Dispatch from a Sober Living Facility Somewhere Outside Palm Springs


Johnny Richardson, white male, twenty-eight. Bathroom-mirror haircut, white undershirt, sweatpants. Red needle scar along the inside of his left elbow. Pulling on a Newport harder than is necessary, because the old joke about trading one vice for another isn’t really a joke at all when you get down to it, eyeing the fence between him and the street, narrowing his eyes at the rare passers-by. Waiting on his roommate to get back, so he can go back inside.

He got a phone call late last night, hasn’t slept since.

And yeah, he knows just the kinds of suspicions that get raised when your eyes have trouble with light and focusing in a place like this. The way the sun sinks down through the heavy air, like it’s all around you, swallowing you, he’s squinting plenty.

His veins are clean, though. He’ll piss in whatever cup you’ve got. Unless your urinalysis is futuristically tuned to detect regret, terror, then you won’t be bouncing him back to the lockdown clinic.

A white pickup chews dirt and gravel from one of the old peeling houses on the adjacent street. It pulls out a bit too slowly for Johnny’s taste, like maybe the driver’s looking for something. Then the gears grind and the truck jerks forward, and Johnny exhales. Driver’s just fumbling the transmission, is all.

The story he told the techs when he got admitted was that he started using working fast-food. One of the guys in the kitchen was a dealer, they started shooting up in the mop closet on overnight shifts, then he starting using more and more and at this point the tech’s pen stopped moving. Johnny’d checked enough boxes that it made sense, and it’s not like the guy was going to be his therapist, anyway.

There’d been plenty of time for filling in details later. Four group sessions a day in what they wouldn’t call but he thought of as lockdown, plus individual sessions with the therapist. Then more in the halfway house, then once a day in three-quarters. Johnny got to wondering how many fractions there’d be, how close to a full digit without ever touching, but after three-quarters is just sober living. His neighbors call it nine-tenths, and he feels somewhat less clever.

That story, though, is about as authentic as the Ohio accent he’s been copping to keep out the Jersey. Half the population is from the Garden State, and he doesn’t want anybody to get friendly enough to try reminiscing. The kinds of places he’d remember, he doesn’t need anybody knowing he used to frequent.

The story, the accent. The new name. The anonymous nature of twelve-step work. All supposed to make him harder to find. About the only true thing he’s told anyone is that he was strung out, moved down to Florida to recover.

Get his life straight.

Start over.

Yeah, except somebody found his new name, his new phone number. He knows well enough that death doesn’t come in a long black sedan with tinted windows, but after all this time he can’t get the television shit out of his head.

It’d almost be worth it, if they came for him in one of those slick little Crown Vics.

~ fin ~

Mark Jaskowski is a man in a sport coat listening to Swedish death metal. He's doing this, at the moment, in Colorado, where he studies and teaches. Some of his stories have landed at cool places like Bartleby Snopes and the forthcoming Exigencies anthology from Dark House Press.