These Devils

Nils Blondon

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'Keep a prayer on your lips and a good deed in your back pocket.' He pulls a smoke without a filter from a Ziploc and bites it like a toothpick. 'Funerals,' he announces. 'Get used to ’em.'

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Suspendisse varius enim in eros elementum tristique. Duis cursus, mi quis viverra ornare, eros dolor interdum nulla, ut commodo diam libero vitae erat. Aenean faucibus nibh et justo cursus id rutrum lorem imperdiet. Nunc ut sem vitae risus tristique posuere.

Yolk began as an electric conversation around a picnic table in Saint Henri Square.

Our scruffy pioneer and present prose editor had previously approached each of us with an idea, a vision: We would establish our own literary magazine in Montreal. And so it was, or so it would be. After that original encounter, eight individuals devoted to the word resolved that they would gather bi-weekly, on Sundays, and bring something new into this busy, manic world—something that might slow its spin down somewhat and cause its patronage to say: “You know what, it ain’t so bad, is it, Susan?”

We are undergraduate, graduate, and graduated students of writing. Some of us learn our craft formally from accomplished authors in seminar courses, and some of us learn by looking out the window of the world and onto the streets that sing below. Some of us learn from screaming squirrels, old curtains, departed grandfathers, and bowel movements. We learn from old lovers, long winters, imperfect mothers, and from the deep internet where a musical genius remains entombed.

Yolk is cold floors on Sabbath mornings, home-brewed ginger beer in the endless afternoon, and downpours of French-pressed coffee in assorted artisanal mugs. Our first official gathering was scheduled for a duration of two hours; most of us remained for six, departing only to attend to the summons of our own beckoning realities. Together, with time suspended, we talked endlessly of contributing something to disrupt Montreal’s literary ecosystem. Something unparalleled, something true.

But what? There was nothing to discuss. There was everything to discuss.

We volunteer our time, hounding some elusive beast composed of combustible words and works. We are hopeful, truly hopeful, that we can give something new, a new way, a new light, and that if we cannot, we might at least uphold the traditions of our predecessors, cast star-wide nets to capture their echoes. We are a thousand decisions. We are a sanctuary for the orphaned word, the solitary writer, the cereal-eating artist who yearns for company, for the comfort of a like mind; we sit together with them at foggy dawn, it rains a baptism, with our arms and hands intertwined, we form an umbrella—underneath, they scribble madly, the perfect picture.

Yolk in no way presumes to be superior to its contemporaries, but its contemporaries should not presume yolk to be anything other than loud—quite, quite loud. We are yippidy jazzed to address the oh-so-technicolorful magnificence of the human experience, but we are prepared also to address the ugliness, to stare at its wet, hairy snout and into its square depth and to roar in return at the things that yearn to devour our skin, beset our ethos, and dig graves in our own backyards.

There’s so much to say, there’s so much we don’t know, but together, with you, we can placate that ignorance, render it peaceful, tolerable, and perhaps even, fucking beautiful.

And Susan says, “Amen.”

I hung a cross where there once hung a picture of her. I found the cross on the side of the road in a puddle. I picked it up, dried it, and put it in my pocket. It took many months before I could take her picture down. And on the very next day, I found that cross.

I’ve been told that my problem is spiritual. There are fresh cuts on my soul. Open wounds vulnerable to infection and bleeding. I’ve visited therapists. They all had an outsized fascination with my childhood, as though the live weeds of my present could be exterminated by uprooting the long-dead seeds of my past. Ailments of the spirit require spiritual solutions.

A man approached me just after I lost her. He directed me to group. I’m not sure whether I’m on the right path now, but I’m on a path, and that’s an improvement from being stranded in the wild.

I mill through the bedroom, rifling through her clothes in the closet. I take out the shirts Kate left here and smell them. Removing her picture from the wall was a start. Her clothes will need to go soon. That smell of hers - damp flowers and lotion - it survives right here in the fibers.

If you really loved me and wanted to be with me, you’d stop this.

My stomach tingles. I pull the cross from my wall, dust it off, and put it back. My laptop hums from the table like a fly trapped inside an overturned jar. The tingle creeps from my stomach to my thighs. I’ve had a hyper-secure website blocker installed on the computer. A stopgap solution, like bad foundation dabbed atop a fresh purple bruise.

Prayer.

That’s what I’ve been told to turn to in these moments. I’m at my computer about to bypass the website blocker when the phone rings. A gentleman from group checking in. I admire this guy. He’s got the markings of a good man. Clean clothes, clear eyes. We found group for different reasons, but the affliction doesn’t matter. It’s the spiritual sickness that needs addressing. You see, addictions, they’re like great works of art: the mediums might be different, the styles dissimilar, but ultimately, they possess the same fundamental qualities.

“Have you thrown her clothes out yet?” he asks. I pick her sweater up from the bed and dash it on the ground.

“Getting to it.”

“How’s the website blocker going?”

“It’s a struggle.”

“Struggling’s okay. This is hard in the beginning. Changing your life isn’t easy. It can’t be. Praying?”

“A little bit.”

“A little bit? What do they say about half-measures?”

“They avail us nothing?”

“That’s right. Good.”

A love song drones across from the radio of a parked car.

