A Step Ahead of Perseverance

Of course we were in the basement of Southwest Community Baptist, again. I guess that’s what happens when you fall asleep at the wheel for the fifth time. Or maybe you ran out of gas on the Ambassador Bridge with a couple of pints in the backseat. And when the flashlights wake you up, you shit your pants, crawl out the passenger window, stand on the edge, hold onto the cold rail and say, “Let me go or I’ll jump. I’m serious. I’ll fucking jump!” Only they lasso your legs like real cowboys. You did your six months, and that’s how you find your ass sitting next to Lenny Jenkins, again. Wishing you’d jumped.

“Heard on the scanner you were going to take the plunge,” Lenny says. He has a way of whistling through his teeth and making his hand swan dive into the church floor. He hits me and half whispers. “But you don’t strike me as a suicidal.” The shirt under his bib overalls smells like he’d been masturbating into it. I peel away because the smell reminds me of my life: one second driving out of this Detroit hellhole, moving to Florida and building houses, stone sober and happy in the sun but then fucking it all up, living at a mission, and then coming back to and begging for a job at a gas station just to make some rum money. I lean into Lenny’s ear and say to him, “Who says I ain’t?”

“I know how it is,” he says. “You need to get snockered.” Beneath his overalls he dips his hand. His fingernail taps a secret bottle. I see the dirty plastic peeking out. I know Lenny brews strawberry shine so I stick up my nose like I’m sniffing the garden. “What’s in that?” I say.

“You just never mind,” he says.

Under the table I feel something cold crawling up my leg. It feels like a rattle snake and I jump. “Holy shit,” I say. Across the table Rebeka Dancer’s smiling. She has freckles and straight red hair—smooth, like her husband doesn’t mind dropping a hundred per bottle on shampoos and conditioners. She’s an anorexic, a nervous type who pops pills and steals from vet clinics and doctor’s offices. Ever since my third go-round at Community Baptist she turned into the woman of my dreams—a rich girl who’d give her pretty front teeth not to play wifey anymore.

“I thought you liked feet?” she says. I scoot back in my chair and look under the table. Rebeka has a thing for only wearing heels, pink ones this time. They lay to the side and I see her toes are like talons curling.

“Whoa,” Lenny says. “Look at those peepers.” He gives me a quivering eye like he’s about to burp up his lunch. “Now say, purple’s a great color.” And since sex with Rebeka stands a close second to vodka with a lime, or tying a noose and finding an oak tree, I say, “Damn straight it’s a good colour.”

“I just got it,” Rebeka says and bats her eyes. “It’s called Playdate Purple.” Lenny whistles through his teeth again, and Rebeka rubs my calf with her calloused toe, again. “Get it,” she says. “Playdate?”

I wince and give a wink. “You ain’t kiddin’,” I say.

Along the back wall there’s a window for us to nab coffee in Styrofoam cups, cans of soda, hot dogs or stale chips—anything to keep us craving the soft stuff. The prices are written on a yellow poster-board in red marker, and a kid who’s filling his community service hours collects our quarters into a lockbox beside it. It’s all next week’s church donations, they say. But at Southwest Community Baptist, we can’t swear too loud for the preacher sleeping upstairs. We’re not supposed to number two in the number three bathroom. Neither can we sneak strawberry shine into our overalls. It’s all right to us, but the one rule we have a hard time living with is that we can’t smoke, and everyone from Maude Crans, a thirty year gas station attendant, to Roger Parks, the 1987 state arm wrestling champ, are bitching about it.

Before every session Maude likes to buzz around the room in her wheelchair searching for ashtrays. “Godammit,” she says. She dicks around near a pile folding tables. One of them slams the floor. The new people jump and she says, “I know they’re here. The bastards are hiding them on us.”

Roger Parks is searching behind trash cans and Maude buzzes toward the back hallway. But what strikes everyone as odd, the hypocrisy of it all, is that we can smell fifty years of smoke seeping from the paneling. We taste it in the air and feel it drip from the ceiling tiles. “What’s it gonna hurt is what I’d like to know,” Maude says.

