On the Future of Substance Abuse Treatment

February 27, 2008 at 4:12 pm (Uncategorized)

        For the past nine months, I have been employed as a drug and alcohol therapist at a methadone clinic in Wilmington, Delaware.  I began last June, assigned a typical (about 60 individuals) caseload in the CORE methadone program.  My clients adequately represented a cross-section of the drug and/or alcohol dependent population and, as such, also a cross-section of the general population.  After three months at the clinic, my supervisors determined that I was appropriate to begin work on a fledgling program aimed at those clients who maintained an active addiction well into their methadone treatment; the individuals placed into this specialized program, “Recovery Counts,” are at risk for discharge from the clinic.  Thus, for the past six months, I have worked, within a groundbreaking format, with those individuals that are especially resistant to more traditional drug and alcohol treatment techniques. 

            When I was promoted to the Recovery Counts program, I was also asked to aid in the creation of a foundational curriculum.  Assuming most of the individuals within Recovery Counts harbor decades-old addictions and have been through repeated stints at outpatient and inpatient treatment facilities throughout the Mid-Atlantic, it quickly became apparent that traditional treatment was ineffective with this population.  Over the course of the program’s earliest inception, I scoured literature of drug and alcohol theory, treatment, and practice, attempting to find legitimate alternatives to the dominant mode of treatment.  My efforts yielded very little results.  There did not seem to exist a working model that challenged accepted methods entrenched in drug and alcohol theory for over fifty years. 

            Alcoholics Anonymous and the 12-step model of recovery originally grew out of the principles of a small, turn-of-the-century Evangelical society called the Oxford Group.  Throughout the 1940′s and 1950′s, a confluence of political and social forces acted on the original doctrines of the Oxford Group and it slowly evolved into a working model of alcohol dependence and subsequent “recovery” based largely on the Jungian idea of conversion, stated as a “spiritual awakening.”  The 12-step model later came to dominate the treatment of many seemingly disparate addictions: gambling, overeating, pedophilia.  It remains the most widely utilized form of treatment in the drug and alcohol field, gaining the working commendation of a reported 95% of current professional facilities in the United States. 

            The 12-step system is rooted in the disease model of addiction; the model maintains that certain individuals have no control over their addictions, that the ingestion of the alcohol or drug reacts negatively with the body and causes an “allergic reaction,” ultimately affecting the user’s self-control and judgment.  Historically, the synthesis of the disease model most likely arose as a philosophical concession between the leaders of the Temperance movement and the United States government following the repeal of Prohibition.  AA and its followers were rewarded for their effective social and political mobilization and lobbying in 1956 when the American Medical Association formally recognized alcohol addiction as a medical ailment.  Practically, over the past fifty years, the disease model has directly influenced the reach of the social worker within the drug and alcohol field. 

            The disease model relieves the alcohol and/or drug abuser of responsibility.  It eases the impact of addiction on the user’s family and friends.  By simplifying and medicalizing a very complex and organic social problem, the disease model tells the addict and those around him that he is merely the victim of circumstances beyond his control.  The disease model maintains that there is only one solution to the “disease”:  follow the 12-steps and submit to a Higher Power.  Paradoxically, this diagnosis and subsequent treatment effectively erode the individual’s confidence, encouraging, instead, submission to a worldview of unmanageability.  In spite of the progress that the client may make in a therapeutic setting, it is constantly undermined by the disease model; the drug abuser has been repeatedly told that he has a chronic disease (often likened to diabetes) that he will never be free of, and can only hope to maintain in “remission” for the remainder of his life.  Success is not expected of either the social worker in the substance abuse field or of his or her client.  The overwhelming acceptance of the disease model has, over the past fifty years, created a climate of lowered expectations and passive empathy.           

            It is important to note that the 12-step system and its accompanying disease model are successful for some.  There are some clients who embrace AA and NA’s principles and culture.  These individuals take great solace in a spiritual submission and succeed in achieving lasting abstinence and sobriety.  However, there are many individuals who would benefit from alternative forms of therapy.  These latter alcohol and drug abusers do not succeed at the 12-steps because they are turned off by its overtly religious sentiments, or feel uncomfortable having to share in the accustomed AA/NA group setting, or for any number of other reasons.  AA and NA doctrine accounts for these failures.  These individuals, AA insists, are not properly working the steps.  As a social worker, it seems imperative to offer alternate options to the client and, most importantly, to reassess and refocus efforts within this particular social problem.  Perhaps if so many clients are not succeeding within the established model of therapy, responsibility for that failure ought to be shared by client and social worker alike.  If the 12-step system insists that drug and alcohol abuse is a medical ailment, then there ought to exist a plethora of treatment options.  Certainly, if one is diagnosed with cancer, and chemotherapy is not successful, the doctor would not charge the patient with the responsibility for the failed treatment.  And that doctor would not continue to treat the ailment in the same way until it worked.  Rather, numerous other treatments would be attempted until the doctor and patient arrive at a suitable solution. 

