Stacey stared at the blank screen of her cell phone in her right palm. In her left arm was her baby. The living room was dark except for the iridescent glow from the small television in the corner. The phone was one of those flip ones that she bought at WalMart. It was all she could afford ever since she had her baby. The legal fees added up real quickly it turned out.
She typed out responses to her baby’s father, Clint, only to delete them. She looked to her baby for some sense of what to do next. In her emerald eyes, she saw the resemblance of him. She laughed the laugh of a woman scorned, dejected, and perplexed. Would those eyes come with Clint’s same type of judgment or would, could, this little ball love her mother in a way that babies do: fully and without abandon. The question lingered in the space between them until it eventually enveloped the entire room.
Stacey hadn’t put her baby down since she came back from jail. It was as if she was scared that if she did, even if only for just a moment, that someone would come in and swoop her up for good. Tonight would be no different. She had places to be. Her options were limited, too. There was only one meeting tonight in all of the town. The next meeting in the area wouldn’t be for another few days. It was now or never.
Clint wasn’t going to show up to help her. Why would he? He was either at the garage with a wrench in hand and oil splatter on his jeans or at the bar bellied up next to a bunch of townies mindlessly swigging from their cold bottles. It was just her and the baby from now on. Time to get used to things as a single mother. Nobody was going to do her any favors. Especially after what she’d done, what she’d threatened to dissolve and lose altogether based on her selfish actions.
“It’s kind of funny how one night can change the rest of your life,” she read it aloud as she typed into her phone.
“Are you drunk again?” Clint responded almost immediately.
Ever since she bonded out a while back, the only time people kept in touch with her was to make sure she wasn’t back inside the bottle again, or worse.
“Nope. Sober, sadly. You?”
“Is the baby okay?”
“Like you really care!”
“Why you gotta ruin my night with this shit?”
“I’m sorry that you can’t get drunk in peace. Just doesn’t seem right that either of us should be able to.” Stacey smiled to herself as she sent this last message.
He didn’t answer. Stacey knew the point of her bothering him was because, somewhere deep down, a part of her needed him. She needed his heavy touch, his warm whiskey breath, his familiar embrace, but, most of all, his financial support. If she was being honest the final reason governed all else at this point.
She looked down at the coffee table in front of her. On top of the pile of unpaid bills was a packet given to her by her probation officer a few weeks back. It was a list of all the A.A. meetings in the area.
It had begun to get dark outside. Her savior, her knight in shining armor, was probably ordering a round for the regulars at the bar with money that should be going towards diapers instead. The sun would be nothing more than a distant memory in a bit. Another day was wasted wondering about her past decisions.
Still entranced by the thought of ruining Clint’s evening out, Stacey remained seated on the couch with her phone in hand. More than anything, she wanted to elicit a response out of him. Something, anything, to show that he still cared, even if she had to provoke him.
“If it wasn’t for the baby would you even respond to me?”
“Of course. I mean I bailed you outta jail, right? Gotta keep an eye on my investment!”
She burst out in tears with a grotesque snort and a chill up her spine. Her baby shook in her arms as she dropped the phone on the floor. It was over between the two of them. This much she knew for sure. Maybe Clint would walk back through that front door, but he definitely wouldn’t be unpacking. He’d come to visit the little one, but he’d eventually, always, leave because of what the baby represented, what it reminded him of.
Stacey gathered her belongings and the baby’s gear and headed out. She braced for the cold air outside but it still knocked her back a step when she opened the front door. It was a crisp, biting frigidity that caused the baby to wriggle around in her stroller. Stacey fought off the stinging wind by lighting a smoke. It was her first all day, as this was the first time she’d ventured out of the house in a couple of days. Along with the booze and drugs, she’d managed to curb her nicotine intake around the baby. She was, however, human, after all, and figured that she’d be better off fighting one vice at a time.
The streets were relatively quiet as she pushed her baby in front of her, guiding the squeaky stroller through the sharp wind. It was a two-mile hike to the meeting at the Episcopal Church just off Main Street. To get there, she’d have to venture past the trailer park where she used to smoke meth and then take the county road for a stretch, which had no shoulder, let alone sidewalk. With each step the crunch of gravel sounded louder and seemed to ricochet off into the distance, carrying to somewhere free from all the bullshit she was currently dealing with.
As she sang a lullaby to try and soothe her baby, two things happened almost simultaneously. The rain began to come down from the heavens and the stroller finally broke down for good. A front wheel busted off the already creaky contraption, leaving the baby seated at an angle on the side of the road. The little one’s wails matched Stacey’s newfound desperation. The rain picked up in intensity and poured down on the two of them indiscriminately. The downpour turned the recently iced-over snowfall to slush, making Stacey’s every step a precarious adventure. She slogged down to a few timid steps at a time, slowly plotting her trail forward.
