Story about meth in a not-so-nice Jewish family. 8K words, approx. 13 single-spaced pages, but it moves along. Copyright Matt Pico, 2015.
Aaron's father goes for a walk through redwood groves with some of his wife's friends, and receives a text message from his son as he returns home. When Aaron wants to talk to him, it's usually because he needs help. Dad reads as far as the word "asshole," then flops down in the easy chair
His wife smiles at him indulgently from inside the stained-glass frame of his favorite bookcase photo. Like most long-marrieds, they've developed their soothing rituals, quaint and compact. For over a year now, their conversations always start with that smile, and don't usually require many words. He cocks an eyebrow and holds up the phone. "Breathe deeply," she would probably tell him, "then read very carefully."
His wife smiles at him indulgently from inside the stained-glass frame of his favorite bookcase photo. Like most long-marrieds, they've developed their soothing rituals, quaint and compact. For over a year now, their conversations always start with that smile, and don't usually require many words. He cocks an eyebrow and holds up the phone. "Breathe deeply," she would probably tell him, "then read very carefully."
He breathes and reads. "kazims a total asshole. he kicked me out of serenity because i dared ask not to be demeaned."
He gets most of that. Aaron was booted out of his sober house, and hints he wants to move in on them. "No way," his wife would say, perhaps even stalking off in a rare display of intense displeasure. Dad leaves the room before phoning Aaron to ask about the demean part.
"Other people miss curfew, no biggie. I'm an hour late, time for a drug test. And then, Kazim makes me face him so he can stare at my penis while I urinate into a vial. Totally creepy."
"You passed the test?"
"Don't make me be homeless, Pops!" Aaron explains he's not just a recovering addict, he's a human being. A father himself, who wants to start paying child support. Without a place to live, he'll lose his temp job with the school board canvassing voters for the November election; long term, forget about the Goodwill program for ex-cons, which said they could place him as a sorter.
"You can't stay here. Look, Aaron, I'm exhausted, just got back from the Lymphoma Walk.
"That charity thing. Mary has a team."
"I had a team once," Aaron says, "it was you."
Serenity House is a drab Victorian on the southwestern fringe of Oakland's Chinatown, across from 880. On one side is a vacant lot, fronted by a chain link fence, and strewn with refuse. A flight of brick-red concrete stairs leads to the front door. Aaron crouches on the top steps, wearing one of the plain white t-shirts he favors. In the autumn twilight, next to a bulging black plastic bag, he looks like a runaway boy.
Dad climbs up, breathing hard. Aaron kicks the doorsill. Someone cracks open the door. "Hey Mr. K., want some?" Aaron says, gesturing with his crotch.
The door shuts again, and father and son face-off. Aaron is twenty-eight, average height, with muscular chest and arms. With his dentures in — meth took his teeth — his brash, handsome, bearded face resembles the Zig-Zag man. Dad, sixty-five, bent spine and emaciated body aging him another decade, resembles one of the drawings of pious old Jews he sees in the gift store when he goes to temple. "Let me talk to him," Dad says, and knocks conventionally.
This time the door opens just wide enough and long enough to admit one. He introduces himself to Kazim, a man Dad's age with a graying pony tail, florid face, and potbelly, who ushers him onto a couch. Gradually, Dad's breathing returns to normal. He hears a toilet flush, then a door off the hallway opens, and one man leaves the bathroom, while another enters to take his turn. The man who left opens another door, and Dad catches a glimpse of bunk beds.
"What's your side of the story," Dad asks.
"Mr. Greenberg, …"
"Sir, I have no interest in your son's privates, as such."
"Can he stay if he apologizes?"
Kazim snorts a mirthless laugh, and hands Dad a sports coat. "Return this to your son please, he abandoned it when he fled the drug test. The contents of his pockets may interest you."
Dad pulls out a stoppered test tube filled with yellow fluid. "Clean urine, an essential tool of the addict's trade,” Kazim informs him.
"Keep it," Dad says.
"There's something else."
Dad pulls out a hunting knife. The blade is longer than his middle finger. "Keep that too," Dad says. He pushes himself up from the sofa, steadies himself on the door knob, then makes his escape. It's dark now.
"That was quick, what'd the fag try to do to you?" Aaron asks, arms crossed for warmth. Dad tosses him his coat, and Aaron shoots him a sidelong glance. They carry the plastic bag to Dad's venerable Corolla. Aaron pulls a notebook out of the bag and says "I hated that place. They made me show them everything, even my poems, before they were done." They stuff the rest of Aaron's worldly possessions into the trunk.
It's easy to sneak up on Dad when he's not wearing his hearing aids, which is most of the time. Aaron comes looking for him at bedtime, threading his way past boxes stacked on the floor, and surprises him sitting in his easy chair. Dad is hunching his shoulders and spreading his fingers, that gesture people make when they deflect a searching question by asking "what could I do?"
"Just thinking about something," Dad explains.
"That stained glass is really cool," Aaron says, pointing toward a vase collection on top of the bookcase.