“You might want to consider getting back to work soon. You know what they say about idle time?”

“I’m not ready yet. The urges…you know. I was a computer guy. Computers, they’re a big trigger.”

“Okay.” He clears his throat. “Coming to group tonight?”

I nail an extra hole in my belt and put my pants on. The leaves turn brown; they hush and surrender to the season. I pass young couples with peace in their eyes, dogs curled into themselves on dusty lawns.

I arrive at the church, the last building of its kind on a block caved to evil.

The regulars are in the basement. They speak about nothing but matters of the spirit and only read literature recommended at group. One sits in the corner, hands crossed over his gut, chins doubled into themselves in fleshy folds. Another leans into his squeaky plastic seat, face blanched in the white glowing from his phone. I walk over the cracked tiles and take a seat next to the coffee maker, which pops and percolates in a soft, sibilant way.

There’s a rhythm you fall into as a member of group, an acclimatization process like moving to a new town and picking up on the little peculiarities of the locals. You only address matters that pertain to your illness and recovery. Small talk is reserved for before, during smoke break, maybe after, but never during sharing. You’re never to talk out of turn, or speak over the person next to you.

Sirens scream down the block. Group starts. If only we could have just one hour of uninterrupted quiet.

The moderator’s in scuffed shoes. I was once told that you can judge a man’s character by the cleanliness of his shoes. The moderator’s an exception to this little shard of truth. His shoes could be filthy, but his soul, I think it’s pure. He’s got the wild eyes of a jailhouse evangelical. Tattoos on his fingers that look carved with a knife, a timeworn scar that runs from cheekbone to ear.

We check in, introduce ourselves, why we’re here, what addiction it was that brought us to our knees.

“John, here for dope.”

“Bill, booze, had a bad day. You know, some fucking asshole cut me off on my drive over…”

The moderator lifts his arms like one of the guys on the tarmac directing planes. Control of the room. Even with the dirty shoes, he’s got that.

“Brother,” he exclaims, “we can keep the chit-chat for later. Just your name and affliction for now, please.”

He picks at his scar, scratching it like he wants us to know it’s there.

We rotate through the circle. It’s like show and tell for the damned. It’s my turn now. I close my eyes and dig in.

“Neil. I’m here for, you know, it’s embarrassing, I still struggle to say it.” I put my head in my hands. “I’ve been trying to get out, but, like, this little addiction of mine, it’s well ensconced.”

“That’s okay, brother. We know why you’re here. No newcomers in the room tonight. You don’t have to say it this time. Not now.” He leans forward in his seat and rests his forearms on his legs. “One day, when you’ve had that spiritual experience, you’ll be proud to say it. You’ll run to the top of that building and scream it out. Because you know why? You’ll have beaten it. And that’s what we do here. We share our demons freely because they’re dead. A dead demon needs to be aired out. We need to air it out and let the world know that he killed it. He who has all power, can kill anything. And you can bet no dirty little addiction to porn flicks is enough to keep him out. Hell no, brother.”

The group follows his lead, shouting out “hell no” like a call to arms. I guess it’s a good meeting. A lot to keep me hopeful. This group, it attracts all kinds. So many interesting, beautifully disfigured faces and grey spirits. Plenty of opportunity for connection. And that connection, while I’m here at least, makes me feel at home. When I capture that feeling and stretch it just enough, it’s almost like the feeling I used to get with Kate. The feeling from the early days. The sensation of ease and familiarity that used to nestle me to sleep.

I pass a few kink stores on the walk home. Places where the windows are covered in white and the sandwich-board signs advertising what’s inside are chained to the block like a dangerous dog. I stop in front of the store, survey the titles of the films inside, sneak a glimpse of what I can over the makeshift barricade. I catch a bit of flesh on a video cover displayed on a rack. Swollen purple lips, artificial breasts.

This is how it starts. The temptation grinds up through my stomach to my chest, metastasizing. Fangs out, eyes lit up like a candle mounted inside a skull. I turn to prayer, then I spot a liquor store across the street.

I open the door as though possessed, trudging over the slick beige-and-white tiles towards the cool spot in the back. That’s where they hide the stuff for the poor people.

“Free sample?” A worker sticks a thimble-size cup in my face, flinching as I rip it from her palm and slam it back. I rip another cup from the tray. I’m hunting a feeling. “Sir!” the worker shouts. “You’re only supposed to take one sample. Do it again, and I’ll have you removed from the store!”

I wipe the spittle from my lip, closing in on that sensation I’m after. The worker’s still going when I feel a tap on my shoulder.

“Neil?” My body tenses at her voice.

Instinct tells me to run. Hole up in the apartment with the computer or the magazines that I threw out yesterday. They’re still there, just in the trash against the curb. I’m not above diving in to get them, not yet.

She’s in baggy pants and a sweater I bought her a few Christmases ago. This is the first time I’ve seen her in that sweater. It was the kind of gift she opened with a weak smile, put back in the box and stuffed in a crevice. A canvas bag plump with bottles and bushy kale dangles from her shoulder.

“Neil,” she repeats, stepping closer. “How are you?”

