by Duncan Birmingham
I stop at a gas station market off the highway for Travis’s favorite chewing gum, jumbo coffeechinos and energy breakfast bars then gun my car across Delray Beach before the whip cream flattens.
The gate guard at Tranquility Bluffs has zero muscle tone and a man-bun. Past the gate it’s a pretty plush set-up; all manicured hillsides, wooden walkways and charming bungalows. I spot some decent talent milling about, gnawing their nails like they just quit smoking and meditating in little matching pajama pants in a semi-circle by a dinky waterfall. I wonder how many are secretly high.
With his duffel bag slung over his shoulder, Travis is leaned coolly against a faux Greek column of the mothership building, putting out big man on campus vibes to no one in particular.
He almost looks healthy; trimmer for sure, bright-eyed, not screaming obscenities and tossing lit matches at me. It’s humid as hell but, like always, he looks cool.
“What’s up big boy? Going my way?!” I call out all sexy-like through my cracked tinted window. It’s not the best joke but I’m trying to keep things upbeat.
We’re old friends but Travis is a pretty popular guy. I admit I was pretty pumped he texted me to come get him as opposed to Glenn or Rocket. He gets in my Nissan and slaps on his polarized shades.
“So, you meet anyone special in rehab?” Not loving how that sounds I instantly rephrase the question. “You know, crush some ass? Sink the pink?”
“It’s not rehab. It’s reset,” Travis corrects me. “And fuck yeah I did.”
I crank up a driving-home-from-rehab playlist I made just for this occasion, heavy on Travis’s favorite artists. Of course, I don’t tell him that. We speed down Federal highway with the bass shuddering the windows like old times. Travis is antsy and keeps flexing his biceps like he wants me to compliment him.
“Must’ve had a good gym,” I say trying to be supportive.
“Twenty-three days clean and I’m on something better than drugs! I feel like the world’s my fat yummy oyster. I’m ready to kick ass, take names, have kids, run for President. Who knows?!”
He does seem pretty bright-eyed and not drooling everywhere. Plus, he got mad laid and is looking in solid shape. Maybe it’s my time to turn over a new lease on life. Or is it “leaf”? I stroke my chin. Either way it couldn’t hurt to cut back a little here and there.
“The kicker is.” Travis knocks on my dashboard. “Insurance paid for it so, cha-ching!”
He explains the whole thing was a requirement of his severance package after getting too wasted at this year’s office holiday party. Actually, there was no holiday party this year which made his behavior really stick out. Then there was the huffing ammonia in the wellness room with the hot intern incident.
“The direct mail marketing business used to have a sense of humor,” he says through a mouthful of energy bar. “There whey in this?”
He spits it out the window before I can tell him I don’t know. He’s off caffeine now too so I drink both gigantic coffeechinos and eat all the chalky energy bars so I’m wired and nauseated by the time we pull up to the curb in front of his favorite 50’s-themed diner, Big Peachy’s. At least Big Peachy’s used to be his favorite diner. Now he says he wants to avoid anything that could spark old habits, so apparently Big Peachy’s and their “famous” Hangover Helper Belly Bomb Protein Platter is out. Through the Airstream’s window, I see Big Peachy’s welcoming smile turn to confusion and then hurt as we cruise right past and jaywalk across the street to a new 80’s themed diner with mirrored ceilings and waiters dressed like Miami Vice extras.
Travis orders blackened veal marsala, a side of fruit roll-ups and an energy soda for babies which he says is the strongest thing he drinks now. I just carb-load on their bottomless basket of Mr. T’s sticky buns. What I really want is one of their “famous” Bloody Mary’s which, according to the menu photo, comes with a jumbo shrimp, old-timey pickle, Rubik’s cube and a certificate of purchase.
“Hot damn. Those bloody Mary’s are something else.” Travis watches one passing by us on a tray like a parade float before his blue eyes snap back to me. It feels like he’s testing me. Travis is a tester and big into loyalty.
“Totally,” I agree but hedge my bets. “Although seems a little unsanitary to me.”
