By Dan Coshnear
KB peels a sticker off his striped polo. He holds the collar, lets the shirt unfurl. He’d napped after dinner and awakened hopeful, but confused. He slips a belt through new khakis. He’d dreamed he’d seen his deceased father in a flannel bedrobe. Their exchanges were not like the exchanges he’d ever day-dreamed having with his father, nor like any they’d ever had. This father was radiant, smiling. He’d stepped from a steam room or a steamy shower, hair combed in lines of gray and black. His smile was familiar, but it had been rare when he was alive. KB could only remember having seen the smile once. His father had replaced the wig-wag in the washer. Father and twelve-year-old KB listened for the flush between rinse and spin. With the flush came the smile, hugs and handshakes. In the dream his father was explaining how Lithium works.
KB is to meet Phil, Mary and Jack—new friends with whom he hopes to create new memories. He parks in the historic garage and walks two blocks through renovated Old Town. They are standing on the corner as Phil had promised. Their hands are in their coat pockets and KB can see clouds of breath, Phil rocking, talking, Mary tapping her boot on the concrete. “You’re going to dig this,” Phil had said. “It’s addictive,” Mary laughed. “In a good way.” And Jack said, “It’s something to do.”
“I hope I’m not late,” KB calls.
“You’re not,” says Phil.
“I’m glad you made it,” says Mary.
“We’re early,” Jack says. “We’re always early.” Mary punches Jack’s shoulder. The punch seems too hard, given the circumstance, given her smile.
“Typical Jack.” She smiles at Phil, at KB.
“Shall we?” says Phil.
“Let’s,” Mary says.
KB feels a brief panic, but breathes through it. He feels annoyed with himself for not having asked more questions, but he breathes through that, too. Phil leads the way to the renovated textile mill, another landmark. They once made running suits here. Or stripes. Someone did. Two stories, steel casement windows, sixteen across. A heavy steel door on a track with pulleys. The door whines open. Mary follows Phil. KB sees her rolling her shoulders like a boxer before a fight. Jack pauses to let KB enter. “Here goes nothing,” Jack grins.
In the doorway KB feels a shot of nerves, and something he’s learned to call ‘old thinking.’ He thinks, I’m out with losers. He thinks, broken units, damaged goods. He thinks, I ought to get the fuck out of here. Then he thinks, that’s my old thinking talking.
The space is large like a gymnasium, startlingly bright. There’s an aisle and on each side one hundred chairs. At the far end is a two foot stage, a podium, and behind the podium a word projected upon a screen: TESTIFY. Jack directs KB’s attention to a sparkling young woman selling twelve ounce bottles of water, two dollars apiece.
Phil and Mary pace toward the front. Mary turns and makes an ambiguous, unfinished gesture, as if maybe to beckon KB, then races to a seat in the first row. Jack shakes his head as if he’s remembered something amusing. KB remembers a doc from Oakcrest explaining how Lithium works. It’s a salt, he’d said. It binds with the brain’s receptors and blocks the formation of other bonds which produce pleasant feelings but troubling thoughts. KB tries to remember his father’s explanation. It involved a propeller, tubes, light and water. Pink water. Or blue, like toilet water. Down was up, or leading up, that seemed clear. The dream father had seemed certain, as his real father had never seemed about anything when he was alive.
Men and women fill the seats. Jack confides he will not be sitting. He plans to testify first. He gulps. KB gives Jack a soft slug on the upper arm, but Jack doesn’t notice, seems starstruck or short of oxygen. KB finds space to lean against the wall. He’d been to plenty of AA and NA meetings, but Phil had promised this would be different. The energy does feel different. None of that ‘well, here-we-are-humans feeling,’ none of the ‘this-is-what-it’s-like-sober’ thing. No coffee, no sugar packets or puddles of cream. People don’t have tobacco-stained fingers. This event is preceded by a buzz. Lights flicker. Silence. A woman strides to the podium, clop of heels. Her lips and scarf are magenta, her eyes obscenely wide.
Before Lithium, and his stint at Oakcrest, KB enjoyed amphetamines. He’d had delusions of being God. At their most severe, he was entirely separate from his body. He was the God of Genesis floating above “the face of the waters.” He looked upon creation—everything and everyone—and deemed it worthy. He’d never harmed anyone, but disrupted traffic with his jaywalking. Some days he had no power. He and his experience were useless. Many days, he was able to channel enthusiasm from his TV, from Regis Philbin, enough at least to tie shoes and pour cereal.
Jack walks with hands in pockets and chest folded in, as if he wants to introduce his shoulders to one another. He leans to the microphone. “Six months ago I tore up the linoleum in my living room. It’d begun to bubble and split at the seams. When I found dampness in the subfloor, I was devastated.” He swallows, cautions a glance at the crowd. KB sees heads wagging. “Two weeks ago I shopped carpets. I anticipated the project would cost a thousand, but I found a remnant that fit perfectly.” The heads are really going. The wide-eyed woman steps forward, hands out, palms upward. “Now testify.” Jack inhales, “I saved one hundred and fifty dollars.” The crowd rises. The applause is sudden, loud and unanimous.
“Next,” says the woman.
“I won’t waste your time,” calls a man from the third row. “I saved one seventy ordering wholesale. Wholesale,” he hollers. The crowd rises. The applause is sudden, loud and unanimous.
Mary rises. “I saved three hundred dollars,” she says.
Phil stands. “My savings are compounded daily, growing, the rate is growing, almost in-cal-cu-la-ble.” The crowd erupts. Stomping shakes the floor, walls, ceiling. The glass in the steel casements vibrates.
KB rushes to the steel door and slips through just before a slim, athletic woman pushes it shut. He breathes the big dark air. In and out and in. He remembers his real father with sudden fondness. So it goes, so often, starting a new life.