“It’s 2012,” Rebeka says. “We care for other people now, Maude. Not just ourselves.”

Maude wheels over, gives the pretty girl a look that would melt a rusted icepick. “Tell it to the husband, sweetheart. Cause these ears ain’t listenen’.”
Rebeka’s pouting now, folding her boney arms and trying to keep her eyes from watering. It makes me feel bad because I still taste her apple lip-gloss on my teeth. “Don’t let her get you down,” Lenny says to Rebeka. He lifts the bottle from his overalls, hides it with his massive hand and asks if she needs a snort. Like a kid, she shakes her head, picks at the edge of the table.

“Unless you got some more of those Vicodin,” she says.

And it always ends with a, “Sorry, Doll.” Lenny reaches into the back of his overalls and rubs. “You know how my back’s been hurtin’ me.”

Of course she huffs, and maybe she’s crying on the inside, but that’s when Clare Robinson creaks up to the podium. His gray toupee is about three shades lighter than his side-hair, and when he coughs into the microphone, it sends those rusty ice-picks into our ears. We wince, but Clare’s a nice guy, a guy who’d been married to Maude Crans for ten years and was able to drop the bottle afterward. But by the way his cheeks suck to his face, it’s easy to see he’s running on fumes.

The microphone squeals and his vocal chords are smoked. “Brotherly Love,’ he’s preaching. “I want you to set it down,” he says. He coughs. “All the hate you once had in your heart, and all the people you’ve once wronged, I want you to set it down.”

The community service kid’s lifting his pants and handing out pieces of paper. Lottery pencils rolls across the banquet tables. Lenny Jenkins counts on his fingers. And at the end of our table Roger Parks squints at the ceiling to remember the names.

“What about Humilty?” Maude says. “We missed step eight. You know. Where we humbly ask Him to remove our shortcomings?”

“Set ‘em down,” Clare says. And with a little force, the pencils start scratching.

“Who’d you hurt this time?” Lenny asks me. He hunches over and sneaks a drink. Only when I try to write, I can’t imagine anyone specific. Rebeka’s doodling pictures, and in my mind I’m five-thousand feet deep into the ocean. I’m staring over a trench cliff, and when I jump I start sinking into blackness and bubbles. Clare clasps his hands behind his back and paces behind the podium. The American flag behind him reminds us of defeat, and I want to think of someone other than myself for a change. The community service kid, his headphones blare as he leans his chair into the rack of Mars bars.

Everything else is silent.

“Let me see. Yes.” Clare says and raises a finger. “I can think of someone,” he says. “Drinking drove me to hurt this person. And when I think of them now, wherever they are. In Kansas. Or Sacramento. It’s all dreams, but I can see this person in my mind.”

In the eyes of the new people you can see they’re going to dark places, whispering different names to themselves. Along with the other five-timers Maude crosses her arms and isn’t buying it. Across from me Rebeka says, “I can’t think.” And it doesn’t come to me, either, so I start scribbling names, any name, one after the other, hoping maybe it will come to me from a blur. Sylvester, I write, and then Mickey, and a Louis Hardaman, but that seems to strike a nerve so I set my pencil down.

“I was in Kentucky,” Clare says. He huffs a laugh. “How about you, Maude? Where are you in your mind?” Lenny gives another toothy whistle. A few pencils drop, and with crossed arms Maude leers at him through the top lens of her trifocals.

“I think it has something to do with a pitchfork,” she says. “Correct me if I’m wrong, lover boy.” Clare rubs at a pain in his spine, and I’m still in that dark trench, sinking further, only now I’m spinning from the ankles. The pencils scratch and I swear one of my ears pops. I hold my nose, blow out and put the drum back into place.

“Hey, Mike.” Lenny leans forward and talks into my good ear. “Who are you putting down?” he asks. “I’m drawing blank.”

