Story — From the December 2015 issue

Too Good to Be True

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Harriet says she will take Gayle to A.A. meetings. Lois offers to pay her extra for gas and time, but Harriet says no, being of service is essential to her own sobriety. Plus, she gets a kick out of Gayle.

Gayle climbs into Harriet’s Corolla and together they cross town to the noon Keeping It Simple meeting at First Congo. En route, Gayle taps her window, says, “That corner there, you can get any pharmaceutical you want.”

Photographs by Mike Slack

Photographs by Mike Slack

“Not today, thanks,” says Harriet.

Back in her day, Harriet took a few pills. And snorted a line whenever it was free. At heart, though, she’s a garden-variety alkie, sober thirteen years. Her rebuilt life is chugging along, though a little cross-addiction to alcoholic men still kicks in from time to time. (They’re now sober alcoholic men — growth!) Putting her addiction next to Gayle’s, Harriet feels lightweight, a toast burner. (As in, Oh! I burned the toast! My life is unmanageable. Better join A.A.) Harriet drank too much, got fired off the line at Campanile, a job she’d loved, and that’s what woke her up, sent her into the rooms. But Gayle has spent twenty months on the street, and she just turned eighteen.

Every trip they take across town yields another revelation.

“Don’t tell Mom,” Gayle says, “but I was here in Pasadena for a lot of the time. Yeah. Like behind the Baptist church there? Someone left this old blue Crown Vic and some guy helped me take out the seats. I put in this air-bed thing. A couple girls and I kept it till a homeless took it over.”

Of a brick building on Green Street, Gayle says, “I blew a dentist there for pain meds and sometimes pharmacological coke, if he was feeling generous.”

Further down Green Street, where people and tables spill over the sidewalk: “That diner? We’d do the owner for hot meals, and also that pharmacist, but all he ever coughed up was some lousy Darvocet.”

Thus, over the weeks, these familiar avenues with their ordinary merchants and office buildings accrue, for Harriet, a shimmering glaze of pain, as if a whole other city lay shriveled and suf fering within.

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’s Off Course, a novel, was published by Sarah Crichton Books last year.

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