Present Day JJ: Under the Microscope, Squished on a Slide



“Hungry, angry lonely, tired. Are you any of those things?”


“Those are the things to look out for,” Professor Tom said. He chewed a cheeseburger, bun crumbs catching in his patient academic beard. Tom taught biology at the university. Or was it physics at the college? JJ wasn’t sure.

“I feel ok,” JJ said.

“You should feel like shit. Most people, and I doubt you’re the exception, feel like shit when they hit bottom. There’s the physical agony, sure. But mostly the pain of losing you’re best friend whiskey, or whatever you’re into.”

“Ok, I feel like shit.”

“That’s the spirit. It’s good to feel like shit.”

JJ picked at some fries. It was all he could stomach in this terrible Burger King. Professor Tom worked on his second cheeseburger with gusto. A piece of bacon stuck out the end of the bun opposite from Tom’s mouth, pointing at JJ, a mocking tongue of BK Bacon. JJ couldn’t take his eyes off it, even as his stomach rolled. He pushed the fries away and sipped his Coke.

“Are you willing to go to any lengths for your sobriety?”

JJ had heard this question before and it still alarmed him, like the first overtures of a cult to a potential convert. He had said yes before, too. And no. It didn’t seem to make a difference. “I don’t know,” he said. “I just don’t know.”

Professor Tom stuffed the last piece of cheeseburger, with the floppy bit of bacon, into his mouth and looked at JJ. He chewed and kept looking as JJ squirmed, a specimen under the Professor’s microscope. JJ felt squished and helpless, a bug on a slide, open for scrutiny. Horrible.

“’I don’t know’ is a good place to start.” Tom wiped his mouth and shook his beard free of crumbs. “People sometimes answer too quick. They say yes, but don’t know what that means. But you’re aware of the leap. That can be good or bad. What’s your work situation? Where do you live?”

“I get by for now. Money’s ok.” He did not want to get into the lottery winnings, always in the background, solving nothing, soothing nothing.

“So, you don’t have a job?”


“OK, you’re now a fulltime alcoholic in recovery. You will build your day around a meeting, arriving early, helping set up, going for coffee after, no matter how painful. Do you have a girlfriend? Are you married?”

JJ hesitated. What was Lila, exactly? Not his wife, obviously. His girlfriend? More like his ex-girlfriend, now a benefactor, with the potential to move forward to…what? Girlfriend? It was so far beyond words now. They had been, if not together, aware of each other, careening, sometimes touching, since 1989.

“I have a friend,” JJ said. “It’s complicated.”

Professor Tom sighed and gathered up the trash onto his tray. “It usually is,” he said. “Let’s get out of here.”

JJ in the 21st Century: They Descend to a Meeting


They entered the side door of St. Timothy’s, where stairs went up to the nave and down to the basement.  They descended.

“Am I supposed to stay,” Lila asked.

“You’re not leaving, either way,” JJ said.

People were milling, talking, hugging, clapping each other on the shoulder, remembering names, welcoming newcomers.  It all made JJ queasy.  The hale, hearty and healthy men.  The determined, cheerful, and dignified women.  It was horrible.  There were some sullen folk on the periphery and that’s where JJ intended to set up shop.  A huge jolly guy stepped up to them, blocking the way to the back.  “Welcome to the Plug in the Jug Group,” he said.  “I’m Big Red.”

“Jason,” JJ murmured and allowed his hand to be devoured by Big Red’s big calloused paw.  “This is Lila.”

“Terrific,” Big Red said.  “There’s some seats right down front.”

“I think we’ll stay back here.”

Big Red nodded.  “Keep that escape route open, then.  OK.  But, if I was you.  I’d sit down front to hear better.”  Then he winked at Lila and moved on to the next pigeon.

“We’re going down front,” Lila said.

“Lila, people will see us!”

“Let me get this straight, you’ll stagger to the bank, through the lobby with a shopping bag for your cash.  Then scurry out, making a scene.  But you’re afraid to be seen by some strangers trying to get sober?”

“Pretty much.”  The fact was, he had been down this path before.  Sitting near the exit didn’t only provide a physical escape route.  It also reduced the number of people who actually observed his intention to get better.  It left an opening, a gap in his commitment, just in case the program actually started to take hold.  He was afraid it might really work.

“Let’s go,” she said and took his hand.  It was all a blur to JJ as a white noise pressure rose in his head.  They sat in the front row, knees practically against the podium.  The meeting started and the chairperson said, “This is an open meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous.  All are welcome.  Is there anybody new or visiting who would like to identify themselves by first name only?”

