This is the full Chapter 11 from Nobody’s Laughing
Fortunately, the Narcotics Anonymous meeting is only a tenminute walk. I am looking forward to being out in the evening with the drizzle and nighttime city sounds. Like most of us I suppose, I’m a complicit prisoner of my sentimental thoughts on these nighttime strolls, never fearful of the cloak of darkness but always alert and open to the benevolent ghostly signs invoked by those ever-watchful, beloved departed souls that rise to greet us under night’s consoling mask as they try to guide our journey here on earth. They do not live, as we have seen in movies, in abandoned attics with cobwebs draped like curtains over a windowpane, or beneath a gnarled tree whose trunk bears the initials of a tragic youthful unrequited love, but instead live within us and speak to us from within. It is their caring voices that we hear throughout our lives, whispering to us above the confusing chatter and the unsettling din. * The building that houses the Narcotics Anonymous gathering is a cramped and faded, two-story stucco walk-up. It is wedged between two new giant towers recently erected during the building boom. The small building’s mildew-stained cement speaks of lost opportunities. The ground floor houses a lesbian bookstore and coffee house. Beside these, and nestled further to the rear, is a small shop that sells spiritual paraphernalia, such as crystals and pyramids and possibly Ouija boards. The meeting is on the second floor at the rear of the building. It is down a narrow hallway, where the low ceiling is watermarked from a burst pipe or compromised asphalt roof. I suppose all of this spells affordability of rent for the cash-strapped, recovering addicts who assemble behind these flaking plaster walls in good faith and human harmony, long suffering souls, who with time and a sincere commitment to “the program,” have a good shot at the happiness that had previously eluded them.
As I enter the front doorway, going past the lesbian bookstore entrance and the now closed spiritual gadgets shop, and begin climbing the creaky, wooden stairs, the smell of sandalwood incense hangs pungent as mother earth’s own sensual body odor in the closeted space. I am a bit nervous, perhaps “uncertain” is a better word to describe my feelings, but as I ascend to the second floor stairwell I pluck up my resolve. I must continually remind myself that all this is ultimately the stuff of being a good father.
The room is surprisingly large, which suggests that although these old buildings look dwarfed from the street beside the new behemoths, they are, in fact, pretty substantial in their own right and for their own day. Several, small clusters of five to seven people are standing or milling about throughout the space. For the moment, no one seems to have seen me or if they have, cares to pay me any heed. Not knowing exactly what to do, I stand by the front table near the door and try to appear completely engrossed in reading the sole piece of paper lying on the desktop. Unfortunately, it has only two words printed on it: WELCOME ALL. I study these words as if their profound meaning is possibly too abstract for me to fully comprehend. As the moments tick by, I begin to feel a little foolish and wonder if I would be conspicuous if I quietly turned around and headed back out the door. I could nod collegially to anyone I passed on the confined stair space, as though I were just popping out to get something of great import from my car, confirming that I would be back in a jiffy, all primed and ready for the weighty matters at hand tonight.
When I look back up, I am, to my relief and possibly mounting dread, face to face with a large, Indian man with tall, white-and-blue eagle feathers sprouting from the back of his head in a festive spray. His long, black braids hang down on his colossal chest, framing an ornamental breastplate of colorful, wooden beads thatched together by an unseen string, no doubt made of moose gut or an elk’s lower leg tendon. The rest of his garb is more western, featuring standard boot-cut Levis and a plain, black turtleneck sweater worn under the warrior’s accessories. He smiles the laconic, wide-mouthed welcome of someone who has known tremendous sadness but is here, tonight, as an ambassador of good things coming.
“Welcome, my friend,” he quietly intones extending his hand, “We have gladness in our hearts that you have come.”
I take his broad hand, the fingers of which are as large as a cluster of bananas. I am immediately aware of how little pressure he applies to his grip for such a big fellow. I pump his hand up and down twice, as if sending him some official, coded signal that all is well on the western frontier.
“I am Chief White Eagle Man Buffalo Child,” he states and then stands in silence, studying me with an amused twinkle in his deep-set Asiatic eyes. His dark skin stretches smoothly and seamlessly over his high cheekbones and slightly orbital nose.