"Memories," Dad says. "You know Mary made them?"
Aaron nods. "What's all this?" he asks, indicating the boxes.
Dad bends down and opens one. Notebooks, pens, wads of receipts fastened with paperclips. "Do you need help throwing junk out?", Aaron asks.
"It's not junk, it's her stuff. But I will need help in the garden."
Aaron explores the guest bedroom in the morning. There's a photo album devoted to him on a closet shelf. The last picture, taken the day he got out of jail, shows him in a t-shirt and knit cap, eyes guarded but defiant. In the previous photo, he's in Middle School, holding a skateboard, proudly displaying a scraped forearm. On the first page, his mom smiles broadly, hugging something bundled inside a knit blanket. "Talk to me bitch," Aaron says, shutting the book.
He explores further, and finds gift wrapped packages in the bottom drawer of the dresser. He opens one. A flash light, insect repellent, a steel mug, stuff he could have used once at summer camp. He hears Dad making breakfast and takes the mug with him into the kitchen.
"Thanks," Aaron says, showing him the mug. Dad looks blank. "You've, um, got a lot of stuff here."
"You already complained about that," Dad snaps. He fills Aaron's mug with coffee, pours some for himself, and they abandon the conversation. Through an open backdoor comes the lure of the perfect Northern California fall day. Dad raises his cup and says "I'd like to make a toast."
Aaron rolls his eyes. "Pops …"
"OK, OK. I mean, we lost some years. But here we are now, together."
Aaron likes using the long-handled sledge hammer, but his very favorite household tool is the pick-ax. His main gardening job is pulling crabgrass, but when he gets bored, or just wants to smash something, Dad says he can attack an acacia tree stump. He'll need a shovel of course, but there's also the pick-ax, whatever it takes.
Aaron gives the crabgrass intermittent attention, and discards the shovel after digging a shallow trench around the remnant of the nuisance tree. He tries the pick-ax, raising it high over his head, then chopping into the stump with all his considerable strength; he severs two large roots. It still won't budge, so he tries slamming it with the sledge.
Dad watches, standing back. The stump vibrates from the force of Aaron's efforts. Aaron pauses to catch his breath, and sees that Dad, who was happy just to make him breakfast, now keeps a safe distance. He starts crying. He's not wearing his dentures, and his distraught, imploded face has the aspect of a lost toddler.
Aaron burrows his head in his father's chest. "I'm going to be like you," he blubbers. "They won't let me see Mikey again until he's grown, and by then I'll be afraid to come near him."
"I'm not afraid of you. By the way, have some good news … "
"Tell me something," Aaron says, pulling away. "Did mom and you spend as much on that custody stuff as I've spent on drugs?"
The good news is that Aaron's ex-wife Joleen called, and wants to treat them to dinner tomorrow at Pizza Arcade. It's her way to say thanks to Dad for getting her a seasonal sales job at Megamart — nine an hour, and they might make her permanent in January if she does a super-good job.
"Will she bring Mikey?" Aaron asks, lingering over the name.
Dad nods. "She says no worries about the restraining order."
"I hope mom says that someday. She's the one who could really help. No offense, but she's a doctor, and, you know."
The two men start talking about money. Aaron asks if Megamart will give Dad his old job back, since he has enough clout left to get something for Joleen. Dad explains that, in general, it's harder to get a job in accounting, than to get a job walking around asking customers if they need help finding something.
“Besides, nobody wants to hire old guys. Every month I send a little something to Joleen, usually a hundred. You got twenty an hour today, That's a lot, coming out of unemployment."
"Relax Pops, starting tomorrow I pay my own child support." Dad blinks. "And I have big plans. I'll buy you every rose bush you ever heard of, and so much of the crap you like you'll need a bigger house just to hold it all. Then I'll buy that for you too."
"Is your plan to go back to college?", Dad asks hopefully.
Early next morning, Dad enters Aaron's bedroom brandishing a list. Aaron props open an eye. Dad leaves, returns holding two coffees. Aaron sits up in bed, mumbling futile protests.
Dad tells Aaron he needs to find another sober house. Crossroads housing in Berkeley heads his list; Aaron should try them first, since he qualifies now that he's quit smoking. Below Crossroads, there are entires for other sober houses, with "COMPARSION SHOP" written next to each of their phone number. Next comes "JOB, EL CERRITO." The last item is "PIZZA ARCADE."
Aaron says "You owe me fifteen." Dad looks blank. "You said if I quit smoking I'd get a five dollar an hour bonus." Dad pays up.
Aaron takes the bus to downtown Oakland, and goes into Kwon's Pawns. He opens his knapsack, unwraps a stained-glass vase decorated with a pink rose motif, and exchanges it for twenty-five dollars. He deliberates over weapons in a locked display case, and leaves the store with a new knife in a pocket of his cargo pants. He walks to BART, stopping at a convenience store along the way for a pack of Pall Malls. He catches a train for Hayward.
