She wears denim cut-offs and a man’s tuxedo shirt knotted at the midriff. Arms and legs are mere bones covered by veined, leathery skin. Greasy blonde hair is pulled back into a ponytail. You can’t help staring at the purple bruise on her face, the bony jut of her cheek giving the top of the bruise a point. Almost like a teardrop.
– Hey, man, got a cig? The raspy catch in her voice, possibly quite sexy at one time, scrapes like a rusty nail.
Quickly patting down suit jacket pockets with your free hand. – Sorry, all out.
– Any change you can spare?
Again patting your pockets. – Sorry.
– It’s cool, no need to go through the Marcel Marceau act. Not deaf and dumb!
Her exaggerated garble of deaf speech is followed by a cruel smirk as she strides past. You feel around in your pocket again and discover a couple of coins. All you have in the world. Your first instinct is to run after her. Toss them at her feet. You stop and turn but think better of it.
You’ve been walking around downtown Las Vegas for about an hour. Flight bag in hand. Watching people get on with their lives. You’ve already stopped at four payphones. All you have to do is dial the operator to make a collect call to New Jersey. Would Roz even accept the charges? She won’t wire you any money, that much is obvious, but she might arrange a ticket for you to get back to New Jersey.
You keep remembering the payphone at the McDonalds where the Greyhound stopped in Wyoming, the one that rang before you could put your quarter in. You were going to call Roz then, let her know you were okay. But you picked up the ringing payphone only to hear that frantic woman on the other end. A voice that seemed to not only be coming from another country, but maybe another time. You’re still not sure if she was real or a figment of your imagination.
How helpless she made you feel. Igniting a spark inside, something visceral that cut through the static and the distance to connect you to the voice. Every payphone you pass, half expecting her to call back. But all the Vegas payphones are conspicuously silent.
You check the address on the piece of paper. At some point you realize you are heading in the direction of the bus station. The scorching afternoon glints off the hollow glass tubing of liquor store signs and glares against the cluttered pawnshop windows. A drunkard wearing a jacket mostly held together with duct tape is propped up against a crumbling brick façade with his hand held out. Further along, four others gather at the entrance of an alley to pass around a bottle and roll cigarettes with tobacco from salvaged butts. You wonder if the coins in your pocket would buy you a rolled up cigarette.
A bitter resentment fuels your footsteps. You keep seeing that purple bruise: a pitiless teardrop blooming into a cluster of pain, anger and fear. Did you look like just one more tourist to her? Did she see the wrinkles in your suit and the thin line between your situations?
All the bums, the derelicts, winos and panhandlers you ever saw, sleeping in dumpsters, yelling at some tormentor only they could see. The living dead wandering inside a private void that was both a source of despair and the only refuge they had ever known. There but for the grace of God, you would think, and imagine the invisible gap between you and them. Now that gap seems narrower. One day you might be on the other side without even knowing it.
You realize you are almost running and make yourself stop, bending over to catch your breath, each gasp slicing deeper into your windpipe.
You look up at what looks like an old hotel or maybe a boarding house. Wooden steps leading up to a veranda. You check the piece of paper. This is the address. Over the doorway is a hand-painted sign: THE OASIS CENTER.
Is this the sign you’ve been looking for? Have you hit rock bottom yet? No money, no way of getting home. Carrying everything you own. You’ve screwed up miserably everything that was good in your life. If this isn’t rock bottom, you don’t want to know what it looks like. Walking up the wooden steps. What few things you have in the flight bag compressed into the weight of the world.
Once inside you are in a small lobby. What seems to be a waiting area made up of a few hard vinyl chairs arranged in a semi-circle. What catches your eye is the ashtray situated in the middle of the chairs. One of those old fashioned metal canisters filled with sand. You remember them from the hotel lobbies and office buildings of your boyhood. A few cigarette butts embedded in the sand, reminding you of cacti. The sweet juice is in there, but you have to get past the razor-sharp spines. Beyond the city there is nothing but desert. Miles of sand and blistering heat inhabited by scorpions and rattlesnakes, anything cold-blooded and ungiving. Only one instinct, stay alive.
– Can I help you?