“Thank you,” I say, momentarily unable to unlock my eyes from his. It is as if he has placed me under some kind of shaman’s spell, and I may wake up days from now seated naked and shameless as a child on a hillock in Stanley Park with floral paint swatches across my chest and back. I would be unable to explain how I got there or what on earth had happened to my fears. As I continue to stand in silence staring at Chief Whatever-The- Fuck-His-Name-Is, someone else crowds my peripheral vision. I turn my eyes toward this new person. This time, it is a twenty-something woman with a pretty face and forthright manner.
“Hello. My name is Robin. Welcome to our group’s NA open-house meeting tonight. I hope you learn something and that we can be of help.” The Chief steps back into the room and is gone as quickly as he appeared.
“My name is Richard Bonhom.”
Robin politely interrupts, with the slightest hint of an authoritative edge. “Richard, we have no last names here. For obvious reasons, an important part of our program is protecting anonymity.” Now aware that she may be pushing a bit hard for someone on the greeting committee, she retrenches slightly with a smile. “You are simply Richard tonight. Welcome. Please have a seat wherever you like. The meeting will begin in a minute.”
I see that rows of folding metal chairs have been placed in the front of the room facing a small lectern with a goose-necked light arching over the top. It casts an austere glow across the face and upper body of the presenter—a man somewhere between forty-five and sixty. From this distance and under this light, he has the semblance of someone fairly young, but looks a little haggard, not so much in his features as the actual mantle and tone of his skin. This is, no doubt, a lingering after-effect of a compromised liver, due to Hepatitis B infection or something equally as destructive, the vagabonds of his squalid past not all that far behind him. He greets us warmly and asks all to rise for a non-denominational moment of silent thankfulness.
I rise with everyone else and once again see the Chief across the room by the far wall, towering over his surroundings like an oak. As I close my eyes and bow my head an involuntary shudder runs through my body. Why is my absent daughter not standing here beside me, helping to guide me along this unknown path? Why must strangers usher me through these sustaining rituals instead of my own flesh and blood? I’m suddenly and inexplicably panic-stricken. I want her here and not out there, wherever there may be tonight. Instead of this rising dread, I want her close by where I can see her and feel her presence and know for certain that in this moment she is alright. I am aware that I’m trembling and have the panicked feeling that I may topple forward in the sudden throes of vertigo. My God, I may faint! I open my eyes to locate the back of a chair or something I can hold onto. The queasiness is suffocating and I sit back down with a hard thud, fortunately hitting my chair squarely. At that very moment, everyone else sits down, so I haven’t caused a scene. I breathe a deep sigh of relief and feel the claustrophobic giddiness lifting from my head and body. I’m okay again but uneasy, not knowing when the next, more volatile wave might cast me onto the floor, like someone clamped within the tightly knotted fist of an epileptic fit. “Breathe, breathe, breathe,” I tell myself. I’m fine again.
The man at the lectern is giving us a basic, boot camp spiel on why we’re all here — which we already know in sorrowful abundance. He continues, perhaps more to the point, about what such meetings have been designed to achieve. He has begun with a brief history of his own drug dependency, which started in his mid-twenties and escalated to its zenith when he was caught in a shootout with police in downtown Montreal during a bank heist that went terribly wrong. At that time, it seems he was doing his damnedest to feed a monkey on his back that was gobbling up a thousand smackers a day. Ouch! The story now turns remorseful and introspective as he tearfully begins to detail his time spent behind bars. He sorrowfully catalogues the unsavory things he had to do while inside, in order to keep his gnawing habit alive. It’s a pitiful story oft times told. At its conclusion, the people in the room give him a heartfelt, yet respectfully controlled, round of applause, letting him know that we may not completely understand just how fucked up one can allow himself to become, but we hold no judgments and are here for him.
The next person to approach the microphone is Robin, the woman who greeted me when I came in. Her talk is centered on not only her personal struggles with swallowing painkillers and then injecting barbiturates, but also on the common struggle of many of the people in the room tonight and its effects on their families, friends and relationships in general. Recognizing this part of the evening as pointing more in my direction, I sit up a bit straighter and listen for any clue or bit of offhand advice that may help. After twenty or so minutes, I can summarize the upshot as follows: there isn’t much anyone can do or say or even think, other than we must somehow wade through this dismal fog of absolute uselessness, trying to remain hopeful that our loved ones will miraculously wake up one day from their selfish stupor and climb onto the recuperative treadmill leading back to us.
