From the shadows at the back of the stage, I watched the earliest arriving guests filter into the large civic center ballroom, hugging and high fiving each other and grabbing the best open seats around the twenty or so large tables arrayed about the room.
As I flipped through the notecards with comments I might include in my remarks to kick off the evening, I lit another Lucky Strike and sucked down a big lung-full of smoke. This was back in the day when you could still smoke indoors to your heart’s content in California. I wondered how it would be when I no longer had to do that.
That night promised to be a big one—big beyond our wildest dreams.
What started with my suggestion for a backyard barbecue at the halfway house I had run for the past two-plus years, had grown to sit-down dinner in a decent nearby restaurant, and finally landed in this sold-out chamber music concert, with the 200 tickets going for $50 a pop and full-page ads in the program booklet I had put together bringing in $500 each.
Whew! Big stuff for our small pond.
The evening’s haul would cover my salary, my assistant’s salary, and the cook’s salary for the last three months of the year—our whole little crew—with enough left over to replace the decrepit plumbing in the old hotel we had taken over. And maybe something besides that, depending on how much plumbing work we could get donated.
From the back of the hall, Jerry—my friend and sponsor and direct supervisor on the board—gave me the thumbs up sign. Some guests looked uncomfortable in their rarely used suits and ties and ball gowns, but Jerry looked right at home in his tuxedo, which I guessed he hadn’t worn in years. Pushing eighty, he still had the broad shoulders and erect posture of the semi-pro tennis player he had been as a kid.
I nodded back across the room and buried myself in my cards, pretending that I needed to review what I had written there.
Jerry had gotten the foundation’s board to insist that I kick off the evening, even though everyone knew public speaking wasn’t—or certainly hadn’t been—my thing.
Telling how I’d stepped away from good-paying jobs to one that paid $400 a month, plus my own room in the halfway house, all the food I could eat and donated clothes I could wear…
Telling how I’d stepped away from good-paying jobs to one that paid $400 a month, plus my own room in the halfway house, all the food I could eat and donated clothes I could wear…
Telling how I’d stepped away from good-paying jobs—some with paid vacations and full healthcare coverage—to one that paid $400 a month, plus my own room in the halfway house, all the food I could eat and donated clothes I could wear, and gas for my car, that might be a place to start.
After Xo walked out on me nearly three years earlier, I had had a hard time getting going again, romantically at least. Ordinarily—and this had happened often enough to me that there was an “ordinarily” to it—I would lick my wounds, pick myself up, and find another woman to share my journey.
But this time, I just hadn’t been able get back in gear.
Candy, Xo’s wannabe folksinger daughter, had urged me to plead my case with her mother. So, a week or so after she left me hanging, I visited the classy real estate office where Xo worked as a receptionist. But my heart wasn’t in it, Xo clearly wasn’t buying it, and her officemates—lurking in the shadows, peeking up from the papers on their desks, discreetly canting their heads to hear better, finding some reason to walk past the reception desk—were on the alert in case I should get out of line.
Though Xo knew I wasn’t a danger to her or anyone else, to the others I was a stranger, a rather large, rough-looking intruder, haggard from the pain of another failed relationship and probably a little disheveled from the fitful sleep I was getting. People were forever thinking I could be trouble, no matter what my history said.
For the last time in this lifetime I was to see her, I had walked up to the reception desk where Xo stood, looking as resplendent as she always was when she went out in public, today in a white dress and sky blue jacket, with her jet black hair tumbling across her shoulders, a frozen smile on her face, a faraway look in her eyes.
Right. Words were beside the point. So, along with my favorite framed photograph of us together, I set the stack of letters that had come for her on the desk before her. I winked and smiled at her, before turning on my heel and walking out, muttering something as I left about how she might want to file a change of address at the post office.
When I called Candy that night to tell her I had given it the old college try, she knew I was lying.
“Yeah, well,” I said. “I wish it could be different, too.”
