“Untouched” by Mia Avramut, wax on paper, 5.8 x 8.2 in.
By the counter where the nurse gave out B vitamins and detox meds, Deirdre watched two EMTs wheel in a fifty-something man on a stretcher, his skin a scary yellow. Fenwick stepped close. “You’re next, baby,” he said, “if you don’t stop.”
Deirdre wrinkled her nose. Fenwick’s sweet deodorant made her nauseous. The EMTs bumped the gurney over the doorsill and into a room and she wondered if Fenwick—she’d seen him at AA meetings before—was stalking her. A certified recovery counselor, and not much taller than a dwarf, he’d asked her at Hope House, first thing: “Are you one of us?” She’d said, “No,” and he’d been needling her ever since. Deirdre looked toward where the gurney had gone.
“Show’s over,” the charge nurse said.
Fenwick elbowed her. “You keep drinking, and one day your liver will be hanging out like this.” He indicated a pooch beyond his own robust stomach. “You want that?”
Deirdre turned away. “Ain’t gonna happen.”
“Oh I forgot. You’re too smart for that. Because you went to college.”
Deirdre’s throat was dry; her stomach heaved. She glanced behind her at two men playing cards on a folding table. The man they called Grandpa Hudgins had come in the same day as Deirdre, and Ricky wasn’t much older than her, but smart, she could tell. Their presence kept her from running out the unlocked door.
“You’re lucky,” Fenwick said before walking away. “Get sober now and you can still mother your children. But stay away from the guys, capiche? For their sakes.” What made him think she was some sort of femme fatale? Her runaway husband needed treatment a hell of a lot more than she did. She wrapped her arms around herself and scratched between her shoulders at an itch that crawled beneath her skin.
Roseanne swept the dayroom with big circles of her arm and sideways nods. “Time for Group, everyone.” Deirdre turned toward the coffee corner. “You too, Deirdre.” Roseanne’s green caftan sleeve waved like a flag. Grandpa put down his cards; Ricky shrugged and stood up.
Roseanne smiled brightly. “You’re up first, Deirdre.”
Deirdre moaned and dragged her feet, her arms as limp as an overtired four-year-old’s. “No way. I’ll lose my breakfast.”
Roseanne pulled her forward. “You don’t make the rules, sweetheart.”
They walked the linoleum-floored sea-green hall, past the room that Deirdre shared with Clunk Clunk, who was 48, two years younger than Deirdre’s mother, but who looked much older, as though she’d spent too many hours in a tanning bed. Back when Clunk Clunk worked as a bartender in Raleigh, she packed a pistol in each back pocket and double-clunked when she sat on her stool. Clunk Clunk’s counselor suggested she use her given name, Susan, when she left Hope House. Clunk Clunk said when she looked in the mirror she didn’t recognize the old hag she’d become. Whoever Susan was, Clunk Clunk wasn’t her anymore.
In Therapy, a new young woman hunched forward on a folding metal chair, her hands around a plastic Hope House mug of watery decaf. No pistols in back pockets here and no caffeine. You got a mug instead of a key, as though the first steps of recovery were to stop wasting Styrofoam and give up privacy.
The new woman looked gut-punched. Walleye Phil, Grandpa Hudgins, and Clunk Clunk left chairs open around her. Ricky sat a quarter of the way around the circle. Deirdre liked his brown eyes and long, wavy hair in a ponytail. The rule about starting romances at Hope House was: Don’t do it. The day before when Deirdre was just talking with Ricky, Fenwick led him away to the coffee area for a chat. (For God’s sake, couldn’t a person even be friendly?)
“Group, this is Krystal.” Roseanne nodded toward the new woman, who flipped up her hand. “And Deirdre is up first. Can you tell us how you got here, Deirdre?”
She looked where the wall met the ceiling, the same seasick color as the halls. The hell of it was, she didn’t remember, exactly. “I got caught.” She got the laugh she wanted, recrossed her legs, puckered her lips, and bounced her foot. Roseanne stared at her. Deirdre stared back. She hadn’t felt like this since middle school, when her sass earned her in-school suspension.