Her face is like a gentle moon, no more hard edges. The lines around her mouth are gone. There’s a roundness to her hips. Every feature directs attention to the bulge in her stomach.

I take a long look.

She flushes and draws her sweater across her belly.

“Oh,” I say, struggling to speak. “Kate… Nice to see you.”

We stand there for a few long seconds. It feels as though we’re under a spotlight. The aisle looks infinite, nothing but inky shadows as thick as tarpits capping off either end.

“Yeah, Neil. Good seeing you. Do you live close?”

“I’m still in our old place.”

“I assumed you would have left.”

“No.”

She puts a hand on her stomach.

“Are you okay?”

I stop myself from putting my hand on her shoulder.

“Yes. I’m fine. It’s just, you know…”

She rubs her tummy. There’s a gulf between us.

“Anyway, how are you?” she asks.

“I’m okay.” I clear my throat. It feels like I’m swallowing sand.

A man cradling a box of diapers appears at the end of the aisle. He gives Kate a look and points at his watch. He has a black-and-grey beard that stops just beneath the frames of his black aviators and crow’s feet that slide down his face.

“Kate,” he calls out. “We good to go?”

Eyes that hide behind please-punch-me shades. The beard. Kate always said she hated beards. Is this man really an improvement over me?

Don’t judge, brother. When we judge, we’re feeding that devil. Judgement is just another escape. A false god.

I repeat an affirmation in my head and try to breathe.

“Yeah. One second.” She turns to me. “Neil, look. It was good to see you.” She leans in for a hug that ends up being more like a glorified handshake.

“Kate. Just one more thing.”

“Yeah?”

“Is it…his?”

She tilts her head.

“I’m sorry? Is what his?”

I look from her belly to the bottles in her bag and back again.

The men at group would tell me to back off now.

“The bottles. Are they his? If so, he’s got good taste.”

“Neil,” she hisses. “I’m leaving now.”

She shuffles towards her bearded man and grabs his hand. I slink towards the exit, spying as they walk through the lot towards their car, my stomach on fire with a steady blue burn.

***

Our last day together, it went something like this:

I’m in the waiting room of the clinic. The walls are covered in pictures of babies and parents. Dreadful, overexposed shots, the stuff of sweat-drenched nightmares and tabloid adverts. Why they’ve chosen these pictures is a mystery to me. If they’re trying to sell us on a dream, they’ve started off poorly.

The receptionist is slumped over her phone, eyes sticky with sleep. She taps the phone like a cancer patient with a morphine pump. I gather what’s left of my courage and approach.

“Excuse me. My partner, she’s back there for a procedure. Seems like it’s been a long time.”

With great effort, she looks up from the phone.

“My partner, Kate. She’s been in there a while. Everything okay?”

A woman howls in pain from a nearby room. With a slow roll of her eyes the receptionist says, “Sir, do I look like a doctor? Take a seat. The nurse will get you when she’s ready.”

A room-length aquarium divides the waiting area. It’s full of fish reminiscent of the trips we’ve always talked about but never gone on, little toy divers crusted over in algae. Green fish pop in and out of the eyes of a ceramic skull when a nurse bounds through the doors, her nametag missing a letter. She pulls a pen from the bun in her hair and calls out names.

“Katherine Bowers? Carol Stephenson? Pauline Johnson? Right through the doors, please. And… Looks like there’s another name here. The last name, can’t pronounce that.

“Anyway, Neil. Is there a Neil here?”

I explode from the pleather seat and follow her through the doors. It’s a labyrinth back here. A maze of medical equipment, doctors with deep lines carved into their faces, machines with glowing eyes that speak an unknown language. Everything is soaked in an artificial light, as though I’m being carried through a long interrogation.

We reach a door at the end of a series of halls.

“She’s in there, sir. And… You do know that there were complications in the procedure, correct?”

“Complications? What kind?”

“You’ll figure it out,” she replies, smirking, stabbing the pen back into the bun on top of her head.

She walks away.

I knock once, no reply. I fear the worst: bloody sheets, a scalpel-strewn floor, a woman disfigured by medical incompetence. I feel like a man on the threshold of a tomb.

The door opens; there she is. Not bloodied or disfigured, but facing the wall, cocooned in blankets at the edge of the bed. Her pink toenails poke out from beneath the sheets. They’re the only sense of life in the room. The only thing indicating a breathing body is in here.

“Kate, honey, are you okay?”

She curls up like a wounded creature playing dead. I touch her shoulder. She pulls the blankets tighter, turns into the pillow.

“Leave me alone.”

I rub her lower back through the blankets. She jerks away. Pulls the blankets up. Her face is like a pale paper mask.

“You lied to me, Neil.”

“Lied?”

“I saw you slink off into the middle of the night with your phone to the bathroom. I didn’t think you’d do this now. You had to abstain for forty-eight hours. Forty-eight hours to provide a solid sample.”

“I had to take a piss.”

“Piss? You went in there with your earbuds and phone. I heard the door lock. Why would you lock the door?”

She throws the sheets onto the floor.

I drop my bag, sink into a hard-plastic chair, heart slipping to my stomach. She won’t look at me.

“I thought I was satisfying you,” she says. “You knew how important this was. The doctor said your sperm count was sub-optimal. That the insemination has about a one-percent chance of taking with a count that low.”

