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He’s Doing Just Fine
Nate’s doing great.
He has strategies. He knows his triggers. He keeps a little red notebook in his back pocket. He picked that one up during his ninety-day stint.
His councilor said, “It’s a good tool to maintain a level of self awareness you may not have had in the past.”
His support group leader said, “All adults struggle with the difference between knowing who they are, and what they think they can handle.”
But it was also said that addiction doesn’t take sick-days, and the notebook’s a reminder.
So Nate scribbles notes, makes lists. There’s a list of things he shouldn’t do anymore. There’s a list of place he can’t go. There’s quite a bit of overlap between the two.
He writes, Jason’s house.
Then, Medusa Lounge.
Nate’s encouraged to show his notes to his family members. Just so they know that A.) He’s doing what he’s supposed to during this crucial post-rehab period, and B.) They can provide any assistance they need to if ever he makes the decision to return to his old habits.
His father says, “You used to love the beach.”
His mother says, “You loved the boardwalk.”
And Nate says he never wants to smell the stink of that state again. He says, “Plus Jason always got his stuff over there.”
His father says, “Don’t talk to Jason anymore.”
His mother says, “Already on the list, see? Good for you, Nathan.”
Nate’s brother Tony calls, says he’s not making dinner tonight, says he can’t talk. So Nate, his mother and father, eat a pasta dish his mother always makes when there’s something to celebrate. They talk about how nice it is to have Nate home again.
“How’s Tony?” Nate says.
His father says, “You know Tony. He’s standoffish.”
His mother says, “Stop it. He’s just busy. He works hard.”
“That’s new,” his father says. He winks at Nate. “He’s trying it out.”
Nate’s mother reaches across the table, slaps his father’s hand, says, “Stop it. Try calling him up, Nathan.”
Nate doesn’t tell her he has called. A couple times. Left messages from rehab. He would text now, but the papers he signed explained he no longer has the privilege to own or use a cell phone. By the time he’s able to use one again it may very well need to be implanted in his ear—or his eye. Unless, of course, the judge views the progress he’s making as permanent change. Not the Band-Aiding of a wound that’ll get ripped open ever other every-so-often.
Nate eats, tells his mother the food’s delicious, says he’s going to go write a bit.
Before, any excuse to leave a room would mean something else. So his parents stare a moment before seeming to remember the progress he’s making. They smile. They nod. And Nate steps out of the kitchen, passes photos on the foyer walls. In one he’s featured in a football uniform. Another, he’s holding an oar with the rest of his rowing team. A third, in a cap and gown, his arm is wrapped around his pimple-faced little brother’s shoulder.
In the room he slept in as a kid, he writes another list.
Ways to Make Everything Up to Tony.
He writes, Save up, replace stuff I stole.
Then, Apologize. For everything.
Then, as an addendum, he writes, Don’t fuck up.
Nate’s making excellent progress.
His former boss says he’s heard as much while they shake hands. “I want to do this,” he boss says. “I don’t have to.”
Nate nods. His father, beside him, does the same.
“Your dad’s a good man. I trust him.”
Nate’s father shakes his head, mouths, no, no, no.
“We’re going to reinstate you.”
“Thank you,” Nate says.
“Under three conditions. One. You’ll be under probation until your court date. Since we don’t know what will happen, you’ll be taken off probation only if you return.”
Nate says, “Okay.”
His father says, “That’s fair.”
“Two. Weekly and random drug tests.”
Nate says he has to do that anyway.
“And three. If at any moment there is evidence of a relapse, no matter what the circumstance, you’re out. Whether you’re standing funny enough for people to think something’s up, or you look just a bit too sleepy, that’s it.”
His boss says, “I’m taking a risk. But I think it’s a good one to take.”
“Remember how many people are sticking their necks out for you.”
“Good. Now, out. See you in the morning.”
Nate watches his father shake hands with the boss. They use each other’s first names, they smile, they pat each other’s shoulders. Nate stays still, stares at his father’s face smiling and saying thank you.
