The Wild One

Fiction
Greg Jenkins


Photo Credit: anpalacios/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

When the doctor walks my daughter out to me, I can’t help but smile. Lacy looks good, very good, all things considered. She’s twenty-nine years old but appears much younger, like a girl fresh out of college, ready to dazzle the world. She’s a slim, fetching brunette—some red highlights in her hair—with big impish eyes and a big happy grin. Her white T-shirt is emblazoned with the word ‘Juicy’ in purple script, and her faded jeans have been artfully ripped at both knees. When she pauses in front of a picture window, the warm sunlight glimmering in her hair, I’m ready to believe that anything, anything at all, is possible.

“Hey, babe,” I call to her, and she comes right to me, and we give each other a tight squeeze. “So how you doing?” I ask.

“Great, great,” she says.

“They taking care of my little girl?”

“Oh, yeah. Everybody’s cool, Dad. Everybody’s great.”

“Yeah?”

“Liz here, she’s the best.”

‘Liz’ would be the doctor who brought Lacy out, Dr. Elizabeth Roy by the name tag that hangs on a thin silver chain around her neck. I turn and give her a glance; she’s right there at my elbow. A proper woman in a stone-gray pantsuit, she returns my glance with a long, penetrating stare. To say the least, she seems a bit skeptical of me, and I guess I know why. I’m wearing my motorcycle garb—black do-rag, black nylon mesh jacket, black jeans and heavy black boots. I’ve done her the courtesy of removing my black wraparound shades, but this minor detail doesn’t seem to be helping much. She figures that maybe Sonny Barger of the Hell’s Angels has just invaded her rehab center.

“I’ve got a motorcycle,” I explain.

“I see,” she says.

Naturally, I’m eager to get Lacy off someplace where the two of us can speak privately, but this Roy woman sticks to us like a burr. A burr that talks. I gather that she’s part doctor, part administrator, and one hundred percent a pain in the wazoo. Her idea is she’ll take me on a cook’s tour of the facility and spell out exactly how their program works while Lacy tags along. I tell her it isn’t necessary, but in her button-down mind it is, so away we go.

They call the place Sojourn House, and it sits way out in the country amid the trees and the birds and the squirrels and the sweet clean breezes that touch your face like a mother’s fingertips. We’re islanded from the evils of the city—or that’s the concept. Before it became a rehab center, Sojourn House was a baronial estate, owned by some reclusive zillionaire. Even now it looks a lot like a giant house, except inside it’s been modified into apartments, offices, activity rooms, a cafeteria and so forth. Out back are a volleyball court, a barbecue pit and a flower garden aglow with colors—with pink hibiscus, fiery zinnias and golden-yellow daylilies.

“It’s all very nice,” I say, “but, but what I really—”

“The attention we give our residents is extremely focused,” Dr. Roy tells me.

“I’m sure it is. But, uh—”

“In the United States alone,” she says, jabbing her finger at me, “more than fifteen million people are alcoholics. And if we’re going to help any one of them—your daughter, for instance—we’ve got to be intense about it.”

“No doubt. Buh—”

“Dad,” Lacy cuts in, “this is my apartment.”

By now we’ve circled back inside to a carpeted hallway, and as she gestures at a nearby door, I can see the trail of scars on her forearm from when, a couple of years ago, having drunkenly lost the keys to her home, she rammed her bare fist through a window in an attempt to get in. Get in she did, but she also shredded her arm and was lucky she didn’t bleed to death.

“Let me show you my digs,” she says, and Dr. Roy nods her approval.

The second-floor apartment strikes me as small but adequate—functional, you might say—and the only part of it that really draws my attention is the wooden deck outside. Exactly two deck chairs sit there side-by-side, facing the green and rolling grounds, and the glass door that separates inside from outside looks pretty substantial to me. Pretty soundproof. This, I decide, might be the ideal spot for a confab between father and daughter.

“…medical supervision,” Dr. Roy is droning on, “psychiatric evaluation, and not only individual but group therapy. For their own good, we watch our residents continuously.”

“Very impressive,” I say. “But listen, I wonder if I might talk to Lacy for a while myself.”

The doctor’s gray eyes, which seldom offer a trace of genuine emotion, blink as if I’d just proposed something indecent.

“You’ve been talking to her,” she says.

“I mean just the two of us. Lacy and me. We’ll go out on the deck, and you can—”

“Haven’t you heard,” she demands, “a single word I’ve been saying? At Sojourn House, our vigilance is nonstop.”

