Terry liked how the facilitator had handled the smokeless group the past month, and he dreaded tonight’s final session, when the remaining three participants would celebrate their commitment, and say adios to the facilitator.
Terry had joined on his doctor’s advice, after his mini-stroke. He was forty-nine, a smoker for decades. He expected scare tactics, gruesome pictures of corroded lungs and ravaged-looking people, but the facilitator stressed the positive. She called their sessions the Happy Hour. She was slim, an ex-smoker, and nothing seemed to faze her, but she seemed frazzled tonight.
“Something happened to me,” she said, and described jogging last night in the rain, coming home sopping wet. “The phone rang, and I was about to pick it up, when lightning hit. My ears tingled, and I heard amazing sounds, like people whispering through the phone wires.”
An image of her wearing a damp sports bra struck Terry, and how he’d like to whisper to her, “Let me help you get out of those wet clothes.”
He closed his eyes for a moment, and thought of the extraordinary sounds he heard six weeks ago, the day of his stroke. He’d had some memory loss, the result of the episode, but it was all coming back now. He saw it happen to some of the inmates he counseled at the prison. They’d suddenly recall some little thing, and sometimes bigger things they wished had stayed buried.
“The lightning hit a telephone pole in my back yard,” the facilitator said. “I bet if I’d picked up that phone, I would’ve been fried.”
Jane Delahanty and Phil Blair shook their heads, and Terry hoped the facilitator would confess that she’d smoked, but Jane talked about being stranded in a hotel in New Orleans during the Katrina hurricane. “I went out later, and bought wine and two cartons of cigarettes. Six months without smoking or drinking, but I bought wine and cigarettes.”
“Why not?” Phil said. “Why not go all the way?”
The facilitator gave Phil a serious look, and Terry suddenly felt left out. He wanted to come up with an edifying tale. He thought of something that had happened to his ex-lover when she was a kid, and had fallen into an old mine shaft.
“It happened on a hot summer day, around dinnertime, and I knew my parents would be worried. I forgot to tell you an important thing,” he said, and added a detail about himself. “I had an imaginary dog that followed me everywhere, and I was pretending that Amigo was with me in the hole. When I heard an actual bark, I thought I was getting a personal sign from above. I saw a dog’s head and then my friend Richard.
Richard got help, and they pulled me out. Everyone cheered, but for some reason, I lost that special thing I had with my imaginary dog, like maybe Amigo was still down in the shaft, and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t bring him back up.”
“Shouldn’t we be looking at bright side?” Phil asked.
“Yes, let’s look at the big picture,” the facilitator said. “Let’s talk about gains, and I don’t mean weight-wise.”
Terry and Jane exchanged glances. He’d put on some weight, but Jane had become downright hefty. Her jeans were bursting at the seams, and her arms looked plump as pillows. “I’ve been having crying jags since I quit smoking,” Jane said.
“Perfectly natural,” the facilitator said. “Remember how testy everyone was at the beginning? That was the anger stage, and then came the disbelief part, and now it’s grief. You’re probably feeling pretty raw now. Loss,” she added, as if it were as harmless and expected as the change of seasons. “But the best is yet to come. Pretty soon, you won’t give smoking a second thought.”
“I can’t wait for that part,” Phil said. He was going to take his wife out to dinner tonight, and shop later for something special for her. “To celebrate my graduation.”
“Good for you. I’m so proud of you. Excellent,” the facilitator said. “And where are you, Terry, in your road to recovery?”
“The breakdown lane,” he was tempted to say, but he didn’t want to let her down. “In the clearing. I’m starting to see the positive parts. Food tastes better.”
He waited for praise, like Phil got, and felt like a jealous schoolboy when the facilitator called on Jane, and Jane described epic binges. “I’ve been through this before, and I know that I’m eating to compensate, and maybe talk myself into failure.”
