Old Wolves–First Chapter

You Can Leave Your Hat On–Jared

Twenty-seven long years ago:

The doors of a roadhouse bar swing open, emitting a deafening blast of music and a tall, magnificently drunk young man in a cowboy hat. Brandishing a bottle of tequila, he sings along with the song’s chorus: “You can le-e-eave your hat on.”

“Hey Wolfen!” calls a voice from inside. “You’re too drunk to walk, man!”

“I know.That’s why I’m ridin’.”

Wolfen stows the bottle inside his jacket and prepares to mount a handsome Harley. It takes a few tries to swing his leg over the saddle and quite a few more to finally kick-start the bike. He’s so drunk he’s seeing double, so he rummages in the saddlebags and comes up with a roll of duct tape. He rips off a piece with his teeth and slaps it over one eye. Deeming himself roadworthy, he tears off down highway.

The duct tape’s done nothing to improve his maneuvering skills. He swerves wildly, goes into a horrendous skid and ends up totaled against a tree. When he comes to, first thing he sees is torn bloody denim framing a nasty leg wound. He reaches for the tequila, pours a generous splash directly into the wide-open gash and howls in pain. Then he raises the bottle to his lips.
Car doors slam, sirens approach. Wolfen reaches for his hat and plunks it on his bleeding head before passing out again.
____________________

Time: the present. Jared Aldridge, formerly known as Wolfen, reluctantly rises to the surface.

Wicked bad night.

Knee hurt like a sonofabitch, of course, but even worse than that, the nightmare started up again for the first time in years.

“Jared?” The blanket cocoon beside me stirred as Robin reached out for my arm, a reflex born of more than a few nights spent guiding me back from Nightmare Alley.

“Just having trouble getting settled,” I told her, which wasn’t exactly a lie. I will rarely outright lie to Robin, mostly because she invariably catches me, but I’ve been known to…shall we say… edit the truth from time to time. It drives her nuts, but I hoped she’d be too groggy to call me on it now. After all, I reasoned, the nightmare had only put in a cameo appearance, not its usual hellish extravaganza. Certainly nothing worth upsetting her.

Robin had been an all-too-frequent witness to the nightmare’s aftermath–a door knocked off its hinges, mirrors shattered to bits and several smashed bedside lamps. We used to joke that I was the reason we couldn’t have nice things; when the nightmare disappeared a few months after we got married, we both heaved a sigh of relief.

Upset Robin would definitely get if she knew it was skulking around again.

I managed to cuddle her back to sleep and lay awake listening to the Vulture on the Headboard instead of confiding in the woman who knows everything about me and loves me anyway. I finally dozed off around 4:30; the alarm went off at 5:00, which is why my clock is now held together with duct tape.

While Robin sang along with the radio in the kitchen, I wondered for the zillionth time why such a happy little morning person chose to saddle herself with an a.m. zombie like me. Definitely one of life’s mysteries, but, as Martin says, I ain’t complainin’.

“Hey! Keep it down out there!” I yelled.

“Be still, my fluttering heart!” she yelled back. “Prince Charming is about to rise and shine!”

I hobbled to the bathroom mirror. The guy staring back at me looked older, no wiser and in a powerful world of hurt. I grabbed a fistful of some over-the-counter painkillers (you know you’re old when that’s the drug of choice) and toasted the poor bastard with a tumbler of water. “I may rise,” I muttered, “but I’ll be twice-damned if I’ll shine.”

I limped into the kitchen and Robin handed me the mug my NA sponsor gave me when I finally managed to cobble together twelve months clean. “Men have walked the gangplank with more enthusiasm,” she observed.

“They were going to a far, far better place than I, darlin’.” I marveled at how all those one-day-at-at-times added up to twenty-five years effective today. “Damn, I’ve had this cup longer than we’ve been married.”

“Same with Sugar Magnolia and your hat! Keep it up and you’ll be on the next episode of Hoarders.”

“Come over here and say that!” I said, and grabbed her before she could flutter past.

“Turn me loose or breakfast is gonna burn,” she warned.

“Oh, quelle horreur!”

“Clutch the pearls! French, in broad daylight!” She leaned over and kissed me–a pretty lively kiss for a Monday morning. “To hell with breakfast. Take me, I’m yours!”

There aren’t enough words in French or English to describe how much I love that woman.
____________________

When I was ten, I came home from school to find my parents dead in a murder-suicide. It messed me up in all kinds of ways, some of which I deal with to this day, and it’s probably a key motivator in the vicious drug addiction that almost killed me.

But even before I discovered drugs, I found some switches in my mind–trust, compassion, empathy, love–and flicked them off with abandon. I was well on my way to becoming a card-carrying sociopath when drugs brought me to my knees, recovery brought me to my senses, and Robin brought me back to life.