Travis laughs hard like I’m the last person in the world who should be judging what’s sanitary and what’s not, and he has a point. I’m a little bit of a slob but I put on a fresh shirt when it counts like to go clubbing or upscale strip bars or for this occasion.
Even though I’m not hungry I keep shoveling in the sticky buns to keep from talking. This is probably the most time we’ve spent together sober since being pinned upside down in a car crash a few years ago. Everything I think of to say has to do with me being at a bar or snorting crushed stimulants off body parts at social events or coming out of black outs to find myself in a stranger’s sunroom or visiting my great aunt in Orlando. Don’t get me wrong – that’s not how I spend the bulk of my time – but am I really supposed to prattle on about data entry or what shows I’m streaming? I pick at the menu’s lamination.
“Started watching Bones again.”
Travis nods. I hope he’s not regretting having me pick him up at reset instead Glenn or Rocket.
“There’s so much I missed the first time around and the leads have great chemistry. You can’t fake chemistry.”
Travis is packing away a sheet of sweaty lemon-drenched veal like nobody’s business and texting his new friend Uncle Billy.
“Uncle Billy’s not my real uncle,” he explains. “He’s like my reset uncle, like a guru or a big brother. He’s been there, done that. He’s gone to hell and back and doesn’t suffers fools. I don’t take a leak without asking Uncle Billy how many times to shake it.”
“Sounds very cool. Can’t wait to meet him.”
“Honestly he wouldn’t be a big fan of yours. I don’t mean you, personally. I just mean your lifestyle, your brand, your general essence,” he says. Sensing I’m hurt, he adds, “I appreciate you picking me up today, Rob.”
“No worries. What are old friends for?”
I almost say ‘drinking buddies’ but catch myself. Percocet Pals, Coke Compadres, Fentanyl Friends?
“The thing is, being with you is a bit of spark for me Rob.” He explains that’s a term he learned in reset.
“I mean if Uncle Billy could see me now.” He shudders at the thought.
I shrug, a little sheepish. My mom always said Travis was a bad boy but not in a sexy way, which I always found odd that she felt the need to clarify; as well as a terrible influence who was screwing up my not-particularly-bright-anyway future, and I’d probably jump off a skyscraper if he did it first. “Not necessarily!” I’d scream back in hot tears.
I can’t help being flattered that Travis feels I’m enough of an influence to spark him to do anything. This is even better than him texting me over the other guys to pick him up. I wonder if Rocket knows.
“What I’m saying is, it would be easier for me if I could just call you something else,” he continues. “Like Brendan or Elijah.”
“Okay,” I say slowly, hoping those are just first draft examples and he’s about to start spitballing some way cooler names. Like Bradshaw or Lee.
“And maybe you could wear something different.” He’s eyeing my Marlins baseball cap and my ironed “Is it Friday yet?” t-shirt that I wore special for today. “Like, oh I don’t know, a beret or Kente cloth.”
“Not sure that fits my, like, aesthetic,” I tell him. I have a lot of t-shirts alluding to what day of the week it is. “Plus, good luck finding any of that stuff around here.”
“Actually, we passed a beret store a few strip malls back, Elijah.”
It’s a good thing Travis is such a close old friend cause even the coolest looking beret in the store makes me look like a d-bag, plus I do not look like an Elijah.
“Eli,” he splits the difference when I push back. “Cause we’re good friends.”
He’s right about that. I wouldn’t mess with my signature look, eat lunch sober, and yank out my futon for just anyone.
Maybe this is the first little baby step of my new leaf, or lease, or whatever. Travis cleaning up his act might be a wake-up call for me to straighten up a skosh. Like when I invested heavily in cryptocurrency, took up Brazilian jiu-jitsu, waxed my chest or leased a cherry red Nissan Z because Travis did it first.
Back at my condo I stash some rainy day pills in a plastic bag lodged in my rectum, hammer a couple nails to seal tight the liquor cabinet and medicine drawers and tell Travis to kick back and make himself at mi casa.
