Wrapped in the comfort of an afternoon nap, a thick wool sweater and a metaphor of scratchiness that might have been God, I barely noticed the thermostat throwing down at eighty-one degrees. The front door was wide open. The TV was on. There were six other beds besides mine. I was the only man home.
But Bob could come through at any time. There were no locks on our doors, making it easier to chase someone down when they got shitfaced, nodded off, or OD’d. This wasn’t common, but we knew Bob was watching. That was enough.
“Jim, this is Fred,” said Bob. “His brother is alumni.” Bob oversaw twenty-five men across four adjacent properties. He also gave a lot of tours.
I jumped up, dazed, to greet yet another new face. But this man took the lead, offered his left hand, leaving no choice but to follow with mine. The other rules fell into line, the shaking, the smiling, but his presence cut straight to the heart, like breath. He brought it all into question. I don’t remember much else except Fred pointing to the shelf over my bed, then smiling. He moved in the next night.
This was my fourth week at Shaniah House and I was two months sober. The original plan, six months of rehab at the Salvation Army, had been derailed because I was “a sinner in Jesus’ eyes.” This was a gift. How could a program of full time work and three church services a week, offering only one anger management class, one group therapy session and one twelve-step meeting in exchange, actually bring any healing? The night before this surprising expulsion I drifted asleep with one question. “Where is the recovery?” A voice out of nowhere, I know it was God, asked me the answer I needed. “What are you putting into it?”
Relapsing seemed stupid after this third recovery attempt in five years and one thing I had never tried was living in an SLE. Convincing my family to front a motel, I researched Sober Living, cashed out my retirement, and began my journey of working through hell.
Touring a few unimpressive properties that read more like mortgage schemes, I received a call back from Shaniah. Once we arrived Bob turned on the charm, his tone full of shit but the message was hope. I had no clue how to read him. He mentioned a waiting list. I liked what I felt and wrote the check for deposit.
At night I prayed for those ahead of me to find their way, the subtext was relapse, and the call came a week later. I moved into ‘09 just before Christmas. The second of four properties, 4409 was unsurprisingly known as Animal House, mostly important for its two-car garage repurposed into a smokers’ den with carpeting, couches, a pool table, and ping pong. Every flat surface still held the littered remnants from the holiday party Bob bragged about a week before. I played dumb and asked Jamie, my new housemate, when it was.
“Two weeks ago,” he said. I scanned his stained sweats, worn in commando, before watching him squint through each long drag of his smoke. I stubbed out my Parliament Light and crossed into the house. He quickly fished for the snipe. I carried my belongings to the double room at the back of the hall. Glancing around my single bed with its clear foot of space, a carpet of clothing covered the rest of the floor, a bizarre tumbling of shoe boxes everywhere.
Jaime scuttled behind me a few minutes later. “This is the best room,” he said. The other double, tiny, cradled two beds into the narrow space of a furniture 69, while the triple, though bigger with a private bathroom, also increased the chances for unwashed ass and errant snoring.
“Who’s my roommate?” I asked.
“Nathan. He works graveyard, or something.” Or something…
I was there over a week before officially meeting Nathan, though I felt his presence whirling through at odd moments in the middle of the night, finding him passed out fully dressed, drooling across piles of laundry the next morning. If it wasn’t for Nathan I could have fully isolated. Instead I had no choice but to adjust, and by adjust I meant lying in bed every morning, listening for a quiet moment to get up and shower, and then sneaking away without crossing anyone’s path.
I explored this new city of Santa Rosa on foot. Three miles to downtown and seven miles across, I went to 12-step meetings everywhere, up to three times a day. I’d leave for a nooner at ten, taking detours through various neighborhoods before winding around until things became familiar. Returning, I might trail the bus routes back to the mall before chain-smoking my way home for an afternoon with my housemates.
During my most awkward moments I’d smoke silently in the garage attempting to drown out the voice saying I didn’t belong, while knowing the thread of addiction was more than enough to be my one thing in common. I didn’t really want it, but I wanted it more than what came before.
I learned to take naps, drink water, and eat food, the metaphorical equivalent of learning to change my own diaper. The subtext was spirituality. But I’d get squirrely by dark and leave before the shuffle of frozen pizzas and Taco Bell got too pervasive, weaving a new path to a new evening meeting. I found a sponsor. I took a commitment. I would do the work as suggested. Every so often a crew from Shaniah would show up, surprised to see me.