The Japanese Tea Garden is a large public park, a short, slightly uphill walk from the Hayward BART station. Aaron cuts through someone's backyard to enter along San Lorenzo Creek, and finds a small tent hidden in the bushes. He calls "Sofia," and crawls inside when there's no answer. There's barely room for a pile of clothes and a sleeping bag. There's a chocolate bar wrapper that a thick column of ants finds fascinating. There are many empty wine bottles. There's no Sofia.
Aaron takes two hard-bound books out of his knapsack, and throws them on the pile of clothes. He crawls outside again, moves aside a rock, and pulls a handful of small packets from a shallow depression. He takes out a roll of cash, peels off ten twenties, and puts them in the hole. He moves the rock back in place.
He smokes one packet in a glass pipe, and tucks the others in the pocket with his new knife. He walks away briskly, his face eager and cheerful.
Aaron reports to work at a storefront office on San Pablo Avenue. He grabs sheaves of voter profile forms and brochures, then heads out to a shopping mall. A volunteering teacher says "Don't forget to pick up your check when you come back," wagging a finger in mock strictness, as if addressing a charmingly unkempt student.
The job is asking voters their intentions on the school bond measure, and handing them brochures. He prowls the mall, complimenting people on their purchases, flirting, praising public education for starting him on the path to college. It's a great way to make contacts without being too conspicuous; every so often, he catches someone's eye, and makes a twenty dollar sale.
He spots Sofia walking toward him, wearing a filmy black blouse. From a distance, she does have a wild beauty, high cheekbones in a frame of jet black hair streaked with violet-blue. But as she draws closer, those traces of former glory just make her ruined drinker's face all the more pathetic. He does occasionally sleep with her, but only if the alternative is sleeping on the sidewalk. No need for such extreme measures now; he knows how to handle Dad.
Sofia gives him a withering look, and takes out her knife slowly. She cups it in her hand, partially concealed, blade ready at a flick. Aaron twists his face into an answering sneer, and takes out his own knife, pretending to clean something off his shoe.
"Are you registered to vote?", he asks.
"What did you step in?", she asks.
"I noticed something missing."
"Sold it all."
"Paid for everything from last week." Sofia raises an eyebrow. "Sell the books," he explains, "there's an antique store next to Kwon's."
Sofia shrugs. "Come by again after work, we'll review your account." She walks away. She's wearing tight leather pants. Aaron sits down heavily on a bench, tapping his knife reflectively against a leg. If Sofia killed him she would never get paid. But she does have an image to maintain.
A graying woman in hat and sunglasses stops and stares in his direction. When he recognizes her he startles and jumps up. But it's not like he can say "Hey mom!", her restraining order specifies no contact whatsoever. He takes a step backward. His mother backs up too, one step, another, another, facing him the while. Then she turns and bolts.
A cop strides up to him before he can interview another voter. Aaron says he doesn't want to mess with his mom, didn't even know she would be at the mall! The cop searches him anyway, and notes the knife and cash with great interest. Aaron explains away the cash by saying it's payday. The cop thanks him for the information, and leaves abruptly, walking in the direction of the office on San Pablo Ave. Aaron dumps his forms and brochures in a trashcan, and runs the other way.
Sofia's already passed out when Aaron gets to her tent. She has one of the books Aaron brought open face down across her stomach, a wine stain on the cover. He counts out some twenties, then closes Sofia's hand around them; hesitates, takes one back. She ruined the book. He climbs back out, pushes aside the rock. He sits on the ground, chin in hand. They'd work things out; in the past, he'd given her what she really wants, when the occasion called for it. He helps himself to a couple more packets.
Aaron hovers close to Joleen at Pizza Arcade, as if harboring a dream of recovering her favors. She's an attractive, willowy, blond, made beautiful by the glow from her triumph. "You can always count on my full support," he tells her, while Joleen's husband scowls at him. Then Aaron hands her a roll of cash. Joleen smiles broadly at her husband, who beams back at her. "Now, get your car fixed," Aaron says.
Joleen says they certainly will, and Mikey races off to the salad bar. He comes back with an orange "for daddy."
"Wasn't sure he'd remember who you were," Joleen says, and Aaron shoots her a hurt look.
"Me either. He was my only visitor in Santa Rita," he says resentfully, pointing a thumb at Dad.
Mikey flinches at the angry voice. He says he has something for mommy too, and sings a Megamart commercial. Aaron asks if he's ready for the games, and Mikey claps his hands and squeals with delight. Aaron and son walk over to the arcade.
Mikey chooses Amazing Bikes 2. Aaron holds his shoulders while the motorcycle seat swerves and undulates, and his avatar careens through narrow, winding streets against traffic; turns somersaults in the air to evade trucks; and knocks down streetlights en route to the finish line. Young women in tight t-shirts and denim shorts await him, waving checkered flags.
Five-thirty AM, Dad is awakened by the sound of light objects dropped on the living-room floor. He shuffles out to investigate. A bookcase shelf is empty. Aaron sits on the rug, intent on taking books from one pile, examining the colophon, then sorting them into two other piles. He wears the same clothes he wore last night at Pizza Arcade.