            In individual and group therapy, the clients’ collective desire for alternatives is clear and unmistakable.  They have, most likely for decades, been ready for concrete options.  However, such options do not presently exist (the very few that do are not locally accessible).  The 12-step system and its foundational disease model have become inalienably entrenched in the social workers’ ethos in this particular field.  The ideas and concepts expounded in this essay must be discussed in hushed tones and quieted voices around the methadone clinic offices.  Such dissent is viewed as dangerous to the clients’ morale and confusing to their insight.  Despite the clear need for change within the substance abuse field and the clients’ quiet pleading for this change, there also exists clear and unwavering professional allegiance to the well established methods of treatment.  The 12-step system and disease models have become comfortable, stable concepts of assumed rationality which social workers may confidently and universally recommend.  Thus, the client who is mired in self-destructive patterns of alcohol and drug abuse fights a twofold enemy—the personal addiction and an antiquated and inflexible professional model of treatment.  Confronted with this overwhelming combination, many clients (such as those on my high-risk caseload at the methadone clinic) succumb to the substance abuse field’s underlying doctrine of hopelessness.  They continue to abuse alcohol and drugs, fulfilling the defeating prophecy of the disease model. 

            Substance abuse is a problem affecting every aspect of modern American society, transcending race, age, sex, and class.  It is an ever-present crisis, a war waged in homes and on the streets between.  Progress—individual and societal—has proved a Sisyphean task over the past fifty years.  The methods formerly employed are failing those who suffer both directly and indirectly; the failure can no longer be explained away, responsibility repeatedly being placed on the individual.  If there is to be positive evolution in the substance abuse field, it falls to the social workers, those engaged in direct service, to boldly spearhead alternative treatments.  Politics, economics, and social traditions aside, the paramount concern should be the individual struggling with substance dependence.  Conformity to established professional customs and beliefs is actively impairing many clients’ most earnest efforts at abstinence.  Every day that the minority of professionals in this field monitor the volume of their objections around the office is another day of addiction and disease for their clients.  The time has come for raised voices.

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Of Language and Experience

October 18, 2007 at 3:54 pm (Uncategorized) (, )

            Your love is not my love.  Your fear is not my fear.  Your red is not my red.  Your blue is not my blue.  This is not to imply that we do not agree that love exists, or fear exists.  Certainly, we co-exist in a world surrounded by shades of reds and blues.  To suggest otherwise is Sophomoric. 

          We humans are intrinsically divided, separated physically.  That is, another cannot occupy the space that my being occupies.  Our acceptance of inherent physical separation intensifies the gratification of the human touch.  While transient, the Other’s touch succeeds in transcending that physical divide.  It is visceral and carnal: the slight brush of the arm, the soft stroke over the head, the back, the raw, sexual encounter.

          While we have found very elemental ways of relating in the physical, connections amongst the mental and the spiritual selves continue to present fundamental challenges.  We may agree that roses are red.  However, “red,” is nothing more than a symbol, a composite of letters, themselves smaller symbols-all of them dead, static.  Words have no meaning unto themselves.  They do not exist outside of a specific culture.  In fact, as our culture changes, as does the language.  Even as a fixed, arbitrarily assigned system of signs and symbols, -a default lens through which we may share a common worldview-language fails. 

          But, if we can agree that roses are red, then there must be a certain level of shared perspective.  Our culture has identified a plant in the environment and labeled it with the tag, “rose.”  Thus, that plant is a rose in Portland, Oregon, the same as it is in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  Further, the rose is “red” inasmuch as we, as a society, have agreed upon a certain spectrum of colors-light to dark-as demonstrating values we call “red.”  When one pictures “red” in one’s mind, it almost certainly differs from the picture in the Other’s mind.  Thus, while both the former and the latter may look at a rose and declare, yes! the rose is red, it is only an approximation, an unspecific designation.  Meanwhile, one’s introspective idea of red may be infinitely distinct from the Other’s. 

          If general perception of our physical environment differs so greatly, imagine the disparity occurring in abstracted human emotions such as love and fear.  When a couple sits in a courtyard, rarely abandoning the other’s gaze, grazing the skin on the backs of hands, touching feet, they invite attention.  The observer thinks, ‘that is love.  This couple is in love.’  However, definitions of love vary greatly and depend on perceptions, individual conceptions of love dictated by unique experiences whether positive or negative, clear or obscured.  The word “love” has a meaning.  It is broad and sweeping, and ultimately, wholly subjective.  Experience cannot be symbolized or shared, it can only be.  My love is not your love.

