Lew Going Clean

The time Lew tried going clean for good he took a job as Overnight Warden in a halfway house for criminal schizophrenics. The hours were long and the home, a hulking old three-story farmhouse, was out in the country beyond the city limits. He had a criminal record himself, but what they knew of it was not violent, and that was good enough for them. Applicants weren’t exactly knocking down the door to spend the night with insane people, apparently, even if the pay was good. His plan was to cut himself off from friends getting high in town—a town it seemed to him, after quitting, to be so overflowing with dope that a strong wind might have covered the streets in sparkling beautiful powder—and jump out into the world of a sober person, hopefully avoiding the lure of his habits, too.

But the big home wasn’t free of temptation. When accepting the job, Lew had assumed the OW’s duties were something like a prison guard’s: making sure everyone obeyed the rules, didn’t run away, didn’t smuggle in alcohol or dope, et cetera. At thirty-eight, having drifted through construction jobs most of his life, he was a big man with meaty limbs that still looked strong, even after the punishment he’d given his body over the years. He thought this appearance of strength was the primary reason they’d hired him. As it turned out, however, everyone in the house was on the whole fairly complacent, and Lew’s primary responsibility was handling their medicine. When this occurred to him during his first night on the job—the realization at what close proximity he’d be working to so many drugs—Lew began chewing a corner of his wide thumbnail. It was too late to start searching for another job. Rent was already past due and Jacqui was longer around to help him cover it. The same night he’d announced he was going clean, she had moved out of the small apartment they shared for the past six months, taking with her emergency cash they hid in an empty margarine tub in the fridge, as Lew slept in the other room, shaking and damp between his bedsheets.

So each night except Thursday, his night off, Lew found himself at ten o’clock nervously handing out bedtime meds to a group of men (women were not allowed beyond the house’s front door) who gathered around him like tired old dogs waiting for their food bowls to be filled. And then came the long night, broken only by the few other duties of the job. He saw to it the men were in their beds by lights out at eleven, did a visual check on them at one and again at four a.m., and then woke them at seven for morning meds. Meds were kept right beside Lew’s desk in a locked metal filing cabinet, the key to which Lew was required to carry at all times on a lanyard around his neck. They were filed under each man’s name along with that man’s prescription from the state doctor. To ensure no doses were in error or stolen, Lew was required to punch each pill from individually sealed blister packs, and then log the dose into the man’s chart in a yellow three-ring binder. A dose of any kind was to be accounted for. If a man woke in the night complaining of a sore shoulder and Lew gave him a two-fingertip squirt of BenGay, Lew actually had to write “two-fingertip squirt of BenGay” in the man’s chart. Meds were counted and crosschecked with the binder each morning by the Supervising Warden, and should Lew’s count be off even once, the SW warned him, he would be fired immediately. After Lew had chewed his thumbnail to the quick, he began drinking cup after cup of the kitchen’s endless supply of Folgers, sometimes two or three pots a night. By each sunrise, his muscles twitched involuntarily from the caffeine, but his cravings were kept, somewhat, at bay.

Lew also tried to distract himself by visualizing Jacqui’s large, ebony body in the nude, but he soon discovered this wasn’t a source of much solace. He was genuinely saddened she was gone and that she had stolen from him. The missing money hurt less than the sudden understanding, which hit Lew as if someone had thrown open a window inside his chest and let a freezing draft rush in, that for Jacqui their relationship had been a very peripheral thing to her life, something that could be as easily abandoned as a pair of socks peeled off at the end of the day. Lew began to realize, as he sat pounding coffee at his desk, that he had fallen in love with her. He couldn’t have abandoned Jacqui the same way, were the situation reversed. Such an act would have made their time together, and his feelings for her, seem cheap and insignificant in a way that frightened him, deep in his heart.

The house boarded about ten men, all of them recently released from the state hospital. The fewest meds were prescribed to Tommy, a black Iraq vet in his late twenties. Tommy had been locked up for two years over an incident in which, believing his father-in-law to be Osama Bin Laden, he had attempted to brain the poor man with a plumber’s wrench. Tommy only took Ambien for sleeplessness, Vistaril for anxiety, and alternating doses of Prilosec and liquid Mylanta for acid reflux. The prize for most meds went to Joe Jack, a gray and weathered elderly fellow who didn’t speak. Back in the 1940s, when Joe Jack was eleven years old, he had stabbed his parents to death with a kitchen knife as they lay in bed asleep. Joe Jack had been in and out of institutions—mostly in—since then. He took Zoloft for depression, Ativan for agitation, MaxAir inhalers for asthma, Celebrex for arthritis, Flexeril, Ultram, and Tylenol with codeine for muscle aches and spasms, fish oil supplements, ointments for rashes, pills for gout, pills for water retention, pills for everything. Every man in the house also took a drug called Clozaril, a powerful anti-psychotic med, the side effects of which included morbid obesity and diabetes. Nearly all the men in the house were fat, and about half of their med routines included insulin injections and finger pricks. But there wasn’t a single major psychotic episode during the time Lew worked there, so he guessed Clozaril prevented what it was meant to prevent, despite whatever new ailments it caused.