With few options left at her disposal, Stacey did the only thing she could think of and raised her free hand, and stuck her thumb out in the direction of the county road. Cars zipped by her without so much as slowing down for the next few minutes. Stacey continued with her baby in hand. She knew that without a ride, and at her current pace, she’d surely miss her meeting in town. One vehicle screeched to a halt a few yards in front of her and waved for her to hop in.
Stacey took a seat on the passenger side without a word. The man, middle-aged, smiled back and reached over and helped her close the door.
“It’s really coming down out there, isn’t it?”
“I thought I was going to melt! I just need a ride into town, right off Main Street,” she replied.
“Lucky I’m headed that way,” he said. “But first things first,” the man unbuckled his belt and started to unzip his pants.
“What the fuck? Gross!”
“Watch your mouth, little lady.”
The irony of his last statement wasn’t lost on her, but for the time being, she had more pressing matters, namely getting out of the car safely.
“Unlock the door. Now.”
“Are you sure you want to do this? You’re looking at a two-mile walk.”
“You heard me!”
The baby began to wail out in response to Stacey’s screams, which now reverberated throughout the car.
“Move any closer to me and I’ll tell anyone willing to listen that you touched my baby.”
The man unlocked the door and grunted something unintelligible. Stacey scoffed at the notion that this wasn’t the first time this conversation had been had with the man. As soon as she stepped out of the car he sped off, middle finger raised in the air.
The rain had let up a bit in the past few minutes. Still, Stacey’s baby cried out in discomfort. Stacey felt like joining in with tears of her own. She kept her eyes dry except for the occasional drop from above and trudged forward, towards the meeting. She mumbled to herself something about coming this far and not quitting. Stacey bit off the filter of her cigarette and pulled deeply until her lungs were about to explode and then held it in for a moment longer before she released it into the air above them. The momentary escape felt good, warranted somehow based on the lengths she was going to just to do the right thing and not get high.
Traffic slowed down but the few cars that did pass sped right by them without hesitation. The edge of town was nearby and without much thought Stacey put her head down and continued with little acknowledgment of her surroundings.
The church towered over the rest of the houses on Main Street. It had an eerie aura. It was made of old dark bricks that were visibly deteriorating from the years of New England weather. The light from the half-full moon shone brightly up against the church and illuminated the entire building, giving it a peculiar glow.
Stacey noticed a group of faceless people huddled together outside the side entrance. They all had cigarettes in their mouths and cups of coffee in their hands. Clouds of smoke and steam obscured their faces. At first, she hesitated. She wondered whether or not to turn around and go home but eventually decided against it. She needed a signature to show that she’d come and she needed a break before the long walk back home.
She stepped through the talkative crowd, clustered in bunches of three or four, mostly split amongst the sexes. She kept her head down and tried her best to cover her baby from the view of the crowd. Sure, they were all the same, just a group of drunks and junkies looking to get better, but they were also notorious for peddling in gossip. The last thing Stacey needed was to be the source of the latest rumor.
Despite her unsteady nerves and shaky hands, Stacey managed to go undetected as she squirmed through the crowd and kept her head down. But when she reached the top step of the entrance she jerked her head back to make sure no one was watching her that she took a step too far and bumped her baby right into the brick façade which surrounded the door frame.
The baby did what it usually did and started to cry out. This only caused Stacey to lose her cool and try to muffle her sobbing. As the baby continued to shriek, Stacey tried her best to ignore her.
“Ma’am, are you okay?”
It was the chairperson of the meeting, Frank. He was a nice enough guy, too nice. Stacey liked to spend each meeting imagining what kind of drunk each speaker was and she still had nothing but a blank canvas when it came to Frank. That’s why she didn’t trust him. He was too perfect to be mixed in with these other losers. That, and the fact that he didn’t curse. When you’d been through what these people had been through, when you end up in a church basement with a bunch of strangers talking about how you lost it all, you’d think you’d drop a curse word once in a while. Stacey couldn’t fathom it, dragging yourself through hell and not uttering even one foul word about it. Others couldn’t curse enough, but not Frank, no, he’d been reformed apparently.
“I’m fine,” Stacey said as she shielded her baby further.
Before Frank could respond, Stacey brushed past him. She wanted no part of his superficial cordiality. She had to find a seat in the back because she felt guilty about bringing a baby with her. Even when she tried to do the right thing, Stacey felt the need to camouflage herself and disappear in plain sight.