“That’s the way it always goes with my mom,” Candy said. “I thought maybe you’d be different. You’re better than the others. Lots better.”
“Thanks,” I said, a little surprised as I thought Candy didn’t like me much, always checking me out when we were together, appraising me when I wasn’t looking at her.
Then, after a pause, I asked, “She on something?”
“Her eyes were glassy,” I said. “Maybe it’s nothing. Maybe she just didn’t want me there.”
“Shit,” Candy said before wishing me well and hanging up. “Wouldn’t surprise me.”
After Xo left, I couldn’t stop seeing her reading on the couch in our small living room, cooking something delicious in the kitchen, lying next to me in the bed.
Some nights, I’d walk all the way up to the Santa Monica pier and back so I could drop immediately into what I hoped would be an exhausted sleep.
Before the month was out, I had given my notice, forfeited the final paid-for month, and rented a room—really a converted garden shed behind an acquaintance’s house in Hawthorne. It was much closer to many of the contract jobs I would land and was, well, not anyplace I might bump into Xo—you know, by accident.
Years later, in admiring my resiliency, a friend said I was like a rubber ball: you could squeeze the life out of me, and I would just bounce back, good as ever.
This time, though, I didn’t bounce back. I accepted just enough contract writing assignment work to pay my bills. Kept up my long walks on the beach several nights a week, now moved down to the South Bay. Rollerbladed on sunny weekends to stay in shape. Went on a precious few dates, a couple of them devolving into rather sad booty calls.
But there was no joy, no verve in any of it. I was just marking time and didn’t have a clue what to do about it—especially when Red, a flaming redheaded casual date I had had larger hopes for, threw me over for a guy named Low Rider Carl.
Sheesh, that was really hitting bottom.
With whatever life I had envisioned with Xo dashed and nothing else going on to replace it, the latest crappy, reasonably well-paid contract job I had writing equipment manuals for a series of aerospace companies lost whatever luster it might have had—easy money or not.
Pushing now into my mid-thirties, I had to wonder if my life had taken a permanent turn for the worse.
Then, having endured my hangdog expression for far too many months, an old-timer at a 12 Step meeting I regularly attended—Jerry, or Sailor Jerry, as some people called him, who was to become my friend and advisor—suggested I apply to manage a halfway house that I had played a small role in starting when I was a newcomer four years earlier.
“They’re moving to a big, old SRO hotel,” he said. “Served the old steel finishing mill in Torrance years ago.”
Jerry, a Navy pilot in both World War II and Korea, had appointed himself ambassador to any veteran who would show up for our meetings. As I got to know him, he would lean on me harder and harder to join him in reaching out to my fellow Vietnam War vets.
“Why me?” I asked about his halfway house flier.
“Lots to do in fixing up the new place, bringing in all those residents,” the old-timer said. “Earl’s too old for it now. It’s a job for a younger man. A stronger one.”
“I haven’t been around that long,” I pleaded, knowing I was losing the argument. “Just past four years sober.”
“Last thing they need is a guru,” Jerry said. “Just somebody to run the place, collect the rents, make sure the guys go to meetings, find jobs—that’s what we need. Kick out the ones who decide to drink or get loaded. Maybe raise a little money.”
“Sure,” I said. “I’ll think about it.”
“Don’t think about it, son. Do it,” he said. “Spontaneity will save your soul, remember?”
I nodded at Jerry then. And, to my surprise, I did think about it.
“Plus, we’re all sick to death of your sad ‘I got dumped,’ story,” Jerry said. “Sheesh! Poor me, poor me, pour me another drink!”
“You think you’re alone in that?” he said, turning to leave.
I chuckled and slid that card to the back of the pack, stubbing out my cigarette in the ashtray on the floor next to my chair.
Since I still didn’t have a regular woman in my life, I asked Kellie, our cook, to square me away. Or rather, Kellie saw me trying on clothes in the garage out back where we kept all the donated clothes and stepped in before I embarrassed myself.
