Thomas Elson’s stories appear, or are forthcoming, in numerous venues, including Ellipsis, Better Than Starbucks, Bull, Cabinet of Heed, Flash Frontier, Ginosko, Short Édition, Litro,Journal of Expressive Writing, Dead Mule School, Selkie, New Ulster, Lampeter, and Adelaide. He divides his time between Northern California and Western Kansas.
How a Father Withholds Hope on His Son’s Birthday
There was no sign outside the building. You had to know it was there; otherwise, all you noticed, if you even looked, was an ill-preserved three-story, nineteenth-century hotel of no particular historical interest lost between a colorful Taco Tico and the spires of the First Presbyterian church.
At a staff meeting in late December, the executive director asked who wanted to lead a women’s group on Christmas morning. “I will,” said the male counselor. When no one else volunteered, the director looked at the kid’s eager face with his newly-minted Master’s degree, a mere three months into his counseling internship, and said, “It starts at 11: a.m. In the group room in the basement.”
As they trooped down the hundred-year-old wooden steps into the cinder-block basement with its low-ceiling and moisture-stained walls, each patient, in turn, shivered, wrapped her arms under her breasts, shuddered, shook her head ever so slightly, then followed the frost from her breath toward the group circle. A few with feet clad in white socks, only one had seasonal stockings. Some, with house slippers, scruffed along the bare floor. Most arrived out-of-breath, faces still swollen, eyes red, hair wet and combed straight back. The early arrivals arranged themselves on two ragged divans and four or five wooden chairs.
One, then another, adjusted crumpled sweatpants, tattered sweaters, Goodwill jackets and scarves, folded their arms once again. A faint murmur accompanied coughs and clearing throats. One or two nodded. There was none of the nervous chatter prevalent prior to group sessions. Each was at a distinct stage of rebuilding inside this six-month, highly-structured, no-visitors, no-day-or-overnight passes treatment center.
Most were mothers. Many with children in the custody of ex-husbands, grandmothers, or the state. Few still had contact with their children.
Almost all were young. Abused, misused, discarded when inevitable arrests and social welfare visits disrupted their addictions. Each had played her only remaining card until no one wanted to play anymore; then had awakened floundering in the deep or shallow end of the pool depending on her point of view.
“Good morning and Merry Christmas,” the male counselor said.
“Let’s begin,” he said, standing for the customary, “God grant me the serenity to …,” followed by, “Our Father, Who art in…”
Moments later, he asked, “Who wants to tell us what they’re thankful for?”
Not a sound.
Time for the young counselor to readjust.
“Who wants to tell the group what they wish they could change?”
The room was still.
“Who’d like to talk about the gift they wish they-”
A black-haired lady cleared her throat. “I’m sorry. Why are we here?”
“So no one isolates or slides too far down on Christmas Day,” he said.
She resumed her slouch, then said, “HALT?”
“Exactly. Someone tell us what that means,” he said.
“Hungry, angry, lonely, tired,” he said.
“Never get too-,” a chorus responded.
‘Right. So, let’s not.”
A patient said through absent teeth, “I miss my kids.”
Another picked something unseen from her sweater, and said. “I miss mine. Ever since the court took em away.”
A voice through clenched teeth. “I wish I hadn’t given mine up. Adoption. Damn welfare did it.”
Another stroked her scars, rubbed her palms together, placed her left hand across her mouth, then said through four fingers, “After my second abortion, I had my tubes tied.”
“I can’t do that.” A brunette twisted her crucifix hanging from a thin chain. “I’m Catholic.” She stopped, patted the suffering figure, then let it fall into the crevasse beneath her throat.
“Me too, but I got mine tied anyway,” said the lady with the scars. “Got em tied. Found a priest. Went to confession. Beat em at their own game.”
“My ex won’t let me see my kids.” The dark red-head shrugged, then focused on the wall. “Can’t blame him really. He’s remarried.”
The room grew quiet.
From the silence, a flaccid voice. “My parents got mine. They’re so damn angry at me, can’t even go to their house.”
“I wish I hadn’t got pregnant.” A tall woman wiped her nose with her sleeve, looked up, apologized. She squinted, leaned forward, placed her forearm on her thigh. “Two days after my sweet sixteen party. Sure as hell wasn’t very damn sweet after that.”
Another spoke, shaking her head,. “I hit mine.” She twitched, swatted at something unseen, her eyes darting.
From a cigarette scraped voice. “I wish I could have fed mine better. Took more interest in their schoolwork.” She hunched her shoulders. Placed her hands over her stomach, pulled back.
