Ricky reached into his pocket for his cell phone. His one-year anniversary coin bounced out. Had it been that long since he had found a life outside a bottle of cheap whiskey? The coin had fallen into the weeds outside his apartment complex.
True, he lived in Section-Eight housing and didn't expect much from his environment. He had indoor plumbing and enough space for the essentials. Quiet existed in someone else's neighborhood. But somebody could cut the grass once in a while. If he had access to a mower he would have been glad to tackle the jungle. Although by now the area needed a scythe or a goat! If, if, if ... Wishing didn't help.
Ah, there it is. He surprised himself that a coin that couldn't buy a loaf of day-old bread meant anything to him. Maybe I'll call Morgan from the kitchen. If he could call that corner-of-space a room.
The refrigerator and stove came with the apartment. He didn't know how old the appliances were, but was sure no second-hand store would want them. Two out of four burners on the gas stove needed a match to ignite. The other two looked too fragile to touch. The refrigerator sounded as if it were making a continuous plea for its life. Pull the plug! I don't have the energy to cool a hot dog anymore.
He noticed his transparent reflection in the back window. Even through the grimy glass he saw how bent-over his shoulders looked. A family party. Yeah, he really looked ready for that. Maybe he could convince himself that everything would be all right. He straightened his profile with artificial confidence, but couldn't convince a see-through image.
Mama had invited him and Morgan to dinner -- to celebrate his first-year success on Saturday. But Mama didn't have a clue what sobriety meant. Sure he was happy he had made it this far. But Ricky had felt a satisfaction closer to making it after a year of high-dose chemotherapy. Mama's celebration sounded like it could be focused on ice cream and balloons. Carnival food and hot air didn't seem like a fitting response to a major lifestyle change. They belonged to a seven-year-old kid's birthday celebration.
From the floor above he heard glass shatter and a man swear. Not a new experience. Ricky bolted his basement apartment from the inside. He sighed. The smell of grease penetrated his nostrils. As a fry cook in a fast food restaurant, the smell of French fries had become repulsive to him. He made enough money to live on generic packaged macaroni and cheese and artificially flavored noodles, the kind with more additives than pasta. A diet that wasn't any better.
His sister Morgan did his laundry. She even said she enjoyed doing it. He believed that about as much as he believed she had completely forgiven him for stealing from her: a ten here, a twenty there. Once he had stolen a semi-precious heirloom ring belonging to their great grandmother. He noticed that she kept anything valuable out of his reach, locked. Her purse stuck to her side, as if it were a vital organ.
He had sweated through his Ninth Step, the big amends moment. Then his big sister had the audacity to insist that he look her in the eye. Admitting wrong buck-naked-but-blindfolded would have been easier.
He sighed trying to focus instead on the fellow newbie in the program Ricky had helped. Dennis had a problem with his car and Ricky had figured out how to fix it. Loose cable. Nothing too serious.
Ricky had explained to Dennis how everything worked under the hood. In kindergarten terms. And Dennis acted as if he were being guided through secret tunnels under an exotic castle. He reminded Ricky of a famous cartoon he'd seen once, of a kid was trying to enter a school for the gifted by pushing in the door. It clearly read: pull. Dennis was a nice guy, with enough education to rule the world but stuck with an over-working nervous system. Ricky wondered if Dennis had nightmares all night long. The kid was as jittery as a traveler stranded on an island inhabited by cannibals. Helping Dennis had made Ricky feel okay, at least for a while.
Ricky's cell rang. "Hey, sis, I was just about to call you."
"Yeah, well, I just got finished talking to Mom."
"You sound uncomfortable. Like your brain's constipated."
"Don't know what planet she's on."
"Sooo? Like this is something new?" Ricky sighed and switched the phone to his other ear as if that would change anything.
"No, this is just different. She's all excited about her new boyfriend. I met him. Once. And that was enough. He is an awfully lot like Dad."
Ricky groaned. "If it doesn't belong in a shot glass, forget it?"
"Exactly. But that isn't the worst part."
