Camel

The first was the fifth was the seventeenth, a cacophony of monotony boring only for those who ignored anything unusual.

My name is Bill. I’m an alcoholic.

Hi Bill.

My name is Cheri. I’m an alcoholic’s wife.

Hi Cheri.

My Cheri amour. Pretty little thing that I adore. I had to admit, she was smoking hot, a tired, tattered double-wide trailer smoking hot. She was the kind of woman you’d find at a Laundromat, looking sexy in an oversized Ivy League sweatshirt, gloss black hair up in curlers, an unlit cig dangling between her ruby reds. I fought against her vision, narrowly escaping my head before another introduction burst.

My name is Doris. I’m an alcoholic and drug addict.

Hi Doris.

Her concubine shifted in his seat. Constantly shifty, I swore Bengal tigers on his Cincinnati jacket were going jump off as he offered up his confession as an over 50 autograph stalker. 

Hi I’m Greg. Remember Bob Trumpy? Tight End in the early ‘80s? I once followed Bob Trumpy through a very large suburban mall an Esiason deep ball west of Cincy into a Hardee’s bathroom before convincing him I really needed his autograph. Thought he was going to give me a swirly. Guess he was a bit put off.

Hi I’m Greg. I’m an alcoholic and drug addict’s lover.

Hi Greg.

Damn. Monotony is an idle mind’s sweaty whore’s den of malicious thinking.

Hi I’m Joseph. I wear a suit to this crap-ass meeting to try to throw out my superiority but am actually a toll collector. If you notice, my slate grey suit doesn’t fit, it’s worn at the pants pockets but what the fuck does it matter anyway since were all anonymous here and you’ll never have a clue what I do… or don’t.

Perhaps it was best for me to allow him to go as planned as well. Most of them, a majority of the time, were docile unless provoked by a simple movement contrary to theirs. A supposed incorrect maneuver produced spitting.

Hi I’m Joseph. I’m a drug addict.

Hi Joseph.

The gum-cracker next to me leaning into Joseph the Elder was new. Three weeks new, fresh as a day-old donut. What this old man had over her must be something truly heinous… or she was getting paid. Dime store blonde, her deadly bazookas currently choking a perfectly good red cotton sweater adorned with her name in sparkling yellow cursive, stretching it to its limits, there was no doubt she was the reigning queen of the smoke-choked Spare Time Lanes on Maplewood. Poor kid, she had proven herself to be a turkey away from breaking a hundred.

Hi.  I’m Cindi “with an i.” 

She pointed to her sweater where the dot for her final “I” coincidently highlighted her left nipple like it was the north star guiding us out of everyone’s personal darkness. I thought of three Wisemen, following not the Star of Bethlehem, but the Glinting Nipple of Cindi.

Look, Bartholomew. There it is. Our sign. The Glinting Nipple. Look how the “I” beckons.

Which one, my wise friend, as there are two.

Nipples?

Yes. But “I’s” as well.

The one on the right riding the crest of her left bosom. Let us find the newborn king, bringing the child gold, incense and myrrh.

Yes, and gain a closer look at those bazookas. My goodness.

I’m the fiancée of a drug addict.

Hi Cindi.

With an i.

My verbiage toward Cindi, sent along with a bit of cynical flirtation, created a vaccous split with Amie. She was not amused, her eyelashes tiny arrows burrowing into my forehead, drawing blood. But at least at made me fit into the group’s mantra of terrifying consistency.

Sorry everyone. Slipped out. I’ll try to reform.

Amie’s arrows exploded, hollow-point fragmentation, digging in layers deeper.

Hi. I’m Francine. I’m an alcoholic… and a drug addict.

And an abuser of convenient terrets, killer of a reasonably sound mind and extreme lover of mirrors, as I fully knew. I could go on, but in this meeting there was enough negativity already.

My turn. I really wanted to have a different name. I did. Norman just didn’t seem to work so well. Norman was too normal. But under pressure, Amie had told me to make something up right as we were walking down a red and yellow maple leaf covered sidewalk for our first time a baker’s dozen meetings ago.

I’m Francine.

Francine? Where the hell did that come from? Francine? Old family name from across treacherous Atlantic waters?

Shut up.