To say I wasn’t a very fastidious dresser was putting it mildly. Running the halfway house, blue jeans, cowboy boots, and my large selection of old rugby jerseys did the trick—as they had most of the time when I worked as a contract writer and editor. On special occasions—one of those very rare dates I would attempt—I would roll out a colorful Hawaiian shirt.
“You’ve got to stand out, man,” Kellie said, handing me a nice pair of black dress pants she had found. “You’ve got to look like you’re proud of what you’ve done here.”
“No cowboy boots?” I said, knowing what was coming.
“Sheesh, man, get a clue,” Kellie said, showing me the missing teeth in her smile.
Kellie’s boyfriend Jimbo had been one of the first residents I had taken into the house when I started clearing out the long-time hotel guest and replacing them with our residents. Kellie would come around most every day to give Jimbo a boost, to keep him on the straight and narrow, to show him someone in this world loved him.
But it wasn’t enough for Jimbo, who started skin-popping heroin long enough for me to catch on to what he was doing. After I asked him to leave, he came back around from time to time, for a free meal and a little encouragement, talking of getting straight enough to give sobriety another shot, before disappearing—at least from our lives—for good.
A couple of months after Jimbo disappeared the last time, Kellie came around to tell us Jimbo had overdosed and died, which I suppose shouldn’t have been a surprise but hurt nonetheless.
And to ask for a job.
“You can cook?” I asked. “Really?”
“Raised two kids,” she said. “Plus I always get kitchen duty when I get locked up.”
Like Jimbo, Kellie had been a heroin addict, paying for her habit at times with strong-armed robbery in the bad old days, but one who had been clean and sober longer than I had.
“A house full of guys could be hard on a woman,” I said. “A house full of barely sober alcoholic men. From off the streets. Just out of jail. A little off.”
“A hard time?” Kellie said, giving me her hardest street look. “Please!”
From somewhere on the clothes rack—I guessed she had been saving it for me—Kellie brought out a fine old brown tweed jacket, about my size but more than a little worse for wear.
“It’s missing buttons, Kellie!” I said. “And what are those threads hanging off the bottom?”
“Don’t you worry,” she said and gave me a tap on the stomach. “Don’t you worry.”
With the ballroom nearly full, I stood, still keeping myself in the shadows, and stretched. The jacket Kellie had repaired and cleaned was a sharp as anything I had worn in years, even if it was tight in the shoulders and arms from all the time I had spent working out frustrations on the weight pile behind the halfway house.
In the shadows, I quietly recited the prayer I had been making for the past eight months, asking to be relieved of my fear of speaking in public and also my obsession with smoking.
It was a hard trick to manage for someone who, on his very best day, was an agnostic.
But I prayed nonetheless, most earnestly first thing in the morning when I would wake up, but other times, too, especially when I would force myself to give pitches for donations at civic organizations and political clubs around town.
Starting when I was a kid, I would get tight in the chest and red in the face when I was about to address any group of people larger than a few close friends—or even answer questions in a crowded classroom. Years later, long after I had stopped running the halfway house, I would stumble across the diagnosis of social phobia, which I knew right away fit me as a kid and then again in my thirties after I got sober.
But then—magically, I would say—my eight months of prayers had been answered. One morning as I prepared my prayer and meditation session, I realized I would be able to give a calm speech to the larger crowd that was now gathering before me and that I could set down cigarettes anytime I chose, which I picked to be the day after our gala.
I sat back in my chair and went back through my cards, settling on the story about Sioux City Slim.
On morning some months ago, I recalled that the sounds of a ruckus carried to me from a half block away.
A man’s ragged voice made sounds something like a machinegun or assault rifle set to full automatic. “Bap-bap-bap! Bab-bap-bap!”
Big Bo, my young assistant in running the halfway house, kept saying “Easy, Bro! Take it easy!”