“You want a ride home?” they would ask.
“No thanks,” I said. “I’m walking.” They didn’t understand; they thought it was strange. They called me The Walker behind my back, but on my better days I would dance, too.
Through the rumor mill I heard I was high. I went straight to Bob and offered to piss. He knew I was clean. At the next house meeting, at the end of group sharing, Bob called me out with a gaze over his glasses. It was the first time I spoke to this roomful of men.
“I’ve been on meth for three years. Of course, I’m still sketchy. It’s called habit.” A few obvious bodies shifted under the weight of their gossip and accusation. I appreciated not looking them in the eye. I glanced back at Bob and he thanked me, but all of a sudden, I interrupted his final reflection. I rallied against the house’s persistent use of the word gay.
“As if gay is pejorative. All those fucking movies you watch on full volume are so pretty because faggots were involved.” They had no idea I was so strong, nor did I.
“Discomfort.” “Invisibility.” “Assholes.” My tirade lasted long enough to push the meeting past 10:30. People became uncomfortable, not because I used the word faggot, but simply because it was time to leave.
Avoiding the obligatory post-meeting smoke, I snuck out the back to skulk my own drags around the block until curfew. I returned and the house fell silent. They said that they liked me. They said that they cared. I wasn’t sure if they knew me at all. Apologies continued for the next several days, with every slip of a tongue; it’s called habit. I finally belonged.
Nathan was next. Two weeks after New Year’s and his secret, popping pills and buying tennis shoes with stolen credit, finally caught up with him. He only confessed after his piss tested dirty, denying it even as Bob watched him drain into a cup. He left for three days before his “Vote Back” on Wednesday. House rules.
The room became mine, and for the first time since arriving I could nurture a semblance of privacy. Vacuuming under beds that had never been touched, windexing, dusting and scrubbing down walls so neglected that the paint rubbed off too. Crumpled tissues, crusty socks, a range of hazards hidden in odd spots by young men exploring new lives while barely changing old behaviors. The intimacy of sharing this bed with the ghosts of men before me.
On one quest around town I stumbled upon a local rug warehouse offering used samples. The random pieces of red shag catching my eye were trivial enough that the salesman just let me have them. I cut them to cover my night stand, to border the front edge of my dresser, to line the long bookshelf running over my bed, where I hung gold Christmas ornaments every four inches from thumbtacks around its ledge. Unlike the dusty thrift store decor and inspirational posters wilting from the walls, my tiny corner of the house offered a tinge of distinction within a beige situation. Every few days an ornament might drop to my bed, spurring a hunt for the thumbtack to restore safety to my nest, a training to tend to small things.
Wednesday night, Nathan’s Vote Back, turned so contentious it ran twenty minutes over. Stuttering through the details of his relapse, he explored his assets and liabilities then faced a line of questioning from brothers clearly nursing a lode of deep betrayal.
“Why didn’t you reach out?”
“Why didn’t you confess?”
“What the fuck is wrong with you? You think this is cute?”
Angered sensitivities and muddled allegiances, Nathan was not voted back. The earnestness was comforting, like something in life might actually be real.
He was gone by midnight and Fred showed up for his tour the next day, that time we first met and he shook my left hand and turned all the rules on themselves. No surprise the night after to find Fred scrubbing and vacuuming behind his new bed.
“Look what I found,” he said, presenting a well-stretched lobe now loosely plugged with the orange cap from a rig. “I wish I brought my test tubes. I hang them like vases.” I laughed at this new man, more unexpected to shake me awake.
“Did you inject?” I asked, unloading my pockets onto my nightstand’s red rug.
“I loved speed balls,” he said, now flipping the mattress.
“I never shot up. It might have been next.” With a decade of dabbling in powders and shards I never absorbed the drug culture. I avoided all knowledge as my source of denial and didn’t know speed balls were actually a cocktail of heroin and coke and had nothing to do with my personal poison, speed. “I smoked meth every day. I didn’t sleep that last year.”
“You were crazy.” His laugh proved deep and dry with more knowing than most people carried. Back to his bed, he finished his cocoon for his first week without heroin.