I have my pen and paper ready to take some notes, but end up doodling on the corners of the page. The full knowledge uncomfortably creeping over me that there will be no ‘quick fix, five key points, whatever you do watch out for these telltale signs’ kinds of enlightenment. It’s going to be more of the same old, same old, until one way or the other it’s finally over. “Keep a stiff upper lip” is tonight’s storm-weather beacon. Casting a judgmental glance around me tonight my first and deepest impression is that of systemic failure. Our systems may be outdated and crumbling before our eyes, brick by brick. Now that more and more cracks are appearing, we’re scrambling to daub paint on the surface to make it look sound. Maybe we’re afraid to face the fact that the whole thing—our so-called social order—may be coming apart. The cornerstone structures of school, church, government and marriage are falling down. And these people here tonight may well represent those first telltale, cautionary faults spreading out across the surface.
After Robin’s talk, we are all invited to have some coffee and chat informally. I place my vacant pad of paper on my chair, all too aware of the absence of anything helpful written on it. I self-consciously wish that I had brought a hat or scarf to conceal this, like a truant child. It is as though it somehow is a reflection of my lack of commitment to my daughter’s recovery.
I now move over to the lineup in front of the coffee urn. The man and woman standing directly behind me are rotund people of middle age who look like gnomes from an old world fable. When I glance and smile at them, they take it as a cue to open up. It is as if their voices have been muted for far too long, and if they can’t say something, anything, they will burst.
In a strong German accent, the man says, “Vot a vonderful place zis iz for dose poor people mit de drugs hapit.”
His wife nods approvingly to this statement, her beleaguered frown telling volumes about their story. I shake my head a little too exaggeratedly, perhaps even idiotically, as if the gesture itself is in some alien language whose sympathetic meaning may transcend linguistic differences. “Wonderful. Wonderful,” I say, rocking back and forth slightly on my toes and staring dumbly at the darkened window, as if I am waiting for a sign or good omen of vindication and possibly hope, something miraculous that will ease the tension in the room, for me, at least.
The man now sticks out his little, fat hand. “I am Helmut unt zis iz my vife, Heidi. Ve own Helmut’s Sausage Heaven. You may haf zeen our advertising on za teevee, yah?”
It is true. I, like everyone else west of the Rockies, have seen the television ads with the fat little cartoon character in lederhosen who, by the way, looks a hell of a lot like Helmut hailing one and all to “come unt taste my award-winning sausage.” This guy’s made a bundle stuffing his bratwurst. I must admit, I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that those singsong commercials with the bit about “having a taste of his all meat sausage” have spawned more than one light-hearted sexual jibe around the office. This is especially true when some sweet saucy trainee from the steno pool happens to be within earshot. I can say with confidence that Desiree has been taunted with this shallow, carnal reference by more than one of the brokers on our floor.
Helmut’s pleasant, elfin wife shyly proffers her chubby pink hand for a squeeze. She now hums in a kitchen-cozy little purr that makes me feel like being seated at her table eating a giant piece of strudel and washing it down with a scalding cup of creamy, thick, home-made, Swiss hot chocolate.
“Ve are here because of our zon Friedrich. He iz mit de bad mans zootink drugs like crazy people.”
She now mimics a person shooting a hypodermic needle into her pudgy, freckled forearm. As if on command, their eyes mist up with emotion, and he takes her hand in his and taps it with bewildered pat, pats. This forlorn gesture signifies more about their family’s troubles than any further words can concede. They gaze downward, embarrassed that this one seemingly undemanding sentence uttered countless times over the past years still invokes the same despondent reaction in them.
I look at these two poor souls with the sincerest of empathy. After all, I’m not unlike them in this one all-consuming connection with our wayward children. They have come so far and seen so much turmoil in their years. They have always stood up and done the job required of them, without complaint or reservation. And for all this effort and diligence, they got Friedrich—or maybe on the street he is simply Freddy, or “Big F,” or Froggy—who, there is no doubt, repeatedly humiliated them by tipping off his drug-crazed goons about where the safe was hidden in the Helmut’s Sausage Heaven Coquitlam location and what time the staff took the cash bag to the late night auto teller, these betrayals forcing his crestfallen parents to change the work schedules for their staff and adjust their patterns for nighttime deposits throughout the stores. I would love to go out on the street and hunt down Freddy or “Big F” or Froggy grabbing him by the scruff of his goddamned jacket and shaking him so violently his teeth rattle. All so that he can have some inkling of knowledge and, even more important, take responsibility for the pain he has visited upon his distraught parents. But I know I can’t, and I know it isn’t right, and it isn’t going to help any of us. But for this split second, it helps me. And Jesus, but that’s worth something to me here and now, if not in a soberer moment later on. As we return to our seats I suddenly feel forlorn and abandoned, knowing that my rage at the woebegone Friedrich is really targeted at my estranged beloved daughter.