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No Reason

October 16, 2007 at 3:04 am (Uncategorized)

The weather is tremendous.  A cottage squats alone in a field, its warmly glowing windows isolated testaments of life in the dark night.  Great yellow-blue flashes illuminate the surrounding valley; the terrible explosions that follow seem capable of trembling the cottage’s foundation to ash.  Rain punishes the slate roof, and pours to the ground in intermittent clumps.  A fire burns inside.  The flames bewitch, diverting attention from the storm.  The cottage has one small bedroom and the front room, where the fireplace is, where the guests are.  They are seven in all, seated whimsically around the room: reclining in opulent leather chairs, lying prone on bearskin, seated smoking by a small occasional table in the corner.

Portentous clouds had hung low for days prior, breaking wide earlier in the evening.  The lords and ladies came seeking both shelter and company.  Electricity having surrendered to the storm, the front room is lit, in addition to the fire, by an intricate golden candelabrum and wall sconces.  Some of the guests play card games.  Ladies exchange community gossip while the gentlemen talk farming and politics.  A grandfather clock by the front door pierces the social graces-midnight.  With the six guests now keenly aware of the looming morning, the card games and conversations grow labored, weighed heavy by dullness and vapidity.

Until now, the party’s host has been smoking cigarettes in the rear of the room, watching.  Sensing growing malaise among his guests, he rises intently.  The man’s eyes and moustache swallow the rest of his face.  He wears the moustache thick, curled into great circles at its limits; above it, his sharp eyes are brown, shrewd, and weathered.  The cottage is a retreat for the wealthy man, a clever hobby he bought after his third divorce.  The other six in the room watch as he skillfully wields the poker at the fireplace; the shifting logs cough out great clouds of sparks and embers.  He feeds the flames fresh wood from a pile neatly stacked on the hearth.

The host sits cross-legged in front of the fire.  Devious shadows dance among the guests’ faces.  His form is black, his face silhouetted against the revived flames.  He smoothes his moustache with one hand while the other swiftly retrieves a single cigarette from behind his ear.  Without looking, he reaches back to light the cigarette on glowing red brass just within the fireplace.  The group becomes impatient, expectant.  The host appears pained, undecided.  His eyes focused on his lap, great billows of smoke rise from his mouth and dissipate to either side of his face.

The host quietly watches his guests: they gather close, leaning in.  He begins:  “It was not long ago-perhaps a month, perhaps a week-that a good friend recounted to me a tale.  I cannot say exactly when, for the events of the narrative have since consumed wholly my waking and slumbering thoughts.  I shall tell it exactly as I heard it, which, the friend assured me, was exactly as he heard it-directly from the mouth of the man who is at the center of our story.”  The ladies are visibly hesitant, seeking consolation in others’ faces, unsure whether they wish to surrender their days and nights to the forthcoming account.  But like the storm that brewed for days before breaking, their host’s intention now seems menacingly inescapable.  Like they had done in the face of the storm, the guests gather closer, the gentlemen and ladies who are in relationships embrace, while the others prepare alone, finding spare blankets into which they might vanish.

“Our hero is a man in his late twenties.  He is a good man, as worthy in spirit and action as the ugliness of our modern times allows.  His apartment is humble, its walls decorated with proof of his social consciousness, his avowed pacifism-civic indictments and anti-war sentiments.  The man, whom we will henceforth call Eric, struggled for the majority of his life with addiction, his passion and fervor often dematerializing in a cloud of illicit smoke and devilish brews.  But a couple of years prior to the events central to our tale, Eric was able to free himself of those constraints.  He began expressing himself obsessively through paint and literature.  Eric also began working at a local methadone clinic very much in need of his talent and zeal; he meant to give back to the community from which he came.

“Now, Eric worked queer hours at the clinic: 5am to 1pm.  He often arrived home in the afternoon anticipating a short slumber before continuing with the remainder of his day.  The heart of our story finds Eric returning home from work at just such an early hour.  It is a brisk day in early Autumn.  The bite of a new Fall conflicts with the waning summer months.  The sun shines brightly on his city block.  Eric parks his car on a corner close to his apartment building.  He wants to briefly enjoy the fading warmth of the season before continuing up to his waiting bed.   Eric steps out of the driver’s seat and lights a cigarette.  He reflects on another early, distressing day at the methadone clinic.

