The A-Word

By Austin McLellan

I’m a temp. That means I live a fragile, insecure existence, never far from the unemployment line or worse. But I don’t complain. In fact, I’ve held a number of interesting positions: secretary, bartender, car salesman, baseball coach, census taker – all of them respectable occupations, but the pay is lame. To make ends meet, I’ve bounced around, often ending up in strange situations.

Recently my money ran out, and I needed work. At the unemployment office, a woman handed me a job lead . . . Tranquility Manor, a rehab center, needed counselors. Yes, the Manor kept doctors and nurses on staff, but they also needed counselors to watch the clients who came there to recover from alcoholism and drug addiction. Little experience was required.

That afternoon, I drove over to Tranquility Manor on my last gallon. A man interviewed me. Looking over his glasses, he said, “Well, you’ve got to be able to deal with difficult people.”

“Okay, but they’re voluntary, right?” I said. “I mean the patients choose to come here for the treatment?”

“Yeah, they’re all real happy to be here,” he replied.

I shuddered. But like I said, I needed work. So when could I start?

“Tomorrow.”

***

I was apprehensive during my first days at Tranquility Manor. I kept quiet and tried to learn the ropes. This was a 30-day residential facility; the men actually lived there, dormitory style. The other counselors and I supervised – kept them on schedule for meals, therapy sessions and Twelve Step meetings – and generally cared for them as a parent, babysitter and drill sergeant.

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I received no training or direction, so I simply tried to get along with everyone. I thought that was the smart thing to do. “Go along to get along,” right? That mantra had always served me well in life. Why not now?

But the Manor was not like other places, other jobs. The men here, our customers, came addled and lost, descending from various highs, drunks and altered states. They had abused of every type of substance: alcohol, narcotics, prescription drugs, weed. You name it.

A simple dose of abstinence in rehab, while not easy, could earn most of them clean pee tests in a few days, and to some extent, clear heads. But abstinence also shone a harsh light on the mind and the conscience; the men soon became aware of their situation – what they had become. Sobriety opened their eyes; now they could see. And this light, this awareness, could be stunning. Often, they blinked. And so did I.

One of my chores was to take roll every few hours. I simply counted the men lounging in the TV area, smoking on the patio or chillin’ in their rooms. I did this quietly, unobtrusively, just trying to get along with everyone. Frankly, I wasn’t paid to do much more. However, one day while taking roll, the word asshole fell on my ears. I knew it was for me. And I knew who said it – patient Burns D.

Burns D. had practiced law in Georgia, farmed cotton and drank bourbon for fifty years; then he checked into rehab to, as he put it . . . get his life back on track. But the truth was, Burns’ life had never been on track. His family was so exhausted with the man and his drinking that they purchased him a one-way ticket to the Manor.

Almost 60 years old, Burns D. was overweight and suffering from high blood pressure. A large wave of still-dark hair crowned his head like foam, a comb-over, but still thick and bushy. A pair of heavy glasses framed his face. The man retained some vestiges of his honorable profession, but not many. Loud and officious, he possessed a deep, rich voice he had cultivated into a formidable weapon during years of practicing law and drinking sour mash. So, when he bellowed “Asshole!” at me that day, I winced.

At that moment, I was in the hall with another patient, Scott G., explaining why he could not phone his girlfriend, since it was against the rules. I tried to ignore Burns, who stood nearby.

“But I gotta tell my girl I’m okay,” Scott complained.

“I think she knows that, Scotty.” I patted him on the shoulder.

“You don’t understand,” he continued. “If she’s not sure, she might do something crazy.” I knew a little of Scott’s story – how he’d been hooked on cocaine, how this girlfriend had dumped Scott at our front door one night then drove off in a hurry without even a good-bye. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Burns lurking and watching us.

I said, “Scott, your girl will be fine. Don’t worry about it, man. You need a cigarette?”

“I just wanna talk to her for a minute,” Scott pleaded. “One second!”

“Dude, you know we don’t allow phone calls ‘til Sunday. If I let you, I’ll get in trouble. Now . . . just . . . please . . . relax!” I could see that Burns was still hovering nearby.