The nurse with the pen in her hair enters the room, joined by a young couple. Kate charges past them and down the hall towards the elevator. We’re separated by strangers as we travel to the lobby. She pushes through the crowd on to the sidewalk, dipping in and out of businesspeople with perfectly pressed suits and plain faces, street vendors, buskers. The air is hot and thick, and it smells of burnt sausage and steaming concrete. She makes the traffic light as soon as the crossing sign hits zero. I run through the intersection, stopping and starting as cars honk and buzz through, stalling traffic, avoiding bike couriers. I hop the curb and get caught behind a group of schoolchildren. I snake through, feel the churning of the blood in my skull. The street is a living collage of bodies, buildings, gum-stained pavement. Everything looks surreal, too angular, the people like mannequins marching against the current. I hop onto an overturned milk crate, scan the crowd, see her disappear down the steps into the subway.

“Hello, brother,” a man says from the street. “That’s my crate. I don’t mind if you use it, but I’ll have to take it back soon.”

The sleeves of his suit hang over his hands. He’s got teeth that have seen too many cigarettes and that exit his gums at all the wrong angles. I jump from his crate, thumbing the sweat from my eyes.

“Sorry,” I say.

“Not a problem, brother. Tough one today, huh?”

I sit on the sidewalk with my head between my knees like a supplicant. My new friend grabs a duct-taped briefcase fastened with a bungee cord from behind a trash bin.

“I have something I’d like to show you.”

He reaches into the case and pulls out a stack of pamphlets. He takes a pamphlet from the stack and puts it on my lap.

“Take this. Read it.”

It’s a pictureless pamphlet. Coffee stains smear the cover. The first sentence says something about how the good of the world still outweighs the evil, but that evil, alive somewhere in every man, has the strength to win out if we don’t exercise vigilance. I flip to the next page and scan the paragraphs, something about addictions, how a cure can be found in the groups of this church. A free cure. There are misspelled words, run-on sentences.

“Brother,” says my new friend. “There’s something living inside you. I can see it. It’s not evil, but it’s not right either. The people at this group have all found a way out. Let us show you how we did it.”

***

Recently, the moderator asked how I found group.

“A guy on the street handing out pamphlets,” I tell him.

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah. Tall guy, bad teeth.”

“Is that right?”

“Yeah. Haven’t seen him since. He still come around?”

“Sure, he’s still around. Just not with us.”  

“Not with us?”

He wipes a few crumbs off his pants, scratches his scar, shakes his head.

“Brother, that man – and he was a good man – well, he didn’t fully accept this way of life. Our way of life. You know, it can happen to us all. So be on guard. Keep a prayer on your lips and a good deed in your back pocket.” He pulls a smoke without a filter from a Ziploc and bites it like a toothpick. “Funerals,” he announces. “Get used to ’em.”

***

Now there’s a low hum in my head as I hop on the bus. Silhouettes slink behind curtains of the windows rushing by. Bedroom lights strobe on and off like little firebugs.

Hearts beat in these houses. Their pulses work within the rhythm of an exclusive domain. A domestic world governed by calendars and clocks, jobs and tall vases of flowers that never die. That’s where she is now. Feet up, belly full, luxuriating to the tune of automated bill payments that never bounce, and a self-cleaning carpet that never needs vacuuming, watching the man in aviators build a crib out of driftwood.

We pull to a stop with a thud and a hiss. People get on, some talking to themselves. We drive southbound, past leafless trees with lonely skeleton branches, over potholes.

You lied to me, Neil.

Time for group.

The chairs are arranged in a loose rendition of a circle. If you close your eyes and concentrate, you can smell the long-burnt incense from the morning’s sermon upstairs. We grab our seats and commiserate. The moderator settles in with a ring of that little bell, and in that moment, there’s a lightness in his features that I’d never noticed before.

“All right, friends,” he says. A cross pokes through the gap in his button-up shirt. It’s not unlike the cross that I found on the street. “We’re here tonight to support each other in our recovery. Some of us are here for different reasons. But while the symptoms of our diseases are different, the cause – the cause – is always universal.”

He gets up in a way that looks involuntary, arms flailing like a marionette, screaming, “Our sickness does not define us! What defines us is surrender to a higher power and the grace of God…a god of our understanding!”

Sharing starts. The moderator picks and prods at his scar.

We circle the room and introduce ourselves and our habits. One guy’s here for crack. He’s new, and I wonder if he realizes his coat’s on backwards. His dealer, in a fit of what the experts call sadism, stuck a hot crackpipe to his forehead with the agreement that the longer he could take the pain and let him hold it there, the more crack he’d give him at the end of the ordeal. He lets us all know that he “took it like a champ.”

“If crackheads were given grades, I’d get an A-plus.”

Smoke break.

We shuffle down the hall to the street. The men from group don’t smoke their cigarettes, they assault them. Violent drags past the filter till the cherry hits their fingers. On the way back in, just above the doorway, I notice a faded spot on the brick. An outline of where it looks like there once hung a small cross.

I take my seat, stretching and sweating through the dislocated energy. The guy beside me chews on half a pack of Nicorette. Loud, smacking chews, a damn horse. It’s a noise that could drive a man to kill if his head’s in the wrong place.