For the next forty-five minutes or so, the meeting shifts its focus to the guests, the relatives and significant others of the addicts, all of whom carry some of the same scars, plus others reserved for those of us here tonight that were the innocent bystanders. Remembering that we all remained conscious and lucid throughout these monstrous, drug-induced ordeals, our memories clearer and perhaps even more painful than those foggy recollections of the comatose users themselves. I don’t get up to speak, but instead sit quietly and listen to the damaged survivors timidly opening their hearts to us.
A woman in her mid-forties now stands self-consciously beside her chair. Turning around bravely to take in the whole room, she laments, in a thin, barely audible voice, how her teenaged son’s exit from their loving home for his new life as a crystal meth abuser has broken their spirits and laid waste to their anguished souls. The last time she had seen him was when she posted his bail in the wee hours of the morning after he was apprehended while trying to break into a used furniture store to steal a cheap lamp on display in the window. She shakes her head and shrugs her shoulders in perplexed consternation at this absurdity. Like the rest of us, she seems to be held captive by the unanswerable question of why he would choose something of so little value to steal. Why not a car, or an expensive piece of jewelry, if a possible jail sentence is a part of the equation? Along with her and everyone else here tonight who has been a victim of the addict’s mindset, I would guess the answer may be as simple and immediate as the fact that the lamp happened to be in front of him at the very moment he needed some cash, and that this alone was the entire rationale behind the otherwise thoughtless action. Immediate gratification. Supply and demand.
As she sits down, a man stands and tells us of his nephew’s disappearance several months before. He asks if there is any group or organization of volunteers that may be able to help locate him. Robin, the acting moderator for this portion of the meeting, gives him a phone number and a glint of hope that someone may know something. And on it goes from one to the other in a seemingly relentless chorus of pain. I want to feel better about coming here tonight, but am not convinced it was the smart thing to do. Rather than acting as a crutch for me to lean on and use to reinforce my determined stance, it has simply reinforced the stark fact that my daughter is out there on her own and will remain in that non-place in our lives until she chooses to come back home or she dies. I guess that’s the whole point of these meetings—to let us all know, without any qualms, that we haven’t got a damn thing to do with any of it. So we’d better sure as shooting get on with our own lives because two sick people do not a happier family make.
When the meeting finally adjourns at a little past eight o’clock, we all stand and Robin asks us to acknowledge each other. We further share in this acknowledgement that we are all vulnerable to, and powerless before, the vagaries of life’s mysterious ways, and that a higher power oversees the whole, sorry picture. I mumble some inanity to the person seated nearest to me, a world-weary looking woman in a wash-worn imitation leopard skin leotard and fake black leather bomber jacket, with ratty looking tufts of synthetic fur pock marking the collar. She has pulled her straw-like, peroxide-fried hair back into a ponytail. The graying roots creep above her pale, scaling scalp, melding unconvincingly with the fading orange tint.
Her cheeks are sunken, her sullen expression pulling her chin back into her long neck. She sports an electric red lipstick. This further dramatizes her sallow skin. Is she a hooker drained of every last vestige of life’s precious sustaining juices, now put out to pasture? I do not know, and I do not want to know, nor does she want to tell me anything about any of it — this circumstance that is her life. She half-heartedly thanks me, and our eyes quickly turn away from each other, as if we are both too exhausted to open up to any further intimacy regarding the predictably morose stories that brought us here tonight. For a brief, painful moment, neither of us moves. We stand, mutely staring at nothing in particular. Then, realizing this, and feeling awkward, we simultaneously bolt. It is as if we have suddenly remembered a host of things left unattended somewhere else. We comically bump into each other. We exchange another round of empty pleasantries continuing to keep our eyes fixed elsewhere. It is as if we have both suddenly become acutely aware of time’s passing, and are trying to tally up the hours wasted, perhaps suddenly realizing the full weight of knowing that they are never to return. I turn and am almost at the door when The Chief steps into my path of retreat.
“How was the meeting for you?”
I lie and say, “Fine, fine,” trying to keep this exchange to a minimum if at all possible since I’d really like nothing better than to be back outside breathing in the cool, moist, night air and trying to clear the last two hours from my thoughts.