No reaction from the facilitator, so Terry announced that he’d been getting through each day by seeing it not as quitting smoking, but as a postponement.
“Whatever works for you,” she said, and Terry felt another stab of disappointment. When she suddenly left the room, Terry looked at the others. “Is it something we said?”
“She came face to face with the grim reaper last night,” Phil said.
The facilitator glided into the room with a candle-lit cake. She told them to make a wish, and when they blew out the candles, she commended them, as if they’d performed a remarkable feat. Terry noticed that she took tiny bites of her cake, and then they raised their cups of punch in a toast, and promised to stay in touch. He knew he was being sentimental, but he stayed behind for a last look at the classroom, the desks arranged in a circle, with the facilitator’s at the center, and his desk ornate with graffiti and the message, “Fuck everyone, but Edward.”
“I liked your hurricane story,” Terry told Jane in the parking lot.
“Our celebration, and we ended up telling scary stories. I keep thinking about that hurricane experience, and wondering what I’d do different now.”
“I know what you mean,” he said, and asked her about her plans.
“I’m going to a hotel in the mountains next week to celebrate. What about you?”
“I was thinking of tonight,” he said. “Doing something special tonight.”
“Good for you. Good luck,” Jane said, and left.
He couldn’t remember Jane’s motivation for quitting. The group had been so large the first night that people’s stories ran together. He’d described his mini-stroke, how he’d been driving along, knowing something peculiar was happening because sounds had become exaggerated. He heard the river crashing through the valley, and saw cloudy gangs of birds holding themselves perfectly still, before rioting off, the frantic fluttering of their wings sounding so close he could’ve been hearing his own heart. He knew he probably missed an important turn, but he couldn’t remember where he was going, and then realized that phone numbers had also vanished from memory.
The neurologist said it wasn’t such a rare occurrence. Not a genuine stroke, but a preview of coming attractions if he kept smoking. He didn’t tell the neurologist or the Happy Hour group about the exhilaration he’d felt, seeing those sights and hearing everything so vividly. How could he explain such a thing? It was like knowing you were hanging off a ledge, clutching a branch, and being absolutely certain you were going to let go. And he didn’t tell anyone that the stroke happened when he was driving up Poudre Canyon, where his ex lived.
“A wake-up call,” the facilitator had said the first night. “That’s what you had.”
He was in his car when Phil tapped at his window. “I’ve got a confession to make,” Phil said.
“You smoked?” Terry said, titillated.
Phil shook his head. “That was me on the phone last night, calling the facilitator. She almost died because of me.”
“Oh? Did you call her because you felt you were caving in?”
“I shouldn’t have called her,” Phil muttered.
“We’re all feeling pretty raw now,” Terry said, repeating the facilitator’s remarks. He watched Phil walk away, knowing that he’d never tell Phil, of all people, that he’d considered calling the facilitator many times, even fantasizing about being with her in a bar, having a real happy hour, a cuff of smoke around them as they chatted, laughed and puffed away.
He wondered if she knew that he was sweet on her, and that’s why she’d been curt with him tonight. And he thought about how he’d felt connected to the damaged participants in the group, but confused about whose story was whose, the same thing that happened with Lorna, his ex-lover when their stories tangled.
He had no desire to go home. Nothing the facilitator suggested for overcoming the smoking associations and dread of certain places had helped. He wasn’t going to redecorate his house, and her idea about taming a place—“Claim the territory the way an animal would. Let the place know who’s boss.”—made him feel something was lying in wait, like a wolf about to pounce on him.
He bought a box of chocolates and an expensive silk scarf for the facilitator downtown, returned to his car, and tore into the box of chocolates.
Jesus, he had appropriated his ex’s story at Happy Hour. He wanted to call her. They’d ended things a year ago, but sometimes he’d call her, surprised that she never lorded anything over him, and ashamed of his impatience when she talked about her renovation projects. He’d told her about his stroke, playing it up, and feeling aroused when she expressed concern.