In his notebook, Nate writes, Learn to make/maintain positive relationships.
And, Stick out neck.
And, Take good risks.
His father asks him if he’s ready to go.
The walk across the shop floor is filled with factory sounds that used to lull Nate to sleep. While he was standing. They pass people who filed complaints against Nate. They pass people who looked the other way on the real bad days. They pass a guy who said he’d quit if Nate ever walked into the building again.
Nate writes while he walks. When he’s not writing, he’s staring at the floor ahead of him. He’ll make eye contact another time. Tomorrow. Or maybe only when he has to.
His father says, “You should be happy.”
“Then what’s this about?”
Nate says nothing, sidesteps someone who says hello to his father, but not him.
His father says, “All you need to do is show them how much you’ve changed.”
In the car, Nate sits on the passenger side. He writes that he can’t remember what it’s like being behind the wheel. He writes that he can’t remember the last time he drove sober. How driving high felt. Every word is positive.
His father puts his hand on Nate’s shoulder, says his name.
Nate’s scratching notes into his notebook makes his father’s voice sound as if he is speaking to him from inside a glass box. Filled with water.
His name is said a second time.
“Yeah?” Nate says. “Sorry.”
His father doesn’t say anything for a moment. Like he used to when Nate was high, after Nate would have to blink himself into understanding where he was and how he got there. Then his father says, “We need to talk about money.”
Nate doesn’t argue when he’s told that his paychecks will be deposited into an account that he won’t be able to access. That money will be taken from the account using a debit card his father will control. That Nate will be handed cash to buy lunch while at work. That he’ll need to give up the change. That his earnings will be socked away for the future. It’s unclear if that means until there is little doubt that Nate will relapse. Or that he’ll have to be given an allowance by his parents for the rest of his life.
Nate nods his head, says, “Okay.”
His father says, “I hope you’re not looking at this as punishment.”
“No. I did this to myself. I was just hoping—”
“What? Hoping to what?”
High, Nate would laugh whenever his father’s voice went urgent. It’s still a bit funny. But he doesn’t laugh. He keeps his face straight by crossing off the list item regarding Tony’s repayment. He writes, Figure something else out.
Nate says, “Nothing. I understand.”
Nate is taking on responsibilities.
He tells his parents he’s planning on going through all of the junk in the basement to find some things worth keeping. And others worthy of a trash bag.
His mother says, “Good for you, Nathan.”
His father says, “You’re crossing things off my honey-do list. Clean out all the junk-drawers around here for me when you’re done.”
In the basement, Nate digs through boxes of Transformers with pieces missing, preventing them from transforming to vehicle mode. He goes through a bin of Ghostbusters figures that stay or go depending on discoloration and nostalgia. He tosses Mighty Max playsets, motorized board games with battery acid caked on the pieces, Power Rangers with missing arms, or legs, or heads.
And he works every day after he and his father come home from the shop unless they work doubles.
He’s told at his meetings that the formation of good habits will overrule the bad ones.
He’s told that strides toward recovery—while they may seem small—are in fact creating a path that he can follow if ever he feels himself slipping.
But walking on ice is fucking hard.
When Tony stops by, Nate hears his parents upstairs telling his brother about all of that—everything they’ve read in his notebook, anyway. They use all the words he’s heard over and over. All repetitive, but all positive. And he hears Tony say, “Good,” and, “Glad to hear it,” and, “I guess he’s busy, I’ll take off.”
Nate listens to the muffled voices, works through a box full of Ninja Turtles. Figures, and vehicles, and pointy weapons that shouldn’t have been included with kids’ toys. Then, the costumes. Old foam turtle shells. Cloth masks with green plastic noses attached. Nate always wore red.
He ties the mask around his head, tries to ignore the mildew latching onto his nose hairs. Then he waits for the conversation upstairs—which at this point sounds like an argument—to end. But that could just be how the words seep through the floorboards.
The door opens. And Nate waits for the footsteps to end.
He jumps out from a closet, yells cowabunga dude, and scares the shit out of his brother.
“Holy shit,” Tony says. “Fuck.”