A man stands behind a long wooden counter opposite the waiting area. If this place was a hotel at one time that would probably have been the front desk. The man – really he looks no older than twenty – wears a black sleeveless Harley-Davidson tee shirt, showing off wiry biceps. His red hair is shorn in a military-like crew cut, the shaved sides and back showing only stubble that resemble an orange rash, like some kind of carrot allergy. Two thin gold rings pierce his left eyebrow and a small pewter cross dangles from his right ear. He looks at your flight bag. You show him the card that was given to you at the detox centre. He tells you to take a seat in the waiting area.
The flight bag between your feet, hands on your knees. You stare at the ashtray. The cigarette butts seem entrenched in the sand. You imagine their subterranean roots stretching down into the canister, traveling through the floor, well below the foundation of this building and right into the earth.
You imagine that anorexic bitch laughing. What’s a matter? Too good to filch through the ashtray like the rest of us? Those are gifts from God compared to what we pick up off the streets every day.
The crew cut guy is busy typing something on the computer. You lean over and pluck one of the butts from the ashtray. Hearing that bitch laughing in your head, smiling despite yourself. You study the butt and notice some kind of stain around the filter. At first it looks like lipstick, but then, no, blood. Definitely blood. You tear off the filter and fish a matchbook from the inside jacket pocket. One match left. The flaring head warms the tip of your nose. Flecks of tobacco stick to your tongue. That first drag and a mushrooming inside your head. Eyeballs going glassy. You spit out the tobacco flecks and savour the acrid taste. One more drag and the ash burns almost to your fingers. You push the smouldering wad of tobacco and paper into the ashtray. The bitch hasn’t stopped laughing and the acrid taste on your tongue turns cold as ashes. The fog starts to dissipate, leaving only a colourless melancholy. Suddenly nauseous, leaning forward to hug your knees. Choking back a nasty gob of bile.
You are aware of a pair of well-worn basketball sneakers standing before you. Straightening up to see a middle-aged, heavy-set black man wearing a yellow tee shirt and jeans.
– Hi, I’m Jonah Whelan, director of the Oasis Centre. Extending his hand. You stand and shake the hand, unnerved by its firm and friendly grip.
– My name is Martin Weintraub. You meet his eyes, which are not unsympathetic, but they seem to have the power to look dispassionately at the thing inside you that is trembling like a leafless limb.
That’s when you finally understand how far you’ve strayed. In your mind’s eye, family and friends and everything you left behind shrinks as if through the wrong end of a telescope. It is only in this man’s eyes that you witness with utter clarity what was always buried half-hidden in the back of your mind.
– Please close the door behind you.
Jonah Whelan settles behind a large wooden desk covered by random piles of loose paper and dishevelled files. Angled at one corner is a computer terminal. Beside the keyboard an oversized ashtray that looks as if it hasn’t been emptied for the past week. He watches you close the door and stand in the middle of the room clutching the flight bag in front of you. An immigrant waiting to go through customs to a new country. A place to start over.
– Please sit down.
There is a wood chair in front of the desk. You sit, still holding the flight bag then set it down as an afterthought. Jonah taps out a cigarette from a soft pack of Camels. Catches a glimpse of you watching him the way a dog watches his master open a tin of anything. He holds out the pack. You draw out a cigarette, trying to smile to downplay how badly your hand is shaking.
– So, Martin. He lights you then himself with a red plastic Bic, – What brings you here?
A deep drag and the smoke slowly escapes through your nose. – I’ve just done ten days in the St. Cecilia Free Clinic.
– I see.
– I have a wife and two daughters in New Jersey. But I can’t go back there right now.
– Why not?
– I’m not sure. I know I need help. I’d like to stay here in Las Vegas to get it.
You are aware of an odd formality, as if interviewing for a job. Jonah rubs his chin with his thumb. – How did you get to St. Cecilia’s?
You don’t tell him everything, except about waking up hung over in the hotel room. Finding your money gone. Trying to skip out on your bill and getting caught in a back alley. – I spent a night in holding before they took me to detox.
– My wife squared it with the hotel.
– That why you don’t want to go back?