"Up all night?", Dad asks. "Are you using meth?"
"In college I was famous for going without sleep," Aaron answers huffily. "But if you don't want me reading her books, fine." He grabs an armful of books from one of the sorted piles, and put them on the shelf.
Dad hastens to make amends. "I want you to read them. What do you think of the Jane Austens?" Aaron hesitates. "Those two you borrowed yesterday."
Dad puts his hand on Aaron's shoulders and looks in his son's eyes. A thin band of iris around dilated pupils. "Still working that job?", he asks. Aaron nods. "Remember, curfew’s at six."
Dad never calls Aaron's mom. Topic A the last time she phoned him, before Aaron and Joleen divorced, before Mary's lymphoma, was career news: she had just received her cardiology board certification. She also praised Mary for her coffee-table book, published a few years previously, about roses thought to be extinct, then rediscovered in abandoned cemeteries. A "solid effort," she allowed, if marred by his mediocre photography. She recommended hiring a "real professional" next time. Her voice, saying this, was exceptionally kind — it was her duty to point out to him, as a common courtesy, the sad waste of his inconsequential existence.
She phones him after Aaron leaves for the day, and he lets it drop to voice mail. But curiosity wins out when she rings back. He hears no words at first, just stifled crying. Then an off-phone voice saying "Dr. Cronin," and a door shutting. Then her own voice, oddly low and throaty, saying "I saw him. He's living with you, isn't he?"
"Temporarily, yes. What's wrong?"
"What's wrong? Let's see. My wrist hurts. It usually does, ever since he stayed with me after Joleen kicked him out.
Dad can take a cue. "What did he do?"
"Ask him," she says coolly. "Ask what a son should do if his mom says don't pawn her jewelry. Grab her arm, slap her, tell her you'll stab her in her sleep, she'll come around."
"He's better now, we've been bonding."
Rarely, during their brief marriage, or the ensuing years of legal strife, had he heard her raise her voice. An endearing trait. "There's actually a reason we got married," he says. "Just thinking out loud," he adds, to fill the sudden silence. "May I ask why you called?"
"Can't you guess?"
Would Mary know? He looks at her photo, then at her vases. He looks closer. One is missing. He shouts, "You wanted to make damn sure I understood it's my fault he turned out this way.”
"Well, that's true, isn't it?" she says gently. "If you hadn't insisted on joint custody, we wouldn't have needed to drag him around to all those horrible people."
"Those helping professionals?”
"Do you realize he threw away every birthday present you ever sent? Did all that court accomplish anything?"
"No. Is that really why you called?"
"I called because I'm worried about you. You're not safe with him in your house."
Aaron boards the first BART train leaving the station, headed anywhere. He opens his notebook to a poem titled "wanting all of u," and absorbs himself trading weak words for better ones. He disembarks when the train reaches the end of the line, boards another, continues writing furiously.
His poem depicts a brief interaction at a traffic signal. While cars idle, and a man holds aloft a handwritten sign saying “STARVING VET WILL WORK FOR WHATEVER." A woman driving a Mercedes rolls down her window and hands him a dollar. She recoils from the stench of alcohol, from the warmth of his spittle on her face when he snarls "Is that all?"
Aaron crosses out the title, and changes the man's sign to "HOMELESS HUNGRY HELP GOD BLESS." He makes the driver a befuddled, stingy geezer driving a twenty-year-old wreck. The panhandler needs to lean through his window and shout slowly before the old guy even understands what's asked of him. And then he offers nothing, pleading poverty. In return, he gets insight into his cramped, decrepit soul:
"The truth from my eyes can dissolve all your lies some day we'll all die, you can't hide, say goodbye…"
His new title is "The Blessing.”
It's mid-afternoon. He's hemmed in, suffocated, by the careworn mole-people crowding onto his trains. He used his last packet at Dad's house, and his saliva is thick and foamy. A guy sitting next to him and asks if Aaron's a poet. Aaron glares at him, and closes his notebook.
No, he's not a poet, "The Blessing" is probably crap — and it's agony, thinking of returning to Dad and his lists and his curfews while in a worsening state of chemical deprivation. Only Sofia could save him now. If she's home, they could make arrangements. If not, it would just need to go on his tab. He gets off at Hayward.
When asked for his religious affiliation, Dad usually says he's a devout coward. But at times all zealots question their faith. Best not to get hurt, all things being equal — but good fathers don't put their sons out on the street. He tells his wife, "Don't worry, things always turns out OK in the end. You beat lymphoma, didn't you?" Maybe she'd wince if she heard that; probably she'd say something simple, playful, and deceptively wise, like "go shopping."
Dad goes to Megamart, and buys a cheap, cold weather sleeping bag. It goes on the back porch. Not luxurious accommodations, but a junkie can stay out there without being able to loot their house easily. Dad tidies along the path from the backdoor to the bathroom, putting away valuables so Aaron won't be tempted when let inside to use the facilities.