We met online in a chat room for people in recovery. I was intrigued by her screen name– Little Bird–and for some reason we clicked. I knew I should keep my seriously-warped self away from this sweet little person but the lure was irresistible.

We arranged to meet at Robin’s NA home group. I arrived with defense mechanisms firmly in place and a definite plan in mind–we’d attend the meeting together and grab coffee afterwards. Then I’d head back home before my kiss-of-death persona had a chance to blight the landscape.

If you ever want to make God laugh, show him your latest action plan.

I fell in love with Robin the first time I set eyes on her. Wonder of wonders, the feeling was mutual, and I didn’t make it home that night after all.

After we made love, I discovered Robin had her own traumatic story to tell–The Bad Thing. When she was first struggling to get clean, her active-junkie boyfriend slashed her to ribbons inside and out and left her for dead. Had it not been for her best friends Michael and Wayne, she never would have survived.

Our first time together was also the first time she’d made love since before The Bad Thing. I couldn’t believe how trusting she was, how loving and incredibly brave.

But most of all, I couldn’t believe she chose me.
____________________

“You had a rough night,” Robin remarked as she deftly escaped my clutches. “Riding nightmares?”

“Nope.” It was technically true–I hadn’t been riding nightmares, just had the toe of one boot in a stirrup. “Aches and pains. Punishment for my misspent youth.”

“Can’t you call off today?”

“No way! It’s Mad Max’s last day. He’s been swearing he’s gonna take a dump on the floor right in front of the surveillance camera on his way out. Martin told him one of us would be stuck cleaning it up, so he scrapped that idea. But knowing Max, he’ll probably come up with something worse.”

“Whatever it is, I wish I could be there.”

“I’m sure Bond will catch it on one his gizmos. I’ll ask him to email you a copy.”

“How old is Max, anyhow?”

“He claims to have changed God’s diapers. Hard to tell with those craggy Scotsmen.”

“Like you craggy New Englanders. For all I know, you might be pushing seventy!”

“Ayup, with a portrait in the attic getting older on my behalf. If its knees are any better than mine, I might swap.”

“Jared, about that knee…”

I reached for a change of subject. “Did I ever tell you about the time the band was in Pittsburgh, and next thing I remember is waking up in a car with a bunch of people I’d never seen before coming up on a sign for La Brea Tar Pits?”

She gave me a look.

I’ve always loved Robin’s blue eyes. I tripped over my own two feet and babbled like a fool the first time I saw them; I would have followed her straight into the bowels of hell and thanked her for the privilege. Those same eyes can cut through fifteen layers of my bullshit and make me want to hide under the table; this was definitely one of those looks. Luckily, she decided to play along. “Seems to me I’ve heard that song a time or twelve. You ended up following the Grateful Dead, right?”

“Wish I could remember it. There’s a box full of ticket stubs in my dresser drawer, and…”

“‘…you got stoned and you missed it’,” Robin sang.

“True enough. Why can’t flashbacks ever be something I want to remember?”

“Like roadying for Infernal?”

“Surely you jest. That crew bus was named Caligula for a reason.”

“Sodom and Gomorrah, huh?”

“Ha! Sodom and Gomorrah were kindergarten compared to what went on in that bus!” I started to expound on various and sundry iniquities, but the survival instinct that’s kept me happily married for twenty years kicked in. “But ’twas all in another galaxy far, far away.”

“Relax, Wolfen. What’s done is done. Don’t get your G-string in a knot.”

“You’ve been talking to Wayne again.”

“Not recently.”

“Then where did that come from?”

“Can’t say as I remem-bah,” she replied. (She delights in feeding my New England accent back to me.) “Must have been in another galaxy, far, far away.”
____________________

After breakfast I kissed Robin goodbye and headed out to Sugar Magnolia, the other great love of my life.

Shug’s a 1972 Gran Torino, faded-denim blue, my absolute dream car of all time. She’s one pretty baby, with a vintage Deadhead sticker in the window and an equally vintage Deady-bear dangling from the rear view mirror. I got her straight from the original owner, Todd Garvin, my NA sponsor when I got serious about pulling my act together this side of the grave.

You’d think wrecking the Harley would have brought me to my senses, but my appetite for self-destruction was voracious and not about to be satisfied with such a paltry morsel. As soon as I could walk, I was back on the bus.
____________________

2:32 a.m., long ago in another galaxy far, far away:
The show’s been over for hours and the roadies are lying around Caligula in varying stages of degeneration. A heavy, persistent pounding on the door sends Roadkill to a window.
“Are we all here?” somebody asks.
“Wolfen’s still on the prowl.”
“Not anymore, he ain’t.”
Roadkill opens the door and sees a six-foot-four leaning tower of wreckage propped up by two cops.
“Okay, son,” one says as they guide him up the steps. “One, two, three.” He gives Wolfen a slight push that sends him sprawling face-down in the aisle, then tosses his hat in after him. “If we catch that damned critter off the bus again,” he says to Roadkill, “you ain’t getting him back!”
Exit the cops.
“Dammit, Wolfen! What the hell did you do?”
“More like who did he do!”
“Animal, vegetable, mineral. Take your pick.”
“If he’s this bad when it ain’t even a full moon, this is gonna be a long month!”
“So help me, Wolfen, if you puke in my bus again I’ll kill you!”
“Is he breathing? I can’t tell. Help me turn him over, man!”
____________________

I came within a split eyelash of dying that night.

