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The following essay is from a memoir-in-progress, to be published in 2016. Joshua Mohr’s latest novel, All This Life, is available now from Soft Skull/Counterpoint.
The dog’s snout was inches from my face, deadly breath blasting from his open mouth, as he scrutinized me like a shrink. I didn’t like how Boots studied me, so I lashed out: “You’re going to die soon. That smell coming up from your insides is horrible.”
“You’ll die too,” said the dog, which I took to be a bad sign. I hadn’t had any booze or drugs in 24 hours and the withdrawal was starting to rewire the rules of the world. Boots kept on me: “I mean, aren’t you tired of this life?”
“I’m getting my shit together,” I said, sitting up on the air mattress I slept on in my step-mom’s dining room.
“Uh-huh,” he said, sort of smirking, limping away to scratch at the huge growth on his side. It looked like a saddle bag thrown over a horse. Except his saddle bag was under his skin. It was a huge tumor.
Boots was some sort of retriever mutt, fur the color of bourbon. He stood at the backdoor, waiting for me to let him outside. I thought about ignoring him, but realized if he relieved himself inside, I’d have to clean it up.
It was a little after seven in the morning.
I was set to start to rehab in an hour.
I opened the backdoor and he waddled outside, off-balance from the massive growth on one side of his body. For whatever reason, I followed him out.
The patio was beautiful. A rose garden. A trellis with blooming bougainvillea. This was the suburbs and after living my adult life in San Francisco’s fog, it felt good to see the sun so early in the morning.
Boots nosed around some rose bushes and, after raising his leg, found a patch of dirt near the fence. He started digging, not digging like I’m-tunneling-out-of-this-prison. Digging what looked like a shallow grave.
“I knew it,” I called over to him.
If dogs could thrust up their middle fingers, I would have seen his right then. Instead, Boots worked his paws in the dirt, moving more from his plot.
Sarah joined me on the deck, handing me a coffee.
“Is that his grave?” I said.
“I should put him down, but after losing your dad, I can’t do it.”
“How long has he been digging it?”
“We need to leave soon,” she said, shuffling back inside, and I watched Boots dig.
* * * *
We drove to a town deeper in the East Bay that started with a V. Vacaville? Vallejo? All strip malls and stucco and fast food shops. There was a liquor store across the street from the rehab facility.
Since this was an outpatient program, Sarah told me she’d be back to get me at five. She was being very nice, driving me around, letting me crash on her floor, blowing up that embarrassing air mattress. I was in my thirties but it felt like she was dropping me off at elementary school.
Sarah was the kind of person you wanted around if something went wrong. Not a lot of people would have shown me mercy at that point. But Sarah didn’t even flinch.
* * * *
“Say cheese,” said the nurse, whipping out a Polaroid and snapping a pic of my face. This was in 2009, and I didn’t know anyone still used Polaroids. She gave the picture a good shake.
“Why did you do that?” I said, annoyed that we’d just spent 20 minutes filling out forms, her asking all the gruesome details. I even told her about how much blood I’d lost over the last couple days. She wanted specifics, but all I could do was blame a black out, that familiar feeling of a coffin lid closing over a day, a night. Hours progressed in which I walked around and lived my life and chatted with people but I have no recollection, huge swaths of time rolled up like rugs.
“We take everyone’s picture when they first get here,” she said. “Then we show it to them later on. You won’t believe how terrible you look.”
“We all went through this,” she said, shaking my out-of-focus face in front of my eyes.
“Why is there a liquor store across the street?” I asked.
She smiled, nodding at me. “I don’t know. Why?”
“No, I’m asking you.”
“Oh, I thought you were telling a joke.”
“Baby, there’s always a liquor store across the street,” she said, then held the picture up for me to examine. “So what do you think of this guy?”
“I’m not a fan.”
* * * *
Here’s what I do remember from my lost weekend: It started around seven in the morning on Friday, at Vesuvio, my favorite North Beach bar. I was finishing up from the night before. Or starting the next binge. I had no idea what I was doing, but I was partying alone again. That was happening more often: people not wanting to spend time with me. Alone, meaning my girlfriend didn’t know where I was. Alone, meaning there was nobody on the bar stool next to me. There were a few other masochists drinking in the morning. A couple had briefcases and wore suits, on their way to the office, stopping in for a quickie to tide them over till lunch.
The other guy was like me, keeping his bender above water, drinking whiskey and ginger ale. I ignored him until I heard a noise like a rattlesnake, realizing he was shaking a bottle of pills back and forth and smiling at me. He was four stools down.
“Are you in need of medication?” he said, sliding slowly toward me, going from one stool to the next like a stoned frog hopping lily pads.
He was in his forties. Or twenties. It’s hard to tell a person’s age when they’re boozing at seven in the morning.
“What’s in there?” I said.
Still rattling all those pills.
“Do you really fucking care?” he said.
The Rattler had me. I would have taken anything. He was a doctor and a priest and an angel and a mother.