“You can watch us from in here.” We’re standing in the kitchenette.

She gives her frosted perm a shake. “Well, no, I don’t… I’m not…”

“Hey.” Sometimes when my temper flares, the back of my neck gets hot, and suddenly I seem to have a mini brush fire under my collar. “Hey,” I go at her, “who do you think’s paying the bills for my daughter’s treatment? Huh? I may not be wearing a three-piece—”

“Dad?” Once again Lacy has cut in; she puts a soothing hand on my shoulder. She puts her other hand on Dr. Roy’s shoulder. “Liz,” she says, “it’ll be OK, I swear. Ignore the do-rag, all right? He’s my dad.”

The doctor looks at her gravely. “Well…”

“Just fifteen minutes,” Lacy promises.

“Fifteen,” the doctor repeats, as if confirming the deadline for a wartime prisoner exchange. Not too cheerfully, she waves her hand in dismissal. “I won’t be far.”

 

Lacy’s a drinker, a practiced, hardcore drinker. That much I know. She’s probably got some other issues as well, some psychological quirks, but she’s definitely a drinker. Now, whether this longstanding fact can be changed, even partway, is the critical question. Though it won’t be easy, I believe she can remake herself if she wants to; she’s got the tools. But what Lacy truly wants has always been something of a mystery to me.

Sometimes I suspect she simply likes to drink, the way other people might like to play golf, or collect stamps, or bake gingerbread.

Or even ride a motorcycle.

In any event, she got started early, back in her mid-teens, the way many drinkers do. I don’t think she was driven to drink as a result of some shattering upheaval in her life. More likely her friends were doing it, so she tried it too.

Actually, her mother and I did get divorced during that period. But the split wasn’t overly messy, and I felt we all handled it reasonably well. Divorce happens; it’s commonplace. In fact, my own parents got divorced—I came home from school one day and found my father naked in the living room with a dishwater blond neighbor named Irene Gruber, also naked—and I was able to manage it. No, I didn’t particularly like it, and yes, I was a frazzled kid for a while. But my world didn’t collapse, and to this day a drinking bout for me consists of sipping two or three Buds, tops.

I remember Lacy’s first encounter with the law; there’d be others. She was seventeen, and I dropped her off at a high school football game. The plan was, she’d watch the game with some friends and, when it was over, I’d come by and pick her up. But no more than ninety minutes after my “You take care”—it wasn’t even halftime yet!—the police called me and said they had her jailed on three or four misdemeanors, mainly underage drinking. When I arrived at the station, I was stunned at how incoherent with alcohol she was. Nuanced conversation wasn’t about to happen.

“Ha’ li’l problem,” she said.

Her eyes were glassy, and I tried to calculate how she could’ve gotten so bombed, and so blatantly bombed, so quickly.

“What the hell happened?” I said.

No answer.

Eerily, my question would have more staying power than I ever could’ve dreamed at the time. It’s still with me now. Still unanswered.

In those days I was inclined to see Lacy’s missteps as merely a case of youthful high spirits. At the same age, I was no altar boy myself. But as she got older, her drinking remained heavy and all too consistent. Then it became even heavier and even more consistent.

Her personal life was erratic. Over the years, she went through a Mardi Gras parade of husbands and boyfriends—I don’t have a precise count—and they, like me, fell into the sorry category of flabbergasted witnesses more than anything else. At a lakefront restaurant, I once sat down for a chat with one of these guys. His name might’ve been Jim or it might’ve been Lionel (they came and they went), but I do recall the lost and almost desperate gaze flickering from his hangdog face. He looked like a man who’d won the lottery and then somehow misplaced his ticket.

“You can tell her,” the guy said, “that she drinks like a fish… and she’ll agree. You can tell her that it’s abnormal… and she’ll agree.” He rubbed his chin. “But then she doesn’t stop. She won’t stop.”

Lacy’s professional life followed the same ragged, up-and-down path as the personal. She had no difficulty landing a job, or not at first, anyway. With her array of attributes—she was attractive, smart, educated, personable—she was more hirable than most. Her problem lay in keeping a job once she had it. Usually she got canned for the expected transgressions: she was late for work, she didn’t show up for work, she showed up but was creatively rude to a customer, she showed up on time and was gracious to everyone but she reeked of Jack Daniels Old No. 7. Other times she was shown the door due to misbehavior that smacked of real imagination and perversity. The last termination, coming about a year and a half ago, occurred immediately after an office Christmas party that saw her get sloshed, climb up on her boss’s desk and perform a grinding striptease, so help me God, to the innocent, holiday rhythms of “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

Then, in recent months, came the meltdown. For reasons unclear to me, she left one of her husbands for one of her boyfriends. But when that gentleman tired of her shenanigans (she managed to misplace his brand-new Lexus, necessitating a police search), he booted her out. Since she had only five dollars and a cell phone to her name, she was essentially homeless. The next two nights she slept in someone’s backyard hammock. Next morning she used her cell phone to call me, and I helped her gain admittance to a far-off, rural rehab center named Sojourn House.