“Having scarcely enough time to enjoy the first puff of smoke, and before he has even a moment to retrieve his briefcase from the car’s backseat, two men are upon him.  They are well-built and clean-shaven, dressed unremarkably-t-shirts and jeans.  One of the men wields a handgun that he trains on the ground in front of Eric’s feet.  Their speech and tone are quick and pointed.  They call Eric, ‘Harry.’  The men tell ‘Harry’ to take it easy and stay calm.  Eric is blank.  His mind feels vacant, completely erased.  He is no longer standing next to his car, about to retrieve his briefcase, with a cigarette dangling impotently from his mouth.  Despite the speed with which the men approach, his senses and reactions seem to stretch slowly until they collapse.

“The men grab Eric roughly by the wrists.  The cigarette falls.  Eric feels himself wrench free.  He hears himself cry out.  He watches one of his fists cut slowly through the air, a punch thrown underwater.  One of the men falls backward, blood erupting from his nose suddenly and with surprising velocity.  Eric is bemused by the sight.  The other man is around his waist struggling, Eric thinks, quite clumsily.  Eric repeatedly drives his knee into this man’s face.

“Eric is immediately aware of many voices shouting.  Voices to his right and left, from above and below.  Thousands of voices, it seems.  And they are all upon him at once, the voices becoming grunts, the grunts becoming carnal and crimson.  Eric‘s vision becomes a camera’s viewfinder: tunneled, shaking, and unfocused.  The viewfinder is aimed at the man bent and still bleeding from the nose and then it is violently thrown upward, toward the sky.  The once brilliant day that straddled two seasons is now flat and unremarkable, white in its nothingness.  The camera swings to the ground, a two-dimensional image of the sidewalk and the grass shouldered up to it.  It zooms immediately close to the ground.  Eric feels the thousands of voices heap one on top of the other.  They thicken into one voice frozen in terror-muscular and bestial.  Eric realizes the sound is his scream.  Boots and fists unapologetically pummel his sides.  An open palm grinds Eric’s face into the dirt.

“Men that seem to have materialized out of the ether pull Eric’s body to its feet.  One man, stout and older, gums a fat, extinguished cigar.  Another wears a Kevlar vest and a golden oval on his belt.  Eric is aware that he is handcuffed.  Two of the men lead him to a tinted Jeep.  The door slams somewhere in his head, reverberating between his ears.  Eric is silent, numb, empty.  The man with the bloody nose sits in the front seat.  Tissue extends from one of his nostrils.  He violently barks into a walkie-talkie.  Eric glances around the interior of the truck.  Leather-bound notebooks litter the seats.  They are all embossed with the letters DEA.

“The man with the bloody nose turns back to Eric and explains the situation in broad strokes.  He explains about the stakeout and the undercover agents.  He gestures toward the corner where Eric parked his car, and he taps the face of his watch.  The man’s meaning is simple: wrong place at the wrong time.  Another man opens the door beside Eric.  He works the handcuffs free and, with sheets of Kleenex and disinfectant soap, begins to clean our hero’s open wounds.  More men, including the man still gumming the unlit cigar, approach the open door, hastily showering Eric with essentially genuine apologies.  And then, like a flock of birds swiftly changing course, the men return to their respective vehicles and speed away, in pursuit of the true target.  The man with the bloody nose turns toward Eric and extends his hand.  Despite his vacant perspective, our hero recognizes that while there is much left unsaid here, the handshake and the other man’s eyes convey a shared, if broken understanding, a deep regret.

“Eric melts off the seat and down onto the asphalt of his city block.  The man leaves in the Jeep.  Aside from lifting a hand to shade the sun, our hero stands motionless.  He allows the details to reemerge-the leaves, the rocks, the mud-those things that had been scared off during the chaos.  Eric notes that the details are not as vibrant as they were, but he attributes it to his being still in shock.  The briefcase is still in his car, his half-smoked cigarette still on the sidewalk beside.  Eric gathers these and walks toward his apartment building.”

With this, the host tilts a tumbler upward, letting the last of the single-malt scotch run over the rocks and down his throat.  Wind carries the rain sideways now, lashing the windows with staccato irregularity.  While the host recounted the tale, the flames have withdrawn considerably, cowering behind logs.  The guests, who have been sitting forward, slowly sink into more casual poses.  Couples whisper back and forth.  One of the ladies prods the host, insisting that his story, while certainly fantastic, does not qualify as macabre.  The host takes his time; he lights another cigarette in the fire, tosses the first drag back to the air, and deeply inhales his second pull.  The smoke rises off of his head, backlit by the flames behind.  He looks at the lady who impatient awaits a response.  He pulls the cigarette from his lips and holds it in front of him, examining, studying.  “Miss,” he begins, still focused on the tobacco smoke, admiring the careless odyssey of smoke furls, “our story, like our hero’s experience, has only begun.”