A lot of work for an old guy. Dad closes his eyes; when he opens them again it's dark. No Aaron, no texts, no calls. He goes online to check Aaron's BART records. Aaron didn't go to El Cerrito today. He sends Aaron a text, "Where are you?" An hour later, with no response, he tries "WHERE ARE YOU!" Still nothing. He closes his eyes again.
Sofia isn't home, so Aaron helps himself to more of her meth. He returns to the BART station brimming with energetic good humor. He finds a rhinestone pin, and loiters outside the turnstiles, appraising the female patrons. He approaches a woman wearing rings on eight fingers, all with different types of stones, and a necklace made of coils of gray iron, studded with pointy things. Aaron holds out the pin and says "You are the one who can appreciate this."
"How do you know?"
"Some people are fated to meet on a deep level. Do you believe in fate?"
"I believe in destiny. I am two months in your country, and already America is crazy for my jewelry."
"I have lived here all my life, and I want America to be crazy for my poetry."
"Who is crazy for it now?"
"Nobody, but people say I drive them crazy."
"'Drive crazy', is expression?"
Aaron nods. "I'm not very popular in certain circles. Life is lonely sometimes."
She touches her necklace. "Loneliness, can be inspired agony. Like this, my creation. Do you like it? I call it 'Barbed Wire.'"
Rivka shares a one-bedroom flat with her sister Hadar, an alternative medicine practitioner who's busy with clients that evening. She shows Aaron around their place, introducing him to her life. She and Hadar keep a strict vegan kitchen. Their living room is bare except for mats and cushions, to make a space for their yoga practice. And yoga is just one of the techniques Hadar uses to treat the terrible diseases that Western Medicine is powerless to prevent or cure; she moved from Israel to America so she could learn from the acknowledged masters of many spiritual disciplines.
"Wait 'til my dad hears about you," Aaron crows, "Jewish, vegetarian, an artist, he'll be so impressed."
"You must impress your father?"
"It's complicated. But basically, I've been parenting him emotionally, ever since…"
"Since ever what?"
"He doesn't like me to say it. Let's put it this way: I'm all he has left".
"Your father must be healing from a terrible wound. In three days is Rosh HaShanah, come to temple with me, I introduce my sister, she will help."
They sprawl out next to each other on the living room mats, propping their heads on pillows. He reads her "The Blessing," says it’s based on a story he heard from a college roommate. Rivka admires his compassion.
They are both adamant they shouldn't, too soon, but can't resist trying kisses. They pull back in time, and make plans. Rivka insists on being with him for the high holidays. "Someone else can stay with your father?"
"Yes, no … he's really not very religious. He'll probably just sleep through it."
"Does he sleep now? Maybe he worries about you?"
Aaron sits up. He's missed curfew by over six hours. "Papa OK?" Rivka asks. "Your face worried." She strokes his cheek.
Aaron kisses her fingertips. Some things are just meant to happen quickly. He taps his phone to start a text message, then pauses, looking perplexed. Then he types "Pops, I'm in love."
"Where's her vase?" Dad asks, from behind the front door.
"What vase? You're crazy. Do you really want to talk about it here? Do you realize what time it is?"
"Why didn't you tell me you'd be late?"
"My phone died. Can I go to sleep now? I need to work tomorrow."
"Sleep on the back porch," Dad says, "we don't let thieves stay in our house." But he opens the door.
Aaron gives Dad a withering look. "It's all good. See you in twenty years." He starts off.
"Don't sleep on the sidewalk Aaron!"
"Cronins don't 'sleep on the sidewalk' Dad," he says slowly, scathingly. "Cronins go camping."
"Take a sleeping bag then."
Aaron shakes his head. "I have friends who share sleeping bags. You need to find yourself a few friends like that."
"Something to eat before you go?"
Dad brings him a sandwich, and sees Aaron putting something furtively into his knapsack. Aaron turns toward him, holding a knife. "Dizzy, need to rest," Dad says, and lowers himself to the floor, a tray clattering down beside him.
"Jeez Pops, sorry," Aaron says, kneeling to help him up.
"What were you putting in your pack?"
Aaron pulls out a bundle of stationary supplies. "To send child support. In case I end up too far from Pizza Arcade. OK?"
Dad nods. "But I'll call the police …"
"Call them now." Aaron pulls a flashlight and a can of insect repellent from the pack.
The two men sit quietly in the early morning stillness, as if neither knew what came next, or wanted to know. Then Aaron says "Mom always hated it when you sent me stuff. Too bad, some of it was cool. But to mom, is was like, all of it was covered with your germs, and I'd catch what you have, and then everyone would fall asleep as soon as I walked into a room."
"I didn't exactly thrill her. Second time’s the charm. Good luck with …"
How long have you been using this time?"
Aaron thinks. "Three weeks."
"Where's Mary's vase?"
"Pops, forget about stained glass. I only took that thing to help you out. You need to live in the present, start taking chances."
Sofia puts down her book when she hears something approaching her tent in the dark. Aaron climbs through the flap and crouches beside her. Sylvia angles her lantern toward his face, and his shadow bobs behind him, a large fish darting through black waters. "Where's my money?", she asks.