Jesus Amie.  Amie seems to be much more exotic than Francine. Amie is more French. You know how I love French.

Robert, just do it. It’s “anonymous,” remember?

But it’s “anonymous” as no confessions should… oh fine. Should I be Francois? Francis?

Don’t be an ass.

That might actually be a good one. I’ll say it with an Iranian accent “Illo. Me noh-ma iz Anoss.” Christ Amie, we’re spending more time with this than fixing…

Do it.

Amie’s eyes log-rolled when I said Norman. Unfortunate for her this meeting was on a Thursday when our cable college football game of the week was Kansas versus Oklahoma at the home of the Sooners, Norman. Could’ve been worse.  Manhattan. Friends call me Man. You can call me Manhattan. And you. You too.  You, mon Cheri, can call me Man.

Hi. I’m Norman. Husband and secret super hero of Francine here.

I patted her on the back of her loose aquamarine and deep purple blouse, sheer enough to let everyone know she was a Victoria’s Secret Flesh-colored B cup with no pretense. She reciprocated with a faux-love smile above our pull-out cafeteria table and a quick tight squeeze on my sac underneath. Eventually she’d let go. Eventually.

I couldn’t help myself as I tried to help her. Best as I could, I tried, but accountability wasn’t within most of their reach. All of it was complete bullshit, so I half-ass tried as my ass was tired of being dragged up and down Central, in and out of court on a perpetually moving revolving door. Security knew me by name, as did the court reporter, bailiff and Judge Roy Bean aka Jim Beam, scruffy as Andrew Jackson on a worn twenty, his hair shorn into buzz cut. Probably ex-Marine. For his sake, with drivel he dealt with daily, I hoped ex-Marine.

On cue this thirteenth evening came the Camels, alarmingly on cue after all introductions prior to sordid stories, straight out of a Busby Burkeley production.  Seventy-five percent, or 6 out of 8 preferred Camels. Two went Light, others straight up, and one, my “Francine” went filtered. The two abstainers were myself and inexplicably fighting-upstream against her stereotype, Cindi. Not that it mattered. With a room just big enough to hold a ten-person cafeteria table, small table for coffee and a 12 inch black & white TV plus a freestanding rotating fan kicking all smoke back into this room before it drifted out of main door, second hand smoke was a given. A swirling dust devil of death, if their second hand swirl didn’t get you, third hand would.

I thought no one could smoke in a hospital.

Had to point it out, so I said it. Once. Week 2. First came a series of “how dare you” stares, second explanation. As this was hosptial’s lower level next to electrical rooms, they had been cleared to smoke in this room as long as they kept all smoke out of the hall and left this room acrid smoke-smell free every other week after they met. Or, as “Francine” so delicately put it the time I spoke up

How can you be so stupid? It’s a hospital. Hospitals are here to help people get better…

Or kill them, I thought.

Having us meet here gives us confidence to move forward getting better. That’s what everybody, including the staff at the hospital, wants. Right?

I am sure altruism clearly fell onto hospital support staff’s side. No one goes into a profession as strenuous as nursing without having a feeling for all humanity thick as a defensive end’s thighs. However, I self-mused, thinking of more than one person who had gone into a hospital and come out with more than the day they arrived. My stepfather lost his appendix but gained a scalpel. A former crazy glue-snorting acquaintance claimed to harbor a fugitive glove near his stitched esophagus. It was plausible, but coming from a guy dark as an Amazon Brazilian claiming to be a distant relative of Rasputin, his tale was a bit hard to choke down.

Tonight Joseph started. Like fourteen of the last seventeen, according to Doris and twelve of our thirteen. He had missed three, claiming out of town business at Columbia. Right. Probably in Colombian up to his deviated septum.

I did okay this week.

Good, Joseph.

Nice. I’m sitting in a room full of narcissism up to my eyeballs, he gets a pat on the back, I get a squeeze in the sac.

I had a small slip-up this Monday night.

I try to remain stoic. It’s only a 90-minute meeting. I’ve been in worse. Once I was talked into going to a keen high school play. Turned out to be a not-so-keen born-again ploy to talk about the revival of Jesus in everyone’s lives. They weren’t so keen with me leading a discussion about having to have a vival before a revival as Jesus hadn’t exactly turned up for me for a first time. Yet I remained positive, realistically positive. 