People start sharing. I’m conscious of that. But I’m oblivious to the content. It’s all static, like the radio when the dial’s at that midpoint between stations.

Time for some truth: I’ve slipped since the liquor store. I went to a viewing booth. After that booth, I was a keystroke away from a binge, another evening with the blinds drawn and the door locked, the cross taken down from the wall and everything shoved away.

But I didn’t binge. And a binge is easy to justify once you’ve slipped. Moral boundaries are like that: cross a line, redraw another, and draw it far removed from the last line you just crossed. This is a lifelong game. You can play it right up to the point of annihilation. Maybe all efforts at self-improvement are like this. A zero-sum game.

Prayer.

“Brother, are you with us?”

You do know that there were complications in the procedure, correct?

The bell rings.

“Neil are you with us? Up for sharing tonight, brother?”

I bring myself back into the space with a steadying breath, like the kind I learned in the therapy sessions Kate used to make me go to.

“Oh, sorry,” I say.

“Are you with us tonight?”

Laughter from the circle, and it’s sincere. The kind of laughter that’s been waiting for the right moment to come alive. A laughter that doesn’t get much time in the sunlight, but when it does, good God, is it grateful for those rays.

“Apologies. Just daydreaming.”

“No problem, Neil, as long as it’s just daydreaming and not something else.

More laughter. Just as human as before. I’d bottle it if I could.

I consider her sweaters, still hanging in the closet. I consider whether it’s time to bag them and take them to a donation box.

Funerals. I was told to get used to them.

“That’s okay,” I say. “Tonight, I’d just like to listen.”