Your gaze is stiff, what feels like a kind of embarrassed bravado. – I have about seven cents in my pocket. I’d call my wife to send me a ticket back to Jersey. She might even do it. But I’m here now. I put myself here. Maybe I did it for a reason, I don’t know.
You reach over to tap your cigarette in the ashtray and make a point of looking at the framed photograph propped beside the computer terminal. A portrait of a big blonde woman with two dark children on either side of her. A girl with a caramel complexion and an older boy who is darker and the spitting image of Jonah.
– My wife and kids. Karla is 11 and Marvin is 14. I’m ten years sober because of them.
– Mine is 20. Dani. She goes to school in Canada. I missed a lot of her growing up. I was on the road so much.
– What did you do?
– Sales rep for a men’s clothing company. Later on a vice-president before I was downsized.
Jonah nods and crushes his cigarette, three-quarters smoked, in the ashtray then lights up another. – Another nail in the coffin. His smile is rueful, almost a grimace.
– I once quit for a month.
– Can’t imagine it. I once cut down to a pack a day for an entire week. It felt like something at the time.
– Dani’s always been after me to quit. She used to lecture me with all these statistics and put up warning signs of nicotine poisoning on the fridge. She actually got her mother to quit. After that one month I never tried again. For a moment you are transfixed by the cigarette paper burning close to your fingers. – How did we get to this point?
Jonah frowns, clears his throat. – If you want to stay at the Oasis Centre there are two conditions. First of all you have to attend evening meetings without fail. You also have to have a job. Since you’re new to Las Vegas that means you’ll have to get a work card. They’re twenty-five bucks. You’ll have to register at the police department to get it. You stub out your cigarette just as your fingers can’t take the searing heat anymore. Rather than sitting again you stay on your feet.
– Martin? Is everything all right?
Eyes closed, you pinch the bridge of your nose as if to stem the risk of tears.
– It’s going to be okay, man. Why don’t you sit back down.
Your eyes open, but you remain standing. Crossing your arms and looking past
Jonah, fixing on something out the window.
– I know how overwhelming it all seems right now.
– My grandfather had a saying. He spoke Yiddish, but the English version is: When a child is born his fists are shut tight, but when a man dies his hands are open.”
– Never heard that one.
You uncross your arms. – I never understood what it meant exactly. All I know is I have my hands open now and it scares the shit out of me.
– Sit down, Martin.
You sit. Both hands on your knees. Possibly to keep from standing again.
– So what’s it going to be? Should I start filling out a form for you?
– I need to call my wife and tell her where I am.
– No problem. As long as it’s collect you can use the phone at the front.
– What do you need to know?
– Full name and address.
As you give the information Jonah types with both index fingers on his keyboard then stops. – Hang on a minute. He lights another cigarette and tosses you the pack, which you catch without thinking in both hands.
The closet is narrow like an upright coffin or a secret compartment in a haunted house.
You pull the two wrinkled cheap shirts and pair of chinos you bought when you came to Las Vegas and hang them up, pushing them to one side. On the other side of the closet hang a couple of pairs of blue jeans, which belong to your room mate. Faron. He lies on his bed in a tee shirt underwear and socks, smoking a cigarette.
– Nice suit you got there, he says, blowing a smoke ring in the air. His wild hair looks like it never felt a comb run through it and his oversized jaw is crosshatched with a two-day growth of barbed wire.
– Yeah, thanks. Needs pressing.
– Shouldn’t have a problem finding yourself a nice job with a suit like that.
There is a laundry room in the basement with one washer, one dryer and a large cast iron sink. Washing the shirts and extra pairs of underwear and socks by hand in the sink brought you back to those days of hand washing in hotel rooms when you first went on the road for Fine Brothers. You fold the socks and underwear in the bottom drawer of an old paint-chipped dresser. They barely take up a corner of the drawer.
– Hell, even if you didn’t get a good job you could probably make a sweet buck just selling the suit. Faron, laughs with an abrupt snort.
– I’ll keep that in mind. You manage a weak smile then lift the thin mattress, undress, lay the suit out on the box spring and rest the mattress on top of it.
You stretch out on the mattress in boxers. Faron nods at a pack of American Spirit on the night stand between your beds. You help yourself and he talks about doing time in the Nevada State Prison and the easy access the inmates have to booze and drugs.