“Do your own work,” Rebeka says. Her eyebrows are furrowed mad. We all need a cigarette. Under the table she puts her heels back on. She goes back to doodling for a second, but then sets her forehead on the table, groans and holds her nose with her wrist. She pounds the table.

“I want us all to imagine something,” Clare says. “Maybe this will help. I want you to imagine going to your darkest place, and to get there, I want you to imagine a cliff.”

“I don’t want to jump off no cliff,” I shout.

“Sorry,” he says. “Sorry, Mike. Then try it this way.” He clears his throat. On the stage his foot-thumps are so hollow we can feel them in our bones. “You’re at the end of a road,” he says. “Streetlights are behind you, and you’re about to reach an area where you can’t see any longer. You’re walking. Say you’re completely surrounded by darkness other than those streetlights behind you. But let your eyes adjust,” he says. “Let your eyes adjust to the point where all that head throbbing goes away.”

“Please,” Lenny says to me. “You’re the story-man. Give me one.”

“What about your kids,” I say. “Didn’t you miss your kids’ birthdays or some shit…” I wheel my hand around, “Their music things,” I say.

“No,” he says and closes his eyes. “Please. You’re so good at them. What was that one where you were in Florida. Didn’t you tell people they weren’t even real to you? Where did you live after that?” he says.

“Make it up,” I say. I want to remind him of somebody’s kids who’d had their asses beat by a special oak tree in the woods, and how, when somebody lost their hold on their necks, they ran away through the cornfields, were found by the police a day later and brought to foster care. I’m simply not that big of an asshole to bring it up. On my paper I have the names of seven people I don’t know. Frank Sinatra, John Wayne, George Bush, etc. I figured if Clare came around to me I could come up with my own story where I met John Wayne at a county fair. Then other people could chime in on what they thought of John Wayne.

“There’s a field to your right,” Clare says. “And in that field. I want you to see what you have done. Not take part in it. But I want you to watch how it happened.”

The community service kid’s eating a candy bar and smacking his lips. You’d like to stick this pencil in his jaw. For some reason I wait for him to pay for it. Of course his quarter clinks inside the lockbox and he nods at me.

“You went somewhere,” Lenny says.

“Shut up,” Rebeka says. “I’m imagining.” She rubs her temples. The old conjuring a spell trick. Pretty soon her toe crawls up my ankle and spittle shines her teeth as she smiles.

“There’s going to come a point,” Clare says. “Where you’re going to want to forget for the millionth time. But we’re here to face things.” By this time Clare has his hands on the sides of the podium. He’s watching Maude, who throws down her pencil and looks to the side where Roger Parks sits hunched over like his stomach hurts. He’s written so much his wrist, the wrist that had once slammed the arms of three hundred pound men into smithereens, is sore and needs a rest. He examines the knuckles and checks the bulge in his forearm for leaks.

“Maybe your husband is in that field,” Clare says.

Rebeka’s toe reaches higher. She whispers something and I can’t make it out.

“What,” I whisper back.

She’s mouthing something that looks like the word ‘elephant.’

“Or maybe you’re sitting alone in that field,” Clare says. “Washing things down and not doing a damn thing different. Believe me. Wow. I know that part,” he says.

The sound of Lenny’s fingernail tapping his hidden bottle is like a spider in my ears. He ticks it and ticks it. “C’mon,” he says. “I know most of the story. I have it down pat. It’s my turn, Mike. Clare’s going to call on me. I know it.” He puts his head on the table and recites what he knows as quiet as he can so Clare can’t see his lips moving. “People left,” Lenny says. “I know that part. You’re a Vodka man. ‘Any place I can get it is good enough for me.’ You always said that. But what’s the rest? How did you lose everything? Your money? Your house? You had friends. Why’d you come back to this shithole. It wasn’t to work in a fucking factory.”