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Additional reading

Sundogs

Flash-Fried 2.0

These Devils Nils Blondon I hung a cross where there once hung a picture of her. I found the cross on the side of the road in a puddle. I picked it up, dried it, and put it in my pocket. It took many months before I could take her picture down. And on the very next day, I found that cross. I’ve been told that my problem is spiritual. There are fresh cuts on my soul. Open wounds vulnerable to infection and bleeding. I’ve visited therapists. They all had an outsized fascination with my childhood, as though the live weeds of my present could be exterminated by uprooting the long-dead seeds of my past. Ailments of the spirit require spiritual solutions. A man approached me just after I lost her. He directed me to group. I’m not sure whether I’m on the right path now, but I’m on a path, and that’s an improvement over being stranded in the wild. I mill through the bedroom, rifling through her clothes in the closet. I take out the shirts Kate left here and smell them. Removing her picture from the wall was a start. Her clothes will need to go soon. That smell of hers - damp flowers and lotion - it survives right here in the fibers. If you really loved me and wanted to be with me, you’d stop this. My stomach tingles. I pull the cross from my wall, dust it off, and put it back. My laptop hums from the table like a fly trapped inside an overturned jar. The tingle creeps from my stomach to my thighs. I’ve had a hyper-secure website blocker installed on the computer. A stopgap solution, like bad foundation dabbed atop a fresh purple bruise. Prayer. That’s what I’ve been told to turn to in these moments. I’m at my computer about to bypass the website blocker when the phone rings. A gentleman from group checking in. I admire this guy. He’s got the markings of a good man. Clean clothes, clear eyes. We found group for different reasons, but the affliction doesn’t matter. It’s the spiritual sickness that needs addressing. You see, addictions, they’re like great works of art: the mediums might be different, the styles dissimilar, but ultimately, they possess the same fundamental qualities. “Have you thrown her clothes out yet?” he asks. I pick her sweater up from the bed and dash it on the ground. “Getting to it.” “How’s the website blocker going?” “It’s a struggle.” “Struggling’s okay. This is hard in the beginning. Changing your life isn’t easy. It can’t be. Praying?” “A little bit.” “A little bit? What do they say about half-measures?” “They avail us nothing?” “That’s right. Good.” A love song drones across from the radio of a parked car. “You might want to consider getting back to work soon. You know what they say about idle time?” “I’m not ready yet. The urges… You know. I was a computer guy. Computers, they’re a big trigger.” “Okay.” He clears his throat. “Coming to group tonight?” I nail an extra hole in my belt and put my pants on. The leaves turn brown in hushed surrender to the season. I pass young couples with peace in their eyes, dogs curled into themselves on dusty lawns. I arrive at the church. The last building of its kind on a block caved to evil. The regulars are in the basement. They speak about nothing but matters of the spirit and only read literature recommended at group. One sits in the corner, hands crossed over his gut, chins doubled into themselves in fleshy folds. Another leans into his squeaky plastic seat, face blanched in the white glowing off his phone. I walk over the cracked tiles and take a seat next to the coffee maker, which pops and percolates in a soft, sibilant way. There’s a rhythm you fall into as a member of group, an acclimatization process like moving to a new town and picking up on the little peculiarities of the locals. You only address matters that pertain to your illness and recovery. Small talk is reserved for before, during smoke break, maybe after, but never during sharing. You’re never to talk out of turn or speak over the person next to you. Sirens scream down the block. Group starts. If only we could have just one hour of uninterrupted quiet. The moderator’s in scuffed shoes. I was once told that you can judge a man’s character by the cleanliness of his shoes. The moderator’s an exception to this little shard of truth. His shoes could be filthy, but his soul, I think it’s pure. He’s got the wild eyes of a jailhouse evangelical. Tattoos on his fingers that look carved with a knife, a timeworn scar that runs from cheekbone to ear. We check in, introduce ourselves, why we’re there, what addiction it was that brought us to our knees. “John, here for dope.” “Bill, booze, had a bad day. You know, some fucking asshole cut me off on my drive over…” The moderator lifts his arms like one of the guys on the tarmac directing planes. Control of the room. Even with the dirty shoes, he’s got that. “Brother,” he exclaims, “we can keep the chit-chat for later. Just your name and affliction for now, please.” He picks at his scar, scratching it like he wants us to know it’s there. We rotate through the circle. It’s like “show and tell” for the damned. It’s my turn now. I close my eyes and dig in. “Neil. I’m here for, you know, it’s embarrassing, I still struggle to say it.” I put my head in my hands. “I’ve been trying to get out, but, like, this little addiction of mine, it’s well ensconced.” “That’s okay, brother. We know why you’re here. No newcomers in the room tonight. You don’t have to say it this time. Not now.” He leans forward in his seat and rests his forearms on his legs. “One day, when you’ve had that spiritual experience, you’ll be proud to say it. You’ll run to the top of that building and scream it out. Because you know why? You’ll have beaten it. And that’s what we do here. We share our demons freely because they’re dead. A dead demon needs to be aired out. We need to air it out and let the world know that he killed it. He who has all power, can kill anything. And you can bet no dirty little addiction to porn flicks is enough to keep him out. Hell no, brother.” The group follows his lead, shouting out “hell no” like a call to arms. I guess it’s a good meeting. A lot to keep me hopeful. This group, it attracts all kinds. So many interesting, beautifully disfigured faces and grey spirits. Plenty of opportunity for connection. And that connection, while I’m here at least, makes me feel at home. When I capture that feeling and stretch it just enough, it’s almost like the feeling I used to get with Kate. The feeling from the early days. The sensation of ease and familiarity that nestled me to sleep. I pass a few kink stores on the walk home. Places where the windows are covered in white and the sandwich-board signs advertising what’s inside are chained to the block like a dangerous dog. I stop in front of the store, survey the titles of the films inside, sneak a glimpse of what I can over the makeshift barricade. I catch a bit of flesh on a video cover displayed on a rack. Swollen purple lips, artificial breasts. This is how it starts. The temptation grinds up through my stomach to my chest, metastasizing. Fangs out, eyes lit up like a candle mounted inside a skull. I turn to prayer, then I spot a liquor store across the street. I open the door