Someone else—maybe Kellie—screeched something about watching the lamp. Followed by the sound of glass breaking.
A Greek chorus of men’s voices in the background grunted and whooped and laughed, I wasn’t sure just why.
Nothing serious. We’d been there. I didn’t bother to pick up my pace.
The hour-long walks through the neighborhood’s flat, residential streets just before lunchtime and then again last thing at night belonged to me, my respite from the craziness of living with twenty newly sober alcoholics, crackheads, and junkies. I wasn’t about to give up a minute of them.
The ruckus had died down by the time I climbed the front steps and came into the dayroom.
“What’s up?” I said, loud enough to draw everyone’s attention and stop whatever remained of the commotion.
Big Bo—all six-foot-four, 280 pounds of him, at least some of it muscle—had puffed himself up, ready to pounce if I gave the word. Kellie swept broken glass from the lamp into a dustpan, glancing warily at the cause of all the trouble in the center of the room. A couple new house residents pushed themselves up against the far wall, silly grins on their faces, not sure just what they should do.
“Sioux City Slim,” Bo said. “That’s what he calls himself.”
“Oh, c’mon!” I said, chuckling. “Like a pool shark?”
“His name from Nam, he says,” Bo added. “Somebody told him you’d let him in cause he’s a Vietnam vet, too.”
Before me room stood Slim—I would get to his real name soon enough—a wiry, compact man about my age. Long, stringy hair and a ragged beard. Probably handsome back in the day and maybe again someday, but now just dirty and tired and more than a little wild-eyed.
He wore worn-out jungle boots, a ragged fatigue jacket with sergeants’ stripes and a Screaming Eagle division patch, and a sunbaked jungle hat, all of then worn to threadbare pieces.
“He was showing us how he got this one,” Kellie said, holding out what appeared from across the room to be a Silver Star, though the ribbon was too dirty and stained to tell for sure.
“That yours?” I asked Slim.
“Damn straight,” he said, jumping to life. “On patrol out of Cu Chi, me walking point. Walked right into the middle of a whole squad of VC taking a lunch break—me surprised as much as them.”
I walked over and took the medal from Kellie, held it up to the light. It looked real enough though that didn’t mean Slim or whatever his name was had earned it himself. They probably have then at Army-Navy surplus stores.
“Flipped on full auto and spun around like this,” he said, spinning around in a complete circle, his hands holding an invisible M-16, his body jerking from the imaginary recoil.
“Bap-bap-bap! Bab-bap-bap!” he said. “Bap-bap-bap! Bab-bap-bap!”
“Reloaded quick as I could,” he said, again pantomiming dropping out the spent ammo cartridge, grabbing a new one from the bandoleer that must have been around his chest at the time, and loading it into the rifle, before spinning again.
All of us, myself included, took an involuntary step backwards—or two.
“Jesus Christ,” I said. “That was fifteen years ago—maybe twenty—wasn’t it?”
“Sticks with you, doesn’t it?” Slim said. “You know how it is.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Not quite like that, but, yeah.”
Slim was fairly shaking from the exertion, rocked by the memories, his eyes even wilder than when I had walked in. He lit a cigarette he pulled from the pack in the breast pocket of his fatigue jacked and sucked down the smoke, just as we would do after a firefight in Nam.
“We’re full up,” Bo said, to me more than Slim. “Even the beds on the porch out back.”
Slim looked from Bo to me, an anxious look on his face.
“Sorry, man, we’re full,” I said. “The crack epidemic is killing this part of town.”
“But they told me you’d never turn me away. Another vet,” Slim said, still holding his imaginary rifle at port arms. “I’ve been everywhere, and they’ve all said no.”
I looked from Bo to Kellie to the two new residents, so new I wasn’t sure of their names at the moment, and then back to Slim.
“Got a real name?” I asked.