I have no memory of the ensuing drama but the band members, all of whom qualified for gold medals in the Drug Abuse Olympics, told me I had to quit touring if I wanted to stay alive. They paid for the emergency room, detox, and an extended stay in a treatment center.

Whatever they gave that detox place wasn’t nearly enough because I was big, strong, and completely out of control. I fought anybody who tried to get near me, only to discover my worst enemy was right between my ears. I remember banging my head against the wall trying to get rid of it; when that didn’t work, I ripped out big handfuls of hair while some damned idiot I didn’t realize was me screamed like he was being skinned alive. Finally a bunch of staff members managed to grab hold of me; we hit the floor hard and I promptly went into convulsions.

Which brings me back to Sugar Magnolia and Todd.

Todd was a cranky old bastard; his sponsees called him “Ming the Merciless.” It was typical of his pathological orneriness that he chose to specialize in hard-core junkies everybody had given up on, including themselves. I met him when he chaired an NA meeting at the detox, a little old wrinkled lizard of a guy whose head barely cleared my elbow. He had eyes like Yoda’s and they lit up when I shambled in like a shorted-out Frankenstein, two days out of restraints and marginally capable of conversation if the other person talked slow.

“I could tell you were beat to shit,” Todd told me later. “You looked like a man who hit bottom, then kept digging until he landed his ass in hell. I could work with that.”

And work we did.

Once he deemed me fit to be seen in public, Todd dragged me to my first Outside World meeting. I fell insanely in love with his car; for the duration of the ride I forgot how much I hated talking to people without getting high first. Todd caught on to this real quick. Most of our one-on-one sessions took place in Sugar Magnolia, where I was a contentedly captive audience.

I was ferociously hungry as my body fought its way back from death’s door.

“It’s like sharing a table with a damn wolverine!'” Todd growled. “Jesus, Jared, slow down! Nobody’s gonna take it away from you!”

“Not if they wanna keep their hands,” I replied between mouthfuls.
“I swear to God if you lick that plate you can damn well walk home!”

For all his fussin’ and featherin’, Todd kept the food coming and, until I managed to get a job, he paid the considerable tab with nary a complaint. I started to put on weight, which was a good thing because in no universe should somebody my height and bone structure weigh in at 157 pounds dripping wet.

Eventually Todd’s eyesight got so bad he was a menace on the road. By then I’d moved into a studio apartment close to my job and would hitch-hike out to Todd’s house, drive us to meetings and back, then hitch-hike home. One day he said, “This is stupid. Not to mention dangerous.”

“I’m as solid as a tanker. Nobody’s gonna mess with me.”

“I was referring to the poor benighted souls who pick you up.”

“Gee, thanks!”

“Now you’re living someplace decent, you should keep Shug at your place.” I was too stunned to reply and he barked, “‘S’matter? My car not good enough for ya?”

“Hell, I’m not good enough for her! But I can’t afford to buy her from you.”

“Did I say I was selling her?”

“No, sir.”

“You got to quit listening five minutes into the future and pay attention to what’s being said here and now! You can keep Shug at your place. I can’t drive her and you need a good set of wheels.” He tossed me the keys. “Put these someplace you won’t lose ’em. Keep your head out of your ass, and don’t make me regret this highly uncharacteristic display of generosity. Now go home and write up a gratitude list. No less than ten things, and waking up with a hard-on don’t count–not at your age.”

He died two days later.

I trashed my apartment when I found out. Not trusting myself to drive Shug, I ran into a raging thunderstorm and walked until I was ready to drop. I stumbled into an NA meeting and started to drip my way past the coffee pot where a cadaverous brand-newbie with badly shaking hands was struggling to fill his cup. It would have been easy for me to pretend not to notice this new kid and hole up in a dark corner to nurse my misery. But Todd had done his work well–when I looked at that kid, I saw me.

I reached for the coffeepot. “Let me give you a hand. When I first got clean, they told me to take half a cup. It’s easier not to spill, and if you do, it ain’t that big of a mess.” I held out my hand. “By the way, I’m Jared.”

His hand was even clammier than mine. “I’m Tonio. This is my first meeting.”

“Well, everybody here had a first meeting. You’ll fit right in.”

He looked apprehensively at the posters on the walls. “Are they real heavy into this God stuff?”