He opened the bottle and dumped two pills in my hand. Then he tilted the bottle to his mouth and munched a couple. “It’s going to get nuts soon, brother,” said the Rattler.
I bought the next round, both of us switching to Bloody Marys, making the obvious jokes about tomato juice and vitamins. We made the kind of small talk you do while waiting to be nailed to your cross.
* * * *
I was one of two people coming into rehab that day. The other guy was a kid basically. Barely twenty. Call him Trevor. I liked him immediately because when the nurse asked him what his drug of choice was, Trevor said, “MORE.” He had this odd bleach job, uneven, bits of stark white mixed with brown hair, like somebody was peeling a potato and quit halfway through.
The first thing we went to was acupuncture. To help with withdrawal. We entered a darkened room with about thirty people sitting in a big circle. We took seats on the outside of the circle, next to each other, and waited for the acupuncture guy to get to us, to push pins in our ears. Then we all sat in darkness for 45 minutes.
Maybe we were supposed to be meditating. I had no idea. I sat there thinking about my girl, Lelo—what this meant for us, would she wait for me, should she? Like Boots, I’d been digging my own grave and maybe the best thing to do was let her leave so she didn’t get sucked in, too. Sucked down with me. Some graves have gravity, and she deserved much better than me.
When the lights finally went on, the circle all stared at Trevor and me, waiting for Acupuncture to pull the pins from our ears.
A little guy with blue hair pointed at us and said, “Welcome to the shit show, newbies!”
Then a bunch of us drove to a taco truck for lunch. To win everyone over, I paid for all the tacos. “Next best thing to buying a round of whiskey shots,” I said, holding my taco up like a shot glass.
They hollered and smiled, even Blue Hair, and we all cheers’d with our tacos.
* * * *
I’d love to tell you what happened next with the Rattler, love to tell you some adventure I went on with him. But the truth is I can’t tell you anything else. One minute I was sitting at Vesuvio nursing a Fernet shot, choking down a terrible Bloody Mary that tasted like aluminum. One minute, it was Friday morning and the next thing I knew it was Sunday.
Most of the weekend gone.
But I’ve thought a lot about that vanished Saturday, and this is what I think happened, what I’d like to think happened. This is my make-believe Saturday: The Rattler was wrong about the pills. They weren’t nuts. In fact, they weren’t even drugs. You ingested a couple and suddenly all the things that made you ache were gone. They made me feel bulletproof. I couldn’t stop smiling and it was one of those contagious smiles that only certain people are lucky enough to have, and then all the people that I loved were with me. We were on some kind of cruise ship, all my family and friends.
My dad was back from the dead, looking handsome like he did before the chemo and radiation, a full head of black hair. My two moms were there—biological and step—and not only were they getting along, they were dancing, and singing, something like “You Are My Sunshine,” and my two sisters were there and they had this look in their eyes like I’d never let them down, never blown them off at the last minute because I was too hungover to see them or too ashamed to crawl out of bed or too drunk to be anything except lousy, and Lelo was there ready to love me forever and all the friends that stopped returning my calls once my drugging got out of hand, all these wonderful people from my past were on this cruise ship, out at sea, under a disco ball, under a full moon, under every star in the history of the world, we were dancing on the open ocean and we were alive and we loved one another.
* * * *
Because I’d told the admittance nurse about the bleeding from the day before, I had to go to the emergency room to get it checked out. One colonoscopy and three IV bags of fluid to hydrate, I lay in a bed, waiting for the doctor to tell me I was dying. Hep C or AIDS from sharing needles. All the unprotected sex. Cancer from crappy genes.
I didn’t know what was wrong with me, but I expected him to come in wearing an executioner’s mask. When he finally came by—maybe an hour later—he had a disinterested look on his face. He must have hated alcoholics. All the men and women hammering their bodies like piñatas. Except instead of prizes falling out of us, it was our organs, and we ended up here, on one of his beds, asking him to stitch us back up.
“You need to quit drinking,” he said.
“That’s the idea.”
“No, your digestive tract can’t take it anymore.”
“Your GI is a mess, son. You have to stop.”
He looked at me like I was lying. Like he’d given this same advice to a thousand other piñatas who were back in a month or two.
“Just know this is serious,” he said.
And like that he was gone.
* * * *
But my make-believe Saturday couldn’t prevent a real Sunday morning from rolling around. No fantasy lasts forever. I had the Rattler’s pills. There were still 20 or so left. Did I steal them? Did he give them to me? Did I hurt him? I don’t know. Never will. I certainly couldn’t have afforded to buy them. All I know is that they were in my possession. Or I was in theirs. Someone was somebody’s.
I was in a hotel room. I was alone. I was naked. I was crying. I walked over to the door. There was a sign on the back of it that said Check Out Time. Under that was supposed to be written a specific number. Ten or eleven am. Noon maybe. Instructions for when you had to get out of the room. But there was nothing.
