Fiction by Ace Boggess
She stood outside in the smoking area, puffing on a Camel Light and shivering beneath her beige cardigan and picturing one of those desperate junkie boys grunting and sweating above her, his clumsy hands mauling her breasts or tugging at her long, purple hair. All the other drunks and dope fiends were out there. Some sat in clusters around picnic tables. Others shot flat basketballs at hoops with no nets. This would be the last smoke break for two hours—two hours of classes and bullshit pop psychology—so everyone made the most of it.
Olivia McGuire. Olivia M., as she’d learned to say during twelve-step meetings. If she said it fast, she kind of liked the way it sounded. It made her think of a drug’s name (Olivium. Relieves irritation and minor vaginal discomfort if used as directed. Side effects include runny nose, itchy eyes, increased libido, hostility, and the urge to stab someone in the tits with a really big knife), or else the word oblivion, which was where she wanted to be. It’s where she had been for almost two years before she OD’d on Thanksgiving night. Then again, most folks would’ve sniffed a few extra Oxys if they had to deal with her stepmother, she thought. Olivia considered it a saintly gesture that she’d tried to stay calm and keep the peace.
Things didn’t quite work out that way. The new Mrs. McGuire (Olivia still thought of her as the new Mrs. McGuire even after fifteen years of wicked-stepmothering) found her blue and cold on the bathroom floor. Olivia died that night—not for good, but long enough to count—and she would’ve stayed dead if a quick-thinking paramedic hadn’t shot her up with Narcan.
Jessica, her stepmother, had been furious, although Olivia didn’t know if it were because she died or because she ruined Thanksgiving dinner while all those fat uncles and cousins were lounging around. How she would’ve loved to have seen the look on that woman’s face, she thought, if only she weren’t clinically dead at the time.
The two of them never got along, and Olivia knew they were both to blame. For her part, she’d been bratty and acid-tongued, always quick to throw out a jab about Jessica’s emaciated look. Olivia once heard it referred to as heroin chic. “Careful with those hip bones,” she’d say. “You could put an eye out.” Or, “If I tied hooks on your tits, I could use you for a fishing pole.” That was when she was ten. Twenty-three now, she looked back and understood that she just missed her real mother who—short, plump, and gentle—was nothing at all like Jessica.
As for the new Mrs. McGuire, she handled most of the discipline in the house. For Olivia, that meant a lot of time with no TV, video games, iPhone, or late-night chats with her boyfriend du jour. There were worse things, too. Jessica never struck her, but she often chided Olivia about eating too much pizza and ice cream, saying how just five pounds could make the difference between dating the quarterback and dating the third-chair clarinetist.
As Olivia grew up, she felt more and more self-conscious about her weight. At fifteen, she was bulimic. At sixteen? Jittery from diet pills she swiped out from under the lacy panties in her stepmother’s bottom drawer. She never liked that feeling, but she liked taking the pills. Just getting them down made it seem like she was trying, like she might get her life under control. After that, it wasn’t much of a stretch before she moved on to Lortab, Vicodin, Percocet, and eventually OxyContin.
Olivia stomped her foot on the concrete. During freshman year, when she finally moved away from home, as her first act of rebellion she got “Jessica” tattooed on the heel of her foot. It hurt like hell and had her drinking Smirnov and popping handfuls of Vicodin for a week, but it was worth the pain. Best investment she ever made, Olivia thought. Now she could walk on Jessica wherever she went. She could scrape it, drag it, or smack it on whatever she wanted, barefoot or wearing shoes. Her foot was like a voodoo doll. She imagined her every step causing Jessica pain. Just to be sure, she slapped her sneaker on the concrete two more times.
“You okay, Liv?”
Startled, she blinked and glanced up to see Carlos—tall, muscular, tattooed in blue jailhouse ink—not three feet away, staring at her. She took a quick drag off her cigarette to buy a moment and clear her head. When that didn’t work, she said, “I’m sorry, Carlos. What?”
“I asked if you’re okay. You look like your mama just died.”
That pulled her back to reality. Wrong thing to say, she thought, then changed her mind and decided he didn’t know any better. “Fine. Just a space cadet today.”
