bed in the morning, I’d reach for the pack of Luckys that wasn’t there.

Same thing after a meal. Same thing getting behind the wheel of my car.

Same thing after sex—well, no, I was pretty much celibate then, so that wasn’t an issue.

At the time, I was caring for a friend who was dying of brain cancer. Years earlier, Jimmy Jackson—everyone called him Mister Jackson—had helped bring the first Narcotics Anonymous meetings to the South Bay. Hard-bitten bikers trying to clean up their acts regarded him as something of a guru.

I had taken over running the halfway house from him when his health began to fail, moving him into the beat-up house I had been renting. He had been crippled from a bike accident years earlier, barely able to walk and in pain most of the time.

Since he couldn’t very well use drugs or alcohol to ease that pain—that course had led to years of disaster—he had become a master of meditation, a practice he passed onto others.

Although I was hardly a biker, having taken only a few tremulous practice drives, I came to Mister Jackson after my girlfriend Xo dumped me. The meditation practice he taught me had done good things.

Bedridden but determined to stay out of the hospital until the bitter end, Mister Jackson would entertain visitors with tales of his many misbehaviors, between bouts when the aching in his head would require that we ease his pain with the morphine solution his doctors had prescribed.

When I came home from work and relieved the caregiver we had hired, I would listen to Jimmy’s tales, too, and light cigarettes for him—his final comfort.

But sure enough, as I might have known, the day came when I lit a cigarette for him when he was sound asleep, then proceeded to smoke it for him as well. There was a carton in my desk drawer by that evening, and not Mister Jackson’s double filtered menthol jobs, but my own Luckys.

“Okay, let’s stretch it out,” Mitch said.

After the weight training and bicycling, we’d do fifteen minutes of yoga-like stretching, which Nikki typically led.

“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace; where there is hatred, let me sow love,” Nikki began, reciting the well-worn Prayer of Saint Francis. “Where there is injury, pardon…”

Mitch chanted the prayer along with Nikki, singing the words loud even when he stumbled over several. I said the words quietly, more to myself.

Quitting smoking this time was different. Every day for eight months I’d prayed for the willingness to quit smoking—and the courage to walk through my fears of public speaking, as that had crippled me since I was a kid.

I didn’t know it would be eight months, of course. I didn’t know I would ever find that willingness and courage, but I had little choice but to try.

My breathing had become labored when I would walk up the long flight of stairs coming up from the beach back to my car, and I was sick of getting so tight in the chest and flushed in the face whenever I faced an audience of any size.

Then some random day after about eight months of daily praying I realized something had shifted, something inside. With a sense of relief that brought tears to my eyes, I knew somehow that I could set aside cigarettes—for good—at any moment that I chose, and that I would be calm during a fund-raising talk I had scheduled for that weekend.

“For it is in giving that we receive; and it's in pardoning that we are pardoned,” the three of us intoned in our varying ways. “And it's in dying that we are born to Eternal Life. Amen.”

Every morning for those eight months, I would start my prayer ritual as soon as I got back from taking my daily shower. After taking a daily moral inventory and noting to myself any amends I would need to make during the day—the program’s tenth step—I would begin by reciting the Saint Francis prayer and sometimes reading a few paragraphs out of the Big Book.

Two problems presented themselves each morning.

First, at four years sober, I was still deep into early-sobriety depression. And mornings were always the worst.

Some mornings, I would be replaying violent scenes from the year I had spent in Vietnam

When I awoke, my head would usually be filled with one kind of ugliness or another.

Some mornings, I would be replaying violent scenes from the year I had spent in Vietnam, either direct recreations of scenes of death and destruction I had witnessed or, more commonly, some mosaic of exploding bombs, shouting soldiers, the rattle of machine guns, the crying out of the wounded—which came to me as much from movies I had seen as from actual memories.

Other mornings, perhaps more chilling mornings, would start with a visualization of me putting an automatic pistol in my mouth and pulling the trigger—just as I awoke.

Fucked up ways to begin the day.

The other problem was that I didn’t believe in god. In a program with roots in a Christian evangelical sect, that would seem to present perhaps insurmountable problems.

But with some help from friends like Mister Jackson, I had indeed surmounted. When I prayed, as I did most every day, I prayed to the general spirit of love and hope I found in the meeting rooms, or among positive-minded friends, or to some sense of goodness, of love, of decency I found inside me.

It wasn’t that I actively disbelieved in god, was certain there is no god, was an atheist. I would say that I was a doubter, an agnostic, but really, it was more that I simply didn’t engage the concept.

Rather I prayed to be of service to others, to clear my mind of negatively, to love the people around me—without particularly thinking about who might or might not be receiving those prayers.

It was enough that the prayers came from me.

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,” Mitch said, taking our hands to indicate that our workout session was over. “Courage to change the things I can, and the Wisdom to know the difference.”

“Thanks, Mitch,” I said. “Tomorrow again?”

“Get me that letter, if you can,” he said.

I smiled and gave him a high five. Watching Mitch walk away, I hoped he would make it this time. A soul-crushing experience in the two years I had run the halfway house had taught me not to expect too much.

But since my lack of belief bothered me, especially since I wanted so badly to be done with the craziness I had inflicted on the people around me and on myself since I returned from Vietnam, I threw myself into service. Which naturally led to this two-year hitch running the halfway house.

And at the end of that tour, the depression that had followed me into recovery somehow lifted, taking the ugly dreams with it.

dick price

“I’ll set the food out,” Nikki said and walked toward the kitchen door, giving me her lopsided grin and slapping me on the ass as she passed. “Tonight?”

“Wouldn’t miss it,” I said, another prayer answered.

Dick Price

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