“Lorna, I stole your story,” he’d say on the phone. “Your near-death experience.” She might laugh and say, “Why would you want to tell that old story?” Worse, she might go on about happy she was. Never once had she asked him if he was dating anyone, and on the day he’d told her about his stroke and his determination to change his ways, he’d been sitting on his bed, and had felt his spine tense when she said that he was really a good man, deep down inside. It’d sounded like a farewell remark, the sort of thing he often felt forced to tell his prison clients when they insisted that they’d been transformed, and were ready to make a clean break.
“Oh, no,” he muttered to himself in the car, after he tried calling the facilitator. Phil had answered the phone, kept saying hello, and then, “What’s your problem?”
Dempsey LaPlante talked about fate in Terry’s office at the prison the next day, insisting that his fate was rigged. He’d been incarcerated five years, and would soon face the Parole Board.
“What’s the matter?” Dempsey asked. “You were hoping for a spicier story?”
“Look, telling the Board what other people did to you decades ago won’t work. They want to hear you taking responsibility, owning up to things, but it doesn’t have to be unrealistic. Just let them know you’re in control now.”
“I’m in the twilight of my imprisonment,” Dempsey said, wistfully. “I’ve had a lot of time to think and read. I’m in the twilight of my imprisonment. I’m scared.”
Terry was touched by his sincerity. “Perfectly natural. What you’re afraid of.”
“Lots of things. Being alone, for starters. I’m scared of being alone, and you know that window in the chapel that shows a poor sap with a bag tied to the end of a stick?”
“Sure, what about it?”
“It’s that message about how if everyone dumped their sack of troubles in a big pile, and you could have anyone else’s sack, you’d still pick your own. I wouldn’t want someone else’s old troubles, so I’d pick mine, and they’re coming with me when I leave this place.”
“You’re going to be all right,” Terry assured him.
“You can smell the person you rob from—the money, purse, the wallet. It smells like them, and when you’re touching it, the smell gets on you. It’ll help, right, to remember that?” Dempsey asked.
“Yes, remember your mistakes, and try to sound contrite.”
“I’ve been meaning to tell you something. You look different.”
“I do? Well, I’ve been on a health kick.”
Dempsey nodded. “Fatter. You’ve gotten fatter on me.”
Terry felt low, but who wouldn’t, knowing that Phil and the facilitator were having a private happy hour, and that he was becoming a fatso? He craved a cigarette, but he had an appointment with the neurologist, so he told himself to think of smoking of something in reserve. “You’ll never make it,” he should’ve told Dempsey.
He thought of Lorna’s insistence that he was really a good man, deep down inside. What had she seen, and what happened to that part?
They’d met three years ago at a dinner party. She’d worn flamboyant clothing, and seemed determined to put on a brave front, despite being new in town. He’d asked her how she’d ended up in Colorado.
“A disastrous relationship. I took off, stayed in motels, and actually hoped he’d find me. I guess you could say that I’m romantically challenged.”
“And here you are making a new start. Must be hard.”
“To wise up?”
Months later, he asked her to move in with him. She’d resisted at first, and so he proposed the living arrangement as a practical solution, since she’d been broke and jobless. And now he knew he was dredging up details about the two years they’d lived together, as if searching for a reason to blame her for things going bad would give him satisfaction.
The very things he loved about her—her artistic flair, honesty, and optimism–had brought out the worst in him, especially when she’d repeat the stories he’d told her about his prison clients, doling out advice and opinions, even insisting that if she were in his shoes, she’d look for a more lucrative job. And always his sense that his offer to live together was the root of the problem. He’d presented it as a temporary solution, but he’d been so scared of her taking off, that he often treated her like a visitor, never letting her change anything in the house, and then, last year, he’d suggested that they look into buying a house.
“It’s not what you want, trust me,” she’d said. “It’d be like living in a minefield, and you’d blame me for it.”