“The truth,” Roseanne said sternly.
“They say I overdosed. I mean, I’d thought about doing it, but I didn’t plan it.” Maybe now her husband would regret leaving.
“Tell us about that night.” Roseanne leaned forward and widened her eyes.
Deirdre looked at the seascape print over Grandpa’s head where the gulls squawked without sound. “I took some pills while I drank my wine. I don’t know how many.” That’s what they always asked at these places: How many?
Roseanne nodded encouragement.
Deirdre shrugged. “That’s it.” Her foot bounced with a vengeance.
“Do you remember coming to? It’s important to remember.”
She exhaled loudly. “I woke up and wondered why people were staring down at me. This black woman with a shiny face said, ‘Sweetheart, did you mean to die?’ I said, ‘No.’ But maybe I did. Here I am, however many days later.” Tears in her eyes: Roseanne had done that to her.
“It’s been six days,” Roseanne said softly. No one spoke. Roseanne made a check mark and wrote in her book. Then she went around the circle, nodding at each person. Some spoke with no more prompting than that.
Ricky said he checked himself in. His boss at the Asheboro Zoo was holding his job as a horticultural specialist. He seemed serious—like this was a university, and he wanted a degree.
When Roseanne came to Krystal, she shook her head No.
“First day, you get a pass,” Roseanne said. Not fair, Deirdre thought, but maybe she’d gotten a pass the first day, too. She couldn’t remember. When they left, she tried to catch up to Ricky, but Roseanne caught her arm and looked in her eyes. “Good job opening up.”
Deirdre felt like a bug pinned to a board, a specimen of the genus Suicidal Drunk Mothers of Toddlers, which, truthfully, could describe her.
Fenwick patrolled the day room in the evening. He picked up a battered issue of Time magazine with Sigourney Weaver on the cover for her role in Alien. Deirdre played gin rummy with Grandpa Hudgins and wished he was her grandpa. A lawyer by trade, with the least provocation Grandpa recited his case against the charge of alcoholism. He maintained that drinking at home or at the club was not a problem, but admitted to drinking too much while duck hunting. His son, also his law partner, had checked him in. Grandpa, in a green cotton sweater despite the summer heat, waited out his term like an executive convicted of white-collar crime. He played a lot of gin rummy, and Deirdre liked his company. Fenwick watched like he wanted to play, too.
Ricky walked by the card table, sat on a Naugahyde couch, tilted back his head, and sighed. Fenwick put down his magazine to talk, but Deirdre couldn’t hear what they said. A twisted-vine tattoo crept out of Ricky’s shirtsleeve. So what if he had a drinking problem. Who didn’t?
She had two runs in her hand. Grandpa’s face was a blank sheet. He could give lessons on keeping a poker face. She waited for his discard. He fanned four hearts, three queens, and three tens.
“Deal me in?” Ricky asked.
Grandpa nodded, and Ricky pulled up a chair. Deirdre had eaten only a biscuit at supper, giving her beef stew to Phil, whose appetite had come back. She felt like she needed to do something, but she didn’t know what. Heebie jeebies her mother called it, those other times she’d tried to quit.
Grandpa riffled the deck, bridged it expertly. Maybe he would adopt her, with some great-grandkids in the bargain. She imagined him living in a Virginia manor house, working in a well-kept downtown office, relaxing at a sprawling country club. A champion social drinker. He dealt them ten cards each. It was the same game all day long. Ricky discarded the jack of clubs.
Fenwick came up to the table, and Deirdre gave him a killing smile. “You like gin rummy?”
He opened his mouth as if to speak, closed it, then said, “Yup.” He headed to the coffee corner.
The yellow-skinned man died sometime near morning. EMTs rolled a covered gurney out the door to a waiting ambulance in the early light. At breakfast, everyone whispered about his death. He’d never left the hospital room, and they didn’t know his name.
