Fiction 2010 / Issues / Spring 2010 / Volume 40

Recovery — M. Eileen Cronin

A man in a gray suit with a snappy red tie shook Dean Price’s shoulder, waking him from a dream about being Bob Dylan’s son. Dean reluctantly opened one eye; blue eyes blinked back at him. “I’m taking you to rehab,” said the white-haired man. He added, apologetically, “Court order.” Dean’s hand dangled over a pot roach and cigarette butts in an ashtray. A half drained bottle of Jack Daniels tottered against the foot of his bunk bed. “You’re one of those kidnapper dudes, aren’t you?” he asked. “Why quibble over semantics?” said the man. “Whatever,” said Dean, who decided he should probably know that word: semantics! “Like I care, anyway,” he mumbled, his one eye cocked on the contract he’d signed in rehab, a contract in which he’d agreed to wash his clothes and go to 12 Step meetings, the same one his mother had tacked to the wall above a hamper that now spewed a volcano of fetid jeans and T-shirts. “I like your attitude,” said the man. Dean’s throat was dry as a salt mine. “So?” “So, you might like my party mixes. For the detox in Boca Raton I made a CD with a Beach Boys theme. And Cowboy Junkies for the one in Montana.” “Which makes you the Jokester Kidnapper?” “No. Just a good host.” More like a cross between Irish cop and metro-sexual, thought Dean. The man’s smile was electric against a ruddy complexion; whereas, Dean had the kind of caramel coloring that made girls’ mouths water. “I could eat you up,” a half-naked girl once whispered, as she lifted his shirt over his head. Dean suddenly remembered a bald Hare Krishna boy who had run away but returned to school months later in a baseball cap with a pony tail. Or was he kidnapped, too? “Are you the guy who deprogrammed Cooper Fleckenstein?” “Naw. I’m strictly rehab. Anyway, I never discuss clients,” said the man. “Up we go.” He slid a hand under Dean’s back to guide him out of the bunk. His breath tickled Dean’s ear; Dean smelled ocean air in his clothes. Soon, they passed through the front door. Dean figured his mother had let the man in, but where was she now? “Mom?” Out on the blacktop the afternoon sun worked overtime. Sweat pooled on Dean’s lower back. Past the chain-link fence was a limo with smoked-glass windows, its motor running. The man swiped a palm over Dean’s forehead, guiding him into the limo in a gesture more like an anointment than protocol for the safe transport of detainees. “Help yourself.” He pointed to the mini-bar before closing the door. The air-conditioning gave Dean goose pimples. He popped a root beer, guzzling it but growing thirstier with every swallow. Minutes from Rebel Run, Dean’s town in Northern Virginia, they sat immobile in rush hour traffic, not far from Wolf Trap, when Alison Krause came up on the soundtrack. “Baby, now that I’ve found you I won’t let you go…” “Great timing,” said Dean. “My Mom and I saw her play this song at Wolf Trap.” The kidnapper nodded and smiled with pride in the rearview. “Me too. Twice.” “So how’d you get into kidnapping?” asked Dean. “I’m retired Secret Service. It seemed like a good fit, transporting sensitive materials, if you know what I mean.” “Not really,” said Dean, feigning nonchalance, but then his curiosity drove him to ask, “Like what? Like deadly chemicals?” “No. Like a Supreme Court Justice.” “Oh!” said Dean. Then, miffed by his overly enthusiastic response, he added sleepily, “Yeah.” “Now, I’m hired by decent folks who just want their kids treated fairly.” “Depends on what you call decent,” said Dean. He stretched out, said, “I’m kinda tired,” and nodded off. He woke up at the end of Patsy Cline’s Crazy. The limo, now at the crest of the Blue Ridge, took a, hairpin curve, and Dean shook off his stupor. Ride of the Valkyries came on. The sky darkened. The driver said, “I’m always anxious that the traffic back in town is going to mess with the CD program, then, unfailingly, we hit this ridge just in time for the Valkyries!” He oozed such pride that Dean was won over. He wanted to reach up, pat his kidnapper on the shoulder, and say, “Dude, thanks for sharing!” But this curve meant that within minutes he would be with Nina, his art therapist. During his last stay, she bent to look at a Raku urn, her shirt lifted, and he found a pit-viper tattoo right above her ass. For