She thought of Carlos as one of her johns. Not in the hooker sense. He was one of the two guys whose laundry she washed every couple of days. Sort of a tradition developed in rehab that women helped the men with their dirty clothes. It wasn’t a rule, and some women chose not to participate, whereas the guys, unless they’d been here before, knew nothing about it until one of the girls, out of the blue, said, “I’m stuck in the laundry room later. Want me to do your wash?” Rarely did anyone say No. Even Jacko M., the old married man, had a freckle-faced flirt running his BVDs through the machine. It didn’t mean anything and rarely went further. Harmless house play, most of the staff considered it, so even the strictest counselors looked the other way.
Olivia took on a pair of johns: Carlos S., and that boy Justin T., who was a bit of a flamer. She’d never get Justin to sneak into her room at night, she thought, but Carlos….
“Yeah, I get it,” he said, his voice dragging and twanging in that southern West Virginia way so it sounded as if he were sucking on a pebble. “Listening to this Big Book shit all day turns me into a zombie.”
Carlos, she thought. Fucking Carlos. It might work. She knew what she’d have to do. Her first night in the main unit, she kept watch while her new roommate Lisa slipped down the hall and into some guy’s room. Olivia didn’t know if they were fucking or if he’d somehow smuggled in dope. Either way, the principle was the same.
“And we can’t have coffee. Makes it worse.”
Olivia planned it while Carlos talked. She’d wait until evening when the number of staffers would be halved, but not so late that she’d get caught when the bed checks started. Or, maybe she’d wait until after the first bed check at midnight and go for a rush job.
“I mean … shee-it. What’s wrong with a little coffee?”
She’d make sure no one was looking. Then she’d hurry down the hall and through the door to his room, closing it behind her as fast as she could.
“I need coffee.”
She’d probably have to shush his roommate.
“Even the outside A.A. meetings have coffee.”
She’d take Carlos into the bathroom, close that door, run water in the sink for noise, and….
“I just don’t know about this place. It’s messed up. If I hear somebody say Dr. Bob one more time, I’m not sure what I’ll do.”
Of course, if they were caught, they’d both be kicked out. That didn’t matter so much to Olivia. She came as a voluntary admission. It was the only way her dad and Jessica would drop the mental-health petition that got her committed up north for a couple weeks. For Carlos though, it meant he’d leave the building in handcuffs. The Circuit Judge from Boone County sent him there as a condition of his probation after Carlos copped a plea on a drug charge. If Carlos got the boot, he violated without ever having made it back out on the street.
“What about you? You buy any of this crap?”
A lot of risk, she thought, for a quickie. I guess we’ll see how much he wants it. She squinted and grinned, then took another drag. Smoke thickened the December air. The whole smoking-and-recreation area looked as if it were filled with ghosts. After a long, sultry exhale, Olivia told him, “Not sure yet. I haven’t made up my mind.”
Olivia sat next to her roommate, Carol K., during the three-o’clock class. An OD like Olivia, but not at all like her otherwise, Carol was a forty-one-year-old housewife and mother of three. Carol kept her dark hair long and straight, though it curled into a natural frizz on the ends. Her face still looked round and pretty except for the shadows of bruises from where she hit the floor. She wore black or white turtlenecks under solid-colored sweaters that she obsessively picked clean of every fleck of fuzz or lint. She seemed normal enough. Yet she’d taken the pills—a whole bottle of them—and she’d told Olivia in confidence that she found it easier to say she had a drug problem than admit she tried to kill herself. “You know,” Carol whispered, leaning over toward Olivia, “I can barely keep my eyes open. This guy’s boring the holy Jesus out of me. I wonder if I’d get kicked out if I laid my head on my arms and slept.”
The two hid in the back row of a makeshift classroom filled with old high school one-piece chair-desks, some of which still had initials, dates, hearts, and swear words carved into or drawn on them. There were twenty-eight of those desks, the same as the number of beds in the facility.
Standing up front, Counselor Carson—no one really knew if that was his first name or last—droned on about the fourth step and the importance of the word ‘fearless’ when making a moral inventory. “If you find something too uncomfortable or embarrassing to admit even to yourself,” he said, “then that’s the most valuable thing to dig out of you and share.” He looked like a surfer with his brick-like body and bleach-blond hair tied back in a ponytail, but he sounded more like the teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off with his tired, dragging monotone.
Olivia closed her eyes and imagined she could smell a fresh pot of coffee, then opened them quickly when she realized that she, too, had nearly dozed off. The scent came from her brain playing a trick on her as it had last night when she dreamt someone gave her a candy dish filled to the brim with little cyan tablets she knew to be thirty-milligram doses of Roxicet—her favorite. She must have snorted a hundred of them last night. It made her high and felt so real. The twelve-step folks called that a freebie, because she experienced the pleasure as if it were genuine and didn’t have to suffer the consequences when she woke.