“Following the incident, time crawls for our hero.”  The host continues, “Eric becomes aware of new physical aches, discovering a new one daily.  His ribs are badly bruised, possibly fractured in places.  There is a deep gash behind his left ear that he takes great care to wash and redress every morning.  The skin around his right eye is serrated; this, also, he properly nurses.  In time, the most worrisome of his injuries heal.  And though his skin’s new deep reds and purples betray internal bleeding, Eric knows his body is not permanently injured.

“The federal agents are deep undercover.  Eric realizes that a chance encounter with them is not likely.  They are shadows, ghosts that exist only in files, and even then, only as aliases.  Besides, Eric doubts if he would recognize them, their faces smudged and blurred during the incident’s frenzy of movement.  Our hero never discovers the outcome of the sting; he will never know whether the agents accosted ‘Harry’ the way they accosted him.  In truth, Eric accepts that when the last agent, the one with the bloodied nose, sped away, it was left to him to reconcile the events.

“As I, Eric was raised Catholic.  We Catholics revere the power of language, its potential to destroy and rebuild.  Eric often sits in the confession box and imagines the telling of sins as a spiritual flushing.  He visualizes miniscule imps and knaves clinging to the roof and sides of his mouth.  They are washed loose, pulled under by a swift undertow of words, carried from his head along with full sentences, and left behind on the church floor.  So, in trying to restore some measure of harmony to his life, Eric began recounting the story to all who would listen.  He told co-workers at the methadone clinic.  He told men with whom he showered at the gym.  He told the clerk who sells him cigarettes.  One day, he told a young woman whom he did not know at all.  Eventually, he told the gentleman who, in turn, told me.  Eric called his parents, ex-lovers, friends.  All of them seemed incensed, demanding justice on his behalf.  But he knew that justice is not something that may be taken from one and redistributed to another, like welfare.  Eric understands that justice resides in the heart; he must make a personal reckoning.

“Our hero takes a week away from the methadone clinic.  He writes and ruminates quietly.  Steeping tea leaves in boiling water and leaning over the vapors, Eric repeatedly returns to the scene, trying to recall faces, movements, words spoken and words cried.  Much was lost in the bedlam, but he remembers growing physically, his chest and arms expanding.  Eric shudders to remember the growth, muscle seeming to replace emotion and spirit.  He decides that it is not the absorbed blows that shake him; he remains whole, survived to consider the event.  And it is not the quickening of fate, the way that life may change course suddenly, throwing its occupants chaotically against its walls-burning plans that had been painstakingly written.  Nay, Eric senses that a far more menacing weight drags him low.

“During the week, Eric rarely leaves his apartment-as I mentioned earlier, it is a space draped in posters, collages, and pictures displaying specific beliefs and ideals.  Our hero has cultivated these morals as finely as manicured bonsai trees, neatly trimmed and aesthetically pleasing.  He is well versed in the philosophical lineage from Tolstoy to Emerson to Thoreau, culminating in Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.  Pacifism, our hero concedes, is indeed a severe and unyielding burden.  Eric cannot understand his reactions that day; he is unable to reason his own violence into nihility.

“Something within our hero was beaten to death.  In its place, another was raised, molded from his broken ribs.  Eric cannot shake the feeling of being watched, shadowed, and worse, inhabited.  As the days draw slowly forth, the presence strips Eric naked, revealing a cryptic darkness.  The decorations in his apartment, like their underlying worldview, dematerialize into nothingness.  Eric can no longer look in mirrors with aplomb, fearing the appearance of a grisly face, severed between the eyes, split through the nose and mouth, exposing tendons and ligaments stretched to tearing.  He reckons that the violent encounter unsheathed this sadistic, feral quintessence that he longed to bury beneath that pile of posters, collages, and pictures.  In time, Eric shall come to understand the superfluous mechanics of society-everyday intimacies and social graces-as constructing a tightly woven leash always tensed, liable to sever and release our more nefarious halves.”