weeks, he thought only of his fingertips on that snake’s tongue. Today, he’d faced the first day of his junior year at Eleanor Roosevelt (Anal Retentive) High School. He’d started high school in the top quarter of his class. Now he was looking at a possible G.E.D. So what was the point? Besides, there was always heroin. He’d never tried it; though his best friend, Travis Timken, had. Now it was on Dean’s list of things to do: Try heroin once. But it was Nina he thought of in the two days he’d been home. He’d imagined the cheeks of her ass like twin halves of a cantaloupe, a melon to be devoured. So what if he’d gotten high just to go back to Nina? He would have smoked the pot anyway… though he might have skipped the Jack Daniels. He popped some cocktail nuts in his mouth. Too salty. He opened a Sprite. So what if he had a thing for his art therapist? The last rays of sun burned over the ridge; a strip of red melted into indigo waves. So what if she was nearly thirty years old? They pulled into the Barnett Hall parking lot. Dean’s breath stopped when he saw Nina waiting for him by the front entrance, her ass tucked into low rise jeans. His salute to her: a boner. “Guess this is your stop.” The man nodded toward Nina. Dean was sad to part with him. The man said, as if answering himself, “You’re not scared. Are you?” “Not a bit.” Dean’s chest tightened though when he tried to get out and found that he was locked in. “Why won’t the door open?” The driver said, “Let me get that,” and instead of simply releasing the childproof locks, he jogged around to the back of the limo to open the door like a chauffeur. Dean stepped out, his head spinning; he would be in a locked facility soon. Nina stood under a floodlight in front of the ancient redbrick building with its barred windows trimmed in chipped paint. Arms folded, toes tapping in sandals, narrowed eyes aimed at the limo. Dean knew that his mom had probably called ahead and asked Nina to greet him, but he nudged his kidnapper and tossed his head with an imperious air toward Nina, as if to announce “My bitch.” Instead he said, “My art therapist.” The man bit his upper lip and raised a brow. “I know,” said Dean. “She’s a fox, and she looks like a cokehead. But she can handle her shit.” “I don’t doubt that.” The man nodded. Then he shook Dean’s hand using both of his own. “It’s been a pleasure, Dean.” Dean found himself not wanting to let go, and when Nina joined them he flinched. “Welcome back, Mr. Price,” she said in a metallic voice, more Philadelphia-like than the folksy tone that she usually affected (as if born in the bosom of the Shenandoah Valley). She tilted her head full of spiky black hair over her folded arms, studying Dean like an art project. With a scowl? He felt dizzy. She was the one person he’d connected with on his first admission, solicitous, but gentle. Therapeutic. “Well…” said the man. “I can take it from here,” said Nina, like she would clap handcuffs on Dean, whose next thought was, “I am so fucked.” At that, a powerful belch erupted from Dean’s gut. Before he knew it, he’d covered his high tops and the kidnapper’s black wingtips in his own vomit. And Nina’s bare toes! With every heave that followed, Dean shriveled, withering into nothingness. The man steadied him at the shoulder while Nina was probably cringing. Dean felt his body lighten to the point that he might soon drift over the mountaintops, if not for the kidnapper’s hand anchoring him at the shoulder. * * * On Valentine’s Day, the last day of his six month sentence, Dean shivered on the curb at the front entrance of Barnett Hall while he waited for the shuttle to take him home. Nina had not seen him out. She shook his hand and gave this advice: Time to put childish things away. Now, facing the sun-licked, snowcapped Blue Ridge?the words slippery slope came to mind. He would forever hear: baby steps and one day at a time. Hotwired with cliche, he was again just another junior at Anal Retentive High, a rebel armed with grandma quotes. In the parking lot, a man in a rusted orange Microbus clamped a cigarette between his teeth and snatched a lighter from the dashboard. Dean bit his lip. Barnett Hall being a state facility for juveniles, Dean had not been permitted to smoke in six months. He’d never used the Barnett Hall Shuttle before. At the