JJ felt the old crossroads feeling.  He had been here and many other places before and had not allowed himself to make the hard turn home.  “No fuckin way,” he thought.  “No fuckin…”

“JJ, put your hand up,” Lila whispered.

“No fuckin way,” JJ said.

It was quiet as the chairperson surveyed the room for a moment.  “OK.  Then let’s…”

“My name’s Big Red and I’m an alcoholic.”

The chorus: “Hi Big Red.”  And there were some murmurs.

“Now don’t everyone get their panties all twisted up.  I didn’t drink or nothing.  And I usually don’t do this.  But, I just wanted to welcome the two newcomers down in the front row.”

JJ fought back nausea and panic.  They were now all aware of his presence amongst them.  The chairperson leaned forward over the podium.  “You don’t have to say anything,” she whispered.  “Red can be difficult sometimes.”

But Lila, his one-woman support network, his opinionated and star-crossed lover said in a clear, unembarrassed voice, “My name’s Lila and I’m visiting the group.”

The chorus:  “Hi Lila!”

And, just like that, there was no way out.  “I’m Jason and I’m an alcoholic,” he said.

They thundered, “Hi Jason!”  And then they clapped because he was so obviously hollow and raw and, freely or not, he had crossed some hurdle they all recognized as imperative to getting this thing.  They clapped, then stopped, and the meeting went on.

JJ in the 21st Century: Lila, Determined

Lila knocked on the door but no one came.  She banged, listened, and could barely hear a mechanical hum or whine coming from inside so she just opened the door and went into the farmhouse kitchen.  A panic or dread, a sudden fear, rose up from her gut and she remembered a recent dream about something like this.  In the dream, she passed through a door and someone was dead on the floor of a kitchen.

She found him in the upstairs bathroom drying money with a hair dryer.  There were 100s spread out on the bath mat and JJ was drying them, sweeping the hair dryer back and forth.  There was a soggy heap of 100s still in the tub.  JJ was crouching in a pair of gym shorts and his pale back was to the door so Lila could just watch and take it all in.

“What are you doing?”

JJ turned off the hairdryer and looked at her.  “Drying money,” he said.  “I started to take a shower but forgot about the money bath.”

“Money bath?”

“Yeah, that’s why I went to the bank.  I didn’t have enough to fill the tub.”

“Are you drinking?”

“I was,” he said.  “I’m not now.”


“Earlier, but not now.  Listen, I’m ready to stop.  I have to stop.”

“What are you going to do about it?”

“You’re going to drive me to AA.”

“Where’s your car?”

“There was an incident.  Listen, thanks for coming but you gotta bring me tonight, before I change my mind.”

There was something almost childlike in his earnest delivery.  Like, “The tooth fairy won’t come if you don’t put it under the pillow.”  He seemed detached from what he was saying, but serious, like he didn’t want to talk about the gaunt and crazy shell of a man in the same room.  He just needed to go.  And she was his ride.

“I can do this,” she thought and hope rose in her.  “Keep your expectations low,” she thought, recalling her Al-anon friend, Maria.  “Like Death Valley low.”

“OK,” she said.  “How long ‘til the meeting?”

“Two hours,” he said.  “Help me dry this money.”

She took a deep breath.  “Leave the money, JJ.  Get dressed and we’re going.  We’ll get something to eat and then we’re going to the meeting.  I’m going downstairs now.  Clean up and then we’re going.”

JJ stared and took his own deep breath as she clomped down the stairs, on a mission.  “This won’t be easy,” he said and scooped up the soggy 100s in the tub, put them in the sink, and started the shower again.

Vs. the 21st Century Guy

JJ tried to go to AA but the thought of those determined desperate happy people turned him away before he could get out of the car.  He sat in the lot watching the smokers talking and laughing.  “Fuck that,” he said and went to get a cup of coffee.  “Better than the liquor store,” he said.  “I gotta stop talking to myself,” he said.

White-knuckling it in a coffee shop turned out to be a bad idea.

There was this guy in the cafe, a typical 21st century guy, not really a man, but not physically a child.  But, he did have toys like a child.  iphone5s on display (for communicating), MacBook Pro with Retina display (for stylish and smug computing), and Bose headphones (QuietComfort™, $300).  This guy stared at the screen of his MacBook Pro with Retina Display with great intensity, talking to someone about Haiti.