As the room began to fill up with anonymous drunks, Stacey took a sweeping look around and wondered to herself just how she got here. The gavel banged a few times on the front desk and the meeting was underway. Stacey hated the way they started every meeting because it reminded her of being in a courtroom. Little things like this always seemed to haunt Stacey no matter how far away she removed herself from her past behavior.
By the time Frank introduced the speaker, Stacey had begun to nod off. The only thing louder than her ever-deepening snores was the cries from her baby from being left unattended in her tenuous, forgetful grip. Stacey didn’t wake to the sound of her baby. Since becoming a first-time mother, she’d already grown immune to the wails. Her lack of sleep won out and dominated her actions. She was too tired to give a shit what anyone around her thought about her mothering skills.
The rest of the room largely ignored Stacey. As the speaker began to recount their first drink, a cell phone began to ring in the back of the room. An idle ring or two was never a big deal during a meeting, drunks had talked through more obstacles before, but these rings didn’t stop. Stacey had yet to set up her voicemail. Someone would have to wake her up so that she could stop the phone’s sounds from further disrupting the meeting.
The woman seated closest to her let out a grunt and coughed loudly until Stacey showed signs of life. It took a nudge in the arm from the stranger to finally wrestle Stacey back to the present moment. Stacey shot the woman a look of disgust before she glanced at her phone and noticed that it was Clint. She picked it up before he could think twice and hang up on her.
“It’s me,” Clint stammered.
“What do you want?”
Stacey tried to play it cool and act detached, but she secretly loved the sound of his raspy voice. She could almost smell the beer and whiskey on his breath through the phone.
“Take it outside! We’re trying to listen here,” said the same woman that woke Stacey up.
Stacey flipped her off and headed for the exit. If she weren’t holding her baby already she probably would’ve forgotten her in her zeal to talk with Clint.
“Is that any way to talk to the man who bought your freedom?”
“If I knew that my liberty had so many hurdles to clear I would’ve stayed in jail.”
“Girl, you woulda been in prison. That’s upstate time. Bunking with your new girlfriend instead of playing with the baby.”
“That’s beside the point. Back to my original question.”
“Right, you’re probably busy with diapers.”
“I’m actually at a meeting.”
“Really? Good for you! Yet you still picked up my call. Interesting.”
“Just shows where your priorities are.”
“I was hoping it’d be the call to come and identify the body.”
“Cute, nope, just drunk and lonely. Talk to me. I just want to hear your voice. I miss you.”
“You were the one that left. Something about me being a junkie loser.” “I’m sorry. I was just upset.”
“Cut the shit you’re just in heat. Try a cold shower.” Stacey hung up before he could mumble out a clever response.
Stacey smoked a cigarette and tried to quiet her baby before she went back inside. She turned her phone off before Clint had a chance to call back. He could be very persistent when drunk and horny. She didn’t have time to negotiate with an immature guy who just wanted to get laid. She needed to get back inside and make it look like she wanted to stay sober to get her sheet signed at the end of the meeting.
With her baby now asleep and her cigarette down to the filter, Stacey composed herself and went inside. She slipped in and sat down without too much noise but still got a sneer from the woman from before. The second half of the meeting went quickly. They went around the room and people commented on what the speaker had to say. It was mostly full of key phrases like gratitude and one day at a time. By the end, the terms morphed together to form a sort of groupthink cult-like chorus.
Stacey waited until the final person was done talking to Frank and the speaker before she approached the front table. She had her sign-in sheet in her right hand and her baby in her left. Frank forced a smile as they made eye contact.
“Can you sign this?”
Frank looked at the baby and then back at Stacey. His smile was still planted on his face. “I’m afraid I can’t.”
“What? Why? Look, about the noise earlier, I’m very sorry. I thought my phone was on silent and I didn’t have a babysitter for the little one and…”
“Please, I’m sorry but you weren’t here for the entire meeting. There’s really nothing I can do.”
“Oh come on man. Please, you don’t understand what I had to go through to get here.”
“We all had to go through something to wind up here,” the speaker chimed in.
“Who’s talking to you?” Stacey asked.
The speaker scoffed and sat back in his chair in silence.
“What is this a power trip? Don’t make me beg.”
The speaker got to his feet and took the sheet from Stacey’s hands and marked an X on the paper and handed it back to her.
“The rooms aren’t for everyone. Unfortunately, it’s for those that want it, not need it.”
Stacey thought about slapping the man for his condescension. She looked at little Suzy. She had a twinkle in her eyes from the lights overhead that calmed Stacey, if only momentarily. She knew who she was doing all this for. She knew what she wanted. They went back out in the cold, together. It was a long walk home.
Patrick Trotti is a writer, editor, and Oxford comma enthusiast. He’s the publisher of LEFTOVER Books. For more go to patricktrotti.com and follow him @patricktrotti.