end of his first stay his mother, Glenda, picked him up; she hugged him and her golden hair, cool against his cheek, had smelled of honeysuckle. Dean’s naked fingers trembled as he watched the driver light up. He caught the flicker, the puff, and something ignited inside of himself like a gas stove. Dean wore a sweatshirt and jean jacket?his dad’s from the Seventies. Glenda brought him these clothes in the fall. She had turned a corner, that’s what she’d said in that session of family therapy. She said it so plainly that he thought she was talking about her drive out to Barnett Hall, which happened to be only twenty minutes from where she’d grown up. Authentic mountain girl, educated at the University of Virginia, now Glenda was head nurse in a throbbing ER. “I’ve turned a corner, Dean,” she’d said, “I turned, and I’m never goin’ back.” “Which is why you hired a kidnapper?” And she snapped. “Ab-so-fucking-lutely right, Dean! I hired a kidnapper. So what! Isn’t that what you say to everything? Should I just let you get high with those dropouts in that flophouse in D.C.?” He had no answer. She waited. Still nothing. Then she said, “I am not driving four hours in snow for this.” That’s when she left. Until the night before, in their final family therapy session, he had not seen her again. There, Glenda announced, “The transportation service is taking you home tomorrow.” “The kidnapper!” Dean said, perhaps too gleefully. “No, Dean. You’ll take the Barnett Hall Shuttle.” So here he was, freezing, when the driver of the Volkswagen bus spotted him. Dean waved but the man turned back to the mountains, took another puff. “Jesus,” said Dean, and he crossed the icy asphalt, stepping midway on a gritty snow bank. It collapsed and coated his high tops in gray slush. “What the fuck?!” At the van, he banged twice on the passenger’s door. The driver waved his cigarette. “Climb in back. Another kid’s coming.” But I was here first, thought Dean, though incarceration had taught him diplomacy, so he only squinted at the cigarette and the hairy fist before he slid the back door open and met the smoke-filled interior, which wasn’t much warmer. Inside, he asked, “Could you turn the heat up, please?” “It’s up. High as it goes.” Dean fell back on an exposed spring in the torn seat and took off his shoes. He started to peel off his socks when the driver said, “Stop right there. No smelly feet.” “But my socks are wet.” “And that’s my problem?” Dean looked up at the face hovering inches above his own. The man couldn’t be more than five years older, stocky, feet barely reaching the pedals, black shadow engulfing his mouth. Punctuating his broad white face were fuzzy sideburns. Dean was over six feet. He was big enough to take on most guys, though he never did. He had been the star of his soccer team, nicknamed the “Artful Dodger” because he consistently outran his predators, though, in the last two years “Artful Dodger” had been replaced with “Pot-head,” then “Rehabber,” and on that first day back at school a wise ass from the jock posse called him “Recidivist.” Only at Anal Retentive High could one find a jock with foresight, let alone a vocabulary that robust. Red cap stretched to his eyebrows, the driver reminded Dean of Curious George. Dean smirked. He stripped off his socks. “Deal with it.” “I’ll deal with it. I got the keys. We’re not moving until you put them on again.” Dean dug into in his seat: more springs at his back. “Gonna be a long ride,” he said. “Mmn Hmn.” The other passenger filed in and to Dean’s surprise he went straight to the far back seat. Dean considered moving to the passenger seat up front but he’d already argued with the driver and he decided not to push his luck. He turned instead to the guy in the back, who wore the collar of his pea coat upturned, his hands shoved into both pockets, his white-blond hair cropped like a jarhead’s. The buzz cut had not been mandatory just strongly encouraged, less so for the dramatic effect than for the management of head lice?Dean kept his sandy curls long. “You look just like your mother.” Nina had said this to Dean after he told her about Glenda storming out. She said, “I’m guessing you feel the need to torture her… For what?” For what? he’d thought, sarcastically, though he had not been able to name a single act committed by Glenda