"My dad kicked me out," Aaron says.
"Have you slept since the shopping mall?"
"Not exactly." He shifts onto the sleeping bag, a hand brushing her leg, a heavy-lidded pimp leer on his face. She jabs him with a foot and he stands up again, eyes to himself, waiting.
"Sleep here," Sofia says finally, breaking the silence, repositioning to make room. "But don't wake me up afterwards, with that screaming to yourself."
It's the glare from the lantern that wakes her. Aaron is dressed and out of the the sleeping bag, hunching over his notebook. He startles when Sofia sits up. "See you in the morning," he says, and crawls out of the tent.
She tries to read, but then Aaron starts raving, something about his mother, the heartless heart doctor. She curses Aaron for defying her, just to prove something or other about not being a pussy. She grabs her knife, and then she's sick. She never speaks of the way eyes focus inwards when someone's cut bad; or of the swelling red rivulets in the water, when she washes her hands afterwards. She can't even say she never starts it, people would get the wrong idea. She tosses the knife onto the clothes pile. The nausea subsides. But Aaron won't, unless she does something.
Sofia comes out as Aaron starts in on his father, that man with the soul of a spreadsheet. "Your parents are wonderful," she shouts, and throws her book at him. The spine cracks, and loose pages flutter to the ground.
She's scribbled on some of them, giving her opinion on passages, asking his. On one page she wrote their names together in the margin, then crossed his out, then reinstated it. Sofia kneels and gathers paper hurriedly. Aaron hovers quietly above her. "My mama and papa threw stuff at each other," she explains.
Mornings are the worst parts of being homeless, except for winters. Pulled from sleep with the tails of dreams disappearing around corners, the same way the comfortable people wake up. But no sleeping in. No bathroom down the hall that Sofia can stumble toward half-dressed, rubbing her eyes sleepily. She uses the park restroom, which reeks of urine. The only good part is the empty mirror mount above the sink, only crumbs of cracked glass remaining in the corners. She can look at gang tags etched in dull metal, instead of the broken blood vessels etched across her face.
On her way in, Aaron is sitting on a bench, damp, shivering, writing in his notebook. He doesn't look up. When she comes out, he mutters a greeting, shielding his mouth with his hand. She moves that hand aside, and asks "where are your bottom teeth?" He shrugs. "Did you check where we talked last night?"
"Talked? Gotta date tonight, let's talk about that." He revs up. "My shithead father doesn't care, he made me be homeless and penniless and …"
"Toothless." That shuts him up. "Why's the shit so mad at you?"
He tells her about the vase. She says she'll get it back from Kwon, if he gives her the receipt. He says that the receipt is in his wallet, and that his wallet is probably in the bushes somewhere, close to his lower denture, and his phone.
Sofia returns in the afternoon. Aaron's lying in the tent, propped up on an elbow, writing again. He doesn't look up. She sets down the vase and lies behind him. She reaches over and strokes his pen hand.
"Quit it," he says.
"Kwon let me buy it back from him" she says, pointing.
"Aaron, it's starting to get cold here at night, don't you think?" He looks around at her. "Before long we'll be freezing," she adds.
He stretches languorously. "I need something." He encloses her hand in his. "Any supplies left?" Sofia's face hardens. "Is something wrong?", he asks.
"Need to get ready for my date," he explains. Sofia gives him more of what he craves
When evening approaches, Sofia gathers her book in a paper bag, and they stroll off toward Aaron's date together. They stop at a taqueria. Aaron freshens up in the restroom asks her about his appearance. He looks like late-stage meth run: mouth flecked with foam, earlobes and lips bleeding from where he can't stop picking at them. She says he looks great. He saunters away jauntily.
She takes loose pages out of the bag and arranges them; none she hasn't read yet are missing. She doesn't get much attitude from behind the cash register once she orders nachos, so she nibbles slowly and finishes her book. Then she sits for a few minutes, basking in the warmth and the light. She tosses the bag in the trash on her way out, then stops, reaches in, and rescues the first page.
The only good part about being homeless is it's easy to move. She doesn't really need anything for Crossroads but the clothes she's wearing; everything else they'll allow her bring fits easily in her backpack. No booze in recovery of course, so when she's done packing she celebrates by polishing off a bottle of wine. She tosses the empty into the bushes.
On the top margin of the page she saved she writes "ITS ABOUT FINDING THE RITE PERSON, AND HAVING ENUF MONEY." She circles the very first words: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." On the bottom margin she writes "TRYING REHAB KEEP WARM."
She folds it carefully, kicks away the rock from her drug cache, and drops it inside, along with the last packet of her supplies. She sets the rock back in place, and starts looking for a good long-term hiding place for her knife.
Pungent, penniless, sleepless, Aaron arrives at the Hayward BART station the next day, carrying a stained glass vase. He sits on a bench in the turnstile lobby, staring straight ahead, mumbling occasionally. Most people avoid looking at him, but even without asking he collects a handful of coins. The station agent talks to a cop and points in his direction. The cop looks over, seeming to focus on the vase. Aaron jumps up and starts running. Shards of colored glass skitter across the tiles.