“The weather?  Not what you’d think.  Not as hot.  The whole place…what’s that?”  He listened.  “It’s not like you’d think.  The earthquake was…what’s that, I can’t hear you…”

The guy-child got louder and louder, headphones on, talking to the screen, and nobody seemed to mind.  This was typical 21st century behavior and everyone nearby was also self-consumed and oblivious, bored eager faces stuffed in their laptops or phones.  Except for righteous JJ, with his twitchy booze-withdrawal too-tight skin. He was ready to stab this shithead on first impressions alone, before he even started speaking.

“They’re poor but it’s not like the shanties you see…What?  Yes, shanties.  Like plywood huts.  Sometimes cardboard.  Yes, it’s terrible, but not…”

JJ pulled one padded Bose disc away from the guy’s ear.  “Excuse me, but you gotta shut the fuck up,” he said.  A shift in the room.  Maybe they were listening after all.

“Excuse me?  It’s a free country.”  Guy-child turned back to the screen.  “No, Sage, not you.  There’s a person here, being rude.”

“Actually, it’s not a free country.  It’s an expensive country.”  JJ grabbed the MacBook Pro with Retina Display, ignored the guy’s squeal and feeble wrist grab as the Bose plug popped out, and took the computer to the door where he frisbeed it across the sidewalk, right into the gutter.  There it lay, Apple logo still glowing, in a puddle of gray slush.

The 21st century guy-child, all red in the face, pushed past and ran to the curb, kneeled in the slush, and, moaning, took the laptop into his arms.  The Apple light went dark.

JJ felt the swamp of dread rising inside.  But physically, on the outside, he felt much better.  Might as well finish this.  He took out a wad of $100s, more of his dreadful lottery winnings, and tossed it into the slush.  “Buy yourself something nice,” he yelled and stalked away to the liquor store.

Entering the Bermuda Triangle

JJ bumped into Watt the Baker at the downtown coffee spot.  Watt asked, “Why don’t you come back to meetings?”

“Things are good, trending up,” JJ said.

“We’re headed into the Bermuda Triangle y’know,” Watt said.  “Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years.  A good time to check in.”

“I’m good.  My family is in my life,” JJ said.  “I slipped up a little last summer but it’s been good since.”

“After you won all that money?”

“Yeah, that night.”

“Man, I would be dead by now if I won that money,” Watt said.

“Are you always that close to drinking?”

Watt looked at him.   “It’s always one day at a time.  I don’t think about it all the time but I’m vigilant.”

“I’m vigilant too,” JJ said.  “Mostly.”

“Man, it’s life or death with me.  I have no doubt I’d be under a bridge within a month of picking up.”

JJ thought of drinking. He looked back at the long tussle of on-again, off-again, in and out of AA, moving around the country, geographic cures then coming back home.  He doubted he would end up under a bridge or living on the streets.  Not now, with the farm and all.  Not with the money buffer.  No, JJ thought, I’ll just sink slowly into a living death, become a bitter shell of a human, and live a disgusting swamp-zombie existence.  And with no real job now to keep up appearances.  And the farm, all alone up there.  Projects, yes, but nothing really needing to be done.  Venturing out only for liquor and food.  Then only liquor and cigarettes.  And the money wouldn’t run out until…  Holy shit, he thought, I’m on the fucking edge!

“I’m fine,” JJ said.

“You look a little scared,” Watt said.

“Tell you what, I’ll hit a meeting before Thanksgiving.”

“I’ll meet you downtown tomorrow night,” Watt said.  “Let’s grab a bite and go to the 7:00.”

“I see what you’re doing, hooking me like that.”  But JJ smiled and shook Watt’s hand.  “Alright.  Meet at Jake’s at 6:00.  I’m buying.”

“Great,” Watt said, moving away then turning back to JJ.  “You know it’s gratitude month.  What’re you grateful for?”

The idea of “gratitude month” made something clench inside JJ and he felt a revulsion in his gut like he just saw a fresh plump roadkill.  Now he remembered why he couldn’t stick in AA.  The terrible slogans.  The “Bermuda Triangle” of holidays.  The clapping and all that awful joy.  He felt the clenching, the tightening of intolerance, then the withdrawal of being too cool for all that.

“Watt, I’m grateful to be alive.  But I’ll pass on the meeting and dinner tomorrow.”

“Are you serious?  I thought…”

“Some other time,”  JJ said and turned away.

“We’ll save a seat for you,” Watt called after him.

JJ stalked off.  But behind the rising tide of resistance and resentment inside him, a small stifled voice said, “You better.”  And JJ kept walking.