that any other mom wouldn’t have done in her place. The jarhead asked, “What are we waiting for?” “Ask your pal,” said the driver, pointing at Dean’s feet. “What the fuck?” Dean turned to explain, “He wants me to put wet?” “Then do it, asshole.” The jarhead’s muscles tightened at his temples. “Let’s get the fuck outta here.” “Dude,” whispered Dean, “Chill. It was just rehab. You’d think you were in combat.” The guy craned forward, temples tightening even more, he whispered, “There’s nobody to save your ass from getting kicked out here.” Dean folded his arms defiantly. The driver lit up another smoke, turned to the mountains, and said, “I get paid by the hour.” The jarhead winced. A twinge of doubt worked through Dean’s gut. The jarhead got even closer, and the facial hair that had seemed nonexistent was now a spread of prickly white nubs that surfaced on his chin; muscles tightened like stressed springs at his temples. “I’ll put those damn socks on by way of your stupid-ass if you don’t move it!” Dean could hit the guy; he could hit lots of people; he never did though. “Fuck it!” He put the socks on, uncoiling a fist while his toes curled inside damp cotton. “Now the shoes,” said the jarhead. “By the hour,” said the driver, “and I’m not liable if you guys kill each other.” “Whatever,” said Dean, cramming into wet high tops. He’d be home soon enough. “Attaboy.” The driver shifted gears and took off. Not another word was spoken until Winchester. There, the jarhead jumped out at a shotgun house that came up to the curb. A bony woman in a tatty bathrobe greeted him at the door with a jerk of her chin, as if straining against a leash. As they pulled away, Dean thought of Glenda with her creamy face still puckered by bitterness. So she’d scheduled herself for a double shift instead of picking him up? He tried not to think of that; he tried instead to sleep. Dean could sleep through a tsunami, according to his mother, but the cold and the springs nagged at him. He thought only of two women, one on either end of this drive. He was afraid to leave rehab. Now, how fucked is that? The van rattled against fierce winds. Dean sat up and blew into his fists. “I’m freezing.” The driver shrugged; he’d already explained about the heater. Behind them, the sun settled into the Piedmont; the sky, a red strip, tamped down purple lumps, leveling them with distance. Dean pulled out an envelope (his “personal effects”) and poured on his lap: a silver ring from a girlfriend, a leather wrist band made by another girlfriend, a few singles, some coins, but no keys. He slammed the unsteady armrest. “My keys!” “That sucks.” said the driver, oddly sympathetic. Dean hadn’t thought to grab his keys when the kidnapper came for him. Did Glenda know that? In their last session, she said, “You aren’t ready to come home. I can see that. Anyone can see that…” She glanced at their therapist but the therapist kept neutral eyes pasted to a spot on the floor right between them. Glenda blushed. Then she threw out her chin and whipped out one of the cliches she’d picked up: “Guess we have to take life on life’s terms…” So she’d been going to 12 Step meetings, too. But did she know he’d be locked out? He would have to break into the house. There was a window in the kitchen that he’d kept unlatched to sneak in after sneaking out. Still unlatched? Not likely after a winter had passed. He shifted to stuff the money in his pocket and hit another spring. “Hell with it.” He started to move to the passenger seat up front. The driver’s hand shot up, a monkey’s paw blocking the way. “House Rules.” “Please.” The driver rolled his eyes. “Oh, fine.” Dean paused at this sudden act of generosity. Then he grabbed the seat. They made small talk. When Dean finally saw the sign announcing Rebel Run, he said, “Could you drop me off at the hospital?” “You don’t look hurt to me,” the driver teased. “Gotta broken heart?” “What are you talking about?” “Come on, I see all kinds. You’re a Romeo. Gotta Valentine’s date?” “Whatever.” Dean glanced in the side view mirror and saw a deer step out from the woods that ran several acres to the west of his high school. He’d spent his sophomore year fishing in there, while smoking joints and skipping class, but he’d never seen a deer in there. There had been plenty in the mountains, but the few times