“So. Want a breast milk smoothie?” I ask. “I get the milk through this chick on Facebook. Same shit they give premies. Fifty cents an ounce.”
“That’s a killer deal.” Travis nods. “But no.”
Turns out Travis has a lot of so-called sparks – breast milk, boogie boards, BBQ’s, Fort Lauderdale, dance clubs, jiu-jitsu, airboats, pain clinics, CVS, jam bands, dog parks, protein powders, Bally’s, actually all gym franchises, Shriners, Bones, Hawaiian shirts – so there’s not a hell of a lot for us to do at my condo this weekend besides crank the air-conditioning, work out with kettle bells, eat egg whites and watch car chase clips on YouTube.
Every few hours I snap my fingers like I just remembered something totally pressing I was supposed to do, and I slip off into the shoe closet or crawl under the futon to nibble a terrible-smelling benzo or sip recalled wine coolers.
“Just looking for my contact lens!” I’ll burp from wherever I’m hiding.
Travis talks to Uncle Billy then sits on my back steps lighting matches. He borrows my Nissan Z to go to a hang-hang, which is what he calls his reset meetings, and then comes back and slams the door so hard, I bang a tooth on a wine cooler.
“I just want to bite everyone’s freaking noses off!” he screams and kicks a small hole in my hall’s wall. “I can’t take another stinking second of this fresh hell!”
I’m hoping these are some of his reset Shibboleths which is what he calls their catchphrases. Or vice versa.
We’re eating mushroom omelets, watching a stolen golf cart tear through its second spike strip on my favorite car chase channel when Travis tells he me has some rectifications to make. I put down the hot sauce and make an “I’m all ears” face.
“Before my reset I was occasionally violent and verbally abusive and that’s something I want to acknowledge with you here,” he says.
I nod like, good as gravy. The time he went ballistic on a bartender for serving him a whiskey sour in a curved little girly glass was literally the most scared I’ve ever been in a P.F. Chang’s.
But that, as they say, was a different time.
“I appreciate your acknowledgements,” I say like I’m on some super serious reality show. I want to be a good friend here.
“I also want to assure you that I own past transgressions like, but in no way limited to, using your Q-tips, undercutting you with mutual friends by rolling my eyes when your name comes up, telling girls we both like that you have a dirty dick, acting like it’s your turn to pick up the bar tab when it’s mine, telling you my fraternity was prejudiced against guys with freckles when I was just trying to save us both some embarrassment, stealing your coke, hoarding the coke, basically a lot of coke-related shady behavior, that bachelor party weekend when you screwed up getting the strippers and I made you give Glenn a lap dance, sucker-punching you that time we were pinned upside down in that car, pretending I didn’t borrow your silky blue shirt when I totally did, giving your ex oral, pawning your stereo speakers, pissing on your bed that one time and telling you it was a piss burglar.”
I’m unsure if he’s done or taking a breath. I guess it could be worse, but it does raise a few questions.
“Wren or something like that.”
“Wren is my current girlfriend.”
“I see.” He nods thoughtfully, eyes narrowed. “So, you’ve got her contact info then? That’s good. I should make rectifications to her as well.”
“It’s ok. I can pass them on.”
“I have to do them in person is the thing.” Maybe he can sense my skepticism because he adds, “Uncle Billy says you have to follow the rules before you can break the faces of people who aren’t following the rules.”
I sigh like, of course. I can’t really argue with that.
Travis is nursing a purple baby energy drink and Face-timing Uncle Billy from the futon when Wren comes over after her night shift at the pharmacy with white wine and stolen prescriptions.
“Here’s the thing, babe.” I pull her into the kitchenette and explain the whole Travis situation. “Let’s wait till Travis goes nighty-night on the futon before we break out the party favors.”
“Maybe we slip something into his Babyade?” she asks. I hear the clink of plastic bottles as she rifles through her purse. “You know, get this party started.”
I tell her to save that as a last resort. She makes a crying face and rubs her eyes with a clenched fist. Then we both split a bottle of vanilla extract to bide our time.