Tony’s cursing is familiar. Nate heard it when he sold off most of Tony’s CD collection. When he pulled out and pawned Tony’s car stereo. When he emptied out Tony’s checking account by assuming that he—like the rest of the family—used his birth year as the ATM pin.
“Sorry,” Nate says. “Look what I found.” He holds an orange mask out for Tony to take. “You can keep it if you want.”
“That’s a little small for you.”
Nate takes off his mask, pulls it up over his head by the nose, says, “The shell’s in here, too. You want it?”
“Thanks. But, no. I don’t think I have anywhere to put it.”
Nate swallows, shakes his head, looks at the floor. “Yeah,” he says. “I’ll probably just throw it out anyway.”
Tony holds out his hand. Nate puts the orange mask in it.
“No, here,” Tony says. They shake hands with their lefts.
Nate says, “How are you?”
“Good. You good?”
“Yeah. I’m good.”
“Glad you’re home.”
“Sorry I haven’t returned your calls. Things get crazy sometimes. You know.”
“No. No problem. It’s fine.”
They talk a bit longer. About nothing. Pleasantries. Work. They don’t get any closer than a handshake apart. And after a pause, Tony goes into how much he needs to do tonight.
Nate says, “Before you go. I wonder if there’s anything I can—”
“Don’t worry about it, okay?”
“You don’t know what I was going to say.”
“Yeah, I do. I know how those programs work. And it’s fine. I’m fine. We’re good. You don’t need to make up for anything.”
“It’s not really the program that makes to me want to—”
“I’m not someone you need to worry about.” Tony extends his hand again, says, “Let’s get dinner sometime, okay? Just give me a call.”
Nate shakes his hand, doesn’t look into his eyes, says, “Yeah, I’ll call you.”
Once Tony is upstairs saying goodbye to their parents, Nate gets back to work. With a Sharpie he scratches Tony’s name into the side of a box. He puts the orange Ninja Turtles mask, a foam shell, a pair of plastic nunchuks inside. Then he roots through the stuff he’s already thrown into trash bags trying to remember which toys were his brother’s.
Nate’s doing just fine.
The calls that go unreturned don’t stop him from going to group, seeing his councilor, going to work sober. Wishing he was high, but staying straight. They don’t stop him from discussing realistic options with his lawyer.
And he does have options.
Plead guilty. Or don’t.
His lawyer says, “It won’t be as bad if you plead guilty.”
Nate doesn’t feel his face change. It’s not as if he’s surprised. But to his sides he can almost hear his parents’ faces sliding off tensed muscle while the lawyer’s words soak into their brains.
Nate’s mother says, “What is he looking at, at best, if he does that?”
“Couple years. Parole.”
Nate’s father says, “There’s nothing that can be done? Even with all the progress he’s making?”
“Progress is great. Really,” the lawyer says. But then he begins discussing the massive destruction of property. That not only was Nate high and driving, but he left the paraphernalia with which to get high in the car. “Yes, you went through a program. Yes, you’ve been conditionally released. But there is a reality here that we will fight and lose.”
Nate stops his parents from speaking, says, “I still have time at home. I’m fine with this. I understand it, and I’m fine.”
His father excuses himself to the bathroom, blames being an aging male.
His mother dabs her eyes with tissues from a pack she pulls from her purse.
And Nate shakes hands with his lawyer, says he’ll see him in a few weeks.
The ride home is quiet. Nate writes in the backseat while his parents listen to news radio. He writes about Tony lying about wanting to get lunch. He writes about calling Jay, getting sent to prison early. Then he writes about what he said in the lawyer’s office.
There’s time. Plenty of it.
He writes that he can still fix things.
Nate’s adjusting very well.
Having to ride in the passenger seat as his father drives the long way to work—to avoid the empty lot that used to be a house—is routine now. It’s better that he can’t see the lot anyhow. It would bring back how it felt having to be pulled from the wrecked car embedded in the front of the house. It would bring back the EMTs having to examine him with his one arm handcuffed to a stretcher. It would bring back the family standing in the street staring and crying as the shattered support beams gave out and buried Nate’s car with the master bedroom.