And I was bleeding. The bathroom destroyed. Towels soaked and strewn on the floor. Towels stained pink with water and blood.
Check Out Time.
Looked at my naked disgusting bloody body in the bathroom mirror and it was like being in a Francis Bacon painting, and I needed to be gone, thought to myself: let’s get on with this, got about 20 of the Rattler’s pills left and am probably about to bleed to death anyway so why not pop all the pills and float away from all this lacerating sadness?
Well, why not?
I popped six of the Rattler’s pills and drank straight from a bottle of whiskey and then finished three of the open flat warm beers scattered around and then went back into the bathroom to look in the mirror, so I could see every trickle of blood and for a couple minutes everything felt right, I was going to be free, going to make it out of this, going to survive this life by leaving it, and those calm moments were righteous moments, but they didn’t last.
No, I got this feeling like a fish first pulled into the boat: gills going crazy, panic… I wanted to get back in the water and live—LIVE!—and the only way I could was to fall down to my knees in front of the toilet and make myself throw up the Rattler’s pills and that was exactly what I did, giving all those narcotics back, shooting them up my throat and there was blood in that, too, and I kept kneeling there and got sort of embarrassed that I couldn’t follow through with this—what was I holding on to, why was I resisting giving up on such an empty existence?—and these questions sent me back to the Rattler’s bottle to take another handful of pills and wash them down with more open flat warm beers and I got to enjoy another batch of calm righteous moments before the fish-out-of-water feeling returned and I dropped down to puke again, and I did the same thing a couple more times, until all the Rattler’s merchandise had been ingested and spit back up, swimming in the toilet with so much of my blood and so much of my heart, and that was when this naked crying man capsized.
* * * *
Sarah’s text only said this: late.
It was already ten after, and everybody bolted rehab right at five. I thought there would be more people waiting for rides, smoking, complaining, withdrawing, but I was by myself.
I was staring at that god damn liquor store across the street. A beer—one simple cold beer—would do wonders right now. My head ached, my feet buzzed like they were asleep, I had that jet lag feeling. My body was tired of being deprived of all the liquor it was used to running on. Just one simple cold beer would take the edge off. And if I was going to do something stupid, why would I stop at one? Buy a twelve pack and a fifth of whiskey and disappear.
“What’s the good word?” said Boots, suddenly sitting right next to me, scratching at his huge tumor.
I nodded toward the liquor store. “I’m pretty thirsty.”
The dog looked appalled. “Jesus, you’re giving up after one day?”
“Mind your own business.” Then I walked across the street, walked into the store, walked down an aisle, walked to the coolers, and just stared at all the beer behind the frosty glass.
I put my hand on the outside of the fogged window. It felt electric.
“Thing is you’ll hate yourself,” said Boots, now lying next to me on the linoleum, gnawing at his saddlebag.
Seeing him sprawled on the floor reminded me that I was sprawled on the floor, too, sleeping on that air mattress in Sarah’s dining room. I was 33 and pretty much broke and pretty much broken and pretty much screwing up with Lelo and I’d gutted out my first day in rehab and the withdrawal sounded like basketball sneakers squeaking in my brain, and I was arguing with a dying dog in a liquor store.
“There’s no reason for me to try,” I said.
“This is my tumor,” Boots said, glancing over his shoulder, “but those beers in there, those are yours.”
I opened the cooler and grabbed a six-pack of tall boys. Thought about cracking one right there so the basketball shoes would stop squealing, but there wasn’t time. Sarah would be there any second and I needed to split before she showed up.
I barely had any money, 15 bucks left after paying for all the tacos, so I’d need to break into someone’s car or someone’s pocket or someone’s house… But then the harsh shame of pondering robbery made me want to crash down on the floor, use my fingernails like Boots used his paws, to tear up the linoleum and tear through the concrete underneath and tear up the building’s foundation until I felt dirt, burying my body so everything would stop hurting.
I marched halfway down the aisle and stopped. I couldn’t do it. Jammed that sixer into a shelf of tortilla chips. Then I ran back to the rehab facility, sitting on the curb, panting.
“I’m going to screw this up,” I said to Boots.
“You don’t know that.”
“It seems likely.”
“I’m a dog,” he said.
“Yeah, I know.”
“You’re lucky,” said Boots, nudging my hand with his muzzle until I scratched his head. “You can put your tumors back. I have to ride mine all the way home.”
We both saw Sarah’s car approaching from a couple blocks away. She pulled in and smiled at me through an open window. “So how was your first day?” she said.
I got up off the curb and said to her, “One day done.”
“What was it like? Do you want to talk about it?” she said.
I looked in the rearview mirror and Boots nodded his dog head—yes—from the backseat, letting me know his thoughts on the subject. There would always be a liquor store across the street, but I didn’t have to go inside.
“What do you want to know?”
“Start with your favorite parts,” she said, “and work your way to what scared the shit out of you.”
And that was what I did all the way home.