one of the residents yelled, “Deer!” it was gone by the time Dean could get to a window. Rebel Run had its share of deer though you mostly saw them only after they’d become road kill, which happened in the fall when the sun started setting at rush hour. Dean almost pointed out the deer to the driver but then the word “Romeo” came back to him, pissed him off, and he decided not to share this one. Before he knew it, they were past the deer and he was back to watching his own eyes in the mirror, Glenda’s brown eyes, that’s what everyone said about his eyes. He was a Romeo. Fuck it. “My mom works there,” he finally said. “Sorry. House rules. They’ll fire my ass if I take you anywhere but home.” “Curious George,” whispered Dean. “Huh?” “It’s getting dark. I’ll freeze. Look, I won’t tell anyone.” “Just call your mom.” “Man, you know they don’t let you keep your cell in the can!” “You call Darn It Hall the canT’ The driver slapped the heel of his hairy palm to the place on his red cap where his forehead would be. “Darn it, caught with pot!” He laughed, took another cigarette from his jacket, punched in the lighter. “That place is Polly Pocket shit. It’s not even lock down. You need to go downstate for the can. And they do take kids downstate nowadays. They don’t escort you in a kiddy car either.” The orange light crackled when it hit the cigarette. “You go in a sheriffs cruiser, wearing shackles.” He added a kick to that k in shackles. Dean folded his arms and slouched. At least there were no springs. “This is the kiddy car?” He wanted a cigarette. But “house rules” would be the answer. So he said, “You won’t drop me off at the hospital because of ‘house rules,’ but you’ll smoke in a rehab van. And who the hell is Polly Pocket?” “Polly Pocket? Itty bitty, plastic chick.” The driver made an inch with his fingers to show how big. “Comes with accessories. My kid plays with Polly’s fashion center. You never heard of Polly?” He waved his cigarette recklessly; ashes fluttered. “I dropped this chick off in McLean last week. In one of those McMansions. Twelve years old and she’s hooked on junk. She plays with Polly.” He blew smoke at Dean. “She made me promise not to tell.” “Well, I won’t mention that I wear ladies’ underwear then. Pink ones. Satin.” The driver laughed. “Got a sense of humor. I like that.” Dean relaxed. “You got a kid?” “I got two kids, man.” The driver drew hard on the cigarette, sucking it right down to the filter; he opened the window and tossed it out before veering onto the exit ramp at the last minute, almost running over the homeless guy who balanced a cardboard sign on his twisted hip that read: Got cash? “Do they live with you?” They stopped with a jerk at the light. The driver threw up his arms. “What kind of a question is that?” “What? My dad doesn’t live with me.” The light changed; the driver shifted gears. “Man’s gotta do what he’s gotta do.” Dean regretted his question though he wasn’t sure why. Finally, the driver said, “Look, dude, how much money do you have?” “Now you’re taking bribes?” “I ain’t taking shit.” The driver accelerated. “I’m taking you home.” “Wait.” Dean reached into his pocket. “I’ll give you ten bucks.” “What hospital’s she at?” “Sangre de Cristo.” “Twenty.” “What?!” “A cab’s gonna cost you that. Then you’re gonna have to wait for it.. .after you get to a phone.” “Okay.” Dean mumbled. “Twenty.” “Deal.” Dean didn’t have twenty but that would be the driver’s problem. They pulled onto the road leading to the hospital, passing Dean’s elementary school. The monkey bars made him smile. Then he felt sad. “You set up?” asked the driver. “Set up?” “You got a dealer?” Dean threw up his arms. “I just got out of rehab.” “I know. I’m the driver. Remember?” They were at a stop sign; he turned to Dean. “You think you got your head together but you don’t.” “How do you know?” said Dean, challenging him with his eyes, but the driver didn’t even blink. Dean looked away. “I got an eye for these things,” said the driver. Dean held his breath. The driver continued, “I can tell you that this Polly Pocket chick in her McMansion has her shit together more than you ever will. Bet you ain’t even met Auntie Hazel.” Dean took his next breath cautiously. “Auntie Who?” “Hazel, bitch!” “Heroin?” Dean’s voice cracked; his eyes crinkled. He could never hide his