Jason walked toward the sprawling oak tree in the center of the park with a purpose, suede suit coat slung over his shoulder. It was his favorite tree in the park, surrounded with a fresh layer of mulch to cover its sprawling-but-shallow roots. To be honest, it was an ugly tree, gnarly and unkempt, but it cast a heavy shade he enjoyed resting in. Today such shade was invaluable. It was unseasonably warm, worse than expected, and he was sweating under his oat colored shirt and brown vest.
A Frisbee came soaring at his head. He ducked and then shrugged at the twenty-something chasing it. No harm, no foul. A sheepish grin and ‘sorry’ were all he got from the kid, but he didn’t mind. He wasn’t about to begrudge someone for enjoying the day, even if it cost him a knock on the noggin.
His only supplies during this stroll were a manila folder (containing all of the accumulated documents relating to Second Start’s ownership), a copy of Dante’s Inferno (translated by John Ciardi), a sandwich (PB and J), and a large red and gold coin with the number ‘three’ emblazoned on the front and back. The coin, truth be told, was the heaviest item he carried. The weight was reassuring in his left-front pocket, a coin given to him by Desmond Reynolds, his sponsor. He’d been clean for eighteen years but had never bothered picking up a different coin. Making it eighteen years had been no harder than making those first three. ‘Three’ seemed apt, important. It was his perfect number.
He found his favorite bench (the one with the Olson and Olson Law Firm ad with an angry man pointing his finger at passersby) and sat down, settling his items on the weather worn wood beside him. There was a cool breeze rolling past, noticeable in the gnarly old oak’s shade, and he gulped a breath down. Methodically, he folded back the edges of saran wrap protecting his lunch, picked up the PB and J on wheat, and slipped the crumpled plastic wrap into his pocket. No sense leaving waste behind for the city to clean up. He held the bread between his teeth, found his dog-eared spot in the Inferno, and commenced with lunch.
A few minutes passed in silence as he munched the bread and followed Virgil on his trek to the Malebolge. A sudden shadow flitted across the page, blotting what was left of his dim light. Jason stuffed the last bite of his sandwich into his mouth and glanced up, fairly certain Rachael was gracing him with her presence.
“Back again?” the young woman asked, hands folded on her purse. She held it against her belly in a protective gesture. She was smiling down at him, eyes sparkling. It said something about him (he hoped) that she was willing to smile so openly around him. She had a small gap between her front teeth, hardly noticeable but something of which she was very shy. When they’d first met she’d never smiled with her teeth but gradually she had opened up.
Jason smiled back and folded Ciardi’s translation closed. Rachael Farrington was a regular at the city park, working just up the road at the bank, and one of Jason’s newest friends. She worked at the First American Bank as a lender. She was cute (to those with a certain taste) with mousy black hair and almond colored eyes. Jason had to admit he had that taste. She was also very thin and pale. She had a pretty smile with dimples on her cheeks.
Jason had seen her regularly over the last few months, whenever he came to the park to check on the progress of his clinic. At first they would occasionally nod or smile at each other as they ate lunch. Neither initiated contact until a few weeks ago when she asked him what sort of sandwich he was always eating. Every day, she said, he had the same sandwich. Now it was a regular occurrence for them to have lunch together and talk.
The first few times the conversation focused on inane details: the weather or local news. Gradually, they developed a deeper friendship and delved into other, more thoughtful topics. Rachael was ambitious but lacked the experience to take a step further into her career. She had family in Sacramento, a cat named Fluffy Mcghee (she only liked kittens, but Fluffy had wormed his way into her affections as a kitten and turned into a cat), and several nieces and nephews.
Now, a few weeks into their friendship, he discussed any manner of things with her, including his less than heartening past. She was quiet, but well educated. And not the ‘I went to college and earned a degree’ educated, but rather the ‘able to ask intelligent questions and hold an interesting conversation’ educated. The two, he’d learned, did not go hand-in-hand.
“Every day,” he replied to her query. “Or near enough.”
She sat down next to him, resting her purse on her lap.
“Not yesterday,” Rachael replied. “And you’re late today. I already finished eating.”
“Your granola bar? A granola bar is not a lunch,” he chided.
“A peanut butter and jelly sandwich again?” she countered. “You’re so adventurous.”
He smiled, leaning back against the wooden frame. Rachael, he’d surmised, recently got out of an unhealthy relationship. She never spoke of it, and he never asked, but Jason still knew it was true. He was good at reading people. Understanding behavior. She was defensive and personal and not at all confident in her own abilities. Some men don’t like confident women and take great pains to show it.