She ended it, and he resented that she found her own place, getting it for a song, because it was rundown, but she’d fixed it up, and that’s what he’d wanted to see the day of his mini-stroke.
Dempsey LaPlante would call it fate. There, in the neurologist’s waiting room, Terry saw a picture of Lorna in a local business magazine. He was flipping through the pages, annoyed at how long he’d been waiting. Next to him was a mother with a baby, and across from him sat an old couple, the man in jeans and a western shirt, the woman in a pants suit. She gave him a concerned look. She must’ve seen him wince at the picture of Lorna, draped in a black velvet shawl decorated with a colorful peacock image.
“Celestial Designs,” said the caption. “Handmade High-Fashion Clothing for the Discriminating Woman, Free of Toxic Dyes.”
“What are you in for?” the old man asked.
“Migraines,” Terry lied.
“The adult kind? Or have you had them all your life?”
“The adult kind.”
The elderly woman shook her head. “They got drugs now to stave off the pain, but you got to know when one’s coming first, or else the drugs are useless.”
“My wife’s a pharmaceutical genius,” the man said. “Reads up on every disorder. Me, I forget what I’ve read seconds after I put it down.”
“Selective memory,” said his wife. “That’s his problem.”
Terry glanced at Lorna’s picture again, figuring he’d tear the page out in the rest room, or just walk off later with the magazine. It wasn’t like he’d be swiping a high-end periodical.
“I remember the cost of breakfast,” the man said, and announced the amount.
“We come down from Cheyenne,” said his wife, “to see the specialist every week. He always makes a production about the cost of everything here, especially the gas.”
“Three dollars and sixty-five cents a gallon,” the man said. “Forty-seven miles from our house to here.”
“Good for you,” his wife said. “Now, give it a rest.”
As if infected with the man’s disorder, Terry calculated today’s temperature as being in the eighties, much warmer than his last visit to Dr. Hamilton, a young Scottish woman. He liked her brogue, though he sometimes couldn’t understand what she was saying. She’d surprised him with her matter-of-fact reaction to his memory loss.
“Transient Ischemic Attack,” she’d said, and that it was a common occurrence. People would be doing ordinary things, and suddenly forget everything. “But you might be one of the lucky ones. Just a change of habit, and all should be well.”
“But it can come back, right?”
“Oh, yes,” she’d said, exuberantly. “One third of patients with TIA experience further episodes.”
It was to Doctor Hamilton that he’d confided a partial truth, not his destination the day of the incident, but the extraordinary sights and sounds.
“Perfectly common,” she’d said. “Some people see faces in toast and enormous toads right in their own homes.”
The baby in the waiting room seemed mesmerized by the ceiling fan. The old man was dozing, and his wife was cooing at the baby.
“A real sweetheart,” she remarked.
“Robin,” the mother said. “She’s sixteen months old. I’ve got an older girl, too. She’s in school today.”
“Robin’s a little darling,” the older woman said. “Petite.”
“She might have neurological problems, but my husband and I believe she’s just taking her time, then she’ll blossom, no matter what the tests tell us.”
Terry felt afraid for her, and wanted to say something reassuring, but she and the old couple got called. He saw the baby making tight fists and little joyful sounds.
He ripped the ad from the magazine, stuffing it in his pocket, along with some lollipops. Then he was finally summoned.
Dr. Hamilton didn’t seem impressed when he boasted about being off cigarettes for a month, and then, after a couple of cursory questions, she told him there was no need to return for further appointments.
“That’s it?” he said, embarrassed to feel disappointed.
It had cooled down, and cabbage-shaped clouds had moved in. He thought about the meal he could make at home with all the provisions he’d bought lately, going to health-food stores for vitamins, herbal teas, and enough food to feed multitudes, all of it overpriced. If his parents were around, they’d question such extravagance. They’d owned a little market back East, in a town that had seen better times when the paper mill was running, the river’s colors influenced by dyes at the mill, but he used to believe there was something magical and personal about the various colors, as if God controlled the whole operation to show people a daily part of himself. Then the mill closed, and many people moved away, like Richard, the friend Terry mentioned in his Happy Hour story.
