'Wing Man' by Patrick Trotti
I wake at six to the static coming through the overhead loudspeaker. It’s a low-pitched, monotone voice lacking any discernible emotion. Bob, one of the assistants at the clinic, is working the midnight to noon shift again. He sounds half-asleep himself. I fall back into my bed and let out a wicked cough. I split up the phlegm onto the carpet. It’s already stained with various fluids and has countless holes in it. It’s faded from wear, much like all the residents on the wing.
Across the way, my roommate is already up, sitting on the edge of his bed. He has a Bible in his hands. He rocks back and forth ever so slightly. I can’t tell if it’s because he hasn’t had his morning smoke and coffee or if it's his prayer routine. We’ve only shared the room for a week. Feels like much longer, though.
I rise to my feet in one quick burst of energy. I’m dizzy, lightheaded. I cherish the momentary state of confusion as a welcome distraction, a temporary reprieve from reality. Bob interrupts my state of grace, however small, with an announcement about morning meds. My roommate closes his book and walks out of the room. I follow a few paces behind. In this place, it’s better to keep your distance from the others.
A line has already formed about a half dozen deep. Everyone gets meds regardless of what they’re in here for. The line moves slowly. The nurse is methodical in her movements. She scans the wristband of each patient before handing over the pills. Some men say something witty to her like, “bottoms up” or “cheers” while others silently take their pills. I work my way towards the window.
“Highest bidder, who wants it?”
The man is coming down the line offering methadone spit back into his cup. This should, in theory, appeal to the garbage heads on line.
“Five smokes. Deal?”
They swap quickly without being detected by the nurse. I keep my head focused on the window in front of me. It’s better for everyone involved to stay out of things like this. Doing the next right thing doesn’t include obstructing other patients while they’re conducting business. Besides, I’m no snitch.
I take my pills with nothing more than a nod of the head. I’ve learned how to regulate my emotions. There’s always a camera on you in this place. The clinic has eyes everywhere.
I walk back down the long, narrow hall towards the smoker's lounge. We call it the chimney. It’s really just a room. There are no chairs, just a couple of ashtrays placed on the lip of the window sill at the far end of the room. There are linoleum floors and concrete walls. If it weren’t for the nicotine, it’d be the most depressing room you’ve ever seen. There’s a doorstop at the entrance to keep the smoke in and a giant suction fan in the middle of the room.
“Turn that shit down!” one man yells out to another.
“Yeah man, I’m not in here for the fresh air,” another agrees with the first man.
The man who turned the fan up in the first place looks over towards the talking and scoffs, “I don’t want that menthol in my face. You know that shit’s got fiberglass in them.”
“Stay in your corner and don’t touch the fucking fan! You hear?” the first man screams out.
There is always a staff member at the door looking in through the window. They can view everything in the room. If someone gets sneaky and tries to obstruct the window then reinforcements are called in. You don’t want security. In a place like this, the reinforcements swing first and ask questions later. They diffuse by force. I heard from another guy that the posh places just write you up or take away your privileges for a time but not here. Either way, you’re fucked. Fight back and catch it worse, submit and you’re a wimp to the rest of the wing.
It’s usually quiet in the chimney. Men are there for one reason. Get as much smoke into their lungs and bloodstream as quickly as possible. Time for chit-chat was back home outside a bar or waiting for the dealer on the corner. Now there’s nothing else, no main course to feast on. Just smoke and forget everything else. It’s therapeutic but temporary. I get lost in the fog of smoke. The cloud of war, as I call it.
I never bum a smoke off anyone unless I really have to. My old man mails me a carton a week so I can make due but it’s tight by the end of the week. I don’t like asking for cigarettes because nothing in here is ever free. A favor is always expected to be repaid in full with interest.
Breakfast is a pile of carbs intended to fatten up the junkies and crackheads and keep the alcoholics lethargic. Sugar is abundant and the coffee flows strongly. We are given a half-hour to gorge ourselves for the coming day. We eat at a large long table like some sort of fucked up holiday family feast. The lack of individual seating gives us one less choice to make.
My counselor comes into the main dining room. He looks happy for a change. He’s carrying a bag, maybe breakfast. Usually, he eats with the other workers so his presence is significant. He begins to speak, softly at first, then louder. He’s singing happy birthday in my direction. He makes eye contact and locks in on me. I’m confused, embarrassed.
“Oscar, you didn’t say it was your birthday?”
“Yeah, our little O is getting old, ha!”