as though possessed, trudging over the slick beige-and-white tiles towards the cool spot in the back. That’s where they hide the stuff for the poor people. “Free sample?” A worker sticks a thimble-size cup in my face, flinching as I rip it from her palm and slam it back. I rip another cup from the tray. I’m hunting a feeling. “Sir!” the worker shouts. “You’re only supposed to take one sample. Do it again, and I’ll have you removed from the store!” I wipe the spittle from my lip, closing in on that sensation I’m after. The worker’s still going when I feel a tap on my shoulder. “Neil?” My body tenses at her voice. Instinct tells me to run. Hole up in the apartment with the computer or the magazines that I threw out yesterday. They’re still there, just in the trash against the curb. I’m not above diving in to get them, not yet. She’s in baggy pants and a sweater I bought her a few Christmases ago. This is the first time I’ve seen her in that sweater. It was the kind of gift she opened with a weak smile, put back in the box and stuffed in a crevice. A canvas bag plump with bottles and bushy kale dangles from her shoulder. “Neil,” she repeats, stepping closer. “How are you?” Her face is like a gentle moon, no more hard edges. The lines around her mouth are gone. There’s a roundness to her hips. Every feature directs attention to the bulge in her stomach. I take a long look. She flushes and draws her sweater across her belly. “Oh,” I say, struggling to speak. “Kate…nice to see you.” We stand there for a few long seconds. We’re under a spotlight. That’s how it feels. The aisle looks infinite, nothing but inky shadows as thick as tarpits capping off either end. “Yeah, Neil. Good seeing you. Do you live close?” “I’m still in our old place.” “I assumed you would have left.” “No.” She puts a hand on her stomach. “Are you okay?” I stop myself from putting my hand on her shoulder. “Yes. I’m fine. It’s just, you know…” She rubs her tummy. There’s a gulf between us. “Anyways, how are you?” she asks. “I’m okay.” I clear my throat. If feels like I’m swallowing sand. A man cradling a box of diapers appears at the end of the aisle. He gives Kate a look and points at his watch. He has a black-and-grey beard that stops just beneath the frames of his black aviators and crow’s feet that slide down his face. “Kate,” he calls out. “We good to go?” Eyes that hide behind please-punch-me shades. The beard. Kate always said she hated beards. Is this man really an improvement over me? Don’t judge, brother. When we judge, we’re feeding that devil. Judgement is just another escape. A false god. I repeat an affirmation in my head and try to breathe. “Yeah. One second.” She turns to me. “Neil, look. It was good to see you.” She leans in for a hug that ends up being more like a glorified handshake. “Kate. Just one more thing.” “Yeah?” “Is it…his?” She tilts her head. “I’m sorry? Is what his?” I look from her belly to the bottles in her bag and back again. The men at group would tell me to back off now. “The bottles. Are they his? If so, he’s got good taste.” “Neil,” she hisses. “I’m leaving now.” She shuffles towards her bearded man and grabs his hand. I slink towards the exit, spying as they walk through the lot towards their car, my stomach on fire with a steady blue burn. *** Our last day together, it went something like this: I’m in the waiting room of the clinic. The walls are covered in pictures of babies and parents. Dreadful, overexposed shots, the stuff of sweat-drenched nightmares and tabloid adverts. Why they’ve chosen these pictures is a mystery to me. If they’re trying to sell us on a dream, they’ve started off poorly. The receptionist is slumped over her phone, eyes sticky with sleep. She taps the phone like a cancer patient with a morphine pump. I gather what’s left of my courage and approach. “Excuse me. My partner, she’s back there for a procedure. Seems like it’s been a long time.” With great effort, she looks up from the phone. “My partner, Kate. She’s been in there a while. Everything okay?” A woman howls in pain from a nearby room. With a slow roll of her eyes the receptionist says, “Sir, do I look like a doctor? Take a seat. The nurse will get you when she’s ready.” A room-length aquarium divides the waiting area. It’s full of fish reminiscent of the trips we’ve always talked about but never gone on, little toy divers crusted over in algae. Green fish pop in and out of the eyes of a ceramic skull when a nurse bounds through the doors, her nametag missing a letter. She pulls a pen from the bun in her hair and calls out names. “Katherine Bowers? Carol Stephenson? Pauline Johnson? Right through the doors, please. And…looks like there’s another name here. The last name, can’t pronounce that. “Anyways, Neil. Is there a Neil here?” I explode from the pleather seat, follow her through the doors. It’s a labyrinth back here. A maze of medical equipment, doctors with deep lines carved into their faces, machines with glowing eyes that speak an unknown language. Everything is soaked in an artificial light, as though I’m being carried through a long interrogation. We reach a door at the end of a series of halls. “She’s in there, sir. And…you do know that there were complications in the procedure, correct?” “Complications? What kind?” “You’ll figure it out,” she replies, smirking, stabbing the pen back into the bun on top of her head. She walks away. I knock once, no reply. I fear the worst: bloody sheets, a scalpel-strewn floor, a woman disfigured by medical incompetence. I feel like a man on the threshold of a tomb. The door opens; there she is. Not bloodied or disfigured, but facing the wall, cocooned in blankets at the edge of the bed. Her pink toenails poke out from beneath the sheets. They’re the only sense of life in the room. The only thing indicating a breathing body is in here. “Kate, honey, are you okay?” She curls up like a wounded creature playing dead. I touch her shoulder. She pulls the blankets tighter, turns into the pillow. “Leave me alone.” I rub her lower back through the blankets. She jerks away. Pulls the blankets up. Her face is like a pale paper mask. “You lied to me, Neil.” “Lied?” “I saw you slink off into the middle of the night with your phone to the bathroom. I didn’t think you’d do this now. You had to abstain for forty-eight hours. Forty-eight hours to provide a solid sample.” “I had to take a piss.” “Piss? You went in there with your earbuds and phone. I heard the door lock. Why would you lock the door?” She throws the sheets onto the floor. I drop my bag, sink into a hard-plastic chair, heart slipping to my stomach. She won’t look at me. “I thought I was satisfying you,” she says. “You knew how important this was. The doctor said your sperm count was sub-optimal. That the insemination has about a one-percent chance of taking with a count that low.” The nurse with the pen in her hair enters the room, joined by a young couple. Kate charges past them and down the hall towards the elevator. We’re separated by strangers as we travel to the lobby. She pushes through the crowd on to the sidewalk, dipping in and out of businesspeople with perfectly pressed suits and plain faces, street vendors, buskers. The air is so hot and thick, and it smells of burnt sausage and