He knew he was making matters worse by thinking about those times, the sour smell of his parents’ market, the dusty shelves, and the creaking wooden floor. He’d be in the backroom, stamping prices on grocery items, and saying to his imaginary dog, “You better like this stew, Amigo, considering the cost, and you better behave. The old man’s in one of his moods.”
“The captain of moods,” his mother called Terry’s father, one day happy as a lark, and then suddenly low and mad about something vague, so that Terry would think of happiness and sorrow as commodities a person could go out and select.
He ate a fast-food meal while he drove through the canyon, seeing now where he’d made his mistake six weeks ago, failing to take a left turn at the bridge. The road was steep and unpaved, and a light rain and wind kicked in, dispatching a lush scent.
He heard the chimes before he saw the house, so many of them rattling and clanging that it sounded like he’d set off alarms. He grabbed the scarf from last night, gratified that Lorna’s place was small, and looked patched-together, a partially built deck, an unpainted door, and a roof in need of repair.
A skinny, bearded man startled him, coming up to him with a nail gun. He looked to be at least sixty.
“Looking for Lorna?” he asked, and Terry nodded, and introduced himself.
“Derek,” the man said. “She’s out back, painting.”
“She’s not expecting me. You’re working on her house?”
“She tells me what to do,” Derek said, and told Terry to go on inside.
He was glad that Lorna couldn’t see his shock. The hardwood floor in the living room was exactly like his, oak, with a rectangle in the middle made of a lighter wood, and the kitchen’s marbled countertops and Spanish-tiled floor matched his.
“This is a surprise,” she said, coming up behind him. “What’s the occasion?”
She wore baggy overalls, a flannel shirt, and a bandana over her hair. He was pleased that she’d put on weight. “Got good news today, and wanted to celebrate,” he said, thrusting the scarf at her.
“Real silk,” she gushed.
“I love what you’re doing with the house.”
“It’s taking longer than I expected, but it’ll come together soon.”
“You look fantastic. I’ve pictured seeing you again, and how it’d be like old times. You know what I’m saying?”
“I never give it a thought,” she said. He glanced away so she wouldn’t see his face. “I’ve been so busy,” she shouted over the noise of the nail gun, and then quickly went outside. He knew he should leave, but sat down, and tried to calm himself.
She returned with Derek, and they sat on a sofa opposite Terry. No one said anything, and Terry looked at Derek the way guests stare at a homely pet during lulls in conversation. Terry mentioned how glad he was that it turned cooler. What a taciturn man Derek was, and so glum, too, as if he’d taken a vow of silence and frowns. Terry felt like he was back at prison, facing a medicated convict, when he asked Derek about himself and how long he’d been working on houses.
“D’s modest,” Lorna said.
“I freelance,” Derek said.
Terry saw Lorna grin. “How long have you been working on this place?”
Derek scratched his beard. “About a year, off and on. I installed the floor first in this room, and then I enlarged her bedroom.”
Terry felt his face redden.
“So, what are you celebrating?” Lorna asked.
“I quit smoking. A whole month now, and today I got my walking papers from the neurologist.”
Lorna leaned over and told Derek about Terry’s stroke. Derek laughed, and Terry wondered if the old coot had some hearing loss, or was just slow. He thought of the enlarged bedroom where Derek and Lorna had been going at it. What could she possibly see in Derek?
“I quit cold turkey,” Derek announced.
“He got me to quit,” she said. “I’ve never felt better in my life.”
Terry felt a plummeting sensation. “I haven’t gotten to that part yet myself.”
Derek looked suddenly animated. “Tell him about that dream you had, Babe,” he said, but Lorna shook her head.