– How long were you in jail?
– Sentenced eight years for armed robbery. Made parole after five.
– How long have you been out?
– A little over a year. I came to Vegas to get a job as a croupier but none of the casinos will hire an ex-con. I been working at a chemical factory for the past eight months.
Feeling self conscious about your bulging belly and hairy back, you clutch the flight bag close. Feeling something stiff somewhere inside it. You unzip a secret compartment on the inside and find a thin pamphlet. A homemade chapbook of poems Dani gave you years ago. Probably when you were still with Fine Brothers. You must have put it in the flight bag, meaning to read it on the road and totally forgot. Much like you did with so much else in your life. You take the chapbook out now and flip through it, sitting up against the thin pillow. You come across one poem called Vigil.
I stand vigil
to a sliver of light
under your door…
– Whatcha reading? Faron grinds his cigarette in the ashtray on the night stand.
– Just something my daughter put together. A book of poems she wrote.
Faron grunts. – Hope you’re not gonna read all night. Some of us got to get up early for work.
He pulls his blanket over his head with stocking feet sticking out. You stare at the pair of hard construction boots at the foot of his bed. Probably steel-toed. You slip the book of poems under your pillow. Reaching over to turn off the night lamp. But you’re not the least bit tired. Remembering Dani as a little girl and imagining her standing right now outside the door. Wishing you could invite her in, let her sleep under the coarse blanket with you. Wanting to tell her not to be scared, that it’s all going to work out somehow.
There were times when you were a boy that you were sure you’d been adopted and made up memories of growing up in an orphanage. Here in this room with some snoring stranger nearby, it’s like finding yourself in that fictitious memory.
You are grateful to be sleeping beside the window. The blind only three quarters of the way down. The tip of a crescent moon visible along with a few scattered stars.
Staring up at them allows you a twinge of pity for a stranger you know is out there. That grinning window reflection that kept you company on the Greyhound bus is now wandering lost and half-crazed through the blowing desert wind. Grit shifting in the marrow of his bones.
– My name is Martin and I’m an alcoholic.
– Hi, Martin, the voices echo back more or less in unison.
– It’s been fifteen days now since I had a drink.
A smattering of applause. Some raise tooth-marked Styrofoam coffee cups in the air. Even a couple of half-hearted whoops of encouragement manage to puncture the room’s smoky torpor. All of it makes you feel that much more self-conscious and unsure. It helps to stare over everyone’s heads at the black grin of the half-filled Pyrex pot on the coffee machine by the back wall. Beside it a crooked tower of upside-down Styrofoam cups.
– I never thought it would really ever come to this. Starting from scratch.
You dare to scan the faces in the room. Pausing at each pair of eyes to glean any fleck of sympathy or understanding before moving on, like a bee hovering from flower to flower. You’re able to put names to some of the faces, such as Faron and Denny (the biker-dude who mans the front desk) and of course Jonah, who runs the meetings. Others remain anonymous and you decide to address these faces directly in an effort to get past your anxiety. A technique you developed and successfully used in the past when speaking at sales conferences.
– It’s hard to say when I realized I was an alcoholic. It’s always been part of my life in some form or another. Wine at Passover seders. That sweet Manishewitz that made you think of grape juice when you were a kid. Later on someone always snuck a six-pack of beer behind the high school gym. And it was only a matter of breaking the ice to start every business lunch with a martini or a scotch.
One or two grunts of recognition. Somebody mutters here, here. Your peripheral vision is aware of handmade signs stuck to the walls on either side: KEEP IT SIMPLE. ONE DAY AT A TIME. TURNING IT OVER. Permanent fixtures in the lunchroom, although their purpose is specifically to enhance the meetings. After a week these slogans are becoming entrenched in your consciousness. Both comforting and terrifying. Like signposts on a particularly tortuous stretch of road, they glare at every bend. A foreshadowing of what would be in store for the days, weeks, months, years ahead.
Simple clues to demystify the soul-crushing process of staying sober.