He stops in a few blocks, and turns around to surrender; but nobody's chasing him. He goes back to the station and finds a bench outside at the bus stop. A woman calls his name, and Aaron focuses on the teacher from El Cerrito who reminded him to pick up his paycheck.
She tells him it's still there waiting for him. Aaron doesn't respond. She asks what happened. Aaron explains that he was abducted from the shopping mall, stuffed in the trunk of a car, then pulled out days later and left to die. She asks if he wants to use her phone to call somebody. He holds out his hand.
Dad answers on the first ring. Aaron explains that he went for a job interview, that they put him up in a nice hotel. But when he was out getting ice, someone broke into his room and stole everything he had. Then he admits that he's relapsed; then that he's admitted it before. Then he agrees to go back into recovery, if Dad picks him up in Hayward. And if he buys him a new phone. He says that BART has Mary's vase, not him, honest. He agrees to wait by the buses. He returns the phone, mumbles thanks, and shuffles away without meeting the teacher's eyes.
"Those people are waiting for ME" Aaron says, pointing at a line in front of a restaurant.
"I think they're waiting for a table," Dad says.
Aaron cranes his neck as they drive past, drinking in the spectacle. "I ogled the cute one with the umbrella, and she LOVED it," he chortles.
"They're ALL my type. And they all go nuts when I flash my big smile and give them my Kraaazy Stare." Aaron smiles at Dad, showing his upper denture, concealing his lower gums.
"Don't want to talk about it, bitch slammed the door in my face."
"Maybe once you're stable …"
"I would rather be dead than to live in mortal fear of what tomorrow will bring," Aaron says. "To hoard things, and not even know why you wanted them in the first place. No offense." He pecks at his new phone. "Don't worry about the vase, sometimes it takes stuff a while to show up in lost and found. Lemme see."
They park in front of Berkeley High, by a curb-side monument commemorating famous grads: Ariel Schrag, Ursula Le Guin, Phillip K. Dick, Thornton Wilder. Aaron says, "I'll be up there someday too, world famous rap star, class of 2004."
They walk through Provo park, past a row of Porta-potties, boon to the homeless. Crossroads takes up most of the first floor of the Veterans Building, a historic landmark with high ceilings and elaborate chandeliers. They open an unmarked gate along the east side, walk through a short alleyway, and enter a patio courtyard partially dug up for an organic vegetable garden. A short flight of steel steps leads to the intake office.
"Go inside, I want one last cigarette," Aaron tells him. Dad hesitates.
"I was always filthy and smelly when I lived in Willard park, after mom kicked me out," Aaron continues. "I remember once smoking pot, and just sitting down on a bench and staring at all the classy, serious, kids walking to Cal. And I thought 'I had that life too, but I made myself a retard.' And then I thought 'I'm still as smart as any of them, plus I've got this experience to write about.'"
"You have so much talent son. Once you stop using …
"Everyone likes to get high," Aaron snarls. "What's the big deal about me?"
Dad climbs the stairs and enters a vestibule lined with folding chairs. He takes a seat beneath a whiteboard decorated with the message "DON'T LEAVE BEFORE THE MIRACLE HAPPENS." A dapper, middle-aged black man sits behind the front desk, wearing an orange dress shirt and tie. Ever studious, Dad takes a brochure from the literature rack, and learns his name is Larry, a Crossroads graduate who failed sobriety eleven times before it took.
A woman comes in carrying a battered suitcase, and Larry, talking on the phone the while, waves her into a seat beside his desk, opens a file cabinet, and hands her a form. Other clients drift in; staff emerge from the warren of cubicles behind the desk; the phone keeping ringing — and Larry tells everyone what they need to know, where they need to be. When it's Dad's turn, Larry hands him an application for Aaron to fill out. Emphasis on Aaron.
The chairs empty and fill around him. Dad goes to the door and stares out at the empty courtyard. Someone behind him says "You are Aaron's father, are you not?" Dad turns, and Kazim gives him a stiff little bow. "Sir, I remember you well. May I have a word with you in my office?"
Kazim stands in the doorway of his small cubicle. Dad is seated. "Scum, living in a slum, that's what you think of Serenity House?"
"Never crossed my mind."
"You think your son's the only smart addict? I was in grad school, back in the day, taking acid, mushrooms, whatever I could get. Now this aging hippy is on a first name basis with judges all the way from Fremont to Richmond. I've worked with literally thousands of men, thousands, and I can tell in a second when they're lying to me."
"That's impress …"
"Because I know how addicts think. I was high every day of my life, from seventeen to forty-two. My parents said don't talk to them again until I got clean. I loved them for that. Two years into recovery, I called them. They didn't know who it was at first, I'd changed my name to show I was a new person. I don't want you calling me at home to nag me about your son, I'll block your number."