“This place is nasty!” he said. I got the sense that he liked it. “Go pick a movie. We’ll watch on my laptop.” It was the first friendly moment proposed by a housemate.
“Do you want some tea?” It was the first friendly moment by me.
The water to boiling, I rummaged beneath the plates and wrappers cluttering the front room. Scanning the assortment of new release DVDs already weeks over due I remembered my second week, being cajoled to Blockbuster by Jamie, if only because I didn’t yet have a delinquent account like everyone else. I returned with The Da Vinci Code and two mugs.
“It’s licorice mint,” I said.
“I hate licorice.”
I laughed. “So did I.”
Spreading across the narrow valley of floor between our two beds, we watched the movie for about ten minutes. As music filled plot holes, we started chatting as well.
“Do you always shake with your left hand?” I asked.
He dropped his head back in a quiet, exaggerated way. “I do it to fuck with people.” He always led with his left, unexpected, a détournement. He wouldn’t have called it that; there was no theory with Fred. But he lived to challenge the system, shedding new light with a playful new set of permissions.
He mentioned my passport, sleeved by my wallet. People like us noticed everything. He brought his out, too, bursting with its extra insert and wild, bated-breath stories about skirting borders into Israel, Thailand, Afghanistan. They seemed to imply trafficking. “I used my twin brother’s if they knew me too well.” I failed to ask any follow up questions, believing that mystery offered a more thrilling truth, or rather protection from sharing my own deeper truth in kind.
We covered his childhood, constantly moving with his mother and twin compared to my suburbia and three older sisters. I turned a bit jealous of this built-in best friend and imagined two little boys easily underestimated, always overwhelming, making trouble in each new town.
His dyslexic dropout to my Ivy League. His sleeve of opium poppies to my puzzle piece. His missing father, my absent one. I spoke of regrets. I came out as gay.
“You boys fuck the way straight boys dream,” he said.
“Finally, the respect we deserve.” And we laughed.
I was safe. As his story continued I realized he wasn’t that ravaged, and any mysteries I conjured turned far more practical. Spiritual bankruptcy brought me to my knees, but I bet the law was bringing Fred to his. His last journey home to the States was in August. “I was in China and had four days to get back for Burning Man.”
“I’ve always wanted to pull my shit together for that.”
“It’s magic,” he said, before noting my shelf. “Like those gold balls. You wouldn’t think they belong there, but they do.” A great secret felt seen, my own sense of beauty given permission to be shared with the world.
“You’re right,” he said. “This licorice works.”
Falling asleep that first night I imagined this man stirring fitfully nearby. Still swimming within the residue of drug-wrenched paranoia, my stories turned in on themselves and carried me to unbridled fear. A raid, moving shadows, laser guided rifles sweeping through our house. I became collateral damage as the Feds hauled his ass in. I caught hold of this anguish, prayed for relief before the dreams turned empty for rest.
The next morning, into the garage for my first breaths of a smoke to find Fred well-wrapped in his comforter, siphoning heat from the dryer into a carefully constructed fort. I didn’t say anything because his eyes said everything, in a glance. I had seen enough movies romancing this hell. Fred never complained.
The days of our weeks were turbulent yet non-descript, full of unnecessary cigarettes, repetitive stories that were mostly untrue, and sinks full of parentless dishes. The more interesting moments were punctuated with Rock Star fueled knife fights over 3:00a.m. poker, illegal tattooing and Jamie nicking his scrotum with hair clippers. After twenty minutes of drama, he still didn’t tend to his wound and was afflicted with MRSA by the end of the week. I knew it was hell, from experience, and couldn’t imagine such pain on my balls. The house looked the other way as Jamie got dazed on extra pills, but then he cleaned his wound at the kitchen table and left his used, puss-filled gauze on the counter. I lost it. “Are you fucking kidding me?” Fred simply laughed at it all, then intervened. I avoided the outcome and went to buy yet another pack of infinite smokes and returned to the faint smell of bleach.
Shaniah was small before Fred arrived, with small stories. Santa Rosa was the big city for most of these men, down from Mendocino or leaving Rohnert Park for the first time. It was not hard to assume vast difference between these men and myself, but Fred bridged me into the house with new promise. Just another guy, like us all, but a master of mirroring back as a way to ground the familiar. He would do the same with me, but his earliest reactions were never quite right, or I was too hard to reflect if only because I was still out of focus. No one else noticed, maybe Bob.