It had taken several conversations for her to trust Jason’s intentions (or lack thereof), and quite a few more for flirting to start. He enjoyed it, but doubted it would ever go any farther than that. She was pretty and he was modestly handsome—in his own opinion (which, he’d read in a recent study, was usually wrong)—but they were both damaged goods.
Or maybe that was the entirely wrong way to look at it. Maybe the fact that they were both damaged was exactly why he should ask her to dinner—she clearly wanted him too—but as yet he hadn’t.
“How is work going?” he asked.
“Boring. Of course. I file reports. Then, when I’m done, I get to file reports. And if I do a really good job and they want to reward me, they let me file reports.”
“It could be worse.”
“That’s true. I could be an unemployed middle-aged man wandering through parks in a three piece suit every day,” she said, grinning.
“I’m not just unemployed, I’m also broke,” Jason replied. “Unemployed and rich could still be respectable.”
“And here I thought you had quite the fortune squirreled away.”
Jason cocked his head thoughtfully and then pulled a sheet out of his manila folder. It wasn’t like him, to show pride (or brag), but he decided to make an exception.
He handed it to her. “Here is the entirety of my fortune.”
“What is it?”
He nodded toward the clinic. “My lease for the property.”
Her eyes went wide. “The bank signed the loan?”
“This morning,” he said. “We’ve agreed upon the numbers and paid the first year upfront. My bank account is looking pretty empty.”
“What about the grant? The government money you said could help fund it?”
“They cut it from the budget,” Jason said, his smile diminishing. “It seems recovering drug addicts aren’t top priority this year.”
“Oh,” she said, pushing her mousy hair away from her eyes. “Maybe next year.”
“Maybe,” he agreed and they lapsed into silence. He wasn’t hopeful. The budget was a point of hot contention this year, and no one was lobbying to fund drug recovery clinics. But, then again, that wasn’t why Jason decided to start the clinic, so he wasn’t going to feel bad about it.
A helicopter flew past overhead.
Two kids ran by, tossing a football. They were chased by a loyal Golden Retriever.
“You’re still at the church? First Methodist?”
Jason chuckled. “First Baptist. And yes, we’re there. For now.”
“Methodist, Baptist, same thing.”
“I’m sure they would love to hear you say that. You could end any number of conflicts.”
“They are practically the same religion.”
“Wars have been started over less grievous insults.”
“Oh please,” she said. “Our ‘PC’ culture annoys the crap out of me. We all need to just get over ourselves.”
“You aren’t supposed to offend people anymore,” Jason said. “It’s not kosher.”
She laughed. “When’s the clinic open?”
“I’ll move meetings here in a few weeks. Once it’s finished on the inside. Last I checked they were still taking down one of the walls and the entire place is covered in sawdust. I want open space, you know? Not offices. I don’t want there to be room for people to hide.”
“I can’t wait.”
“When it’s done, you’ll have to give me a full tour,” Rachael said.
They sat in silence for a minute, watching the activities of the park around them. It was a busy day today, more so than usual. Bustling but not overtly loud. Jason loved this part of the city, loved the sights, the smells. Trailers parked along the street selling hotdogs or tacos made with savory mystery-meat. That was why he picked this as the location to settle his clinic. It felt alive.
He didn’t mind working out of a church. He was grateful, in fact, that they’d allowed it at all. But there were ideological separations that made the situation less than perfect. He wasn’t religious, let alone Baptist. He felt that there was a lot of pressure from the flock to convert his people. Not from the clergy but rather the laypeople. There was just a polite expectation that Jason’s people would understand God’s hand in their salvation. It was a little too Alcoholics-Anonymous for his sake.
That being said, they had opened their doors to him seven years ago. That was when he first propositioned the relief group and planned it out as recompense for his earlier actions in life. The idea had been with him since he’d first gotten clean—hell, since Adam first tied him up and helped him quit—but it was only recently he’d managed to line up his assets and make it happen. It wasn’t that hard to start a Narcotics Anonymous group, provided he was willing to share time with the AA group using the Church on Wednesday and Saturday.
Rachael’s voice cut the stillness. “Do you miss it?”
He didn’t answer right away.
“Every day,” he said. “The worst part is imagining what it would be like. I tell myself it’s nothing special. It never was, I just imagined it. But there’s a little voice in the back of my head that says it would be amazing. That voice dares me to try it again, if only to prove it wrong.”
Jason had never kept that part of his life from Rachael. He’d told her about his early twenties. His struggle against the addiction. His inability to cope and how it had ruined years of his life. He’d told her about quitting. He’d told her—omitting a few details, of course—about being kidnapped by his brother-in-law and locked in a dorm room.