I have to wonder, though. Has she hit bottom? Does she mean to get cured? Or did she simply need a more civilized place to sleep?

 

The deck chairs outside Lacy’s apartment are a trip in themselves. Their rounded metal framework is flamingo pink, and the puffy cushions we sit on are sunny yellow with a sprinkle of fat white polka dots; it’s a combination almost militantly upbeat. But the chairs are comfortable enough, and the view beneath us is rather pleasant.

I gaze down and out at the sylvan scenery—plenty of trees and shrubs—and I like what I see. The sheer natural wholesomeness of it. Right in the midst of things stands a large weeping willow, its dense canopy a soft and gorgeous green. Butterflies and hummingbirds flit around it in a kind of syncopated dance, and at its shaded foot is a cluster of blue and purple geraniums. I’ve never been much of a tree buff, but the willow, which appears both sad and beautiful at the same time, holds a strange appeal for me.

Over to one side is a parking lot, where, of course, my motorcycle awaits me. It’s a Triumph Bonneville, the same make once favored by movie legend Steve McQueen. Mine’s blacked out, no chrome anywhere, and it sits there in the sunlight gleaming darkly at us like a massive chunk of anthracite coal. Magnificent machine.

“That’s a hot-looking bike you got there, Dad,” Lacy says.

“Thanks.” I wait a few seconds and add: “I ride it when I’m tense. Helps me relax.”

She throws me a look of disbelief. “You don’t get tense! Do you?” Pause. “What makes you tense?”

“You,” I say. “You make me tense.”

She laughs and flicks a hand at me. “No need for that. I told you, I’m fine. I’m just as smooth as goose juice.”

One thing I must say about Lacy—I’ve rarely seen her downcast, regardless of her circumstances. And she’s had some circumstances to contend with. Yet her relentless positivity leaves me confused. Should I salute her resilience or doubt her judgment?

“I’ve got to admit,” I say, “you look fine. Lean and fit. They got you on a diet or what?”

“They do. I’m on a dopamine diet.”

“Dopamine! Is that a diet for dopes?”

She laughs again, and I’m pleased to see her sense of humor is still intact. “It’s just basically no caffeine, no sugar. Who needs a bunch of sugary crap anyway?”

“You’re sweet enough as is,” I tell her. “You working out?”

She bobs her head, causing her long cinnamon hair to shift and shimmer. “Volleyball, yoga. I like yoga.” She stands up, does a one-legged ‘tree pose’ and sits back down. “We’ve got a gym, too. You see it?”

“No.”

“You want to?”

“Maybe later.”

I ask her to tell me about her therapy, and she says it mostly comes down to blabbing to others about her problems.

“We’re trying to determine who I am,” she says.

“So who are you?”

She crinkles her pug nose. “We don’t know yet.”

“Do you like therapy?”

“Oh, I love it. I love talking to people.”

“But are you…” Here I hesitate. I’m choosing my words cautiously. “Are you making any progress?”

“I guess. This morning they told me I’m bipolar.”

“In addition to being…”

“An alkie, yeah.”

“That’s not good, is it?”

She shrugs. “It’s good to know what you are, even if you don’t know who.”

Behind me, I hear the glass door slide open, and Dr. Roy thrusts her head out almost like a giraffe.

“Everything OK?” she asks.

“Everything’s wonderful,” I answer, and I hope I don’t sound too sarcastic. I have a peek at my watch. “We still have some time,” I remind her. Without another word, she withdraws her head and shuts the door firmly behind her.

“Boom,” says Lacy, in response either to the door closing or to my closing down the officious doctor.

It costs me some effort, but I catch my daughter’s eye and hold it for a moment or two.

“Any friends or relatives been by to see you?” I ask. “Besides me, I mean.”

“Nope. You’re it.”

“Not your mother?”

“Nope. Just my dad.”

“Well, listen.” I take a breath, knowing I’m heading somewhere, though I’m not sure where. “You’ve, you’ve disappointed some folks with your…”

“My wacky behavior.”