– I rarely saw my father drink. A beer now and then, maybe a shot of schnapps, but always at a wedding or bar mitzvah. And never more than one. More often it was my mother who had a second or third cocktail. She was manic-depressive. When she was in one of her manic swings she used to like to get dressed up and take me and my sister into town to go shopping and have lunch in a restaurant. And she would drink these colourful cocktails. Her favourite was a Bloody Mary in a tall glass. My sister and I always wanted a taste, but she always said no. Instead we got to have plain tomato juice with a dash of Tabasco in identical tall glasses rimmed with lime and pepper. Still, I knew it wasn’t the same thing as what she was drinking.
Somebody yawns and a twinge of panic wakes up the back of your neck. Don’t want to lose them. You want them to like you, even though you feel nothing but contempt for each and every one. There’s no reason to be here. They are all merely witnesses to the fact that you are trying. Sure they’re struggling with their own demons, same as you. Except you don’t need to be here, not really. You can leave anytime you want. Just one phone call to Roz. She’d never really give up on you. You can start over. Together. As long as she knows you’re trying. But she’s not here, so it’s time to show them that you really are trying.
– My mother died at a young age. She died of pneumonia. I was twenty-two and working as a traveling salesman for a clothing company. I don’t remember too much about the funeral, except that the weather was beautiful and my grandmother tried to throw herself into the grave with my mother’s coffin. I can’t even remember if we sat shiva for her. We must have. What I do remember is driving to my office, which was a regional branch in a small town, about an hour and a half from my home. I used to live in a motel near the office during the week and came home weekends. It was well after midnight when I got to my office. I always kept a bottle of Cutty in my bottom drawer, mostly for clients and for myself too. I took out the bottle and poured myself a drink and stared at the bottle sitting there on my desk. I remember it was two-thirds full. I remember that clear as day.
Your tongue is like cotton and there’s a tacky film on the roof of your mouth. You knock back a gulp of tepid coffee from the Styrofoam cup in your hand. The bitter liquid washing down your throat. The instant disappointment of its half-hearted kick and muddy aftertaste. It seems to seep through your pores and pollutes the room. You almost want to apologize to the others for it.
– It seemed such a natural thing to take the bottle with me across the street to my motel room. I don’t know why I’d never thought of it before. It was like meeting a beautiful girl and not taking her home with you. The idea of not taking the bottle back to the motel made me feel so lonely. I kept the lights off, except for the bathroom light. I used towels to cover up the mirrors, like you’re supposed to do when sitting shiva. So you don’t have to look at your own grief. And I just sat there at the foot of the bed and poured myself one drink after another. Next morning I woke up curled up in a corner of the bathroom. The light was glaring in my eyes but I could see the bottle was empty. As shitty and hung over as I felt I immediately started to brush my teeth like nothing was wrong. Trying to pretend I’d spent a perfectly normal night in bed. The bathroom mirror was still covered up. After I showered I looked at myself and felt like I had passed through something, like I was standing in some different place on the other side of the steamed up glass. And every day since then I feel like I’ve never been able to get out of that place.
You feel your eyes getting red, but the stinging isn’t from the onset of tears. Just the opposite. A gritty dryness behind the eyeballs. As if they’d been dropped in sand and then popped back into their sockets. You walk off to the side along the wall. Outside the uneven rows of chairs. The listless applause persists in following you on the circuitous route back to your own seat.
After the meeting you go out to the veranda to finish off a Marlboro you bummed earlier, smoked half of and butted out for later. The night is warm. Across the street, lights are on in the open windows of low-built apartment houses. Music drifts out from radios and stereos. Tenants sit in plastic lawn chairs on their tiny balconies, while others sprawl on dilapidated front stoops. The faint red glowing of cigarettes, like distant stars burning brighter then fading away into nothingness.
Reminding you of summers working in your father’s delicatessen. Doing double duty as short order cook and working the counter. Cutting smoked meat alongside your old man. Then around eleven o’clock, after cleaning the kitchen and mopping the floor, biking past torch-lit lawns and people sitting on balconies, front steps or newly tarred driveways. Biking through different neighbourhoods just to clear your head. Your father half-asleep in front of the TV when you got home. Jack Paar at his desk, partially obscured by a black and white blizzard of static. Your mother sitting out back on the fire escape, looking down on the moon-lit back yard. Wearing either one of her pretty summer dresses and drinking a tall glass of something cool. Or in her housecoat smoking one Du Maurier after another. Hair uncombed, eyes constantly looking away.