The closest thing to a breakdown happened one morning in December just after Lew had distributed daytime meds, when Bob Oakes stepped outside with a cranberry-colored bath towel wrapped like a turban around his head. The night before, an ice storm had descended on the house and the surrounding prairie. The men sat in lawn chairs on the front porch, huddled in their winter coats, drinking hot coffee and smoking cigarettes. (Smoking, like women, was allowed only outdoors.) Lew sat with them. Bob Oakes was new to the house, only a week or two out of the state hospital. He was a recovering alcoholic who had eddied in the system a few times, most recently on trespassing charges. Believing the government was sending him radio signals through the power lines, Bob had wandered into a neighborhood elementary school while the kids were in classrooms, looking to destroy the source of transmission, which he believed to be in the school’s basement. Bob swung a fire extinguisher at a couple of custodians when they tried to haul him out, but never got a chance to connect it.

The temperature was just above freezing. Barefoot, in his boxers and a thin t-shirt, Bob shuffled to the edge of the porch and looked out toward the yard where the naked maples slumped, their limbs heavy inside glassy sleeves of ice. He was a squat man with a drooping gut that hung below his waist, like the belly of an old mule. Lew watched as Bob curled his gnarled toes over the porch’s lip and stared into the open country, as if he were searching for something on the plain’s long horizon. The cranberry turban dipped across his eyes. Two men sitting nearby—the Iraq vet Tommy and a plump, fidgety ex-roughneck from the panhandle named Claude—eyed Bob nervously. They scooted their chairs a few feet away from him.

Lew, apprehensive, set his coffee mug on the white porch railing and came over to Bob. “How are you feeling today, Bob?” Lew said.

“Another day another dollar, I guess,” Bob said.

Lew considered what to say next. “Why’ve you got that towel on your head, Bob?” he finally decided.

Bob took a deep breath and let it hiss out slowly between his teeth. Then he pulled at his chin. “Now that is a deep story,” he said. “That is really a twirling reason. In case they’ve torqued the transmitters again, I suppose. Better safe than sorry.”

“In case who has?” Lew said.

Bob shook his head. “Not them. I don’t think they did or nothing like that. But they might. You can smell it a little before they do, you can smell the—what’s it?—the transmitters. I smelled them strong while I was brushing my teeth.”

The other men shifted restlessly, looking in any direction but Bob’s. Lew could see his condition was upsetting them; they wanted Bob out of there. He glanced up the stretch of highway in front of the house for any sign of the SW’s Buick, but it was still a good half-hour before his shift. The ice on the roads would keep him longer than that, anyway. Inside the metal filing cabinet, contingency meds were held for relapse incidents—tranquilizers, mostly, to put an agitated man off to sleep—but for legal reasons prescriptions required that a man verbally request extra medications himself. Lew wondered how far out Bob had gone underneath that bath towel.

“Say, Bob,” Lew said. “How about an Ativan or two? Might help you relax some.”

Bob shrugged. “Would it block them?” he said. “We’re all doomed if they’ve torqued the transmitters again. I’d sure like to relax. We’re doomed.”

That was a good-enough request for Lew. He led Bob inside, gave him the tranquilizers, and helped him upstairs to bed. Then he came downstairs and noted the incident and the drugs in Bob’s chart. As he did, he thought of Jacqui again. This time she was lying across Lew’s bed on the fleshy rolls of her stomach, the evening sun coming through the window, its orange light touching her heavy, round backside. Was this a memory—a scene that had actually taken place—or only an image his mind was inventing? Lew was pretty sure it had never happened. In truth, he hadn’t spent nearly as much time with Jacqui sprawled naked on his bed as he had spent fighting with her. Why then was it such a relief to imagine her, and why couldn’t he let go of her as she had let go of him? It struck him that he was spending more time thinking about Jacqui than he was thinking about dope—which, he realized with surprise, he hadn’t thought of much at all in the last few days. What was more, he had accomplished this while cutting down on his mass Folgers consumption. He was now allowing himself only one cup before each shift and one cup each morning, sipping instead on cans of Fresca throughout the night from a bulk case in the kitchen’s fridge.