“Did you rob somebody?” Counselor Carson continued. “Did you steal a twenty from the till at work or sneak pills from your sick grandmother’s bottle? Did you sell your body or put your kids in danger? Don’t hide it. Write it, so when you do the fifth step you can share it with one other person and God. This stuff haunts you. If you want to survive, if you want to get healthy, you have to let go of it. You have to give it to someone else.”
“I have something I’d like to give him,” Carol whispered.
Olivia wasn’t sure what she meant. She replied, “I’d like to stab him in the eye with a spork. At least then he’d be more animated.”
Carol K. giggled like a child—a bit too loud. She covered her mouth, but not before Counselor Carson glared at her.
“As I was saying,” he continued, “we’ve all done things that make us feel ashamed….”
Ashamed, Olivia thought. She understood shame, just as she knew regret, resentment, doubt, fear, and all the other stuff the counselors talked about. These were the things she kept with her always, like insurance cards.
“You spoke cruel words to your mother, perhaps,” Carson said.
Yes, thought Olivia.
“Or did something to her that you wish you could take back.”
Yes, yes, yes. Olivia closed her eyes a second time.
Grape soda, she thought. Was she six or maybe seven? She must have been six—not quite the age of reason. She was a chubby kid. She’d seen the pictures. She had blond hair and poppies that blossomed on her cheeks whenever she moved too quickly.
Olivia went into the kitchen, where she found her mother, one hand holding open the refrigerator door, the other reaching for a two-liter bottle of grape soda—some generic dollar-store brand, the bottle almost empty.
“Last little bit,” her mom said.
Olivia had gone in there to look for a bag of Doritos, a few Oreos, or whatever snack she could find in one of the cabinets or drawers. She hadn’t been thinking about grape soda. Now, hearing her mother’s words, she said, “I’ll drink it.”
“You want it?” her mom said.
“Yes, please.” Looking back, she was glad at least to have been polite.
“Okay.” Her mom grabbed a plastic cup from the nearest cabinet. The cup had a red-haired Disney princess pictured on one side.
I drank the last of the grape soda, Olivia thought, remembering. But that wasn’t true. She went into the living room and left the cup on a Myrtle Beach coaster on the coffee table, then headed for her room to find something fun to do. She picked up a book she’d been reading for extra credit in school, found her place, lay on her bed atop the frilly yellow comforter, and read.
It wasn’t until later that Olivia’s mother found the cup, still almost full. “Liv,” she called, her voice stern but crackling. “Come in here.” Her mom pointed toward the cup. “I was going to drink that,” she said. No scolding, no chiding. She didn’t need cruelty to get her message across. You’re greedy and selfish, her eyes swore, and that was enough.
“I’m sorry,” Olivia said.
Her mother shrugged as if nothing mattered anymore. “Take your cup into the kitchen and dump that out.”
Olivia did as she’d been told. Her hands trembled as the flat, purple fluid flooded the drain. She regretted what she’d done. Not because it was the last of the pop and not because she’d left her cup on the coffee table—she regretted it because her mother wanted that grape soda, and Olivia had robbed her of that for no good reason at all.
Olivia tuned out the counselor and thought about that grape soda. She’d done enough awful stuff in her life, but the only thing she wished she could take back was one uncaring act. She still pictured the look of sadness on her mom’s face, still felt selfish and small whenever she relived the scene. She’d acted horribly, taking that bit of pleasure away from her mom. A few months later, her mother was gone.
She held up her arm, surprising herself.
“Yes, Olivia?” said Counselor Carson.
“Does it have to be stuff from our drug years?”
“Good question. No, it doesn’t. You’re taking your moral inventory, not the drug’s. You want to be brutally honest about what you’ve done, regardless of when you did it. That way, when you share it later on, you’re releasing all your burdens and lightening the load. Does that make sense?”
Olivia nodded. “Yes,” she said. “I think so.” Or, at least, she hoped….
Olivia had two hours free between the last class and the start of the night’s AA/NA meeting. As she stood in the chow line, Carlos slipped in behind her. “That’s a great question you asked in class today. The one about things we did before we were addicts.”
She turned and feigned a smile. Flirting with a Junkie 101, she thought. Compliment her on something in her recovery program. The old-timers in AA called that thirteenth-stepping, and it was strictly forbidden, except when it wasn’t.