“William. Sergeant William Jensen,” Slim said. “Really am from Sioux City. Got a family back home in Iowa—wife, two little kids. I gotta get back to them. That’s why I’m so determined this time.”
“You want to get sober?” I said and heard Kellie groan, knowing what was coming.
“Treatment centers, detoxes, halfway houses, retreats, a million meetings—I’ve tried it all,” he said. “But this time I’m serious. You watch. You won’t be disappointed.”
“Willing to work, pay your rent when you can?” I asked.
“Work?” he said, showing me his hands. “I’m pretty shaky.”
“Mow the lawn, wash dishes, peel potatoes, paint the hallways until you find a job?”
“I’m a carpenter. Was a carpenter,” Slim said, brightening. “I could fix things, build things, sure.”
“There’ll probably be an open bed by this weekend,” I said. “You can sleep on a couch till then. That okay?”
Slim’s eyes filled with tears, his body visibly shaking.
Kellie shook her head. She thought we did enough cramming in twenty guys, two to a room, and then a couple on the back porch and a couple more on the couches in the dayroom. Her kitchen was maxed out as it was, and she had heard a thousand stories like Slim’s, one sadder than the last.
Slim took a big step toward me, startling me, before exchanging a hand-slap, fist-bump from Nam I had mostly forgotten how to do and had never been very good at.
“And no more firefights,” I said, walking into my office next to the dayroom. “You’re scaring the piss out of folks.”
Slim or William—or Billy, as his wife called him—passed the test of sleeping on our couch through that first weekend, so we moved him to a room upstairs.
“Billy made you call me, didn’t he?” Cathy, his wife said, when I gave into Slim’s pleadings that I reach out to her on the phone.
“Did he tell you we’ve been through this a dozen times? That he’s broken his kids’ hearts so badly I’ve got them in therapy?” she said, her words like jackhammers. “Did he tell you we’re still married?”
“He called you his wife, yes,” I said.
“Well, he’s lying, like he always does. Playing you,” she said. “Did he tell you I never want to talk to him again—that we’re through?”
“He just wanted me to tell you that he’s sober in a halfway house and really trying,” I said. “He asked that I call.”
“No, he didn’t ask,” she said. “He begged. He pleaded. He manipulated you. He played on your sympathies. Showed you that Silver Star. Showed you his scars.”
“He did press it,” I allowed, though I had stopped him from removing his pants to show me where he had gotten shot.
“I bet he pressed it,” she said, not slowing down. “That’s what he’s good at. All he’s good at. Gets in close to you. Has you halfway believing him. Halfway caring. Hoping just a little bit. Then he takes all the money and goes on a three-week bender. Wrecks the car. Sleeps with your favorite cousin. Ends up in jail. Again.”
“Well, he’s sober now. Three weeks that I know about,” I said. “He’s hanging a new door into the kitchen, helping out around the house. Got a pretty good attitude when you can get him to stop talking about Vietnam.”
Over the phone, I could hear Cathy’s resolve break. Weeping softly, she told me her husband—soon to be ex-husband—had been drinking so hard and so long that he’d developed esophageal varices, or a wearing away of the tissues around the veins in his throat, and that if he kept it up, eventually those veins could burst and he would drown in his own blood.
“Jeez, what can he do about that?” I asked.
“Nothing, really,” she said. “Stop drinking and don’t start again.”
Slim—or now Billy to all of us at the halfway house—told us Cathy was a nurse he had met in the alcohol treatment center where he had first tried to get sober.
“He could be so sweet years ago, so caring, so helpful,” she said after regaining her composure. “But then something would snap. His mood would go sour. He’d get lost in his memories about Vietnam. And he’s start drinking again.”
Once he stopped shaking a week or two into his stay with us, Billy had become my workout partner, lifting weights and doing calisthenics with me in the backyard behind the halfway house.
Maybe from the stress of the job, maybe out of laziness, maybe just out of my on-again, off-again nature, in less than three years running the halfway house I had packed on an easy thirty pounds, mostly gathered around my midriff, that I was determined to work off.