steaming concrete. She makes the traffic light as soon as the crossing sign hits zero. I run through the intersection, stopping and starting as cars honk and buzz through, stalling traffic, avoiding bike couriers. I hop the curb and get caught behind a group of schoolchildren. I snake through, feel the churning of the blood in my skull. The street is a living collage of bodies, buildings, gum-stained pavement. Everything looks surreal, too angular, the people like mannikins marching against the current. I hop onto an overturned milk crate, scan the crowd, see her disappear down the steps into the subway. “Hello, brother,” a man says from the street. “That’s my crate. I don’t mind if you use it, but I’ll have to take it back soon.” The sleeves of his suit hang over his hands. He’s got teeth that have seen too many cigarettes and that exit his gums at all the wrong angles. I jump from his crate, thumbing the sweat from my eyes. “Sorry,” I say. “Not a problem, brother. Tough one today, huh?” I sit on the sidewalk with my head between my knees like a supplicant. My new friend grabs a duct-taped briefcase fastened with a bungee cord from behind a trash bin. “I have something I’d like to show you.” He reaches into the case and pulls out a stack of pamphlets. He takes a pamphlet from the stack and puts it on my lap. “Take this. Read it.” It’s a pictureless pamphlet. Coffee stains smear the cover. The first sentence says something about how the good of the world still outweighs the evil, but that evil, alive somewhere in every man, has the strength to win out if we don’t exercise vigilance. I flip to the next page and scan the paragraphs, something about addictions, how a cure can be found in the groups of this church. A free cure. There are misspelled words, run-on sentences. “Brother,” says my new friend. “There’s something living inside you. I can see it. It’s not evil, but it’s not right either. The people at this group have all found a way out. Let us show you how we did it.” *** Recently, the moderator asked how I found group. “A guy on the street handing out pamphlets,” I tell him. “Oh yeah?” “Yeah. Tall guy, bad teeth.” “Is that right?” “Yeah. Haven’t seen him since. He still come around?” “Sure, he’s still around. Just not with us.” “Not with us?” He wipes a few crumbs off his pants, scratches his scar, shakes his head. “Brother, that man – and he was a good man – well, he didn’t fully accept this way of life. Our way of life. You know, it can happen to us all. So be on guard. Keep a prayer on your lips and a good deed in your back pocket.” He pulls a smoke without a filter from a Ziploc and bites it like a toothpick. “Funerals,” he announces. “Get used to ’em.” … Now there’s a low hum in my head as I hop on the bus. Silhouettes slink behind curtains of the windows rushing by. Bedroom lights strobe on and off like little firebugs. Hearts beat in these houses. Their pulses work within the rhythm of an exclusive domain. A domestic world governed by calendars and clocks, jobs and tall vases of flowers that never die. That’s where she is now. Feet up, belly full, luxuriating to the tune of automated bill payments that never bounce, and a self-cleaning carpet that never needs vacuuming, watching the man in aviators build a crib out of driftwood. We pull to a stop with a thud and a hiss. People get on, some talking to themselves. We drive southbound, past leafless trees with lonely skeleton branches, over potholes. You lied to me, Neil. Time for group. The chairs are arranged in a loose rendition of a circle. If you close your eyes and concentrate, you can smell the long-burnt incense from the morning’s sermon upstairs. We grab our seats and commiserate. The moderator settles in with a ring of that little bell, and in that moment, there’s a lightness in his features that I’d never noticed before. “All right, friends,” he says. A cross pokes through the gap in his button-up shirt. It’s not unlike the cross that I found on the street. “We’re here tonight to support each other in our recovery. Some of us are here for different reasons. But while the symptoms of our diseases are different, the cause – the cause – is always universal.” He gets up in a way that looks involuntary, arms flailing like a marionette, screaming, “Our sickness does not define us! What defines us is surrender to a higher power and the grace of God…a God of our understanding!” Sharing starts. The moderator picks and prods at his scar. We circle the room and introduce ourselves and our habits. One guy’s here for crack. He’s new, and I wonder if he realizes his coat’s on backwards. His dealer, in a fit of what the experts call sadism, stuck a hot crackpipe to his forehead with the agreement that the longer he could take the pain and let him hold it there, the more crack he’d give him at the end of the ordeal. He lets us all know that he “took it like a champ.” “If crackheads were given grades, I’d get an A-plus.” Smoke break. We shuffle down the hall to the street. The men from group don’t smoke their cigarettes, they assault them. Violent drags past the filter till the cherry hits their fingers. On the way back in, just above the doorway, I notice a faded spot on the brick. An outline of where it looks like there once hung a small cross. I take my seat, stretching and sweating through the dislocated energy. The guy beside me chews on half a pack of Nicorette. Loud, smacking chews, a damn horse. It’s a noise that could drive a man to kill if his head’s in the wrong place. People start sharing. I’m conscious of that. But I’m oblivious to the content. It’s all static, like the radio when the dial’s at that midpoint between stations. Time for some truth: I’ve slipped since the liquor store. I went to a viewing booth. After that booth, I was a keystroke away from a binge, another evening with the blinds drawn and the door locked, the cross taken down from the wall and everything shoved away. But I didn’t binge. And a binge is easy to justify once you’ve slipped. Moral boundaries are like that: cross a line, redraw another, and draw it far removed from the last line you just crossed. This is a lifelong game. You can play it right up to the point of annihilation. Maybe all efforts at self-improvement are like this. A zero-sum game. Prayer. “Brother, are you with us?” You do know that there were complications in the procedure, correct? The bell rings. “Neil are you with us? Up for sharing tonight, brother?” I bring myself back into the space with a steadying breath, like the kind I learned in the therapy sessions Kate used to make me go to. “Oh, sorry,” I say. “Are you with us tonight?” Laughter from the circle, and it’s sincere. The kind of laughter that’s been waiting for the right moment to come alive. A laughter that doesn’t get much time in the sunlight, but when it does, good god, is it grateful for those rays. “Apologies. Just daydreaming.” “No problem, Neil, as long as it’s just daydreaming and not something else.” More laughter. Just as human as before. I’d bottle it if I could. I consider her sweaters, still hanging in the closet. I consider whether it’s time to bag them and take them to a donation box. Funerals. I was told to get used to them. “That’s okay,” I say. “Tonight, I’d just like to listen.”