When he’s at work, he’s quiet. He says hello to people who say so first, but otherwise he keeps his eyes on the shop floor. And the machines he works on. And the change handed to him when he pays for his lunch. And the look on his fathers face when he hands over a smaller amount, making sure it goes unnoticed.
What he keeps, he adds to his total. Then updates a list he keeps in a second notebook that he doesn’t share with his parents.
Only $146.82 more until he can buy a used Nintendo 64 for Tony.
Only $113.04 before he can buy the Nintendo 3DS that’ll have to make up for the Game Boy Advance.
Only $27.69 before he can replace the VCR with a DVD player.
The list is long, but he’s doing well with his priorities.
Then again his court date is coming up. And even though they go the long way home, there’s the amount he’ll have to pay in restitution. There’s the amount of time he will spend in jail. There’s the possibility that after a couple years in a cell, Tony will change his number to save himself from having to ignore Nate’s calls.
At home, Nate watches his parents. How they act. How their vigilance slips with his progress. He’s just doing so well with everything.
He has remind his parents to check his notebook—the official one—a time or two.
His father leaves the car keys on the kitchen table for almost a half an hour, but curses about it later.
His mother lets him alone in the basement without calling down, asking how he’s doing for longer stretches.
And Nate keeps track in that second book. Sitting alone in the unfinished basement, all cement and two-by-fours, Nate sits and scribbles. His red mask tied around his head.
He writes, Time’s running out. I’ve wasted all my time.
Then it’s the footsteps on the stairs.
Nate hides the notebook next to an envelope filled with the money he’s saved behind boxes labeled with Tony’s name in Sharpie.
His father says, “Everything okay down here?”
“Hmm? Yeah, why?”
“What’s with the mask?”
Nate pulls the mask off of his face, says, “Nothing. Just memories.”
His father looks funny. Not the funny Nate remembers while coming down during holiday dinners. But funny.
He says, “Dad?”
“Do you think I could use some of my money to replace some of Tony’s stuff? Like, the stuff I took.”
His father smiles, walks across the room, puts his hands on Nate’s shoulders. He did that when Nate was in high school. Less in college—not at all after he was kicked out. But, now, enough. And it’s something Nate would miss if it disappeared again. His father says, “I think just being home and doing as well as you are is enough for your brother. Don’t you?”
“I don’t know if that’s—”
“That’s one area you don’t have to worry about. Okay?
Nate lets out the breath he was holding, says, “Okay.”
The hand’s taken away, his father’s back is turned. Then his father says, “We’re going to need that money for court fees, anyway. Know what I mean?”
Nate waits at the bottom of the steps, tells his parents he’ll be right up. Then he drops his red mask into one of Tony’s boxes.
Nate is cultivating positive routines.
The day after of a week of doubles, Nate wakes up, tells his parents he’ll be in the basement if they need him for anything. His mother asks him to stay upstairs, tells him he spends too much time down there anyway. “Why don’t you watch TV with us this morning?”
“I told you I’d clean out the basement. I’ve been working too much, but I’m almost done.” He closes the door behind him, ignores his mother’s next sentence.
He stops at the bottom of the stairs. He checks the closets, the alcove with the water heater. The bare cement floors echo his footsteps more than he remembers. There’s nothing for the sounds to bounce off but the floors and the walls. No trash bags filled with toys. No boxes marked with Tony’s name. It’s just Nate’s voice calling for his parents that ping-pongs from wall to wall.
From the top of the stairs his mother tells him she thought she’d lend a hand, took everything to the dump during his double yesterday.
“What about Tony’s stuff?” Nate says.
“I texted him about it,” she says. “He didn’t want any of it.”
“Was there anything else? Did you find anything else?”
“That’s why I wanted you to spend time with us today.”
Nate skips steps, pushes past his parents, yells at them, tells them that money was for Tony. No one else. “That was for him,” he says.