Joseph was about to roll another red-carpeted lie off his tongue. Oh no, I hope it’s not another Monday Night Football drunken orgy. Please let us have all farcical details. Lay it on lowly us, as sand pebbles of life trod upon daily.

Thank the Lord there was no alcohol involved.

I choked it down, acid courtesy of a plate of pickled Jalapenos. Joseph, open up door number two, the Colombian. Colombian. Colombian. Come ON JOSEPH.  Grant us a bowl of fresh-powder skiing, Joseph!

Choking down the tears, he started up again.

It was a fight within me desperately seeking a drop of alcohol. No cough syrup or vanilla extract to be found.

A bit of acidic bile came up, but disappeared as I swallowed laughter. Best to recycle it for later, if needed. Did he just say Vanilla Extract? What the hell?

I found solace in a can of Kingsford lighter fluid.

Not a shock to anyone, but Cindi, who remained dumbfounded after spilling out a question on its knees begging to be asked

You snorted lighter fluid?

I drank it down.

As Norman, I was stereotypically expected to fold my hands and listen as if I was a counselor. If I had a camel’s hair smoking jacket I could play the role, not an Oscar-worthy performance, but good enough for daytime television. Alas, naming my character “Norman” was a tactical error. I should have named myself Chester or something more in tune with my character’s emboldened personality. I stepped up with a simple fact, announcing

There’s no alcohol in lighter fluid.

Sure there is.

It’s a petroleum product made from long-time, centuries-old, dead plants and animals. Remember those old commercials for some gas company when the green dinosaur turned into a big drop of oil?

Silence.

Anyone?

It’s fun to get “are you crazy” looks from a group of people who truly are crazy.  Makes you feel like a member of an exclusive club where you pay your dues not at, but out the door. I am confident every one of these fine upstanding people, the –icts in the room, have ictdar, working like “gaydar” does for the gay community. They can read it as accurately as Superman could the last line of an eye chart from three football fields away.

It’s a petroleum product. Can’t make alcohol without a plant – a formerly live plant.

Are you calling me a liar?

Slow down there Technicolor dreamcoat. Not a liar. A master of delusion maybe, but not a liar.

It’s people like you that make me want to start drinking again.

It’s OK, Joseph. He doesn’t mean anything by it.  Do you “Norman?”

No.  I shouldn’t judge, “Francine.” We all have our issues.

Joseph, a man who often mistook confusion for plain old disturbing reality, tried to corner me. But, he was acting as a little kid who knew next to nothing about this cornered strange banditoed animal wringing its hands, waiting for his next move. Joseph, as calmly as a sugared-up second grader, blurted out.

Like you do?

This isn’t my gathering. Here for support.

C’mon. What’s your problem?

I’m a compulsive gambler.

Football?

I hesitated, drawing in some sympathy and smoke from puffing mixed nuts. I had their rapt attention and as such, my narcissism (yes I had a good dose for I couldn’t be in this meeting without any) arose. Closing my eyes for effect only, I drew in a deep breath before expelling

Dog races.

Bill, our quiet one, was also a compulsive gambler. No one knew it but I. One evening a month or so ago when delusional brittle brown maple leaves clung to their branches long after others gave in to nature’s silent choke, I caught Bill outside on his cell arguing an over on the Michigan vs. Notre Dame game Saturday prior. Bill was losing the battle as I walked briskly by on his right. 

But as Bill was a gambler, he had a quasi-informed opinion on the topic. As brashly as Bashful Bill could blurt, he popped in with a rapid firing of

Thoroughbreds? Trotters? Greyhounds?

Basset Hounds. I always seem to end up putting my coin down on the one that steps on its ears. 

BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP.

Coffee’s ready!

 

Saved by an incessant buzz consistently going off every 25 to 30 minutes during this meeting. Coffee… and cigarettes. An addict’s poor substitutes to feed a mind hungry for chemicals it fooled its owner into thinking it so desperately lacked.  They were Corn Flakes to their desired Frosted Flakes. These people sucked up coffee like a dromedary does water at an oasis. They held it in like the dromedary would, proudly carrying enough water to fill Glen Canyon, except they wouldn’t let any of it go until it spilled over all available sides, flooding lives of everyone near them.