“Still not old enough for a legal drink.”
The song cuts off at this last remark. It’s from an old crusty alcoholic named Ray. He looks around and shrugs. He takes another sip from his coffee. Reinforcements are called in. They’ll arrive shortly to deal with Ray.
“So, any birthday wishes, Oscar?” my counselor asks.
“Yeah, to stay clean,” I mutter.
My counselor takes out a coffee cake muffin from the local Dunkin. He shoves a lone candle into it and lights it ablaze.
“Now it’ll never come true. Good going,” Ray says.
Reinforcements arrive. My counselor points to Ray and says, “conduct unbecoming, instigating and such.” They surround Ray and wait for him to rise to his feet. He remains seated, defiantly. They grab him and pull him from the table and shove him towards the exit. We won’t see him for another day or two.
I change my wish but keep it to myself. This time it’s to get out of here in one piece. It’s not that ambitious but it’ll do. I blow out the candle and stuff my face with the muffin. My nineteenth birthday in the men’s ward of the clinic at the institute. Better than my eighteenth in the emergency room. Things were looking up.
We shuffle out of the dining hall one at a time. We’re in no rush to begin the day’s activities. Group sessions start in ten minutes. A quick dash off to the chimney is in order. I arrive at the main room for group work five minutes early. Today we write in our gratitude journals and then share our entries. It’s monotonous, repetitive work but after years of my own daily routine, I’m primed and ready to refocus my energy. I’m on the cusp of a breakthrough. We’ll see.
People read from their journals. They list their sobriety, their Higher Power, their families in dull tones. I gloss over the details of these relative strangers. They’ll all slip into obscurity, back into the corners and crevices they crawled out of for the time being, like the rodents they are. I’m no different. I mention my family and my sobriety and sit down.
Another ten-minute break before the next session. Just like in high school, except I don’t have to sneak off into the woods to get my nicotine fix. Time grinds slowly yet slips away without warning. Now we have our A.A. meeting. No one in the room has longer than three weeks clean. We’re all clawing our way to put together another twenty-four hours. Everyone has a duty to perform. I read out the twelve steps. Another reads out the traditions. Someone leads the serenity prayer.
The resident with the most time, the one closest to graduating, is asked to share his story. Willie, all confident and polished, tells his life story in thirty minutes. It’s full of bad luck and tragedy, of reasons and context, of too many drinks and highs. He steers away from the war stories; those are saved for the chimney and amongst ourselves in between sessions and groups. We clap when he’s finished. We go around the room and share how his story was relatable, how we wished him luck on the outside.
Our next session is what we call the crying hour. It’s all about how we can overcome past trauma. Like everything else, we must first acknowledge the problem before anything else. Nobody wants to be the first one to break down in tears. I take it as a game, a challenge of sorts. I fabricate issues. Small things of little importance. It’s stuff that I think they want to hear. I save the real problems for one-on-one therapy the next day.
I’m the youngest guy on the floor by at least five years. I’m the only one that hasn’t had a legal drink. They tell me I’m lucky, that my bottom isn’t too low, but you don’t end up in a place like this by accident so what’s the difference. The oldest man, we call him pops, is in his seventies. He’s been at this since the Reagan administration. His persistence, his continued reign of bad luck are oddly appealing, endearing. Most of the residents are middle-aged, although I’m told age doesn’t matter in things like this. Then again, the people telling me about the insignificance of age, that it’s just a number, are all older than me.
A smoke between groups. The next meeting is about job skills. It’s meant as a way to get us thinking about being contributing members of society upon our re-entry. It’s weird because most of us will be going to a group home or an outpatient program of some sort after this. The worker who runs it isn’t qualified to do anything else. He talks about updating our resumes and going back to trade school and whatnot. The standards are low.
Time for lunch. I haven’t eaten this much in years. I load up on carbs and sugar as replacements for the drugs. I lean on coffee and soda and mac and cheese and pizza. Most of the food is atrocious, a reminder that we’re here to get sober, not comfortable, but it’ll do for now. On the outside I’d go two days between real meals, now I can barely survive four hours. My mind has been reprogrammed quickly, it amazes me what I can adjust to when forced. The quicker I eat, the longer I have in the chimney before our next session. I stuff my face and then head to the room for two cigarettes. The taste of menthol mixes with the slop I just inhaled nicely. It’s one of my only reprieves left and I enjoy it as much as possible.