amazement. “Heroin?” mimicked the driver in a Munchkin voice. Dean could hit the guy, but the van started. Besides, it would be his luck to get sent back to detention with this guy as his driver. Just two more blocks. They pulled into the ER loop. The driver stopped shy of the glass doors at the top. A red sign announced: EMERGENCY. Dean focused on the light that spilled from the glass doors. Soon he would be right there inside, away from this psycho, away from rehab. This could be any night. It could be a night back when his dad was coach, before they stopped talking, before Dean lost the Artful Dodger, before Pot-head, Rehabber, Recidivist, before his Mom gave up on him. Maybe he could have just been dropped off by his dad from a soccer game. He would find his mom at the nurse’s station. She might be scribbling notes; she would look up and say, “Score any goals?” They would both laugh because Dean always scored. He cranked the door handle. It was locked. “Kiddy proofed,” said the driver. “It’ll cost you thirty to open.” Panic tightened Dean’s gut; he spoke almost through his nose. “You can’t keep me here.” “That’s right. I can take you home.” The driver jammed a foot to the clutch, shifted gears, and started forward. Dean toppled onto his seat. “Wait,” he said, balancing himself to pull the wad of singles from his pocket. “This is all I have. Just open the door.” The driver stopped with a jerk. “Count it.” “This is everything.” Dean stood up and tossed the bills on the driver’s lap; there were maybe seven bucks in there. The driver started counting so Dean lunged for the keys, ripping them from the ignition. The driver dropped the cash and dug his fingers into Dean’s chest, lifting Dean, hurling him into the backseat like a basketball. Dean landed on the springs, breathing heavily, mind racing. I could kill him, he thought?the man came toward him?at least take him down. He reached up; the guy stuffed him back down. Dean’s breath came faster as he looked up at the driver, who threw up his arms, shouting, “You only had to ask nice.” At that, Dean went nuts. He leapt up without a plan. The driver lunged for his right hand, for the keys. Dean swiveled. He pulled his right hand back but because he was left-handed this added momentum to his left fist as it came around so powerfully that he sank it into the man’s jaw, and the man fell in a heap behind the passenger’s seat. Dean stood there heaving, relieved and shocked. The driver rubbed his jaw and looked up, revenge in his eyes. Dean grabbed his duffle bag, hopping over the man to the driver’s seat, cranking the doorknob. The man grabbed his ankle. Dean pushed hard against the outside edge of the seat, thrusting his head and chest out the door. Hot cheeks met cold air. Freedom! Next, he felt the man pinning him down at the shoulder. Now the driver was on top of him, he dug his knee into Dean’s spine and reached back for something. Dean imagined a switchblade’s click, the cold metal at his throat. He squirmed. The driver dug deeper. The other hand came around. Dean braced himself. But the man only slapped a card into Dean’s chest then heaved him out, hurling the duffle bag after him. The card sailed ahead of Dean and was still dancing like a snowflake when Dean lifted his chin from the cold cement. It landed at his fingertips. The door slammed. The driver fired up the engine and jettisoned from the loop. Alone on the sidewalk, just steps from the entrance, Dean touched the card and read: Stutz Lincoln Mercury, Tom Spreck. The telephone number was scratched out in ink. He flipped it over and found a handwritten phone number. Below that it said: Polly Pocket, for the sweetest deal in town.” “He wants to sell me a car?” His eyes crinkled. He remembered “Heroin!” and laughed at himself, hoisting himself and his duffle bag off the sidewalk. He stopped outside the ER door to toss the card in a garbage can. Inside, he saw Glenda glance up from her notes. She grinned at him then caught herself, pursed her lips and drew that pointed chin back. Dean’s fingers, trembling, let go of the card. It missed the garbage can. He picked it up with his right hand, waving to his mother with his left. Then, for reasons he could not name, he stuffed that card into his back pocket before entering.

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