Packets of aspartame torn, powdered creamer porn, wooden stirring sticks tornadoed otherwise placid brown water nearly as weak as most talking heads in this continually-shrinking room. I thought a comment about not sharing your stirring sticks might be appropriate, but not well received. Best to save some of my better material for another meeting.

Not my intention to be the antagonist, but as “Norman” I couldn’t help pointing out the absurd. Absurd may seem normal in this room, but on the outside looking in as I was, nothing was normal. Normal meant dragging surrounding innocents by their ankles through muddy sludge all the while complaining their own worn shoes were getting mud on them.

Doris double-humped her way into addiction, although this baggage her humps carried did not seem to be burdening her staid beast. Holding her Camel by its toes between her right index and f-off finger, she took a long draw before beginning her weekly speech.

Hey everyone. Guess it was a somewhat normal 13 days. I have the nine kids, as you all know, starting at 16 as most of you know. Three husbands, three, four and two in that order. The beatings started after a couple years – from all of them. Alcohol numbed it for the first few years. Couldn’t stomach the hard stuff.  Ever. Wine was the thing, cheaper the better.

She drew in more smoke. It exited Bacall-style, swirling around her silver flippy Mary Tyler Moore ‘do stubbornly held onto since glory days of Ted Baxter and Rhoda Morgenstern.

But wine was not going to cut it.  After Billy, my middle baby, was born with all his challenges, the beatings took more out of me. At first pot was good. Real good.

A few laughed at this. It was okay. She was smiling. They all knew what was coming.

But pot settles in you, taking more and more for the shit to make the mellow.  Went straight to eightballs. Shoot for the moon, you know? 

It’s okay, Doris. 

You’re good, Doris. 

Go ahead and cry Doris. Let it out.

Joseph always said “go ahead and cry.” Typical addict. If he does it, then everybody must. Except Doris. Doris never cried. Ever. Joseph would cry over a bad pedicure. Doris wouldn’t cry if someone shoved her foot into a garbage disposal.

The beatings don’t stop.  Mentally, physically, they don’t ever stop.  But I’m fine.  I take care of the kids. I work the two jobs. I’m alone, kind of, but I’m OK I guess.

Lots of quiet clapping for Doris. Justifiably. Doris always slightly smiled at me, and I knew she felt for me. She felt for me. What a state of malfunctioned abnormality, but she was the one who got it. She had discovered her hole, and more importantly, recognized it as such.

Doris’ “I’m alone, kind of” comment, set a torqued Greg’s hair-brain afire.  Looking at me as if I was the blood-and-bones representative of the outside world, Greg menaced

What is your real problem because it ain’t alcohol or drugs. You’re psycho.

I looked behind me to see if either some apparition had appeared from the smoke or if Tony Perkins had shown up. The apparition would be more likely, although for me, Tony Perkins, even a dead Tony, would be more of a welcome.  I spoke up, pitching an pinch of sarcasm.

You’re not talking to Doris, are you?

What business is it of yours?

Correct me if I’m wrong here mister coming-out-of-the-closet-soon-or-exploding, but this is an open meeting with these people discussing their problems without remorse or embarrassment, right?

Asshole. You embarrassed Joseph.

Joseph embarrassed Joseph.

Cindi laughed. Cindi snorted. Loud. Naturally. She was drunk. Perhaps that was the reason Joseph had lured her into coming. Hey sweetheart, you can drink the booze I can’t. Have at it, I’ll have at you after your eyes roll in the back of your head and you land on my tartan-decorated couch in my basement.

Amie’s grip, once released, returned. My balls were either going to be purple by morning, or dead from lack of blood, found shriveled the color and size of dried Brussel Sprouts weeks later in our fitted red rose-patterned sheet.

Norman…

Francine Lowfruit-a-squeezi, my Italian muffin. Hon. My apology.

The grip relaxed.

Bill the Bashful coughed twice, hacked once. His cue to the crew he was ready to spill his guts, possibly literally.

As per my custom, I am concentrating putting one foot in front of the other.

Bill got a few laughs from that one. The first time he said it.  Now, the thirteenth time I’ve heard it, his crack got as much mileage as a used Fiat. Not completely without some support, Cindi laughed.

