Working the Program
By Joshua T. Calkins-Treworgy
Copyright 2018 by Joshua T. Calkins-Treworgy, all rights reserved.
The following is a work of fiction. Any similarity to real persons, places or events is unintentional, or used in a fictitious manner. This work may not be copied, transmitted or distributed with or without the aim of profit, unless the express written consent of the author has been secured. Brief excerpts may be quoted for the purposes of critical review or promotion, but these also must receive the permission of the author. This is to include digital archiving. Violation of this expectation may be grounds for criminal or civil legal action.
For Dani, whose faith and love for me are valued more than I can express.
For Nicole Green, who sent me the funds to purchase the Alphasmart Neo that this work was written on.
And for the folks at River Valley Church in Shakopee, Minnesota, for making an outcast feel welcome in their midst.
The scrape of metal folding chairs being dragged into a wide circle filled the air, grating on his ears. He stood near a long, low plastic folding table set against the wall, so the cord for the coffee maker could reach an outlet. Two boxes of donuts sat by the machine, along with the disposable Styrofoam cups he’d brought. They were supposed to be provided by the school, like the gymnasium itself, but for three weeks straight, the group had been stiffed. The general consensus was that the PTA had likely lodged complaints about the group to the school board, and the board decided that subtle sabotage was their only recourse.
Warren didn’t mind. At least he didn’t have to bring the donuts; he could barely afford what he gave his father for rent since entering the program. His current job didn’t leave much funds for, well, anything, once he paid his bills.
“Not going to lend a helping hand,” a low, sultry voice asked by his shoulder. Gooseflesh broke out along the back of his neck, conjured by memories of the nights he’d spent in intimacy with the voice’s owner. “Big, strapping man like yourself is going to just watch the Doc put things together?” He half-turned to drink in the sight of Zoey. Her deep scarlet hair swept back in a ponytail, a black cold shoulder shirt over red leggings, muscular thighs and buttocks practically on display, he found himself as drawn to her as he’d ever been.
“I offered,” Warren whispered in reply, leaning close. He caught the scent of some sweet perfume on her neck, and would have been lost, had his eyes not fallen on the thin strap of her purse. Drawing back, he stared down at the bag hanging on her hip. “Zoey?”
“Hmm?” She smiled coyly up at him, craning her neck slightly. At nearly six and a half feet in height, Warren was accustomed to people having to do this to meet his eyes.
“Is that a real Louis Vuitton bag?” Her lips, full and blood-red as the day he’d met her, dipped down at the corners.
“It is. Why?” Warren rolled his eyes at her, letting out a tired sigh.
“Because you work at the goddamn DMV, Zoey. How can you afford a Louis Vuitton bag? Hmm? You think the Doc won’t notice?”
“I don’t think Captain Receding Hairline knows the difference between a handbag from Bergdorff’s and one from Target,” she sniped. “Are you going to stand there and tell me you’ve finished Step Four, Warren?” He looked away, eyes falling on the side door through which four more members of the group entered in a clump.
They were all smiles, those four, core members of the group. Roger was among them, looking healthy in his faded denim jacket and camo pants, his jump boots shined so well they reflected even the minimal overhead lighting in the gym. Roger broke from his comrades and stalked right up to Dr. O’Donnell, snatching his hand in a firm shake.
“No, I haven’t,” Warren finally replied. “It’s a bitch. But Roger’s helping. That’s why it’s good to have a sponsor, Zoey,” he said, finally facing her again. “If you had one, they might keep you from holding out stuff like that like some trophy,” he added, pointing to the bag. The look on Zoey’s face slid from annoyance back to one of haughty detachment, an expression Warren knew was all too natural to her.
“If I find one worthy of having, I’ll let you know,” she sniffed. Warren shrugged, heading toward Roger. How did I fuck her for three years, he asked himself. And why do I still want to? Roger pulled him in for a quick man-hug after shaking hands, looking around his bicep at Zoey after letting the slightly larger Warren go.
“You two come together again, Warren,” Roger asked quietly.
“No, not today. She’s, ah, been giving me some space.” Roger nodded, even grinned a little.
“Hey, that’s good. Remember, we’re not really supposed to get involved that way with other members or people we used to run with, you know?”
“Unspoken rules,” Warren said with a sigh. He poured himself a cup of coffee, taking a seat in the circle as other members bustled in out of the rain coming down outside. The gym, like the rest of the school, was constructed of mostly repurposed concrete and steel, providing a quiet interior with plenty of echo. As more of the seats filled, Zoey sat directly opposite him, hugging her purse to her lap for a moment before tucking it beneath her chair.
Soft-spoken murmurs of greeting strung out among them, until Doc O’Donnell took up his seat, notepad and clipboard in hand. He looked around at the eight men and six women seated with him, slowly making eye contact with each until silence reigned. “Good evening, everybody,” he began, looking down at his clipboard, scanning it briefly. “It’s especially good to see everyone here, including our newcomer. Neal, would you please stand up and introduce yourself?”
Warren looked over at the lone face he hadn’t recognized, a young man who looked like he would have preferred to vanish off the face of the earth altogether. Pale and dwarfed in a dark blue Spiral City Spartans down feather football jacket, the guy couldn’t have been more than twenty-five years old.
“Hey,” Neal said, his voice tiny, strained. He flipped his hand idly at the waist in a feeble hello. “I’m Neal. Um, I, um, used to be, ah, you know,” he offered weakly, eyes locked down at his hands.
“The First Step, Neal,” Doc O’Donnell said. Like all the others, Warren could close his eyes at any given moment in time, and the battered, oft-taped and yellowing posterboard sign the shrink set up on a tripod each meeting floated before his mind’s eyes. Written upon it in blue Magic Marker were the program’s core tenets, the 9 Steps. Number One whispered through his inner void, read off in his own voice. Neal cleared his throat, eyes still cast down at the floor, and spoke it out loud.
“Step One,” he muttered, half to himself. “Admit that you have been a criminal, and made a choice to become one,” he said, picking up volume as he rattled off the foundational tenet of the group. Warren thought back to his own first night in group, flatly refusing to speak even a word the entire time. The Doc had taken him aside afterward and informed him that keeping silent once was perfectly fine, but if he didn’t speak up during the next session, the court would have to be informed.
“Very good,” said the Doc, bringing Warren back to the moment. “Now, Neal here is a unique case in this circle, as he is here entirely of his own volition.” Warren felt his eyebrow raise up, sat up to pay closer attention.
“Well, it was recommended,” Neal said. “The judge said it would do me some good, help me figure out what to do with my life.”
“But it wasn’t court-ordered, you being here,” Warren asked. Neal shook his head, looking Warren in the eyes. “Well, Neal,” the big man said, looking around the circle. “Welcome to Henchmen’s Anonymous.”