Fred became everyone’s favorite. He could do anything. Bob commissioned art to the meeting room walls. Using dozens of spray cans, Fred asked me for help. At first I said no.
“I’ve seen your drawings,” he said. I guess I did have a flair. Having calmed down with the walking, I would frequently perch around town, sucking down lattes, drawing abstractly with sharpies. I had two distinct styles in my sketch book, and one involved lettering.
I started on scale in my notebook, measuring and outlining wide empty blocks spelling RECOVERY. But I kept doubting my math and wouldn’t graduate to the wall. Almost finished on his side, Fred painted an urban-scape with twelve randomly sized buildings underneath two recovery symbols piercing like wormholes through space. He pulled off his mask and laughed at my math. “Teacher, it won’t be perfect if you don’t start.”
I made my best guess and started masking off “Y” with blue tape. I inched to the left but by “V” it was clear my calculations were off, forgetting to add the width of the tape. I planned to start over but Fred intervened.
“Just arc the RECO. Let it hang like a dick.” He traced his hand over the path and then moved to start painting the Y in green. He ran out after VERY and did RECO in red.
“It reminds me of that song ‘Rico, Suave’,” I said.
He laughed. “We spelled it right.”
In March Fred turned thirty, like me, but I didn’t fight for his attention, rather invited him to yogurt the next weekend. We strolled the four blocks and stumbled upon a warehouse for estate sale rejects. Fred scampered over the heaps of these items, digging around for at least an hour. I joined for a while then stood outside smoking. I ran out and went to buy more. When I got back he was wearing a trench coat.
Spring lengthened to summer and more housemates rolled in and rolled out. People like Jamie were gone, replaced by updated versions of the exact same problems. It was 2007 and most of these young men, barely twenty, arrived worshipping pills. At their best they were momma’s boys. Fred trained them all.
“Stop eating those 99 cent frozen burritos and you won’t smell so bad.”
“You’ll never get laid if you don’t brush your teeth.”
“Laundry is free. Maybe you could use bleach on those cum stains.”
He nailed them with the basics, and since girls were always stopping by to sit on his lap they believed everything he said. I was just happy to come home to an empty sink after teaching summer school all day.
And it was a kind gesture because the sink didn’t matter to Fred. The only thing Fred ever dirtied was his spoon, a beautiful spoon, which he nestled protectively in his back pocket so that no one would mistake it as theirs. He knew every inch of its long pencil thick handle and round silver head, tonguing gobs of peanut butter straight from the jar or scraping pints of cottage cheese clean. This was all that he ate.
“What’s up, anorexic?” I asked.
“Gotta look fuckable for Burning Man.”
“That’s news.” And I thought about this, and it left me unsettled. My belief of this festival said it was saddled with drugs. “You already look pretty. Don’t you get bored?”
“I get one cheat a week. I love pizza.”
In spite of these rules, coaxing Fred to join me for lunch with my parents at some posh little spot in Sonoma took very little effort. Fred was everyone’s plus-one.
“Are those California poppies?” my mom asked about his arm, clearly quite curious about this “bad-boy” at the table.
“Good eye,” he said.
I laughed because I knew he was lying. But that was his magic, to make everyone feel right. My father was not impressed. Anyone not conforming to my father’s version of a high and tight attitude was a disrespectful slob. His grimace showed his disgust, and I smiled. I knew Fred would save me from the tropes of being their youngest child.
“Fred’s going to Burning Man this month.”
“I’ve heard about that on the radio,” Mom said. I was never surprised at her cultural cache, even with her conservative gilding. She’d spend hours wearing headphones in the garden and kitchen and would have been a hippie had she never met my father.
“Is it all people like you?” I don’t think she meant to sound so rude, or specific.
“My mother has gone. Everyone goes,” Fred flirted. “Even a woman like you.”
I never understood straight courtship, but with Fred’s words my mom blushed just a bit.