Billy had been more than happy to join me, pumping weights and doing situps, pushups, and pullups with the same manic energy he seemed to devote to everything he did, every conversation he started.
While we worked, I let him go on and on about this wartime experiences—really just relating the same several dramatic episodes over and over again, without really saying how he felt about any of it, only that this happened and that happened and then he did this or that.
I shared a few of my own memories of the war, telling him how I had used those memories and others like them to help other veterans get sober, the sting of my own memories melting away in the retelling.
Maybe the same could work for him, I told him, but saw that he had only his three or four stories to tell, all with the same level of detail and none without any thought about what any of it meant to him.
Somehow, I thought he had much more he could relate—something darker, something grimmer than the mere recitation of battle scenes.
“Maybe it’ll work this time,” I told Cathy at last.
“Well, tell him I’ll talk to him if he stays sober six months,” she said. “Nothing beyond that. No promises.”
“I’ll tell him.”
“And nothing with the kids until he’s a year sober, has a job and has burned those filthy old clothes he won’t stop wearing,” she said.
From the back, Jerry gave me the high sign as the lights in the room went down.
I strode the lectern, the cards with my comments shoved unneeded back in my inside pocket, an unusual confidence in my step.
I would not be able to tell the story of Billy and Cathy and their kids. Billy didn’t quite make those six months. After he got back on his feet and got a construction helper’s job, I smelled beer on his breath when he returned from work two nights running.
He stoutly denied it, but while I knew little about heroin, I knew beer all too well. After the second time, I told him one more and I’d have to ask him to leave.
He saved me the trouble by disappearing the next day.
A couple days after he had been gone, a call came in from the Long Beach VA where he had died on the sidewalk outside, drowned in the blood filling his throat.
Cathy took the news better than I might have expected.
“I thought that’s why you were calling the first time,” she said. “I’ve been expecting this call for years now.”
“He seemed to want it so bad,” I said. “More than most.”
“Probably part of him did. Just not a big enough part,” she said.
“He kept saying how much he loved you, how you had saved him,” I said. “How much he missed his kids and wanted to be part of their lives.”
“Don’t beat yourself up about it,” she continued. “We all did our best—all of us except Billy himself.”
Standing at the lectern, I felt Billy’s medal in my pocket, which I has started carrying to remember my fellow veteran and remind myself of the dangers that lurked for me as well.
Billy had left the medal in an envelope on my desk the day he took off. No note. Just the medal.
Looking out across the expectant faces, I felt no tightness in my chest, no redness in my face. Something was working for me that didn’t work for Billy.
Maybe I start the evening by telling them about Xo, how her leaving me, and leaving me so suddenly, had led me to take the job.
In a moment of weakness some months earlier, I had called the reception desk where Xo had been working when we were together—and when she split—knowing that she had almost certainly moved onto something else long ago.
To my surprise, I heard her husky, lightly accented voice on the other end of the line.
Since I hadn’t really expected to reach her, I was lost for words. I know I did stammer something about how I was finally doing some good in the world by running the halfway house.
“Oh, no, no, no, mio,” she said. “That isn’t what you were supposed to do.”
“No?” I said.
“Kids, a family,” she said. “That’s what you always told me you wanted—without ever saying the words.”
“I guess that’s right,” I said before Xo disconnected the line.
Even though my difficulties with public speaking seemed to a thing of the past, I wasn’t sure I could talk about Xo, about how unlucky in love I had always been, in front of 200 people—friends and supporters or not.
“Well, shoot,” I told myself. “In for a dime, in for a dollar.”
From the back, Jerry brought down the lights in the room and gave me a final thumbs-up.
“Let’s start the evening with a prayer,” I said to the quieting crowd, thrilled at the calm, even measure to my voice reaching out to their smiling faces. “God grant me the serenity…”