“Yes. And more than that, you’ve worried us. I tell you, my phone rings in the middle of the night, and I—”

“You’re a worrier.”

“I never know—”

“You’re a worrier by nature.”

I shake my head. “Not by nature,” I correct her. “But for a while now I have been worried.”

I sketch out for her this silly vision I first conceived when Lacy was a newborn, a vision that nags at me still. In it, I see us both growing older and, as we do, becoming increasingly coequal. Just as she’s always counted on me, I can count on her. I can have faith in her because, like most adults, she’s acquired a measure of wisdom and responsibility. I can chat with her about her home (a real home), her job, her husband and her kids. About her goals and her projects. About her investments, both financial and spiritual. I can trust in her opinion, knowing it’s a sound one, and I can be confident that she’ll be on hand to care for me as I take to wearing an old man’s scruffy fedora and baggy brown pants and go hobbling uncertainly into my final years, dimwitted and arthritic…

“But then,” I say, “I open my eyes to this.” I wave my hand at Sojourn House. “To reality.”

“Oh, Dad,” she chuckles. “I’ll be there for you.”

“Lacy, I want you to be there for you.”

“I will be.”

“Will you?”

“My word of honor.” She tilts her head at me. “You know,” she says, “I get it from you.”

“You get what from me?”

“My whatchamacallit. My wildness.”

“From me!”

“Yep.” She flings her arm toward the parking lot. “In the whole world, how many sixty-year-old guys ride a motorcycle?”

At this, my fatherly instincts leap up, ready to tussle. “Quite a few,” I say. “And Lacy, at least I can afford a motorcycle—unlike some people. Because I’ve got a steady job—unlike some people.”

“All right.”

“And I don’t ride the thing drunk.”

“OK, OK.” Eventually she smiles and brings her big brown eyes to bear on my smaller ones. “I’m getting better,” she says.

“I hope so.”

“I’m doing everything Liz wants me to. And I can feel myself changing.”

“Good,” I say. “That’s my girl.”

“I’m getting stronger. Healthier.”

“Good. Good.”

“And I want to thank you,” she says, “for all the love and support you’ve shown me. Not just the rehab thing. Everything.” She leans over and kisses my cheek.

We can sense Dr. Roy looming behind us, and we stand and stretch as if cued.

“Tell you what,” Lacy says. “Soon as I get released, you and I’ll go out on the town to celebrate. We’ll both get snockered, OK? We’ll do it up right.”

I’m not sure I heard her correctly.

“And don’t give me that look,” she says. “It’ll be one time only—purely to celebrate. We’ll really get hammered, OK?”

“Lacy—”

“Course you’ll probably have to foot the bill.”

The glass door slides open, and out steps Dr. Roy. She presents us with a chilly smile; it’s a smile that would suit an IRS auditor or an oral surgeon.

“Time for therapy,” she announces.

We all take turns staring at each other awkwardly. At last my daughter and I share another hug, though this one feels a hint different.

“I’ll be back before you know it,” I tell her. “In the meantime, babe, keep working.”

We step back inside the apartment, which, after the splendorous sunlight of the outdoors, seems dim and shadowy. I’m trying to see where I am. Briefly, I turn to the doctor, supposing I should grant her a comment as well.

“You too,” I say. “Keep working.”

 

In the parking lot, I stand next to my bike and put on my gear in a distracted but methodical way. Shades first, then my World War II-style helmet, then my gloves. The weather is still nearly perfect, just a few thick white clouds are drifting along. They look like mounds of vanilla ice cream, a treat that a youngster, a ten-year-old girl, would love.

I fire up my Triumph and just sit for a while appreciating its throaty rumble. The exhaust note is assertive but not crass; this is a motorcycle of refinement and taste. Finally I kick it into first and zoom off on the flat curving blacktopped road. The lively torque makes me grin with pleasure.

Traffic is sparse, and I slip the bike into second gear and pull back on the throttle. The wind smacks me, but I savor it; it feels cleansing, like an air shower. As I find third gear, the roar from the liquid-cooled parallel twin fills my head, pushing other matters far away from me. For the time being, I feel terrific, like Sonny Barger in his youth.

Like Steve McQueen in his prime.

No worries.

pencil

Over the years, Greg Jenkins has had four books, including his recent novel A Face in the Sky, and roughly 55 short stories published. His work has appeared in such journals as Prairie Schooner, Prism International, South Dakota Review and Chicago Quarterly Review. Email: drgjenkins[at]yahoo.com

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