“She dreamed that a fella was offering her a cigarette. He was holding a big box, and out slides a cigarette the size of a log. ‘Come on, do it,’ he says, and she wakes up in a sweat, telling me that she gave in. Remember?” Derek asked, looking at her. “You were positive you smoked. Remember?”
“I remember,” she said, and Terry was convinced now that Lorna took up with Derek because he probably asked little of her, granted all her whims, and even got her to overcome bad habits. Maybe this approximated happiness.
“She told me you work at the prison. I bet you hear some juicy stuff,” Derek said.
“D has an active imagination,” Lorna said.
She gave Derek a wink, and that sealed it. “It was great seeing you, but I’ve got to go. I’ve been renovating my place. You wouldn’t believe the work,” Terry said, and headed for the door.
“Jesus, Jesus,” he was muttering in the car when Lorna came to his window. It was hard to hear her over the chimes and the nail gun, but she was trying to explain that she hadn’t called him lately because of her projects. “I’ve been designing clothing. I’m thinking of having my own shop up here.”
“Do you have rocks in your head?” he wanted to say. “Who’d risk life and limb to come all the way up here for a shawl?”
“Lorna, I did something pretty awful last night. I stole your story about the time you fell into the mine shaft when you were a kid.”
She gave him a quizzical look.
“Your near-death experience.”
“Oh, that. Such a stupid thing, hiding down there to give my parents a scare.”
She didn’t ask him why he swiped the story, and he wondered if he got things mixed up, or she’d neglected to tell him before that she went down in the hole deliberately. He tried to place himself back to last night, when he began telling Lorna’s story, adding his own details about his pretend dog, but what came to him was Dempsey LaPlante, talking about how you’d always pick your own troubles.
“Are you all right?” she asked.
“I’ve got to lose weight, as you can see. God, you wouldn’t believe the binges.”
She nodded. “What’s a little weight gain?”
“That’s right. It doesn’t mean all that much when you look at the big picture.”
“Yes, that’s how I feel about my house and my business scheme.”
You’ll never make it, you’ll never make it, he thought, as he drove off. Out of habit, he reached into his pocket, and there was the Celestial Designs ad and lollipops. He knew that all along he’d expected her to have taken up with someone else, and that’s what he’d pictured when he first tried to get to her place. Courting disaster and failure, just like Jane Delahanty, but who could’ve imagined hearing your ex’s grizzled old lover talk about log-sized cigarettes?
The lollipop was a poor substitute for the real thing, so he pitched it out the window, and felt queasy, knowing what was coming. He imagined the man in the waiting room, making calculations. “One-quarter of a mile to the convenience store. Four ninety-five for a pack of smokes.”
“I’m afraid,” he wished he’d told Dr. Hamilton. “I’m scared that it’ll happen again. I don’t want to be alone.”
“Perfectly natural,” she’d say. “It happens to everyone.”
He passed the store, telling himself he was doing it to prove he could outlast Lorna in the quitting department. He glanced at the magazine picture of Lorna, then saw that he’d driven by the place of his TIA incident.
His house seemed like the hiding place of a monster, and he knew he was being maudlin, standing by the door, hearing the facilitator’s voice and the lively brogue of the neurologist talking about odds–one out of three people caving in, and having a repeat episode. He wanted to put himself and Jane as the lucky ones, and Phil as the loser, but it would be unrealistic.
He plunged inside, flipped on the lights, and looked in the living room at every nook and hiding place, and then went into the bedroom. He stared at the closet door and the bed, feeling an odd emotion, almost like elation, but couldn’t resist looking under the bed, and imagining others watching him doing this ridiculous thing. “I see you. You’re up to your old tricks again, aren’t you, pal?”
Leslee Becker‘s stories have appeared in Ploughshares, The Kenyon Review, The Atlantic, Epoch, and elsewhere. She lives in Fort Collins, Colorado, and teaches at Colorado State University.