"So don't keep me in suspense. I don't want to wait for the next episode."
"She invited him to come for your anniversary celebration tomorrow."
"Does he know why we are getting together?"
"God damn! Something like celebrating a prison parole with a bank robbery." Ricky's pulse quickened. Morgan was usually the fiery sibling. But at that moment he was glad his mother wasn't present. He would have singed her face with profanity. The man in the apartment above turned on rap music, loud enough to shatter the foundation. Ricky wondered if the walls were part cereal box.
"Yeah, I know," Morgan said. "I wanted to let you know first before I called her back and cancelled."
"Sis, that job should be up to me!" he shouted over the noise. "Sure, you have been my backbone for years. Really, I think I need to talk to her in person."
"What if I pick you up in ten minutes? You talk. I'll listen."
"Yeah, yeah. You listen? That will be the day."
Morgan showed up at his door nine and one-half minutes later. "Maybe we should call first to make sure Mom is home." She dialed and Ricky laughed.
"Big sis forever," he said smacking her on the back.
"Mom, coming over with Ricky. Now. Got to talk." She hung up. "Mom was home," she said.
Ricky rolled his eyes. "No kidding. And guess what? I'm right here. With no sign of laryngitis."
"Sorry. I'll cover my mouth with duct tape when we get there."
"I'll ask if Mom has any in a junk drawer."
She was sitting on her couch when Ricky and Morgan walked in. The area around her eyes was red, as if she had been crying. Ricky groaned. Mama always did have a flair for drama.
He sat down next to her. "We have to talk. There's something I don't think you understand."
"Mom, did you stop and think -- even for a second -- about why we were celebrating tomorrow night?" Morgan paused then slapped her hand over her mouth.
"Until Chucky called a few minutes ago. Not really," their mother answered.
"Chucky?" Ricky said. "Who is that?"
"Is ... was, a very special friend?" Their mother's voice dropped so low Ricky could barely hear her.
Morgan stood arms akimbo. "The guy with the my-glass-is-half-full-so-fill-it T-shirt? The one proud of his beer belly because he never met a brew he didn't love?"
"Well, he was fun most of the time."
"So what happened, Mom?" Ricky asked. He couldn't believe how calm he was.
"I was telling him what time to come tomorrow night, just now, and he said he was bringing the wine. A huge bottle. Maybe two."
"I said this was going to be a root beer night and he said that was the most ridiculous thing he had ever heard. Either he brought the wine or he wasn't coming. So I said, maybe another day. But really I meant never."
"So you didn't tell him ..." Ricky stammered.
"Of course not," his mother said. "And I saw how much like your dad he was and what a fool I am. Not a pretty picture."
"I don't care if you have wine in your house," Ricky said.
Morgan's eyes widened and her mouth dropped open.
"For someone else. Just not for me," he said. "And by the way, would you happen to have any spare corks?"
"Corks?" Morgan asked. "For what?"
"I could use some earplugs. I live in a noise pit."
"Ah, sweetheart, I only wish you could get a better job. Or move back here," his mother said.
"In time," Ricky said. "All in good time." He had learned something from being sober -- when to keep his mouth shut. He was glad when Morgan didn't add her two-cents-worth and say that never would be the best possible time to return home.
Morgan had barely dropped him off when his newbie friend, Dennis, appeared at his door. "You're home. I've been by here three times trying to find you."
Ricky tried to steady his breath. What did he want now? Not car trouble again? But Dennis didn't look his usual agitated self.
"Where did you learn about cars?" Dennis asked.
"I don't know. Here and there. From an uncle mostly. A long time ago. I just like to see how things work. Why?"
"My uncle owns a shop on the other side of town, and his helper quit. Just like that. No warning. I told him about what you did for me and he wants to meet you about the job. He's so busy that he's desperate."
"Other side of town is a problem. I have a license, but no car right now."
"My uncle has at least three loaners."
"Lead the way!" Ricky said.
"He's waiting in my car."
"Wow!" Back straight, Ricky followed his unlikely new friend. This time his confidence was not a façade.
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