When Lew returned to the porch, the men were lighting each other’s cigarettes and comparing stories about their past relapses. A kind of nervous relief was in the air. Watching Bob come close to the breaking point had put thoughts of their own diseases into them, but the danger had been averted; they seemed to take it like seeing a car crash narrowly dodged. Claude, the jumpy ex-roughneck, was up pacing through a little garden plot in front of the house, picking tiny icicles from the branches of a grayed rosebush. One hand waved a cigarette through the air.

“Thought the foreman was out to kill me,” Claude said. “I had some real sensitive information about the company owners. It was a crude oil outfit, like, they was building chemical weaponry in secret. I believed so, anyway. Believed the foreman was banging my wife, too. Thought they both was sprinkling phosphorus in my lunchbucket, poisoning my food, to slow my mind down.”

“What’d you do to him?” Tommy asked.

“I didn’t lay a finger on him,” Claude said. “Guess I broke into his office and set fire to some files in there. That’s what they tell me, I don’t recall it. But the worst was thinking my wife was in on it. I wouldn’t touch the food in my lunchbucket or anything she made at home either. Just drank water and ate vitamins. Must have lost forty pounds. Put my wife through hell. She just sat at our dinner table bawling her eyes out.”

Claude’s face darkened and he paused, holding a handful of half-melted icicles at his side. “I’m going to take that old girl back one day. Losing her—it scares me to death. That’s what’ll keep me behaving, even after they let me go. Taking my meds, man. Straight and narrow. You watch.” He tossed the icicles at the feet of old mute Joe Jack, who didn’t seem to notice.

Tommy and the other men nodded. Lew was curious to ask Claude what kind of information he believed he had against the oil company, but then thought better of it. He didn’t want to provoke any other episodes today. Instead, he reached for his coffee, still sitting on the railing where he had left it. It had gone cold. He dumped the remains off one side of the porch into the frozen grass.

Claude, shivering, turned to Lew. “How you like that story, Mr. Lew? Your wife ever poison your food?”

The men laughed. It was funny to them—the implication that Lew could be as damaged inside his head as they were—which made him feel a strange mix of pride and loneliness at the same time. He tried to remember the last dinner he and Jacqui ate together, but couldn’t. Take out, probably. KFC or a delivered pizza. Jacqui didn’t cook anything you couldn’t load into a spoon. Lew smiled kindly and said, “Well now, Claude, not that I was aware of anyway.” This brought another loud burst of laughter from the men.

“Fair enough, Mr. Lew, okay,” Claude said. He turned to Tommy. “What about you, Tommy? You get in Dutch with your wife last time?”

Tommy exhaled cigarette smoke. He scratched his head above his left ear, where a streak of gray hair about the length and straightness of a pencil ran through the short, black curls. “My wife had left me already,” he said. “Took our baby daughter and moved back with her folks.”

“Had her fill of it, had she?” Claude said.

“Who’d blame her, I guess,” Tommy said. He rubbed one palm slowly with the thumb of the other hand. “She was a good woman, though. Stayed a whole year after I came home, with me talking all the time about how Al Qaeda was interested in getting at me. When she finally quit me and took the baby, I thought Osama’d kidnapped both of them. I could hear them crying for me.”

“Crying your name, mm-hmm,” Claude said.

Tommy shook his head. “No,” he said. “Not crying my name. Just crying. At this time, right after I got out of the service, I worked in the stockroom of a Super Wal-Mart out on Highway 23. For a while after they was gone, I still went to work. The stockroom had this wall about fifty feet high where all the stock was kept, up on catwalks, and big ramps so the forklifts could drive up there. We called that room the Giant’s House, ’cause the ramps and catwalks made like a great big five-tipped star up the wall, so when you stood out from it, down below, it looked like a giant stickman standing over you. A stickman made of cardboard boxes, shipping crates, whatnot. Anyway I started hearing my wife and daughter crying from inside those boxes. Not just one or two of the boxes, but all the boxes, up that entire wall, all at once. And it went on like that day after day. Got so I couldn’t take it no more in that stockroom.”

Claude chuckled. “Damn, Tommy. What’d you do?”

Lew watched Tommy crush his cigarette on the sole of his shoe and then toss it into a nearby ashtray. He tried to imagine hearing voices like that, a symphony of screams coming from Tommy’s giant stickman, echoing through the stockroom. Except in reality coming from inside your own head. All Lew could think of was a stereo playing through about a dozen speakers, but he knew this wasn’t really how it was. Not really.