Wren and I met “cute” a couple years ago when I drove my Nissan Z over her mother’s novelty birdhouse mailbox in Jupiter. I’m still unsure if it was a birdhouse shaped like a mailbox or a mailbox done up like a bird house. I was pretty toasted and the thing was totaled, but it wasn’t a complete loss. Somewhere between her calling the cops and me burrowing under her porch, we struck up a rapport and became an item.
“I heard Travis gave you oral.” I was going to save this conversation for another time but the vanilla extract is doing a number on me.
“I heard you have a dirty dick.”
I give her a little kiss to let her know it’s all good in the hood. Part of our secret sauce is the way we accept each other warts and all; plus our love of getting totally hammered. And hey – better oral from Travis than say Glenn or Rocket. In fact, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t maybe a little flattered; Travis, as my mom always said, is kind of a stud muffin with magnetic eyes.
“That boy could sell ice to the Eskimos. Almost reminds me of your father,” she’d say with a faraway look.
“What was he like?”
Then the faraway look would be replaced with a what-the-fuck-did-you-just-say look and she’d snap a wet dish towel in my face and tell me once and for all to stay the hell away from that no-good Travis!
“Adios Uncle Billy, you old wise piece of shit.” Wren and I can hear Travis signing off from the futon area.
“Keep hitting your hang-hangs. Don’t forget your Shibboleths,” I hear Uncle Bill say back on speaker with a voice like sandpaper gargling gravel. “Text me in 5.”
I explain to Wren that Travis made rectifications to me for, among other things, giving her oral and stealing my silky shirt and now he’s probably going to make rectifications to her.
“Sweet,” she says. “You don’t mind?”
She seems giddy and I realize Wren may not be as familiar with all the rehab – or reset – terminology as I now am.
She and Travis go sit on the back stoop and light matches as I decide what kind of eggs to whip up for a late night snack. I land on scrambled but add some chopped veggies and spices to liven it up.
I’m suddenly feeling the need to step up my game with Wren. Who knows, when Travis moves off my futon, I may even suggest we take things to the next level. Travis cleaning up has inspired me, which could maybe inspire Wren. It could be like some beautiful holistic human centipede scenario with all of us sobering up, flying right and turning over new leeches. Maybe I could even convert that little nook off the den I use for coke and sketch sex into a baby bedroom.
I’m humming a nursery rhyme and setting the table when I hear the clatter of bent nails falling on peeling linoleum followed by the sharp snap of ice trays. I find Travis and Wren making frozen mudslides. As if breaking his sobriety isn’t bad enough, there’s one thing everyone knows and it’s that frozen mudslides are Travis’s danger zone. Vodka makes him breakdance and the heavy cream means he’ll destroy my bathroom.
“Dude.” I get between Travis and the plastic handle of Mexican vodka. “Don’t make me call Uncle Billy!”
“It’s after midnight.” Travis laughs and gives me a duh look. “Mudslide Monday?”
As Wren fills the blender with clotted creme and Kahlua, she sings “California Dreamin” but substitutes the lyrics to Mudslide Monday.
“I know what day it is. But it’s Me No Drinkie Monday for you, old pal.” Alliteration is not my strong suit. “Wren and I want to be supportive. We can have a great time not drinking or doing anything fun and instead watching YouTube. I made spicy eggs.”
“Kill me,” Wren says.
Travis explains the restart school of thought behind sobriety which includes getting totally cross-eyed blotto one Monday a month. So blotto and faded that you’re not tempted to drug, drink or even want to smell alcohol for at least another month.
“So a cheat day?”
“No, no, no,” Travis corrects me. “This is based on hard science and a very special episode of Diff’rent Strokes.”
I vaguely remember that one. Bet that show holds up like shit.
“Okay. I’m not gonna lie. This all seems a little screwy.”
“You want to tell that to Uncle Billy?”
“Listen I’m not the mudslide police. I don’t have a PhD in, you know, not getting fucked up on high-alcohol dessert drinks.”
Wren snorts as if to say ‘I’ll say’ which then she does say as well.