The fire behind the host is reduced to a warm glow emanating from deep within the canopy of wood.  His eyes and moustache consuming his face, the host sits back and carefully watches the guests.  They wait for more, but he knows there is no more.  One gentleman walks to a window.  The first suggestions of dawn: birds’ early morning calls, animals peeking through the brush, an opulent blanket of soft purple-gray light.  Evidenced by the silence in the cottage, the storm passed some time ago.  But the gentleman at the window announces the fact triumphantly, as if only to hear the sound of his voice, to be certain it retains its usual tone and eloquence.  The host remains cross-legged on the edge of the hearth.  He watches the guests rise slowly, silently.  They extend arms and legs, roll necks, stretching away the languor of the night.  The gentlemen tip caps, the ladies politely curtsy, and all extend salutations and thanks to their host.  He lights another cigarette and says nothing, still watching.  Those of the guests that are in relationships leave together.  The rest slowly file out one behind the other.  The host rises finally and goes to the window.  He watches the guests’ shrinking backs.  They are bankers and agents and lawyers and doctors.  It is a new day and he knows that they have occupations and relationships and reputations to maintain.

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Progress in Ohio

October 12, 2007 at 12:32 am (Uncategorized)

Ron does not loosen his tie or roll his sleeves, his oxford shirt pressed and starched to the rigidity of a greeting card.  He double checks his seatbelt, adjusts and readjusts the angle of the steering column, and slowly pulls out of the Business Commons’ parking lot.  Only fifty shopping days remain before Christmas.  Ron means to beat the rush.  He cautiously navigates his town’s main commercial drag.  The stretch of road only recently matured into a grand spectacle of season-specific decorations, marketable patriotism, multi-colored triangular flags, and aggravation.  It began, Ron supposes, as a whisper of a proposal: polishing the Rust Belt.  And then, like a fine fracture in a dam, it was a trickle: Target was the first.  The bigger grocery chains (Kroger and Rainbow Foods) were next.  And at the end of the second fiscal year, the rest of the big ones liked what they saw and all broke ground at once.  He remembers the years of construction not as a time-lapse, but in snapshots, the way it was probably documented by the corporations, a progression in 8 x 10s.  Traffic patterns had to be reconsidered: more lights, smarter merges.  Ron distantly recalls when the town’s lone traffic light pulsed a steady Red, Red, Red.  Being in sales himself, he feels uniquely able to appreciate the momentum.  Where there is demand… he muses.

He parks sensibly at the mall, not so close as to risk a fender-bender but still taking advantage of the empty lot.  Many of the town’s elderly and infirmed circle the walkways, their exercise air conditioned and set to a predictable soundtrack.  Ron waves politely to the regulars.  Like the vast parking lot, the mall is all but deserted.  At this time of day, there is a Pompeian sense of abandonment, of endless opportunity and preparation left unfulfilled, expectant.  Stores on either side lure him with colorful announcements of sales and needful things.  Ron read somewhere that carefully selected music and odors are channeled into the shared spaces of the mall while still other music and odors are expressly piped into individual stores to encourage corresponding leisure and efficiency in each sphere.  Genius! Ron thinks.

He enters a Gap, nose first.  He cannot perceive any scent that might make him stay longer, leave quicker, or spend any more money.  But just because he cannot smell it does not mean it is not there, Ron reminds himself, marveling.  He loves the look of the shelves, the way the shirts and pants are uniformly folded and arranged in neat rows; each item adamantly pleading a quiet case.  He picks up a collared button-down shirt with vertical stripes.  He does not unfold it.  Ron frowns with concentration, feeling the fabric, looking at the tag, holding it close, and then farther away.  He finds a mirror and considers the shirt against his chest.  Beneath thinning hair that arcs over top of his head, Ron’s features are sharp and, except for his cheeks, washed-out in the fluorescent light.  He has always hated his cheeks, great betrayers of his private thoughts.

An employee sees him at the mirror and tries to catch his eyes in the reflection as she approaches.  Ron is examining the shirt for imperfections, lifting folds and then quickly smoothing them over.  He does not notice the salesgirl until she is immediately behind him, politely waving.  Ron is startled by the intrusion.  She is slim and well groomed, her eyebrows plucked to delicate apostrophes hanging above friendly green eyes.  Her name tag reads: Samantha :).  Ron decides she is neither a beautiful girl, nor is she pretty in a traditional sense.  But she is not unattractive and he imagines holding her close, maybe in a field, perhaps in the rain.  He shakes the thought away, wary of his cheeks’ carelessness.

Ron immediately recognizes Samantha :)’s sales pitch.  The syntax, the diction, all taken verbatim from some type of corporate literature.  Perhaps the language came via e-mail, meant to update the staff regarding newly arrived items, but more likely it is from an employee handbook.  Ron recognizes the pyramid shape of the sales pitch: the most important information first, followed by progressively less important details.  He enjoys hearing her push the shirt; Samantha :)’s words, Ron knows, are the upshot of years worth of R and D.  But in electric and spontaneous ways, she punctuates the predetermined pitch with coy smiles and endearingly apathetic shoulder shrugs.  Ron is abruptly back in the field, holding her beneath rain clouds.