“Why can’t you let me?”

Burns growled, “Maybe because he’s an asshole!”

At this, Scott retreated, leaving the field to the lawyer and me. We stared at each other in the hallway. Portly, with a slight limp, Burns D. was not an intimidating opponent. I wasn’t afraid, but the little training I received at Tranquility Manor insisted we not argue with patients. Many are in withdrawal or under medication, only barely responsible for what they do or say. So when Burns hit me with the A-word, I let my breath out slowly. I gently said, “No, sir, I am not an asshole.”

Burns flustered at my calm reply. His lips parted, but no words came forth. He seemed disappointed. Then he turned and limped down the hall. I let him go.

I congratulated myself on my restraint, though I had narrowly escaped an incident. My job was to care for the patients, not provoke them – though refusing to argue with some of these guys made them even angrier. I don’t know why, but a modest reply was like throwing gasoline on a fire. Did they take my polite manner as condescension? Did they think my silence harbored an insidious plan? After a while, I saw that conflict was their normal way of relating to the world; contrariness was a way of life, their default setting, who they were. If one didn’t accept their challenges, they were pissed.

After they calmed down, they became profoundly confused when not engaged in these little dramas. They simply didn’t know what to do. It wasn’t me. It was them. I would stay cool, calm, professional, above it all . . . maybe.

The next day, my boss asked me to monitor the daily chores. We assigned each patient a small job to do each morning or else they’d lose phone privileges. I didn’t enjoy this part, walking around with a clipboard checking their work. It felt petty and small.

Burns’ assignment was the coffee counter, and he attacked it with relish each day – one of the few things that made him happy. Losing phone privileges didn’t scare him. But this morning, as I went to check the coffee area, Burns was waiting for me.

He glared at me and sneered, “Think you’re reeaal important with that little clipboard.” I tried to ignore him. Burns couldn’t accept the fact that I actually reviewed his work. He didn’t mind doing chores, only that someone held authority over him, however small.

“Just checkin’ off the chores, Burns,” I replied, easy. “How are you doing this morning?”

“Give a little man a little power . . . now he’s a big man – a reeeaaal big man.”

“Just doing my thing,” I sighed heavily, as if I took no pleasure in my responsibility. “Your coffee pot looks good, Mr. Burns.”

“What’s so good about it? When a man can’t even do his chores without some asshole looking over his shoulder.”

“I ain’t looking over your goddamn shoulder!” I regretted this as soon as the words crossed my lips. I smiled through clenched teeth, my mind racing to find a way to escape the situation.

“Big man, big man, reeaal big . . .” Burns continued. Then he turned, snorted and stomped down the hall, muttering in summation: “Asshole.”

Again I winced, but he was out of range, too far away for me to say anything without screaming. I let him go. To heck with this guy! But I wondered how much longer I could handle the work at Tranquility Manor.

Burns and I remained at bay for a couple days. I checked the coffee area when he wasn’t looking. I wasn’t afraid of him; he simply wasn’t worth it. Burns wasn’t going to be happy with me no matter what I did, so I left him alone. I also knew that disengaging was my secret weapon. Simply backing off and letting a man spend some time with himself could do wonders. I suspected it began to work on this broken-down attorney.

As I took pains to avoid this patient, another day passed. I noticed he began to struggle. He paced slowly up and down the hallways, showing up later and later for meals, refusing to join in group therapy.

As I withdrew, other men also shied away from Burns. The audience for Burns’ dark commentary dwindled, until no listeners remained. That’s when the light comes on for many in rehab – when they’re finally, completely, alone. At long last, the truth can surface, maybe after decades of denial and evasion.

Of course, the main person who needs to hear the truth is the patient himself; but he won’t listen to anyone else. He needs to hear it from his own heart.

Burns was now finding he had no one to be mad at, no conflict to keep him intoxicated with anger and passion, no way to avoid the emotional consequences of his behavior. Maybe now he could face the causes of his behavior, which actually lay deep within, hidden away, waiting for a moment of illumination.