Journal time, followed by arts and crafts. They’re interconnected. We usually have to draw things that represent our addictions or what we want our future to look like. Representation and projection, metaphor and illusion. It’s like everything else in this place, it’s what you make of it.
More smoke. There is never enough. My lungs are full and yet I want more. My greed doesn’t stop just because I’m in a clinic. It just morphs and reapplies itself, reattaches, to another addiction. The feeling I get when I enter the chimney is indescribable.
Rec time is next. There is an indoor basketball court in the basement. It’s full-size with a track around it up top. Some of the older men walk the track slowly. Pops sleeps in the bleachers. I shoot hoops. I just fuck around. It’s something to pass the time. I steer clear of the three-on-three game on one end of the court. I stay on the other end and mindlessly launch three’s and play horse with a guy named Randle.
There are fifteen of us on the wing currently. I’m not sure what capacity is but things have gotten rough out there recently and with winter in full force, I’m sure all the empty beds will fill up in no time.
We’re given an hour of free time. Technically, it’s prayer and meditation time but most guys just take a shower or grab a cup of coffee and try not to think about where exactly everything in their lives went to shit. A half-hour is marked for a nap as well so if you time it just right you can sleep for a good ninety minutes straight. I have yet to be able to sleep that long. Every time I close my eyes for an extended amount of time I have a nightmare. My memory is still a bit foggy so I just catch pieces of each one, fragments really. The car crashes, the arrests, the fights and arguments, the detox, all of it bad and unfortunate and utterly preventable. Instead, I keep busy. Slothfulness breeds contemplation and that, in my limited experience, just makes me feel sorry for myself. I take a cold shower, gulp down more coffee, smoke another cigarette. Only a half-hour has passed. When I want time to pass by it stands still.
I finally concede and reach for the outside world. I ask the counselor on duty to use the payphone. The guys call it the pain box. I can only call an approved person that’s on my list, a part of my file. I wait for the next available phone. I try not to eavesdrop on the two guys using the phones in front of me. That’s one of the quickest ways to get into a fight. I don’t have the patience or willpower to engage in such things. I keep my head down. When it’s my turn, I call home but no one answers. Pain deferred.
When groups resume it’s time for more talk therapy. This time it’s peer-run. No one is in the room except for the residents. For sixty minutes we run the asylum. It’s temporarily liberating. Reinforcements watch from the window, ready to pounce if something goes wrong. For that hour we let down our guard and tell the truth. We share war stories. We speak of spurned lovers and failed attempts at getting things right. We talk about the future and how it’s all going to be different this time. And for a while things are okay.
Dinner is usually mystery meat with a bunch of sides. All you can eat, up to a point. The food is filling and it keeps my mind off the reality of the situation. Most of the guys stay quiet during meals but a few of the more eccentric residents hold court. I keep to myself. Another couple of weeks and I’ll never see these bastards again for the rest of my life.
After dinner, there are more meetings, more feelings. Outsiders come into the facility to speak. They’re the lucky ones that get to leave at the end of the meeting. They’re giving back. They’ve got some time sober and are slumming it with us for a bit. They speak and relate to us and ask questions and listen and then they’re gone. They mean well, like most of them do, but they’re different from us somehow. They’ve softened around the edges. Time has dulled them. Gone is the desperation, but with that comes wisdom because of the distance they’ve put between them and their last drink. It’s profound and yet infuriating all at once.
More cigarettes. Coughing and chest pains and phlegm riddle my body. I don’t take it as a sign to quit. This is my last potent tangible vice and I’m going to hold onto it with everything I’ve got. One final pull to last me the night. I inhale deeper than usual and try not to let any escape. It slowly leaves my lungs and trails out my mouth. I won’t have another one for at least six hours.
My roommate is already in bed. Head in his Bible again. I nod in his direction and climb into bed despite not being tired. I turn off my lamp and roll over on my side. My roommate begins to tug at himself helplessly. Hopefully, he doesn’t still have the good book in his free hand. I close my eyes and try to imagine being anywhere else but where I am currently. After ten minutes he’s finished, or he’s given up. I hear the faint cries coming from his side of the room. He’s ashamed or guilty or missing someone on the outside. Whatever the reason, he turns on his light and goes into the bathroom and closes the door, and lets out a muffled shriek. Maybe it's due to the vision of himself in the mirror or maybe it’s the uncertainty of it all. I force myself to sleep before he comes out.
All Rights. Patrick Trotti.
Patrick Trotti is a writer, editor, and Oxford comma enthusiast. He's the Publisher of LEFTOVER Books.