“I’ve been dealing with this … this stuff.” He hesitated. “From before. You know, when I was a teenager?”
What? she thought. Last year? Carlos looked almost that young with his wild hair, tight skin, and smooth, tiny hands that didn’t seem to match his bulky muscles. Plus, he still wore a mustache that she couldn’t help thinking of as peach fuzz. Olivia figured him for twenty-two or twenty-three, but he could pass for fifteen in the right light.
“I feel awkward telling you this,” he said.
“Telling me what?”
“I used to steal money out of my grandmother’s purse.”
She nodded, understanding how that could happen.
“Not even for drugs,” he said. He shook his head. “It was…. Maybe I shouldn’t be talking about it.” He stepped forward with her as the line moved. Leaning in, he whispered, “It was for comic books.”
She put a hand to her mouth to stifle a sudden giggle. “Comic…”
He shushed her. Still whispering, Carlos said, “You know, Batman, Spider-man, Ghost Rider, Moon Knight, Dr. Strange. I loved that stuff, at least until I picked up the straw. Before pills, I was into that.” His head bobbed as if he were answering a question. “Keep that to yourself, if you don’t mind.”
Olivia saw him in a different way now. He wasn’t just a well-built junkie with jailhouse blue tattoos and the post-withdrawal tingles of lust she knew he felt, having experienced them herself. No, he was some mama’s little nerdy boy who took a wrong turn. If she snuck into his room tonight and slipped into the bathroom with him, and if they both were caught, it’d be like she wasted the last of the grape soda all over again. She didn’t want to waste that pop. She didn’t want to disappoint any other mamas. “Our little secret,” she told him. “Pinky swear.” Then she moved to the window, collecting her tray that held a rectangle of pizza, a half-dozen greasy French fries, and some corn.
Carol sat beside her again during the in-house AA/NA meeting. The staff set it up in the same classroom as before, but this time it was led by four white-bearded old-timers from one of the weekly outside meetings. The four wore flannels and blue jeans that looked baggy and loose around their pear-shaped bodies. They seemed so similar that they could’ve been headed together to an after-hours party at a Santa Claus convention.
Carol said, “I saw you chatting it up with Carlos again. You going for it?”
“Thought about it.”
“I think I’ll play with myself instead,” Olivia told her.
“Please watch the cross-talk,” one of the old men said, pausing from his reading of the Twelve Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Carol waited until the man’s reading resumed, then leaned over and whispered, “Aren’t you a randy little minx.”
Olivia plucked a purple hair from her sweater and stretched it out on the desk in front of her. It looked like a thread of Chinese silk. “Well,” she said, “if I have to find a sponsor and tell her all the sins on my moral inventory, it’s probably best if I don’t add anything to the list.”
“I mean, sure, I’m pent up and all that, but it’s not worth it. I’d feel like a real shit if he went back to jail over a quickie.”
“Right, yeah, sure.”
“Best to just, you know, keep my nose clean.”
“Keep my butt in bed.”
“So to speak,” said Carol.
“What?” It took Olivia a second to catch her new friend’s meaning. Then she couldn’t help but laugh. “So to speak,” she agreed.
“Watch the daggone cross-talk,” said one of the old-timers. Whether it was the same one as before, Olivia couldn’t tell. They all looked alike to her. “If you’re disrespectful, you will be asked to leave.”
“Sorry,” Olivia said. Then, leaning in toward Carol, she whispered, “I hope he gets hit by an ice-cream truck, so he dies slowly and has to listen to those goddamned bells.”
After the twelve-step meeting, Olivia called home from one of the payphones in the hall. (The residents weren’t allowed cellphones.) Before rehab, she’d forgotten payphones ever existed.
The new Mrs. McGuire answered. “Olivia!” she said with a brightness to her tone as if hearing from an old friend. She then ran through a series of questions, all with the same cheeriness. “You doing okay? Are you getting enough to eat? Do you need more cigarettes? Does the program seem to be helping?”
“I don’t know, maybe,” Olivia told her, adding in her mind, Earth people, before concluding that the program must have had some effect for her to think of a term like that.
“Do you want me to put your dad on the phone?”
Olivia surprised herself by hesitating. She usually would’ve said Yes and, while waiting for the sound of her dad’s voice, used the opportunity to stomp on her Jessica tattoo a couple of times. Instead, she said, “Listen, Jessica, I wanted to apologize about messing up your holiday.”