Sadly, some never find that light, that awareness, that peace – whatever you want to call it – when all the little games come to an end. It’s painful, sure; but it’s a gift at the same time. I wasn’t sure if Burns had arrived at that place, but something was happening to him. And I couldn’t do a damn thing to help.

Over the next few days, Burns’ clothing became disheveled, and I think he stopped bathing. I passed him once in the hall and offered a greeting, but he wouldn’t acknowledge me. On Sunday, I asked him if he wanted to call his family; he declined. He sat alone smoking on the patio. Finally, his coffee area became dirty and disorganized. I let the man be. I was fearful, but what could I do?

The next day, I escorted everyone to lunch, part of my routine at Tranquility Manor. The cafeteria was noisy as about 50 men and a few dozen women filled the room. I rarely ate much, but moved among the tables chatting with everyone.

I suddenly became aware that I couldn’t see Burns anywhere. I looked around, but couldn’t find him. Finally, way at the end of the room, I saw the lawyer sitting alone. Strangely, he was talking as he ate. I couldn’t hear him across the big room as he mouthed words between bites. Though he had his quirks, mumbling wasn’t one of them. If Burns was speaking, he wanted people to hear him. He didn’t make conversation; he made speeches. I knew something was wrong.

I looked again. His monologue continued. The drink dispenser stood near his table, so I surreptitiously eased my way to it, not looking his way, disguising my intent. I drew an iced tea and sipped while observing Burns out of the corner of my eye. As he chewed slowly, he peered down at his food; but I knew something was wrong. I sipped at the tea, watching. Finally, he looked my way. Tears welled up in his deep-set eyes.

I put down my tea and moved to help him. I didn’t know what to do or say, but it was my duty to aid any patient in trouble. As I drew closer, Burns stopped eating. Tears filled his eyes. A few dropped into his spaghetti. He opened his mouth. Then he spoke . . . there it was again . . . Arsh-hole!

I stopped in my tracks. Yes, the patient was hurting; but I was done. To hell with Burns. Yet in that instant, something was different. Something about how he called me that name . . . the tone, the inflection, I wasn’t sure. Then I got it. I saw it. It wasn’t me! I didn’t know what ailed this man, but he wasn’t calling me the asshole.

I took my tea back across the room and sat down with some other guys, watching as Burns sobbed between mouthfuls. After all the men had finished lunch and returned to the residence, I stayed until the cafeteria staff began cleaning up.

Finally, Burns rose. He tottered over his plate for a moment, and then moved toward the exit. Alone, he walked slowly back toward the dormitory. From a window, I watched him as he stopped halfway and leaned against a tree. I wasn’t sure he could make it; then suddenly he started moving again. It seemed as if it took the man a half hour to cross the 50 or so yards to the residence. Perhaps my withdrawal strategy had worked, but it didn’t look good for this patient. I wanted to help . . . and I didn’t. It was my job; but like I said, I’m a temp. Later, I asked my boss about the situation. He laughed.

I didn’t see much of Burns the next few days. He stayed to himself, reading in his room, smoking alone on the patio, taking his meals in solitude. I was busy with new patients and let the other counselors keep an eye on the lonely lawyer. Often this was the best way to deal with a problem; just let someone else take care of it. One never knew what kind of personal vibe resonated with a man. If a patient found me disagreeable, he might warm up to a different counselor. There was little rhyme or reason to it. I accepted it. I didn’t care about winning anyone over – especially Burns.

On Friday I came in early. A few older guys stirred about. They had likely been up since dawn. I saw Burns puttering about the coffee, polishing the counter top. I nodded a few “Mornings” to the men, but ignored Burns, assuming he preferred it that way.

I took my seat behind our front desk that was similar to a hotel reservation counter and started in on a little paperwork. It was a boring, mechanical chore and I wanted to get it done; so I plowed into it, ignoring the patients for a while. But after a few minutes I noticed a curious silence. Light chatter normally rustled up from the men in the dayroom, except now. I could feel something awry. I looked up to see what was wrong.

Burns D. stood directly before me.