The quiet ones were the ones I never trusted. Norman might, but I didn’t. Amie and I had discussed Bashful Bill more than once. The last time, three nights prior to tonight as we finished off a Baker’s Square French Apple pie in our tiny apartment kitchen, she went off with a cabinet-quaking

For God’s sake, Robert, what is wrong with you?

I’m just saying…

He’s a fucking podiatrist. He fixes people’s feet.

Uh-huh. I’m sure old Billy does, but I’m a-thinkin’ he’s got another fix for himself.

That’s disgusting and frankly, I am embarrassed you would even think it, perv.

What? You think this is a “takes one to know one?” issue? I’m no perv.

Cheri?

At least 40.

Yeah, well where there’s smoke…

There’s a truckload of Camels. I’m just saying something’s up with him. He’s not Bill the Bashful all the time. 

He’s a Podiatrist!!

And a Pederast. Or, I guess, at least a Feeterist.

Robert… drop it.

Rubbing young girl’s feet?

DROP IT!

 

I smiled thinking of “feeterist” as Greg shifted an inch or so to peel some pressure off his hemorrhoid before Bill re-upped the story ante.  Greg may have been suffering from hemorrhoids. It was not something I knew for fact. Bill was definitely suffering from memorrhoids, painful open lesions festering in his memory aching to come out but too painful to burst. In his customary arms-crossed-so-I-can-pretend-I-am-alpha-dog, Bill re-loosened phlegm coating his chords.

I had finished an old woman’s feet. Bunions the size of pinballs and just as hard, I massaged to loosen up ligaments around them. It was going to be a long process before I would be able to surgically repair her feet.

A long process. How apropos for addiction. I kept this in my own cranium. Bill re-ignited his vocal chords, bringing his voice down a couple octaves for his last sentence, sounding like an uneasy combination of Batman and The Grinch. Others, the addicts, in our room, acted as if they were all very well aware of this poor old woman’s feet, murmuring

Uh-huh.

So right.

Yes. Yes. Go on.

I thought about her aged feet. What they have been through. Where they had walked. It got to me. The time. Amount of time. The distance.

The verbal vomit. My throat ached. Last night’s nachos, coated with so many Jalapenos you had to dig to find a chip, desired passage back up my chow channel to marry their current Jalapeno brethren. Bill’s monologue, as sincere as a senior on prom night professing his love for his virgin sophomore date, was not bringing out the best in my gastro-intestinal system.

The blankie hankie came out. Bill always had his hankie on hand. Somehow it felt comforting to him so tears wouldn’t streak his clothing. Imagining Bill putting his hands on the germ-glistening rag before someone’s bunions did not bring any solace in my mind.

Bill blew into his rag, stuffing it into the front waist of his tea green slacks so it hung out as if he was the man placing his hands into the crotch of a bent-over center on Sunday.

After she left, I had an encounter with a young woman.

I looked at Amie, holding fast to an “I told you” gaze.

At first, a young woman’s feet are so tender, virginal. But you’d be surprised how many young women’s feet I see on a weekly basis… for a massage.

I knew it!

I thought I thought. Pulling acupuncture needles smart-bombed into my retinae through the laser-beamed stares of 15 angry eyes (due to a shotgun mishap, Greg has a glass eye a green hue lighter than the seeing orb), I knew I thought wrong.

Did I say that out loud? Oh. OH. OH. So sorry. It’s… it’s… it’s the game.  Tonight’s game. On my phone. Not now. The odds. I told my friend. Told him. Oklahoma should be two-touchdown favorites. How could they not be? They’re playing a beaten-up, poorly coached Jayhawk squad. You remember, Francine?

Amie was ready to kill me.

Uh. No. You know how I hate your gambling problem… Norman. I don’t pay attention. But then again, you don’t either.

Amie had me. I don’t. I tried, but now I don’t. All of these people at one point had been on the right track. Not one had been pushed off, they purposefully walked off their right track into deliberately slow, heavy path of the freight train of addiction. Despite their conventional group-think it was their brain deciding the need for them, they had done it on their own. No one else was to blame. Not their mother, father, abusive Uncle Jake, Aunt Kerra the trollop, Grandpa Albert with his chew and fungus-ridden spittoon. No one. Despite known facts, it was always someone else’s fault. Hell, I knew what I had done. My faux pas thinking out loud was my fault. Nonetheless, when faced with a group of social diverters, I can divert right along with them.