The next day at lunch, Clunk Clunk leaned close to Phil, like she was telling a grade-school secret, so Deirdre put her tray down next to Krystal’s. Tall windows exposed an understory of green growth outside. On suicide watch, Deirdre couldn’t go past the smoking patio or the volleyball court in the back. She longed to go deep into the green and sit under the trees.
Krystal shook two packets of sugar and poured them into her tea.
“Hamburger surprise?” Deirdre poked at her meatloaf. Krystal was sober six months before she came into treatment, but all that time she wanted to drive into bridge abutments. Depression, she’d called it, the day before. Seemed like she could have gotten good drugs for that. She could have skipped all this telling of old secrets. Deirdre felt sorry for her. They were both 26; Krystal, never married, didn’t have kids.
“Why’d you come in sober?” Deirdre half-whispered it.
Krystal stabbed a bite of chocolate cake with her fork. “It’s better than a psych ward. That’s the choice I had. Here or the psych ward. What about you? Would you rather be on a psych ward?”
“You might have noticed that sign near the entrance? This is a licensed psychiatric facility. I’m here to get off the wine and pills.” Deirdre said it with conviction, surprising herself.
Krystal mushed the cake with her fork. “Then you start feeling. That’s the hell of it.”
The next day at lunch, Krystal asked Deirdre, “You miss your kids?” No one sat with them. Krystal swirled some spaghetti on her fork aimlessly.
“Why do you ask?” Deirdre’s children were like photographs that, when she looked at them, gave her a twinge of feeling, but she wasn’t sure what feeling it was. Guilt?
“Because I would, if I had any.”
“They’ve got their MeMaw. They’re used to her. She keeps them when I work. And now.” Ever since Deirdre and the kids moved in, her mother washed their clothes, bought their food, and took them to the doctor, too. A few tables over, Clunk Clunk picked up her tray to bus it. Deirdre stared at the green leaves that rattled and beckoned. Krystal chewed slowly.
“Maybe they’ll visit on Sunday?” Krystal inclined her head.
Really, what did she care? “Maybe,” Deirdre said. She hadn’t called home. Could Roseanne tell her what she was supposed to feel? Could she acquire the right emotions? She’d studied the Feelings wall chart, which showed dozens of facial expressions beyond sad, mad, and glad. The choices dumbfounded her.
In Group that afternoon, Deirdre crossed her arms and avoided Roseanne’s gaze. She sat opposite the door with its narrow glass window. It reminded her of the window in the door of her daughters’ daycare, through which she’d watched her older daughter wrap baby dolls in blankets, rock them, and sing.
Clunk Clunk talked about how, when she got out next week, she would work at the bar.
“How are you going to stay sober at a bar, Susan?” Roseanne asked.
“How’m I going to make a living without it?” Clunk Clunk didn’t correct her name.
After group, Deirdre caught up with Ricky. They headed to the smoking patio and he held the door for her, which made her laugh. Ricky treated her like she was classy, and it astonished her. He followed rules and respected people. Fenwick watched from the window, Phil smoked nearby, and Grandpa came out and walked toward the gate and the road. Anyone could leave, but they only had one chance at Hope House. They couldn’t come back a second time. Grandpa stopped short of the gate. Fenwick still watched, but the glass obscured his face. Did he think she would drag Ricky into the bushes?
“I don’t like being here, but I don’t want to leave, either,” Deirdre said.
“Once you get past the first days, it’s not a terrible place to be,” Ricky said. “It’s like time out from your life.”
“Ever married?” Deirdre kicked at some pebbles with her slip-on shoes.
“No,” Ricky said. “You?”
“Just the once. And not divorced yet.” Deirdre nodded toward Grandpa. “What’s he doing?” He bent low over the grassy lawn, picking at something. After a while he came back toward them.
“Four-leaf clovers.” Grandpa held out his open palm, which trembled slightly. “Take one for good luck.” Deirdre took a clover and twirled it between her finger and thumb.
Fenwick opened the door. “Supper,” he singsonged.
The next day, Deirdre sat across from Ricky in Group. He half-smiled and she smiled back. Krystal had pulled back her hair, and her pale skin was almost see-through in the quivering fluorescent lights.