“Uh . . . hey Burns,” I said meekly.

“Hey, sir, how are you?” he replied. He sounded cordial enough, but his words came at me hard and grim, like a slow brick. I braced myself, expecting the A-word.

“I’m all right, Mr. Burns. How’s it going?”

“Coffee area’s all straightened up. Chores discharged for the day.”

“That’s good,” I said weakly; but Burns still looked angry. I wasn’t sure if he was trying to break the ice or break my head. I eyed him. He was nervous, shuffling back and forth, looking up at me, then looking down at the floor – his hands clenched in his pockets. Then I noticed his shirt was tucked in, his belt was pulled tight, he’d bathed.

“Gonna be a great day,” he observed. He tried to add enthusiasm to this, but it fell flat. “Great day . . .” he said blankly. His voice drifted off as he stared at his shoes. He withdrew his hands from his pockets, jammed them in again. He coughed, trying to speak.

“Great day,” I assured him.

Then his face turned red. He inhaled deeply and blurted, “Hey, I just wanted you to know . . .” But he couldn’t finish. I said nothing. He looked around the room, as if searching for something, someone. Then he wiped his face, scratched his head and resumed. “Just wanted you to know . . . Uh, I just wanted . . .”

Something was definitely happening, I just wasn’t sure what. Burns was trying to get something out. I don’t think he even knew what it was. Maybe he was going to curse me again, but it felt different. I decided to help. No, it wasn’t a decision, just a reaction, a reflex to whatever Burns was trying to do, to say. Clearly he couldn’t do it alone. I wasn’t afraid. The lawyer continued, “Uh, like I said. I just wanted you to know . . .”

“Know what?”

“Uh . . . well, you know. That I’ve been k-k . . .”

I kept quiet, steady.

“Kinda, kinda . . . you know, kinda . . .”

Finally, I looked at him and said, “Hard?”

His eyes flickered. He whispered, “Kinda hard.”

I gave a little nod, but mostly watched him. The man’s body gave up a little tremor, as if he was trying to shake something off. He coughed again and said more firmly, “Kinda hard on you.” Then his face relaxed. He grew quiet. For the first time, I could see his eyes. They were clear, but he wouldn’t look at me. He added, “And there warn’t no need for it.”

During my employment at Tranquility Manor, I’d seen a number of apologies. Many of the drunks and junkies there had plenty to be sorry about and yet very little practice at making amends. They simply had no skills in this area of life, which few enough folks have anyhow. So I helped them. I didn’t want to, but that was my job. I wasn’t great at it and I didn’t get paid much, but at least I could hear them out. I’m a temp. That’s what I did.

“All right, Mr. Burns.”

“Just no need,” he said, brightening. His back straightened.

“No need,” I agreed. I wanted to add, And no need to call me an asshole ever again, but I stood pat.

Burns reached across the desk and offered me a thick, sweaty hand. I gave it a squeeze. He trembled, but held firm. Then he turned and strolled down the hallway, shaking his head and repeating “no need, no need” as if this had been a terrible ordeal he never had to endure again. Later that day, Burns appeared on the patio, smoking and laughing with the other men.

A week later, Tranquility Manor laid me off. That was okay. New patients – angry, confused men – check into rehab every day, and I wasn’t sure I had the patience for that kind of work. I was ready for another gig.

I said good-bye to Burns D. He didn’t thank me. I wasn’t sure that he could express thanks or that he was ready for gratitude yet. But he said good-bye. And he didn’t call me the A-word.

Austin McLellan, ©2014

Austin McLellan is a friend of many Twelve Step groups. His debut novel, Twenty Grand: A Love Story, will appear in April 2015 from Harvard Square Editions. He has published fiction at Akashic.com and in the Bangalore Review, Stepaway Magazine, and Monarch Review. His drama King Henry, Mayor was a finalist in the 2014 Tennessee Williams Play Contest. Austin has taught English and writing at universities in Asia, Europe and the US. Currently he lives and writes in Memphis, Tennessee, where he develops real estate in the inner city. More about Austin and his work at http://www.austinmclellan.com.

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