“It’s okay, darling,” said Jessica—darling was her usual affectation for everyone. “What’s important is that you’re all right.” She sounded as if she either meant it or she’d been drinking heavily, and Olivia wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt. “You scared the bejesus out of us. I thought your dad was having a heart attack and needed a trip to the hospital, too.”
“He’s all right, isn’t he?”
“Yes. He had a few crying jags, though. Not very manly, but it seemed to help.”
Great, thought Olivia. I’ve made Dad less of a man in his wife’s eyes. I guess that’s another side effect of Olivium: may cause emasculation in some men.
Jessica went on. “Darling, I know you and I haven’t been close. Still, I want you to realize I’m here for you. Whatever you’re going through, you can come to me. You’re my daughter.”
“Jessica,” Olivia said. This was it. This was where she’d spit venom and hiss. She could tell her stepmother to rot in hell, to take a long walk off a short pier, to go stick her head in an oven. She could say, You’re not my mother, as she had so many times before. She could throw out Whore! Bitch! Cunt! and any other mean words that popped into her head. She could laugh, and oh how cruel her laughter was. But she held it back. “Do you ever drink grape soda?”
Jessica cleared her throat. Olivia knew her stepmother thought this was some kind of a trick with no right answer. “Sometimes,” she said. “Not very often. Why do you ask?”
“No reason,” said Olivia. She’d shown Jessica enough kindness for one day.
At midnight, one of the female employees opened the door and peeked into the room Olivia and Carol shared. She counted out loud—“Twenty-one, twenty-two”—as if she had no internal monologue. The light from the hallway shone brilliantly like something holy, or like something damned.
Olivia squeezed her eyelids and tugged the brown poly-fiber blanket above her head.
“Sorry,” the woman whispered, even that small sound a coyote’s howl in the moonlight.
When the door closed again, Olivia pulled the blanket away from her face. She rolled onto her back and stared up at fresh green splotches flaming on her retinas.
This was it, she thought. If she meant to go, there’d be no better time.
She listened for Carol’s breathing and could tell the older woman slept well. She snored a bit with a sound like a horse’s neighing.
You’re no help, Olivia thought.
She was glad she hadn’t mentioned her plan to Carlos. If she had, she wouldn’t back out now, no matter the risks. Oh, Carlos, she thought, as she rolled back onto her side. This is either the luckiest or unluckiest night of your life, and you’ll never even know about it. She’d made up her mind. Tonight wasn’t the night. She felt too distracted, too uncertain of the world and her place in it. She saw visions of a little boy reading Spider-man and a little girl demanding a cup of purple pop. How was she supposed to get in the mood with crap like that in her head?
She wondered if she’d been doing her moral inventory without realizing it. Placing a man’s freedom at risk for a fuck? That wasn’t Olivia. It was Olivium, the drug—addictive and bringing as much suffering as pleasure. Euphoric Olivium and sweet oblivion. A mainlined hotshot could be fatal.
Did she want that? She wasn’t sure.
Maybe tomorrow, she thought, trying to picture the O face of Carlos behind her in the bathroom mirror. Yes, maybe tomorrow. Or not.
She knew that tomorrow she might relapse in her mind. She might walk down the hall after midnight bed check. Then again, she might transform and become a comic-book heroine with better-person powers as if she’d been bitten by a radioactive niceness bug. Hell, she thought, perhaps she wouldn’t do any of that. She might just wake up in the morning, get dressed, go down the hall to the lunchroom, and buy a grape soda out of the vending machine. It wouldn’t matter what brand. She could open it up and dump it down the sink as a sacrifice to her mom’s spirit in whatever strange state it rested. Perhaps that’s what she’d do. Maybe yes, maybe no. Her mom wouldn’t mind either way.
Ace Boggess is author of five books of poetry—Misadventure, I Have Lost the Art of Dreaming It So, Ultra Deep Field, The Prisoners, and The Beautiful Girl Whose Wish Was Not Fulfilled—and the novels States of Mercy and A Song Without a Melody. His writing has appeared in Harvard Review, Notre Dame Review, Mid-American Review, Rattle, River Styx, and many other journals. He received a fellowship from the West Virginia Commission on the Arts and spent five years in a West Virginia prison. He lives in Charleston, West Virginia. His sixth collection, Escape Envy, is forthcoming from Brick Road Poetry Press in 2021.