I wasn’t going to drink again. I’d had it with the days after, the strange awakenings in strangers’ beds, the lost jobs, lost phones, lost keys. And the program actually worked for me, everything clicking into a soft landing place. I got it, I embraced it. No falling off. No using friends. No parties or bars. I found a decent job at the university postal center; mail sorting for the students soothed me. Things were good like that.
At least, for a while.
My apartment was small, dim, safe. I didn’t know anyone in the building other than to say hello and scurry past. I only knew one person by name, but we’d never talked.
He lived down the hall. Tall, evenly muscled, maybe thirty. I’d seen him at meetings. But I kept my distance. I wasn’t doing relationships, not anymore.
Headed out back with my trash can one evening, I spotted him staring up at a fat Florida moon. After we exchanged appreciative lunar commentary, Bradley apologized for taking up all the room in the dumpster.
“Moving out,” he said with a flashy smile.
“Where to?” I asked. The night air had a serious chill to it, uncommon in south Florida. I was ready to return to my flannel throw and the crime drama DVD I’d been watching. “You moving on up?”
“Yup. Got me a new economy. Real money. Enough for a one-bedroom east.”
We lived in the Everglades, where the smell of burning sugar cane lingered for months. The mosquitoes were bigger, the rain storms harder and more frequent. Atlantic breezes were a dream in someone luckier’s head.
“Congratulations,” I said, easing away. His blue eyes were intense, his teeth too white. Pretty boy. Trouble. “I wish you the best,” I said, heading for the back door to our building.
Bradley followed me up the cement stairs. “You might be interested in the work, Lehigh. They’re recruiting right now. I could get you a meeting. You wouldn’t believe the pay. And you make your own schedule so you can keep your current job. I mean, if you want to.”
He stood close to me on the landing, his eyes catching mine and holding. He smelled good, like a fresh mowed lawn. Holding open the door to our floor, he said, “Come over for a few minutes. I’ll run it down for you.”
Not a good idea. He was too attractive. I was too vulnerable.
His apartment was so empty our footsteps echoed. Cardboard boxes lined one pockmarked wall. We stood in the middle of the living room while he explained the job.
Drunk and junkie recruitment.
“You chat up the lost kids,” he said. “Pick up the AA dropouts slumped in bars and on benches. Help them. For each head you bring in, it’s five hundred. Cash on delivery.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Why? I don’t get it.”
He sat on one of the larger boxes, indicating a spot beside him. I sat too, our thighs gently grazing.
He said, “See, each time we refer an addict for testing and counseling, somebody’s making money. Us, on delivery. Our recruits, who get a place to stay and spending money, which they usually use for drugs and booze. The sober houses earn the most because they scoop from the insurance companies and the government trough. Get it?”
I tried to focus but I was distracted by his taut body, his earthy warmth.
“Okay,” I said. “Yes. I get it.”
A few weeks later, I quit the university mailroom and moved east with Bradley. Delray Beach is the epicenter of Florida’s lucrative sober house economy. There are so many addiction treatment centers in this town, the sidewalks are littered with lost souls.
We spent afternoons in the coffee shops on Atlantic Ave and the dark bars on the shady side of town. In the evenings, we attended local AA or NA meetings. We hung around outside afterward to chat up the new attendees. Teenagers and old bums were the most in need of our services. They wanted to be paid so they could continue to do what they do. The kids used their insurance cards like credit cards. If we referred them to intensive outpatient therapy, we got a fat bonus.
We lived large on those IOP bonuses.
Life was good for a few years. We moved to a two bedroom right on the beach, and I had a car. My own little black and white Mini.
Last night after dinner, Bradley said I should attend the downtown Narc-A-Non meeting on my own. He said he had to see the guy at Recovery World about our back pay. I offered to go with him, but Bradley said no.
Pulling on his dress jeans, he looked over at me, his handsome face serious. “He’s a brute. And you’re no hug-a-thug.”
I laughed. My knight in shining denim.
“We’ll pop a bottle of your favorite non-alcoholic champagne after I collect all our back pay,” he promised on his way out the door.
After dressing in my usual Anonymous uniform, nonthreatening white jeans and a loose blouse, I went to the meeting. For two hours I listened to reluctant stories of loss and lingering desire. A pretty blonde girl sitting in the back row seemed the most ripe. Teary eyed, shaky. Alone.
It’s best to body broker singles. Nobody around to talk them down. You give them the spiel, drop them off, register for your payout, and you’re home within the hour.
When I approached the girl in the parking lot, she stared at me over a hand-rolled cigarette. The messy braids, tight black clothing, she looked like a schoolgirl. Up close, her work-lined face suggested otherwise. She seemed burnt out, hard but still open. Susceptible.
I offered her the standard deal. A room and “cigarette money.”
Her eyes widened. “Wow. Good timing. I got nowhere to be. Parents kicked me out.”
I spelled out the details of the introductory offer. “You agree to get drug tested and attend counseling three times a week. In exchange, you live in the bedroom they assign. Shared bathroom, kitchen access. You won’t be kicked out, and you’ll get a stipend. Spending money for whatever.”
Her sharp eyes narrowed. “What happens if I use?”
I shrugged. “People relapse all the time. There’s a forgiveness program. And you’re free to leave at any time.”
Anytime your insurance runs out. I didn’t tell her that, though.
She sat in the passenger seat, silent while I drove west to Recovery World. I was hoping to catch Bradley. But when I turned down the palm tree-lined street, a throng of squad cars blocked my way. A white crime scene van and more cop cars filled the driveway at the sprawling sober house.
What the heck?
I pulled into a neighbor’s driveway and stopped. Two mockingbirds were sitting on the telephone wire overhead, broadcasting the evening’s events. I turned to my passenger, running through the options in my mind. I could drop her off downtown. Or keep her with me until I checked in with Bradley, see if he knew what was going on.
My new recruit made the decision for me. Her face expressionless, she reached over and put one hand on the steering wheel. The other reached for her badge.
The women’s division of the county jail smells like cheap perfume and vomit. It’s overcrowded, dimly lit and dank. I’m waiting for the court-appointed lawyer. I’m worried about what he’ll say when he sees my juvie record. It’s not going to be pretty.
One thing’s for sure. When I get out of here, I’m going to get me a drink. It’s all I think about now.
Originally from Boston, Mickey J. Corrigan lives in South Florida and writes noir with a dark humor. Books have been released by publishers in the US, UK, Canada, and Australia. Project XX, a crime novel about a school shooting, was published last year by Salt Publishing in the UK.