God was on my shit list at the moment because he’d taken Todd, but it wasn’t my place to poison this newcomer’s well. “Don’t worry, it’s all good.”

“How long you been clean?” asked Tonio.

“Two years, two months.”

“Two whole years?” He stared at me like I’d been to the moon. “Wow, man!”

“How long you got?”

“Couple of hours. I was gonna try to detox myself, but maybe that ain’t such a great idea.”

When my own detox kicked in, I was curled up in a fetal position on the floor, howling for the Grim Reaper to come take me now. I started to share this but Todd’s words sprang full-blown into my mind: “He ain’t doing your time, Jared, he’s doing his. Quit hogging the spotlight!”

“A lot depends on what you’ve been using,” I began.

“Meeting’s started!” somebody yelled.

As we settled ourselves onto rickety metal chairs, Tonio leaned towards me. “They say I should get a sponsor, first thing.” He fixed his haunted junkie eyes on me and asked, “Will you be my sponsor?”

“I’m the last person you want,” I replied. “I’m a total mess. I just walked twenty miles in a freaking monsoon because my sponsor died today. I’m putting one foot in front of the other and trying not to pick up today, this hour, this minute. Shit, right before I got here I spent half an hour pacing around outside the dope man’s house!”

“But you didn’t go in,” Tonio pointed out. “That’s good enough for me.”

“In that case, I’d be honored.”

Many times over the next few months Tonio referred to me as his lifeline. On his six-month anniversary, I told him how he’d been mine.

I have a thing about funerals–I don’t do them. But I did go to Todd’s.

Todd had a lot of years clean and was a legend in the recovery community. People went up to the coffin and I knew I should, too, but before I’d taken three steps I heard a leathery rustling from the darkest corner of my mind as sleepy old demons stretched their wings. My breathing sped up, panic set in, and I wanted out of there ASAP.

Todd’s wife Mary Beth came over to give me a hug and hand me a battered envelope. “Todd wanted you to have this.”

Mary Beth was a contagiously calm person. By the time another of her husband’s bereft sponsees appeared beside us, my demons had settled down and I could breathe again. I stepped outside and opened the envelope.

Inside was Sugar Magnolia’s title, signed and notarized.

Needless to say, Shug and I have a powerful bond.
____________________

Today’s drive to work was the usual study in frustration.

Within ten minutes I counted four morons yapping on cell phones who drove worse than me in my using days. Lane closures, orange barrels, an accident backing things up for as far as the eye could see.

Not that I was in any particular hurry to get to work. I’d snapped this job up after a long spell of unemployment. I was so anxious to have money flowing again I completely missed a number of red flags that all but flew up my ass during the interview. It’s less money, a longer commute, freezing in winter and hotter than devil’s piss in summer. The place is run like a prison, except prisoners are searched less often, plus they get free medical care, which we most definitely do not.

On the positive side, I like most of the workers, especially Martin McBride, my supervisor. I knew we’d get along when he greeted me with, “Well, thank God! Another Old Wolf!”

As I looked around, I saw what he meant. Most of the workers were young guys in their late teens and early twenties. This meant the work would be harder, dirtier, and a lot more physically taxing than I’d been led to believe. In retrospect, I figured the hiring folks took one look at my size and figured I could pull as heavy a plow as they cared to hitch me to.

Another person I really like is Bond. He’s a bit older than the other Young Wolves, or maybe it only seems that way because his maturity shines like a beacon above the surrounding post-adolescents. He’s so intelligent it’s scary, and for the life of me I can’t figure out what he’s doing here.

Our first meeting was memorable.

“Hey, Cowboy!” Martin called to me. “C’mere and meet Bond.”

I walked over to shake hands with a sharp-eyed young black man. I liked him the second I saw his t-shirt–an excellent line drawing of Miles Davis with “Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there” carefully lettered around it.

“Cowboy?” Bond raised his eyebrows. “Is that really your nickname or did Martin inflict it on you?”

“Short for Spa-a-a-ce Cowboy. Bet you weren’t ready for that,” I replied, straight-faced.

He recognized the lyric and broke into a grin; I had obviously risen a few notches in his estimation. “Oh, baby, it is on!” he declared, and it was. Still is, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Bond says most people around here belong in protective custody.” Martin told me later. “But he likes you. His exact words were, ‘That new old guy ain’t half bad.’ Count yourself honored.”

I do pretty good with most of the kids, probably because I don’t expect Young Wolves to act like old ones. My favorites are a set of identical twins, Deepak and Chopra Crowley. They’re a real trip–dreadlocks halfway down their backs, impromptu synchronized dancing, and a hodge-podge language including Deep South, street, and Jamaican patois. For all their clowning around they work like fiends, and I’d give my soul for a tenth of their energy.

As for the so-called bosses, a/k/a the Slimeballs, I avoid them like the plague they truly are.

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