“Can’t remember much,” Tommy said. “They say I disappeared from work one afternoon and ended up at my in-laws’ house. Somehow, ’cause I was on foot and it was about six miles from that Wal-Mart. Her father came to the door, but all I saw was Bin Laden. I do remember that. I told him I knew what he was up to and he better let loose my family. Then I wailed on him, man. There was a pipe wrench sitting there on the porch and I knocked him a good one with it. Never saw my wife and daughter again. She had locked herself and the baby up in the bathroom and called the police, who showed up soon enough.”

Claude made a sympathetic click with his tongue. “Guess you got a little more to regret than me in the family department, Tommy,” he said. “I guess getting them back keeps you good as a saint.”

“Naw,” Tommy said. “I ain’t scared of losing them. Not anymore, anyway. I ain’t going to get her back. I love her, but my…” Tommy paused for a moment. “My condition prevents it.”

“You don’t care?” Claude said.

“I care, yeah. I just mean that ain’t what’ll keep me on my program when I get out of here. I’m only afraid of one thing. But that one thing scares me enough that I’ll swallow my meds every day, whether somebody’s watching me or not.”

“Well, what is it?” Claude said.

Lew leaned forward in his chair. He forgot momentarily about provoking any new episodes. “It’s the crying,” he said. “That stickman, those boxes. I bet that scares the hell out of you.” Lew thought briefly. “It’s… your condition. You’re afraid of being afraid.”

Tommy nodded. “That’s it.” He buttoned the collar of his coat against the cold. “See, I can’t help being afraid, man. That’s my illness. Paranoid, they say. No use fighting that. Being scared of Bin Laden is why I’m here. But if I can fold it right on top itself,” Tommy interlaced the fingers of his hands, “somehow, it don’t feel like a sickness no more. To me, anyway. Almost feels like a blessing, in fact.”

“Instead of a curse,” Lew said.

“Yep,” Tommy said. “That’s why I know I’ll keep on the path. I’ll be alright.” The other men considered this for a few seconds, and then voiced agreement.

“Watch out, Mr. Lew,” Claude said, giving Lew a wink. “Maybe you belong in here with the rest of us birds!” Then Claude did a little dance, like a chicken flapping its wings.

The men roared with laughter. Lew looked around at them as they watched Claude dance. He smiled. They were clapping their knees, slapping each other on the back. Even Joe Jack, though staring somewhat confusedly at the action, held a hand over his mouth, giggling. Lew began to laugh, too. It felt so good to laugh, and to laugh with other people; he hadn’t laughed with another person since Jacqui, and Lew couldn’t even recall exactly when that occasion might have been. He laughed. It felt like a valve had opened inside of him, one that had been stuck closed for a long time, and some pressure that badly needed release was at last escaping, diffusing with his breath into the cold morning air, disappearing.

Just then, the sound of an approaching car came from the direction of the highway. Lew, still grinning, turned to see the SW’s Buick making its way, carefully, down the icy stretch of drive before the house. The driver’s-side window opened halfway and an arm appeared from it, waving to Lew. Lew waved back. Then he stood up, wiped the tears from his eyes, and began corralling the men inside the house again for the morning’s headcount and shift change.

Lew didn’t work at the house forever. A few weeks after the Bob Oakes incident, he interviewed for a regular eight-to-five, building cabinets for an aging but still spirited carpenter, who operated a low-key business from a heated workshop connected to his home. The old man’s wife even promised daily hot lunches as part of the deal when Lew was offered the job. It paid nearly twice his salary as OW—enough to move from his apartment, which by then was the only remaining thing reminding Lew of Jacqui, the old days, the person he had been—and Lew said yes. On his final morning of work at the halfway house, the men threw him a farewell party, complete with big mugs of sugarless fruit punch and a lemon vanilla pound cake they had baked themselves, from a cookbook someone found in the house. The men gathered around his desk one last time, forking mouthfuls of cake from paper plates, telling Lew to keep in touch, asking about his new job. When the conversation turned to other things, Lew leaned back in his chair and tried to imagine the time to come—time in the clean world, if he could keep it. Somehow there was something new and exotic about the world, something unknown, mysterious. Tempting, even. And then he thought to himself, That’s how they do it. I’ll be damned if that isn’t exactly how they all do it. Lew shook his head. Then he sat forward, served himself a second wedge of cake, and ate it, hungrily. It was a fine cake, as if he could remember nothing better.

Originally published in Devil’s Lake.