Anyone up for Stan’s Steak Smorgasbord?

Stan’s Steak Smorgasbord was re-dubbed, by me, Stan’s Misteak Smorgasbord.  To celebrate the pre-holiday season, our group had unanimously decided to meet at Stan’s for a celebratory buffet meal the prior Sunday.

Getting together inside a hospital meeting room a floor under an isolated wing was one thing. Meeting in public was quite another. They only had one thing in common and not one of them was going to bring up addiction in public. And they were anonymous. Meeting in public destroyed their anonymity. Once in the chow line to snag a tenderized-with-a-sledge-hammer fried steak, it dawned on them.  They were to gather but not together. Instead of taking over one of Stan’s long communal tables, each couple selected their own booth. Aside from addiction, there was nothing for them to talk about. Not one knew anything else about the other.

You’re an asshole.

What? Stan’s wasn’t satisfactory? How aboutchange to Chinese Chicken Chow Chow?

Francine, forehead planted in her palms, spoke to the coffee ring stains on the deep brown faux wood-grain table, laminate held from chipping by a ring of rubber.

How about you shut the hell up, Norman. God-dammit! Jesus! Are you ever going to understand?!

I held this table, palms pressed in, keeping it from going anti-gravitational.  Rising, my right hand instinctively went through my hair, clearing my brown strings off my forehead. I grabbed my Milky Way creamed coffee.

Am I ever going to understand. Hmm.

Going counter-clockwise towards main door, I semi-circled the table.

Am I ever going to understand. Let me see. Here’s what I understand, to the best of my knowledge. Every one of you, with the possible exception of Doris, are suns. Not S-O-N-S, either. All of you think you are the sun, source of all life.  Without you, the rest of us would surely wither. The rest of us are required by you and-you-and-you-and-you to orbit around your narcissism. You are flawed. You all know that. But every one of you – again Doris I think you may be the lone exception – can always come up with someone or something else to be at fault. Not as if I have written all of it down, but it has fused to my memory.

My parents ignored me.

The kids when I was in elementary school were mean.

There’s too much pressure to pay property taxes.

The judge is out to get me.

Strangers are out to get me.

I’m out to get me. But that’s because of my mother-boyfriend-counselor-sponsor-whomever. Perhaps Slash. Yes, when in doubt blame it on Slash. Don’t look at each other trying to figure out who Slash is because you know what? It doesn’t matter. Not one fucking bit.

You’re not the sun. What you are, cosmically-speaking, is a black hole. People in your life are not orbiting you, as you see it. We’re circling in your cosmic dust devil, desperately trying not to get sucked into your shit, trying not to get lost with you, trying to make sure any innocents around you don’t go down with you. That, “Francine” is what I understand. If I’ve gotten it wrong, please blow some of your blessed sunshine right up my ass.

Amie pulled her eyes off the table.

You Son-of-a-…

How about I go out for a drag? You discuss it amongst yourselves.

Years of contained breath stuck to my nostrils, freezing before completion of exit. Ice crunched under my waffled hiking boots, snapping like sizzling rice noodles. Snow arrived once, dumping six inches six weeks ago. Two remained. The rest had turned most of Chicago into a series of black ice patches. 

No Camels in my winter bus carbon-tinged sunburst yellow down coat pocket, I headed to my car. Boots fell heavy, as did my heart, but conscience? Conscience was clean, uplifted.

My Malibu’s door moaned as it always did during these dark months, not willing to let what little interior warmth remained to escape. My oxidized blue baby was an appliance, an Amana on wheels. She started up with nary a whine. I grabbed glove box door, popping it open to expose its corral containing herds of Camels.  Formerly. They had escaped, leaving nary a single Camel.

Lips wetted, salivating for nicotine salvation. My Malibu, oxidized blue vainly attempting twinkling star reflection, wheeled out of hospital’s back lot, cranking a right heading south. 

I wanted a fresh pack, freshest I could get.