Samantha :) is waving for Ron’s attention again.  He realizes he has been looking at the fresh coat of polish on his shoes.  She asks if he would like her to hold the shirt at the front and if she can help him with anything else.  Ron is having trouble holding her eyes and wishes that she would leave him.  So he shakes his head silently.  Samantha :) smiles and bounces back to her assigned post (which Ron knows corresponds to a code like 1-A or 3-C).

Sweat beads generously on his temples and above his upper lip.  Ron removes a bleached white handkerchief from a back pocket and quickly dabs his face and neck.  From his toes to his fingers, every nerve in Ron’s body urges him to leave the store.  Shop elsewhere! the nerves call in unison like a Greek Chorus.  Take a walk!  Take a drive!  She might be off tomorrow; come back tomorrow!

Now, above all else, Ron values modesty and propriety.  He works in sales because he admires its austere foundation: he satisfies the need of the consumer-clean and straightforward.  Ron despises the aggressive salesperson who, for personal gain, exploits the consumer’s private vulnerabilities.  The boys from his first home office are now supervisors, and Ron works for a kid half his age.  So while his idealism allows him ethical authority, Ron fears it costs him pragmatically.

Ron is sick of pussy-footing around the perimeter of his own life-sick and tired.  He does not leave the store.  He decides to thrust himself headlong into the moment.  In corporate jargon, Ron understands the negative correlation between his progressing age and such opportunities.  Thinking on opportunities passed, he allows himself a moment to mourn lost relationships and employment prospects.  Ron knows well the fickle nature of circumstance, the way it approaches and passes, quick and sure as an Ohio evening’s thunderstorm.

He tries to be inconspicuous, glancing around the store from underneath heavy lids.  Where is she?  Which post now?  Ron spots Samantha :) at the back, behind the cash register.  Still holding the shirt neatly to his chest, Ron begins across the length of the entire store.  He walks slowly, providing room to spin on his heels, place the shirt back on the end cap, and blow out of the store, out of the mall, out of the town, out of Ohio.

Each step closer is a fantastic new zenith and an equally unknown nadir.  Ron’s ears are no longer attuned to the manipulative music, his nose indifferent to the engineered scents.  He takes his place in line behind a couple in their early 20s.  Ron observes Samantha :)’s grace as she scans the UPC, refolds a shirt, slips items into an oversized plastic bag, and hands the bag to the young man.  Ron sweats from his temples and lip again.  And again, the relief of the cool handkerchief.  Ron shifts his weight from right leg to left, the transaction in front of him almost complete.  He pinches his cuffs taut to straighten the sleeves.  He tightens the knot of his tie, now a rock against his throat.  Ron nervously kneads creases and divots into the shirt he is no longer conscious of holding.

Samantha :) wishes the young couple well, and turns to Ron.  He feels dangerously untrained, ill-equipped.  He imagines the men with which she has been, all of the sets of eyes into which she has peered longingly.  Her accrued love seen come and gone with the same gaze that she now turns on him.  Ron feels utterly beset by the moment-the horror and the delight.  He hurriedly puts the shirt on the counter and then is unsure what to do with his hands.  After awkwardly scratching his arms a couple times, he shoves them deep into pockets.  His eyes are on his shoes again, but he can feel her smile on the top of his balding head.  Samantha :) leans down to intercept his gaze: “Just the shirt then?”

Ron wants to tell her about the music and the odor of the store and the mall.  He wants to tell her how he has come to understand life as one sweeping sale.  He wants to tell her about his day, about all his days.  He wants to tell her about his home.  He wants to take her there.  He wants to make love to her.  He wants, above all, to tell her about the field and the rain.

Ron’s mouth is so dry he gums only a whisper.  Relieved, he does not think she heard.

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On Modern Romance

October 8, 2007 at 3:29 am (Uncategorized)

There are no more flowers given.

No more chocolates fed from

Shaking fingers to mouths.

No more coy smiles.

No more angst.

There are no movies watched.

No popcorn shared with

The occasional,

Exhilarating

Touch.

There are no bronzed Sunday afternoons.

No glances across the long table.

The eggs and bacon sweeter

With her taste still on

His lips.

There are only accidental meetings

At one of the same six bars where

Boys with stripes and pomade

And girls without shame

Accidentally meet.

There is a constellation of flaming lights.

Satellites of men and women

Swirling to the wood plank

And back to the privacy

Of wicked ends.

There are no held hands, risked glances.

No quickening heart at the sight

Of the one that he admires

But feels he does not

Deserve.

Gone are the moments of quiet and still.

Replaced instead by the myriad of

Sounds, rounds and rounds

Of lubrication thieving

The anticipation.