The Marlboro burns down to the filter. The ashy ember smoulders in the cotton filter and you flick the butt in a high arc. Breaking up into sparks when it hits the dark street. Then dying altogether.
A couple of days after you settled in you were surprised to get a phone call from your sister Rachel in England. She found out where you were from your father in Florida who had been contacted by Roz in New Jersey. All this long distance criss-crossing on your behalf. Now everyone knows. You hadn’t spoken to Rachel in years. Even with her British accent she sounded the same as ever. She had always taken pains to pronounce words properly, which gave her a bit of a reputation as a snob at school, and so the accent never sounded altogether foreign to you. As kids she never called you Marty like everyone else. Always Martin. – It’s so frustrating how far apart we all are from each other. I wish I could jump on a plane right now. You explained to her about the work card costing twenty-five dollars and she promised to send the money the next day. She was very specific that she would only send enough for the card. Her way of saying she trusts you. But also asking you not to let her down.
You can visualize the envelope showing up, tearing it open and holding the crisp bills between your fingers. You feel like you haven’t handled money in years. So many things you can do with twenty-five dollars. Buy a pack of Winstons. Take yourself out for a good meal. Start off with a…
No, you’ll buy the work card. Find a job, any job. No more sales. You’ve had enough of that kind of pressure cooker. You think again about working in your father’s deli. Flipping burgers, making sandwiches, washing dishes, mopping floors. Good wholesome mindless work. The only way you can ever hope to wipe the slate clean.
– Well, if it ain’t Marcel Marceau. Partly illuminated by the cold flickering of a street lamp. That tear-shaped bruise. She is wearing an over-sized Superman tee shirt knotted up at the breasts. Jutting shadows of ribs and the glint of a belly button piercing under the lamplight. She puffs on a king-sized cigarette. – Just coming off the late show? Her red mouth opened wide enough to let out a throaty cackle along with a stream of smoke and spittle.
Your jaw is rigid. Fists bunched into pockets. You could just turn and go inside, but you stand your ground on the wooden porch. Saying nothing.
– What’s the matter, can’t you talk for real? Or is a vow of silence one of your ways of working the steps? She takes a long drag and blows the smoke into the street lamp’s light. You watch the smoke swirl and spread like an exotic plant blooming.
– All you damn phonies. Turning yourself over to a higher power. Been there. Done with that.
The smoke dissipates into gossamer tatters. You shift focus to the tear-shaped bruise. – How did you get that?
– Someone hit you?
Turning her cheek away from the light. – Birthmark. Always had it. Now why don’t you go run inside and confess your sins.
Allowing yourself the hint of a smirk. Planting feet firmly. You take your hands out of your pockets and let them hang naturally. – You wouldn’t have an extra smoke?
The cigarette dangles from her crimson mouth. Fishing out a flip-top box of Benson & Hedges from her bra strap. – One of these?
– Can you spare one?
She holds up the pack as if posing for an advertisement. – Tell you what. Some friends of mine at the end of the street are passing a bottle around. Why don’t you come with me and join us for a little drink. No one will know.
Barely shaking your head.
– I can’t hear you.
– I just want a cigarette.
– Then you know where to find me. She replaces the pack in her bra strap and walks away. You reach for the door handle behind you. To stop from going after her. To stop from smashing that ugly purple face, forcibly taking the cigarette pack.
Inside, you stop at the wall phone by the front desk. Pick it up and listen to the dial tone. So many people you could call. But for now it’s this reassuring drone.
Sounding like a narrowing line. Telling you you’re still on the right side of it.
Listen to the author read “Nicotine”:
Steven Mayoff lives on Prince Edward Island, Canada. His fiction and poetry have appeared in literary journals across Canada and the U.S. and in Ireland, Algeria, France, Wales and Croatia. His two books of fiction are the story collection Fatted Calf Blues (Turnstone Press, 2009) and a novel Our Lady Of Steerage (Bunim & Bannigan, 2015). Upcoming is a poetry collection Swinging Between Water And Stone to be published by Guernica Editions in 2019.