"I haven't. I wouldn't"
"I had to borrow every cent to buy my first sober house. That was twenty years ago. Now I own seven. Do you see those?" Kazim points to newspaper clippings covering one of the cubicle partitions. "And those?" He waves at a tray of trophies on his desk. "For my life's work. And your son doesn't care if he wastes my time faking drug tests. Why should he, his drug of choice is the only things in his world that matters.
"He better now," Dad pleads.
"Then where is he?" Kazim says, furious, massive, inescapable this time.
Larry appears behind and beckons Dad to follow him out to his desk. "Sit down," he says. Dad sits. "I think Aaron has made other plans."
Dad slumps forward, face in hands. "What do we do now?"
"Do nothing," Larry says, "let Aaron do the program, or not." Larry's phone rings. "Crossroads … heard she was back in … ." Dad uncurls, nods to Larry's back, and goes home. He collapses into the easy chair.
"Everyone does. I did. We couldn't stop my cancer. You can't stop him from using. If he leaves before you, would you want to follow quickly? Listen. I make you a promise, if you'll agree not to rush things, even if you lose him too. There will come a moment, say sitting in our garden, watching the birch leaves quiver in the breeze, when suddenly, out of nowhere, you're able to forgive yourself. Thanks for the marriage."
Aaron sees Sofia as he rushes away from Crossroads. "You're doing this bullshit?", he asks.
Sofia nods. "Didn't you come back to my place after your date?"
"You disappeared on me.
"But I left something for you."
He gives her a knowing smile. There's lots of money to be made selling drugs in sober houses, just like there’s lots to be made selling them in jail. Sofia says "Not enough for what you're thinking. But I can tell you how to find Wolfie. Guy I got my supplies from."
"Should I write it down?"
She gives him a dismissive look. "Try not to act stupid. Wolfie's tent's by Lake Chabot. Go into the park on Estudillo, then take the west trail around the lake. Go right when the trail splits, walk about a quarter mile, until you see a long, low oak branch at the top of a teensy hill. When you get close, you'll see his place underneath."
Aaron does go back to Sofia's old place, and finds the note she scribbled on the page from Dad's book. He shrugs, stuffs it in his pocket, then smokes the goodbye present she left for him. He makes the 5-mile hike to Lake Chabot in good form, and searches energetically for Wolife's tent. No luck. It's late enough in the afternoon to start seriously worrying about finding a place to sleep. His pace slows. He decides he should tell Joleen he'll be late with the child support.
"Can I call you back?", she says. "I'm picking Mikey up from school." An awkward silence, then Aaron asks if he can please talk to their son.
"Daddy!", Mikey squeals. "Mommy's driving me daddy, she drives me everywhere now. And guess what, next week my teacher is driving the whole class to the bay, for a, um mommy, what's the name for it? … for a feel trip. Can you come with us daddy?"
"Not this time, I have a new job."
"Where mommy works?"
"Can we go to Pizza Arcade again?"
"I love you Daddy."
Aaron tries a new strategy: forget about trying to match what Sofia told him with a tangle of trails, just look for a drug den hidden beneath an oak branch. Doesn't work, too many oaks. He needs help. Dad answers on the first ring.
"Are you in Hayward again?
"Close. With nowhere to sleep. And my phone's about to die. Are you ready for what's about to happen?"
"Definitely not. Hey, I ran into Kazim after you left."
"What did you learn this time?"
"Addicts think the whole world revolves around them, and that doesn't change just because they stop using."
The two kinsmen share a laugh at Kazim's expense. Aaron asks, "will you give me a ride home Pops?"
"I'm at Lake Chabot. There's a full moon, you can find me."
Aaron hangs up, and doesn't answer when Dad rings back. Or rings back twice again. Let the bastard suffer. He follows the trail above the lake into the East Bay hills. Night is gathering, and he stays warm by climbing quickly, without stopping for any oak trees.
When it's almost too dark to see colors anymore, he makes out Dad ambling down the trail toward him. "Hello Pops, hello Poet of Lists," Aaron calls out, and as he draws closer adds "I decided to go camping after all. Although I might self-destruct instead. Worried?" Dad vanishes, and Aaron's alone again in the darkening woods.
He takes out his phone to try to call him, and sees that the phone battery really is dead. Damn, now he can't settle up with the Poet of Silences either, can't say he's sorry for cutting her. Mikey, seen dimly in the remnants of the daylight, waves at him frantically from the future, then floats off uphill. Aaron starts jogging, racing the darkness to the ridge line.
He loses the race. Aaron leans against a bench, panting. A fat moon traces the folds of the pale hills, groping its way toward the glittering, encompassing cities. Beyond those festive lights, a wide swath of darkness ribbed with blurred reflections — the water Mikey would visit next week without him.
He shivers in the deepening cold. Birds wheel up from a tree and draw dark lines across that moon, winging toward their southern homes. One, skeptical of flocks, alights on the bench and regards him with mocking, appraising eyes.
"Your poetry's shit!" Aaron curses, and throws a rock at his rival, then his lighter, then his useless phone. The bird ignores him and hops to the ground. It starts pecking, searching for something only it can see.