“I just —
I’m cut off by the growl of the blender and soon a frosty mug of creamy chunky alcoholic goodness is numbing my hand. I swill the frothy nectar until I have an ice cream headache, then pour another. Wren breaks out some blotter acid and generic Adderall and I start screaming so I can sound good and hoarse when I call into work sick in a few hours. Travis is like a drill sergeant assuring us the harder we party now, the less painful his next month will be. I do my best to be a good friend.
The sun’s coming up or is it going down as I wake up on the futon. Or in the futon. It’s like someone didn’t see me passed out and tried with all their weight to fold me into the couch, almost snapping my arm off in the process.
The condo isn’t looking so hot – my flatscreen is dripping blood, a nitrous tank is lodged into the wall and someone drank all my high-end breast milk and used old family photos to chop lines. I wonder if Glenn or Rocket came over. My head feels like I’m being operated on and I’m fairly certain there’s gunk in my pants. Like old times but not in a good way.
Travis is in my bed. As is Wren. They’re both passed out head to toe but not like you do when you’re being chaste at a middle-school sleepover and more like when you conk out mid-sex act with someone else’s girlfriend. The room stinks of off-brand Irish creme and night sweats, maybe even some ass play. I crack a window but don’t turn on a light.
I’m too hungover for details.
I chug a Bud Lite to get my bearings and run a lukewarm bath. I know this feeling well and there’s nothing to do but listen to murder podcasts with frozen peas on my head until I feel ready to face whatever remains of the day. So much for new leafs and leases.
I’m not sure when but at some point, Travis sits down on the lip of the tub, right on my jerking off hand.
“Do you know the reason I called and asked you to pick me up at Tranquility Bluffs?”
“Because Glen doesn’t have a car? Cause we’re old friends? Maybe even best friends?”
“Because I knew how easy it would be to muck-wallow with you. Muck-wallow is what we call backsliding.”
“Ok.” My hand was going numb.
“You know your problem Elijah?” he asks. “You’re the worst kind of an enabler. In reset you’re what we call a Toxic Tommy. It’s the biggest spark there is.”
I sip my Bud Light feeling a lecture coming on. Travis waltzes us down memory lane. Choking each other purple in high school, refilling our respective stepdads’ bourbon bottles with iced tea and little dribbles of piss, showing our dicks to the school custodian in exchange for sticky hash-coated Swedish Fish. Later were keggers with opiates, bachelor parties on Windex and speedballs, baby showers and fishing trips powered by mescaline with Glenn and Rocket. In each example Travis fingers me as the instigator.
“Hell, I just wanted to catch my first bass.” Travis looks like he’s actually wiping a tear off his cheek. I tear my hand from under him and do the same except the tears keep coming for me. I sink down deeper into the tub.
“Maybe it’s time for you to pull yourself up by your shoe tassels,” he says, then clarifies. “That’s what we call turning over a new leaf to get a lease on life.”
My hangover is still roiling like an electrical storm when Travis and Wren drive me to Tranquility Bluffs later that day in my Nissan Z. I play the same special playlist but in reverse. I’m scared but also terrified but also really hungover as well as even a little hopeful.
“You got this buddy,” Travis says.
I look back at Travis standing there waving goodbye, still looking cool and trim and definitely conscious and not drooling, with Wren by his side.
I take a mental picture and feel like I have something to aspire it to.
I watch them driving away until they’ve disappeared and then I step up to the big white front desk to check in for my restart. The dopey kid behind the counter calls it rehab. I assume he’s new and don’t correct him.
Duncan Birmingham is a writer and filmmaker in Los Angeles. His fiction has most recently appeared in Mystery Tribune, Juked, 7×7 and Joyland. He’s been a writer and producer on numerous shows including Maron (with Marc Maron) on IFC and Blunt Talk (from Jonathan Ames) on Starz. His short films have premiered at Sundance, AFI, GenArt and New York Film Festival. His book of short stories, The Cult in My Garage (Maudlin House), comes out in August.
Photo: Steve Smith/Unsplash