“Some of us get together for a coffee and talk after these meetings. It’s in a skid row café down on Hastings.” He smiles. “Closer to the scene of the crime —reminds us what we have to lose. You’re welcome to join us if you’d like.”
The idea of traipsing down to the belly of the beast on Vancouver’s infamous east side with a ragtag bunch of fringe players is not at the forefront of my “things I wish I could do” list right now. Let me out of here! “Thanks, Chief White whatever, but I’m going out of town very early tomorrow morning, so I’ve got to get back and finish packing.” He looks at me with a blank expression. I get the uncomfortable feeling that he doesn’t believe me. I shouldn’t give a shit about this one way or the other, but I do. On the spot, I make a decision to be clear. Isn’t this what tonight is supposedly all about? Clean and clear.
“Listen, this evening has taught me some stuff, and I appreciate your invitation, and maybe we can have that cup of coffee and chat some other time, but now I’ve got to scoot.”
As I begin moving around his mountainous frame, he quietly continues. “You taking a plane on your journey?” I confirm this without stopping. I continue to edge toward the doorway. “You take a cab to the airport?” Now why I would even continue answering these questions I don’t really know, but it all seems safe and harmless enough, and if it will help extricate me from this room I’ll keep playing along.
“Yes. Five a.m.,” I say, rubbing my palms together almost gleefully, as if this early hour holds some possibility or special promise in store for me. Without pause he confirms to my disbelieving ears, “Sounds good. I’ll be there. What’s the address?”
I stop now, uncertain of what I’ve committed myself to. Is he coming over for another long, arduous talk about the perils of drugs at five in the morning, or what? This whole thing is beginning to feel like an episode of Who Told You? with me as the guy in the crosshairs. It’s not that I don’t recognize that the Chief is a man deeply scared by a white culture that snatched him and his kind from loving northern settlements and deposited them into Catholic-run parochial schools, where priests and lay brothers alike meted out their sadistic form of religion to these children’s innocent souls. I can well imagine the self-loathing and hatred these long-buried, horrific episodes inflicted onto his psyche. But right now, goddamit, I can’t help or even attempt to feel any of this. I have my own cross to bear, my own demons to quell. I’m not sick like him or Robin or Friedrich or… Tess! I’m okay, for chrissake. It’s my daughter I’m here to help, not myself! I stop and look at him, a bit dumbfounded I suppose. I try to muster some semblance of authority into my voice. “I’m sorry. Maybe you don’t understand. I’m leaving tomorrow morning, bright-eyed and bushytailed at 5:00 a.m. in a cab for the airport. Where exactly do you fit into that picture?”
“I’m a cab driver,” he says, beaming like a laser right through my astonished gaze. “I’m working tonight and would sure appreciate the opportunity to take you to your flight. It’s quiet at that time of the morning anyway, and I’d enjoy the company.”
I give him the lamest grin imaginable and say, “Great!”
“How in the name of Jumping H. Christ have I managed this?” I’m thinking as I give him my address, which he doesn’t even write down. “Good. See you tomorrow at 4:45 a.m. I sure appreciate this, mister.” “Richard,” I reply.
He repeats “Richard” softly and then turns to hug Helmut and Heidi, whom he seems to know, probably from their presence at other such meetings. No doubt, they’re hoping in their stubborn Teutonic way that regular clockwork attendance at these functions will somehow contribute to bringing their apple dumpling son Friedrich to heel. I must admit to realizing that these are no different than my own possibly misplaced ambitions for Tess.
I stumble onto the street and walk with my head down, chastising myself for what I may have inadvertently gotten myself into. What if he doesn’t show up and I’m left scrambling for another cab to make my flight? What if he forgets the address and drives around the neighborhood for an extra twenty-five minutes before finding me straddling the curb, waving frantically for him to stop? I hate arriving at airports late, having to bullmoose my way apologetically down lines of exasperated people who show no sympathy and more than a little scorn as I tap the face of my watch smiling and shrugging meekly.
My walk back home is not as I would have hoped. As I open the door of my condo, I hear Lei-Lei snuffling and growling behind the Skudmores’ door, her little black nose inserted under the space at the bottom, those highly tuned olfactory glands deftly working to detect a familiar, or possibly menacing scent. I quickly close the door behind me making my way to the bathroom for a much needed pee. I then wash my hands and face trying to regain a degree of refreshment from this evening’s disheartening events.