First, Fenwick tried to crack Grandpa’s alibi, sounding like Perry Mason. Did you or did you not drink at the club at lunchtime? At cocktail hour? At home in the evening? In the morning? Was none of this a problem? Grandpa calmly maintained that on a few occasions, while duck hunting, he drank too much bourbon.
Then Fenwick turned to Deirdre. “How did your drinking affect your marriage?”
Boom. Sledgehammer. “Everyone knows about my overdose,” Deirdre said. She looked around the room to nods.
“Before that. It takes two to ruin a marriage.”
She shifted her thighs on the cold metal chair. “I always kept my kids safe. It’s me who did that.” She looked toward the seascape, but instead she saw her daughter in her bedroom, patting Deirdre’s face, crying Mommy! Mommy! as though she were dead. She couldn’t say it then, she couldn’t say it now: No, no, I’m alive. And here she was, finally, wanting to live.
Fenwick let the room fall silent. “Why do we prohibit romantic relationships in treatment, Deirdre?”
Damn his rules. She got into character. “Because we’re supposed to focus on not drinking. But how can you focus on something you’re not doing?” Krystal let out a bubbly laugh, and Clunk Clunk chuckled hoarsely.
Walleye Phil said he could focus on a lack of alcohol all day long. It was driving him crazy how he wanted it. How long would he think about drinking? Did the want ever go away?
Grandpa admitted he missed his evening cocktail.
Ricky said, “Why can’t we talk with the women? Aren’t we supposed to start thinking about other people? Have real conversations?”
Fenwick said, “If it becomes romance, and goes wrong—first thing most of us do is drink. You’re not ready yet.”
Ricky looked at the ceiling. “There’s a plaque in the dayroom about the end of isolation.”
“Right,” said Fenwick. “But romance isn’t going to solve anything. Trust me.” He looked at Deirdre. She looked at him evenly. Didn’t she have a life to save, too? What about her?
That night, the card game was War. Ricky had three of the deck’s aces, and Deirdre was down to a thin stack of low cards. Krystal had fifteen cards.
Deirdre said to Krystal, “We ought to join forces.”
“All hell breaks loose when the women join forces,” Krystal said.
Grandpa was out of cards but he stayed at the table for the next game. His son would visit on Sunday. Grandpa had prepared his case for early release.
On Saturday, there was recreation in the form of volleyball. Even Clunk Clunk headed out to watch. The night before, she’d told Deirdre that when her boyfriend picked her up he’d have a gin bottle under her seat. She’d get back to her real life soon. She was all light and laughter today, like she’d accepted Hope House as her new bar, the others as her comrades.
Deirdre caught up to Krystal on the way to the sandy court. “You going to play?”
“Might as well,” Krystal sat down on some timbers to put on sneakers.
Ricky stood barefoot on the sand. He stretched his arms this way and that. “Deirdre’s on my team.”
“I’ve got the wrong shoes.” Deirdre stuck out a flip-flopped foot.
“Kick them off?” Ricky smiled.
She did. She hadn’t played volleyball since high school. She tiptoed onto the hot sand looking for burrs and found a few prickly husks that she tossed away. The temperature was in the nineties, and everyone was sweaty. A weak breeze stirred the oak leaves.
Ricky served first, with Deirdre at the net. When Phil returned it, she tapped it to the other side. It thumped on the sand. Krystal high-fived her. When it was Deirdre’s turn to serve, she got the ball over the net, a lazy lob, but over. All those years of drinking, she’d forgotten she had power in her arms. She would call home and ask her mother to bring the children to see her. Deirdre moved one spot to the right, caught the ball when it came over the net, and tossed it back to Krystal. Krystal weighed the ball, moving her right arm like a lever to test its range.
Anyone could win at this game. Nobody could say they hadn’t tried.
Laura Moretz lives in Winston-Salem, NC, with her husband, two teenage sons, two dogs, and a cat. A previous story, “Philo Goes Home,” won the Rick DeMarinis Short Fiction Prize in 2012 and was published in Cutthroat, A Journal of the Arts, in March 2013.