I want to grab him by the throat and tell him, in one way or another, we all fuck up. Fucking drop it, I want to say. Under the table Rebeka’s trying her best to get at me with her foot. She’s leaned so far down into her folding chair her head’s hitting the backrest. I feel her toes curling at my knee, my thigh. She sets the tip of her tongue to her sharpest tooth. “There we go,” she says. And it’s like I’ve finally stopped sinking.

“Now,” Clare says. He thumps his fingers along the edge of the podium. Of course, as your mind stalls out for that moment, you notice ribbons of past cigarettes smoked floating mid-air. Roger Parks opens and closes his hand under the table. A lot of people have stopped writing completely. They’re leaned over the table with their eyes closed, or held wide open staring at the cracked trim boards underneath the pile of folding tables, the dust pressed wheels of the cart that holds them, the blades of a motionless box fan, the way other peoples shoes are tied, what a rotted liver looks like, and how long it’s been resting like that.

“Whatever their names are, I want you to keep writing them down,” Clare says. “Only now, I want you to step off the paved road and step into the field. You see these people, and I want you to walk toward them. Whoever’s in that field I want you to make the choice to do that. Go ahead. You know them. Walk on up.”

Rebeka’s found a comfortable position with her ass completely slid forward on the folding chair. The red strands stick to her teeth as she smiles, and then pretends to write with the paper held to the edge of the table.

“What is it,” Lenny asks me. He’s holding his face in his hands. The sour smell of his shirt, his strawberry moonshine, and the fifty years of cigarette smoke on the walls all reaches me at the same time. “You were a builder. I get it. I’m using your story. Maybe there were a couple of women with black eyes. They probably let you sleep on their couch a couple nights. Shit,” he says, like it’s a joke. “Maybe even a couple months.” I grip the pencil and write something, anything with my face nearly two inches above my fingers as they hold down the little sheet of paper. I feel him in my ear. “You’re that type,” he says. “Then you told them fuck off, didn’t you?” He nods. “Yeah. I got you pegged. A couple of little, go-fuck-yourselves, and you never have to deal with it anymore.”

“And when you get up there,” Clare says. “When you go up to this person… It’s simply….”

Before he finishes what he’s saying I get up from my chair. “That’s it,” Lenny says. “You son of a bitch.” I walk toward the back of the room, where, down the thin hallway, the bathrooms are located. Through some Plexglass, the community service kid gives me a glance with his headphones.

I open the bathroom door and Clare says over the microphone, “It’s really simple. You apologize.”

I click on the light, and in the bathroom, no matter which way I lean, I’m touching my shoulder against a wall or a stack of cardboard boxes. I turn on the faucet.

“That’s what we write?” one of the new people asks.

I hear the clicking of heels and Clare’s voice over the microphone, again. “It’s really that easy,” Clare says. “But you have to realize there is something to it.”

That’s when the bathroom door opens behind me. Her hair and face is somewhat shadowed from the darkness of the hallway, but she slides in, more like squeezes herself between the wall and my chest and closes the door. The light turns off.

At the podium, I know Clare’s rubbing his hands and overlooking a group of slouched heads. Other than that, a few might be watching deep into the floor or out the windows.

I feel a slight pinch on my hip, Rebeka’s purple fingernails, and when I flinch and say, ‘Jesus,’ she giggles at that.

“Lenny,” I hear Clare ask. There’s a moment, silence on the other side of the door, but also someone warm against me.

“Yes,” Lenny finally answers. My hip presses against the sink and my belt-loop grinds into the skin. I try to turn away from it, but I’m trapped by the wall and the paper towel dispenser. Something cold moves up my neck. It’s simple. I run with it.

Then Clare says, “Lenny. Would you mind sharing with us this evening?”

There’s a whistle through his teeth. “Well ya. Sure,” he says. “I was a fucking builder.”

Bill Derks is a small-town Michigan writer currently living in the Big Apple. He holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence and a Bachelors from Western Michigan. This is his fifth publication to date.