Lunch ended as expected, with trained smiles. My mom remembered a basket of lemons in the car which Fred duly accepted. We thanked them, I hugged them, before skirting away. We hopped though thrift stores on the way back home, Fred scouring women’s clothing for costumes that balanced between sensibly warm yet worthy of Fiona Apple. I was far more predictable, landing at the register with my dysfunctional preppy wares. Standing in line I broke the news that someone in our chrysalis was about to spread his wings.
“You’re leaving me!” he joked. He knew I would make it personal, but he didn’t know the truth. “My new job… and I just don’t want to deal with Matt.” Matt, a recently arrived pill head, stayed up until dawn and blamed his flat feet for his stomping. His doctor said he couldn’t be drafted for war, which somehow made him a pacifist, which somehow meant we should be more accepting to the noise. It made no sense, and that wasn’t the truth.
I was starting to realize my annoyance towards Fred, and by annoyance I meant having skeptical feelings concerning his upcoming trip. I didn’t like thinking he might go and relapse. And if I found out he did, I’d be trapped between turning him in and keeping a secret from the house. But Bob gave him the pass, so it wasn’t really my business. I wondered how much of a friend I could be since the subtext was actually jealousy. So, I decided to move instead.
But only to 4417, into the smaller double with drawers under my bed, two longer shelves, and only one closet with no space for me. It happened the week Fred was gone. I left the red carpet and gold ornaments behind.
My new roommate, Brian, hung his computer over his bed, slept fully dressed and wore three pairs of socks. He laid there most days and must not have known that he smelled. Another housemate was clearly on meth, either never sitting long enough for anyone to care, or I was the only one who noticed. The other men in this house, a bit more mature, still rippled with undercurrents of alcohol. The front porch as our smoke stoop, these divorced fathers and tradesmen with furrowing brows perhaps went to meetings, perhaps watched TV, before going to sleep, to do it again.
Somehow, I missed these boring details when I chose this new house, or wasn’t listening, or somehow convinced myself delusion was a better choice than staying with Fred. I started feeling alone, and it felt normal again. It was a bad trade.
Fall bringing the darkness, one Saturday evening I swung through the empty garage of 4409. I once believed loneliness was an attribute, to not feel so sad for being alone. Back then I had drugs. Fred soon emerged for a smoke.
“Where are your babies?” I asked. “Broomball,” he said. “Let’s go to a movie.” Back then Google would message when you sent it a text. I mentioned a re-released Blade runner and Fred turned rather giddy.
“What do you mean, never seen it?” He spread jocular shame so thick that I had no choice but to pay for the tickets. We were the only two people there.
I turned a year sober in November and Shaniah celebrated with cake after the house meeting. Fred bought me a scarf that weekend and wrote a rough note. “I got in on clearance, just how you like it.”
“Let’s watch a movie,” I said. “Pizza’s on me.”
4417 was quiet. I pulled out my sketchbook to draw as we watched some quasi-biblical horror flick called The Reaping. My rules for coloring allowed me six sharpies, to be used in very distinct ways. But the drawing proved beautiful before I was done and I knew I should stop. But my inner “good-boy” could not be controlled. There was still one more rule to follow.
“You fucked it up,” he said, from his end of the couch.
After the start of the New Year I added two education classes on top of my full-time teaching. Losing sight of what mattered, rapid currents basically pulled me through my weekly routine with quick glimpses of Fred. I somehow stayed afloat with loose tethers. One late night during midterms after way too much coffee I spun into bed and found a gift on my pillow. Picking up this gold Christmas ball, I knew what it meant. I took a long soulful breath and then dashed two houses over to give that fucker a hug.
I then leveled up to the Shaniah three-quarter house just down the road. Not wanting to run away too quickly from this system that saved me, I appreciated its relaxed structure. No curfew. Fred followed suit, arriving after another meander through Burning Man.
“I got my GED,” he announced. He rarely reported achievements since actions always proved his best skills.
“Where?” I asked.
“Black Rock High School.” At Burning Man. “I’m starting at the JC.”
I knew enough not to doubt it, yet still held faint suspicion. Together we kept a clean, quiet ship in our two-bedroom condo, living a certain urban lifestyle within this largely agricultural county. Game nights at the AA clubhouse, dancing amongst wafts of patchouli, perusing steampunk octopi and the early adopter ambush of succulents at holiday craft fairs. Flight of the Conchords worked well on those odd Sunday nights when we both stayed closer to home. I quit smoking.