He didn’t tell her about the sadness, or the fear, or the hatred. How he’d managed to untie his knots the third night living with Adam, found a knife, and planned to kill Adam. His sister’s fiancé, his friend, lying there asleep and oblivious to the world; he didn’t tell her how only his terror at being caught kept the knife at bay.
He didn’t tell her about his college girlfriend of two weeks. This was the second time he went to college, before dropping out. How he’d gotten high, stolen all of the money she had saved up (she kept it between her mattresses) and skipped town. How she had a little kid, barely over three years old, and they used to ignore him when they went to bars to get drunk or high. How the money was to enroll the toddler in school. Three-year-old, no sitter, no parents to speak of, no one who cared.
No, he never told her that.
“’Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,’” Rachael quoted.
Jason blinked, the words drawing him from his thoughts.
“That’s something they say in Narcotics Anonymous,” Jason said. “Where did you hear it?”
She smiled. “Albert Einstein, originally.”
“A strange man,” he said. They sat in silence for a few minutes, enjoying the ambience and company. Jason was forty years old. He’d spent the last two earning a degree in Social Sciences at a community college. It only took him twenty-one years, but he had finally graduated. Better late than never.
“But yes,” he said, “I miss it. Everything I lost because of the drugs, and I still miss it.”
The cravings never went away. He could hide them. Forget about it. Think about other things. But it never went away.
He imagined it was like losing a loved one. He’d never admit the comparison to anyone, but he still felt they were about the same. When someone died, the initial pain was intense. There was a hole that loss created, a vacuum. You could fill it with other things, you could forget about it, but it was always there. Eventually, you would remember it and feel the pain of loss. With time, it got easier to manage and hold the feelings at bay, but he doubted there would ever be a day someone woke up and said, ‘You know what, I don’t think I’ll miss this person today.’
The worst part had been finding his way back to real life. Normalcy could be incredibly boring. That was part of why he started using to begin with. Time flies when you’re having fun, and when you’re not it crawls. It stops. When he was using days would slip past without notice. Days turned into weeks, weeks into months, months years, and there was only the fix and the time between the fix.
When he stopped, time slowed back down. Seconds dragged by with nothing to occupy his thoughts except wondering what it would be like to take another hit. To be honest, without his family supporting him and Adam keeping him from the drugs he would have given up. Lost everything and turned right back to the self-destructive behavior. He nearly had a few times, and it scared the hell out of him just how easy it would be to pick up old habits.
That’s what Second Start was for. Jason figured it out. He’d beaten the system and freed himself from addiction but not without help. After what Adam did tying him up and making him quit cold…Jason had hated him at first. Still did, to an extent, but not because of what Adam did. He hated him because it was a reflection of his own weakness and inability to face his own problems. He hated that he couldn’t do it alone.
He had tried—God, had he tried—but it was of no use. After only a few hours, a day at most, he’d give in and do whatever it took to get another fix. It wasn’t until Adam tied him up and made using impossible that Jason was finally able to get enough separation from the habit to battle the craving. It made him feel weak and impotent needing someone else to do that for him. He’d forgiven Adam and was thankful for his unasked for assistance but still hated him.
Sticking with it had been hard. He filled his time with reading and studying, always planning to go back to college and never having the money. He’d spent seasons with his brother and sister and their families at the beginning. He tried to meet new people whenever he could just to have someone to talk to. Even now, forty years old, it meant almost nothing. It was still a daily struggle to deny the cravings.
Being clean was working for him, but he was always on the knife’s edge. The worst days were the ones when he felt really good. When he was proud of himself. When he told himself that he did it; he’d won. The fight was over and he could use just a little bit. He was in control now so it wouldn’t be dangerous. Just enough to reward himself for his hard work but not too much to slip back down the rabbit hole.
Days like today.
He glanced at his watch. “Your lunch hour is almost up. Back to work eh?”
She glanced nervously at him, sweeping a stray hair behind her ear. “Actually…no.”
She stood up from the bench. “I do need to leave, though. I have to pick up my son from school.”
“Ah,” Jason said. “But I thought your mom usually picked him up?”
“She does,” Rachael said, hesitating with a shy smile, “except on my days off.”
Then Rachael disappeared into the crowded park, leaving Jason alone at the bench. He sat, stunned for a moment and then laughed. To think she would make the trip here—presumably—just to see him on her day off. Twenty years ago he couldn’t imagine anyone pissing on him if he was on fire, let alone going out of their way to spend time with him.
It was nice. It was really nice.