A corroded voice, hoarse and smoke-scarred, started, stopped, began again. “I don’t think I can stay sober. Every day I want to use. And I been here almost five months.”
An immediate hush.
From the section of the circle near the window. “You know what I regret?” She winced; her chest hitched as she sagged into the divan. “I regret men.”
“Yeah, but three or four men in one night pays the rent.” Said a new patient, still bearing the red and purple badges of street life.
A low, contralto voice emerged. “Me, I’d like to go to some psych hospital, let em drug me up; quit strugglin all the damn time.” She pulled her knees up to her chest and circled her arms around them.
From the far side of the divan, another grabbed at a non-existent cigarette. “Hell, I’d be better off in prison.” Dropped her head, placed her palms against her temples.
A sound. All eyes turned toward the newest member of the group. She stopped scooting in her chair, reached to touch the person next to her, jerked back, rubbed her hollow cheeks. “I wish I had the guts to kill myself. Make things easier.”
A few shuddered. Then all were silent.
The Dodge City Redhead
Clouds hovered near the horizon and the morning grew dark. I turned toward Front Street across from Wyatt Earp Boulevard. The dust whirled toward buffaloes of rusted metal, settled over Boot Hill cemetery, rose again, and descended onto eager tourists wandering wooden sidewalks near the swinging doors of Miss Kitty’s.
This is not why I went to graduate school – to rot away in a town Marty Robbins wouldn’t waste his time writing a song about. This is a town for people on their way down or on their way out – not on their way up. And I, after a brief interlude, was back on my way up.
I stopped at the door of a converted city building, switched the box of books to my left arm, inhaled the raw stench from the stockyards, then reached for the wobbly brass doorknob.
Inside the building, the aroma of beef stew filled the hallway. To my left was the empty Executive Director’s glass-walled office and his six-foot safe. I turned right, walked down seven steps, noticed the ragged divan, tattered chairs, and battered television set, turned once more, entered my office; arranged my graduate school textbooks by topic – group counseling, Yalom’s curative factors, the Big Book, Claudia Black’s series – then, since it was my first day, I went next door to meet Jerry, the Senior Primary Case Manager.
Jerry, his hair as thick as a bloodied Brillo pad, sat implacable in his compact office behind a tan metal army-surplus desk. Face constricted, critical, tenuous. He remained seated, extended a scarred, calloused hand revealing a triangle with initials inside, squeezed, pressed, did not release until I did.
I was familiar with the type.
The first words out of Jerry’s mouth. “I heard you were older, but I didn’t know you’d be bald.” Eyes closed; hands clasped. He smiled.
I stared at him, tilted my head, raised my eyebrows slightly, and asked, “Do you comb and brush that hair of yours every morning?”
“Hell, yes.” He rose from his chair.
“So does every woman I know.” I smiled.
Jerry’s face grew as red as his hair, his eyes shot at me. His fists clinched. He stood, widened his stance.
“Let’s go,” he said. We walked together in silence to the daily clinical staffing.
About thirty minutes into the staffing, in the midst of considerable give-and-take, he removed his narrow reading glasses, rubbed the side of his nose, and interrupted me. “Just because you have a Masters doesn’t mean you’re right.”
“Doesn’t mean I’m wrong either,” I said.
One month later, standing in the gravel parking lot of the alcohol rehabilitation center near Jerry’s white 1959 DeSoto Firedome. “I can hear your group sessions through the walls. Your patients cry too much.”
“Well, hell, Jerry, yours cry when they’re discharged.” I said. “What a bunch of sissies.” I smiled.
A few weeks later on a Sunday afternoon, the center was empty, and I walked inside the tiled lecture hall. Jerry was staining old furniture filling the room with inebriating fumes. We both inhaled deeply. “Feels good, doesn’t it,” said one recovering person to another.
“Let’s get closer and inhale. Just once more.”
Later that year, “I hear you’re quitting. Going to work in a real hospital.” Jerry sat with his arms folded.
“Yep, and I am scared as hell. I don’t really have the experience. Less than one damn year.”
Jerry scooted his chair closer, then stood. “Just go out and look at the schedule. Your name fills just about every time slot, and has for months.” His fierce eyes met mine. “You are, and will be, a good counselor.” He smiled.
One week later, Jerry invited me to his home for a farewell dinner. Afterwards he handed me a gift – a wide-eyed kitten hanging from a tree. Inside a cartoon bubble were the words, “Hang in there.”
Which captured exactly how I have felt every day since.