One night he gifted me an odd metal sculpture. “My first weld,” he said, pointing out all the things he still needed to learn. But it wasn’t un-pretty. It made a quick home on my altar, nestling behind my one Christmas ball, near the mirrored box holding my Gita.
“Why welding?” I asked, imagining a full life for Fred where owning his original art would bring rewards of “I knew him when.”
“My buddy needs help building a small replica of the Golden Gate.” The story continued and held all the sadness behind such a memorial bridge. But there was more. After finishing his welding sequence Fred left for underwater certification at a marine diving tech in Santa Barbara. I stayed local, but finally moved out on my own.
That March a calendar alert reminded me of his birthday. I sent a text but wasn’t surprised when I heard nothing back. He called later that year.
“Bet you never thought I would be valedictorian of anything,” he said, right after I answered. I wasn’t surprised he was top of his class. Our call ended short because it was time for his speech. He said he was nervous to read from his cards.
“You know they all love you.”
The next year I texted birthday wishes and he actually replied.
“Where are you?” I sent.
“I’m a trained seal in the Gulf.” He explained fetching wrenches whenever they dropped from the rigs, and spending time underwater in a compression apartment. I knew he had practice with close quarters.
“What about living on land?”
He sent a photo of his life in the South.
“Who’s that behind you? He looks hot.”
Another pic followed, one of Fred with a shit-eating grin embracing this kid over his shoulder. The caption read, “wish you were fucking.”
Dumb luck somehow carried his birthday reminder from cell phone to smart phone. I kept texting each year. He never replied again. But we hung out one final time, early summer. He had moved back to Shaniah and not because it was a cheap place to live. I still didn’t ask much, assuming I knew more than enough. But what kind of friend was that?
I mentioned lining up my first trip to Black Rock City. I imagined running into him there, which was somehow more interesting than spending time with him then.
“You never reply to my texts, old man,” I said.
“I hate spelling,” he said. I had forgotten.
There wasn’t much left to say. The best subject as memory, and the subtext of relishing fondness, for sadness, that letting go often requires.
I texted this March, on his fortieth birthday. I didn’t know it was in vain.
I texted last March on his thirty-ninth birthday. I didn’t know it was in vain.
The rumor mill told me Fred died in the bathroom, at a National Parkin early 2016. It didn’t quite sound like the stark, final moment one might have expected. It felt like a man who was managing his shit. He was camping. Perhaps he was functioning. Perhaps it was any other day. But the subtext was fentanyl. And Fred was a junkie, well-steeped in drug culture before the pharmaceutical diaspora of today.
And I want to hate the youngsters, the Jamies and Matts, and the doctors with their glut of lazy prescriptions kicking back through the stultified marketplace. I want to find fault but I don’t want the feeling of blame. I don’t want the feeling.
The last proxy sighting of Fred was by Wood. Wood was a sweet, mellow chick who we met at a barbecue our first summer. A decade our junior, Wood seemed to get sober out of elementary school, told saltier jokes than most inappropriate men, and drove me to a school one night so we could be two freaks on the swings. Fred and Wood hit it off too, but not in any way where she started stalking him like the others. She’d take us to meetings and show us how to have a good time in the back row. Fred spread the word of Burning Man and she has gone ever since.
“I saw Fred at 8:30 in 2015,” she told me this summer. She didn’t mean the time 8:30, but rather the place because time is a place in Black Rock City. “He was with some girl and he called, ‘Hey, are you Wood?’ and I said ‘yup.’” There wasn’t much else to report.
Not that I hadn’t tried to find him myself. Seeing it perched all over the city, I chased down the Golden Gate Bridge my first couple years. Circling with my bike and peeking around, I never found anyone responsible enough to ask where Fred was.
When I first met Fred he led with his left hand. He said it was to fuck with me. I didn’t ask the next question, the “where did it come from?” It might have been because he was left handed and it just happened one day. Maybe it hid his track marks, when he forgot to cover his arms. We all have truths that lie for us in other ways.
And when they found Fred, I’m not sure which arm it was in, if he looked peaceful, covered in vomit or blood, or what color the wall might have been. The story won’t change, how we laid back in our room that first night.