He pulls the phone from the wall, dials Tony’s number. It rings, and he screams things at his parents he hasn’t since before his ninety days. He calls them, “You fucking people.”
Tony’s phone goes to voicemail.
Nate dials Tony again after dialing halfway through Jason’s number.
“Nathan,” his mother says, “Try to calm yourself.”
“Calm your fucking self. I had a fucking plan. I was doing what I needed to do, and you fucked it up.”
His father says, “Don’t talk to your mother like that.” Hand on Nate’s shoulder, he says, “We saw that second notebook, the money. We’re just doing everything we can to make sure—”
Nate pushes his father away, points, says, “Shut. Up.”
Over the phone, Nate begs Tony’s voicemail to call him back. He says, “I need to talk to you,” and, “Please stop ignoring me,” and, “I’m your brother, man, come on.”
Then he hangs up, leans against the wall, and slides to the floor.
Both his mother and father sit down next to him. Then it’s all arms, and back rubs, and Nate screaming on the floor.
He goes to work, comes home, goes to bed, wakes up and does it over every day.
He hasn’t added anything new to his notebook. He can’t see a point to it anymore. Soon enough he’ll be in a cell doing a multi-year sober stint. His track marks will fade all together. He’ll put on weight. Maybe he’ll get a degree.
He’s reconnecting with old friends after his parents go to bed. Jason, who Nate wrote he would never be in touch with again, is nice, asks him how he’s doing. And Nate says he’s doing fine, but he needs a favor.
Since Nate stopped calling Tony, he’s watched his father. Before work. During work. After work. Watching, taking mental notes. After double shifts, the guy’s shot. He forgets things. He leaves stuff where he shouldn’t. Car keys on end tables. Bills on the kitchen counters. Then his wallet in the master bathroom.
It’s a matter of Nate telling his parents he’s taking a shower after dinner. Then popping into the bathroom and replacing the orange PNC Bank card linked to his account with an old one from a junk drawer linked to nothing. Then standing under the water until enough time passes to suggest he did in fact shower.
He takes the trash to the end of the driveway. He leaves the card, wrapped in a sheet of paper telling Jason to try Nate’s birth year as the pin.
Nate goes to bed nervous, but falls asleep over the possibility of feeling better. He wakes up early. Early enough to beat the sun out. The mailbox holds the things he asked for, but the card wasn’t left behind. He’ll figure that one out later.
He waits until his father’s alarm goes off to run into the bathroom. He jams his fingers down his throat, pukes up what little was left from dinner last night.
“You okay in there?” his father calls through the door.
“Yeah,” Nate says, “But I think I caught something.”
It’s back to bed for Nate. His first sick-day since being home. His father tells him not to worry about it, he’ll explain everything. His mother tells him to reach her on the cell if he needs her.
Then he’s alone.
Everything comes back to him. He’s cooked up doses enough to ballpark his standard, functional high.
After, Nate will call Jason, ask what the fuck about the card.
After he can empty out his brain for a bit, he’ll accept that he’s heading to jail a little early.
After this, he’ll call Tony, tell him not to worry about ignoring him, even though he’s sure Tony’s not worried about anything.
But for now he gets comfortable. He folds his legs, sits like he did in kindergarten. Then he’s tying off an arm, slapping a vein swollen. Then he’s poking through skin that’s thickened up enough to send a signal to his brain telling him that shit hurts.
But the pain fades first. Then it’s the room that blackens at the edges.
And he feels wonderful.
And when Nate’s chin meets his chest, everything sort of fades away.
The story was originally published in Derails Review.
Nick Gregorio lives, writes, and teaches just outside of Philadelphia. His fiction has appeared in Crack the Spine, Hypertrophic Literary, Maudlin House and more. He is a contributing writer and assistant editor for the arts and culture blog, Spectrum Culture, and currently serves as fiction editor for Driftwood Press. He earned his MFA from Arcadia University in May 2015 and has fiction forthcoming in Zeit|Haus, Corvus Review, and Rum Punch Press.
Image: Flickr / Brady Kenniston