Memorialized in old movies and reruns,

Moments borrowed from another time.

He toasts as the chairs go up.

Those moments are only

Punch lines now.

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Strong American Men

October 6, 2007 at 5:33 pm (Uncategorized)

The rain falls like cuts of beef on the roof of the car, but this is still my best option. If I am soaked when I arrive, it will at least give me a solid alibi. The downpour drowns my words, so she watches my mouth as I tell her to park here, two blocks from my home. Our kiss is quick but tender, somewhat restrained on my part. I have to prepare mentally, and if I hold her now as I had an hour ago, it would make the rest of the night that much more difficult. Lately, my days and nights are composed of these small restraints, a fortress of slight, temporarily erected boundaries.

I turn around in the car and find my briefcase wedged between a car seat and her work things. We have not arranged for the next time, but with the rain falling so hard I feel suddenly rushed, even panicked. I decide I will call her later. One last look and I am up and out. The briefcase held overhead provides laughable cover and I am drenched almost immediately. I throw it under my arm and run up the street. I am able to keep pace with the drivers that have slowed to avoid flooding the undercarriages of their cars. And then, there is my house. My home. Barb waits. My son waits. Pausing under the overhang at the front door, I collect myself. I do not walk inside until I know the lie as if it were the truth.

I am leaning back from the table, cradling the bowl in one hand, scooping great spoonfuls with the other. Cereal for dinner again. Don walks in the door. I tighten my hoodie until only the necessaries are exposed, a view of the spoon and access to my mouth. Don hates when I wear my hoodie like this. Don hates when I tip my chair back. Don hates when I eat alone; he says it is a habit for drunken bachelors and old maids. Well don’t worry Don, the feeling is mutual. I can’t stand the sight of him either. There is no reconciliation, not any more. He has always been far more a Don than a Dad. I understand a Don, more of a child than I: working long hours and, when he is here, busying himself with his model train sets and such, and a slut on the side. Everyone sees it, everyone but Mom, who he is probably driving toward an early onset of dementia. The last, unsaid vow of marriage. I think the scoff is in my head, but he hears it and says something. I ignore him.

Don has caught me with enough headies to send me to ten rehabs. He has walked in on me enough to know why I lock my bedroom door and he has seen enough black eyes to know why I wear the hoodies. But I lie about all of it. No, I am only holding the weed for a friend. No, I fell off of my bed, and so on. I cannot help but lie. The truth is somehow too pure, too good for him. The honesty would spoil when it hit his ears, like the fairness of milk in the summer sun. I quietly watch him peel the suit from his skin, a puddle forming at his loafers. Don softly shivers. I see it between his teeth. I am staring. He notices. He says something to me but I don’t listen. I remember there is a girl somewhere in cyberspace waiting to cyberfuck. I want to take care of that, so I start up to my room. Don’s howling follows me up the stairs. I slam the door and lock it.

Bradley! He knows better than to slam his door. Well, I guess that means Donnie is home. Gosh, he must be soaked head to toe. I walk past Brad’s room and gently put my ear to the crook between the door and its frame: the short choking of quiet sobs. He will be alright. He is a strong young boy. I walk to the edge of the stairs. Just as I figured, a wet rat in place of Donnie, his hair plastered to his head, some tendrils reaching to the soggy collar. I think I just ironed that shirt. Poor man. I hurry to fix him up. I help him with the shirt and the shoes. I suggest sitting down, it will be easier that way. He helps me with his pants. He always did. Donnie stands in his sodden underwear. His legs look ridiculous like this, wet and pasty and malnourished, like still-wet papier mache. I figure this is simply how men look at this age. It is right, really, that he add some weight. He works so hard, my Donnie.

I leave him standing there and take the wet clothes to the hanging rack in the basement. They will become misshapen and moldy if I do not take care immediately. He is still standing there when I come back up. Donnie’s mouth and his voice and his mind look like they are all at odds with one another. He bends forward slightly now, about to speak. I do not have time to listen. There are dishes that I have been neglecting. I have to clear Brad’s table setting. When the clothes have dried some, I will have a load of laundry to watch. There is so much to do. And I have such strong men in the house. Such strong men. If Donnie has to say something, it will have to wait until later tonight. Then again, I have a big day tomorrow and am planning to turn in early. So perhaps it will have to wait until the night after next. Really, he may not have had anything to say at all. Donnie will probably catch a cold if he keeps standing like that. He should dry off and, from over my shoulder, I tell him so. I would help, but there is so much to do down here. There are the dishes and the table setting. And I cannot forget about those wet clothes downstairs. They will become misshapen and moldy if I do not take care.

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